'I Couldn't Change Him but I Could Change Myself': What Three Tricky Horses Taught Me About Being a Better Rider

by Colin Savaria /

Published on

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or professional riders, horses come and go. Some stick around long enough for you to know like the back of your hand, while others move through your barn quickly. The latter you remember fondly or otherwise, but their impact is usually short-lived. However, certain horses come into your life and unequivocally change you as a rider and as a horseman, teaching you how to be self-aware, self-critical, patient, flexible, insistent, persuasive, a good winner, a good loser.

These are the horses who will have a lasting impact on your riding career, no matter what level you compete, because what you learn from them are skills you will carry forward to every other horse you encounter in the future. Oftentimes, these are the horses who are not the most straightforward — they could even be described as difficult. Almost never are they schoolmasters. But these horses make you think critically and honestly evaluate every move you make.

Thus far in my riding life, there are three horses specifically who have made me who I am today, not because they gave me big wins (yet). They changed the way I ride, the way I communicate with horses, and the way I treat them. They made me better, but they made me work for it.

The Horse Who Changed My System

I was living in Europe when I first laid eyes on Helios in the stable. I said to myself, “This is my horse.” He had his own ideas about everything and more energy than I knew what to do with. He had the most disunited canter that I’d ever ridden and an amazing reverse gear, which led to me being stuck against the indoor walls whenever he didn’t like what I was asking him to do. Helios could find his way out of any ring, and I had to feed him a handful of carrots at the mounting block so I had half a second to get into the tack before he would canter off down the barn aisle. This horse did everything wrong, but the jump was always right, and he was the bravest horse I have ever ridden.

The day I stopped “training” Helios was the beginning of his progression. Initially, he was one of those young horses who had to be ridden every day and lunged before he was ridden. I had to get him to the point he would appreciate having an easy day or even a day off, then we were able to make progress. Part of getting to that point was letting go of the idea in my head of how a young horse should be trained or how it should go by a certain age. Eight out of 10 horses are not going to fit that mold. Many of them get lost in the system, but if we take a minute and compromise, we wouldn’t miss out on a good horse. Now, Helios and I have a mutual understanding of each other, which has created a bond like I’ve never had before. 

The Horse Who Strengthened My Riding

Zarco is very cold, very strong, and very cautious, but he is electric, careful, and has lasting scope. As a young professional, he was my horse for the grand prix classes. A friend of mine warned me that he was quirky and I really liked him when I tried him. However, considering his show nerves and caution, I tried a method I had found helpful in the past — I turned him out. As a horse that had been competing at the grand prix level since the age of 8 without a break (I bought him at age 14), I thought the opportunity to just be a horse and get a breath of fresh air would be just what was needed.

Colin and Zarco.

I sent him to one of my best friends and even better horsewoman Sarah-Jane Franklin in Ottawa. We yanked his shoes off and turned him out with her retirees for almost two months and then brought him inside for another go at show jumping. He was a completely different horse. He felt better physically, he was more confident, and he started to enjoy his job again.

In a short time Zarco molded me into a very different rider. Ever since I was a kid I was never good at kicking; I always needed a horse to take me to the fences. But I had to be Zarco’s best friend and hold his hand every step of the way. A smidge too deep of a distance and he would lose his confidence. Riding him significantly improved my accuracy and timing. He did not allow me to get away with many mistakes. He forced me to be more disciplined and sophisticated in my way of riding without being restrictive and narrow-minded. I couldn’t change him but I could change myself. So instead I improved my accuracy, my system, and my plan to give him as much confidence as possible.

"He forced me to be more disciplined and sophisticated..."

I had actually retired Zarco in December. We were experiencing some inconsistencies with sport soundness, and I was shy on cash to remedy. At the end of a winter circuit spent hairy, barefoot, and covered in dirt, I noticed Zarco asking to come inside (we all know that look of the horse pawing at the gate). I rode Zarco for a few days, and after he proved a desire to work, he earned a body clip and a pair of shoes. Soon after that, we won a 1.30m mini prix.

Unfortunately, I don't have the funds to keep a horse to show just for fun, and although Zarco was going better than ever, he wasn't really paying for himself in the ring. It was a hard decision, but as a young professional, I have to be careful with my cash and focus on developing horses that will bring a profit. So I thanked Zarco for everything he gave me and paired him up with a capable young rider who will get to learn about accuracy, timing, and confidence over smaller fences with the very best teacher, Zarco.

The Horse Who Helped Me Put It All Together

Felex is the newcomer to my string. Ironically enough, I saw him a few days after Zarco’s attempted retirement. I purchased Felex from Emil Spadone. I rode with Emil as a junior and worked for him three years after. He helped kick start my professional career, and, 10 years after being his student, played a major role in helping me secure this horse. Similar to Helios, Felex is brave, careful, scopey, confident, and has tons of raw ability. He started the season a bit green and lacking rideability. If I were to jump 10 jumps in a row it was very difficult to consistently deliver twice. But I had gained experience producing a young horse like Helios from the beginning and learning some very important lessons about the higher levels from Zarco. Now it was time to put the pieces together.

I kept Felex jumping the 1.40m classes in order to keep his sights realistic while throwing in some smaller classes for his confidence. I spent a circuit not expecting results from him as I knew that this realistic ring time was necessary for him to grow and develop. I never rushed the process nor was I ever upset when he or I made a mistake. Instead, I was elated to see and feel his progress and forward progression from mistakes; something we all can forget is that neither horse nor rider improved or got to the top because they were always perfect. In a sport judged on faults, it is how we move on and build upon mistakes. The fear of making a mistake is crippling performance-wise for a horse and/or rider.

Hot take: you might be more successful if you stop chasing perfection.

Felex finished the winter circuit jumping in one national grand prix before I cut our circuit two weeks short. He proved a lot to me and came a very long way. At that point, my sights went forward to the spring and summer season and he hasn't disappointed, with many double clears and top five grand prix placings. With more experience, more gears in rideability, and a true love for show jumping, I’m very excited to see what Felex has in store.

One of the most important lessons I learned when I was younger was after 100 days you will have a 100 percent difference. A lot of people don’t understand that. They look to have too much change in one moment. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t allow for consistency. Horses learn from repetition and every lesson builds on the last. It is a process that cannot be rushed, and Felex is reminding me of that every day — to trust the process.

These three horses are extremely talented individuals and I will never forget what they’ve taught me. Even though they’ve challenged me, I cannot express enough how grateful I am that they came into my life. I look forward to the future lessons they will teach me and growing in the sport with them.

Read this next: I'm Not Rich and I'm Not the Trainer's Kid. This Is What It's Really Like to Become a Young Professional.

Feature photo of Colin and Helios by Ben Radvanyi.

Written by Colin Savaria

Colin Savaria