(Read this even if you are not thinking of buying a new horse)
Here's a sentence I hear way too often:
"If my horse was too easy I wouldn't learn anything."
As an educator committed to empowered learning, I literally wince every time I hear The Sentence. It's a myth that is passed down from one frustrated student to another. Other students and younger riders mistakenly hear it as truth. However, it is NOT true. It is a lie to oneself (and I think deep down even the person who says it doesn't really believe it).
That one sentence is the cause of many a poor choice during horse purchases, and can be the root of inner frustration and long term suffering - all disguised as a 'positive attitude'.
There are lots of people who love challenging horses and love horse rehabilitation and rescue. You may be one of those people. I salute you. The world needs you. Lots of horses need you. I'm willing to bet you find it easy and fun (knowing that 'easy' things still involve hard work and lots of problem-solving). This article isn't necessarily talking to you.
I am talking to those of you who are scared of, intimidated by, stuck with, and frustrated by your horses on a daily basis and are telling yourself that it is necessary or else you wouldn't be learning anything.
You are always going to learn something, it's just a matter of what.
The vast majority of students I meet would LOVE to go up the levels in their discipline of choice. There is SO much to learn beyond the novice levels and SO many students never get the chance because their horse is too difficult for them. This idea that they somehow need it to be difficult just makes things worse.
Ideally, the way to learn how to ride is on a schoolmaster who is appropriately more advanced than you and easy for you to ride. That is the best way to get to the part where you learn how to do more advanced movements and learn nuances of your position and aids.
The vast majority of students I meet would LOVE to go up the levels in their discipline of choice. There is SO much to learn beyond the novice levels and SO many students never get the chance because their horse is too difficult for them.
If a schoolmaster isn't a reality for you, then the next best thing is a horse that you find easy and fun to ride so you can advance together. The two of you can live the dream of learning and moving up the levels, but only if you get along so well that you can actually focus on the new stuff instead of just surviving the warm up every day!
Believe me, doing all the movements of Grand Prix (or whatever the upper level of your discipline is) and putting it together in a test is hard enough, even on an easy horse! I promise you will have plenty to learn and keep yourself entertained with.
You know it isn't true.
It's my guess that riders who say: "If my horse was too easy I wouldn't learn anything" know it's not true. In reality they wish their horse was easier, and they are 'silver-lining it'. They have come up with a positive way to 'spin' it. Since I am the queen of positivity, I definitely can appreciate this, and I do think this is one notch better than walking around saying: "This sucks! I'll never get anywhere with this stupid horse." (OK, it's a couple of notches better than that.)
I also appreciate that sometimes we have the horse we have, and difficult or not, we're committed to this particular horse and giving him a forever home, but that still doesn't make The Sentence true. True would be: "Wow, this horse is a lot more challenging than I hoped he would be. I'm deciding to stay committed to this horse and learn whatever I need to, even if it's not what I thought I wanted to learn."
A shorter version would be: "This horse is a big challenge for me, and I choose to commit to figuring him out".
What do you WANT to learn?
My question to you is: What do you want to be learning? Every day is a new day and every day you can choose. Right now, are you heading in the direction you want to go? Can you truly love the process without having to make up a lie about not being able to learn if things are too easy?
I ask the following question to students when they seem frustrated with their horses. I want to confirm that their current horse partner and their goals match up:
"You know you have a choice. Would you rather commit to doing what this horse needs, or would you prefer to have a different horse?"
The response I get when I ask this question has been everything from relief ('Thank you so much... I was feeling so guilty for wanting a different horse. I thought people would judge me')... To renewed commitment. ('Oh, I could never part with him! OK, I'm going to stop feeling bad about how I'm not progressing like everyone else and I'm going to totally commit to loving whatever the process is with him').
Things always are more pleasant for horse and rider once this conscious choice has been made.
(Note: Sometimes we come to a limit in our riding education if our horse isn't talented enough for where we want to go, and that's OK too. If your horse is super easy and at the end of his physical or talent limits, then continuing to ride him may not give you a lot of opportunities for new learning. I remember when I was 14 and realized I wanted to go up the levels in dressage and eventing and I knew my first horse wasn't going to be able to do it. Even then it wasn't that I stopped learning because he was 'too easy'; the problem was my new goals would have been too hard for him, and it wasn't fair for me to expect it of him.)
