Terrible Riders

It’s almost certain that I was a terrible rider.

I was thirteen years old, and I’d been riding for three years. Riding wretched ponies who dumped me, riding a schoolmaster Quarter Horse who also dumped me from time to time, riding a hard-boiled Appendix gelding who did not dump me but who was so bad-tempered and basically hurtful (he was always pinning his ears and looking at me like I’d put nails in his feed-tub) that he only lasted half of the trial period before we called his owners to come and take him away.

I was thirteen years old, and I hadn’t had a riding lesson in months. I’d been on a few trail rides, begged a few rides.

He was five years old, and he’d run his last race eight months earlier. He’d been on a few trail rides, chased a few cows.

the 5 year old OTTB and the 13 year old girl learn dressage together. The girl mainly learns it by looking straight down, apparently.

We were good together. He needed to know how to move his long body. I needed to learn how to teach horses. I needed him to teach me how to stick in the saddle when the wires in his brain crossed (as they did now and again.) I needed him to teach me to grab mane and kick on when neither of us were sure what was on the other side. I needed him to teach me to grab mane and trust when I wasn’t sure, but he was.

It’s a sure thing: without Rillo, I’d always have remained a terrible rider.

I mean let’s face it, how do good riders get good? Go and read Denny Emerson’s blog of that name and get back with me, but I’m pretty sure there’s something in there somewhere about challenging yourself. And, of course, that if you want to be a rider, you have to actually, you know, ride, pretty much every day.

Throughout my years with horses, I’ve been more without a riding instructor than with one. Riding instructors are expensive. You can have a horse, or you can have riding lessons; that’s been my lifestyle for a very long time. And you know what? If you have a horse that makes you think, you can learn together.

I’ve been reading that American riders aren’t willing to ride OTTBs, that they’re sure racehorses are too flighty for them, that riding instructors won’t recommend them to their clients, that today’s riders want, no, need quiet and predictable and Thoroughbreds just aren’t those things.

Ignoring the blatant stereotyping and sweeping generalization of that concept, so incorrect as to be ridiculous, for there are spooky-as-hell Holsteiners and there are bomb-proof racehorses, as most of us have experienced at some point or another…

Tell me why anyone would ever opt to be less than a good rider.

Tell me why anyone would ever seek to be a competitive horseman without learning to ride on the most hair-trigger-sensitive horse they could find.

Tell me where the ambition has gone, to be anything more than a terrible rider, being bounced around by wretched ponies and dead-broke schoolmasters, no matter what their breeding.

I’ve always subscribed to the school of thought that a green horse and a green rider, with patience and time, can learn together. Maybe because it worked for me. Maybe because I made it work, because it was the best (only?) option that I had. Maybe because I wanted it so badly.

But being an accomplished rider: that, I thought, would be any horseman’s goal.



Filed under Rillo

29 responses to “Terrible Riders

  1. Great blogpost. I actually ordered Denny’s book and am really looking forward to it. I know my OTTB (green when I got him) is the #1 reason for my success at attaining my interim goals and becoming a better rider and longing to become an even better rider and horsewoman. After riding him for 6 years now, I can tell you we are still learning together and will continue to improve together.

    Keep up the insightful writing!

    • That’s so awesome! I’m glad you liked the post. I hope it isn’t miscontrued as an attack on anyone… it probably will be, such is the nature of the Internet… but the fact is I just DON’T BELIEVE some of the things that I read, that riders aren’t good enough for Thoroughbreds. Um, I was awful. 🙂

      Riding is about learning. End. of. Story.

  2. lynn sullivan

    I agree! bad horses can make good riders, and good riders can also help bad horses! I re-train race horses and ride 3-4 everyday and I learn something from them daily…good AND bad!
    if you are always given a quiet, well mannered horse to ride, you learn to ride a quiet, well mannered horse. where’s the fun in that? riding many different horses over a period of time and learning to deal with all of their personalities is what makes a good rider. Just MHO!

  3. OMG! I LOVE YOU! We are BAD RIDERS! (Say that in the same tone as “We Are Marshal”)

    All you have to do is look at my blog and my posts and videos of me riding Ollie. Hands down I’ve learned more about riding with that OTTB than any other horse! But some days it’s nice to get back on my old guy and have that ride where he accepts me for who I am. I really have a nice combo of horses but it’s always Ollie where I get the most satisfaction. By a long shot!

  4. I must say that this post from about a month ago was my proudest moment since owning Ollie: http://racehorsetoshowhorse.blogspot.com/2011/12/first-show.html

    I’m still bursting with pride that we did it! And all on our own! No coach, just me, my husband (staff photographer) and my horse. I feel like a big girl now…

    • Thank you for sharing! I remember my first time bringing Rillo back after a scary show incident. It was just a little Howard County Horse Show but it felt so good… you really can’t stop thinking about those good times when they surprise you like that!!

