The Winding Road of Life with Horses

Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years and is a regular BestHorsePractices columnist. She will offer two arena presentations with Amy Skinner at the Best Horse Practices Summit. Silva lives in New Mexico where she works with dressage and Western clients.

Katrin Silva writes:

“Riding is not so difficult as long as one does not know anything about it. Once a rider has tried to learn for a number of years, it’s a different story.”

Udo Bürger, author of The Way to Perfect Horsemanship, 1959

Bürger knew what he was talking about. I’ve been learning how to ride for the past 40 years, but most of the time, I feel I know very little.

I started taking lessons when I was seven years old. As a teenager, I mucked stalls in exchange for time horseback and rode as many horses as I could. I read the classic books on dressage even though they made little sense.

When I was 19, I knew I wanted to train horses for a living. I also knew I wanted to ride Western. I moved to the U.S. and worked for successful quarter horse trainers, riding all day, every day. I saw a lot of good and bad horsemanship. So I thought I knew what kind of trainer I wanted to be.

When I was 26, I hung out my shingle. I rode youngsters and a lot of “problem” horses. I rode all day, every day. I won some ribbons at Arabian shows, Morgan shows, Appaloosa shows, Quarter Horse shows. There were times when I thought I knew a lot. There were many other times when I reached the limits of what I knew.

At 28, I came back to dressage because it added essential pieces to the puzzle of good horsemanship. I took lessons. I audited clinics, read books, watched videos, and watched other riders. I went to dressage shows. I read the comments on my dressage tests; they made me cringe and feel like a failure.

When I was 37, I finally had the chance to ride some talented young warmbloods and won some ribbons at regional shows. I started the USDF L-judge program and continued to take lessons. Videos of myself riding made me cringe.

The books I read as a teenager made more sense by now, but my anxiety grew. I rode past mirrors in the indoor arena thousands of times, obsessed with the horse’s outline and my position in the saddle. I was exhausted, jealous of more successful riders, and continued to feel unworthy. I wanted to learn more, but did not know what else I could do to reach my goals.

At 42, like a lifelong smoker quitting cigarettes, I quit horses. I didn’t ride for six months. Instead, I went to grad school, got a teaching job, and tried to forget about them. I wanted to keep learning, but I wasn’t managing to enjoy them.

Finally, last year, I went back to full-time horse training. There was no other way. Horses are a part of me. I have a new appreciation for all the horses I’ve trained over the years – the talented ones, the not so talented ones, the easy ones, and the difficult ones. The difficult ones have been my greatest teachers.

Some things haven’t changed: I am re-reading books. I still ride a lot of horses, but not ten or twelve a day – more like six or seven.

Other things have changed. I’m prouder of my Western riding. It adds perspective and gives me more tools. I especially enjoy exploring what dressage and Western riding have in common, something I’m looking forward to demonstrating at the Best Horse Practices Summit.

Nowadays, I take criticism from instructors and judges seriously, but not too seriously.

My new goals:

  • To make progress, but not at the expense of joy.
  • To feel at home in any saddle, or no saddle at all.

What is your learning process? Has it been a long, winding road like mine?

Posted in BestHorsePractices Summit, Horsemen & Women, Reflections.


  1. I love that goal – to find joy. After all that is why we got into horses in the first place. That road can present itself in many ways but the one your horse enjoys the most has to be the one of finding joy. Congratulations on finding it.

    • Thank you, Nancy. Finding joy really is the highest goal possible. It may sound trivial and it’s easy to dismiss, but whenever joy is no longer part of the equation, the horses tend to suffer.

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