Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I Used To Be a Horse Trainer

By Laura Crum

First off, I have to say how thrilled I am that Janet Huntington is posting here on Equestrian Ink. She is a wonderful writer, as well as a talented horse trainer, and I have so enjoyed reading her blog, “Mugwump Chronicles”. Her stories will often bring me back to the days when I trained horses, rather than writing equine mysteries. This was awhile ago; the last colt I broke and trained is thirteen years old now. But the memories are still vivid and my mind goes back easily to the many young horses I rode and the particular problems they presented. Not so long ago, reading one of mugwump’s great “Sonita posts”, I was reminded of a horse I trained for my team roping partner, a mostly Thoroughbred gelding named Rebby.

Rebby comes into my mind easily enough, because I am still taking care of him, now that he is a twenty something year old horse and retired. My old team roping partner and I keep our retired pastured horses together and share the chore of feeding them, and several mornings a week Rebby comes charging in to see me, ready for his flake of hay. I can’t forget him.

I had never really trained a Thoroughbred horse before Rebby; all the horses I rode when I was working for reining and cutting trainers were cowhorse bred Quarter Horses. All the colts I trained and rode for my uncle, who raised Quarter Horses, were foundation bred QHs. All the horses I’d ever bought for myself were QHs with cowhorse breeding. Rebby was a 16 hand appendix registered QH, which means for all practical purposes that he was a TB. His mother was a TB and his sire was a running bred QH, which means mostly TB. So there you go.

Initially I saw this as no big deal. Rebby was four years old and had had ninety or so days put on him by a not-all-that-handy cowboy. He was gentle enough to ride, if ignorant, and with a tendency to stick his nose out and prop when you stopped him. My friend and roping partner had got him cheap and wanted me to turn him into a rope horse. I said sure.

My first impression of Reb was positive. I had never in my life ridden a colt who could pick you up and carry you at the lope the way this one could. I felt like I was floating when I rode him. Collection came naturally to him. Maybe all TB horses are like this, I wouldn’t know. Rebby was naturally cowy; I had no problems getting him to hook onto a cow. He was also naturally bold; I had no problem getting him used to the rope, either. He had no tendency to spook sideways; he had no inclination to buck. None at all. There ends the list of things I had no problem with.

My first indication that Rebby was a little odd came when I first caught him and led him in to be saddled. Rebby walked right on my heels….I mean right on my heels, breathing down my neck. There was no malice in it; he just wanted to be right on top of me. I backed him off. I did this again, and again, and again. I backed Rebby off the top of me endlessly. I wasn’t gentle and kind about it either. I really seriously did not want Rebby on top of me, stepping on my toes. Rebby never seemed to truly get this. I had to correct him at least once or twice a day. I was puzzled. I didn’t get it why he couldn’t get it.
Then one day I ran into his former owner. She mentioned that she’d rescued the horse from a woman who had run out of money and couldn’t pay the board bill. This woman had raised Rebby herself. His mother had died at birth. You guessed it. My project was a bottle colt. No wonder he wanted to be right on top of me.

This information explained a lot of Rebby’s behaviors to me. He was gentle but pushy; he required to be set down several times a day. But he never had any ill intentions at all. Okey-dokey. Bottle colt.

The next problem I ran into was also a new one for me. Did I mention that Reb was a TB and I had never trained a TB? Reb liked to run. He liked to run hard. Where a cowhorse bred horse is likely to spook sideways when startled, Reb never did this. He bolted forward--his version of a spook. Charge was Rebby’s first response to everything. I could never really get used to this; Reb’s saving grace was that he was both gentle and bold and didn’t “spook” that often. But once we got to chasing steers, the “run factor” assumed a whole different dimension.

Rebby would chase a steer all right. He would charge after a steer with great enthusiasm, and he could really run. But Rebby had no intention of slowing down when he got to the steer. Reb wanted to beat that steer to the finish line. He had every intention of sailing on past and winning the race. I briefly considered telling my team roping partner to sell him as a bulldogging horse.

Instead I worked on teaching Rebby to answer when I checked him, which turned into a very long project. For details on how I did this, and other insights on stopping, see Janet’s post today on her Mugwump Chronicles blog. I’ll cut this short by saying that, eventually, I taught Reb to back off when I pulled on the reins and his career as a team roping horse took off. My partner loved Rebby, once I got him trained: everybody admired him. I was proud of what I’d accomplished with my little TB bottle colt.

The end of the story? Unfortunately Rebby broke down at ten years of age. My partner hauled him to a major equine hospital where they diagnosed him as having a strained sacroiliac joint. Reb didn’t seem to be in pain, but walked, trotted and loped with an odd waddle in his gait. He had always been such a kind and well-intentioned horse that my partner decided to retire him to the pasture to live out his life as long as he was comfortable. I agreed to help take care of him. And Reb has remained stable for well over ten years now; he still has that odd waddle, but can gallop up for his hay with enthusiasm. It makes me happy to see him, knowing he’s had a good life; at the same time it makes me sad that he broke down so young. Its one of the reasons I eventually turned away from team roping, as I once turned away from cutting and reining. I don’t like to see the number of horses that break down in the course of competing (not that these events are any worse for horses in the long run than jumping, western pleasure, or any other competitive event).

