With most horses, it’s easy to look at them and be able to get a good idea of their sheer athletic potential. The ones we pick out as being talented tend to move with a certain swagger, a natural suppleness with hints of raw power. Their reflexes are fast, and the work seems to come easily to them. All of our young horse classes are centered around gauging a horse’s sheer natural physical ability, by looking for things just like that.
But what you can’t see, watching a horse in the beginning of it’s career, is the horse’s heart. A horse that wants to please. A horse that really loves and wants to do the job. It’s a quality that’s pretty important in any sport, but especially eventing. You see it all the time, horses that have all the talent in world but they just don’t have the heart.
You also see horses on the other end of the spectrum – horses that don’t have great conformation, great gaits, or a whole lot of natural ability, but they have a heart like a lion. Those horses might not look like much, and they might not be the ones that score the best, but they exceed expectations because they love what they do and they really want to do it. It’s not as easy for them, but they achieve beyond their initial potential because of qualities that we can’t see with the naked eye.
Owning Presto and Henry really highlights just how much of the latter that Henry really is. Watching Presto gallop is enough to make anyone stop and watch, with his long fluid strides that seem relatively effortless. He’s naturally uphill, and just looking at him you can tell he screams ATHLETE.
Henry, while I love him dearly, is kind of the opposite. He is a naturally thicker-bodied horse, built downhill, traveling always a bit croup high. Everyone who sees him go thinks he’s an appendix. His stride is a bit short, and he’s not naturally very fast. None of this job comes as easily to a horse like him as it would to a horse like Presto. Which is why I never really expected that he could make it past Training level.
Well – let me clarify that. I knew the horse could jump 1.10m, that wasn’t the problem. What I doubted (a lot) was his ability to get us out of bad situations at that height. If I spectacularly missed the distance at a max Prelim fence, I wasn’t convinced that he had enough athleticism to save us. What I didn’t really take into account were those internal qualities that actually matter so much… his brain and his heart.
He’s smart enough to say “No, this isn’t a good idea” if I’m that wrong and he just doesn’t think he can make it (or, uh, if he’s real tired of my shit). Self-preservation is a great quality in an amateur event horse. But he’s also got enough heart to where, if he can make it happen, he’ll dig deep down into that little QH-looking body of his and pull out just that liiiittle bit extra that no one would really expect. It’s not as easy for him to get us out of those situations as it would be for a more athletic horse, but he gets it done because he he’s dedicated to it. He really wants to find the other side of the fence. He loves his job.
I was wrong about Henry. He’s got that little extra inside of him that you can’t see with the eye, but it matters a lot. It gives him the ability to go a bit beyond where his conformation and natural ability say he should be able to go. He’s scrappy, and he’s got the “lemme at em” attitude that makes all the difference.
Owning and riding Henry has taught me a lot about not judging a book (er, horse) by it’s cover. I find myself watching a little more closely these days, looking for that horse who might not be as attention-grabbing, but quite clearly just loves the hell out of whatever it’s doing. The ones who are all-in.
It’s so hard to see those things in a young horse, or be able to pick out from a quick assessment which ones will want to go that extra mile for you and which ones won’t. We really don’t know until we ask, and I do think that part of it (not all of it, but part of it) comes from how the horse is raised and trained. It makes me look at Presto and think of all the things I need to do to try to cultivate those qualities in him. Positivity. Confidence-building. Understanding. Trust. Patience. It’s a very interesting perspective to think about, when you approach it as if you’re trying to develop a partner with a lot of heart, one that really loves the job it’s doing. I got lucky with Henry, and I find myself thinking about how to encourage those golden inner qualities in other horses. Especially if I could get those qualities into a horse that was naturally more athletic, like Presto.
In this way Henry has taught me something very valuable, and made me look at horses and training with a new set of eyes. Have you ever had a horse that proved you wrong, or had enough heart to make up for some of their natural shortcomings? What did that horse teach you?