Saying “thank you” to your horse doesn’t necessarily mean hugs and pats and treats, but release of pressure and giving him the best ride possible. Haley Ruffner explains her thoughts.
As an IEA alum and current IHSA rider, the importance of caring for the school horses I ride has been stressed by every coach I’ve ever had. On unfamiliar horses, I am expected to read the horse description, ask the handler and/or horse provider for any additional advice or clarification, and adjust my riding accordingly. Horses, even the quietest saintly lesson horses, are not cookie-cutter animals.
For some horses, squeezing my calves sends them forward. Others, spur-broke or sour, stop when I apply pressure with both legs. Even for the horses I regularly ride, I keep a notebook containing all of their respective quirks and how I need to ride them. For those I don’t, my coaches and I take the time to make sure we have a solid idea about any horse my teammates or I draw. We are expected to watch and take notes during warm-ups, and encouraged to compare notes afterwards for a more complete set.
My goal in the arena is to exhibit good horsemanship by learning the horse, softly, and maintaining awareness of what I am doing with my body–before I add more leg, I make sure that my hand is forward. Am I giving the horse a place to go? Am I asking too many things at once? Can I ask more and show off a little, or is this a comfortable place for us to be? Am I in this horse’s way? These questions have become second nature to me, both in practices and shows. With the mindset that I am not riding to school the horse, I try to gauge where I need to ride more conservatively and where I can show off.
After the ride, no matter how good or bad it was, I am expected to pat the horse and tell him good boy, thank the handler, and return any spurs or (for hunt seat) run the stirrups up before leaving. Throughout my showing career, my teammates and I have been held to this standard of behavior as part of the expected sportsmanship at shows. We understood that those horses worked all day, sometimes all weekend, with unfamiliar riders. Because we did not know them like we know our own horses, they probably patiently put up with too-harsh hands or sudden cues all day, unintentional though they were.
However, the more riders with whom I interact, it becomes clear that not all riders share the perspective I learned through IEA and IHSA. Although the vast majority of riders are gracious, helpful, and kind, the ones who lacked in these qualities stand out. Everyone is disappointed when they don’t do as well as planned at a show, but there is a time and place to express that. In my experience, when I do poorly it’s almost always my fault and not the horse’s — I owe him an apology along with a “thank you” when I dismount, whether it’s my own horse or one I just met.
We all make mistakes–I’ve made my fair share and still have so much to learn — but many of the ones I’ve seen recently seemed like they could have been solved through an effort to learn the horse. Thanking the horse after the ride is important, but so is saying “thank you” during the ride in the form of giving back: softening your hands, releasing your legs when possible, and letting the horse do his job. Self-awareness and using as little pressure as possible have been, in my learning experience, some of the most essential pieces to becoming an effective rider, and I hope to continue improving in those areas in the year to come.
Haley is the author of Horse Nation’s “Academic Equestrian” series, following her collegiate experience as she balances her studies with participation on the varsity equestrian team and time with her own horse. Catch up on past columns by clicking the #ACADEMIC EQUESTRIAN tag at the top of the page!
Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with minors in Business and Equestrian Studies. She owns a Quarter horse gelding At Last An Invitation, or “Cricket.” Haley is the captain of the AU western equestrian team, and also competes in reining and loves trail riding.