Stay or go? How to get out of a bad relationship with your horse.

It is not often that one hears a woman remark, “Whoa! I got out of that relationship WAY too early!”

In fact, more than likely you’ve heard the opposite.  Women seem to stick it out, tough it out, and stay involved for the long haul, even if their needs are not being met.  Low and behold, one of the places this pattern shows up for us as Cowgirls is right behind that pasture gate.  So, if you have ever been, or are now, stuck in a less than desirable relationship with your horse, read on!   You will learn when it might be time to let go (and why we have such a hard time doing so), when it might be time to stick it out, when it is time for some introspection and how this whole process can lead to growth and learning, both as an equestrian, and an evolving human being.

There are basically three scenarios that can lead you to an unhappy relationship with your horse:

  1. You are involved with a horse that is a mismatch to your skill level, and are white-knuckling every ride (if you even dare get in the saddle),
  2. You are just not getting what you want from your horse and feel frustrated and/or let down after every interaction,  and
  3. You are ill-matched to your horse in terms of personality and temperament. There are ways to overcome these situations, but we must be willing to blaze a new kind of trail, yes, the kind of trail that may appear daunting at first.  This is the path to a more fulfilling relationship with our horses but requires us to open our eyes and look a bit more closely at ourselves so that we may ask why we are having trouble making the required changes.

So, starting with scenario number one! Heather had acquired her first horse on the advice of a “horse-knowledgeable” friend.  Not long into this new pairing, I was asked to come and help with some problems that Heather was having with “Luna.”  I had known Heather for some time, as she had been taking riding lessons with me for nine months prior to this new purchase.  When she first started riding with me, she was truly a beginner, easily flustered, very critical of herself, having a hard time on even my very well-trained lesson horses, and often ended up in tears of frustration.  Heather was extremely sensitive and did not have much confidence in herself as an equestrian, but with understanding and encouragement on my part, sheer determination, and dedication on hers, she amazingly advanced her riding skills by leaps and bounds in the short time she was studying with me.  Riding had become a pleasurable experience for her, and she was now smiling a lot!  When she went off to buy her first horse, I would have classified her as an advanced-beginner.

The first time I worked with Heather and her new horse, I immediately saw what was wrong.  Heather, being the sensitive and beginner rider that she was, had chosen a very head-strong horse who did not have even the remnants of a reasonable training foundation. Luna constantly picked up speed, did not listen, threw in random crow-hops when aggravated, and was 10 years old to boot (so she had been making a living out of this type of behavior for some time).  What I saw did not bode well with me.  I did not condone such a pairing, and clearly let Heather know my feelings, but she did not want to part with Luna and asked me to continue to work with them.

And so I did. I worked with them for another couple of months and spent much of that time riding Luna myself. But here was a horse that needed a complete training overhaul (not something I could accomplish in our allotted one hour each week). On top of that, Heather’s horsemanship skills were not yet at a level to successfully take on such a project.  I could see Heather’s confidence eroding as she continued to struggle, and the smile she had worked so hard to achieve was once again replaced by tears.
Learning always takes place by stretching our abilities, and when the required skill set is solidly in place, reaching toward new tasks can be uncomfortable, but achievable.  If, however, you are trying to stretch too far, without the proper foundation, frustration and often failure inevitably result.  I clearly saw that the challenge with Luna was much too large a stretch for Heather, and this was a genuine mismatch of the horse to rider.  Again I broached the subject of re-homing Luna and helping Heather find a horse more suited to her abilities. As before, I was met with formidable resistance.

Why is it that we women have such a hard time handling a mismatch like this?  What makes it so hard for us to let go? Regina Reilly-MS Educational Psychology is a psychotherapist in private practice since 1979 and a horse owner for 21 years.  She sheds some light on this issue: Regina states that being “relational” is at the core of a female’s consciousness.  Even if the horse is mismatched to the woman, she feels responsible in some way and this can unconsciously border on how a woman would feel about a child.  “Even if you don’t like the kid, you don’t give your kid away, “ Regina says.  Heather shared with me, in retrospect, that the main reason she couldn’t let go, was that she felt she would be abandoning Luna.  She felt bonded to the horse.  It did not feel right to even think about giving her up, and Heather was fearful that she would not feel the same “bond” with another horse. As Regina points out, this is very similar to how one would feel about a child, or sometimes, a man.

Heather ultimately was able to move on, but it did not happen overnight.  At the time, I had a darling little horse that I was 99.9% sure would be a perfect match for Heather.  I was just beginning to start the little filly, and I knew if I could get Heather to come, meet this horse, observe and be a part of her training process, she might find that she could indeed bond to another horse more completely than she ever had with Luna.

Heather agreed to come help me but did not want to commit.  The more Heather came to the barn, and the more Heather worked with “Madison,” (first on the ground, and in a few short months, under saddle), her smile began to return. She ended up purchasing Madison, found a great home for Luna, and learned a heck of a lot during the process!  Heather admits that with Luna, she had always been too afraid to make any positive progress, but with Madison, who was better trained and easier for her to handle, she was able to feel confident again, relax, and therefore improve overall as a horsewoman.  She sees now that the “bond” that she felt with Luna was completely one-sided, and not a true bond at all.  “I realize that the bond has to work both ways, explains Heather. “I put effort in, and the horse responds to me.  That is how I feel with Madison, but it was never that way with Luna.”  When asked if she had any regrets about parting with Luna, she responded, “Not one bit.  It was the best decision, hands down.  Someday I hope to see my own children on Maddie’s back!”

