Equally as difficult as finding the right trainer is finding the right horse! We have all heard people say "that horse is a man’s horse" and maybe there is some truth in it. Just as some kids need a little more encouragement, some horses need that extra bit of physical motivation to produce their best.
However, there are also horses that are better suited - or prefer - female riders; like my pony/warmblood cross who wouldn't let a man within ten feet of him, no matter who it was.
Earning the trust and respect of your horse is paramount in creating a dressage partnership and a horse will know if his rider has the talent and belief in him, to go all the way.
“The horse is the best judge of a good rider, not the spectator. If the horse has a high opinion of the rider, he will let himself be guided, if not, he will resist,” Nuno Oliveira stated.
So when we search a horse that gives us that sense of belonging, our horse too will find the courage to let us guide him in the ring.
American Kim Herslow believes that finding the right horse comes down to effective communication: how advanced a rider’s vocabulary of aids truly is combined with their ability to read the horse’s signals. "I have had horses with trust issues and were too traumatized from prior training to ever over come this," said Kim. “In that case, you have to find an appropriate situation for them. Sometimes, horses just need a different career to change their thinking, and be more effectively trained if asked in a different way or in a discipline."
In order to test the perfect match, Kim aims to always consider the temperament of the horse first and then reads what's in their eye. "When you touch them, does their eye change in a worried way or does it look soothed by the touch? Does the body language of the horse seem relaxed? When you ride the horse is there a feeling that you are communicating well with your aids? I think all these things are important to find yourself a true partner."
Certain that some horses do better with a certain gender, Kim thinks this is something you can read from the horse's body language, whether on or off of them. "My top horse, Rosmarin, and I hit it off instantly. When I tried him as a 3 year old, we clicked right away and figured each other out with very subtle aids and a true connection through my seat and hand. The connection is the MOST important thing when evaluating a horse with its rider. It completes the bridge of harmony."
Putting the gender belief into action, Australian Lyndal Oatley knew one of her horses was a super talent but that to be truly brilliant he needed a male rider. "Toy Story is big in every sense of the word - big framed, big muscle mass, big power, big mover, big personality. Realistically, he is just simply too big and too much horse for me personally," stated Lyndal.
Blessed with the ability of a top athlete to do what is realistic for her and for her horses, Lyndal thinks dressage is about fitting horse and rider together to perform as a team. "Whilst I would have loved to ride Toy I know that together we could not achieve what I know he can with a more suitable rider. I am not one of these people who wants to sit there and watch someone put all the time and effort into a horse to simply be placed on and go into the arena. So luckily I have Patrik who fits him perfectly and together make a great team.”
Passing the horse onto her Swedish husband Patrik Kittel, Lyndal says the decision was an easy one, particularly now, as Patrik and Toy together have won a World Cup qualifier amongst other competitions. "They have had the success I hoped Toy would have so I am a proud wife/owner alongside my parents. His is a success in its own way," she explained.
According to Lyndal, some horses are more suited to each gender in general but she knows that there will always be the exception. "Men have more strength and can guide the bigger horses more effectively. Women generally suit the smaller, more condensed pocket rockets. Bigger is not necessarily better! Sandro Boy was, from the word go, a great fit size-wise and he is great in that he gives the illusion of being bigger with his long legs and the way he holds himself. We also connect mentally which is crucial - it's kind of like finding Mr Right - when you know... you just know!"
So when trying to buy Mr Right, Lyndal knows it is always a gamble but says that no matter what you have to trust yourself and your own feeling. "Just because someone thinks a certain horse is the ant’s pants, does not mean it will be yours. Always do your research, ride the horse a few times. Trust your instincts, know your strengths and limits as a rider and cross-reference that with the horse and go from there.," she said. "Hopefully it will be the dream you are after but if not, then be realistic and if you can, find an alternative that will let that horse reach its potential - then it is a nice opportunity too."
Having ridden two horses in her career that were not a good match for her, America's Alexa Fairchild did not choose these horses and knows that to make it all the way, you have to, yourself, feel the right connection. "When I try a horse, it is all about the feeling when you sit on the horse as well as your first impression while he is being presented. When I am trying a horse, I first see if he responds to the aids that I have been taught to use. I like to have a positive reaction to the aids and feel that the horse is willing to give. If a horse has been accustomed to a man's strength, it may be more difficult for a woman to manage it. It's about the type of hand / aids the horse has been trained with."
Alexa's current horse, Totall Tip Top, has a very similar character to herself and so she feels that they understand each other and are able to compromise. "It took us quite a while to figure each other out because my trainer and I had to re-train him in order for him to understand the aids. My trainer, Virginie Deltour, actually found Totall Tip Top and was the one that helped me understand him and advance him to the level we are today. She and I have the same taste in horses which allows us to work positively together."
If your goal, like these top riding ladies, is competition, New Zealand's Jody Hartstone searches for a competition horse that complements her own riding style. "A horse that has been ridden with too much seat and leg will often be much too heavy for me. If the horse has issues that I believe I have the skills to change, I may take a punt on it but, some I know I am better to leave behind. It is hard when you travel to Europe to buy horses as you may only be able to sit on a horse once or twice before making the decision to buy. One of the last horses I bought proved, after only a few weeks, to not suit me but I think sometimes it takes a month or two to really see if you will gel well together. Once I had ridden this horse in the competition arena I knew I needed to go back to riding stallions as geldings are different for sure."
With her current Lusitano stallion, Ali Baba, Jody felt that "click" straight away, not only in the saddle but also on the ground. "The personality of the horse will sometimes speak to you and you know then and there that a wonderful relationship will begin. Knowing the horse's training history and what he has been subjected to by his former training is important too. With Ali Baba I knew the training had been correct and soft and the stallion had never been held between the leg and hand. Some horses do seem to work better with men, for instance - generally ones that need a stronger, firmer hand to get over past issues in their training. Again, because of past experiences, a horse may prefer the often softer and more intimate relationship it can have with a female rider."
A talented horse can come into your life and share a piece of its journey with you but unless your personalities match, the horse will know and the greatest strength a rider can have is the humility to say: “this horse is a super horse but it's not my super horse.”
Finding a horse that believes you are a super rider is the greatest compliment a rider can ever be given, by anyone.
By Sarah Warne for Eurodressage