Knowing When to Back Off

I feel like, as an equestrian, one of our main pursuits is knowing when to apply pressure and when to take it away. That can be true with anything from loading a horse in a trailer, teaching it something new, deciding if/when to retire them, or even evaluating soundness and fitness. Our lives can often feel like one big game of “do I push with this, or do I back off?”, and I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a big part of what makes a horseman versus a rider. It’s something that we all share in common, amateur or pro, across every discipline. It’s also one of the hardest things to get right, constantly trying to think from the horse’s perspective instead of our own, and something that usually takes a whole lot of mistakes before we start to get it right more often that not. And I still have yet to see anyone who manages to get it right all the time.

Henry’s like “You know what’s not right? This hideous outfit, MOTHER.”

It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I try not to think about it so much that I become paralyzed into indecision, but I also want to be flexible and willing to re-think and re-evaluate constantly. Horses aren’t machines, after all. I especially feel the weight of that responsibility with having such a young horse. They change and evolve so fast, and the things you do in the beginning can carry weight for the rest of their lives. Admittedly, I tend to err on the side of “When in doubt, back off”. For me it’s the bigger sin to push when I shouldn’t as opposed to not pushing when I should. There are probably those out there who would disagree, but that’s just been my own experience and preference.

While I’m especially mindful of this with Presto, I think about it a lot with Henry too, albeit more from a performance perspective than a training perspective. The very last thing I want to do is ask too much of him, or use him up. Having a happy, healthy, sound Henry is my #1 priority, more than any riding goal or horse show or level achievement.

His ears when you point him at a jump, tho ❤

I’ve also never forgotten what he is, as a horse. An ideal eventing specimen, he is not. He’s built downhill, naturally travels a bit croup high, has crooked legs, a jumping style that really uses his whole body, a middling amount of scope, and his gallop is not exactly the most efficient thing in the world. He also has a respiratory condition that means his fitness needs to be maintained at a higher level than most horses at his same level would require. Those things all make his job harder. Yet despite them all, he’s managed to be a successful event horse – mostly because he loves the game and his heart is 110% in it (well, the cross country at least, he could do without the other two phases). But to find that success, he has to work extra hard to make up for his natural deficits, putting more wear and tear on his body than another more naturally suited, more talented, better-built horse might. None of these facts have ever escaped me, especially as we started to make the trek up the levels to Training and then Prelim.

He’s got 4 successful Prelim XC runs under his girth now. No XC jumping penalties at any of his 4 starts at the level. It’s something that makes me immensely proud of him, and if you just looked at it on paper you’d probably be like “Rock on, this horse seems suited to the level”. But what I can’t ignore, as someone who sits on him every day and is responsible for his well-being and care, is how much competing at that level takes out of him. The conditioning work in particular that is required to keep him at Prelim – it’s a lot for his body. It’s too much.

I really came to terms with that fact starting last fall. Then covid hit, and all the pressures were taken away, and his conditioning schedule has stayed much more scaled back, and I couldn’t deny it. Physically he feels better. Cutting a chunk of that fitness work out of his weekly schedule suits him much better. He still needs to be conditioned and fit enough to be a healthy and sound riding horse, of course, but there’s a difference between more basic conditioning and the serious stuff. The writing has been on the wall for a while now – I don’t think I would have a sound horse for more than a couple more years if I tried to keep campaigning him at the upper levels.

It’s a reality that maybe should bother me, but it doesn’t. Not at all. The horse owes me nothing. He’s far exceeded anything he was ever meant to accomplish, and he’s already taught me so much and given me so much confidence, and he still has so much more left in him. He feels better now than he has maybe ever, and he hasn’t had any maintenance of any kind (no chiro, no acupuncture, no massage, no injections, no magnawave, no ulcer meds, etc etc) in a year or more. Trainer solidified my thoughts last Sunday, when, while we were warming up, she watched him trot and said “this might be the best I’ve ever seen him look” and the thought I’ve been having all year finally spilled out – “I don’t think he’s meant to be a Prelim horse”. We discussed it briefly, agreed that he can school bigger questions and lesson over bigger fences, but as a show horse he’s best at Training or below, at least if I want him to last. The difference between Training and Prelim is a big one, especially the fitness work and the speed, and it’s just not worth it to try to push it when it really toes the edge of his natural capability.

I want to have the privilege to keep looking through these ears for a very long time

What it really comes down to is that I don’t want to have to be writing a post in a couple years about his retirement. I want Henry to be his happiest self, hopping around cross country at whatever level until he’s old and gray. And hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he could have a long career at Prelim and I’m taking my foot off the gas pedal for no reason. I don’t think I’m wrong though. I feel it in my gut, and I can’t ignore it. I’d rather back off before there’s a problem, when he’s still feeling great and capable of doing so many other things for hopefully a long time. I owe him that much.

So while you won’t be seeing anymore P’s on Henry’s record, he’s far from finished. Scaled back, perhaps, but certainly not out of the game.

23 thoughts on “Knowing When to Back Off

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with Francis too. At the end of the day I don’t much care what level we’re doing, as long as I can keep him sound and happy in his job for approximately another 500 years. Barring that, I’ll take as long as I can get.

