Would You Want to Be Your Horse?
Now here is an interesting question to contemplate the next time you ride. Would you like to be your horse right now if that meant carrying you on your back? I heard a clinician recently ask this question and I thought it was brilliant. She was speaking to someone who was very stuck in her hip joints and was not following the movement of the horse. She was also stuck in the shoulders so her hands were not softly following the horse’s head movement, and every time his head moved as he walked his mouth banged against the immobile bit.
The question was not asked in a negative insulting way, but rather in a supportive way that really encouraged the rider to think about how her horse was feeling in response to what she was or was not doing. The rider thought briefly about the question and shortly afterward answered “no”. The clinician asked her to describe why and she quickly identified her stuck seat and stuck hands. It didn’t take long for her to refocus her awareness to these issues and correct them.
I spoke to the rider after her lesson and she was amazed. She said that she has been told many times by instructors to “soften her hands” and “loosen her seat” and she tries to do as they request believing she has accomplished it. Only to be told the exact same thing the next lesson. For some reason, she observed, despite her best intentions she just couldn’t seem to make the positive changes she made stick beyond a lesson. Being asked to consider whether or not she would like to be her horse was like someone switched on a lightbulb for her. She was even more amazed the next day when she approached her riding from this perspective and was able to keep her seat less tight and her hands softer.
What if everyone applied this question to their riding all of the time? And then made an effort to change whatever it is that would make it undesirable to be your horse, whether it be riding position, tack or something else. I think we would find more people with better awareness of their own balance (would you like to carry around a knapsack weighing one tenth of your weight that is lopsided?). I think we would see closer attention paid to saddle fit, girth over-tightening and bit fitting. For example, have you ever held a bit in one hand that has leather reins attached to the bit ring and a bit in the other hand that has reins clipped to the bit ring by a metal clip? Try it, and get someone to jiggle the reins. The difference is remarkable. The harshness of the metal clip on the metal bit ring travels through the bit and is horrible compared to the leather on the bit ring. Many people use these types of reins for convenience, but if they thought about which reins their horse would choose if he could, their choice would likely be different.
So, periodically as you ride ask yourself “Would I want to be my horse right now?” If the answer is no, make a change that would enable you to answer yes.
Take home message for equestrian educators
As equestrian educators we have as much responsibility for the welfare of the horses that help us teach our students as we do for the students. Therefore, we should take every opportunity to foster empathy for horses in our students. I asked a similar question to the one above to a student of mine once. We had been working on a lesson program over several months to help her horse move less on the forehand. He was coming back to riding after being laid off due to a lameness issue that was exacerbated by being ridden on the forehand. He was gradually beginning to develop a stronger back and hind end muscles through lots of slow-paced careful work in hand and under saddle. One day I came out to the arena and to my surprise, I saw my student riding her horse at a very fast trot with a hollow back. The student was smiling and the horse looked miserable. He was clearly uncomfortable. Although it was not a lesson night I stopped her and asked her what she was doing.
She replied that she just really felt like going fast tonight for the first time in a long while because she finds it more fun to go fast. I asked her “how do you think your horse feels about that?” She was quiet for a moment and then she identified that this was probably not the best thing for him right now. I agreed and left them to the rest of their ride, which she refocused on work that was both more comfortable and more beneficial for her horse. Later, she found me in the stable and thanked me for stopping her. She identified that she had not been thinking of her horse first and that was wrong.
There was no question in my mind that I had to try and intervene in that circumstance for the benefit of the horse. Doing it in a way that asked the student to think about how her horse was feeling proved to be a useful way to refocus her thinking and an opportunity to try and improve her empathy.