Thursday, Sep. 21, 2023

Is This Horse The “Right” Horse For Me Or My Child?



Our columnist considers the many reasons a horse might or might not be the best match for a specific rider.

Want to determine whether you have the right horse? Take a simple litmus test.

Think, “At the start of any given day, how do I feel about riding my horse today? Do I feel as if I can’t wait to ride? Do I feel indifferent? Do I feel some sense of reluctance, even fear or discomfort, about riding this particular horse?”

Those riders who look forward eagerly to each ride almost always have the “Mr. Rights” of the horse world. These horses bring pleasure, satisfaction and joy to every ride. This may be a matter of “good chemistry,” the sense that you and the horse respond so well to one another that you seem to read one another’s minds. It may stem from having a horse that allows you to achieve various personal or competitive goals. It may be like that saying, “putting on a comfortable pair of old slippers.” It may be a combination of some or all of these, but if your sense of daily anticipation is high, consider yourself one of the lucky riders.

It’s important to accept and respect the individual nature of these bonds. I’ve watched tall men ride small Arabians over miles of desert trails in Death Valley. I’ve watched tiny women perched on 17.2-hand warmblood behemoths come trotting down centerlines, and I’ve seen galloping grandparents in their mid-70s flying along on cross-country, riding aggressive Thoroughbreds. There’s just no telling what will rev the jets of one rider while cooling the jets of another.

Something Is Missing

If you’re indifferent about riding a particular horse, it might be worth considering what this horse lacks that your more ideal horse might possess. Is he somewhat hard to ride, either because of some temperament issue or lack of training? Does this horse simply lack the necessary talent and abilities for the type of riding you’re trying to do?

One example might be the jumper who always seems to knock down rails, even at a height which he seems otherwise able to handle with ease. Or the hunter who always hangs its knees. Or the pleasure horse who trots around with his ears pinned back.

Another example might be a dressage horse that doesn’t do anything particularly “wrong” but doesn’t do anything, from a dressage standpoint, particularly “right.” He may not be a very good mover, or he may lack balance or presence or style. He’s not a bad horse: He has an even temperament; he has three average gaits; he does his job; he in no way makes you apprehensive—but he doesn’t make your heart sing.


This “meh” relationship often comes from another saying, “Don’t try to fit the square peg into the round hole.” Lots of horses are somewhat suited for dressage or jumping or trail riding but lack the physical gifts that make these tasks easy. The rider constantly struggles because it’s a struggle for the horse to fit into a niche for which he may not be particularly well suited, physically or temperamentally.

The rider isn’t fearful on this horse. The rider doesn’t have confidence issues. But something is missing, some spark of elation or joy. “Boredom” might be the right word, but I’m not sure that’s it. Maybe “marginal” satisfaction is a better description. At any rate, something isn’t just right.

Crafting A Compromise

And then we get to that darker situation, having the horse that makes the rider nervous, intimidated, apprehensive, even downright scared. A rider of a “Mr. Wrong” horse becomes adroit at conjuring up ways to avoid riding. One may find that, “I didn’t have time to ride today.” Another may say, “I couldn’t ride today because I had to pick up Billy at school.” Or, “I went to the barn, but the ring was full of kids jumping ponies.” Or, “I’m not sure if he’s sound.” (This can also be translated as, “I hope he’s not sound, because then I have an excuse not to ride him.”) There are 101 strategies to avoid riding the horses that do not fit like a comfortable pair of old slippers. A horse need not always make your heart sing, but at least he shouldn’t make your heart clench in anxiety.

We all know plenty of riders in these negative situations, and the question that seems easy to ask is, “Why don’t you get a different horse?”

Now we are truly entering a minefield of raw emotions, tricky mind games, convoluted reasoning, excuses, deflections, all the impedimenta of the conflicted mind and heart.

For while it is perfectly possible to own a horse that scares you to ride it, it is equally possible to love that horse. Or, if “love” is too strong a word, it’s possible that you will struggle to avoid getting rid of the horse for fear of the potentially bad fate that may await him if you sell him or give him away.

If that’s the case, that you can’t stand the idea of selling the horse but are also afraid to ride the horse, something may have to give, and that “something” may be your time in the saddle. Perhaps he will become a pasture ornament. Maybe another rider at your barn will take him on. In any case, though, you will no longer be riding this horse.

If you can afford to have the one you don’t want to ride yet don’t want to part with, and you can also afford a second horse that you do like to ride, then your degree of compromise need not be extreme. But if you can only afford one, then what?


This whole deal is tricky. It’s easy for those on the outside looking in to say, “Don’t get stuck with that horse. Sell him before he hurts you.” And, from a purely pragmatic stance, the outsiders are probably right. For every rider who struggles to ride the difficult horse, breaks through, and grows accordingly in skill and confidence, far more riders either get more frightened, or worse, get hurt.

Now, if the horse in question is for your child, and if she is nervous or scared to ride it, I think being sentimental about the horse is a totally misplaced response. Don’t be a hero on your child’s behalf. Don’t be one of those parents who say, “Hey, I fell off a bratty pony 15 times when I was 11, and it was the making of me as a rider. Little Julie needs to suck it up and get it done.”

You aren’t little Julie. Little Julie isn’t you. Fear of getting hurt, or the actuality of getting hurt, probably drives more kids away from riding than any other single thing. (Well, any other single thing apart from boys and cars.)

So when it comes to deciding what kind of a horse your child needs, hope for the fabulous pony, probably be OK with the “ho-hum” pony, but please try to avoid the one that makes her tense or scared.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a child is scared of a particular horse or is just feeling overfaced about riding in general. Perhaps your daughter or son is just no longer keen on riding. Ask your child, or ask your trainer. Try to ascertain whether what you may see as a reluctance to ride is based upon a shaky relationship with one specific horse or stems from a larger indifference.

Finding “the right horse” always means finding the right horse for you or for your child. A horse or pony that might terrify one rider might be wings for another. There is no right or wrong horse except as it is the right or wrong horse for you or your child, and you will be the best judge of that.

It’s always more subjective than objective. If you’ve found the right horse, ride on. If not, well, you have decisions to make, and even if you don’t decide, that too, is a decision.

Finally, there’s something else to consider. We don’t always get it right. Sometimes the horse that once seemed to be the nightmare will turn out to be the dream come true. It may be a year later, perhaps longer, and then we think how glad we are that we didn’t give up when the relationship appeared so bleak. Probably more often than not, we are right to trust our earlier impressions, but there are never guarantees.

Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.




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