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).

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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