There’s no shame in quitting – You can’t force a talented horse into greatness
The world is full of incredible examples of triumph over adversity, of sacrifice and of unimaginable effort and dedication. From their first days through to their finest hours, athletes, refugees of war and Wall Street bankers all have their inspiring stories to tell. The sporting world is no exception, and the Eventing world, in particular, is full of tales of those who COULDN’T, but who somehow still DID. There is a unique and much admired toughness attached to the people involved in this game. Boyd Martin, Shane Rose, William Fox-Pitt and even Michael Jung are just a few of the many available case studies, that can demonstrate how digging deep and never ever quitting will reap its own reward. For these riders, performing superhuman feats of endurance is just a thing that you do. The only problem with aspiring towards this approach to our equestrian pursuits is that occasionally, we forget that quitting or giving up on a thing can sometimes be the best solution.
We somehow all seem to want to be the rider that manages to wrestle with some feral gnu of a horse on a daily basis, and who calls it a victory when there are no blood wounds and nobody died. Lots of us fondly imagine that our unique and individual approach – sculpted from many years of the life sodomy that is horses – will be the method that transforms a lethal train wreck horse into an Olympic athlete. Most professional riders are very quick to identify the horses that are not worth persevering with, and the passage of time lifts the scales from the eyes – no matter how talented a horse is, he is useless unless he is willing to find a way to work with you. Riders just setting out on their journeys in the sport are quite often found riding sensible and genuine horses who might not set the world alight, but who will give their riders a valuable and safe education on the good days and also the bad. So what goes wrong in the middle?
Eventing is a hardcore sport, no one would disagree. It is also a cripplingly expensive way to pass the time. Riders with a few miles on the clock and an eye on the long game seem to be the perfect target for ‘those’ horses. You know the ones. The horses that ‘find’ you. Sort of like stray cats. The category choice of ‘those’ horses is quite large. There are the off the track Thoroughbreds, which are often affordable and tend to look athletic and sharp. These horses cause prospective purchasers – with heads full of Neville Bardos and Summon Up The Blood – to go weak at the knees. There are the obscenely talented horses with either absolutely no brain whatsoever, or those who are Ted Bundy reincarnate, that we just KNOW we can sort out and make good. There are horses that are too big, too strong, not brave enough or not really sound. There are horses that won’t listen, won’t try or that try too hard. The main weapon in a professional rider’s arsenal is to be able to get on a large number of horses and to inspire those horses to want to perform to the best of their ability for their rider. However, those of us riding and competing a far smaller number of horses which we also prop up with our day jobs, tend to take a slightly more personal approach. We end up trapped in the script of the film ‘National Velvet’. A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. And so the trouble begins.
We find ourselves in possession of the next Olympic superstar. Sure he has his difficulties but oh wow! Look at him trot! We have a little more time to invest in Ted Bundy horse than the top riders do. We are tough and determined riders, and we can cope with equine ariel acrobatics and any wilful resistance. We anticipate building a bond with this horse that is SO STRONG, that he will go through the fires of hell for us in a headcollar just because we asked him to. It becomes so personal and so emotionally intricate and we believe in this horse with all that we have, even when the evidence to support that belief is frankly lacking. Somehow, our undying and unfailing faith will be the magic key that unlocks the door, and sculpts this unsuitable animal into a sub 20’s double clear machine that Michael Jung himself will beg you to ride. We just get so… blind? Before long, you find yourself slightly dreading your impending dressage lesson on Ted Bundy horse, and feeling like its a victory when he didn’t buck you off. Again. You don’t want to take him for a hack, because he intimidates other road users and he can’t cope if it’s windy. You don’t really want to go cross-country schooling, because Ted Bundy horse takes on an Exocet missile-type quality in a wide open space, and you can’t for the life of you find a bit strong enough or a process safe enough to stop him. You aren’t enjoying showjumping anymore, but if you manage to trot around the 2’6″ class and stay in the actual arena – perhaps even jump some of the fences – well then it has been a good day. You lose sight of the supposed bigger picture intended for Ted Bundy horse, because the everyday goals are such a traumatic ordeal to achieve. However, you can’t quit now! He’s your dream horse and he will take you places! It would be unfair and disloyal to stop. You are best friends…
If this sounds familiar, then you have GOT to STOP. You have got to realize that it is absolutely right and proper to put your needs and requirements ahead of those of Ted Bundy horse. It is ok to say “This isn’t what I had expected, and it is making me miserable”. It does NOT mean that you have failed, or that you are not good enough or tough enough. It is not a poor reflection on you at all. Riders need to be quite honest with themselves. This sport costs so much money and it takes up so much of our lives, so is it not therefore a priority to find a horse that makes this sacrifice as pleasurable as possible? Does it really matter what he looks like or how he moves? And if you do still somehow end up with Ted Bundy horse, is it not more sensible to realize that he isn’t for you? That perhaps he would be better suited to a different rider or even a different vocation? When you really look at this properly, you will see that you are not failing at all. You are in fact winning. You are making a decision that will improve your life. Chances are, taking the weight of Olympic expectations from the shoulders of Ted Bundy horse will be doing him a favour, too.
Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. There are the middle of the road riders who click with a nutter horse and who end up at Rolex. There are cheap lame horses who come sound and stay sound. There are horses who lack talent but who make up for it in heart and brain instead, achieving the unachievable. There are riders who improve immeasurably on one horse, only to fall apart on another. Overall though, we owe it to ourselves to be honest when things aren’t working, and to be OK about deciding to make a change for the better when needed, without feeling guilty or hopeless. You have to pick to be happy, and that can mean learning to know when to let go. Sometimes you have to quit to win.