The Will to Walk Away

Photo by Andrew Pescod/Creative Commons License Photo by Andrew Pescod/Creative Commons License

I spend a lot of time looking at Advanced records. I’m passingly familiar with every horse running at the level in the U.S. and increasingly familiar with the records of those who show on a regular basis at this level.

One thing I’ve already learned in the months that I’ve been doing this is that there are quite a few horses out there with spotty cross country records at this level. I don’t think that surprises anyone, as there are horses at every level who have spotty records.

Some of those records are spottier than others. Some of them are the result of green horses, or green riders, or both. Some of them bounce between awesome rounds and obvious “Nope, not today” rounds. Sometimes you’re surprised when the record suddenly turns from incredibly dubious to solidly clean as the pair just figures it out one day.

What ultimately pains me is the record that makes me cringe. The record that is more than spotty and has only avoided losing qualifications because the rider is retiring, over and over again. The name that makes me wince when I see the horse once again entered at Advanced, despite eliminations or retirements the last several goes, and a string of refusals throughout past runs. A rough streak is one thing, a continuous and consistent pattern of trouble is another.

As event riders, we are often told you can pull yourself up in this game by your own bootstraps. That the true grit of the eventer is the ability to get back up and go on. That you can make it if only you are determined enough, want it enough, never give up. Even our history conditions us with this motto, between the cavalry philosophy on which cross country is based and the folklore of Olympians riding on through broken bones and miserable conditions. Our knee-jerk reaction is to never, ever give up.

But sometimes, you have to turn your back on never give up. As a rider, we can choose to take never give up and apply it to ourselves and our career. But as horsemen, we should never apply that phrase to our horses. We should never drill to exhaustion, never punish until it’s correct, never push beyond their limits.

Sometimes, as horsemen, it’s our responsibility to give up — give up our hopes and dreams for a horse who isn’t up to playing at a certain level, and let them go. Let them go to play schoolmaster to a young rider, or to take care of an amateur, or even to sit in a field.

We must remember that never give up is a human adage. We cannot apply such a dangerous philosophy for animals who have no comprehension of consequence. We ask them to participate, and some rise to the challenge for the love of us, but we need to listen when other horses say no. Horses who do not love what they are doing have no business in the realms of the upper levels, nor should we ask it of them.

This version of rider responsibility needs to be part of the conversation as much as course design and cross country speeds. A qualified horse does not necessarily ensure that he is talented, eager or even capable of advancing up the levels. Rider responsibility is not just riding wisely on course, but ensuring we are only competing horses at a level for which they have an aptitude.

So take a hard look at your horse’s record. Each rider knows their own horse best, and I think everyone deep in their heart knows the reason for each and every stop. Only you know whether your horse is stopping from inexperience or if he legitimately doesn’t want to play. But ask yourself the question constantly, and answer yourself honestly: Is this horse right for this level?

Never give up can only come after you have let the horse go. Then you pick yourself up, after disappointment or injury, and put your heart and soul into the next horse. No matter how many heartbreaks, riders must never give up the grit to continue on and never give up their ability to let go.

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