I’m often told that there are two types of riders – those that compete and those that don’t. To the competitive rider, those who don’t compete are often dismissed as lesser riders, or worse, not ‘real’ riders. Many non-competitive riders seem reduced to shamefully excusing themselves as a ‘happy hacker’ or trying to make it sound a bit better with the rather vague ‘oh, we do a bit of everything’. There are the stereotypes too – that competitive types put their horses at risk for the sake of a rosette or run them into the ground to ensure a ‘win’; or that those that choose not to compete do nothing ‘worthwhile’ with their horses.
I find this all a bit ridiculous. I believe that there is just as much – if not more – value in owning a horse simply for the pleasure of riding, as there is purchasing a horse with aims of competition success. I also have conflicting views about the validity of competitive sport as a means of evaluating rider skill and good horsemanship is very often in scarce supply at competitions, certainly those that I attend.
The competitive world seems full of high-achieving ‘professional’ riders that can’t seem to handle the very basics of horsemanship skills. Grand Prix dressage riders who can’t lunge their horse in a rope halter, race horses that have to be beaten to enter the starting blocks, showjumpers that have to be held still as their rider is legged up onto their back, or horses that take a team of whip-wielding ‘helpers’ to force them back on the trailer at the end of the show. It’s clear that winning rosettes and practicing good horsemanship do not always go hand in hand.
For my own part, I would not describe myself as a competitive rider. For me, winning a rosette doesn’t give me any kind of validation as to my level of horsemanship, and I abhor the idea of putting winning above building a relationship with my horse. But while you might have got the wrong impression from my previous comments, I’m not at all against competing. There are many positives about competing with your horse – riding in different locations and undertaking new challenges is a great way to improve your riding skills, introduce your horse to new situations, and strengthen your bond with your horse. It’s also a great place to socialise with like-minded riders, pick up tips from more experienced riders, and compare your riding level against your peers. Having a goal to work towards and a shiny rosette as a reward can really focus your efforts and keep you motivated . If nothing else, it’s a fun day out with your horse.
But how do we get the balance right? For me, good horsemanship means we should base our decisions on what’s best for our horse, but when we are being judged on speed, accuracy, or ‘expression’, how can we ensure that we are not sacrificing that partnership to ensure a win?
As always, I don’t like to knock something until I’ve tried it, so over the last few years, I’ve started competing semi-regularly, in an attempt to progress my riding and bring on my horses, dabbling in endurance, showjumping, TREC, and even a few Horseball matches. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the competition days and the challenges that they have presented me with, but I still can’t help but be put off by the competitive side of the horse world. Because the reality is, it is rarely the best trained horse or the most sympathetic rider that wins. Modern-day competitions seem to be set up to reward those willing to take the biggest risk, push the limits, and strive for the impossible, and while that is true of almost all competitive sports (at least at a high level), there is one big difference with horse sports – one side of the partnership doesn’t get a say.
This is the point where competitive types are sure to cut me off and ensure me how much their horse loves jumping or racing or playing polo; how they get excited before a big competition or show off to the crowd and love all the attention; how they are ‘miserable’ when other horses are being loaded for a competition and they are being left behind. Of course, these are our human interpretations of our horse’s emotions (and sadly, all-too-often ‘excitement’, ‘speed’, or ‘competitiveness’ in horses is very likely due to stress or instinct rather than enjoyment), but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe horse’s can’t enjoy the things we do with them.
I do believe that horses can enjoy their jobs and I have experienced how some horses have a natural desire to jump, run fast, or tackle new challenges. I believe horses can be stimulated by competitions and really ‘try’ to please. I even believe horses can learn to love the attention and applause that goes with a win, and feel the excitement (and stress) of a competition day. But your horse doesn’t care about winning, because your horse has no concept of what winning is.
So when you lose, it is not your horse’s fault for ‘not trying’ or misjudging that jump or not listening to you, or worst, purposely sabotaging you because he was ‘annoyed about you whipping him before the first jump’ (yes, this is a real excuse that I’ve overheard). It was your job to properly prepare your horse, to set him up to succeed, and to motivate him to give his all. Why? Because it is YOU that wants to compete.
It is YOU who is entering a competition in order to be judged on your ability, lauded for your bravery and talent, and rewarded with a win. No matter how much you adore your horse and enjoy competing together, your horse still doesn’t care about winning. And if we are honest, all the competitive aims and training goals that you have for your horse are about you not the horse. Without you, your horse would not have any desire to leave his herd, enter a strange arena, jump a course of jumps, or race to a finish line.
Let’s be clear – I am not saying that you shouldn’t want to win or ride and train your horse with this goal in mind. I’ve been thrilled when my horse has placed and I’m genuinely disappointed if we vet out or have a fence down, especially when I know it was due to a poor decision or execution on my part. I work hard to improve our results, but the reason I am at a show isn’t only to win. It’s to challenge myself and my horse in an attempt to progress in our riding and training.
So if we learn something, if we manage to correct or improve a fault, if I feel like my horse really tried his best or I rode to the best of my ability, then the day was a success in my eyes. And yes, a pretty rosette is a nice souvenir of a fun day out and a winning result is a great affirmation that we’re on the right track. But when things don’t go to plan – when I clatter through fence after fence, or take a tumble, or somehow get lost and add an extra 5km onto the endurance course – I don’t blame my horse. Instead I chalk it up to experience, vow to do better next time, and most importantly, I treat my horse with the same gratitude I would if we’d just won the Olympic Gold. Because my horse doesn’t care about winning, but if our partnership is strong enough, maybe, just maybe, he might enjoy it as much as I do.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Bouquet via Flickr.