These days I don’t train horses, I write books about horses. (Now there’s two lucrative pursuits for you—maybe I’m not too smart.) I still enjoy riding my broke horses in the arena and down the trail, and I am happy to report that I’ve had no breakdowns lately—knock on wood. But every time my partner and I look at Rebby we shake our heads ruefully, and one of us has to say, “Wasn’t he a great horse?” I’m sure all you fellow horse people will understand.
To Rebby

Laura Crum


Shanster said...

Nice post! I have 2 tb's and never thought I would. Unlike you I never had the opportunity to ride a lot of horses in my youth but I am really enjoying teaching the 2 I have their new job as riding horses. It's really gratifying seeing them come along!

Too bad he broke down so young and wonderful you gave him an equine version of the "golden parachute"!

Anonymous said...

Shanster, I have four horses that I feed and care for that were retired due to age or unsoundness. One of these is a horse I never rode, but rescued cause he was a good horse and needed a home, one is Reb, who belongs to my old team roping partner, one is my old horse, Gunner, who features in the mystery series, and the other is the last colt I ever started, who, like Reb, got injured young due to a freak accident and is now retired. Though I have moments when I feel a bit overwhelmed with caring for these four along with our four working saddle horses and the coming-along four-year-old colt, I have to say that the pleasure in seeing these old guys, who were all good horses in their day, have a happy retirement, is worth all the extra work and money.

Joy said...

I liked hearing about Reb. It's sad that he broke down. it's sad that that happens so often.

On a happy note, I ordered your first 3 books in the horse mysteries series with some of my b-day money. Can't wait for them to come so I can check it out!

A.K. Alexander said...

What a cool story. It's a shame Reby broke down so young, but the relationship you two built just once again proves to me that woman and horse are soul mates.

Thanks for sharing.

My TB/Warmblood has the same sppok response--CHARGE. Real fun! I'm happy to say that it isn't often, and it's usually around the cows--she's petrified by them. It's kind of funny. I have to walk her up near them and let her look for a few minutes if I want to work her in the ring closest to them. Otherwise if one moves and she sees it, she goes nutty.

Reby sounds like a good old guy. Nice he's still around to say, "hi," and enjoy his feed and pasture.

mugwump said...

Hey! Why didn't you tell me writing didn't make any more money than horse training! Dang! I'm starting to like TB's more and more the longer I read thease blogs....
Could he have broke down because TB's really aren't built to stop? My guess is your shuffle stop probably is what saved him from breaking down completely.

Shanster said...

It is gratifying in it's own way. I have my 30 yr old gelding that I've had since I was 16 and I took in an old school horse that was in her 20's and needed a place to go - she was a TB too. Who knew I'd end up with so many TBs - sheesh. She lived to be 33!

So yes - they cost money but sometimes doing the right thing is worth all that and more!

Besides, my old gelding is still the leader of the bunch... he just has to LOOK at my young horses and they skedaddle out o' the way! Even tho he is old and slow and arthritic and it'd take him a while to actually GET to them. He is worth his weight in gold teaching those silly young'uns....

Anonymous said...

Mugwump, there's something in what you say. Rebby really wasn't built to stop (like most TBs), and he had that tendency to stick his hind leg in the ground, hard. I always worried that he'd break down, to tell you the truth. But as far as we can tell, the likeliest reson he actually "broke" when he did was a really hard pull back when tied solid. That's what the vet thought, anyway. In my opinion, it might have been a combination of cumalitive stress and then that one incident was the straw that broke the proverbial back.

Whywudyabreedit said...

I love hearing about the different qualities of horses bred for completely different things. It is pretty amazing what thoughtful and educated selective breeding can accomplish. Thanks for the story!

FD said...

Hey Laura - thought you'd like to know, I'm trying to pick up your books, but in the UK (at least from Amazon) they retail at £15-30 odd each and that's a little steep for me. Not to mention they're second hand and I try to buy direct wherever possible.

You clearly have a thriving secondhand market, have you ever thought about a POD contract or something? Not that I know much about the publishing industry. I did get Chasing Cans and Moonblind though as those are still in print and a not too ouchworthy price.

Re Rebby. I personally really rate TB's. I know they get a lot of press as being hot headed or 'sharp' but personally, I've always thought that considering the life they lead as babies when racing most of them are astonishingly sane and gentle. The ease with which he carried you IS a TB characteristic IMO, and how easy it was to teach him to collect compared to a full QH. They're just natural athletes. From my dressage background, TB's are not considered 'easy' to collect and their movement is not so desirable - because it's naturally swinging and flat - but then they're being compared with WB's.
One of favourite horses ever was a TB/QH cross, he got the best of both sides, but I've seen some astonishingly fugly crosses - weak hipped, spindly legged, teacupfooted, straight shouldered with an upright neck and honking QH head on the end of it. I think the stepplechase type of TB crosses best - they have the upright frame, flat movement, long shoulder and bone, and the QH has the muscle and strong back / quarters which they can lack.

Anonymous said...

Fd--if you ever really want to get the books, email me at and I will arrange to get them for you at $20 American apiece. My friend who runs a feedstore sells signed copies of all of them, and though he normally sticks to the continental US, I know he would make an exception if I asked him. I don't know how much shipping would be. We could find out and let you know. Thanks for your interest. I very much enjoy your comments. They're always insightful and I learn from you.

I know zip about Tb's but Reb was a fun horse to train. Really smart and bold and willing. Really, really fast. I don't think he had the right structure for a head horse, though. I'm sure that contributed to his breakdown. I always felt bad about it, so I'm glad I've helped him to have a good long happy retirement.