I’ve become a real party-pooper when it comes to talented young horses.
It isn’t that I can’t see the potential; that my heart doesn’t catch in my throat at that fresh brilliance. The beauty of a young sound body, a quick mind, and that total possibility. I know what it feels like to train a horse who catches on fast and offers more than you ask. A horse who seems to not want to stop; who’s curious and willing. A horse who really tries to please, so you get caught up in the thrill of progressing quickly. You’re sure he’s a prodigy, that he will be the exception to every rule.
Horsepeople are dreamers. Even the old-timers. Even when we know better.
So, you or your trainer ride him every day. You haul him a few times a month, he’ll get used to being alone in the trailer. Sometimes you ride twice a day. You know there are abusive trainers who push young horses too fast, but that’s not you. Besides, he says yes. He asks for it.
I’m going to make a painful comparison now. Doesn’t this sound like something they used to say about young girls who dress up on a lark and try to pass for eighteen?
I became a party-pooper about young horses from working with mid-life horses in trouble.
Standing next to them, it’s easy to imagine them younger. Looking at his eye now, you know he wasn’t born this way. That there was a time when he reached out as much as he is tucked inside now. That he was the kind who once gave his body and his heart but has lost the trust to let you stand at his flank. Looking at his stiff body, you can still get a sense of how brilliant his trot used to be. His poll tenses nervously if a human is within ten feet. You don’t have to be a professional to see that his face has been ridden hard. His face, that once reached out with curiosity and courage.
The problem with young horses who are over-achievers is that we humans take this period of youthful grace as who they are. We get attached to brilliance and label it their base level work. On a day when he loses confidence, a day when that young horse goes more like a normal, slightly resistant horse, we think they are guilty of a list of failings and we start the fight. Our change is imperceptible at first. Our dream of them is bruised so we lose just a bit of faith.
Maybe some harsher aids will get his brilliance back.
NO! If that previous sentence doesn’t make your teeth scream, you’re doing it wrong. Not sorry for my bluntness. I’ve been around horses enough that when I see that broken horse, it’s easy to imagine who he once was. The flip-side is that it’s also easy to see the perfect youngster, possibly broken by eight or ten.
To be clear, I’m not talking ambitious trainers starting long yearlings to sell before they’re four-year-olds, fast and dirty and half-lame. I’m talking about people who love their horses and are enthusiastic about good care and training. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill when things start out so strong.
But young horses start to question training at a certain point. It’s normal, not a betrayal or a rebellion. You should see it as a sign of intelligence. The question we ask isn’t if our horse will hit a bad stretch in work, but what will I do when he inevitably does?
Because all training, even positive training, carries some stress. Just like living in a herd has stress. Normal stress is caused by being alive.
And it isn’t just young horses. You might be re-training a rescue horse or even just beginning with a new-to-you horse. Progress can start fast and feel great at first. There will be bumps; he will regress. How will we deal with that?
The traditional answer has always been discipline. “Push him through it. Don’t let him quit.” The reason I’m so against this way of training is the number of horses who flunk out, damaged and frightened. Certainly not all horses but too many.
So, this is my annual reminder that horses aren’t any closer to perfect than we are. They have bad days but we don’t have to turn it into a bad month. Or a bad life. At this
time of great stress holiday season, it’s good to give horses a break and remember the big picture.
Most horses live a long life. Not long enough for us loving, greedy humans, but still, a long life. The majority of their lives is spent learning, and then aging. That mid-life sweet spot is comparatively short. Rushing to the sweet spot to make it last longer is the real dream (or fault) most of us share.
Understandable that we might push harder than we intended. It doesn’t make us bad riders, just human ones. Forgive yourself. And forgive horses for not living long enough.
Then pretend you have all the time in the world. Keep an eye on the horizon and celebrate how far you’ve come. Remember how special it is when a horse volunteers. Remember that you sit in a sacred place. If you want to discipline something, start with your mind. Say good boy often.
When you do hit a training block, don’t fight. Shrug. Exhale. Ride around it and approach it in a different way. Railbirds are notoriously short-sighted, so work for your horse instead. Riding isn’t war; it’s an art. You and your horse are building a masterpiece.
If you want to work something on contact, keep your expectations on a short rein. Then your dreams can gallop the infinite, where they belong. Learn to tell the difference.
It bears repeating: The arc of a horse’s life (or our own) doesn’t look like a golden rainbow. It looks more like the jagged readout of a heart monitor. There are ups and downs in each heartbeat. It’s how you can tell we’re alive.