I once read a comment by a dressage rider (most probably Carl Hester) that said “you can’t just get on someone else’s Grand Prix horse and be able to ride Grand Prix”.
Now I’ve never doubted this but recently it crossed my mind.
I started riding this horse for his owner, and for the first couple of rides I really struggled in the canter transition. It drove me mad! I knew I was doing everything right, and tried altering my technique slightly (using more or less outside leg) but the result was an extravagant medium trot.
I grumbled about it but persevered, getting canter every couple of transitions. Then went away to mull things over.
This horse has quite a specific canter button. And I think the fact that my legs are a bit shorter than his owner’s means my leg aid is applied in a different place on the horse’s barrel. For some horses it doesn’t matter, but for this horse it seemed to have a profound effect. A couple of hacks later and a rebalance of my half halt (he needs more than others for the canter transition) and we are singing from the same song sheet.
In the Grand Prix horse situation, you have multiple more buttons (half pass, piaffe,pirouettes, to name a few) than the averagely educated horse which means the buttons need to be smaller and more precise. That means that the dimensions of the rider are more influential over the position of these buttons, which makes it harder for different people to ride a horse of a higher level.
So what other factors can influence how well you can ride unknown horses?
There’s the way you’ve been taught. As kids we used to ride all our friends ponies successfully, but I think that was partly due to the fact that we all had the same instructor. So we all sat for two beats before cantering, or all half halted in a particular way. So our ponies were used to our general style – similar to a regional accent – which meant that we could understand each other’s ponies.
As an instructor you know how your clients ride, so when you have to hop on their horse you can get a tune out of them straight away. I remember the yard manager when I was an apprentice riding Otis and she struggled initially for canter because I used more inside leg than she did.
A Grand Prix horse is usually only ridden by it’s rider, unlike a riding club horse who is likely to have two or three regular riders, which means they are more tolerant of discrepancies between riders so new riders will find it easier to find the right buttons.
I think that knowing a horse, and where their buttons are, can be the reason a mismatched pair can appear to work in harmony. For example, how the slight rider can appear to get the lethargic horse moving forwards. It’s not a strength issue, it’s placing the aids in the correct place to a specific degree. Or likewise how a fairly novice, or loose, rider can keep a lid on their whizzy mount – their legs may be moving a lot but they’ve not pressed the accelerator button.
Because of these difficulties I think it’s really important to take your time to get to know a new horse, not to panic if it goes wrong, and most importantly also to not judge anyone when they ride a horse for the first time. They’ll find the right button.