Recently, I wrote a brief post previewing a scene from Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Cinderella movie, starring Lily James in the title role. This weekend, I watched the movie again in its entirety and was pleasantly surprised. As a recovering Disney Princess child-fanatic, the story was already a favorite. But it was the message behind the movie that stuck with me—so trite it’s silly, really: “Have courage and be kind”.
Throughout the film, our heroine uses this motto, a final bit of wisdom from her dying mother, to help stay the course during her tumultuous upbringing, ultimately earning “Ella” her happily ever after. On the surface, there’s little behind the words to suggest anything besides the typical Disney fluff: the kind of stuff you recite a lot as a kid, and then quickly forget when life inevitably gets a little more complicated. But outside of being a better way to live all around (when you can remember to so) it dawned on me that “have courage and be kind” might be helpful when it comes to succeeding with horses as well.
For many of us, remaining true to both ‘courage’ and ‘kindness’ in our riding can be a constant struggle. Conquering the fear factor, as we see so often on Horse Network, is for many riders a daily battle. Our sport is a dangerous one, a fact that few who have ridden for any length of time would deny. Horses are big and often unpredictable, the challenges we ask of them are daunting, and even the most solid and athletic partner can, on any day, take a misstep, trip, and fall down. For some riders it doesn’t matter. For them, having courage is like breathing; they wake up in the morning, slip on their gossamer invincibility cape, ride eight, fresh, green horses, and drift off to sleep at night without a care in the world. For most of us, though, the issue is a bit more complex.
Courage isn’t always easy to have on a horse, but having it, even just a little bit, is inherent to our sport. Courage gives a horse confidence, and a confident horse goes far better than one who’s afraid. Maybe you have courage most of the time but get nervous at horse shows. Maybe you ride your old school horse just fine, but freeze up on your young project horse. Maybe every time you sit in the saddle, you recall the bad fall you had last summer. The point is not to despair because your own invincibility cape got lost at the dry cleaners. It’s about understanding that having courage, and more importantly, feeling the lack of it at times, is all just a part of the game. Keep at it. Do your research. Get help from a knowledgeable professional who can give you or your horse the confidence that you lack. As John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”
And being kind? That should be an easy one. It’s nice to believe that most of the horse people we know, and especially the successful ones, got into the business because of their true love and respect for the animal, and success naturally followed. But all too often, the truth is a bit more murky. In our day-to-day dealings with horses, being ‘kind’ is often a question of personal responsibility. Did I put my horse in a good situation with a good (kind) trainer? Do I care for him the right way? Do I make the best decisions for him that I can? Did I place him in a loving, long-term situation when I moved on from him? Often, kindness in riding and training is also a question of patience; of giving a horse the chance to work something out in his own time, being fast to forgive mistakes, and deliberate and thoughtful when making corrections. You might simply call this “good horsemanship”, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But even the word “horsemanship” has the potential to cover all manner of sins. Kindness—simple, unselfish, old-fashioned kindness—can’t.
Riding horses is hard, but often the most dramatic improvements in riding, at least in my experience, begin with a different way of looking at the same old issues. And that? Well, that can come from anything: a new trainer, finding the right horse, trying a new discipline, or even something as silly as a catchy little line in a kid’s movie.
Have courage and be kind. It might just make all the difference.