Photo credit: NBanaszak Photography
Photo credit: NBanaszak Photography

I would bet we have all wondered about this question through our riding careers.

When you are faced with a riding dilemma, do you ever get into a finger-pointing game? Do you get down on yourself and blame all your riding problems on yourself? Or do you just get mad at the horse and think that all would be well if you only could find another horse to ride?

Chances are that all of us have done both at some time or another.

Early in our riding education, we may not be too worried about how the horse is going. We are usually so focused on staying on and using the correct aids, that we are generally more than satisfied to get the walk/trot/canter and stay on!

But as the saying goes, "the more you know, the more you know what you don't know." As we become more proficient, we begin to notice nuances that we didn't before.

The little things seem a lot more important - a hollow back, a bad stride that could have been avoided, a lack of bend or even a heavy contact. We start to troubleshoot and try different solutions that we think may help.

Invariably, we run into a plateau during which things seem to never change - no matter what we try, we just can't seem to get the results we want. And that is when we start to wonder - is the problem ours? Or is it the horse's? Here are some thoughts.

Obviously, it's the rider.

Without a doubt, we can ride only as well as our best skills. No matter how long we've been riding, there is always more to learn and fine-tune. So if we have any problems, our limitations quickly become the horse's as well.

It also works the other way. The more effective you are, the better any horse will go for you.

For instance, if you have a stickable seat, you won't have a worry if the horse goes for a romp or buck. You'll just ride it out and pick up when the horse settles down. Or let's say you have a terrifically effective seat. Every horse you ride, even if not necessarily "trained" to the seat, will respond well to your ride simply because of the timing, coordination and balance that you offer to the horse.

Here's another scenario - has this ever happened to you? You ride in a lesson and the problem that has been plaguing you for weeks is instantly eliminated because you listen to your knowledgeable instructor and make what seems to be one small positional change. Suddenly the horse snorts and begins to float.

During those moments, it definitely seems as if all problems begin with the rider.

Having said that, the unique quality of riding is that there are two players in one game. How does the horse fit into this picture?

Obviously, it's the horse.

How many of us have wistfully wished that our horse could be as calm/successful/kind/athletic/whatever as our friend's horse seems to be? (C'mon, admit it!)

We know that some of the idiosyncrasies surely belong to the horse. We've heard of stallion or mare lines that have certain characteristics (good or bad) that seem to be passed down regularly.

Without a doubt, the horse can be the one that initiates a problematic situation. As I explained in my book, Horse Listening: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding, we often find ourselves becoming reactive riders when horses move so quickly that we don't see something happening until it is too late. The horse does something, and THEN we try to undo it.

Let's take the bucking horse example again. Not every horse bucks. It is quite possible that you could find a horse that simply is not inclined to buck. Instead, he might brace and hollow the back, but otherwise truck along without any hint of a misstep. So one horse's behavior is not necessarily the same as another's.

If you are lucky enough to have a Golden Horse, chances are you won't have to go through the same learning curve as the rider with the horse that tends to buck.

It Takes Two to Tango

It looks like we're back at the beginning. Is it the rider or the horse?

The long and the short of it is that there are two beings involved in the one activity. Each affects the other and there is no way out of that equation. Sometimes, it's not even what you did, but what you didn't do in a particular situation.

The level of training helps. If the rider is well trained, then she can quickly bring the horse along  since she knows what to expect and what to do to prevent problems. If the horse is well trained, then he can support and guide the rider as she tries new skills and makes mistakes.

(Incidentally, this is exactly why they say that a green rider-green horse combination is the least desirable.)



Keep in mind that as the human being in this partnership, we are necessarily the ones to take responsibility for our actions and our skill level. If we get stuck, we are the ones to do the problem solving. Maybe we have to find someone else who can help us learn or find another appropriate solution.

In this horse-rider dichotomy, avoid finding blame and instead, work toward finding solutions.

What do you think? Is it the rider or is it the horse?

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Read more here:

7 Reasons Why "It Depends" Is the Right Answer in Horseback Riding: When it comes to horses, the only “truth” is that there are many truths. 

The Need For "Yes" Speed - While You Ride Your Horse: How to let your horse know he's on the right track.

Two Upper-Body Secrets to Riding Success: How to maintain balance with a better upper body position.

The Five Components of the Ultimate Warm Up in Horse Riding: Why an active warm-up is essential for the horse.

Stepping “Forward” in Horse Riding: The term ‘forward’ is used liberally in horse riding but is often misunderstood.

