Things I Learned in the First Year

December 28th will mark the anniversary of the arrival of our first outside liveries under the name Morning Star Stables. And what a year it’s been! The arrival of Jamaica and Zorro increased our population to sixteen or seventeen horses, which felt overwhelming at the time. Now, we’re home to twenty-eight and every last one of them has some useful task it’s achieving. The only horses that don’t get worked are either too young, too lame, or broodmares.

I remember years ago when we discovered Arwen was pregnant with her second whoopsie that I stood looking at her thinking, “Six horses! How will I ever deal with them all?” These days I’d have fed, groomed, and worked six horses by about noon. It’s incredible how one adapts.

God has blessed His stableyard so abundantly. Every month our horses and riders get better and better. We’ve ridden our first Nationals and come home with a fistful of ribbons. We’ve started eight young horses. We’ve sold seven. Our first foal was born successfully and is beautiful. We ran our first pony camp and it was a massive hit. I even managed to write some exams. And most importantly of all, we brought the Light to the hearts of many children, and love to the lives of many horses.

There have been many trials and struggles and trips to the vet, but God has seen us through it all. He is so here with us. Every day. I slip up, often and hard and disgustingly, but He picks me up every time. And then, cleansed by the Blood, strengthened by His Love, we all stagger back down the narrow path once again. Striving to take as many of them with us as we can.

So here’s some things I’ve learned this year that I wish I’d read as a starting-out stable manager.

1. It’s OK to not be Superman. Just because you have a yard doesn’t mean you magically can ride whatever and never struggle with your own nerves, or your own faults. You’re still human – and that’s totally OK. Own your limitations: it makes you seem more confident rather than less. Don’t try take on a client horse you know scares you. Do what you can, and do it really well. Face your fears in your free time: having to make a living out of being scared drains all the strength you need for other stuff – like kindness, creativity and learning. Your weak points can even become your strong points. I’m petite and terrified of big horses – so God showed me to build a business out of schooling good ponies. I’m a nervous rider – and I’m a good coach of nervous riders because I’ve been there.

As a manager or coach or trainer, you don’t have to be able to do everything. You just have to be able to do some things very well.

2. Delegate. Please do this. Employ the right people, treat them well, serve them with your words and actions and then give them stuff to do that they can do. You do the things that only you can do because there will be many if you’re any good. Don’t overload yourself with work you can delegate – the yard will be better for your focus on managing and not mucking out.

3. That said, always stay in touch with the basics. It’s amazing how much small things can affect horses. Grooms that don’t get along with them, or feed that’s just a little too sloppy – these things matter. Be there for feedings. Have a few horses you groom yourself, especially the challenging ones.

4. Own that paranoia. Your grooms won’t always like it, but your horses will. Details make a difference between good management and brilliant management. Be OCD and make sure the little things are perfect – even if your clients don’t thank you for it, your horses will.

5. Have a little fun. Being perfectionistic and hardworking and conscientious gets dry and tiring really quickly. Instead of losing those qualities, indulge your harmlessly quirky side. Wear bright pink socks. Buy yourself a rainbow coloured grooming kit. Put horse stickers on your phone. Plait ribbons in your ponies’ manes. Go on bareback outrides with your teenagers and giggle with them. Your clients might think you’re a little odd, but you don’t live your life according to what they think of you. Serve them with kindness rather than self-important decorum.

And make silly stuff like this

6. Always remember the things you love about this crazy business and do them. I love doing the rounds at sunset when the horses have all been fed and peace descends on the whole yard. I walk slowly from paddock to paddock and feed them all cookies and rub those amazingly soft noses and smell that smell. It reminds me that despite the challenges, I’m blessed right out of my (bright pink) socks to be here.
7. Obeying God’s commandments goes a long way for your business rep, too. Of course, this isn’t why one should do what God says, but it’s an unexpected perk. Honesty, joy, peace, kindness, patience, temperance, sobriety and diligence all tend to attract the right sort of clients.

8. Look after yourself. Burnout isn’t cool – it’s as irresponsible as working when you’re really sick. Nobody will die if you take a few days off when you need them – most of the time. If you’re sick, ask the doctor to book you off if you can. Don’t eat junk. Do eat chocolate. Get your five-a-day and your eight hours. Go for chiro every two months. Your yard needs you functioning as well as possible, not tired, grumpy and sleep deprived. And always have some reserves to draw on for those times when you just can’t take time off or find time for lunch – because those times will come and you will need to put yourself last and miss out on some essentials. Take extra good care of yourself so that you can be there for those that need you during those times of crisis, like outbreaks (or pony camp).

