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Control your horse: how to play sports with a living being

As a horse rider you often hear horse riding is not really a sport. People look at it and think: this is easy, you just climb on that horse and you sit there while your horse is either performing some bizarre kind of ballet or running fast while jumping fences. All you have to do is stay on top of it. The truth is, when these people actually climb onto a horse themselves, they find it quite difficult to make this animal do what they want. And once it starts eating that delicious green grass, it’s a lost cause.

This shows us that horse riding is a sport in which you have to take an extra factor into account: the horse itself. As a rider you must always be aware of the fact that you are sitting on a living being that weighs about 500 to 600 kilograms and has a will of its own. This means that a horse will always be stronger than a human once it throws its considerable weight into it. Thus, it is utterly impossible to force horses into doing things. Therefore, you have to convince them politely and earn their trust. If you start forcing them, they will become frightened. And, just like other animals, horses can be very dangerous once they become scared. It is in their nature to flee in an emergency. In the wild they will be eaten unless they run away while kicking at their predator. So all in all, you have this animal with little brains compared to its body mass that can become scared of its own shadow in no time. And we, as ‘intelligent’ human beings, believe it is a good idea to go and sit on top of it. Above all, the fact that we, as meat-eating predators, are sitting on their backs is very silly if you come to think of it. A horse’s back is a very vulnerable spot. This is exactly where the lion will jump if he wants a horse for supper. And for that very reason, even Anky van Grunsven, the Dutch queen of dressage, falls off her horse every now and then.

Telepathic contact

So we have established that horse riders are a little bit nuts for even wanting to do this. But if we look at the things they manage to achieve with these animals, maybe we can also respect them for it. Looking at Dutch top-level sport we can see what makes a really good rider. Dressage rider Edward Gal, for example, was riding a horse called Totilas. They were a golden combination who broke world records with their high scores. However, with great success comes great profit and in 2010 the owners of Totilas decided to sell him for an amount of money that was difficult to say no to. Rumour has it, the deal amounted to €15 million. The black stallion was sold to Germany. His new rider Matthias Alexander Rath, however, does not manage to perform the magic that Gal showed in the dressage competition. This shows that the chemistry between the horse and its rider is crucial to perform on such a high level of sport. It is not just a matter being a good rider, because Rath certainly is a talented rider too. It is a matter of being able to communicate with the smallest signals to achieve the maximum result. Gal had an almost telepathic contact with Totilas that transcends ordinary horse riding.

Of course, there are those talented riders who are able to just climb on any horse and perform very well with them. A good example is Dutch Olympic medal winner Jeroen Dubbeldam, who was the only one to manage to jump the course faultlessly with four different horses at the World Championship this year. Since 1953, this championship is decided by exchanging the horses of the best four riders of the tournament. This really tests the so-called ‘horsemanship’ of the riders. They are given three minutes to get to know the horse before they have to perform with them. This really demands the ability to adapt to the horse and to respond well to its reactions. People may take all this into account the next time they are watching dressage.

Image and text: Jori Verstegen

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