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What if it isn’t a bad thing?

I have a “big picture” thing I want to say and it’s going to take some explaining. Just food for thought, really, but there’s some defining of terms that has to happen first. Just for the purposes of this article, and with full knowledge that making generalizations is always a bad idea. Here goes.

Some riders fall into the category of timid. Or cautious. They may compete or trail ride or whatever, but they are always aware of a certain voice in their heads that’s a bit reluctant, concerned about of injury, or just not having control. And they ride anyway. My thesaurus adds these synonyms for timid: apprehensive, demure, modest, nervous, browbeaten, yellow, milquetoast, mousy, fainthearted. Is it just me or do the words run to name-calling near the end?

There is a level of fear that runs deeper than timid. It’s a rider who is truly unable to breathe or smile. They are almost pathologically tense and then when something happens, like a horse looking to the side, they react more than respond. They might jerk the reins or grab in some other way. It’s a level of fear that is nearly disabling. The thesaurus seems to respect fear more with these synonyms: angst, despair, dread, horror, panic, terror, abhorrence, phobia.

Then there are riders who demand obedience from their horses; riders who are boss. Domineering riders who appear fearless and strong. They’ll make their horse do anything and many times, crowds cheer them on. Again, interesting words from the thesaurus: arrogant, autocratic, dictatorial, tyrannical, coercive, insolent, iron-handed. (I have to say, seeing that last term made me blink hard; its second meaning, particular to riding, hurts my ears as much as the visual on a horse hurts my eyes.)

So again, these are horrid generalizations and people are individuals. Putting riders into piles is a bad thing and most of us are in the middle of change every day.

In my tiny corner of the horse world, most of the riders I work with would refer to themselves as timid. They apologize for it like it’s a bad thing. They tell me it’s hard to remember to breathe and that they don’t ride like the did when there were younger. They see being timid as a flaw.

I have a confession; I like timid riders.

There’s probably at least one time that every rider has fit into each of these categories. Whatever kind of rider you think you are doesn’t matter anyway. The only thing that matters is what kind of rider your horse thinks you are. They’re truth tellers. A horse will tell you that a domineering rider is afraid or that a fearful rider can get through it. A horse will say, “Enough already!” putting an end to saddle time, or show patience and tolerance to a rider with good intention, or just shut down to a rider’s rude barrage of noise and cues.

True, I’m no fan of domineering riders. I won’t work with them. I consider respect for horses fundamental. Still, these riders do have a certain success because horses will succumb to intimidation. For a while. But their horses rat them out, from their sad eyes and tense poll, all the way to the tip of their clamped tail.

Dang. There I go again, talking about compassion and understanding for horses. It’s the sort of approach that attracts titles like “tree-hugger” and sissy. *Smiles and waves.*

What I love about timid riders is that their willingness to go slow. They’re sensitive and they want to really listen to their horse. Half of the time, I think the anxiety that they feel was a message from their horse in the first place, and they are the kind of partner who will take the blame for a friend. They have the honesty to admit how they feel and it makes their judgment of how their horses feel just a bit more compassionate.

*Disclaimer: now is when I have to say that not everyone who claims to listen to horses actually does. In fact, it’s a pretty rare occurrence when any of us truly put horses first. Once you do that you’re insuring yourself a life of change and learning. You’ll have to give up your ego, but then that never works with horses anyway. Or would it be smarter to give up people? Hard to say.

Finally, the most illusive group of riders… a few who aspire to redefine leadership in a more nuanced way. They’re kind leaders who are irresistible to horses who crave safety over fear. And all horses do. Even sour horses become calm partners. Insecure horses start blowing and never stop, as if they’ve been holding their breath forever. A kind leader doesn’t stand out in a crowd, unless it’s a crowd of horses. I suppose they do something like whisper, but it’s not a joke or a movie title to them.

Maybe the big picture looks like this: There is a long continuum and at one end is violent dominance and the other end is total submission. We all start with horses someplace on this continuum. Some of us started hard-hearted and horses taught us that fighting doesn’t work. Some of us started soft and lost patience and got callus. Some of us look like deer in headlights, confused by the opinions of people clashing with our horses.

And there’s a tiny place on the continuum, a sweep spot, that has balance and respect and safety. If it was easy to find, everyone would be there.

Dear Timid Rider, please don’t apologize for being sensitive. It’s the language of compassion and honesty. It’s an under-rated strength to be proud of. 

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

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