9. Appreciate good support, good employees, and good clients. They’re few and far between, so hang on to them and appreciate them. They’ll tide you through all the struggles with bad employees and bad clients, and your visible contribution to their successes will rebuild your confidence after every hit (and it will take a lot of hits).

10. Always, always, always draw your strength from God. Never neglect to spend time with Him first because He called you to it and you just can’t do it alone. It doesn’t matter what’s going wrong out there, you shut yourself up in your room and get yourself on your knees until you’re ready to go deal with it. You need Him like air. Read your Bible, go on long walks in the woods with Him, and talk to Him always. His plan will prevail – and if you stay in touch with Him, He’ll make you an incredible part of it. He’ll give your little yard an eternal value in the things that matter. Because at the end of the day your stables and arenas and money and reputation and ribbons will all pass away in the blink of an eye. All that really matters is what’s eternal: God and souls. So focus on them.
Glory to the King.

Harsh Truths for the Aspiring Trainer

I see them everywhere: in tack shops, showing up wide-eyed at lessons, determinedly kicking their greenies around at shows, and in amazing numbers, all over any Q&A board or group on the Internet. And most of all, in myself and everything I was – and mostly still am. Sometimes even scraping together titbits of knowledge and scraps of grazing and starting a stableyard (no judging here – what have I just done?).

People who think they want to be horse trainers.

You have such tremendous dreams, fuelled by horse novels and the romance of Hollywood and that thing you felt happen in you the first time you smelt the indescribable homecoming that is horse smell. You just want to be with them. You want to make them your life.

Of course, as a Christian, I have rather unique views on how one should choose one’s career (One shouldn’t. You let Jesus do the choosing) but let’s assume, for the moment, that you haven’t been called yet and you have to do something in the meantime to stay fed and busy while you wait on God. Let’s say you picked horse trainer.

Here are some ugly truths you don’t want to hear, but that I wish someone had told me when I was thirteen or fourteen or fifteen years old.

You are going to have to deal with being hurt. Often and rather painfully. This is just the simple reality of horses and if you’ve been riding for a while, you know this. The difference is that if you’re a trainer, you’re likely to have to suck it up and carry on.

In an ideal world you’d rest every injury until it gets better, but this is not an ideal world. If you have four horses to ride or handle in a big show on the weekend, and you come off and sprain something on Thursday, your business and your clients probably can’t afford for you to put yourself in bed with an ice pack. You will become well versed in gritting your teeth (and pain medication).

You will face the reality every day of being seriously hurt. The good thing about breaking something is that nobody is going to expect you to work with your arm in a sling (except possibly yourself). The bad thing about breaking something is that it’s part of the job for most trainers.

You will be broke. For a long time. This is possibly the second most misunderstood fact about becoming a trainer: do not expect to make money until you do something worth being paid for, consistently and reliably.

People look at me funny when I say this because I was a paid trainer when I was sixteen or seventeen. The reality is that I’d been riding multiple horses every day for about six years by that point, taking weekly lessons for seven, and shadowing my trainer – unpaid – for five. I’d been riding for twelve or thirteen years.

The other reality is that I was just good enough at it by then. Clients do not care what you want to do in the future or how much potential you have or what sob story you give them. They care about your skill: that you can consistently and noticeably improve a horse with every ride, giving substantial progress over a period of a few months. If you can’t do that yet, you shouldn’t be getting paid yet. That simple.

If serving is beneath you, leadership is beyond you. Especially if you don’t have a boatload of cash for endless lessons, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty earning lessons from your coach. Be a yard rat. Hold horses for the farrier. Fetch horses in from the field and tack them up… for someone else to ride. Feed hoeses in the rain. Do whatever you’re told and you might get the chance to fall off someone’s bush pony. Deal with it.

You want to train fancy warmbloods for dressage? Spend two or three years backing wild farm ponies and fixing remedial vices on random plot donkeys. No fancy warmblood owner in their right mind is going to give a newb trainer their horse to ride. Besides, those wild veld horses teach you more than the warmbloods ever will.
You do not have a magic touch with horses. Even if you do, nobody really cares. While it’s true that some people and some horses just click and get along regardless of the inexperience of the person and the craziness of the horse, your clients don’t care that you once rode a wild stallion on Uncle Joe’s farm that none of the totally clueless other people could handle. Horse training is about making progress and bonding with horses you don’t click with.

