by Laura Crum
Yep, you can get a free review copy of my new book, “Going, Gone,” if you email Susan Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org and agree to review the book on your blog. I hope all you horse bloggers take my publisher up on this offer and I look forward to reading your reviews. There is a brief description of the book on the sidebar here, and you will find a synopsis on my website www.lauracrum.com Those of you who have enjoyed my previous books and my blog posts here on EI will probably enjoy “Going, Gone.” There is a great deal in the book about horses and how we interact with them, and it is Gail’s horsemanship that saves her life in the climactic scene.
And this brings me to my subject for this post. The other day I stopped to think awhile about the question of what we want from our horses and how that changes at different times in our lives. When I was younger I wanted a talented horse who could win at cutting or team roping. I was careful to train and ride my horses such that they could execute the moves necessary to perform these events. I wasn’t particularly concerned with whether they were bombproof trail horses. I didn’t mind a certain amount of spooky, ampy behavior or a coldbacked horse who wanted to crowhop. I could deal with it. As long as the horse performed well in my chosen event, I was fine with it.
How things have changed. After taking almost ten years off to have and rear a child, I am now a 52 year old woman who wants to trail ride with her young son. I’m not interested in competing. I am interested (very much) in not getting hurt. I am very, very interested (I can’t overstate this) in my kid not getting hurt. I love riding through the hills of my home and taking in the beauty of the landscape. The only thing I really care about in a horse is that he be a completely reliable bombproof trail horse, one who can go anywhere and handle all the odd things that come up “outside” with aplomb. Not spooking is big. Never panicking is essential. I am completely unwilling to deal with any horse who might even consider bucking me off. I have no confidence that I could come off a horse at this point in my life and not be hurt.
So I acquired two horses that fit this description. My son and I are enjoying the heck out of them on the trail. We go everywhere on them…through the muddy creek, across the busy roads, up and down steep hills on narrow switchback trails, past the llama pen (and the goats and the geese and the little bitty ponies), in the surf at the beach, by the dirt bikes, you name it. Are they well broke? Uhmm, Henry’s not too bad, Sunny is not something to brag about. My two little trail horses can walk, trot, lope around an arena, they stop decently, they back, they have a nice neck rein, you can open and close a gate from their backs, they know how to turn with a cow (if you’re not in a hurry). That’s about it. You can rope off both of them (though we don’t). I would have sneered at them in my competitive days. Now I love them.
Contrary to what you might suppose, neither of these horses is a “plug”. They do not tune out the outside world, they are not dull and unresponsive. Both horses go down the trail with their ears pricked forward, stepping out briskly, watching everything and showing every sign that they are happy, alert, and interested in what is going on around them. They notice everything, but are confident enough in themselves and their riders that they don’t need to overeact. Neither of them shows this alert demeanor for arena work, which leads me to the simple conclusion that these intelligent critters feel the same way about going around and around in circles as I do. (They usually like to lope until the edge is off and they like chasing cattle—just like me.) In short, I’m finding that these two gentle, willing, bombproof trail horses are not desensitized to the world around them. They’re not tuning it out. They are both very alert and aware of their enviroment and quite interested in it (if its interesting). They are just confident and they trust their riders, answering the rider’s cue even when faced with “scary stuff”. For my purposes, this is a good thing. The fact that the horses are calm and not over reactive is a good thing. If I wanted to show them as cutting horses it would not be such a good thing. My old cutting horse, Gunner, was very prone to sudden ten foot sideways leaps when going down the trail. Fortunately at that time in my life this didn’t bother me—Gunner never did drop me (it was close many times, though). What made Gunner a good cutter made him a very spooky trail horse.
My two current trail horses are both willing to ignore unfortunate accidental rider cues. If my son loses his balance and kicks or pulls on Henry when he doesn’t mean to, Henry does not overeact and freak out. Henry understands the “signal” to mean nothing and he pretty much ignores it. From my point of view, this is a good thing. Again, if I wanted to go back to team roping on Henry, I would need to “remind” him that he needs to pay attention to my cues. But for what we do, a little tuning out of aberrant rider cues is not a bad thing. Both horses are completely obedient when it counts, if a little lazy when it comes to lots of boring arena work. Does this make them dull and desensitized? In a way. But it’s a way that works for me.
Looking back at my own life with horses I began to realize that there is no such thing as one good way that a horse should be. There is no one best training method. Some people can and do tolerate horses that are truly dangerous…and don’t mind. (We used to call these guys the “real hands”.) They don’t care if a horse stands still to be mounted, or if he wants to buck, or if he leaps ten feet sideways when a leaf blows by. They value his ability to cut a cow or go down the fence or some such thing. Some people want a gentle horse that stands still to be mounted and carries them reliably and willingly through the hills (this would be me these days). Some people really want and need a horse that is gentle and polite about taking treats and being brushed…cause that’s all they want to do. They don’t want to ride. They want to pet the horse. I might have looked down on these people at one time. No more.
The more I see the more I realize that there are as many different ways to be happy with horses as there are people, and if your way is working for you than I think it is a good way. There will always be someone who wants to tell you what you “ought” to be doing with your horse, or what you ought not to be doing. If you are unhappy with your interactions with your horse then it pays to get advice and help from one or more of these experts and change what you are doing until it is working for you. But I no longer believe that the horseman who is quite happy petting and feeding treats to his/her gentle well behaved pony is in any way lesser to the tough guy who can win at a cutting, reining or roping. Its who is happier with their horses that counts. Who is treating their horses right, retiring their old ones, showing compassion for all. Its whose horses are happier that may in the end count for the most. (I’m talking karma here folks.) If a given “trainer” uses harsh methods and seems to glorify flighty, spooky, half scared horses that are great performers at his/her event, and this trainer, say, is uninterested in gentle, reliable, kind horses that willingly pack their rider down the trail, maybe we who like gentle, reliable, kind, bombproof horses need to move on. I know I have learned a whole new way of evaluating horses and picking out what will work for me since I've been riding with my son.
If any of you have insights to share on how your goals have changed over the years since you’ve been involved with horses, I’d love to hear them. Do you find that you select different horses now and work with them differently? I know I’ve been amazed by how much my own goals and methods have changed and equally surprised by how much I enjoy my horses now…there’s so much less stress involved compared to the days when I was competing. (Of course, the current amount of mud in my corrals is pretty much creating the same level of mental stress that it always has—so I guess you can’t win them all.) Any thoughts on this? Have any of you moved on to a new trainer because the former one no longer fit your goals and needs? Or realized that you don’t need a trainer any more? I’d be interested to hear your ideas on this subject.
Again, for those of you who would like to read my new book, “Going, Gone”, my publisher has agreed to provide free review copies to horse bloggers who will review the book on their blog. Email Susan Daniel at email@example.com with your snail mail address and your blog address and mention that you’d like to review the book and that you will email Susan a copy of the review when you post it on your blog. Susan will be sending the review copies out around March 1st, which is the deadline for this offer. I hope that many of you will take advantage of it, and I look forward to reading your reviews. Cheers--Laura