If you could spend time with just one top equestrian, who would it be? Elite equestrians1 have harmonious relationships with their horses and are able to perform difficult and complex tasks with apparent ease and total unity. This one-ness inspires us to try harder and aim higher so that we may experience the beauty we have so far only witnessed.
Most riders2 recognise they need to improve themselves before they can expect understanding relationships and therefore better performances from their horses. Horses tell us whether the person is a master or not. All horses respond well to true equestrian masters, irrespective of any training strategies specific to a particular discipline. Many people attempt to reach this high standard by mimicking the most visible strategies of these outstanding equestrians.
Relatively few people are lucky enough to spend the amount of time needed with a master to truly understand and replicate, or even improve upon, the master’s results. Instead, most people are reliant on those who have spent snippets of time with a master, or who have studied in other ways, or whom merely attempt to copy what they have seen with little or no understanding of what underlies an elite performance. Instructors, who may or may not have trained with a master, do their best to pass on what they believe are the necessary techniques to be highly effective and accomplished with horses, yet very few of us attain the highest calibre.
Why do so few people reach the truly elite level? Why is it that any number of strategies can create fabulous horse-human partnerships? Whatever the discipline, why do horses become brilliant for some people, yet not for most? A person may become a proficient equestrian through acquiring techniques, but it takes more than technique to be exceptional. Here are some characteristics that I have noticed exceptional equestrians have in common:
Confidence: Brilliant equestrians are extremely self-confident around their horses. The horse cannot not disturb their emotions and self-control. They do not get anxious or mad and do not bully their horses. They expect to succeed and their patient, quiet insistence builds confidence and willing submission3, not subjugation, in their horses.
Among the non-elite people are those who, for any number of good reasons, lack self-confidence around their horses. Among other things, this can create confusion, nervousness or bossiness in their horse, slowing progress at best and being dangerous at worst.
Consistency: Brilliant equestrians are aware of their behaviour around horses. They are consistent with their aids and know how to balance consistency and variation in their routines so as not to confuse or bore the horse. This consistency enables the horse to predict outcomes and have confidence in his interactions with his rider/handler. These equestrians avoid upsetting the horse through inconsistency, which would only inhibit learning and freedom of movement. The confidence these horses develop allows their mind to stay focused and their bodies to move with relaxation and power, maximising athleticism while minimising risk.
Non-elite people are often unaware of most of their own habits and the effect their behaviour and emotions are having on their horse. People cannot improve aspects of themselves to help reach their goal until they are aware of themselves to know what needs changing.
“True greatness lies as much in developing the intangible skills as the physical ones”
Persistence: Brilliant equestrians do not give in. They persist because they expect to succeed and know that without persistence they will never succeed. They do not fear failure nor give up when things do not appear to be working as they know that things can look worse before they change for the better. Persistence is not the same as inflexibility; rather, elite equestrians adapt their strategies to deal with individual horses or situations and will let the horse show them how long they need before moving on to the next thing.
The average person puts artificial deadlines in front of themselves, timeframes in which they expect or desire to reach certain goals, both small and large. When it appears they are not achieving their goal in the set time, they get anxious and either give up or put more pressure on themselves and the horse.
Patience: Brilliant equestrians are endlessly patient, with a clear vision of what they want to achieve in the short and long term. They act in the present moment around their horses, but always with an eye to the future. They do not mind how many times they have to repeat something to develop the horse’s understanding or capacity for a task and recognise any small change for the better as progress. Top equestrians believe that eventually the horse will trust and understand them and will willingly interact harmoniously. They do not need big changes or rapid improvements to feel satisfaction. Success is not solely measured by external factors, such as competition results, but by how the horse has progressed over time and the feel the horse gives back to the rider. This attitude helps maintain motivation in both horse and rider.
It is not uncommon to see less skilled people lose patience with their horses and themselves. People have trouble maintaining their confidence in a method if they have had little or no experience with it. They may doubt that they are employing the method correctly and have no experience of how long it is likely to take to see the desired change. Sometimes impatience is due to the opposite reason: they are so used to getting what they want, in a particular way and time, that they lose patience when the horse does not fit these expectations.
Sensitivity: Brilliant equestrians are very sensitive towards their horses. They can read a horse’s emotions and physical state and so make adjustments to accommodate the needs of the horse. The sensitivity of the human towards the horse is reciprocated by the horse as sensitivity towards the human. The horse is not pushed beyond his mental or physical limits. These equestrians know how to communicate with the horse. As they are constantly attentive to their horse, they know what to do and when to change or finish an activity to maintain a happy, confident and willing horse.
For the non-elite horse person, sensitivity towards the horse is rarely discussed or dealt with in any depth and will be largely dependant on the nature of the individual person. Some people have very little care for their horse’s emotional well being, while others take their concern to such lengths they struggle to know how best to behave with their horse. Many people can read their horse’s emotions but then make poor behavioural decisions, a situation often leading to accidents.
Few people are born naturally talented with horses, or have the privilege of help from truly exceptional equestrians. The challenge is great for most riders wanting to excel, as many instructors can help develop a rider’s technical skills, but true greatness lies as much in developing the intangible skills as the physical ones.