To compete client horses, you first have to compete your horses. Your first competition horse is going to be a mess and you’ll embarrass yourself repeatedly on it. Don’t even try use a client horse. You’ll embarrass your client, and they hate being embarrassed.

You have to deal with people. All the time. So many young people want to be horse trainers because they’re “not a people person”. News flash: horses have owners. Horse owners can be difficult. They can have opinions about how their horse should be trained that conflict with yours. They can be late, or unable to handle their horse even after you trained it, or in a bad mood or bad payers. You have to be able to deal with all this compassionately because they’re just people, just like you. You’re not above them: you serve them.

GET. LESSONS. FIRST. This is the one fact that is most misunderstood by young horsepeople. You have to ghet lessons. Lots of lessons. For many years. And you get lessons first and then you go train horses. There is no avoiding or sidestepping this: there has to be a long learning period BEFORE you can start professionally training.

There are no shortcuts in horses. “But I love them so much!” Good. Channel that love into patience and hard work. If you really love them, humble yourself, rein in your ego, practice patience, and work your back end off until you reach excellence.

Nothing can stop you. Why wouldn’t you want to hear this? Well, because it nullifies all excuses.

You, my friend, are a passionate, dedicated human being with a dream. The world may tell you otherwise, but there isn’t anything stopping you from achieving it except yourself. Throw yourself into learning and working and trying and failing. Be on fire. Grab that dream. Push aside all obstacles and go do it.

Do’s and Don’ts for Advertising Horses

I’m still quite new in the horse sales world, but I’m meticulous about my advertisements. With Facebook, it’s possible to create a classy, far-reaching ad for nothing but the cost of your Internet (and whatever bribery it takes to get someone to take pictures for you). And with just a few tips, you don’t even need a whole lot of skill. So here are some common errors I see in advertising from horse people of all levels, and some tips on ads I like and how I try to give my sale ponies the best possible chance at finding a good home at a good price.

Do: obey the rules of the group you’re posting in. The admins of the group have created it out of their interest in horses, not for any kind of monetary gain. Respect them for that and for creating a platform for you to sell your horse cheaply and easily. Read the “about” section or the pinned post carefully and make sure your advertisement adheres to their rules. Many groups are designed for a specific type of horse or price range – make sure your horse fits in it.

Don’t: keep on posting and posting in a group if the admins have repeatedly deleted your post for being inapplicable. It’s rude and tactless, and you’re likely to get thrown out on your ear. Also, consider that a buyer doesn’t want to deal with a rude and tactless person. Aside from being inconsiderate to others, you’re just hurting your own interests in the long run.

Do: include photos. Facebook is full of bright, interesting colours and most of us don’t concentrate very hard as we’re flipping through it. Sale posts without pictures are doomed to simply being overlooked. It’s also highly unlikely that anyone will bother to come a view a horse if they haven’t seen pictures of it, and people don’t like to have to contact you just to get pictures of something they turn out not liking anyway. Also, many horse sale groups require photographs.

Don’t: include poor quality photos. And this doesn’t just include cellphone snaps in low light. Selfies with your horse might be adorable but they’re totally irrelevant on a sale ad. As a buyer, I’m looking for someone knowledgeable and professional to deal with, and a teen in a tank top making a duck face while clutching her horse’s nose doesn’t qualify. These photos are perfectly fine to include on your own page or wherever else – but leave it off the ad.

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Cute photo, but useless on a sale ad
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This picture is much more appropriate

Of course, cellphone pictures in poor lighting are also a complete no-go. A high quality photograph can really attract buyers and show off your horse at his best. There’s no lying in photos, but here’s an example of how a quality picture can make a horse look more valuable.

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Happy snap of a sale pony
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The same pony about a week later. This photo attracted the attention of some of the top breeders and dealers in the country, even though this pony was of unknown breeding. She was sold within the week.

However, even a high quality image taken by a professional photographer can be completely useless in a sale ad. Remember that the kind of buyer you want to attract for your horse isn’t simply shopping for something pretty running in the field. A responsible buyer is a responsible owner, and a responsible buyer wants to be able to make some kind of an assessment of the horse.

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This picture is pretty, but it’s almost impossible to judge anything about the horse’s stride here
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While not as spectacular, this would be a far better photo to include in a sale ad. This photo shows much more of the horse’s conformation and action. I prefer not to see free movement shots in ads, but as this horse is a youngster, it would be appropriate.

Do: take high quality, highly applicable, clear photographs. Pictures should grab the buyer’s attention, but also give them a good idea of what the horse looks and moves like. For higher value horses, it’s probably worth it to have a professional photographer do this (if you don’t have a sister with mad skillz like I do).

