Ways to Trash Your Riding Career: The More You Know…

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. This can cause a crisis of confidence, because you see your own competence as a relatively small thing, and there’s still a high peak to climb. You stand at the bottom and look up, and despair of ever getting there.

The other side of the coin is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. That’s an oversupply of confidence with an undersupply of competence. It can get a person into trouble anywhere, from politics to the classroom. Add a large herd animal with its own views on the matter, and it can cause real trouble.

Rent-a-horse proprietors everywhere can see him coming. He’s the guy who swaggers up, declares he’s an “expert rider,” and insists on being given a horse well beyond his actual level of skill. In less litigious times, he’d be given the horse named Satan and turned loose, and nature would take its course. These days, if the release form is sufficiently ironclad, the same thing may happen. Or someone will have to make an executive decision, eyeball his evident as opposed to avowed skills, and help him heave himself onto old Sofabed.

At the rental stables, there’s at least some protection against the the Dunning-Kruger problem. But what about the riding academy? In the US, where there’s no universal accreditation system (versus the UK and Europe, where instructors are vetted and approved before they’re turned loose to teach), anyone can put up a sign and call herself a trainer. The situation described here, as potentially dangerous as it is, is not at all unique. In a jumper barn you’ll get the “trainer” who has students flinging horses and themselves (often separately) over fences long before the students can either steer or balance reliably. In a show barn, the trainer does all the prep work and training, and the client puts on the outfit and (hopefully) steers the horse around the show ring to a ribbon.

Such trainers may or may not be able to ride particularly well themselves. Those that do ride well are feeding off their poorly educated clients, while inflating the clients’  sense of competence. They may, too often, choose horses for those clients (at the clients’ considerable expense) that are suitable for a professional trainer but not for an amateur rider. Such as, for example, the wealthy parents whose 10-year-old daughter’s trainer purchased an Olympic-level high jumper for the child. The horse was far, far beyond the child’s ability to ride. I never did hear the sequel to that story, but based on experience I would speculate that either the child was so intimidated by the very spirited, high-strung animal that she gave up riding altogether, or else Dunning-Krugered herself, abetted by the trainer, into accident or injury.

It’s not always the trainer’s fault, either. At the other end of the cash spectrum, an inexperienced rider on a budget may go out on her own without the trainer’s input and buy a nice, cheap horse that (bonus points) is really pretty and she fell in love. Better yet, she may get a “free” horse, and bring it proudly to the trainer. “Look at the great bargain I found!”

There’s a saying: “Ain’t no such thing as a free horse.” There’s another one, too: “Costs just as much to feed a bad horse as a good one.”

Cheap or free horses are often that way for a reason. Frequently because they’re untrained or mistrained. Ms. Dunning-Kruger may be an novice or intermediate rider, and may not consider that a green horse or a rehab is more than she can handle. She may not know how much work and skill training requires, and won’t have figured professional training into her budget. There’s a saying for that: “Green horse plus green rider equals black and blue.”

With horses, pride really does goeth before a fall. Hard. With broken bones.

What’s the solution?

Education, of course. A solid dose of (un)common sense. A good match of horse to rider. Clear eyes and an honest assessment of what the rider can do, and what he aims to do as he progresses. Choosing the horse to fit that assessment, with room to grow. Confidence without arrogance.

Sound like a f ew other fields people get into around here? Writing, for example. It’s meant to. Taming the wild word-beast has a lot of the same parameters. With horses it’s a lot more organic, but it comes from some of the same places.


Judith writes fiction about horses, too. Read the first chapter of A Wind in Cairo free right here on Book View Cafe. The rest is available at lulu.com as a trade paperback or a PDF download.

She has also contributed to the exclusive Book View Press anthologies, Rocket Boy and the Geek GirlsThe Shadow Conspiracy, and this week’s release, Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.




Ways to Trash Your Riding Career: The More You Know… — 9 Comments

  1. In Germany we have a driving license for riding competence, the Reiterabzeichen. I suppose you could get a horse without it but most stables will have you ride in the hall first to see how well you do.

