Posted by: shannonc | October 20, 2010

Credit the horse, blame the rider

"That jump was placed badly" or "I didn't give my horse enough time to adjust to the change in light"?

This is the culture of horsemanship I was raised in:  if something is wrong, look first to your own behavior for the cause and solution; if something is right, the horse is good and clever and kind.  You don’t tell the horse you’re so glad he finally recognized how great your riding is.  I mean, you might think it, of course, but in general, you pat your horse and say “good boy.”  You tell other people how lucky you are to have a horse who…jumps big oxers so much more willingly now, who’s so brave about liverpools these days, who’s become so brilliant in his changes.  You don’t say your horse is so lucky to have fantabulous *you* who taught him all these things. 

When you make a mistake and your horse tolerates it, you say he took care of you; when he makes a mistake, you wonder how you could have helped him out of it.  You never, ever whine — certainly not to a clinician or an instructor — that “his canter was bad here,” “he wouldn’t get balanced,” “he keeps chipping.”  You say, “I didn’t get him balanced”…or even, “I couldn’t get him balanced;” you say, “I let him come to that strung out,” “I’m getting him to a bad distance.”

So maybe the horse is totally weak behind and nothing you do as the greatest rider in the universe would produce self-carriage.  You still say, “I need to get him stronger before I ask him to do this.”  You don’t say, “he’s not listening to me” and kick him or yank his teeth out.  You don’t get frustrated with him, you get frustrated with YOU.  You might say, “how can I help him?  Can I sit lighter?  Use a bit more leg?”  And when he gives you the teeniest hint of the answer you asked for, you fall all over him with praise to make sure he understands that yes, THIS is what she wanted.

True, I have been criticized a few times for praising a bit too much (usually when I am so busy patting that I fail to make the turn to the next fence).  True, there are some exceptions:  you walk away from the committed rearer who is going to flip over one of these times, rather than saying, “if only I did this differently, maybe I wouldn’t risk getting crushed underneath.”  Also true, I can get a little intense and beat the rider up somewhat (mainly when the rider is me). 

Still, and I have noticed this more as I’ve taught kids (am I hopelessly old school?) that while I have become more generous and encouraging, saying things like “don’t let him talk you into taking your leg off” instead of “what is wrong with you, stop taking your leg off!!” and although I very much enjoy lavishing praise and congratulation for a job well done…I still sometimes have a terrible feeling in my gut when I hear people – especially young people – blaming their horses instead of asking how they can make themselves better.  Instead of insisting that you need to go to your stick because your horse ignores your leg, how about wondering how to teach your horse to be more sensitive to your leg?  Or ask what you can do to make your leg stronger?  Or consider that you may be using your leg in a way that the horse doesn’t understand, or that irritates him?

Is there something about the way we’re teaching now that absolves young riders of personal responsibility? 

Back in the olden days, if I made one of these sorts of blaming comments to an instructor I could count on a nice stern lecture and a horsey suspension.  No more lessons for you until you change your attitude, young lady.  You are responsible for your actions.  Not the horse.  You.

Of course, those were also the days we took apart our tack and cleaned it after every single ride.  It was a requirement.  Only when our bridle was sparkling and hung on its rack with the throatlatch wrapped around in a neat figure 8 were we finished.  If we performed this task inadequately, we heard about it at the next roll call (yes, at Mrs. Dillon’s Junior Equitation School, we had roll call).

Naturally, we also walked every day to and from the barn in the snow – uphill, both ways.  :)



  1. Hey Shannon – great entry! It reminded me of a lesson that my son had the other week. He was posting without stirrups and started to complain that he was getting tired. Instructor’s response: “I’m sorry! You need to do something different? Ok – into half seat!”. Awesome response!

    But THEN, when he tried to go into half seat without stirrups, his lower leg flew back into pony’s flank, prompting pony to either proceed into racking trot, or canter. Son started to say he couldn’t do half seat because of the pony’s response to his attempts. Instructor: “Did I just hear you blame your PONY for the fact that YOU are unable to ride half seat without stirrups?! You just got 2 additional minutes of half seat without stirrup time added to your warm up!”.

    I loved every minute of that exchange. I also love this instructor. :-)

  2. Nicely stated. Now how do we get this out there to the “kids” who need to read this????

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