Your horse should also be turned out as carefully, or even more so, as for a show. It should at the very least be extremely clean and well groomed. I like to put on a set of newly washed white exercise bandages (except for the conformation shot), as a clean set of white bandages expertly applied highlights the horse’s movement and gives an impression of the seller as being skilled and professional. However, they will draw attention to the horse’s legs, so if your horse has obvious conformation flaws in its lower legs, omit them entirely. He should at the very least be correctly trimmed according to his breed standard, preferably neatly plaited (except for natural breeds). I’ve never plaited for sale shots because the arena is kind of shabby, so I’ve felt that plaits can look like I’m trying too hard. But if I had a classy arena, I would definitely do plaits and quarter marks.

The rider/handler should also be neatly turned out. Show attire is a bit pretentious, but you should be clean and neatly dressed, with polished boots and long hair put up in a hairnet. I wear my work breeches and a golf shirt with my usual hat, gloves, and boots with gaitors or long boots.

The exact photos you take will depend on the horse, but I prefer to always include:

  • A good conformation shot. Set the horse up against a nice background as you would in the show ring for its breed or type, even if it’s not a show horse. This is a deceptively difficult shot to get right. In my experience, it’s best taken with the photographer kneeling down. It should also be taken directly from the middle of the horse’s side – no funny angles so that the buyer can assess the horse’s conformation accurately. The horse should wear a bridle or show halter, no saddle. Always take the conformation shot first – he shouldn’t be sweaty.
Exavior1
This is an example of the lowest standard of conformation shot I’d use. He is standing fairly square on a level surface and his handler has asked him to engage his neck, so he can be adequately assessed. However, it lacks a certain sparkle – I would have liked him to be standing perfectly square with the hindlegs slightly less camped out. The lighting could aso have been better, and the background less muddy. I also wish he’d kept his silly tail still.
  • The walk, trot, canter and – if applicable – jump. If the horse is backed, these must be taken under saddle. If you have an elementary dressage horse, nobody wants to see him trotting around in the field. Youngstock should be photographed moving freely in an arena or a field with a nice surface. Ridden horses should be photographed in the nicest arena you have access to. The gaits should be captured from the side in the correct moment, with the inside hind leg coming under to give the best impression of forward, balanced movement possible. Given our scruffy yard, I like to use show photos for this part if the horse has already shown. NEVER use stolen, watermarked photographs! This is ILLEGAL and gives a very, very poor impression.
  • One photo that’s just pretty, just to catch the reader’s eye. Preferably a head shot that shows something of the character and spirit of the horse.
Speedy2
This cute little diamond in the rough gave us a hint of his kindness in his lovely soft eye here

Do: write your advertisement in clear, correct English. If that’s not your strong point, get someone else to do it or just proofread it for you. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation aren’t overrated. There’s no need to try to be Shakespeare – don’t go overwriting or using inappropriate long words. Buyers don’t want to read a poem, they just want all the horse’s information in a format that’s clear and easy to read. SMS slang is not acceptable.

Using the right jargon is also important to come across as knowledgeable. Of course, the best way to come across as knowledgeable is to be knowledgeable – learn the terms for what you’re trying to say and apply them right. Common mistakes include writing out the horse’s height incorrectly (e. g. 14.5h or 14.2″) and using the wrong term for the gender (e. g. saying stallion instead of colt).

Don’t: write extravagantly. You really don’t need to call your horse “priceless”, “SPECTACULAR”, or “perfect”. (“Perfect conformation” is something that doesn’t exist – put it on your ad and a good buyer will immediately be suspicious that you’re either clueless or dishonest). It’s okay to throw in a few positive adjectives about things that really are positive about your horse (“outstanding temperament” or “incredible jump”), but don’t try to make him a unicorn.

Do: include all the relevant information that you have on the horse, paying special attention to the information required by the group rules. This will include a minimum of height, age, gender, location, level of training, breed, contact details, and price. If he has any real vices, say so. But don’t be scared to include the things he’s really good at. I like to add the horse’s ground manners (“good to box, clip, bath, and tie up”), something about his temperament (“easygoing and willing”), the ideal situation I’d like to see him in (“best suited as a first pony for a nervous child”), and what kind of maintenace he needs (“lives out, barefoot, unshod, no concentrates” – LOL you can tell I train Nooities).

