Guest post by Kirsty Wright.
“Wow! He’s being such a good boy today.”
Those words are probably my favorite thing to hear as a trainer. Why? Because if I hear those words, it usually means I am doing my job right.
It means that the ride that I put on that horse was effective enough for the horse to behave well enough for his owner to notice, but a lot of the training that we put on horses as pro riders is invisible training.
It is maintenance training. It is “undoing” training (or “redoing” training depending on how you look at things). It is training that purely exists to make the horse continue what it is supposed to be doing in the first place.
Growing up the only person who ever rode my pony was me.
In all of my years working with my instructor I can only remember her getting on my pony once, and even though I have no idea what my pony had done to endure such treatment, I know it must have been BAD.
Now as a trainer, most of the horses in my program get at least a once a week ride, and looking back it might have benefitted me at the time to have my trainer ride my horse every now and then.
But what is it about keeping a horse in a consistent professional program that helps them be there best self?
Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe pro rides are just something made up by trainers to help them make an extra buck.
“Why do I need to pay you to ride my kid’s pony?”
This might be my least favorite thing to hear as a trainer. Most people, especially none horse people, are under the impression that once a horse is trained he will continue on throughout his life with that same level of training that he received as a four and five year old.
And that, if they have just paid five to six figures for a horse or pony, that horse or pony should already know how to do its job. But these people are forgetting one critical factor. Horses are animals.
They are always changing and always developing; they learn new habits – some good and some bad – and, most importantly, they have a mind of their own.
If an amateur rider constantly throws a horses balance off during a lead change, a change that was once automatic might become manual. If a rider consistently runs the horse to the jump only to abandon them at the base, the horse may start stopping.
A pro ride gives the horse or pony some stability in his life, reminds him of his job, and reminds him not to have too many creative ideas of his own.
“Oh… he needs to be ridden how many times a week?”
This phrase just makes me roll my eyes. I have no idea how riders think that a horse ridden once or twice a week can go to a show and compete successfully or comfortably for four days in a row.
Yet, surprise is almost all I get when I tell my students and parents that their horses have to be in a program of at least four days of exercise per week.
In today’s world kids have so many other things to do other than ride. When I was a kid I took the bus straight to the barn from school, then spent all night, every night, at the barn riding, cleaning stalls, and doing all the other things barn rats do until my Mom came and picked me up to do homework and eat.
Most of my kids that I teach now play an instrument, have a tutor, do another sport, and are working on college applications – and that’s just the kindergarteners. Riding is now just a thing on a list of other things that kids do, and that means that the horses often get put on the back burner until it’s time to show again.
This is where pro rides can be really useful. Pro rides don’t have to be jumping 4ft course and schooling lead changes. Sometimes it’s simply trot sets to build fitness. People would not expect a marathon runner to train once a week and then go qualify for Boston; so why people think that you can ride your horse once a week and expect him to compete whenever you need him to is beyond me.
“Huh. He didn’t feel off to me.”
I have heard this phrase uttered even when a horse is head bobbing lame. But it’s usually a subtle lameness that an oblivious kid happily trotting around the ring on the wrong diagonal won’t notice.
A slight tear in a ligament that is begging for someone to notice it before the pony lands off a jump and rips it to shreds for good.
For example, I had a horse in my program that was about as solid as they come. Some would argue that he didn’t need a pro-ride at all, but as I said all the horses in my program get some kind of ride to keep them fit, tuned on, and listening.
Well this horse felt 100% sound, but when I was jumping on the day of my weekly ride I noticed he was pretty late catching up behind with his change. This was very unusual for him, so I decided to have the vet look at him the next day when he happened to be coming to look at another horse.
I suspected a hock or stifle injection needed. Well lo and behold, when it came time to flex him the good doctor noticed something and decided to palpate and then ultrasound his back suspensory.
Turns out he had a small tear in his hind suspensory that was caught very, very early and he made a full recovery after a short bout of stall rest. This horse never came up lame, and was only ever late on a couple of lead changes in one direction.
Now I obviously credit most of this discovery to our absolutely wonderful and talent vet; however, if I hadn’t had this horse in a consistent program where I knew all of his strengths and weaknesses, and known that this horse had never missed a lead change when I was riding him, ever, would I have had the vet look at him? Probably not.
And if I had seen the horse miss a lead change with his rider, would I have blamed it on amateur rider misgivings and not on the horse being uncomfortable?
Absolutely. I take pride in knowing every detail about the horses I ride. I know which each of their better leads is, I know who hates standing water, and who hates purple flowers, and I know which horse would never miss a lead change when someone asked correctly. And knowing that helped me help this horse get on the road to recovery.
“That pony is so little and though, why would you need to ride it? You look ridiculous up there.”
Now I know anybody who had ever dealt with a naughty little pony is laughing at this phrase. Yet believe it or not I’ve heard it before. And in case anyone is missing the joke that everyone is laughing at, the little, cute ones are always the ones that need the pro ride.
I have a pony in my barn that cannot live without his pro ride. If he misses his ride for the week he turns into the devil himself; walking to the corner of the ring, planting his feet, and refusing to move an inch. All while his little rider sits atop squeezing and sticking to no avail.
Now when I ride this little fiend he acts like the unicorn he is supposed to be. Walk, trot, canter, god given, magnificent, auto lead changes – he even jumps the purple flowers. He every definition of the machine pony that every trainer wants in his or her barn.
Do I do anything special when I give him the magical rides that prevent him from turning into Satan himself? Do I beat him into submission with a giant stick and spur? Do I put the fear of God into his satanical pony body? Nope.
I get on him. Walk, trot, canter, hop a couple of jumps, and call it a day. All this pony needs is a reminder that he can’t get away with his nonsense this week, and that if he behaves he can go back to having his little rider onboard for the rest of the week, and she will feed him fruit rollups when she’s done riding him.
Now I know that most pro rides are a little more in depth than what I put on this pony, but he, more than any horse I’ve ever ridden, has taught me the value of my time up in the saddle. My mere presence on this pony makes him realize that he has to do his job for his little girl.
Horses need to be tuned on when they have amateur riders on their backs every day, making the mistakes that amateurs are bound to make. Amateur mistakes are job security for horse trainers. If the amateurs could do the things trainers can do with their horses, they wouldn’t need one, period.
And if you are lucky enough as a trainer to have an amateur that realizes they make mistakes every once in a while, then it shouldn’t be too hard to convince them that a ride a week, or every other week depending on the horse’s, needs, age, career, how often his amateur lies to him.
The difficult people to convince are parents. Have you ever tried to tell a parent that you need to ride their kid’s pony because their wonderful son/daughter is destroying every bit of their pony’s training every single time they sit on him?
Well if you have, I hope you worded it a little softer than I just did.
Or as a parent or an adult amateur, have you ever been told that your horse needs a little tune up?
It is hard as a trainer not to hurt a rider’s feelings by telling them they need to fix what they have broken on their horse, and it is important for trainers to be kind with their delivery and much as it is important for riders to be understanding in the fact that their trainer has spent his or her whole live honing his or her skills, and in hiring them as your trainer, you have a whole package – someone who can not only teach you to ride your horse to the best of your ability, but who can teach your horse to behave to the best of his (most days at least).
So the next time your trainer tells you they are going to put a ride on your horse, don’t be offended, or assume that they are just a little tight on money this week, smile at them and thank them for all the hard work they put into making your horse or pony safe for you to ride.
More posts by Kirsty Wright: Wait…I’m confused – A Tale of the Forgotten