Is This Horse Worth Your Time?
Lily. the little fjord who could
A thirteen year old Arabian with no right lead and a very tense back. A five-year old Quarter Horse born and bred to excel at reining, pushed too hard too early and then sent home. An opinionated three-year old mare with overactive hormones. An off the track thoroughbred who has trouble steering sound a 30-meter circle, never mind a 20-meter one. A seventeen-year old mare with a reputation of being difficult who has done very little work for the last decade. A pony with anxiety issues. A Morgan with very straight hocks - these are some of my current equine projects.
I am a professional horsewoman. My job description, as I understand it, is simple: to help every horse I work with become a more balanced, more confident, more willing athlete. To help these horses and their owners get along better. To improve these horses’ lives as a result.
Molly, the rescue pony.
When I first meet a horse, I ask myself: How can I help this horse become a better partner for his human? How can I help this rider understand her horse better? How can I help the two of them communicate? Based on the answers to these questions, I reach into my toolbox for the skills I have developed over the years - as a dressage rider, as a cowgirl, as a colt breaker, as a trainer of problem horses. If the horse requires a different skill set from mine, I will refer the owner to a better match, but most of the time, I can offer something useful.
Over the years, I have noticed that many of the best riders, professionals or amateur, use a different approach. Consciously or not, they evaluate a horse along the lines of: “What can this horse do for me? How can this horse improve my career? How great can this horse make me look in the show ring, or on the trail in front of my friends? ” If the animal in question comes with challenges that hamper its ability to boost the human ego, many skilled equestrians won’t spend the months or years of patient, dedicated training that can transform a horse into a willing, athletic riding partner.
Shaking in my Boots - my all-time favorite teacher
This attitude is common across most equestrian disciplines. Show jumpers, dressage riders, endurance aficionados, competitors in ranch horse or cow horse classes all tend to put more time and effort into horses who make them look good in their chosen event. There is nothing wrong with wanting to compete on a horse who has a chance of doing well. It would be professional suicide to think otherwise. I do think, though, that a good rider also needs to work with horses who might never be great for a couple of good reasons.
The first one is obvious: spending time and energy on horses with issues is the right thing to do, for the sake of the horse. Without a solid education, a horse’s prospects in life become dire. Many horses without much obvious talent, or horses with conformational problems, or horses with a complicated personality will have a hard time finding happy long-term homes with owners who understand and appreciate them. On the other hand, a well-trained, rideable horse, even if it’s never going to win any ribbons, has a much better outlook. Yet, the disadvantaged horses who really need a solid training foundation are least likely to get it. If good riders won’t work with them, what chance do these horses have?
Mi Cascabel, aka Cassie, winning her first blue ribbon at age 17
The second reason might be less obvious: helping horses with physical or mental problem areas evolve into the best version of themselves is rewarding, sometimes more so than working with the horses everyone expects to be the next champion. And, you know, sometimes they surprise us. My 17-year old project, pronounced untalented and not worth training many years earlier, recently earned her first blue ribbon. But even the horses who don’t turn into superstars are worth every minute of sweat equity I invest in them because, ultimately, they make me a better horsewoman, a better trainer, a better human. They make me rethink and reevaluate what I know. They keep me looking for answers. The horses I work with, especially the complicated ones, are my zen masters. They keep me from becoming smug and self-satisfied. They make me question everything I thought I knew. They push me beyond my comfort zone. They keep me honest. They’re the reason I love what I do.
So, next time you get the chance to work with a horse who may never excel in your chosen discipline, consider saying yes, with enthusiasm: "Yes, thank you! Yes, I’d be happy to!" Stop asking what this horse can do for you. Start asking what you can do for this horse. If you can help the horse, chances are the horse will return the favor, and then some.