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Lessons From Zelda #1- Why It Is Always Harder Riding Your Own Horse

Updated on August 14, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

Sometimes We Have Good Rides, Sometimes We Have Bad Rides

We have all had frustrating rides on our horses. It happens to the best of us. Just like falling off every once in a while, a frustrating ride on our horse comes with the territory.

When I was a working student I would ride multiple horses each day while my trainer rode, and he would coach me at the same time. It was like I was getting a lesson every time we rode out to the ring together. I was able to take the instructions, even when things were tough or scary, and with a clear head get the job done. I never got frustrated riding the horses that I rode that were in training. Even if I had a bad ride I could just hop off , find some little positive to hold onto until tomorrow and move on to the next horse.

Riding other peoples horses I never got frustrated, or mad or overly emotional. It was just a horse, I was just riding it, following instructions, patting it on the neck, cooling it off and then moving on to the next horse.

My own horse, on the other hand, was a whole different ball game, I was like a whole different rider when I got on her. It took me a long while to figure out why this was and now that I know, I think is important to share to help other riders.

My trainer at the time never explained to me what the difference was in me on my own horse or the training horses. I guess he just didn't think much about it. Not to mention for me it was sort of an afterthought that I rode so much better on other peoples horses, so I never really came out and asked that question directly.

I credit my success as an instructor to my time as a working student. Riding all kinds of horses under a watchful eye day in and day out is by far the best way to really learn horses through and through. I took a lot of lessons from my time as a working student, the one I want to share today though I think will hit home for many horse owners and riders. If nothing else, I think it will make you reflect on your relationship with your horse.

The Legend Of Zelda

My heart horse, Zelda, was the horse I had for most of my time as a working student. When I went to work there, she went with me.

I got Zelda when I was 15 and in the 10th grade. She was an Oldenburg and was only two at the time. I was working with a different trainer at the time and we decided that I was ready to start a horse from the ground up. I was planning on becoming a professional in the horse industry in some aspect, so my trainer was excited to help me learn how to work with a young horse.

We looked and looked and looked for a horse. My trainer went with us and we saw lots of horses that were perfectly decent young prospects. You would have been hard pressed to find anything wrong with them, they just weren't for me.

Then came Zelda " Detente" was her registered name. It was love at first sight when I laid eyes on her. I remember that day like it was yesterday. From the moment I saw her, I knew she was the one I had been looking for.

I spent hours with Zelda as a teenager. I was waiting for her to be old enough to start under saddle so I spent hours doing everything with her I possibly could besides ride her! I brushed her, led her around, got her used to wearing tack, taught her to ground drive, gave her baths, fed her treats. All the usual horse crazy teenage girl things. I was obsessed with her.

When the time came to get on her for the first time, it was like she was born broke to ride. She didn't put a foot wrong. I was so proud of her. By the time she moved to the new farm when I became a working student after high school, she was walking and trotting on a light contact, stopping and turning. She was off to a great start. I knew her and she knew me, inside and out.

When I started with the new trainer and we started asking more of her things changed. I was learning new things and giving her the wrong signals, she was feeling me get frustrated and tense which she never experienced before, which in turn made her tense.

Being a typical chestnut mare, she had her princessy moments and in this transitional period from just getting started under saddle, to being a "real horse". We had a lot of frustrating rides.

In my mind, I thought it would be so easy since we knew each other so well. That is not the reality of it though. The reality was, she didn't understand why I was asking more of her, she didn't understand the signals, and she got frustrated. It was like every ride was a fight.

I was an emotional wreck, how was it happening that the baby girl that I dedicated so much time and energy to all of a sudden didn't want to cooperate with me at all?

I can't tell you how frustrating that was, especially since I spent my morning riding other peoples horses and always felt like I had a productive ride and learned something even if they weren't perfect.

I beat myself up about not being able to ride Zelda as well as I rode the other horses. I cried over it, contemplated that maybe my dream horse wasn't really my dream horse after all. All the while I kept on riding her and trying to improve.

Then slowly but surely we started to click again. I learned how to ask her right, she learned what I wanted and we were back on the same page. All of a sudden I was having fabulous lessons, I couldn't have been happier. It was shocking because I never thought we would get back there again.

I began to realize over time that it was like a cycle almost, we would struggle and be so frustrated with each other, and then there would be a lightbulb moment and we would be perfect together again.

Almost 20 years ago ! Baby Zelda and I.
Almost 20 years ago ! Baby Zelda and I. | Source

So What's The Secret?

I can honestly say I had all my very best rides on Zelda as well as my very worst. It was a strange thing to either be so high or so low and until I started teaching students on their own horses I couldn't figure out why.

See, the secret is that emotional connection that we have with our own horses can work against us sometimes in our training and schooling sessions. We think that we know our horse so well and that they should know us and understand what we want. That is people rationale, not horse rationale.

