When horses prove us wrong

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.

Real good at putting things in his mouth, does that count?

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.

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I’m 100% going to get bucked off of this thing a lot

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.

Case in point: when I miss REAL BAD at the giant Weldon’s and he doesn’t give a single shit because he’s having a THE BEST TIME.

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.

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my favorite thing going around facebook right now

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?

16 thoughts on “When horses prove us wrong

  1. My pony’s done this since day one. I got him because I knew he’d be safe on trails and for hunter paces, and once I got him into better shape I learned he’d save my butt if I wasn’t feeling well. That he actually has more scope than you’d expect. Can dressage very prettily, for my trainer at least and sometimes me. And is the same guy no matter where you take him. I got way more than I expected with him and am thankful every ride.. okay maybe after the crappy ones once I stop being annoyed at his attitude 😂

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  2. My parents raised Jaguar. The owned his sire (Doc’s Juniper) and his dam (Daughter of Kirk). I’m not sure what they were hoping for in the foal that was produced, but Jaguar proved be be a talented reining horse pretty early on, even though he was quite a lot taller than the average reiner. By his 5yo year he had a pretty big knot on his left knee that was clearly going to impact and probably end his reining career. They had it removed a few times, but it just came back bigger. The only impediment it caused was his spins to the left he’d hop over that knee. There were no soundness issues. Fast forward to Jaguar being 16 or 17 and living with me in Texas. I’d had him here since he was 13 and treated him like he was done with having a job bc I wasn’t really horsing that much. Then I was introduced to foxhunting. I had a young thoroughbred that was getting backed and the trainer suggested I just take Jaguar out to get out. Holy smokes, he LOVED him some jumping and foxhunting! So began my geriatric Quarter Horse’s 8ish year long career jumping around and rounding up hounds on foxhunts. He was, of course, hands shorter than most of the other horses out hunting, but he could jump anything you pointed him at and I’ve still never seen a horse go after and turn hounds like he would. Ears pinned and everything. Once I pointed him where to go, he was on it. He’d jig sideways on the way back to the trailers after spending hours in the hunt field. No one would have ever picked that horse out of the field and said he’d make a fantastic whipper-in horse. He shouldn’t have had the stamina to go for 3 hours (he is about 25% TB, so I give his credit to that part of his bloodline). He definitely shouldn’t have been able to jump more than a couple feet. I was devastated when he was diagnosed with a stifle injury that is essentially untreatable when he was 24, but hey, that is a pretty darn good run! He’s 26 now and happily lives the retired life at my house.

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  3. I have gotten pretty much the same feedback from every trainer I have ever worked with with May, “This horse shouldn’t be as good at her job as she is.” She is bit a little downhill… with a long, weak back, and legs that are really just too short to support her own body. I bought her because I was scared of my old horse and I just didn’t want to be scared anymore. Turns out, I also bought a mare that can pop over a 3′ oxer and leave out a stride without much worry too. For my goals, I will totally take it.

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  4. I got choked up reading this… My first horse was not the biggest fan of his job, and switching to my mare was a real wake up call. I never imagined I could have the confidence to try eventing, but Vesper loves it beyond anything and there’s absolutely no feeling in the world like storming around a XC field on one that “quite clearly just loves the hell out of whatever it’s doing” <3. I used to want to bring along my own youngster, but now that I've tasted the ambrosia of a confident eventer, I may never do anything else!

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  5. I’ve also thought about the rapport you have with your horse. My trainer and I have talked about this at length and while my horse can be pretty naughty (18 going on 5) at times, there are a lot of things that we can do together that I’m not too sure would happen with another rider. Whether it’s a missed distance or dealing with traffic when we hack down the road. She’s got my back and I’m trying my hardest to keep her job as easy as possible by making better choices.

