There is a huge distinction between being nervous or anxious about your horse or feeling this way about the tasks you and your mount must accomplish. Thoroughbreds seem to take it extremely personally if a rider does not trust in them, yet they exemplify “heart” if a trusting rider’s anxiety concerns the job at hand. This year of riding two Warmbloods and two Thoroughbreds as an amateur has led me to a few recognized shows so far. Mavis has not competed at them yet as she needs to grow, but she has tried her heart out jumping anything presented to her while schooling. For instance, I thought she was going to stop at her first brush box, and I was fine with an innocent stop, but simultaneously the over-achiever and x-eventer in me wanted to get over the obstacle and gave a nudge. At the point of considering turning her, thinking I should not push her, she still went, leaving me a bit behind. Well this glimmer of Mavis’ attitude to press on after reading her rider’s intentions over her rider’s mistakes and indecision has been strongly reinforced by No Nonsense Jones, my older TB that has dominated my last decade plus!

Mavis sleeping with her herd on watch: eating, sleeping and hopefully growing like a weed are Mavis’ main goals while I focus on her compadres for now. Photo by Cle Toledano. 

I am so comfortable on a horse but so anxious about jumps and performing. This year’s competitions have brought out the worst in my jumping, but the best in the horses I love and ride. In short, I abandoned, dropped, chipped, over-rode, was over and under-pace, pushed, froze, stiffened, saw impossible long distances etc. on No Nonsense Jones, and he bailed me out over all 14 jumps to go clean in a power and speed class at Culpeper. He did the same over about half the jumps at Lexington to earn reserve champion in the Take 2 TB’s.

My question to anyone with experience failing the horse you trained yourself and making him save your day is: how do you not feel guilty? I am finding the guilt makes me ride him less, not feeling worthy of asking anything precise from an animal that is so generous; but riding apologetically just leaves more room for error.

No Nonsense Jones dilligently doing his job in Lexington, VA. The only times he has not saved the day are on the (many) occasions I go off course. He cannot compensate for that! Photo by Lee Wood. 

This sentiment of feeling indebted to my thoroughbred’s generosity contrasts to my experience on the Warmbloods, whose generosity resides in their scope. The two Warmbloods seem to insist that I ride decisively. They imply “if we are going to punch this ground and soar through the air you better help out with perceptible determination and precision!” I can totally see why Warmbloods succeed with true competitors at any level as long as they are not fried, hurt or over-faced. Maybe they are like engineers; you give them the right tools and signals and they will solve the problem.

On the other hand, well-trained Thoroughbreds seem steeped in the gray of the Humanities. Thoroughbreds seem to have compassion for types that relate to Shakespeare’s famous prince Hamlet—types full of worry and want, indecision and ambition, paralyzed by perceived injustices but driven none the less. Maybe this explains why so many professional riders achieve their “firsts” on Thoroughbreds; because the Thoroughbreds respond to these emotions, they read them, and allow so many riders to reach their goals (even when modestly saying they were riding blind).

I see these pro-riders become confident, successful, and business-minded on the Thoroughbreds, then switch to Warmbloods. It seems like a fairy-tale progression (more like the story of Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”) that the less valued, or less valuable Thoroughbreds, give their hearts to overcome so many riders’ short comings, to help these riders arrive at the cool determination insisted upon by their warm blood successors. However, objectively speaking, I’m sure my Thoroughbred would appreciate my being more cool and calculated, although that is not my nature. The best response to my Thoroughbred’s generosity is to reward him with that upon which the Warmbloods insist—competence.

So while on the theme of anthropomorphizing the emotions of horses and confessing rider shortcomings, let me tell you about falling off of Mavis this winter. Determined to get a ride in during the snow this February, I went for an on-the-buckle trail ride. We all remember how Mavis loves to stretch her back with her nose on the ground. All of a sudden, as it turns out, she wanted to make snow angels. She dropped to her knees to lie down in the snow. Really it’s just amazing she was going on a trail ride at all, and to find the positive, that she was relaxed enough with me to lie down (skip the disrespect part).

My brain scattered and I thought I should bail out, but again the anxious part of me yelped and put my leg on before deciding to bail. So the good Thoroughbred read my intentions and popped up quickly and respectfully before her shoulder found the snow. However, I was already half off so her quick pop-up helped me completely off. Now more anthropomorphism, did she love me enough to stick around and apologize for the misunderstanding? NOPE! She displayed her beautiful speed and went toward her new home.

Mavis pays tribute to Sweet Pea’s fateful corner of the run-in while she rests and grows… hopefully. Photo by Cle Toledano

I walked after her knowing there was nothing I could do but 1) not be insulted 2) wonder where she went since she had arrived at my farm just a week prior 3) guess how many parts of the bridle were broken. Here is the touching part. She ran to the corner of the run-in shed where my beloved Sweet Pea (Mavis’ predecessor) lost her life. Mavis did not go to the barn or to the other horses. Thereafter, I noticed she often went to this spot and I captured photos of her resting in the very corner. So, in my mind, her Snow Angel was for her precursor who certainly taught me and would have taught her. In the same vein I am always touched when pro riders pay tribute to their Thoroughbred horses who communicated through the scatter of inexperience to make the right decisions, to get the riders where they wanted to be. I can only hope I can reward my thoroughbreds with a little confident clarity which my Warmbloods demand.