Riding a horse in competition is unlike any other sport. It is a partnership between two different species that must learn to communicate and work together to be successful. This informative articles look at, and raises considerations, as to how the bond between competition rider and horse is different to recreational riders, and how in many cases the Groom of the horse can play a much more important role.
Charles Stuart University psychologist, and horse rider herself, Dr. Rachel Hogg believes that competition riders have a different relationship with their horses compared to recreational riders. She writes “riders at the world class level develop close working relationships with their horses, rather than the more emotionally-oriented relationships that recreational riders form with their horses.” She argues that the reason for this is that the relationship is goal-oriented, rather than a pet-like relationship of leisure riders, and attaching an emotional connection to the horse “can potentially jeopardize a rider’s competitiveness.”
Frequently professional riders have large yards, and many horses to ride on a daily basis, so a majority of the animals day to day care is left to the yard staff, and in some cases, individual grooms with just one or two specific horses to care for on that yard. Therefore it can be seen in some cases that the strongest bond between competition horse and human is instead with the horse groom, according to a study by The Washington Post. In their build up to the 2012 Olympics the paper talked to professional horse groom Megan Kepferle who was working with Olympic hopeful the 12–year-old horse Manoir de Carneville. Kepferle told The Washington Post that she knew the horse better than anyone, including the rider. The reason for this is that she was responsible for the day-to-day care of the horse on the yard, in a similar fashion to a recreational rider’s daily routine. Her relationship with Manoir had been over three years when the paper interviewed her and Kepferle spoke of how the horse was “difficult to read and neither trusted each other” when they first met. The trust that they built over time was a key component of Manoir being considered for the Olympic team. It is likely this is due to the closeness of their relationship, the time spent together and the amount of time the groom, compared to the rider, handles the horse. In addition it is likely that the horse sees less pressure and stress from time spent with the groom, compared to the physical and mental demand that could be associated with the time spent under saddle or in training with the rider, which would be similar to a horses relationship with a leisure rider where there are less demands made upon the horse when it is ridden due to no pressure to perform.
There is also an interesting debate in the equine world about how important a jockey is during a race, and this is deemed a different relationship altogether. The BBC believe that the jockey and horse are “two discrete parts of the same high-speed machine; one brute power, the other the intellect.” Champion jockey Sam Waley-Cohen told the BBC that “its much more than a working relationship.” He believes that the high-speed hazards of racing create a strong bond similar to experiencing a dangerous situation with a friend. A jockey will race multiple horses over the years and will have to spend an extended period time with the horses before the race to not only let the horse get used to them but also for the riders to learn from the horse. In one of his articles on Betfair, horse racing pundit, Jack Houghton, even claims that in the Grand National, there’s a thoroughbred to cater for every taste. The lack of bond between rider and animal would not only lessen the chance of victory but could also be dangerous especially on a challenging racing track like the Grand National.
From the outside it may look that the bond between horse and rider is less than the one-to-one relationships most riders experience. Yet in order to perform at a high level there still has to be an element of trust. They may not go on the same emotional journey but the relationship is just as important and it is important top consider such factors when preparing for events, handling your horse on a day to day basis and considering the stresses and demands put upon each individual horse.