Life is too short to ride the wrong horse
I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a lot of good horses– not “good horses” because of talent, but appropriate horses for where I was in my riding career. I began Eventing on a 15hh foundation-bred Quarter Horse, Casey. What Casey may have lacked in talent or dressage-winning gaits, he made up for with enthusiasm and work ethic. He taught me that cross-country should be FUN, and jumping should always put a smile on your face. Otherwise, why do it?
The confidence I gained from him set me up well to start with a willing, trainable green horse. Before I committed to buying Mack, though, I had to know one thing: does this horse LOVE cross-country? Mack, a former barrel-racer, was the type of horse who always wants to please– he would do anything you asked, just because it would make you happy. However, I was worried that sooner or later, his generosity may wear out if he was only jumping cross-country because I asked him to. Eventually the jumps would be bigger, scarier, and I had to know he wanted to do it as much as I did. After all, you can’t MAKE a 1200lbs animal jump something it doesn’t want to. As I found out on his first serious cross-country school…his heart was in it. A horse who loves his job is one to keep.
I’m not going to say my cross-country record with every horse has been perfect– of course not, we all make mistakes, and horses do, too. Green horses will have green horse moments, and riders may take a fence for granted or do something silly to mess up. It happens. But overall, you should feel like your horse WANTS to do the job with you. Not because you ask him to, or because the option of not jumping is unpleasant (!). The horse should seek the flags on cross-country, galloping (at whatever speed) with eagerness to find the next obstacle. And when the jump appears, his ears prick, his balance lifts, and he revs the engine, taking hold of your hand and saying “Come on Mom, we got this!” It’s like an excited little kid in a toy store, dragging his parent from one aisle to the next with wide-eyed glee.
Not all horses will start out that way. It’s understandable that green horses will be unfamiliar with the concept and have concerns about this new task of cross-country, wondering “Why are we doing this? You must be insane. Horses aren’t meant to jump ditches/cross water/drop off banks and all that crazy sh!t” But if the rider keeps saying, “Come on you can do it! It’s fun, I promise!” and praising profusely for the smallest effort, pretty soon most horses catch on and come to enjoy it. There’s nothing better than having a horse “strut” back to the trailer full of pride after finishing cross-country, feeling like King Kong.
That’s how it should be. But what if it’s not?
Many riders struggle with their horses. Sometimes it’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole; the horse just doesn’t want to play this game. “But he’s so nice/fancy/talented/athletic/bred to do it/bought to do it…!” as the excuses go. Riders try to convince themselves that “if only” they ride better and take more lessons, or buy a custom saddle, or inject the hocks, or call the chiro/massage therapist, or find some physical ailment to explain why things aren’t working…maybe that’s the answer. It’s true, all riders COULD ride better; and some horses do suffer from a physical problem that impairs their ability and might cause bad behavior. It’s a great idea to call your trainer and talk to your vet when things go wrong. But if you’ve been down that road enough times that you don’t need a map. and ruled out those possibilities, you might be faced with a hard decision.
Maybe you and your horse just aren’t meant to be.
That’s not saying you are a terrible rider and your horse is horrible. But face it: if you have more bad rides than good, if you feel like throwing up before cross-country, and if you end every lesson in tears… well, life’s too short for that. There are TOO MANY good horses out there who may better suit you and your goals. You might have to compromise on something– if you don’t have unlimited funds, you may have to search for a horse a little older, or a little shorter, or a little less fancy than your ideal. But keep looking until you find the horse that WANTS to do the job WITH YOU, at this stage in your riding career.
Your horse may be a great match for someone else. Maybe your horse is too strong or too advanced for your ability, and that feeling of getting dragged to the fence terrifies you…so (unfortunately) you instinctively snatch his face and lock your elbows. This pisses your horse off, and he begins refusing out of frustration. Your confidence plummets down the tubes, you anticipate him stopping, and it’s a vicious cycle. A horse who needs a little kick might suit you better; and likewise, your horse would be happier with a rider who is brave on a long, loose rein. Or maybe your horse is a chicken, who is just happy (thankyouverymuch) to stay in an enclosed arena doing dressage or hunters, never seeing a real ditch or jumping into water. There’s no shame in admitting when things don’t work out. Don’t make yourself or the horse suffer because your pride tells you to keep perfecting the imperfect when it’s clearly not working.
Is it hard to admit failure? Sure it is. We grow to love our horses like family, and it’s painful to write a sale ad for a family member. If you can afford to keep the horse as a pet, great. If you choose to change your riding discipline to better suit his strengths, go for it. But if you are dedicated to being an eventer, this sport is too dangerous to risk your life with an equine partner whose heart isn’t in it 110%. Life is too short to ride the wrong horse, there’s too much out there to enjoy looking through the right set of ears.