Dare to Ask for More
By Betsy Kelleher
It amazes me how much some horses are willing to do for their owners. They become willing partners in our horse show endeavors, in racing and in countless other activities. And we sometimes have more difficulty than they do learning how to work together.
In August, we went to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield and watched an afternoon of the Society Horse Show, with classes for Missouri Fox Trotters, Tennessee Walkers, Arabs and Morgans. I was hoping for some inspiration for my column.
When we stopped for supper at Cracker Barrel on the way home, I started thinking about a certain trainer that we had watched schooling his horse before the show. I actually had felt sorry for the lovely bay Arab as the trainer used draw reins to slow the horse more and more, getting more of that fancy head tuck and even more collection. He was asking a lot, I thought, and his horse was trying to give him everything he asked for. Later, in every show class this pair entered, their number was called for the winning blue ribbon.
The Arabs I’ve owned in the past were free spirited with a natural tendency for speed. Arabs are so beautiful and proud and full of life, perhaps it says even more about their nature that they will submit to a rider’s desire for a slow, collected movement. I have never asked for consistent collection, perhaps due to experiences with my first mare. An energetic Appaloosa, Fanny liked to go fast and she preferred to have her nose out in front, not tucked submissively. I remember a friend’s advice as she helped train this headstrong mare, “We could make Fanny into an obedient machine, but I don’t think you really want that.” Instead of the show ring, Fanny and I enjoyed competitive trail rides much more.
Perhaps my own free spirited nature was reluctant to take that same nature away from my horse. I think many horse lovers admire the horse’s spirit and power, and they want to feel a part of that as they ride. But competitive trail riding requires discipline and self-control as much as any other riding discipline. When you ride 25 or 30 miles or more at a fast pace, you don’t want to get out there somewhere alone and have a problem you can’t handle! You have to trust your horse to bring you home safely no matter what you encounter on the trail. You have to be sure your horse is sound and fit enough for the journey.
Back then I had an obsessive desire to see Fanny place on one of those rides. We never did, probably due to my own lack of consistent discipline to keep her really fit. I didn’t ask quite enough—although I’m sure Fanny would have done anything for me that I asked. Even with my desire to win, I allowed myself to give in too often to other things. There was always house cleaning or gardening or some family event that demanded attention. Or maybe I used those other things as my excuse not to win. If you really want to win, isn’t it necessary to give yourself totally to the goal? Half hearted commitment just doesn’t get there.
Perhaps I need to learn a hard lesson here about my attitude toward winning and about my reluctance to give my all to an important goal. Perhaps I am too aware of what I would need to give up in order to win. Perhaps winning isn’t my priority as much as other things.
Whenever I watch a horse show, I do look for what makes a winning ride. Winners in Western Pleasure classes usually have fancy new saddles with lots of silver, a sparkly coordinated outfit, and a horse that catches the judge’s eye. The trainer that I mentioned earlier wore a simple white long sleeved shirt. His saddle looked new, however, with lots of silver. And I think his lovely Arab’s collected frame and slow controlled gait definitely caught the judge’s eye.
Winners of horse shows often have one thing in common, I believe, whether they ride in a fancy Western saddle with lots of silver, or a plain looking cutback or English saddle. Winning riders usually have greater self-control. Their horses are less likely to spook at distractions and get excited, perhaps because these riders dare to ask for more consistent performance and they keep asking until they get it. And then in the show ring, the partnership of horse and rider looks good, both in appearance and performance.
I’ve also noticed that winning horses often move like consistent machines, plenty of power under control. They are fit and healthy and eager, but manageable even during unexpected distractions. I’ve seen fancy horses ridden by fancy dressed riders that don’t win just because the horse acted up or broke gait. And I’ve seen well groomed horses ridden by well dressed riders win, even though they didn’t have extra silver and pizzazz. They did look consistently good, however, both in appearance and performance.
During each class, my husband and I tried to guess which riders would place. In one youth class with only three entries, I agreed with the judge’s placings and it made me feel good to be able to identify the unique Missouri Fox Trotter gait, walking in front and trotting in back. First place went to a young man on a well behaved and consistently eager looking black horse. The third place winner looked much like my own Rocky (who is not MFT, but double registered TWH/SSH). All three entries looked good, but there was just something about the winning ride that caught my eye and said “winner.”
The Morgan Hunter Pleasure class had 18 entries, way too many for me to handle easily. They filled the big arena of the Coliseum, circling around with helmeted heads bobbing and tails flowing, going from walk to trot to canter to hand gallop and then all over again. One rider caught my attention several times, just because she looked good. Her horse was under control but eager and she was a smooth rider. I guess the judge thought she looked good too. She placed first.
As the first horse entered the Morgan English Pleasure class, my husband and I both commented that he would probably win. The horse’s beautiful high stepping action was extremely eye-catching. But before he could complete one round in the Coliseum, a woman in the stands happened to shake a large white shopping bag just as this horse went by! He spooked. The rider was able to keep his seat, but the horse was overly active for the rest of the class and when asked for a canter, this horse almost ran away with it. I couldn’t help but wonder how he would have behaved without the white bag incident. Things happen, and I felt bad for this rider when he placed third of three entries.
Some horses got excited when surrounded by other horses at the canter. Some whinnied, some couldn’t stand still in the line up, and a few got downright dangerous. One young woman dismounted when her horse began to act up at the end of the class and she was excused. This was the annual Society Horse Show in Springfield, remember, not a local fun show! I don’t mean to sound critical. These horses were well trained and well groomed, and their riders were well dressed, accomplished riders. But things happen. Someone in the stands shakes a bag. Kids run around just as a horse approaches. The more a horse is desensitized to such things, the better chance a rider has to keep control. If you’re going to compete, you need to be ready for anything if you want to win. Things happen in horse shows, just as they happen in life. Thorough preparation and careful training help produce consistent winners. A rider must ask more of himself and his horse until they reach a higher level of excellence. It’s a process, learning how to ask and what to ask, plus gaining the confidence to be able to ask! Asking more of yourself comes first. You can’t expect your horse to do more until you learn how to deal with it. Your horse will know if you are his capable leader.
I don’t have a serious interest in showing, but I think it wouldn’t hurt to ask for a little more collection when I ride. I’ll never get what I don’t ask for. I’ve read and I’ve been told that a collected, balanced frame is better for the horse than riding him in a “strung out” frame with his weight on his front end. I also know that you have to balance your requests with the natural ability, disposition and conformation of the individual horse. That beautiful collected frame doesn’t happen by chance, and it’s difficult for a horse to maintain very long at first. The rider must be careful not to ask too much for too long until the muscles are conditioned and the horse is comfortable with it. When asking for more collection during practice, let him have his head now and then to relax and stretch his neck.
Like every other aspect of horse training, it takes time and patience and lots of practice. You ask and you keep asking until you get it right, and you let it soak in and later you come back to it again. And again. Each horse decides how much to submit to its rider at a specific moment. Maybe it depends a lot on how you ask. It also depends on the rider’s self control and discipline. It depends on the relationship.
In comparison, each one of us as an independent human being must decide upon our own individual level of submission to the Higher Power who consistently asks for our acceptance of His will. He asks out of unconditional love and with endless patience and great understanding. How much He asks may depend upon how much we are willing to give. Colossians 3:23 tells us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…” A half-hearted effort lacks discipline and commitment. And our eager willingness is the key to where we go in life. We can be half hearted followers, or we can give everything to the Master who is able to lead us to a glorious win.
(Originally published in the September 2009 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)