Start with the horse that's right for YOU.
You definitely need to know what you want to be learning before you purchase a horse. Make sure you are getting a horse to make YOU happy, not just your trainer. Please, look for the easiest of the appropriate horses to learn it on. If not for your sake, for the horse's! A 'marriage' of any kind is challenging enough, even when you start out with someone super easy to get along with. If it's too challenging in general from the start, there is a much smaller chance that you'll ever get to the really good stuff.
Riding, training, and learning with horses is hard enough. Keeping them healthy and happy is hard enough, even with the easy ones! Even top trainers don't go looking for trouble (unless the horse is super super super talented); Trainers just have a wider range of what they consider easy.
Beware of Self-Sabotage
Be very careful if you notice yourself gravitating towards horses that have built in, known problems that would interfere with your specific goals. An obvious example: Your goal is to move up the levels in dressage, but instead of buying the sweet horse that moves for a 6 and has already gotten scores of 65% with different amateur riders in competitions 2 levels above anything you've ever done, you decide to choose a super cute gaited horse that doesn't know how to trot and canter. Yes, you can still learn a lot (and I have nothing against gaited horses) but you are making it hard on yourself (and your horse) to even get to the First Level of dressage. Also, consider that any successes will always be qualified with "... considering he's ___________ "
We all will have challenges that we will overcome. After we succeed it's fun to look back at everything we did in spite of the obstacles... That doesn't mean we should go looking for obstacles! It's OK to start with a horse that feels easy and fun for you!
Why some students want to believe the myth of not being able to learn from 'easy horses':
Having no excuses is scary. There is a scenario I have seen enough times to know that it is a real thing. I'll call it: Fear Of Having No Good Reason Not To Succeed. (a.k.a., Fear of Success). Here's the scenario:
For example: A student has a horse that is (mentally, emotionally, or physically) challenging for her. Because of the challenges, she is OK with only small drops of progress (or merely surviving the ride). She is comfortable with the low expectations her instructor and all the other students at the barn have because of the obvious challenges she has to deal with. She is content with comments from others such as: "That's so amazing! You finally were able to get a 3 beat canter without Fluffy running into the wall or falling down!" . She finds it comforting knowing that no one expects much from her... (Except for the feeling in her stomach that tells her that deep down she really wishes she were progressing more).
Then, for whatever reason, Fluffy is out of the picture and she gets a chance to have a super sweet, comfortable, easy to ride schoolmaster. The instructor and everyone in the barn is so happy for her. She's worked so hard with Fluffy and she's ready for this new horse. He's got 3rd Level practically memorized. This seems like a dream situation, except she freaks out! She's frozen. Now she feels pressure. Now, if things don't go well, everyone will know it's HER fault. The built in excuse is gone.
I have seen students self-sabotage or go down endless roads of invented problems or saddle fitting hell or sudden lack of time to ride simply to avoid being in the vulnerable position of learning to advance one's riding skills on an 'easy' horse. That's a shame.
If this touched a nerve, I apologize... (sort of). You need to hear this because I have seen students self-sabotage or go down endless roads of invented problems or saddle fitting hell or sudden lack of time to ride simply to avoid being in the vulnerable position of learning to advance one's riding skills on an 'easy' horse. That's a shame. A student in this situation needs to thank her lucky stars, get some sports psychology and mind-set training, take a deep breath and start learning!
You can learn a LOT even if your horse is easy... ESPECIALLY if your horse is easy for you.
It's OK to want to have a horse that makes it easier for you to reach your goals. It's not cheating. Anything with horses is already hard enough. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably someone with a difficult horse who is frustrated with themselves.
It's OK to help your challenging horse find a different human that would consider him easy for them. Do right by him in this process... Every horse deserves to have a happy life, be adored, and to have fun.
It's OK to accept the challenge of your difficult horse. If you align your goals with your reality and have the right attitude, you can be successful. By making a conscious choice, you will still learn a lot and you and your horse can be happy together.
Whatever your choice, let's go all in and make some progress. Whether you need to improve the relationship you have with your horse, find a way to work with him instead of against him in dressage, or if you need to prepare him to be someone else's horse, there is always something you can do to make things better.
So - What do YOU CHOOSE to learn?
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Karen Rohlf, author and creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for doing dressage with a priority of partnership, her student-empowering approach to teaching, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.