During my twenty-plus years as a professional trainer, I have worked with hundreds of horses. I remember all of them, but some more clearly than others. Usually, that's because these horses taught me something important. They sparked some lightbulb moment, some epiphany. They helped me develop my feel, my patience, my confidence. They made me take a fresh look at things I thought I knew, over and over. They made me a more consistent, more sensitive rider. In short, they made me a better horsewoman.
I owe these horses more than I can ever repay. What they've done for me is worth more than words, but words are all I have to offer. I hope to write about many of these four-legged friends and teachers. The first one I think of is . . .
Shaking in my Boots
Some horses stand out im my memory because they were kind and willing, a pleasure to work with. Boots was not that kind of a horse. He stood out because he was neither.
He came into my life when I was thirty-one. After spending most of my twenties apprenticing with a couple of well-known Western show trainers, I had been on my own for several years. I had built a local reputation as someone good with young or difficult horses, and thought I knew what I was doing. I took a lot of pride in my patience. Years of starting young horses had taught me to take things slowly. Boots took that virtue to a new level.
His owner is my friend Julie, a former barrel racer and life long horsewoman with a huge heart. Julie has a knack for spotting talent in unlikely places. She also has connections to worlds foreign to me, like racing and rodeo. Her son had purchased a handsome black ex-racehorse as a team roping prospect, but soon decided things were not working out, so Julie took the horse off his hands and brought him to me.
He had run quite a few Quarter Horse races, and won several. He was fast, until one day he decided he'd had enough. He refused to run. He refused to enter the starting gate. His trainer tried to force him, using an arsenal of weaponry from whips to cattle prods. Boots did not give in. Instead, He fought back.
By the time we met, he was five years old. He knew how to argue with a rider, but did not know much else. Cooperation was not in his vocabulary. He wasn't dangerous. He did not rear or take off. He slowed down, he crowhopped, he shook his head, he kicked at the leg. That was all. That was enough, because he was good at it.
Our conversations, in the beginning, sounded like this:
Katrin: "Boots, how about we pick up a little trot?" Boots: "I don't think so" Katrin: "Come on!" Boots: "Not right now!" Katrin: "Yes, you will!" Boots: "No I won't! Leave me alone!" Katrin: "Ok, then. How about we turn right? " Boots" "NO!' Katrin: "How about we turn left?" Boots: "NO! NO! NO!" Katrin "How about . . . " Boots: "I SAID NOOOOOOOO!!!!" Katrin: "I haven't asked anything yet." Boots: "I don't care. The answer is NO!”
After these PTSD-like episodes, he became sullen and withdrawn, unresponsive to any attempt at communication. He put up a wall between us, a mountain of resentment and misunderstanding. I was stumped.
I tried everything I knew how to do. I ruled out physical discomfort. I made sure the saddle fit. I bought an ergonomic, padded girth. We had his teeth floated, his back adjusted by a chiropractor. None of it made a difference. Using a whip or spurs to get him to go forward only made him angrier. There were many rides we mostly spent standing in the middle of the arena, with Boots making occasional handstand-like hops in one direction or another before shutting down again. Lungeing or round pen work did not improve the situation. While running free in the pasture, his trot and canter looked energetic, even elegant. While with a human, they looked choppy and restricted.
For a while, our rides ended in mutual frustration. I never lost my temper, yet began to doubt whether I had any business calling myself a trainer. He felt annoyed. I felt incompetent. One day, in despair, I quit trying to make him go and just sat there. I noticed something odd: not reacting at all to his antics was more productive than any type of response. Waiting him out at least did not make him fight harder, so that's what I did. When, probably by accident, he moved forward a little bit, I praised him. The absence of confrontation confused him, but at least it didn't make things worse. He had no idea what praise was, but he seemed curious to find out.
Encouraged, I spent lots of time rewarding him for anything and everything he did right. I hugged him for picking up his feet when I groomed him. I stroked his neck enthusiastically for taking a step sideways even when I really wanted was a step forward. Whenever I asked him to do something, I told him what a good boy he was at the soonest conceivable point, for the most minimal of reasons. He was standoffish, never cuddly, but not openly hostile to the idea either. I started feeding him treats, which he eyed with suspicion for quite a while before accepting. It took him some time to figure out what a reward was. Once he did, he began to learn. He kept learning. It was not a smooth process. He never forgot how to argue, but he eventually stopped looking for arguments. Confrontation was no longer his default mode.
At that point in my life, I found Western riding much more interesting than the boring dressage stuff I had grown up with in Germany. Boots, though a Western horse in type, made me take another look at the training scale. Dressage became his salvation, both physically and mentally. He did not have much talent for it in the traditional sense, but the gymnastic exercises made him a much better, much happier athlete. He enjoyed the focus they required. He became supple and balanced. Concentrating on lateral work or a correct turn on the haunches helped him forget his emotional baggage. He didn’t mind trail rides, but the arena became his comfort zone.
He began to look proud of himself. His name no longer seemed to fit him. We renamed him the Dark Prince. He learned all the movements of Third Level - flying changes, half passes, and so on. He did not have the big, floaty gaits that earn high scores at recognized shows, but we scored well enough to help me earn my USDF bronze medal. Later, Julie showed him in Western classes for many years, with great success.
The Dark Prince died at age 17 from colic. There will never be another like him, but he lives on in the lessons he taught me. The biggest one: reward a fraction sooner than you think you can, and more often than you think you should. Your horse will thank you.