Okay, so the word “versus” might be a little misleading. I’m thinking of starting a series here where I write about things that I’m not really qualified to have an opinion on. There’s nothing that inherently makes what I have to say valuable, but I do have a lot of experience and I’ve formed a lot of opinions! What I want to talk about today is how impactful it can be for a rider’s development to ride a variety of horses. For a very long time, Houdini was the only horse I’d competed, aside from a few cross rail classes at a local schooling show venue that were completed at a break-neck pace (shout out to Jumpin’ Jack Flash, aka Shorty).
Now, there is obviously something to be said for developing a particularly close partnership with your horse. Houdini and I know each other inside and out. I usually know what he’s going to do before he does it, and I can sometimes almost sense him rolling his eyes at me when I push for more submission on the flat or work to settle him in the gallop (he can be a little… exuberant). We have been working together since I was 10 and he was 5. There are very few surprises, which is comforting, but can also allow for complacency.
In came Maria when I was 14. I’ve written a bit about the main differences between Maria and Houdini and how they have to be addressed differently (you can check out my intro posts for both of them if you’re interested!), but I haven’t spoken much about how it affected my riding. Maria is the polar opposite of Houdini in pretty much every way. She is tall, he is short; she is narrow and lanky, he is solid and sturdy; she is overly submissive, he is almost exclusively defiant. Their ways of going are completely different in all phases.
Let’s start with flat work and dressage. I started eventing when I was 10 with Houdini, and I hated dressage. I thought it was difficult, boring and just something I had to get through to be able to do the fun stuff. That’s because I was 10, Houdini was very difficult on the flat, and I hadn’t developed the skills and technique to encourage submission from him. I certainly wasn’t going to muscle him into it, his neck is roughly as wide as it is long and I weighed probably 85 pounds at the time! We pretty much ran through our transitions with his head in the air (but I will say that my ring figures were impeccable – control what you can, right?). He is naturally uphill, and a pretty cute mover in my opinion, but we were years away from putting it all together. When I started riding Maria, I realized that dressage was difficult, but it didn’t have to be boring, it might even be something that could be enjoyed! She is very soft in the mouth and is really a pleaser, she just wants to do what you want her to, even if she’s not quite sure how to do it. True to form, she tends to move a bit more downhill and can easily get behind the vertical, so the name of the game with her is to ride her uphill and push her out toward the bit, just the opposite of Houdini! Maria and I were able to school to a much higher level than I’d been able to with Houdini. Not that we were without our struggles as a pair, either, they were just different struggles. Riding Maria allowed me to further my dressage riding and knowledge in a way that I couldn’t with Houdini because we struggled so much with the basic component of submission. In 2010, when Houdini and Maria were both sidelined with injuries, I got the opportunity to ride a Hanoverian named Baldur, who belongs to my trainer. Talk about advancing my dressage riding! Baldur was born in Germany and imported as a 4 year old and has become pretty seasoned through 4th level with my trainer. He knows so much more than I do and he was so willing to share it with me, all he demanded was correctness. Baldur was my first experience riding a true ‘dressage horse’, I knew that no matter what I was asking of him, if he wasn’t getting it, it was because I wasn’t asking it right. We evented together for about 2 and a half seasons through Training level, but I also had to opportunity to compete him in local dressage shows through 3rd level, which was something that I would not have been able to do on my own horses at the time. Of course, I was able to use the technique that Baldur taught me in my dressage work with Houdini and Maria, and later with Brandon. Brandon is by far the most difficult horse I’ve ever ridden on the flat. I will get more into his history another time, but he started out as a show jumper and the manner in which he was trained and competed left him with a lot of anxiety. He belonged to a good friend of mine who gave me the chance to ride and compete him, and he had done a lot of work to reduce Brandon’s anxiety and make him more rideable overall, but to a certain extent, by that point in his life he was who he was. Dressage tests with Brandon took a pretty delicate balance of pushing and settling and our warm ups were very specifically timed. If I tried to keep him focused for too long or if he had too much down time, he could fall apart pretty quickly. If the judge stopped us at the box before the test or something near the arena was distracting? Forget it. Like most riders I know, I’ve experienced moments of frustration with horses and reacted badly, but generally I think of myself as a pretty tactful rider. I realized in working with Brandon that I didn’t have half as much tact as I thought I did. He could be so explosive that it was almost impossible not to take it personally, but if you took anything he did personally, you’d never get anywhere with him. I also had to get pretty creative when it came to flatwork exercises for him. With Houdini, I’d have to lunge him to take the edge off so I wouldn’t get worn out trying to work him into a rideable state, with Maria, I’d have to keep her really alert and responsive to the aids, never doing the same thing for too long causing her to tune me out, with Baldur, I’d have to plan for a really long warm up so that I could gradually shorten his body into a reasonable frame (he is like the animal form of a 4 horse trailer with living quarters, I think you could fit 5 people on his back comfortably, his body is really long!), and with Brandon, I had to pick one thing to focus on and then get in and out before he realized it was time to panic. I know for sure that Brandon would have torn me apart (figuratively…) if I hadn’t carried all of those lessons from earlier in my riding career into my partnership with him. I also know that the tactfulness that he taught me has already served my riding and will continue to help with what is (hopefully) my next step, working with some young off-track thoroughbreds!
If you’ve made it this far, don’t worry, I’m almost done! Since flat work and dressage are the foundation for jumping, the effects of working with multiple horses on my jumping are mostly more of the same. Whereas Houdini is difficult on the flat and Maria is much easier to work with, when it comes to jumping, they’re completely opposite, yet again. Houdini is not necessarily an easy ride, but he has something effortless about his jumping, even if I’m not on my game, he always manages to get to the base of the fence at just the right stride. He is super careful and never struggles to jump clean. Maria, on the other hand, requires a lot of support to the base of the fence, she can be pretty lazy with her feet, resulting in having rails down (trust me, I know it’s laziness because she wouldn’t dare rub her legs on a solid cross country fence). This dichotomy took a lot longer to adjust to than the dressage aspect, because I was going from something ‘easy’ to something more difficult, rather than the other way around. I took lessons, audited and rode in clinics, went to hunter/jumper shows, eventing derbies, literally anywhere I could get some practice over stadium jumps. As I said, we didn’t have this issue over cross country fences, only fences where she knew the rails would come down if she rubbed them. We still struggle in show jumping more than any other phase, but we’ve come a long way through a lot of hard work. Baldur and Brandon tended more toward Houdini’s style, with their own variations, of course. Baldur is incredibly powerful and will jump from pretty much anywhere as long as you are behind him with your leg on. Brandon was the most cat-like horse I’ve ever ridden, he could get to a fence at any distance and figure out how to get out of his own way. Each of them has given me experience in finding that ideal feel to go out on course with. Interestingly, despite the drastic differences in all of their styles, I learned that the best warm up tactic for all of them was to jump as few jumps as possible in the actual warm up area. Any time we jumped too many before going on course, the round would feel less than ‘put together’. I know there are horses who need a lot more jumping before going on course, but I found that to be a good strategy for the variety of horses I was riding was to limit jumping in the warm up.
I learned very specific lessons from the horses I’ve worked closely with and competed, but I know that the things I learned from each of them helped my riding overall and could be applied to all of the other horses I’ve ridden, and will continue to ride! I can easily say the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in my riding was to take the ride on any horse you’re offered, because they always have something to teach you.