Don’t: try to sound like you know everything. Present the information you do have in the most accurate and professional way you can, but don’t add in information that you’re only guessing at. It’s okay not to be an expert. Put in everything you know for sure, leave out everything you don’t really know. If you’re not an experienced horse person, it’s worth having a vet or yard manager in your area just measure your horse and check his teeth for age.

This is especially true for breed and height. Don’t just take a wild guess at how tall your horse is. If he’s a farm horse whose parents were both descendants of semi-feral crossbreeds, he’s not 16 hands, and most buyers will know that. Use a measuring tape – even the type you use for sewing or measuring an area – to measure him in centimetres, then put that height on his ad as approximate (“+- 150cm”). Better yet, ask Google to convert it to hands for you, but unless he was measured with a proper stick by an experienced horse person, always give the height as approximate. It’s also not a great idea to guess at your youngster’s expected maturation height if you don’t know how big the parents are. If he’s a 13.3hh two-year-old, he’s not going to be 15.1hh no matter how badly you want him to. It’s generally safe to give the height of both parents or give the expected height as being somewhere in the middle of the height of both parents. Huge foals do not necessarily grow into huge horses.

As for breeds, everyone has an opinion about what breed their crossbred is, but unless either or both parents were registered, it’s not a “Friesian cross” or a “Boerperd cross”. Calling your vaguely Nooitgedachter-shaped mongrel a Nooitgedachter is inaccurate and insulting to the true Nooitgedachter breeders, no matter how pretty he is. Just say “crossbred” on the ad. There’s nothing wrong with a crossbred, and buyers will appreciate your honesty. If your horse does bear obvious resemblance to a certain breed, but you can’t prove his lineage, it’s perfectly OK to call him a crossbred of a certain type (e. g. “crossbred of Basutho type”).

Do: reply as promptly as possible to any correspondence. Once you’ve hooked a buyer, you need to continue to impress them with your service. Be prompt and polite. Many of us have a life outside of horses, so we can’t always respond immediately, but answering within 12 hours makes a good impression. If you’re doing this professionally, responding within the hour is my ideal. Learn where all the hidden inboxes are on Facebook and make sure all the relevant notifications are turned on.

Don’t: engage in battle with trolls. You will lose. Some people take pleasure in commenting on advertisements, especially those of amateur or inexperienced horsepeople, to provide their unwanted opinions. This is best avoided by following the tips above to ensure your information is correct, but sometimes it’s merely a personal opinion that someone will choose to vent on your post. Fighting with them in the comments of your sale post isn’t going to give a very professional impression, and it’s probably not worth your energy anyway. Delete the comment, report to the admin or Facebook if necessary, and move on. If you really do want to speak to this person, inbox them.

If you see something on a sale ad that is truly a concern to the welfare of horse and/or  rider, commenting on the post isn’t going to help. All that does is make the OP defensive and cause a flame war, probably ending in the removal of the ad and the horse going to slaughter or being given away to the next person that comes by. Beware spouting self-righteousness in the name of “education”. If you do truly want to help the horse, report it to the relevant welfare organisation. If the seller really is abusive or neglectful, they’ve provided you with all the information required for an investigation by animal welfare. Screenshot the ad and report them. That’s how horses will be helped, not by preaching on Facebook.

 

Ultimately, the best advertisement for your horse is a good horse. Have your horse in good condition, wearing well-fitting tack, and being correctly ridden. Do some research on what kind of price you can expect to get for him, and price him fairly. If you are in dire financial need and trying to get rid of your horse as quickly as possible, the most humane option for all concerned is to take him to your nearest equine shelter (Highveld Horse Care Unit for most of us in Gauteng) and surrender him. It is highly unlikely that your underweight, unbacked, R1000 horse is going to end up in a good home.

Just be honest, be kind, and do your best.

 

The Best Way

In short: there isn’t one.

Gasp! How could you say that? Obviously only [insert guru here]’s Miracle Way of the Horse is the only right way to do [insert training obstacle/goal here], which of course you can’t accomplish without [$$$$$ glorified lunging whip/bitless bridle/neck strap], and all other ways are Wrong.

Bitting up is Wrong. Bitless is Wrong. Draw reins are Wrong. Whips are Wrong (but not carrot sticks or whatever). Or maybe the One True Way involves a magic gadget of magicalness. And don’t even think about deviating from the training scales!

Um, guys. How many horses do you know that read Principles of Riding or watch YouTube?

