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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

When Things Go Wrong
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

When things go wrong and horses begin to misbehave most riders search for the reason and the remedy outside themselves.

The truth is that in most cases the solution lies within the rider and nowhere else. "Untugenden" ("non-virtues"), as they are called in German, such as bucking, rearing, bolting, turning around, etc. are the horse's last desperate attempt to tell the rider that he is fed up with the way he is being ridden. All of these bad habits are forms of sucking back, and sucking back is always caused by the rider, unless there is a physical pain issue that needs to be researched, and if possible resolved, with the help of the veterinarian.

Rider induced sucking back results from contradictory aids, e.g. driving behind (or worse yet, gripping) while holding or pulling in front, perching forward with a wobbly waist while driving behind, and others. These contradictions make even the most willing horse angry, if he is an intelligent, spirited animal. Naturally easy-going, phlegmatic horses often choose an "inner emigration" and become incredibly dull and lazy instead. The spirited horse, on the other hand, will try to understand these contradictory demands for a while, until the inability to reconcile them creates frustration, then anger, and finally rebellion. To add insult to injury, the rider often punishes the horse for not doing what he is being asked, although the aids were simply unclear or flat out impossible to carry out. If the rider fails to recognize what is happening and does not make fundamental changes in the way he rides, the horse enters a downward spiral and becomes quickly unrideable, a rogue.

Many intelligent horses have a strong sense of fairness. They happily accept their role as the subordinate herd member, if the herd leader does not take advantage of them, if he only demands things that are within their physical and mental capabilities, and if his requests (aids) are precise, to the point, and free of contradictions. Horses come to trust and respect a herd leader like that. They give him their willing cooperation, and more than that, they are happy to work with and for such an individual. If the herd leader, on the other hand, is unfair in any way, demanding more than the horse can give, if he makes a demand without allowing the horse to carry it out (saying "go!" when he really means "stop! I'm scared"), or when his instructions are full of contradictions in general, the horse will withdraw his trust and respect, just as a human employee will not respect an incompetent boss. When a position of authority is undeserved due to a lack of leadership and competence, the employees, as well as the horses, will become uncooperative. Therefore, a change in attitude, an increasingly disobedient, even dangerous behavior is often an indication that the rider has not been a good leader. These changes never occur out of the blue. There are always warning signs, and the rider has to learn to recognize them, before he finds himself on the ground, wondering: "What the h--- just happened?" These warning signs can be very subtle, like a crooked transition from the halt to the walk, a hesitant, delayed response to the driving aids, drifting away from the wall on one rein, lack of concentration on the rider, inventing things to spook at, etc.

Many riders don't recognize the warning signs. They are caught by surprise when the horse shows some blatant disobedience, 6 months or a year after the first warning signs appeared. By that time the situation is already out of control. The horse has become so frustrated that he is no longer interested in a productive discourse with his rider. He has given up and assumes that all riders give incomprehensible, contradictory aids. He therefore responds even to correct riding with anger and resentment. The horse's trust and respect are now so thoroughly destroyed, the dangerous behavior is so deeply ingrained, that it is difficult and time consuming, in some cases dangerous, even for a very competent rider to undo. The original rider who caused the behavior is by now far out of his league and will in many cases be unable to recover without sending the horse away to a professional for several months. However, even if somebody else corrects the horse, the bad behavior will reappear immediately as soon as the original rider gets back on - unless this rider changes his riding completely. And even then, a horse who has been "trained" to bolt, buck, rear, spin, etc. will never forget how to do it. These horses are like recovering alcoholics. They cannot be "cured". They can only be trained not to use their dangerous evasion as long as they are ridden correctly. But the bad habit will always lurk just around the corner, ready to come out again, if the rider makes the old mistakes again.

Instead of analyzing what they themselves might be doing wrong, however, most riders immediately start looking for the reason and the solution outside themselves, i.e. they lay blame. They think that if they can find just the right saddle, the right bit, the right auxiliary rein, the right farrier, the right vet, etc. their troubles will be over. These are the same people who keep going from one trainer to the next, every time the old trainer tells them that all they have to do in order to solve their problems is sit on their behind and learn how to ride (I watched it happening to my teachers on more than one occasion). If all else fails, the rider sells the horse and buys another one, who predictably turns into a clone of the first one within a year or less.

But, as I said before, nothing will change until the rider makes fundamental changes in the way he rides and thinks about riding. This is where I am finally coming to the Zen part of the post. Riding challenges all of us to reinvent ourselves completely on a periodic basis. This is extremely hurtful for our ego, because we have to face reality, acknowledging all the things that we are still doing wrong, but also recognizing the things we are already doing right. This usually comes with the realization that we are not nearly as advanced as we had hitherto thought. If we want to learn how to ride, we have to discard the bad things, keep the good things, and try to come up with a new concept, a new "working hypothesis" for our seat and our riding that can take us to the next level of competence. Teachers can only point us in the right direction, and give us some general guidance, but the real work, filling in the blanks, can only be done by us ourselves. Nobody can do it for us. That's why even with the best teachers and the best horses in the world, the student still has to do the work, the studying him/herself.

This metamorphosis has to begin with a look in a mirror that shows us not only our face, but also our heart and our soul, and we all have ugly parts that we would rather not look at, because it is painful, shameful, or embarrassing for us to acknowledge them and look at them. However, we will not become a better person or a better rider until we learn to face who we are, including all the negative qualities. That is the first step towards trying to overcome our weaknesses. The horse is this mirror that shows us a complete reflection of who we are, and the educated rider can see exactly what the horse is saying about his rider. It requires great inner strength to endure this close look at our reflection in the mirror, because it is such a hurtful experience.

At this juncture, the rider has a choice. He can either muster the courage and the strength to face himself, or he can continue to lay blame and look for answers outside himself. The rider who undertakes the difficult and painful task of analyzing everything about himself honestly will be transformed by the experience in more ways than one and gain a much deeper insight on many levels than he can imagine beforehand. He will also learn how to ride, almost as a byproduct. The rider who keeps looking for anwers outside himself, will waste valuable time. Yet, in the end, he will not find knowledge or competence. Instead, his skills will stagnate at the same point. It is the rider who misses out, but it is the horse who pays the price.

We all reach these junctures on a regular basis. Often, they are "forced" upon us by a particularly difficult (for us) horse who does not allow us to cheat and lie our way through, and who brings us face to face with our insufficiencies. The answers are always right there in front of us. The horse tells us exactly what's wrong with our riding and what he needs from us. It's up to us whether we choose to listen or not. There is nothing anybody else can do. The rider has to want to learn, truly and honestly, without making excuses, without blaming the horse, the saddle, the bit, the footing, the boots, the breeches, the farrier, the vet, or whatever. The desire to learn must be greater than anything else, pride, vanity, ego, everything. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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