13 Comments

  1. As my instructor has always told me, “9 times out of 10, it is always the rider’s fault.” When she first taught me this, she wasn’t trying to put the blame on me for whatever mistake my horse and I had made. But, she did want me to take responsibility for the mistake that was made because my horse does not have the ability to do so. Blaming for the horse for the mistake gets you NO where. But, turn the spotlight on yourself, and you’ll more likely find the root of the problem. Thanks for a great reading!

  2. IMO it is ALWAYS the rider. Horses are mirrors of their rider. Horses do not lie or prevaricate I think it is a miracle that they let us get up on their backs every day without spitting us off, because lets face it, there are more limited riders than there are good ones and the majority of horses tolerate our weaknesses.

  3. I am often amazed at talented, insightful trainers who are able to make perfect matches between horse and rider taking the individual strengths and weaknesses into consideration. Big take-a-way? Get a trainer you trust and let them do their magic!

  4. Another thought on “is it the horse or the rider?” is the possibility that for either individual, the abilities of one or the other may be changing in subtle but distinctive ways. Then you can go on the proverbial “fishing trip” to find out why. In my situation, my Hanoverian cross 10 year old mare rather abruptly would not readily take her right lead as she had reliably done for years. We seemed as a team to be moving not seamlessly. Which lead ME finally to a neurologist (with many unproductive medical side visits) & the diagnosis of primary progressive multiple sclerosis. Try explaining to non rider medical staff that you KNOW something is not right with your body because your wonderfully sensitive horse does not take her right lead anymore! Expect to be met with blank eyes & brain by human medical people.
    I still ride as this disease has moved slowly, credit my wonderful girl with my diagnosis (turns out I had ms lesion covering 1/2 my spinal cord from C3 to C7) and through riding, my body has been able to develop alternative neuromuscular pathways. I can walk, because I ride. I still have this wonderful diagnostician horse, now 27 and still being ridden, sound. We both do much less cantering (but on both leads) and both of us are still boss mares.

    1. Wow, Heidi, what a story. On the one hand, I’m so glad for you that your mare was there to help you identify a problem (and you’re obviously so in tune with her that you could “listen” and interpret correctly). On the other hand, I’m stunned about your diagnosis. I’m also amazed about the alternative neuromuscular pathways – although not exactly surprised, mainly because of the changes I feel in my body every time I develop a little more in my riding skills. Happy for you that you have your boss mare and that you continue to ride. Thanks for sharing your experiences and for reading.

      1. Kathy, I love reading Horse Listening on my iPad, but have also purchased & read your book published this last March. Always gives me new things to think about and new perspectives in analyzing a horse picture situation. I read your pieces over and over and never tire of them. Please keep listening and writing – our souls and our horses are softer, more fluid and free because of your insights. Thank you!

  5. It is the rider’s fault, 99% of the time. Of course, one has to always keep the horse’s best interests in mind and not ask for more than he/she is physically or mentally able to do, because not every horse can do everything. 🙂

  6. A great post; I agree strongly on both points. It is often the rider’s fault, but definitely not always. Horses are amazing animals, and shockingly willing considering that their size and strength means that they don’t actually have to do anything for us, but they are not always perfect. They can be tired, stubborn, irritable, lazy and plain spiteful. On the other hand, the rider could do absolutely everything right and the horse could be perfectly willing, but lack the muscular strength to perform the task (for example, a rider gives a horse a perfect ride to a jump and the horse jumps as well as he can and still knocks it down – nobody’s fault; they’re just not ready).
    As you said, placing blame doesn’t help, and there are no absolutes in horsemanship. Don’t waste time point fingers, just find the problem and fix it as well as you can.

  7. I started horse riding during High school and I was hooked. I even went to the Horse Unit in the Army during my national service. Unfortunately I can not afford to write regularly now-about twice a year. I know this sounds like a lamentation but it is not meant to be. I discovered your website and blog by accident looking up rising trot. I am really enjoying reading your comments and advice on riding. You have the most unique ability to describe in word the nuances and emotions in riding. Your love and respect for the horse shines through your writing. So even while I am not riding at the moment your blog reminds me why I love it so much. This is difficult to explain another field of interest to me is psychology the way your write goes so deep in to the psychology of human horse relationship. BUT TO CALL IT psychological would not do it justice. Thank you for sharing your wonderful gift.

  8. Kathryn I saw one of your replies about purchasing your book through PayPal. I’d like to purchase the paperback but when I tried, it was payment through a credit card. Where do I go to purchase with PayPal? Thanks, Cheryl King Koi

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