They only know what we teach them. When we start progressing and asking more of them, they get frustrated. Just as any other horse would because they don't understand the cues. It is our job to teach them the cues, and if it was any horse beside our own we wouldn't think twice about how to get the job done.

We would find an exercise to help focus on the problem, make sure we were giving clear cues, and work on it slowly but surely until we got to a good stopping point and then hop off until tomorrow and try again.

On our own horses, we expect too much from them sometimes. We love them and invest ourselves in them emotionally, we glorify our bond with them to the point it is unrealistic.

They can't read our minds, and we can't read theirs. We think we can predict how they will react to things, but it doesn't always work out. When we change how we ask them to do something whether it is on purpose or by accident, they get confused and just interpret our cues to the best of their ability. Sometimes they aren't going to get it right. When it is your own horse that you have put so much blood, sweat and tears into it is definitely frustrating, there is no doubt about that!

Whereas if it was a friends horse or a horse that you were trying out that was for sale, you would be going on the facts only. What you were feeling going on underneath of you, and how the horse was responding to your cues. You don't have that emotional connection that makes it feel like a kick in the gut when you just can't get it right on your own horse.

When a horse that is new to you does something wrong you aren't going to have an emotional response to it, you will just ride through it. When the same thing happens on our own horse, we respond emotionally to it, since we have preconceived ideas that since we love them and they are ours that we know exactly how they will react.

It's that emotional connection and love that we have for our horse that makes us sometimes react the wrong way when we school them. Instead of just thinking through it and riding through it calmly we get tense. We start hearing those ugly voices in our heads about "how long you have been trying to teach them this" or "how yesterday they did it just fine". As soon as we hear those voices our thought process spirals to negative and our bodies respond with tension. Then whether we mean to or not we aren't communicating well with our horse and then the ride just gets worse and ends in frustration.

Once you realize this and can become aware of it, you will hopefully not get as emotional or frustrated when your horse doesn't do something that you expect him to be able to do perfectly. It sort of goes along with the way we are hardest on the people in our lives we love the most and are the closest too. That is what happens between us and our horses that leads us to get frustrated. This is why sometimes it may feel like you ride other peoples horses better or more effectively than you ride your own.

I wish that I would have figured this out a lot sooner on my horsemanship journey and I hope that by me bringing it up, it will help someone out there who gets emotional or frustrated with their dream horse when you don't have the amazing ride you were expecting.

Zelda and I on a good day. She was still learning how to jump so as you can see she was being a little dramatic about it!
Zelda and I on a good day. She was still learning how to jump so as you can see she was being a little dramatic about it! | Source

A Few Things To Keep In Mind That I Think Will Help

1- Don't take it personally. Horses just like us have good days and bad days, and them misunderstanding our cues under saddle isn't anything personal. Some days you will be on and your horse will be off. Some days your horse will be off and you will be on. Somedays you will be perfect together, and you will remember why this was your dream horse in the first place

2-Remember that any horse is only as good as it's rider. Even the most well-trained horse if not given the proper cues will not respond appropriately. You have to be willing to look at what improvements you can make in your own riding, whether it be something physical about how you ride that needs to change. It could even be more of a mental change you need to make. You might need to find a way to clear your head before you ride as to not pass on your nerves or tension to your horse.

3- Consider the fact that though the only way you are able to teach your horse new skills or improve on existing skills is to practice. Perfect practice makes perfect though, so if you are having the same bad misunderstandings everytime you ride there is nothing wrong with taking a few days off. Maybe don't ride at all, or go on a trail ride instead of doing arena work.

4-If you feel like you are stuck for an extended period of time, maybe try and get a few extra lessons. It is amazing the lightbulb moments you can have with the smallest things. It is easy to miss things when it is just you and your horse working alone. Another set of eyes, whether it be your instructor or another rider friend might see that small missing puzzle piece that you aren't able to. You know the old saying goes " you couldn't see the forest for all the trees". We don't see situations clearly for what they are when we are in the midst of them.

Last Minute Thoughts On The Matter

As the great John Lyons said, "there are only two emotions that belong in the saddle, one is a sense of humor and the other is patience". I think we all need to keep this in mind whenever we ride, but especially with our own horses that we feel so connected to, and are so dedicated to success with.

I'm by no means trying to diminish the bond and connection between horses and riders. It is most certainly real, an incredible feeling to have. One that you won't feel on every single horse that you ride. We need to remember that this connection and bond we are working so hard on can also go against us if we let it. Time and patience are what gets us there.

I'm grateful for all of the lessons my crazy red mare, Zelda, taught me over our time together. She will always be my heart horse and all the awesome times we had together more than makeup for the frustrations we caused each other.

The bond and connection that is possible between a horse and rider is an incredible thing, almost spiritual, and is probably why we wanted a horse in the first place. It is why we keep coming back again and again even when we do get frustrated. It is worth it though to feel those moments. I think if you keep these things in mind it will help you feel them more and more.

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