Periodically I run across discussions about rider-to-horse weight ratios. Every time I see that, it gives me pause. Because I think the physical weight we ask a horse to carry is the least of what we put on them.
More than once, I’ve had conversations with other professional trainers about why we struggle more with our own horses. A client’s horse may have more conformational challenges for our sport but often progresses more easily than our own horses.
I think it comes down to the weight my horse has to carry: my expectations, my ambitions, my professional goals.
That’s a heavy load.
Every competitor, professional or amateur, has experienced what I’m talking about. I do all of my homework to prepare for a show I care a lot about, be it regionals or the show where friends will be coming to watch. Then I ride down the centerline, and it all comes unraveled. But the show I only attended to support a friend’s barn? That test flowed as smoothly as warm fudge over ice cream.
Every show season starts with excitement and anticipation, as I plan my show schedule, set goals and hope for ribbons.
Soon, though, reality creeps in. I’ll be reminded of the many, many times I’ve been disappointed. When I’ve earned scores JUST BELOW what I needed for regionals, my medals, or to move up in the judging program. Those times, when I know my mount can feel my disappointment, I wonder if we ask our horses to carry too much.
Because ambition’s shadow-self will always be frustration.
Buddhism believes that all suffering arises from attachment to our desires. I think we, as riders, are doubly susceptible to suffering because our desires need to align with the grass-eating prey animal underneath us.
As I enter this show season with a sensitive prey animal who has a strong reaction to visual stimuli, I have to decide what weight I want him to carry.
I know he is capable of super high numbers; I have the score sheets to prove it. But getting attached to earning numbers is risky. I want his trust in his training to be stronger than his fear response, but I won’t know if that is true until I test it in the show ring.
Last year I decided I would prioritize him keeping his focus on me in different environments. That meant I did not shoot for regionals, or any year-end goal for that matter. Instead, I took him to different show venues to see if he was confident enough in his training to trust me. I did a lot of schooling at show grounds but not much actual competing.
I wouldn’t have taken on this horse, who, although he’s a beautiful mover, has a short attention span and is anxious when he loses his balance, if my mare had not paved the way for him.
I bought my mare Venus, a fancy Dutch Warmblood by Roemer, when she was a 2-year-old. I was about two years from ending my working student time. I hoped to pour all four years of my hard-earned education as a working student into her and produce an FEI horse.
She and I did eventually make it to Prix St. Georges but not before she taught me a few lessons. Not about riding, but about what is fair to ask a horse to carry.
Because she was my first “fancy” horse, she had to carry my anxiety about my abilities as a trainer. Did I just waste the past four years of my life? Should I have done that master’s degree after all? Was I good enough to pay my bills and save for my future from the back of a horse?
I overwhelmed her with my goals. That added to my show nerves. When she and I went down the centerline at Dressage at Devon, I could feel her heart pounding under me in fear of the wind, the rain, the flags blowing sideways, the judge’s booths wrapped in plastic. She never did anything dangerous, but she was definitely not her best. I left the ring feeling bad for asking that of her.
I have nothing but gratitude for my mare, whose forgiving nature was bigger than my self-sabotage.
So this year, on my gelding, I will prioritize him feeling confident in the show ring. Last year I got his ears on me in the warm-up; this year I’ll aim to have his ears on me in the test.
But most of all, I will let him be a prey animal learning to go against his nature and make circles in random sandboxes. If that gives me high numbers and fancy ribbons, that will be icing on the cake. I will do my best to not add my emotions to the lessons he is learning.
That is the weight I will ask him to carry.
Ange Bean trains from her Straight Forward Dressage in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and travels throughout the U.S. as a clinician. She is the founding training for Straight Forward Dressage Trainer Talks, a web-based discussion on the highs and lows of dressage horse training, and maintains a personal blog. Her credentials include USEF ‘r’ dressage judge, ARIA Level 3 certified in Dressage and Stable Management, USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medal, and USDF Bronze and Silver Freestyle bars.