“I’M AFRAID I’M GOING TO RUIN MY HORSE” and other things dressage riders say…

It’s a phrase I’ve heard on more than one occasion.  I admit I’ve thought it at times too.  Well, here’s the truth of it, right off the bat.  If you are a thinking rider that is concerned about how your actions affect your horse, then chances are pretty good you will never “ruin” your horse.   That doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, but even the very best trainers make mistakes all the time.

Ruining a horse can mean different things to different people.  At its worst, ruining a horse could mean using harsh and abusive training such that the horse is physically and mentally scarred.   The horse either breaks down physically from forceful, uneducated training or begins to act out behaviorally in resistance to protect itself from unsympathetic treatment.   If you worry regularly about ruining your horse, you probably aren’t in this situation.

However, it’s common that amateur riders are learning to improve their skills while simultaneously learning to train their horse.  This is really a great way to learn.  It is ideal to give a rider the tools and allow them to practice.  The astute rider will note what works and what doesn’t, and that’s how they progress.  These tools might come from an instructor, or self-learning online or by reading books.  In reality this is the same process that professional trainers use, they just have a much bigger toolbox and can apply them with more experience and consistency.  Every horse is different, and the approach to training must adjust to the horse, not the other way around.   Until you figure out what works for a particular horse, training mishaps will happen and that’s okay.  Add it all to your toolbox.

All horses will resist training at some point.  If you listen and understand where the resistance comes from, you should be able to find a better way to communicate with your horse through modifying the aids you already know.   This is how the best riders approach their practice, even if they are inexperienced.  A non-thinking rider blindly drills the same thing over and over, generating even more resistance and frustration on the horse’s part.  They don’t try to understand what the horse is telling them, nor seek knowledge of different methods to try.  This can eventually lead to more serious acting out by the horse that may be beyond the scope of the rider to address.   Many times the non-thinking rider is shocked that the behavior “came out of nowhere”, or feels the horse is acting out of naughtiness or spite.  The horse may be sent to a professional trainer to “fix”, only to have the same problems crop up again when the horse is back in the hands of the original rider.  This process repeats itself until the rider runs out of money for training or just gets frustrated enough to discard the horse.   The horse is moved on and a new “more suitable” horse is acquired.  This is how many horses are ruined.

Another thing I often hear:  “I need a better rider to ride my horse for me”.   This lack of confidence can lead to training problems if the “better” rider’s training philosophy is not aligned with yours or the method you are learning.  Or if, in fact, the “better rider” is not better at all.  Inconsistent training can frustrate the horse and lead to resistance simply from the confusion generated by being passed around to different riders.  Horses also are very sensitive to confidence and energy, and while they may perform well for a confident rider, they may then balk at doubt or hesitation in the indecisive rider.   Just because your horse performs better for that rider, may not mean he will then be better when you ride him.  If you don’t follow the prescription that the trainer has laid out, and learn to match their confidence and ability, within a few weeks your horse will revert back to the same horse you sent away, or worse.  You will be forever dependent on having a trainer ride your horse to “fix” them.  Some unscrupulous trainers make their living this way, creating dependence in their clients by convincing them they are not good enough to ride their own horse.  This is another cycle which may ruin a horse, and can also ruin the relationship you have with your horse.  If you decide to have a trainer or “better rider” get on your horse, know beforehand what their philosophy is and be there to observe the training as much as possible.  Don’t assume that because someone has been successful in competition that they will automatically know what is good for your horse.  No one, absolutely no one, will treat your horse with the care and understanding you will.

Lastly, I often hear, “I need to ride a schoolmaster to learn dressage”.   This is one of my major pet peeves and I know many disagree with me.  Of course, riding a well-trained, high level horse is great fun and can be really helpful for a rider – if the timing is right.   For example, a good rider who is advanced enough to start changes with their horse can really benefit from learning the timing on a horse who is balanced and knows how to do them.  The rider can then go back and work their own horse with more clarity of aids.  However, a novice rider who learns to push the correct buttons and get the horse to perform, is not learning how to train or understand the movements.  They are not getting the correct feel for the movement because it is likely influenced by their own fitness and balance.  The good schoolmaster takes care of them, but if there is ever a problem, the horse is handed back to the trainer.

The ease of riding a schoolmaster is often due their responsiveness to the aides, which comes from training the basic fundamentals that should be emphasized at even the lowest levels on any horse.  If you think that it’s fun to ride a schoolmaster because they do what you ask without kicking and pushing, then you should ask yourself why you don’t expect that same responsiveness from your own horse.  Riding a schoolmaster will not teach you to fix the basic gaps that are not addressed in your own training, and to leap over the fundamentals to get to the “fun stuff” can set your horse up for failure and resistance.

Sometimes people buy schoolmasters because they don’t have the patience to train a horse for the time it takes.  Ironically, you still have to learn to maintain a schoolmaster’s training, or pay a high level rider do it for you, especially if the horse is trained to a much higher level than you have achieved.  I knew one woman years ago who spent quite a bit of money on a beautiful warmblood trained to a very high level.  Ooo’s and ahhh’s greeted them in the first few weeks she brought him home.  She was a good rider, however, she was not advanced enough to maintain his training, and within a few months he had lost his fitness, becoming a mediocre performer with resistant behaviors, and looked like a completely different horse.   A regression in training should be expected when a highly trained horse is not ridden at that level regularly.

If you want to take lessons on a schoolmaster, make sure that the trainer’s methods and the horse’s experience aligns with your riding philosophy.  For example, a schoolmaster trained in the German tradition will be very different to ride than one trained in French Classical Dressage.   They are only as good as the quality of their training and many “schoolmasters” are dubiously labeled as such to attract students or buyers.

Ambition to achieve medals sometimes leads riders to buy or lease a schoolmaster to get the scores required, but that doesn’t give them the toolbox needed to actually train or teach at that level.

One last thought.  If you have read this and are saying to yourself “but I don’t know what my philosophy is” – then you need to spend some time reading about the different training methods in dressage, go audit some clinics to watch different trainers, and educate yourself on the good and the bad approaches to training.  Dressage is rich in history, trends and the science of equestrianism.  Enhance your knowledge of dressage to get the most out of your journey.  Ride with joy, knowledge, and empathy, and you will never ruin your horse.


Carole Curley