I can think of about 8 articles that should lead up to this one, like how to try out a horse effectively, how to avoid some pitfalls of horse shopping, get educated on the pre-purchase exam and contracts… the list goes on! And maybe one day I will tackle them, but for right now, lets pretend that your new horse has arrived at Polestar and you are so excited to come up and start riding him!
My very first piece of advice to all new horse owners is to remember that getting to know a new horse takes a lot of time and effort. This might come as a surprise to some, but you will not be always blissfully holding your new soulmate’s hoof and skipping through fields of blue tulips every evening under a pink sunset sky. In my opinion, it takes hundreds of riding hours to be able to predict what your horse will do in a given situation, to be able to seamlessly communicate and not have a UN arbitrator working between the two of you. It takes a relationship that is based on trust and education for the sunset ride to work out like it does in the commercials and not end up a Dukes of Hazzard race towards the highway.
So on that note, how do you best get to know your new horse? Maybe you have just spent as much money as you have to spare on the horse/PPE and traveling, but it is definitely in your best interest to start taking regular lessons with your coach. Offer to clean stalls or rake in the sides of the arena, but get creative to be able to afford the lessons. Lessons provide you with structure, catch emotions before they dip or soar too high, and help you identify ways to communicate more enjoyably with your horse. Here is a case in point: because you have a new shiny, exciting toy, you want to go jump and have fun! I guarantee a good trainer will laugh, and tell you to put that dressage saddle on and learn how to half halt your horse. Where are the buttons on this horse’s control panel, how is his “go” button different than your last horse? Maybe you need to use less heel pressure and a lighter leg? We all carry baggage from our past rides with us, and if your last horse was a lazy thug, perhaps you need someone on the ground to help you modify your aids so your new OTTB doesn’t set a speed record in the arena.
Next on the agenda, after riding in regular lessons with your trainer, is to be realistic about your competition plans. I have watched so many students get too excited about the coming season with their new horse. The competition arena is probably THE worst place to get to know your new horse. You will have nerves, excitement and tunnel vision at the show, and because of these three disruptive things, you will most likely miss the subtle nuances that create a blissful ride. Riding a great dressage test requires you to be able to correct your horse and improve yourself… almost without thinking of it. The test is the place to show off what you know how to do, not to hope that Harry Potter arrives just in time and obliviates the dressage judge to see something she isn’t!
Furthermore, once you and your trainer do decide that you are ready to compete, be realistic about the value of generating positive experiences. Just because your horse competed with the past rider at Preliminary level, does not mean that you will or should. Often the best course of action is to listen to your smart trainer and drop down to a lower level to make it all feel easy and successful in the beginning. You want to build your relationship with the new guy, not tear both of your confidences down! An experienced horse does not miraculously improve a novice rider. But that sage horse, does allow a novice rider a chance to learn good techniques, gain positive experiences and not be devastated by riding errors.
Overall, take a breath. Enjoy the hours with your new horse, build up volumes of experiences that will allow you to successfully progress through the levels. Remember the age old advice: you are more likely to cross the finish line with small, steady steps forward, than by erratic steps forward and backward.