All of us horse owners have been there. We tell someone we own horses, and invariably we get told the story of someone’s first ride on a horse. And ninety percent of the time, it’s a bad experience. “The horse bucked me off.” “It ran away with me and jumped a fence.” “It reared straight up in the air.”
The question that I always want to ask when I hear this is – “Why did the owner let you ride the horse in the first place?”
We love to show off our horses. I’m guilty of it, too. I love people to come meet my horses, and yes, ride. But I always make certain my guests are completely safe. To have someone come off my horse – or worse get hurt – I shudder to think. What horse people need to do is read your horse. Watch, learn and understand your horse’s body language. Read his expression. Is it happy, relaxed, playful? Unless he’s a known problem horse, he might be a safe candidate for a novice. Is he feeling unhappy, inattentive, or feeling his Cheerios? Are his ears tense, his eyes worried, and his lips tight? Don’t put a novice on him. Fresh out of the barn after being fed sweet feed and alfalfa for a week? Never put a greenhorn on him under those circumstances. You might be able to ride him if he acts up, but most people cannot.
I once invited a 70-something mentally challenged tiny lady to ride my Friesian-Arab cross, Blackjack. Now Blackjack is a very sweet-natured, respectful horse and while I don’t let many people ride him (he’s my baby and I’m selfish), I do lead him around with small children on his back on occasion. This old lady sat in his saddle and smiled, gloating, the entire short ride. But Blackjack’s ears told me he wasn’t comfortable with the situation. He may have understood she was delicate and he was worried he’d harm her. He may have sensed she was different, and didn’t like that. Whatever the reason, his discomfort made me nervous. He didn’t do anything he shouldn’t have done – he walked her around as gently as a pony. But I knew the ride should end quickly. The ten-minute ride made that girl’s day, and I breathed easier once she was off him. Blackjack was certainly happier to have her rub his face and kiss him than have her on his back. To this day I don’t know why he didn’t like it – Blackjack never did explain it to me.
Horses are very intelligent animals, and they know when they have the upper hand. I’ve been very fortunate with my horses. I had two Arabian geldings, Tanner and Boss, who were very intelligent and respectful. Both trustworthy for novices to ride. I never worried about them if I left a five year old kid on one of them. Because I did - and forgot my five year old step daughter was on Tanner while I worked with Boss way back in the day. Boss left me two years ago and Tanner is now thirty six years old. Anyway, I could put anyone on these boys and their behavior was impeccable. They knew they could take advantage of their riders, but they also knew their jobs. That job was to tote folks around if I asked it of them. Their sweet, respectful natures enabled them to be safe horses for novices to ride.
At my barn yesterday, I watched some folks saddle their horses for some teenage girls. One girl mounted the buckskin gelding and I recognized a novice rider – the typical toes in the stirrups pointed down and heels up, in, I dare say it, tennis shoes. The horse started throwing his head and dancing around, and I knew this wasn’t good. The horse’s entire body language screamed “I want to run!” She got off, and the other novice got on. The first novice rode the other gelding, which proved quieter than I expected. The buckskin was set loose. He walked, then trotted and then hit a lope all within twenty seconds. Two strides into the lope he went to bucking and, of course, the girl came off. Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt. But think of it, folks – what if she’d been badly injured?
I have a chronically lazy Arabian gelding I bought a few years ago. He’s incredibly sweet natured, and has only a few minor bad habits. One of which, of course, is being lazy. But he makes a perfect horse for a novice guest to ride. Bucking or running away is far too much work for him. Walking along at a pleasant amble is exactly what he likes. So when my friend riding him said he was the first horse she’s ever ridden and she had a great time, I knew I lowered that terrible percentage I spoke of earlier. Those numbers of first experiences can change – if we think about what we’re doing. Keep our egos out of the equation. Put greenhorns on docile, lazy, been-there-done-that horses and not on your prized barrel-racer.
As horse owners, we know the inherent risks of owning and riding horses. At least we should. I know of many people who own horses when they shouldn’t, but that’s for another article. We must realize that in the right circumstance, a horse is as dangerous as a charging lion. And by the same token, a horse can be the safest and most pleasurable animal to have around if trained and cared for properly. And I add in ‘cared for’ because some folks may find their horse is perfect under saddle, but will run his/her owner over to grab feed from arms at feeding time. At all times, demand your horse’s respect. Even at dinner time. By doing so, your horse will learn respect and hopefully will keep it. A respectful horse is a safe horse.
But, folks, stop and think. If you don’t take the time to read and understand your horse, don’t put someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing on him. If you can manage your horse’s behavior issues (head throwing, crow-hopping, spookiness, jumping around, wanting to run and race every time you saddle him up), don’t put your kids’ friends on him. You might have the experience to manage him under any circumstance, but they can’t. Don’t let your need to show off your horse put someone in harm’s way.
If a talented and experienced rider like Christopher Reeve can break his neck during a fall, what can happen when a starry-eyed sixteen year old girl gets on the wrong horse for the first time? Take a few moments and really look at your horse. Horses don’t lie, and they don’t conceal what they’re feeling. His expression can be as clearly read as any human’s – provided you take the time to watch and learn. In my experience with horses, and people, is that people don’t take the time to really understand their horse. Blackjack wasn’t always sweet-natured, affable and respectful. He fought me tooth and nail for dominance: reared, bucked, plunged, threw his head, jumped – I can go on, but you get the idea. He wasn’t even close to being a safe, affable horse I wanted him to be. If I was to keep him and ride him, I needed to change. I needed to be the leader he was looking for. I needed to learn from him, as much as he needed to learn from me.