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Why don't I want to ride my horse?

From: Pam

Hello Jessica,

I have been reading and appreciating your responses to questions for about a year now. I even wrote a question to you, but I found I had an answer to if I simply stood back and took a look at the situation! Well, here's another question, and I'm standing back and looking, but no answers are coming to me.

I've had a horse, a 16 year old Quarter Horse mare, for a year. During that time, I've helped her along with overcoming her health problems, bad feet, and fear of humans. I follow the training methods of a natural horsemanship guru and find it to fit perfectly with my beliefs. Much of the inital training takes place on the ground and I'm enjoying that immensely. I now have a horse I can catch easily, who leads well and actively participates in all the groundwork. However, whenever it comes to putting a saddle on my horse, I hesitate. I am a beginner and need to put in the hours, but I find I just can't get on and ride. Every so often I do, but I find it puts me in the "leader" role so strongly that I fear I lose my horse's respect. Now, I'm not heavy handed and wouldn't dream of hurting or forcing my horse into anything she isn't ready for. But I still hesitate. I've been accused of being too close to my horse, treating her like a friend or pet.

I guess I keep thinking, "I have this horse that all these other people want to ride, why don't I?" I admit to being an oddity at my barn--most people show up on weekends, go for long rides, and then turn their horses back out for another week. I, on the other hand, am there daily, grooming, cleaning her buckets, doing groundwork, just hanging out, etc.

When I stand back to look at myself I see a person who is sort of possessive about her horse. I'm not real crazy about anyone else riding her. I once had a family follow me around off and on for about a week, asking all about my horse, and it drove me to distraction. I actually had a nightmare they were going to steal her, when they probably only wanted to find out more about horses and how to go about getting a nice mare like mine.

When I think back to a year ago, my horse and I have come a LONG way. She used to be terrified and, well, pretty nasty. I used to be terrified and, I'll admit, pretty meek. We now seem to be at a standstill, both fairly happy but ready for the next step.

Thank you, Jessica!


Hi Pam! Perhaps you'll find it comforting to know that you're by no means alone in your dilemma - a lot of other people are in very similar situations. You've actually answered your own question: You don't want to ride your horse because you don't like the kind of person you become, or the way your horse reacts to you, when you get in the saddle. The good news is that this is not only a common problem, it's a very "fix-able" problem. ;-)

One of the great benefits of the popularity of "natural horsemanship" is that horse-owners are paying more attention to their horses on the ground, and becoming more attentive to their horses, and more aware of the ways in which they interact with their horses.

Unfortunately, this will only take a horse-owner so far - because establishing a relationship with a horse on the ground, and learning to interpret its body language and use your own body language to direct the horse's movements, does not necessarily have ANY carryover when you're in the saddle. That makes perfect sense, when you think about it. The "language" of ground work and the "language" of under-saddle work are, all too often, completely different.

If you have some fear and nervousness, and aren't entirely certain that you WANT to be in the saddle, it's natural to want to preserve the status quo - that is, to preserve the comfortable relationship that you have with your horse on the ground.

If you feel competent to understand, direct, and handle your horse from the ground, but are not at all certain that you are in charge when you're on his back, it makes sense that you would prefer to stay OFF his back.

From the rider's point of view, getting into the saddle means that the happy, cooperative, controllable horse suddenly changes and becomes a tense, unpredictable animal.

From the horse's point of view, the friendly, kind, understandable human suddenly changes and becomes a tense, unpredictable, and aggressive animal as soon as s/he is in the saddle.

In the round pen, large gestures and movements allow you to be quietly authoritative. Your arm-waving and stepping this way and that way are signals that make good sense to a horse that is twenty or thirty feet away from you - it can see you very well, and it can and accept your authority and your signals without feeling threatened. But get into the saddle and make similarly large gestures and movements, and two things change completely: You've "turned up the volume" to LOUD or VERY LOUD, and your horse, who can no longer SEE you, interprets the increased volume as aggression.

What happens then? Typically, the rider gets "louder" because of worrying about being unable to control the horse. The horse reacts badly to the perceived aggression of the rider. Both horse and rider become more and more uncomfortable - emotionally, mentally, and physically. And eventually, when the rider dismounts, both the horse and rider heave great sighs of relief. The horse says "Oh, THERE you are, you're back, how nice, there was a really nasty scary person here a moment ago!" And the rider says "Oh, THERE's my nice quiet horse - I think I'd really much prefer to work you on the ground. Riding is SO overrated, I hate having to be a bully, but if I'm not a bully, I can't control you at all." If you reduce each reaction to its essence, the horse is very happy to have the rider OFF its back; the rider, who is more and more afraid to ride, is very happy to have both feet on the ground again - and both are happy to be nack in a familiar situation where they understand one another and can be friendly.

Is there a solution to this? Of course. In fact, there are several. I'm going to suggest the two most logical and practical ones.

Best solution: Take riding lessons from a good instructor who understands that horsemanship and riding cannot and should not be separate subjects. A good instructor will help you interpret your horse's reactions, and will help you learn to control your own body and use it in a way that won't frighten, worry, or interfere with your horse. With someone to help you focus on good communication and positive feedback, you and your horse will quickly learn to have a good relationship when you're in the saddle.

Second best solution: If you don't have such an instructor, and you have to find your own way, try this: Spend at least six months working ONLY AT THE WALK. It's a good way to avoid getting frightened and frightening your horse - and no, you won't get bored, and neither will she. If you are there, really there, physically and mentally and emotionally right there with your horse, existing "in the moment" as your horse does, and keeping your (positive) focus on the horse, you'll find that walking is both a challenging and an interesting activity. You need to practice staying still and quiet on your horse, and giving him gentle signals that will direct him without intimidating her. You need practice staying focused on your horse in a positive way - and working at a walk will let you do those things, plus build your own confidence and your horse's confidence. It will also help your body - especially your core muscles - become stronger. As you become stronger and better able to control your own body, you'll be better able to direct your horse with quiet, subtle signals that will let you ask for her cooperation instead of demanding action.

Six months of walking and thinking - RIDING at the walk, not just meandering around thinking about other things - will build up your body, your competence, and your confidence. It will do the same for your horse - and it will help the two of you build the same trusting relationship under saddle that you have on the ground. And THEN it will be time for you to go faster - if and when you WANT to, you'll be able to trot and canter with much more comfort and confidence (on BOTH sides of the saddle).

I think that you're on the right track. Take things slowly, stay relaxed, stay positive, get the best lessons you possibly can, and if you can't find a good instructor, just plan to saddle up, mount up, and WALK for six months. Not one second of that time will be wasted, because you'll be able to build a strong, solid, mutually trusting under-saddle relationship with your horse. When you are in control of yourself, strong, competent, and confident, you'll be able to be the kind of leader you want to be - that is, not a loud, crude, dictatorial BOSS, but the kind of quiet, inspiring leader that your horse will ENJOY following. When riding is done correctly, there's no reason for you and your horse NOT to be friends.


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