      And THIS has always been one of my FAVORITE training sayings… ‘As one friend says, “We need to spell out everything in capital letters and in crayon for him.” ‘

      I love that this is part of the equestrian lexicon.

  5. Well, all other things being equal, I have enough misalligned bones and prior experience with whiplash I’ll pick the easygoing, can-do deadhead any day. (Ironically at my barn that’s the OTTB.) I’m not going to knowingly get on a horse who’s going to try something stupid.

    OTOH, non-hair-trigger does not mean safe (there’s no such thing as a bomb-proof horse) and I’ve probably learned more about how to ride from Lucky than from fearing for my life on Benny when he was young, recently gelded, and had no idea what he was doing (there I mostly learned “falling hurts and jumping is terrifying.”) I say Lucky’s a tricky ride, not so much because he like likely to have a meltdown (it happens, but rarely) as because, being a TB, you have to get all the little nitpicky things RIGHT. Otherwise he gives you precisely what you ask for. Whether that’s what you wanted to do is another story entirely.

    And the deadhead that I snuck a few higher jumps in on at college when no one was around (in addition to fear of jumping, I developed an inability to jump in front of people without having a mental meltdown) was, you guessed it, a TB. I don’t know if Patrick ever raced, but he DID go to every hunter show up and down the east coast in his younger days and I challenge anyone to find me a WB who was quieter, calmer, more forgiving, or more a point-and-shoot jumper. You would have to TRY to screw him up to the point he wouldn’t take a fence. An American-bred, American-born, American-trained TB.

    If calm is what someone wants, you can find it in a TB. I think it’s really that trainers don’t make five-figure commissions and get expense-paid, deductible trips to Europe looking for TBs that has them convincing their students they can’t ride those crazy Thoroughbreds. Because five minutes’ looking and you’ll find one.

    • Well NOW I’d prefer a dead-head, but I’m 30. I’m broken already. I’m worried about the 13 year olds out there, really.

      I think you’re right about the commissions. Or at least on to something.

  6. I was one of those riders who sought the naughty horses…because I enjoyed (and still do enjoy) the challenge of figuring them out. My first pony was a HELLION and if there was a trick in the book invented to lose a rider, she knew it in spades. Cantering under low limbs, dropping and rolling, bucking, galloping towards eternity, jumping into the lake and refusing to return, dropping her head and stopping dirty at a fence while I continued to make the jump solo. And the first year I had her? We didn’t have a saddle that fit, so everything was learned bareback…yeah, that pony taught me to ride and taught me that the one with “crossed wires” were the most fun.

    I do disagree with you about the green on green horse and rider. I’ve seen far too many serious injuries and ruined horses when a green rider gets a green horse and tries to make it happen with no help. It’s ugly. New riders should learn on good horses (notice I didn’t say DEAD QUIET) and move to the more challenging ones as they improve and want to move on. But let’s face it, some riders want nothing more than a nice, quiet ride all the time. No challenges, no questions and perfectly happy with just “mediocre.” That’s their goal, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that goal.

    Some of us are just a bit more adventurous.

    • This cracked me up! Your writing style is fantastic! It sounded like my life story too! And while I agree a green horse and a green rider are less then desirable, the reality is they are every where. That is why I do what I do. My focus is to help as many of these folks as I can. Perhaps this is your calling as well! We can’t reach them all, but like the story of the boy on the beach throwing starfish back in to the ocean, we can make a difference to many!

      • Thank you! They are everywhere, unfortunately, and if they are able to seek and get the help they need, many CAN do just fine. But in reality, most of them don’t get help, the horse gets sour and ruined and everything is blamed on what could be a really nice horse with a little knowledge and patience.
        I would love to be able to help some of those people work with what they have safely and effectively, I just wouldn’t have any idea about how to get started!

      • You could teach riding lessons? 🙂

      • I could, but fear stomping on the toes of the trainers around here…they can be a rather nasty bunch. And, while I have the space and the property, I don’t have a “proper” arena.

      • Aaaaah the heck with the local trainers. I had a huge riding lesson business in Jacksonville, FL, using just my OTTB in a pasture, and teaching some other people with their own horses… when I was 18! Hah.

  7. I am sooo feeling you! Thank you for this and I will also read the book. I have learned from some pretty tough teachers as well. Stormy my first pony and every other “rank” horse or pony I could find! Life (family illness and deaths and surgeries) then kept me from riding and I am now kind of going through it again, but each step is another white moment!!!

