May 26, 2018
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The delicate balance of matching horses to riders

Cassie Astle | Courtesy of Katie Bears
Cassie Astle | Courtesy of Katie Bears
Pairing horses with riders is a complicated game, and the relative size of each is only part of the equation. These riders participated in a camp at Wild Ivy Farm in Bangor several years ago.
By Cassie Astle, Special to the BDN

Many of my students do not have a horse of their own, which is precisely why I have so many horses. Students may not have the time or budget for caring for a horse full time, or they aren’t ready education­-wise or commitment-­wise for horse ownership. For those reasons, I keep a couple of “school horses,” horses that are used for lesson riders, on the farm. These horses are all various heights, breeds, colors and talent levels so that there is a good match for just about every rider who comes along.

Normally, I determine the horse that the student will ride depending on what each student needs to work on as well as the size and skill level of each rider. Occasionally, if there are not too many lessons on a given day, I will let a student choose which horse he or she would like to ride. It is always interesting to find out which horse that student chooses.

Some pick reliable transportation, a horse they have ridden often and know very well. Some choose the more challenging horse that they have been dying to take for a test drive, while others select the prettiest or biggest horse. Some can’t decide because they want to ride all the horses.

Whenever I was given an option of horses for lessons, most of the time I would choose the horses no one else wanted to ride, the ones that were too fast or too ornery or too green. I wanted to see if I could do it, if I could ride those horses.

At one barn where I worked, I made it my mission to ride each of the horses there, and I did complete that goal with the exception of the Shetland ponies. I outgrew being little enough to ride Shetland ponies by third grade.

It never takes my students long to figure out that if they complain about riding any particular horse, they are subsequently assigned to it until that horse becomes the student’s new favorite. It’s not just about riding horses. There are life lessons involved. It’s about learning to deal with fear or finding confidence. It’s about learning to cooperate. It’s about facing a problem head on and learning to adapt. Not every situation in life is going to be the one you hoped you would be in.

There are exceptions of course, like me with the Shetland ponies, because not every rider fits on every horse. There are riders of all shapes and sizes, so a match to a horse of a similar build is important for the safety of the rider and well­-being of the horse. There is a good reason why Arnold Schwarzenegger rode a draft horse in the Conan movies. There is not a good reason for why I know that piece of trivia.

Every horse, regardless of the amount of training it has had, will rise or sink to the level of its rider. It may not happen in one ride, but over time changes will happen because a horse is never “trained”. Even a horse trained to compete in Grand Prix dressage will start to deteriorate if ridden by someone not as highly educated. Horses continue to learn for their whole lives.

There are no old dogs when it comes to horses. As I get closer to the old dog stage of life, I am less inclined to ride the orneriest, fastest, most untrained­ horses, just for the fun of it.

The challenge of figuring out how to help that horse have an easier time getting along with the rider is more of a draw now. I still wish I could ride those Shetland ponies, though.


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