Our columnist considers how “rideability” can differ by era and by rider.
When I learned to ride in Sweden back in the dark ages, we assumed all horses were rideable; it was simply a matter of figuring out how to operate each one. Whatever the horse offered, we were expected to deal with, and if the results weren’t brilliant, it was never the horse’s fault.
Looking back, we worked with a variety of horses with conformations and temperaments most riders today would reject, but we didn’t have the luxury of today’s selective breeding for special purposes.
When I first arrived in the United States, warmbloods were a new concept here. The sport horses available were usually off-track Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses or grade horses of mixed origin. For several years before my husband and I could afford to invest in a couple of Trakehner weanlings, I rode mainly Thoroughbreds and grew to love them.
Cadet, my event horse, was a past steeplechaser, blue black and like a bullet cross-country. I don’t know if he was super brave or actually scared of not jumping, but he never offered to stop. Tappan Zee was my schoolmaster, taught to Prix St. Georges by a friend of mine. He was a tall red chestnut by Royal Charger, with two huge bowed tendons from the track and a heart of gold. With help from Michael Miller and Bengt Ljungquist I trained him to Grand Prix, and he was part of the 1976 Olympic trials.
Adastra was another off-track Thoroughbred I schooled and showed in Grand Prix, and he was not easy. He was chili pepper hot and had a million little tricks like bolting at sounds, sticking his enormously long tongue out at me when I irritated him, and kicking my feet out of the stirrups if I offended him with my leg or spur.
What all three horses had in common was a never-ending energy for work. They put every effort into accomplishing whatever was asked for, and they were all very intelligent and quick to learn. I would venture to say their “rideability” was quite good, but that was perhaps because they were my kind of horses. For sure, many riders would have been uncomfortable with some of the quick reactions of these horses, and to them their rideability would therefore be questionable.
The rider of today would also require more of a dressage type movement, especially at the trot, such as is produced in the warmbloods bred specifically with dressage in mind.
A Matter Of Mind And Body
Rideability obviously doesn’t mean the same thing to all riders. Even riders in the same category, such as competitors in dressage or eventing, may be looking for a different “feel” in a horse. In general, however, the common wish is for a horse that has a good work ethic, shows interest in learning and accepts the aids of the rider in a sensible way.
You should be able to step on the gas pedal and get just the amount of acceleration, impulsion and engagement you desire at that moment while feeling that the power is always under your control. To assess and produce these features in a horse, the rider needs to be fairly sophisticated, and the continued rideability in a horse is to a great extent dependent on the skill of the rider.
When selecting a horse for any job today, a great emphasis is placed on rideability, and to a large extent this feature is connected to the conformation of the horse. The exterior of the horse is an important factor when it comes to balance and ability to perform what we expect of him as an athlete.
The days of making a top dressage horse out of a horse that failed at some other job are gone. Now we want the right model for the job, which means a horse built “uphill” with a hind leg balanced under the body and a rectangular frame. The favored type of modern dressage horse is commonly quite tall and leggy. Correctness in the limbs is also of importance for the overall balance and continued soundness. A crooked foot or offset cannon bone can, in the long run, cause wear and tear and interrupt or permanently finish a promising career. The very tall horses now favored by many dressage competitors may require some special attention to remain sound, since the more normal size horse between 16 to 16.2 hands is usually more hardy.
Breeders today are very tuned in to what the competitive rider wishes, and thanks to shipped semen they have almost any stallion in the world available to them. An experienced breeder knows that his mares are the ticket to a suitable foal, and never mind how well put together a horse is, a good temperament is of essence, or a lot of the athletic ability is wasted. Although the basic attitude of a foal often reflects that of the sire, the dam fosters the youngster, and her corrections make a great imprint on the offspring.
Then we have the early handling and care of the young horse from weanling to breaking, which commonly spans more than three years and creates the foundation for the education and welfare of the future performer. Poor handling, feeding and/or care will definitely put a kink in the usefulness of the horse, both physically and mentally.
Even if the adult horse is not intended for competitive use, a poor start will affect his life as a pleasure horse if he is cranky and miserable—perhaps even more so, since the novice rider may not have the skill or strength required to correct a horse gone wrong. At that level, it is easy to define rideability: The horse is not rideable for the purpose intended.
The Essence Of Rideability
When it comes to competitive sport, we try to measure a horse’s rideability in various and more scientific ways. Many young horse test events include a section where competent show riders partake as test riders and grade the young horses after riding them, which is added to their overall score. This makes for an interesting cross-evaluation of judges observing the horse on the ground and the rider judging the horse from on top.
Most of the time, since all involved are well-educated horsemen, the opinions coincide, but there are surprises. Once I watched Kyra Kyrklund test several stallions at a show in the Netherlands. After we admired the big gaits and some interesting antics of one of her designated horses, Kyra dismounted and pointed out that just because a horse is jumping around and full of himself does not mean that he is ambitious or forward thinking, and that in this horse’s case his gaits may be impressive to behold from the ground, but his back was like a washboard and his mouth like a rock. Although Kyra expressed this in more diplomatic terms, her score told the tale.
With all the custom-made foals for dressage produced over the last 20 years or so, we have become increasingly demanding when looking for our next show prospect. We are trying to predict the future when observing the unbroken youngsters, although most people prefer to buy one they can sit on. But even if we find the 4- or 5-year-old responsive, comfortable and willing, offering a nice contact with the bit, we are only scraping the surface.
Attempting to look into the future, how well will this horse stand up to the physical requirements of extensions, piaffe, passage and pirouettes? How will he handle the pressures of competition, the travel and the many changes of venue? Will he be able to “sit” in the piaffe? As Jeremy Steinberg so eloquently and emphatically stated in a recent Chronicle column (“Keeping It Simple And Real,” June 15 & 22, p. 62), this ought to be part of the requirements for a decent Grand Prix score.
All these aspects hover on the fringes of the concept of rideability, since they are part of the big picture. But the essence of this rather new feature word is still that special, silent language dressage riders speak when we have a dialogue with a horse. Rideability does not mean exactly the same thing to every rider or trainer, although we nod in recognition of the word. It is, in fact, that great feeling when all systems are go and the riding does not only look easy, it is easy.
The very essence of rideability, in the end, is the degree of willingness and cooperation offered by the horse. There are as many personalities displayed in horses as in people, and the task of the rider is to read the signs and adapt to what each horse offers without losing the respect of the horse. Almost every horse will work for a rider who gives clear directions and at the same time shows compassion for the individual he is riding.
Our “love” for horses is sometimes tough love when we need to make a point, but a horse will accept most any correction that is fairly made. And they know the difference!
If horses were super smart, they would never allow us to ride them because they would figure out they do not have to. But what they lack in reasoning power, horses make up for with a very keen instinct for “what’s in the air.” I’ve had normally difficult and argumentative horses give me a total break if I was sad for some reason. The same horse would test my patience again the minute I was back to normal. This has happened to me many times, but sometimes I don’t recognize it until I look back on the ride.
The relationships we create with our animals directly reflect their trust in our judgment, and a horse that trusts you can, literally, go through fire for you. Or continue forward from X, although the judge’s box and cameraman make his heart beat so strongly you can feel it.
There is a saying that the reason horses have four legs is to carry their very great hearts.
Anne Gribbons was the U.S Equestrian Federation technical advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships, as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been named U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American Games silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee from 2010-2013. She was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013. Anne started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995, and a collection of those columns is now available in the book Collective Remarks.