We know the eternal riddle as “which came first – the chicken or the egg?” But when you’re giving a lesson to horse and rider, there’s a question that’s more important, which is “who comes first – the horse or the rider?”
Most instructors address themselves exclusively to the rider, every lesson. Some tell their riders to make the horse do something, but don’t explain how. Some make improvements in the rider’s position that in turn improve the horse’s way of going. Some focus on exercises or gymnastics, as part of a set program of instruction.
Rare is the instructor who focuses attention on the horse first, not simply as an athlete but also as an individual. I’m sure you’ve heard instructors say, “the horse comes first,” but the phrase usually refers to the horse’s welfare (and it’s too often said but not meant, just like those electoral promises). I agree that the horse’s welfare should come first, but I also think that focusing attention on the horse first, as an individual, can improve the horse’s performance.
After all, what is the essence of a great performance under saddle? It’s the partnership between horse and rider. And a great partnership isn’t based on selfishness. It’s not based on using; it’s based on giving. I’ll admit, it’s hard to give the horse something that he or she rarely gets, which is to come first. But the payoff can be huge.
At the beginning of a lesson, I like to check in with my student and I like to check in with the horse. You’ll often hear me say “Hi” to both. I like to get a feel for how horse and rider are doing, how their week was, what time they spent working together, what problems, if any, arose, and what successes they had together. I encourage a warmup on a loose rein, so that chatting time, while the horse is warming up, allows me to help formulate a plan for the lesson that day.
It also allows me to observe. I get to see how both horse and rider are doing physically. And, just as importantly, I get to see how they’re doing mentally and emotionally. Riders show you, even if they don’t tell you. And horses let you know if they know you care.
If that sounds crazy to you, you have blinkers on, or your instructors do. If you’re a student, try watching a lesson and see if you can tell how the horse and rider are doing that day. If you’re an instructor, put the goals on the shelf when you walk into the ring, and decide who needs more help that day, the rider or the horse. If a horse is stiff or distracted or irritable, it’s the instructor’s job not only to observe it and find out why, but to fix it. That’s when I put the horse first. The lesson will be structured around the horse, with exercises chosen to address the horse’s issue. If the rider wants to work on leg yielding but the horse is counter bending in the corners, we’ll fix the counter bending even if we don’t work on leg yielding that day. If the horse loves to jump and hasn’t had the opportunity for a week for some reason, we’ll jump even if the rider would rather work on canter transitions. Because at that point, making the horse happy in his work will benefit the partnership more than improving transitions.
Similarly, if a rider is struggling with developing a good feel of the horse’s mouth, we may work at the walk for the whole lesson, even if it does nothing to improve the horse’s gaits. If a rider needs to regain confidence, maybe we’ll need to canter, or lower the fences, or get out of the ring. And it will be all about helping the rider feel good, and have virtually nothing to do with schooling the horse.
You might think that all my students are frustrated and all their horses are spoiled, but you would be mistaken. Most of my students are amazed at how problems they’ve struggled with for years, suddenly get solved. Part of my secret is listening to the horse, and being willing to put the horse ahead of the rider when the horse needs help more than the rider does.
It’s yin-yang. So next time you change direction inside a circle, remember that the geometry you’re riding with your horse is also something to remember in your training.
And remember to give.