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Snaffles are kinder than Kimberwicks the book said
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he didn’t read the book

The funny thing about these methods is they all work. For certain people and certain horses in certain circumstances, they work. The better ones work for the vast majority of horses. But nobody would be peddling these methods, or accepting them for hundreds of years, if they didn’t work.

There are only two wrong ways. The way that really hurts somebody (equine or human), and the way that doesn’t work.

Take Magic, for instance. Magic will curl up, flip his head, invert and flail to the best of his ability if subjected to the horrible cruelty of an apple mouth snaffle. I did the Wrong thing and bitted him up to a Kimberwick. He almost instantly transformed into a horse that could go forward into a steady contact in a relaxed and more or less graceful manner (most of the time).

Flare3

This horse had been trained (badly) for polo and was the most extreme case of head up = adrenalin up I have ever seen. Her rhythm and tempo were appalling and she had no concept of suppleness until one day she nearly broke my nose with her permanently raised head, so I put a martingale on in the interests of my nasal well-being. She put her head down and suddenly she could float and bend and relax. We turned the training pyramid on its head, starting with something a little like connection, which is Wrong. She is now being a riding school pony that competes in dressage with kids. It was Wrong but it worked for Flare.

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Liana had similar problems to Flare, being extremely tense with a very high head carriage and tiny, piggy little strides. Her flatwork sucked so I did only jumping and relaxed hacking for nearly six months. Which is Wrong. Everyone knows you need to have solid flatwork before you can jump. But Liana adores jumping. She became so relaxed and happy over fences that when we returned to flatwork, she was suddenly and magically a dressage horse.

So my horses got happier and better thanks to my incorrect training, but that doesn’t make the training scale wrong.

Nell4

I trained Nell according to convention and she earns her highest scores for the basics and her lowest for connection, as according to the training scales. It worked for her, and for Arwen and Whisper and Sookie and Reed and half a dozen other furballs I trained “properly”.

OK, so how about starters? Surely a clean slate should always come out the same way when a certain method is applied?

Bruno1

Bruno was fresh off the veld – cleanest slate you could find. I never did Join-Up or desensitisation on this pony. I started him bareback and spent most of my initial groundwork just hand grazing him, and he’s a relaxed, happy, obedient, responsive and laid-back ride.

Quinni1

With Quinni, on the other hand, I did practically everything by the book – Join-Up, despooking, pressure-release exercises, the works. She is also a happy, relaxed, responsive horse to ride.

Ultimately it is very easy to get bogged down in a method or a way. We all say we train dressage, or soft feel, or Parelli or whatever. But realistically, we all train something Handmade – a unique, created being that, just like us all, has emotions and quirks and sensitivities and vices and scars and secrets and baggage.

What we all really train is horses.

And they all train us.

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For Better or Worse?

Nobody likes that person that’s constantly selling their horse and buying a new one, only to repeat the whole experience a few weeks later. But nobody likes the newbie on the psychotic young horse who is constantly endangering both herself and everyone around her, either. Whispered conversations in the tack room – or, more realistically, loud conversations in nasal accents at the side of the arena – are as fickle as April: “What does she think she’s doing? She’s way overhorsed. She should sell him and get herself a nice schoolmaster instead.” “She’s going to sell it – again. Seriously. The poor baby. Someone needs to tell her that horses aren’t a commodity, they’re people too. How would she feel being sold on every few months?”

The right thing, as usual with horses, is not the same for anyone, but it seems to lie somewhere between the two extremes. Obviously, if you’re going through horses faster than most people go through T-shirts, then it’s probably not the horses that are messed up. But if you’re forever getting dumped and you hate riding and you’re holding onto Ponykins because he’s your baby, you’d probably be better off with a schoolmaster. Yet most of the time the situation is not extreme.

Let’s imagine a common scenario. Your horse is not a complete psychopath. You’ve had him for maybe two years. Even though he is kind of green, he has not repeatedly tried to kill you. But for the past month or two, he’s not been going the way he should be. He’s not making progress. In fact, it feels like he’s regressing. He doesn’t do anything truly terrifying, per se, but you’re starting to get pretty scared. You’ve fallen a couple times. He’s tossed a couple of naughty bucks and spooks at the jumps more than he used to. He’s fine when your trainer rides him, and you’ve spent a small fortune on the vet, chiro, natural horsemanship cowboy from down the road, supplements, dentist, saddle fitter, etc., only for nobody to find anything that’s really wrong.

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Now what?