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  2. It’s so hard when you have a horse that loves the job, but isn’t necessarily built for it. I was reaching that point with my old guy, and we were only doing the lower levels of eventing. But the fitness work required to keep him happy just going around BN was a lot for his body, and he was getting injected twice a year, plus regular body work, all which cost $$$. The experience he gave me was invaluable, but pushing him to meet my goals wasn’t fair. An injury earlier this year took the decision away from me on when was the right time to retire him. Now I have two young horses, and one seems to be much more physically suited to eventing, although they both seem to like the job. But I definitely agree it’s better to push too little than too much, and always be mindful of the horses physical (and mental) limitations.

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  3. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been going through the same thing with my mare. She’s 14.2 and, like Henry, does not have the ideal event horse body (actually she sounds very similar to him – croup high, inefficient gallop, and even has some breathing issues, but a heart of gold). She has the scope for Training and my trainer has told me she could do it, but I keep asking myself why. Why should I push her hard to do Training where she would last maybe a year or two when she could enjoy many happy years at BN/Novice?

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  4. Good for you. I thought you would head this way given previous posts about Henry’s limitations and the obligations we have as riders to give our horses a suitable job. I don’t think you will ever regret this decision but you sure would regret it if you burned him up in a year or two.

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  5. Love it! I think this is an important thing we need to be aware of with all our horses. For many more conditioning keeps them happier and healthier long term. But there’s definitely a point where it tips into overtraining. I went through a similar thought process with Pig for a long time. It kinda sucked, but ultimately the horse tells you the right answer. I’m sure Henry is happy you’ll keep pointing those ears at fences, though! ❤️

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  6. You know your horse better than anyone. I think you’re being smart. You’ll be back showing at P eventually with Presto anyway 😉
    I did the same with Rio, stepping him down as needed as he got older. No regrets.

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  7. This is so refreshing. I have so many horse people in my immediate circle who care more about competing and achieving a certain goal, than whether or not they are pushing their horses too far. I’m like you, I err on the side of backing down because the majority of the time, why not? There is usually no reason to keep pushing and I would rather be safe than sorry. I take the responsibility of being my horses’ advocate very seriously.

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  8. You know your horse and you listen to him well. He’s clearly going to have a blast over any height as long as it’s XC! I’ve come to terms with this with Cosmo recently, we can still school 1m courses even some 1.10 jumps, but at shows, he’s really happiest bombing around the .70s and .80s. He’s still very sound for his age (25 next spring – party planning has already begun!) and he has a blast teaching his leaser how much fun jumping around any course can be. He’s still got plenty to teach me at home, I can spend my show money on expensive horse cookies instead.

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  9. Well done doing the right thing for Henry! This is a lot of why I stopped jumping Dino. Even at the lowest of low levels, it took a LOT to keep him fit and ready to event, and at his age continuing to push that just didn’t feel right. We’ve since both discovered that straight dressage is a MUCH better fit for both of us, and he is stronger and better than ever. Making choices to preserve our partners’ longevity is always right.

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  10. I love this post. So wise. I’m going through it with my endurance horse right now – he was meant to be a Quilty horse but – he isn’t, quite, even though he LOVES it. So he’s stepping down. We may even change disciplines. Everyone is asking “Why? He’s not lame”… No – not yet…

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  11. Great post. I’ve sort of gone through the same thing with my guy. We’re the Training Champions of the World, but I only got him around 1 Prelim (and that was 6 years ago). Various catastrophic injuries and having to start over from scratch each time made it really hard to get enough momentum to compete him at the level. He requires a lot of confidence and leg, and the reality was that I was too nervous/scared at that height and speed to do it safely. Like your guy, he owes me nothing, and I think the amount of maintenance to keep him sound and going at Prelim would not only break the bank, but it wouldn’t prove anything. (Although he’s easy to get fit, he has heaves, so that’s always a concern.)

    My only lament is that I wasn’t able to take him to more Modifieds before I moved out of the country. That was a great level, because it had the technicality of Prelim without the massive sized jumps. It wasn’t a popular division to host at first, as you probably know, but over the past two years it’s skyrocketed in popularity in Area 2 – I hope it follows suit in the rest of the U.S. Even though it was originally intended to be a stepping stone to Prelim, I think it gives us adult ammies a nice in-between level for those of us who don’t have the time to do a lot of conditioning or go to a ton of shows just to keep up one’s eye.

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  12. Kudos to you, Amanda! I really admire your decision to do what’s best for Henry, even if you have to put your own dreams/ambitions on hold for a bit.
    I know a woman who ruined at least two horses because she felt that her animals ‘owed’ her something for feeding them or some such nonsense. She was constantly working them and they were on the trailer going to a show every damn weekend with no break. One horse became downright unusable – always on the verge of running away, would never settle, would just get hotter with more work. The other, a really lovely and talented mare, would give it her ‘all’ but became miserable on the ground. She actually tried to bite people after a while. It was just disgusting. Fortunately, the woman has now gotten out of horses altogether.

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  13. you already know i am scheming to get Henry as my Intro to BN horse for the future 🙂 HA HA
    But yes I agree with all you say!! I am proud you think of your horse over you (And of course i know you would!): )

    Poor henry how you are dressing him now 🙂

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  14. This is a curiosity question, please do not feel like I am questioning your decision. Do you think the new modified level would be too much fitness ask of him? Or could that be a possibility in the future (if there are any modified divisions at the shows you frequent)?

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