By Collin Pursley
I remember the pressure of seeing the gate begin to open and my muscles begin to tighten. I can still hear the words of my trainer telling what not to forget, just seconds before entering the arena. There’s that moment when you are walking in, replaying your pattern in your head, listening to your trainer’s feedback, reminding yourself of any last-minute changes made in practice, and telling yourself to stay calm and take a deep breath. At least, that was what I was doing. What was my horse doing during that time? Backing up, stomping, swishing his tail, and/or sometimes rearing. That reaction was one I could never understand. In practice, I had this lackadaisical horse who rarely acted up. Seriously, I would kick my feet out of the stirrups and lay backwards to try and nap when we were walking. Laid back was an understatement. That’s what made the competition behavior so unorthodox. Growing up, I never had the means to form an understanding, but as a graduate student studying sport psychology, I set out to find my answer.
I know horses and riders form an empathetic bond. You spend hours on hours of time with each other- something must cultivate. You’re each other’s partner, and the most successful partners are the ones who are harmonious and have developed a synergy. When I told this to a room of academic professionals, one of them looked me in the eyes and called me crazy. However, when I said the same statement to the volunteers in my study, three-fourths of them looked at me as if I wasted my breath and followed up with “Well…. YEAH!?!”
My equestrian background was nowhere close to English. I grew up wrapping my horses around barrels and weaving through poles. However, I had respect for dressage, knowing the discipline and harmony it takes to make movements look so effortless. I was fortunate enough to have the support of multiple Region 9 residents throughout Texas to conduct my research. The process began very slow, with only a few women allowing me to come and observe them. But as I’ve learned many times in my life, having a combination of tenacity and talking to the correct people, many things can happen. Fortunately, the first two women in my study were that combination. They were the kind of people that were not afraid to call on or their friends, or walk through their barn, and say “Hey, why are you not in this study?” (Which they did…a couple times). I spent days before and after school walking around with my purple binder, out at barns, watching riders. On weekends, I would drive to the rated competitions all day. By the time I’d gained momentum, I had around six weeks to squeeze in over 30 hours of observations and over 1500 survey responses into a data analyzer.
The premise of my study was that as the riders’ mood became more disturbed, the more their horse would show behaviors to mirror that. The results of the women and their horses, from practice to competition, clearly demonstrated exactly that. I proudly looked at the professor who called me crazy when I delivered these results… I also may have done a little wiggle-like dance… but c’mon, it was justified. Does this mean that a horse and rider’s bond is deep and intimate? Possibly. In research, there can always be another study to come along and counter what I found, or provide different variables as to what else could have happened.
There are many people I have spoken to who claim to have hated doing their thesis research, but I have to disagree. I spent my time in nostalgia of walking into a barn, retrieving memories with the different smells, and petting every barn animal to walk my path. I like to say I put my blood, sweat, and cabernet-induced tears into this project. No matter the outcome of the results, I was reminded of why I chose to study what I did. This journey began because I had a horse as a child, who acted differently at competition than in practice. This study and the participating women of Region 9 helped give me that answer, and hopefully could apply the findings to their own performance. Maybe I am biased, but not everyone can do what equestrian athletes do. There are so many disciplines across the equine industry, making it fascinating and challenging. I would like to continue my research in the future, to continue to understand the depth of the horse-rider relationship.