In honesty, there is no black-and-white answer to this question, for the simple reason that horses are horses and people are people: there is no black and white when it comes to either for them. Emotionally, I often want to side with keeping the horse. I find it really easy to disrespect someone who loads Blaze on the trailer within two weeks after he tossed out his first buck. But maybe that’s just me: I’ve never had a ready-made horse. It’s so ingrained in me that I won’t get anywhere without some blood, sweat and tears that I kind of take it for granted that horses will give me issues.

On the other hand, I know a few people that I would happily tell to sell it. As soon as possible. Preferably to the salami factory. Okay, so I’m kidding about the salami.

Usually, though, these are the owners for whom it was a really bad idea from the start. Ammies (or their kids) who can’t really ride and don’t actually take lessons, riding lively young horses with a mischievous streak the size of China. People who just really don’t click with their horses and never have. I know how that goes, and I know that they have absolutely no control over it. As a (semi) professional trainer, I get given anything with four legs and told to ride, and ride I shall, or not get paid. But there have been a few horses that I was really quite happy to see the back of. None of them were truly bad horses (there are almost no horses that are truly bad), and many of them were actually pretty good horses. But I just couldn’t bring myself to get along with them, and they hated me equally. I could school them, and they would learn, but if they’d been mine, I would have sold them so fast their heads would spin. If I’m going to buy a horse – most especially a riding horse for myself – I’m going to have to feel some form of a connection or attraction to it. Not its colour, conformation, size, breed, talent or even level of training – to its very heart. There are some horses that make my heart sing, and I can’t explain why. Those are the horses I want.

Even if I can't afford them
Even if I can’t afford them

But there are some things a horse buyer does have control over. Mostly, their own brains. And unfortunately, dreams can easily cloud judgment. It’s fine and well for me to say I bought Magic because something in him touched me the way a country singer touches the strings of a guitar, making everything tremble and stand to attention in one responsive glorious note. But on the other hand, if he was too young or too small or the wrong breed or usually lame or had a habit of squashing people against the stable wall*, I wouldn’t have bought him no matter how poetic I could get about the way he made me feel. You have to be sensible. I bought Magic because he made me feel amazing, but I also bought him because he was 15.2 hands, a thoroughbred, gelded, green but never nasty, sound, gentle and had every bit of talent he needed for what I wanted. Oh, and he wasn’t exorbitantly expensive. Don’t forget that bit.

So to make a disgusting generalisation, and one which has so many exceptions that it may be more exception than rule, I could say: If it was never the right horse for you in the first place and now it has become a danger to your health, sell it.

But let’s be real. Most of us are not idiots who go out and buy it because it has a heart-shaped star. Most of us made smart decisions. We can’t all buy packers with ridiculous price tags; some of us have no choice but to buy the sweetest greenie we can find and bring it on under the watchful eyes of our instructors. And what do we do when the wheels come off?

I know what I did. I bought a horse that was a bit green and a bit daunting, but that I knew was gentle and generous to the core without a mean bone in his body. Also my instructor said we’d be fine (listen to your instructor, folks). And he did what young horses do – he went through a tough patch. We’d been jumping 90cm easily. We were struggling to jump 60cm without wanting to die. He overjumped, bucked, stopped, and spooked. I clutched, pulled, kicked, screamed and cried. But somewhere in there was a horse that ignited something inside me. He was just sensitive, and young, and confused, and I didn’t really know how to handle him. For months, we both had no confidence. My dreams of taking him up the levels seemed light-years away; I was much too scared to even go jump cross-rails at a schooling show.

Magic7

But we stuck with each other. What else could we do? He was the nicest horse I had ever had and, at that time, could even dream of having. I was the only person he knew that was always there wanting to love him and to draw the best out of him even if I didn’t always succeed. He knew about the wanting, and I knew about his heart.

Our  confidence still isn’t what it should be. But we’re going places now. We’re moving forward. We’re still not jumping 1.10m or 1.20m, but we’re jumping better. Some days we become two halves of one whole. And if we’d never had the tough times to guts through, we wouldn’t have the relationship we’ve got now.

Magic7

I don’t know if horses know someone has quit on them. I think when horses are sold, especially out of a horse-rider relationship that was no good, they just move right on and deal with the life they have today. Horses are good at that.

But I do know that horses know when somebody didn’t quit. I know they know when there’s been bad times and the one constant was the person that was right for them from the start and still wanted them.

And maybe I’m being kind of out there now, but when I look at the way Magic trusts me now compared to the way he did before, it makes me want to believe that they return the favour.

* Just say no.

Magic8

Good Condition

One of the most misunderstood terms in the horse world, in my experience, is “good condition”.

