Thursday, June 25, 2009

Psychology of the horse and rider Part I

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I wish I remember where I read this, but I don't. Recently I read that at the upper levels of sports competition, the athletes are all so talented and well-trained there really isn't much difference in their abilities -- all in all, physically, they're about equal. The reason one athlete wins over another? According to the experts, it's the psychological factors -- their confidence, preparation, concentration, etc. No wonder there is so much buzz over sports psychology, and no wonder Jane Savoie has such a following in the equestrian community.

The horse/rider partnership
To be sure, the rider's psychological state is critical -- but riding is part of an interspecies dynamic. What about the horse??? They're the ones doing the real work, albeit directed by us. Their athletic preparation will set the stage for a great round/ride, but it goes beyond that. I wonder alot about what horses think, and how they think. "Horses are not machines," a former trainer used to say. THEIR confidence, trust, willingness, temperament, and reaction time will usually determine who wins in this sport.

Some examples...
There are ample examples out there, and of course I don't recall where I read most of them...
  • An expert on dressage was asked what it takes to be an international dressage horse. The expert said that the horse should like to travel. It seemed an odd comment at first, but on reflection the stress of transport and disruption of routine would wreak havoc on a sensitive/nervous horse.
  • The dressage horse Flim Flam sometimes could not be convinced to enter the dressage ring -- someone had to lead him in. Rider Sue Blinks, who was his rider at the time, said that this behavior broke her heart. She tried hard to keep things pleasant for him.
  • At a top level dressage competition, a horse and rider's freestyle ride was interrupted by some sort of audio/technical problem. She was allowed a do-over, but had to exit the ring while they fixed it. While they were waiting, her horse stretched out and peed as he always did at the end of a work session. The rider panicked, because she knew her horse was no longer in work mode, and they were about to go back in the ring and do it all again.
Top level equestrian athletes have so much at stake in their performances. They train and plan and prepare, and the day of competition, they might find that the horse just ain't with the program. It really is a test of sportsmanship.

Do you have examples or insights into this topic?


  1. I agree that competition horses should like to travel--it's the first real skill I teach my horses! Our first few journeys by trailer are always to something quick and interesting--my favorite trip for a new horse is a visit to the equine chiropractor! The trip is short (and I always take a "good travelling horse-friend" to make sure it's pleasant), they see something new and different, they meet a new human who touches them and makes them feel goooooooooood, and then they go home to think about it.

    When they are totally not-worried about travelling, I start hauling them everywhere: to lessons, for trail rides, for clinics, and to anything else I can find. A friend noted that endurance horses will "load into a tomato soup can" and I think it's because they enjoy travelling and enjoy the job at the other end of the journey.

    So sorry about the horse who didn't like to go into the arena, though!

  2. finally!!!! are we really starting to realize that horses are real people too? About two years ago one of my senior mares ( 16 at the time) discovered how to sign for a drink of water. She will stick out her tounge whenever she is thirsty. Now it took ME quite a while to figure out what she meant, but eventually I did. She will ask during a lesson, or is her bucket is low and I am in the stable. The interesting part of this is that ALL the horses in the yard now do this, and when a new horse arrives it takes about 5 to 10 days for them to sign for water. And...this was all initiated by a horse. The best part, they now believe that humans are capable of abstract interaction, and my yard has never been as peacefull, and the horses are much more willing training partners. They just wanted to talk!

  3. I used to drive my friends crazy when I'd start laughing in a class when my wonderful hunter used to misbehave. Sometimes he'd just decide to play up at the worst times. All I could ever do was laugh about it.

    My current "dressage" horse is more likely to make me cry, but either way, it always reminds me of what a humbling sport riding actually is. If our equine partners don't feel like doing their jobs, sometimes there's very little we can do about it. That's why those moments when the partnership is in sync become so absolutely precious.

  4. This post really resonates with me this morning.

    Lately we have been working with my horse, trying to teach him to tie. I wish he would "learn it already" but sadly he isn't. I just made the decision last night to let him be. As a team we have lost some confidence because of this issue.

    Feels good to read this post about how morale of the horse and rider is very important! Many people mistake obedience at any cost - I agree it is solid partnership.

    Thanks for making my morning Stacy.

  5. i'm always trying to figure out what my horses are saying.. .all the while knowing they dont think like us'ns.. Tho sometimes I swear mine have a command of the english language ! :)

    gp who has a show horse and an endurance horse... they truly are horses of a different color!

  6. The horse who signals for water with her tongue reminds me a bit of my mare, who does her level best to communicate with me in a way that I can understand.

    She has specific body language for "I need a drink." She uses her nose to nudge open the gate and "help me" when she's ready to leave her paddock and go to her stall. She will whip her head around and stare hard at me when her blanket or fly sheet is rumpled or otherwise uncomfortable.

    I really believe that if you listen with all of your senses, they can "talk" to you. I'm always grateful when she makes her desires known. We don't always do what she wants, but the least I can do is give her a voice in the process. She's a sentient being, after all, and she works hard for me.


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