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  6. You and Henry always make me ponder the reality of a totally dependent animal’s good luck getting connected with the *right* person/partner. Bad luck of the draw, and animal gets wrong person/partner whose ego and/or lack of education/knowledge serves to amplify said animal’s worst characteristics, rather than building on its positives.
    Your blog celebrating Henry is $900 Facebook Pony. If Henry could blog, what would his blog be: Priceless Human Partner?? Likely, or something very close. XOXOXO

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  7. Yeah… when I pulled Taran out of the pasture, I had no expectations whatsoever. Now I’m seriously contemplating 4th level this fall/winter, if all the cards fall right. There is NOTHING about him that says fancy dressage horse, but he comes out every day giving 110% and if you tell him he can do it, he tries and usually succeeds. Those horses are worth far more than a super fancy horse who has zero work ethic.

    I’ve had a few horses that absolutely loved their jobs – and some that really didn’t love the job I wanted them to do. I really believe it’s important for us as conscientious owners to find what the horse loves doing and do that, if not with us than with someone else.

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  8. From what I’ve witnessed, the phenomenon that you’re talking about happens more often than not in event horses. I’m a lowly hunter/jumper rider, but from my perspective, eventing has more of a mental element to it than other disciplines (for both horse and rider). If the sport itself is mentally engaging, perhaps a horse that likes that engagement can be as competitive as one with more physical abilities. Just a thought I had as I was reading 🙂

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  9. I think to some extent heart is built on relationship too. Rio’s heart is bigger than he is… with me. But I’m not sure it was that way when he was a pro’s horse. If he tried back then like he did for me later in his life, he wouldn’t have been sold to an ammy in the US!
    I agree 100% with what you’re saying. A horse with heart can accomplish so much more than one with talent but no desire. I’ve owned and loved both types, but the ones with heart are on a totally different tier.

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  10. Wonderful blog post !!!!!!!! ❤

    I think it was Phillip Dutton who said that, when it comes to the top eventing pros, the horses that look the best and ride the easiest they sell to amateurs, and the rest they turn in to 5* horses. So many Advanced & UL horses, even Olympic horses, don't fit the perfect physical mold.

    As amateurs, I sometimes think that we are taught, and reinforce in ourselves, to choose only the "perfect" horse. And that we miss many golden opportunities because of judging too closely all kinds of little things that won't matter at all in our real-life performance.

    Maybe we pass on the horse that is a little cow-hocked, or neck and/or back a little long or a little short, and other kinds of a little something here, a little something there. Things that won't matter in lower-level ammy horse sport. And maybe we miss out on a horse with a good heart and mind that would do anything that we want to do.

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  11. We have two. One’s an $500 mare that has wonky knees and a weird ass gait at the back end but has done 10 x 50 milers now and is aiming at her first 75 miler in 2 weeks. My horse physio calls her “a collection of conformation faults that all work together”. Then there’s Joe who is upright in the back legs, ridiculously short in the back and has mild high/low syndrome, and he’s done 2 x 100 milers.
    Interestingly when you talk about swagger: Joe never had it. After doing 100 milers, he developed it. He now KNOWS he’s special.

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  12. Absolutely — it’s the definition of Solo. His life with me has been defined by his heart writing checks his body can’t cash. But he does it anyway. And it always feels like his gift to me & I have no doubt that it is because of our relationship. His back is too long, his hocks are arthritic, his feet are too flat & his thick body is intolerant to heat. To this day, he is the safest, most versatile horse I’ve ever sat on that I would & have trusted with my life. It definitely taught me what a relationship can do & cemented the fact that a horse’s brain & heart is the #1 quality I’m interested in.

    Echo’s feet are a tad too small, he’s a touch long through the loin, his legs are ridiculously long. He is better balanced than Solo & uses his body better than either Solo or Encore, making things soooo much easier for him. But he will turn himself inside out to please me & his willing brain makes me catch my breath. He tries so hard & is incredibly honest about offering things he thinks I MIGHT want. Whatever his job ends up being, that’s what makes him a pleasure to work with. Every horse is going to end up lame or otherwise injured at some point, so you better like them enough to make dealing with that easier.

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