  8. I do not understand at all why you wouln’t want an OTTB. Mine has been the best thing that has ever happened to me, and we have learned so much together. I think people need to get over the stereotype and start focusing on each individual OTTB horse. They make wonderful competitors and companions. I would take an OTTB over any other horse any day. And I agree with you that a green horse and a green rider can learn together. Being willing to ride different types of horses makes you a well-rounded rider. Horses can be some of the best riding instructors! Always enjoy your blogs!

  9. Kelly Sherman

    Your story brought me right back to being 13 and getting my very own horse. I was excited and no one could figure out why. He did hand stands when he bucked, bolted whenever a leaf spooked him and tried to take chunks out of all the children that walked past his stall. There was one month in the beginning that I fell off everytime I got on. But we stuck it out and eventually ended 2nd in the state in our division. One he realized that I was saving him for his awful track days we were best buds and I could curl up in his stall on his hay. That horse taught me so much about being tough, working hard in life and in the ring. Thank God we never had the money for a boring show horse.

  10. As always, I’m nodding along as I read your post…word:) What I love so much about OTTBs is their TRY-it’s hard (if not impossible) to get frustrated or have a horrible ride on a horse who genuinely enjoys working, even if they are a little green or spooky or whatever. I find now when I get on another, “steady eddy” type, there’s no “there” there. I don’t like the feelings that brings about in me-I’m not a heavy on the aids type and I don’t ever want to be. OTTB sensativity works for them more than against them, I think. Once you ride a horse that really tunes into you it’s hard to go back. So, you know, I don’t plan to:)

    • I totally get it! I have a fabulous, sensitive, fun, clownish, goofy OTTB that I love to pieces. And I have a little steady eddy QH mare and an elderly been there, done that Appy (who I adore), but riding them is Booooorrrriinggg. I keep them around for my kid and for friends who want to go riding. I just don’t feel that thrill when I ride either one of them, not that thrill and sense of accomplishment and fun I have on my big ole Gabe. Yeah, I think I’ll stick to my OTTBs!

  11. Laura

    I agree. My OTTB is not the horse I was looking for but he is the PERFECT horse for me!! He is kind, willing, sensitive, and has more TRY than any other horse I have ever ridden. He also has his “moments” which are what make him unique and NEVER boring! I have learned so much from him!!! I would never own another breed.

  12. Anna

    My OTTB keeps me honest. He is my first horse, and I waited over 40 years to have him in my life. I hadn’t ridden at all while raising my kids…when I did, I was a hell-bent teenager without fear.
    My “couch potato” racehorse (as described by LOPE’s Lynn Reardon) was the catalyst for a wonderful new chapter in my previously rather aimless life. Lynn thought we were a good fit, even knowing my story. I keep that in mind when I get frustrated, because I know she has earned her stripes and is a pretty sharp cookie.
    I’ve learned that I thought I knew well enough how to ride.
    I’ve learned that what I really did know would fit into a squirrel’s teacup.
    I’ve had more unscheduled dismounts than I care to admit- only one, the first, was intentional on the part of my horse- and it was because I was ignorant.
    I learned that I am breakable.
    I learned that the old adage is true- fear sets in if you don’t get right back in the saddle.
    We still don’t ride daily, but we have come a long way in how we communicate with each other.
    He asks me every day if I’m qualified to be the leader in our partnership. Now I can answer “yes” truthfully much more often than I could at first. And he holds me to it.
    I wouldn’t trade this experience- or this horse- for anything. He is my answer to the question “why?”

  13. Anna

    Forgot to hit follow 🙂

  14. I learned to ride six years ago, at the tender age of 38 (i.e., with a knowledge of my own mortality). I own a TB. Last week my trainer made me feel better about our occasional challenges by reminding me of the difference between RIDING and BEING A PASSENGER.

  15. What a lovely post. I really enjoyed Denny’s book as well (and if you liked that, you might like Carol Dweck’s “Mindset”, a book about how we can all be better learners). As the current owner of a TB so laid back she appears horizontal most of the time (On Friday the dentist dropped a metal file folder right in front of her hooves, a pheasant tried to land on her face, and a friend of mine squealed in her ear, the most she did was roll her eyes at the dentist, and her ears at the friend), I totally agree that this image of the too-hot-to-handle OTTB is a gross generalization. You can learn so much from every horse you ride.


    That sounds terrifying! I’m spooking right now! What kind of menagerie do you keep that sweet mare in?

    Thank you for the book suggestion. Looking at the state of my affairs at the moment (I am considering just pasting post-it notes with my ideas all over the walls, so that the minute my mind wanders from on project I can instantly fixate upon another) I should probably evaluate my mind-set and learn to focus a little.