As we begin to explore scenario number two, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that anytime you get a horse and run into trouble, you casually throw in the towel.  That is the opposite side of the spectrum, and I am sure we all know one or two of those “serial horse owner” types.  Every time you run into them, they are on a horse you have never seen before! It is perfectly clear from an outsider’s point of view that it is the woman who sits atop the horse that needs to do some changing, rather than replacing the entire beast that stands beneath her.  The worst case of this that I have seen is a gal who has been through at least 9 horses in the last 7 years.  Thankfully, not all cases are this extreme, and women can fit into this category who have never actually physically parted with their horse! This might be you if you have just never gotten what you would really like out of your equine relationship, and quite possibly (even secretly) wish you had a different horse. It can be a difficult thing for a woman in this situation to realize that she too, is stuck in a non-productive pattern.

Regina Reilly believes that this is a much more complex issue. First, Regina states, it is not easy for us to look into ourselves and ask, “How is it that I am in this situation?” She goes on to say that women, in general, tend to feel deficient and that we have been trained from very early on to rely on our minds, and not our hearts. When we encounter frustration with our horses, our head tells us that we ought to be able to handle the horse, we ought to be able to figure it out, and fix the problem.  Our mind battles with our heart, which knows the truth, and because it is such a dilemma—and we feel so bad about it—we just try to cover it up.  This “cover-up” can take the form of replacing the horse (in hopes to find one that will not bring up feelings of inadequacy or deficiency), or the inability to reach out for truly productive help.  I have seen numerous horsewomen who are “serial clinic participants.”  They will jump from clinic to clinic, trainer to trainer, but not really stick with any one approach.  Nor do they really put in the time and commitment it takes to make the real changes that they say they desire.

Kate Sullivan, founder of SAFER–Sonoma Action for Equine Rescue, deals with two kinds of horsewomen: those who want to acquire a horse, and those who want to get rid of one.  She believes that in general, people tend to be unrealistic in the expectations they have of their horses right from the get-go.  Potential adopters at her facility see a horse that has been with a trainer at SAFER, and expect the exact same behavior from the horse when they get it home, regardless of their own horsemanship skills.  She knows with certainty that most people equate getting help with personal failure.  Pair this with Regina’s insights, and it is no wonder that we have a hard time reaching out for help!  We cowgirls, who may already feel deficient in some ways, are “relational” at our core (so we should be able to figure out how to have a successful relationship with our horse). If we begin to fail, it is too much to take in, so we resort to “cover-up” strategies, which don’t actually get us anywhere, but in fact, keep us in a vicious cycle.

So what is the solution?  I believe that Horsemanship is a learned art.  I have always equated it with playing a complex instrument like the piano or violin.  You have to learn the instrument and get amazing control over the parts of your body that interact with that instrument.  One may dream of becoming a concert pianist, but there are necessary steps that must be taken.  You start off by playing chopsticks, and if you find great teachers, and put the time in, you can end up playing beautiful pieces.   I am quite certain that even a top-notch performance pianist did not play every composition perfectly at every rehearsal!  So the key is to listen more to your heart.  Be vulnerable, open yourself up, and find the necessary help.  Kate Sullivan believes it is a matter of training, training, training!  If you do not find a trainer that you click with (or if you don’t like their methods), try another.  Keep trying until you find the right person for you, and then stick with it!

So, last but not least, scenario number three.  Jenny Alphin – founder and owner of Hoofbeats Riding School in Petaluma, California, takes in rescue horses to use in her program.  She has no problem saying that she does not get along well with every horse that comes through her program.  There are some horses that she just does not seem to have a natural rapport with, and others that she gets along with just fine from the get-go.  She equates this to people in our lives that we either really like….or really don’t.   When Jenny encounters a horse she feels this way about, she does not blame the animal and does everything she can to find the horse a home with someone who does get along with that particular horse’s temperament. I, too, have experienced this, and have also seen it the other way around!  I have met horses who really did not appreciate their owners, but were very happy around other people who rode and interacted with them.  The takeaway? “Spend time with people and horses you enjoy!  You will be a much happier person, and forcing a relationship is just not a pretty thing,” Jenny remarks.

Now, instead of comments like “Whoa! I walked away from that relationship too fast. I now realize how my own actions and issues contributed to the problems.” or “ I stayed in that relationship for way too long, we just weren’t well-matched,” my hope is that, as we develop into the best Cowgirls that we can be, we hear ourselves begin to say, “Wow, I learned so much from the relationship with my horse.”  May we begin to use a bit more of our hearts, allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable, and asking for help when we need it. Then we can truly help each other blaze new trails with confidence—and with big smiles on our faces.

Suggestions to help you in your quest for the best relationship:

  • Assess what your actual horsemanship skill level is.  If you are not sure it matches the skills required to handle your horse, get a professional to help you make that assessment.  Get more than one opinion if you don’t like the first!
  • If you are reasonably well-matched with your horse, but are still running into roadblocks, don’t hesitate to seek help.  Yes, it takes time and money, but if you are serious about your horsemanship goals, it will pay off in the long run, if you put in the time and do what your trainer suggests.
  • Remember, you are not going to connect well with every person, or every horse you meet.  Find a trainer and a horse that you click with.  You may have to try a few!
  • If you find yourself going through multiple trainers and/or horses it may be time for some introspection.  Look at yourself a little deeper, and make sure that you are not just running from an unconscious feeling of deficiency.
  • Be responsible.  If you are re-homing your horse, certainly point out all the animal’s good qualities, but also disclose the issues you are having with it. Since you have learned a lot from the experience, you can serve your own integrity and the next owner by doing what you can to prevent the cycle from repeating.

(Originally published May 2014.)