Last week someone asked me if it was strange riding so many horses; how long did it take to get used to them, and did I ever get used to each horse.
I ride four or five horses a day, but they tend to be regulars so I ride them either once or twice each week. Of course you get used to them; each horse has different dimensions – tall, wide, low head carriage, short neck, dressage saddle, jump saddle, active hindlegs, on the forehand – and a different brain to engage and focus, and need different approaches to their work. I think this ability to switch easily from mount to mount has a certain knack, and is definitely a skill worth acquiring, even for the amateur owners.
Once you get your own horse you tend to stop riding the variety that you would in a riding school, and become very comfortable with your horse and how they feel. However, if you were to take your BHS Stage exams you would need to be able to sit on a horse suitable for that level and ride it well. Likewise, when you go to try horses in view of buying them, you need to be able to mount a strange horse and assess it for your needs confidently. I see a lot of riders fall down here; they know their old horse inside out, but a different horse is an alien concept and they forget how to ride! My advice would be to have a go on some friends equines so you know how and what to compare prospective purchases to so you don’t waste too much time.
However, once you know a horse each time you mount it’s like putting on a pair of shoes. You just fit. Even now, if I were to ride my Mum’s pony, who used to be mine, I just fit into the saddle, and my legs hang just right around his flanks. It’s like putting on your well worn, favourite trainers. Now that I’ve ridden so many horses of all shapes and sizes I find I adapt quite quickly to each one, and feel at home on the regulars. It does take a few minutes to adjust from the wide, chunky 16.2hh Shire cross to the 14.2hh petite pony though!
I find it usually takes a few rides to get to know a horse and what makes them tick, especially if I don’t know them at all. If I handle a horse on livery, or teach with a horse and then occasionally school it I usually very quickly get the hang of them because I’ve already learnt a bit about their personality and what buttons to press in previous lessons. The you can discover the enigma of their behaviour and unwind it so that you can best help.
One thing I’ve learnt and developed over the last couple of years is the ability to judge how a horse will ride from observing it on the ground. Try it with your friends. Watch each other ride, describe your expectations (neutral expectations, as opposed to negative ones) and then try riding said horse. Sometimes you’re caught by surprise, but by being able to get a plan of action based on what you see is really helpful in getting you to click quickly with a horse. Then once you learn to connect your observations with suitable exercises, horses will very quickly go nicely for you – much to their owner’s horror. When you have experienced a few horses you can begin to recognise traits, physical or behavioural, and so apply the same approach or technique to a couple of horses. Obviously it doesn’t always work, so you want a plan B.
I’ve just started riding a complex mare, and it’s taking me time to get to know her. She has some quirks and I need to find the buttons to press to get her working with me, not against me. I’ve been contemplating her since our last ride, and have a couple of ideas to try next time.
One of my favourite classics when I was young was the novel “What Katy Did” by Susan Coolidge. In it they talk about “getting hold of the smooth handle” in order to build the best relationships. I find this applies to horses as much as humans; if you can find the best tactic for working with each horse, be it quiet coercion or less subtle dominance, then they will respond positively to you and try to please you and work with you as opposed to against you. Ever wondered why some people don’t click with horses? It’s because they’re jerking away at the rough handle!
Another important aspect of riding horses is spending time with them on the ground and away from the arena – a factor I find lacking in part or full livery. Watch their body language with other horses. Are they dominant? Do they try to bully their handler? Do they fidget on the ground, do they pick up a gear when working over poles? Are they wary of the yard tractor?
Learning all these little nuggets of gold helps you establish reasons for spooking, or napping. Is it pain? Do they genuinely lack confidence? Are they taking the mickey? One horse I’m schooling has gotten into some naughty habits and is napping and refusing to work in the school. She’s had a thorough vet check, and it seems to be all in the mind. So to get her thinking forwards and fun I ask her to trot towards a pole on the floor. She falls into the trap every time, but her love of jumping takes over and I’ve tricked her into being on my side. Now I’m beginning the long process of forgetting about nappy behaviour and learning correct responses tithe situation and her riders aids.
I think one of the most rewarding things, which proves you have developed a rapport, is visual recognition by the horses. When a lovely coloured cob I teach and sometimes ride, hears or sees my voice and pricks his ears towards me and waits patiently until I greet him. They usually show some form of recognition when I catch them or walk past their field. Once, I passed the arena and a gentlemanly gelding I hack saw me and wandered over, ignorant to the fact he was supposed to be perfecting his circle or transition. I think it’s this relationship, and the stronger one between owner and horse, which makes horse riding so addictive and fulfilling.
Back to my original point. Working with a variety of horses is a useful skill to acquire, as it brings greater understanding to you as a rider and handler, and provides you with tools to see outside the box and easily overcome problems you may encounter. At the same time, it’s important to take the time to build a rapport with horses so that they trust you and you can get hold of the smooth handle, because you understand the enigma of their mind.