A horse is often said to be in good condition when he is, in fact, merely fat. If someone tells me a horse is in “very good condition”, I tend to want to run a mile, because horses thus described are generally obese.

Obesity in horses is as serious, and nearly as widespread, as in humans. It can lead to a variety of health issues (similar to an overweight person’s), such as laminitis, joint strain, heart problems, equine metabolic syndrome (horse diabetes), lethargy and inability to do even gentle work without considerable discomfort. In fact, obesity is a form of malnutrition, just like starvation. A horse who wobbles all over when you poke it isn’t in very good condition; it’s malnourished. Just not in the way that we usually think of when that term is used.

Achilles17
Achilles (Thunder’s daddy, by the way) when he was obese. You can see the excessive crest on his neck, the roundness of his quarters, and the fleshy pad behind his shoulder. He was in no type of work at all when this picture was taken.

True good condition comes in several forms, most notably hard condition and soft condition (both terms being somewhat dated by now, but still pretty relevant). Fit horses in moderate to hard work are in hard condition. I personally like my working horses to be a little on the trim side; it is not quite as attractive as a well-rounded horse, but easier on their legs. A horse in hard condition is lean and powerful; he is hard and supple all over, and his muscles are powerful and well developed, especially across the neck, back, loins and hindquarters. The outline of his ribs may be visible when he moves. His musculature means that each part of his body flows smoothly into the next, but all his muscles are well defined. His tummy is tucked up, showing toned stomach muscles, and when he is carrying himself well a line stands out on his side underneath his ribs. This is a kind of horsy six-pack and shows that he’s using his stomach muscles. One should be able to feel his ribs easily when running your hand down his side, but his coat should be shiny and move easily over his bones, and his strong muscles should show that he is far from malnourished.

Arwen demonstrates hard condition. She could do with a bit more muscle on the top of her neck, but you can see her well developed back and haunches, tucked tummy, and the faint outline of her last rib.
Arwen demonstrates hard condition. She could do with a bit more muscle on the top of her neck, but you can see her well developed back and haunches, tucked tummy, and the faint outline of her last rib.

Horses that don’t do much work – like retired or resting horses or broodmares – are in soft condition. A horse in soft condition is healthy but not fit. His coat is supple and shiny, and he does not wobble when he moves. He may have very little muscle tone and a hay belly (not a worm belly; there is a difference) is likely to be present. However, he is not overweight. He is fatter than the horse in hard condition, but his ribs are easily felt, and there are no thick fleshy pads of fat visible. His body parts join smoothly together, but are still well defined, and he moves around his pasture without effort or heavy breathing. I would say that a horse whose last ribs cannot be felt is significantly overweight, but will add that a broodmare in the latter stages of pregnancy can run slightly fatter. She will lose her excess weight when she foals, and she needs to be in good condition to conceive again. An overweight mare will not conceive well, but nor will an overly thin one.

Achilles again several months later. He is still not in any work, but you can see that he has lost the fleshiness over his ribs and his shoulder and hip are much more defined.
Achilles again several months later, now in good but soft condition. He is still not in any work, but you can see that he has lost the fleshiness over his ribs and the excessive crest on his neck, and his shoulder and hip are much more defined.

There is one circumstance where I consider a somewhat skinny horse to be in good condition, and that’s in the case of a young, growing horse – let’s say between six months and two and a half years of age. After weaning, young horses often become a bit ribby, and their owners tend to panic and stuff them full of concentrates. This isn’t necessary, and could even be harmful if one feeds more than 1kg of concentrates per day to a weanling. Have you seen a teenage guy lately? They’re like matchsticks, because, like young horses, they are growing like weeds, usually in spurts. Their food all seems to go upwards instead of sideways. (Wouldn’t it be nice if that happened to all of us?) Once they mature, they’ll bulk out again. It is in fact healthier for a young horse to be on the ribby side. Young bones and joints don’t need to carry excess weight, and a young horse that is fed so much that he gets fat is generally growing too fast, so his bones are likely too soft. Add his excessive weight into the equation and you could end up with permanent damage or weakness in his bones, specifically the legs.

Thunder when he was about 18 months old (wasn't he adorable?!). He is quite thin here, but his shiny coat and bright eye show that he is doing well. He was growing about an inch in two months at this point
Thunder when he was about 18 months old (wasn’t he adorable?!). He is quite thin here, but his shiny coat and bright eye show that he is doing well. He was growing about an inch in two months at this point, and is currently, at the age of four, taller than his dam and as tall as his sire