You're Not Ruining Your Horse
I recently acquired a new student who has some self-admitted challenges with her confidence. One of the things she said in her first lesson with me was "I just don't want to ruin her". Apparently her former trainer had told her numerous times that she would "ruin" her horse if she didn't ride better and do X, Y, and Z. When she said that, I stopped our lesson for a bit to have a chat.
I asked her what her goal is for her horse. Does she plan to sell her? Are we concerned with decreasing her monetary value by regressing her training? Nope. She intends to keep her long-term and hopes to enjoy riding her while keeping her comfortable and happy along the way.
Do we have big competition goals for the horse? Does she want to see the horse make it up the levels with me competing her as a trainer and achieving great things? Nope. Not necessarily. She just wants to ride her and enjoy her and feel more confident about it. Competing isn't a big priority.
Bear in mind, nothing aggressive or terrible is happening here. The rider is fairly well-balanced, isn't bouncing around like crazy on the horse's back, has quiet hands, isn't kicking or doing anything obnoxious. The horse is happy as a clam, carrying her mom around the arena. Nothing going on that I would call "ruining" by any means.
"Ok," I said, "Well, then what does 'ruining' her mean?"
She kind of sheepishly answers, "...Turning her into a western pleasure horse by going too slow?"
I just kind of shrugged and said, "Well, if you want a western pleasure horse, then that's not ruining her at all! I mean, she's yours. You want to ride her and enjoy her. If you like the speed she's going and it's comfortable for you and you're having fun, then who cares? The horse certainly doesn't mind not powering around the arena as fast as she can go. And besides, western dressage is a thing too. If you really want to get a western saddle and do this western style, that's totally fine too! Let's do it!"
I think she wants to stick with English dressage. Which is also fine. And if she wants to go slow in an English saddle, THAT'S fine. In the end, it's up to her how she wants to ride. Yes, we should all strive to be balanced, quiet riders for our horses and ride them in a way that's comfortable and positive for them. This rider has those goals down solidly as a priority for herself. Beyond that... There are a lot of different styles of riding, and most of them can create happy horses that enjoy being ridden... And when the "problem" is that someone isn't pushing their horse enough to be super "successful" or "competitive" or "fancy", I can just about guarantee that the horse does not mind that.
It's tricky sometimes as a trainer remembering what to prioritze. I get excited about certain horses sometimes, especially when I get to ride them myself as part of their program. Maybe I get going with one and start thinking about how fun it would be to train that horse up the levels. Maybe I could even show them myself at some point... That's fun. BUT if that horse's owner also rides the horse and if their priority is working on their own riding at whatever level they're at and enjoying their horse, then that has to stay the priority. That's the WHOLE POINT for that person and horse. If that person is less competition-focused and just wants to play around and have fun with their horse and have their own kinds of successes that might be different than my kinds of successes, then I try really hard to focus on that and make that the point. Maybe that means that I don't teach the horse flying changes when I otherwise would start to, because I know it will make them buck all over the place in the canter as they're learning it and scare their owner off from cantering... And if their owner is someone who has no aspirations to do flying changes ever, or at least not for years... Then what's the point of pushing it?
Now I'm rambling, but here are the morals of my story as I see them:
1) If you're a trainer, please try to be nice to your clients... They keep us in business and fund the industry. Also, they're just trying to have fun. Let's make it fun. Horses are happier when their riders are relaxed and having fun. So let's be nice to people to make happy horses.
2) If you're a rider and your trainer berates you and tells you that you're going to ruin your horse (Apparently this is a common line, because after this latest incident happened, two of my other students said that their old trainers told them the exact same thing)... Take a step back and evaluate things. Is your horse REALLY suffering for your riding? What does your horse really want? He probably doesn't have huge competition goals of winning national championships... He probably mostly just wants to eat grass and to hang out with you and do his best to make you happy.
Riding is supposed to be fun. If you're taking care of your horse's health needs and giving him love and attention and doing your best to be a quiet, kind rider, you're doing great.