    Back when I rode regularly, I may have braved Satan, but these days I’d ask for a reliable horse – not exactly boring old Sofabed, but a horse that reacts to the rider’s signals the way it should and won’t shy from a single leaf blustering across the path. And I’d ask about the horse’s general disposition and possible triggers for nervous reactions, esp. when going cross country.

    That’s why I know I have to find new beta readers after our old online group broke apart for reasons I still can’t figure out. I miss the feedback about those sentences I tend to write where I want to say too much all at once. 😉

  2. Super post! Thanks for the Dunning-Kruger Effect info.

    I happen to believe there is a kind of “horse karma,” so even if the Mr. Swaggering Blowhard gets by with his act today, one of these days he’ll use up his share and even Old Sofabed will dump him on his backside. (And yes, I’ll be among those cheering silently – or not so silently – as he goes “thud.”)

  3. Oh, the situation you linked to? Arabian reining trainer…Um, explains a LOT. Very few of them go into open shows, they tend to do breed shows…and there’s a lot of weirdness in breed shows (AQHA included!).

    As to the other stuff, unless I’m riding at a stable like the late lamented Grand Cypress (BHS certified, they know what they’re doing), I tend to minimize my skill level, especially on trail rides. For one thing, you get a more enjoyable ride (the one time I claimed experience, I nearly demanded a payment from the stable for training their horse because said horse kept aiming my kneecap at trees, but by the time we were done, he wasn’t….) without having to get into the schooling front.

    One reason I stick solidly to my trainer is that he’s most definitely not one to push you past your ability–and when he does push, it’s because he believes you can do it (and he’s right).

  4. The best answer to ‘can you ride’ is ‘yes, a quiet horse.’

    I got that from the autobiography of an Australian stockman who, by the sound of it, would have been able to stick almost anything – but underplaying your skills at rental stables means you’re likely to have a pleasant ride, whereas overplaying means you’ll have your hands full at best.

    Our ‘I’m an expert rider’ horse was a mare who was a good match for most riders from not-quite-novice to very experienced. She had the slight character flaw of lieing down in the pond every single time. So if you came back from a hack and rode through the pond to cool off their legs and happened to engineer a slight hesitation at the exit (she’d drop from a walk, but just in case…) –

    It was not a particularly clean pond 😉

  5. At this point in my life, even old Sofabed would point and laugh at me (but would wait till after the ride, if I bribed her with some sugar or an apple). I recall dear sweet Misty, the lap-Clydesdale whose ‘hugs’ meant you’d better have a pretty firm stance and not mind one’s hair getting chewed on a little. But yes, this example is very much usable in other parts of life. Well spoken.

  6. Thenkyewall. Good input, guys. Joyce, breed-show versions of anything but rail and halter classes can be, well, o_0

    AQHA “hunter” classes, OMG. Gah.

    Arabian dressage, same story. “First level” in a shadbelly, riding patterns, followed by a change of outfit and riding much the same patterns faster in the “reining” classes.

    They make their own worlds. It’s kind of sfnal, if you think about it.

  7. I have actually ridden a horse named Satan a.k.a. (cue the ominous music) the Killer Horse.

    Friends who were not expert riders invited me to ride with them at a riding stable. When the owner asked me about my experience, I told him I’d owned and ridden horses for a dozen years, but I’d be perfectly happy to take what was available.

    He put me on Satan. My friends about wet their pants in terror. The moment I picked up the reins, and I felt the horse’s mouth, the horse relaxed realizing I knew what I was about, and I had to keep waking him up. He was a bully who was usually given to inexperienced writers. So much for an interesting ride.

    As a writing teacher, I’ve noticed that some of those who know the least seem to be the most certain they know exactly what to do, and there’s no changing them. They are the ones I go to sleep around because they aren’t worth the effort. I spend more time with those who want to learn.

    Another disaster in making are those who don’t ride and who have never been around horses who write novels with horses. They always get it wrong.

    One fantasy writer I’ve met kept getting it so wrong, I gave him a business card, explained how many simple mistakes he was making about horses, and told him to ask when he needed advice. Of course, he never has. Yet another one of those who think they know everything.