Many horse-rider dyads believe that a deep relationship with their mount is pivotal to their sporting success. This perspective resonates with urban myth and popular literature, as well as with past scientific research that has emphasized the importance of the human-horse bond in equestrian sport performance [47,48]. However, this study challenges traditional understandings of relationships in elite sport by exploring how these relationships are developed, framed, challenged, and understood by participants immersed in the specific sporting context of equestrianism.
Using an in-depth interview methodology, this study interviewed thirty-six international elite riders from eight countries and six different equestrian disciplines about their relationships with their horses. The data was analyzed using social constructionist and grounded theory techniques. Across the interviews, participants positioned the horse-rider relationship in three distinct ways: as pivotal to success; non-essential to success; or as antithetical to success. They also shifted between these positions, expressing nuanced and sometimes ambivalent attitudes that reflected their sporting discipline and personal orientation to equestrianism. In addition, they conceived competitive success in fluid terms, differentiating between intrinsic and extrinsic markers of success. The capacity to form strong relationships quickly served a protective function for the athletes in this study, who were frequently pressured by their owners to perform consistently.
Some referred to their horses as ‘family’, with one evening rider describing her horse as “like a child” and her other horses as her best friends. This sense of family may also explain why some participants valued their equestrian careers as the most important things in their lives. However, while a number of participants affirmed that a strong relationship is crucial to their sporting performance, others highlighted that a variety of factors influence equestrian outcomes, including the talent and physical aptitude of both the horse and the rider, environmental and course conditions, sporting politics, and discrepancies in judging. For instance, vaulting rider Hayley described how a troubled relationship with her lunger could have contributed to poor performances. Some of the participants were able to rely on their strong connections with their horses to overcome these setbacks.
For example, when her lunger injured a ligament, dressage rider Grace was able to ride another horse and win European selection trials within five weeks. This ability to bounce back from poor performances may be related to the emphasis participants placed on building strong relationships with their horses over time. The participants in this study viewed the horse-rider relationship as being mutually beneficial for both parties. The horse gains trust and respect for its rider, while the rider learns to read a horse’s body language and to communicate in a natural manner with their mount. In return, the horses gain trust and respect for their riders and give them their most devoted efforts in competitions. In a blog post on her website, Nancy from Writing Horseback describes how she built trust with her horse Ezekiel by showing him that he can be trusted even in scary situations.