There’s a meme that travels around Facebook that states, “Most people don’t need a $35,000 horse. They need a $1,000 horse and $34,000 in lessons.” Boy howdy, the horse world is resplendent with stories of novice riders buying advanced competition horses for tens of thousands of dollars, only to get them home and find out they are un-rideable–at that rider’s current level. It’s like finding an Indy car in the driveway and not being able to locate where the key goes.

It turns out that the rider half of the partnership actually counts. It’s one of my very favorite things about horses; they aren’t impressed with status or money. It’s all about the rider.

Thinking about the meme, I knew that I’d spent more than twice that on lessons and clinics over the course of my life. Granted, in my early years I was ambitious, but more than that, I wanted someone to be as serious about my horses as I was. Now, as a professional, learning is always at the center of the job. I could label the expense continuing education for my career but the truth is I’m still as fascinated by horses today as when I was a kid. I’d do it anyway.

The vast majority of people who commented on the Facebook meme acknowledged that lessons were a lifestyle for them, and happily so; it’s a safe and challenging–a confidence-building way to share a life with a horse.  But there were more than a few people who were proud to say they’d never had a lesson and never would. They seemed cynical about trainers, understandable in some cases. Some sounded almost defensive, as if asking for help was shameful. They had figured it all out on their own, usually after books and videos.

(I’m probably being a stickler here, but those books and videos were produced by professionals who would be less than thrilled to hear their work discredited this way. In truth, lessons come in many forms. Like this blog, for example.)

Here’s the question: Does a rider really need to improve? Isn’t it enough to just get on and ride? Maybe you’re one of those who refer to themselves as “only a trail rider” and you have no intention of competing or traveling. You just ride for your own enjoyment and know everything you need. Sure, your horse has small problems, but you can avoid them by keeping your horse away from those situations.

Balance that with this statistic: A local rescue estimates that 80% of the horses they take in have behavioral problems. There are no guesses on the number of “bad” horses turned out in pastures forever.

Horses would be easier if they were more like dirt bikes. Then they’d be built tough and fearless. And that ignition switch would be nice.

Even if everything truly is perfect, change happens. No living thing is static, least of all these sensitive, emotional creatures. Sometimes there’s a physical condition that initially causes what looks like bad behavior. Eventually stoic horses can lose patience. Reactive horses can become so overwhelmed that one day they’re unsafe to ride. Even the kindest horse can come apart in the right horrible situation.

Life is change. Horses are always working on a tendency; either getting a little better or worse. So are we.

I want to offer some advice: If the idea even crosses your mind that your horse might need some help, don’t put it off. Ignoring problems never works as well as we all wish it did. Horse rescue has proof of that.

Find a trainer who doesn’t yell at your horse or you, and get there while the problem still a small challenge. Share the good days and minimize the bad, for you horse but also for you. Somewhere in the process, I hope training will change from a feeling that you and your horse are in detention, to the two of you becoming members of a very old club. Equestrians have sought partnership with horses since before Xenophon wrote my all time favorite quote in 430BC,

For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer

The truth about horses is that no matter how much we give, we’re always asked for more time and money and effort. At first it’s all about frustration and confusion for both of you. It can seem natural, but then something begins to shift inside. One day you understand that just because you can push your horse through it, there’s no reason to feed his anxiety. So instead, you learn how to slow things down and give him time to understand. On another day, your horse will show you patience when you don’t really deserve it. In due time, fears subside, egos melt, and all that’s left is a belonging to each other and all of those who have ridden this path before. That’s how commitment works; its real value is felt in hindsight.

Is improvement necessary? I’d like to think it’s inevitable.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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