Riding is a funny sport. We spend a lot of time watching ourselves and other people ride and assessing the things the rider could have done differently, and it starts to sound like a lot of catty, bitchy, railbirding really fast.
In normal social circles talking about the things that people are/are not doing or should/should not be doing while not directly addressing them is not exactly considered friendly behavior. But I do it to my friends all the time*, and I know they do it to me, and I am totally, totally okay with it.
* Dear friends reading this: Sorry if this is breaking news to you. I hope you don’t dump me. Come talk to me if you’re legitimately concerned.
Watching people ride and critiquing their rides is a huge learning opportunity for me. And my commentary is not in any way saying that I would have ridden better, smarter, or differently than a rider in that situation. I use it as a chance to discuss the possible solutions to problems that I can identify, and to discuss the problems we can actually see. Additionally, it gives you an opportunity to see if you can correctly identify the problems – when you see someone get an ugly spot to a jump, was the problem in the two strides before the jump or was it the turn they biffed twelve strides out? We all know that there is more than one way to ride a course or train a horse, and there’s typically more than one solution to a problem, so why not discuss those possible solutions and think about how we could enact them as riders?
There is a time and a place. While someone is laying on the ground wheezing and gasping for air after being squashed by her panicking horse in a wash rack while he frantically breaks his halter, the cross ties, and then goes running off naked and with only one standing wrap on is not the time to say “That will teach her not to do that again.” ** That still makes you an asshole. Once everything has calmed down, all horses and humans are deemed intact and unbroken, and the tears have faded though, that is a great time to suggest that discipline in the cross ties needs to be approached carefully due to the feelings of claustrophobia horses can experience while tied.
For the most part, it’s easy for me to accept this from both friends and strangers. Please, use me as a learning tool! Without any vanity, if I can provide a valuable example for anyone to learn from, I am happy to do it. Even when I think I’ve had a good ride, I’d love to know what I could do to make it a great ride. And it doesn’t diminish my happiness to hear someone say “If you had put your leg on a little earlier to the watermelon slice then you might have had a better turn to the next fence,” because then I can try to perfect that later. It also doesn’t diminish my happiness to know that people are saying those things where I can’t hear them.
It can be hard to swallow when you’re repeatedly fucking up your ride, knowing that the people looking on are making judgment calls about your skills and your horse’s skills. Especially when you know that they don’t know where you’re coming from – the journey you have made with this horse, the place you came from as a rider, the shape of your relationship together. But the important thing to remember is: the people who know you will understand, and the people who don’t know you don’t fucking matter. What do I care if some stranger sees my horse losing his shit over canter transitions and thinks that I’ve done a terrible job of teaching him how to use his back properly? I willingly pay to submit myself to that kind of judgment multiple times per year!
This does, of course, only count for legitimate critique. There are plenty of people, younger people I suspect (based on my experiences with age), who enjoy saying things that are inaccurate at best and outright lies at worst. These charming creatures are usually pretty easily identified, though. And, as I am sure many of us have found, as they progress through life their behavior is rewarded less and less, because the older we get the less valuable that kind of pseudo-information is to us.
The thing about critique, which I think many people do not understand, is that it does not comment upon you as a person or a rider. It addresses your performance and (ideally) does so in a way that helps you identify the things you need to change in order to improve a specific skill set. Just because I can’t figure out how to stop jumping ahead when I want a long spot doesn’t make me a bad person, or even say that I am a bad rider, it just means that I have room to improve in this specific area.
I relish any opportunity to learn. While I might not want to hear about my riding flaws all the time, I know that I’ll hear about them eventually, and it will improve me in the long run. This mentality also means that I don’t feel at all guilty when I’m critiquing someone’s ride – whether they are a friend and I know I will discuss it with them afterwards or not. If they want to improve as a rider, critique will be valuable to them too. And if they don’t, well, that sounds like a personal problem.