Are you your horse’s limiting factor? Do you find yourself immediately feeling defensive upon thinking about this saucy question?
If you can stay with me here, through the uncomfortable feelings raised by this thought, I can show you that there are actually benefits to asking yourself this question.
As a backyard horse keeper, I don’t usually see other people ride my horses. When I take riding lessons during the Winter, though, I get to watch other people ride the same lesson horses that I do. It is absolutely fascinating to watch how a horse goes differently depending upon the rider.
When I read the following essay, a lot of what I was thinking about my riding lessons hit home. “This Explains A Lot” by Kathleen Beckham appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Eclectic Horseman. The essay discusses how horses tend to rise or fall to the level of their rider.
“A horse can’t do better than what we can do. He can’t surpass our ability. We are his limiting factor.” – Kathleen Beckham
When I watch the lesson horses respond to different riders, I can see clearly what Beckham describes. The horse that I see walk-trot-canter beautifully with the advanced rider? That same horse can barely move in a straight line along the rail at a walk with the beginner rider.
Did the horse suddenly lose all his training between lessons? Nope. The horse was mirroring the skill of each person.
This issue of a horse “seeking the level of its rider” is terribly humbling. Believe me, I know. That horse who the advanced rider guides around seamlessly? Doing a riding pattern with me in the saddle, that same horse misses gait transitions at the proper letters, performs uneven circles and struggles with picking up a particular lead.
It is not that the horse can’t do the pattern accurately. It is that I am not giving the horse what he needs to perform to his maximum ability. I am the horse’s limiting factor.
Fortunately, most horses are incredibly forgiving. Everywhere I’ve gone in the horse world, across multiple disciplines, I see horses who seem very happy when ridden by folks who aren’t wizards in the saddle. I personally think most of us can be “good enough” riders and horsemen for our horses. A lot of it has to do with making a positive personality match between horse and rider as well as engaging in a discipline that is suited to both.
I suspect the author’s point in making her provocative statements is not to shame less talented riders. There is already a lot of competition and finger pointing in the horse world that can result in discouragement. Our horses don’t benefit from being heavily saddled with rider self-doubt. There is a balance between honestly acknowledging where you are at with your riding and yet not allowing any self-disappointment to turn you into a hesitant rider who leaves the horse without direction.
The author wasn’t writing those ideas as another means for riders to beat themselves up, but rather as a means to motivate riders to seek improvement. Seek improvement, if for no other reason than the good of the horse, particularly in the situation where the rider is continually having problems with their horse.
The author notes that so often horses get blamed for poor behavior or performance that actually originates with the rider ( editor’s note here- “misbehavior” can also be the result of the horse trying to express that they are in physical or emotional distress, but that is the subject of another essay).
“I want you to take lessons or to learn more so your horse does not have to bear the brunt of your frustration. He is doing the best he can with the information you’re providing. I want you to provide good information. And I’m here to tell you that everyone, read that, EVERYONE can improve themselves for their horse.”- Kathleen Beckham
The light at the end of the tunnel is that when we can improve ourselves, the horse can reflect that improvement. Maybe we gain better understanding of how horses communicate. Maybe we learn to manage our nerves. Maybe we gradually refine our aids through the various movements. In all those cases and more, we give the horse the opportunity to rise along with us.
This is an exciting notion that keeps me wanting to learn, both for my own horses and for any horse whose back I am lucky enough to sit. It starts with asking ourselves some hard questions, but not dwelling there in a sea of bad feelings.
Let’s acknowledge our faults as riders, without excuses or self-pity, and then figure out how to improve. This is a life long goal for many of us so be ready to exercise patience. Lots of it. As Kathleen Beckham’s essay title notes, a horse’s reaction to the rider really does explain a lot.
**** If you would like to read Kathleen Beckham’s essay for yourself, you can purchase the magazine issue in which it appears as a digital download PDF for $5.99 at https://eclectic-horseman.com/mercantile/back-issues/electronic-versions/eh-issue-no-111-electronic-version/. I recognize that the above interpretation of Beckham’s essay is mine alone and may not match her own views.