Which Characteristics and Competencies are the Hallmarks of an Amateur Friendly Horse?
Now that we know our amateur rider, let’s consider a horse, keeping this rider and his or her needs in mind….
Similar to our amateur rider, the experience level of our amateur friendly horse falls along a continuum from green to school master. Here, we will set aside the component of experience/skill level, because this element is resolved by appropriately matching horse and rider. (For example: a green horse with a skilled rider or a school master with a beginner rider.)
A few final clarifications before we dive in….
For ease, I will use the pronouns “he” and “his” for our horse, though I fully recognize mares can make wonderful, amateur friendly mounts as well. Along with each characteristic’s description, I will note in parenthesis if the trait is Trainable or Intrinsic. Understand that Intrinsic qualities of the horse can make any desired attribute more easily taught to the horse, but if the trait CAN be taught or MUST be taught in order for the horse to perform it reliably, then we will designate it as Trainable. If we are all in agreement, then Let Us Begin!!!!
The Amateur Friendly Horse
- Forgiving of rider and self: An amateur friendly horse can make a mistake and be corrected without getting anxious, angry, or frustrated. He also does not mind a rider error and continues on with his job as best he can despite the occasional missed lead, wrong distance, or misplaced pull on the reins. (Trainable)
- Responsive yet tolerant: In similar fashion to our first criteria, the amateur friendly horse is not dull and over drilled. He responds to leg and hand and is clever enough to filter out “white noise” such as bouncing hands or a wobbly seat. He knows the difference between a cue and commotion. (Trainable)
- Helpful: This horse is there for you. He may not always save you from a fall, but he does his best to keep you aboard. If you are unseated he slows down, if you fall off, he is likely standing nearby waiting for you. A fall doesn’t rattle him, and neither does realizing you are now riding from his neck rather than from the saddle. If you miss your distance to a jump or throw the reins at him two strides before the fence, he does his best to fill in the gaps for you. I am not saying this horse is a saint that will jump your course despite your constant bad decisions. He is, however, capable of damage control, able to make a bad situation safer for both of you. For example: Consider the consummate hunter horse who unseats his rider with his beautiful and lofty effort over a fence. With his rider in peril, he rhythmically marches down the line to the second jump, where his perfect arc sends her awkwardly flying into the dirt as he canters quietly away, rider-less. That horse may be the perfect/made hunter, and he certainly can teach you a lot and win you plenty of ribbons, but he is not an amateur friendly horse. In this situation our amateur friendly horse recognizes trouble as soon as he lands from the first fence and slows down or stops, avoiding the second fence in order to spare his rider from harm. Our amateur’s horse chooses his rider over his task. (Trainable)
- Rideability: Our amateur horse should be rideable, not necessarily “push button” or “made” but rideable, which means if you cue him correctly, he should perform as asked. His gaits may be anywhere on the spectrum of quality, providing they are not jarring, irregular, or unsound. Transitions should be done without drama, and flying lead changes (if he can do them) should not involve bucking or twisting of the body. He should be sure footed. This is very important. We can forgive tripping in the hind legs, but routine tripping of the front limbs is not acceptable in our amateur friendly horse, as it could cause a fall of horse and rider. (Intrinsic with some aspects, such as proper transitions and lead changes, usually being Trainable.)
- Predictable: I’m a fan of quirky horses… Well, predictably quirky, I don’t want to ride a machine. I expect an amateur’s horse to take a moment to look at the balloons tied to a mail box or the tent that overturned at a windy horse show. It is fine if he spooks… a little, but he should be predictable. Believe it or not, a spook can keep you safe. A great example of this is my current horse, Simon. Simon is very predictable, but he is not a robot. For instance, I know what types of new things he will need to look at, and I help him through discovering these new things and overcoming fears. I know that if he spooks, he will jump in place and not run off. I don’t punish him for a little spook, because I understand he is just doing his job. To Simon the most important part of his job is keeping both of us safe. He is the horse who didn’t bat an eye as we rode down a deserted dirt road with a herd of deer running through the woods, shaking the nearby trees like a scene from Jurassic Park. He is also the same horse who alerted me when he heard a dangerous rattle snake in the path just ahead….and yes this did happened! Realize spooking can protect you, but the spook should be predictable and practical, never dangerous or erratic. In other words if something is generally scary for a horse, then our amateur friendly horse is probably scared of it too. He sets himself apart because his reaction is manageable, and he recovers quickly. Remember, it is our responsibility as riders to expose our horses to new and different things and to teach them they can trust our judgment. In turn we must learn to trust their judgment too. (Trainable) (Also note, predictability is much more than what we have discussed here, but I'm saving the rest of this discussion for a future article!)