Sunday, November 11, 2012


                                                            by Laura Crum

            So not too long ago I posted about my friend Wally selling a black horse named Coal. I had mixed feelings about this—here is the link to that blog post. Last week I heard that Coal has sold—to a good home. And yet, I still have mixed feelings. Maybe this is just my problem—I’d like to put my thoughts out there and see if anyone else has some insights.
            Coal was/is a pretty horse, with lovely smooth gaits and overall good manners. Wally bought the horse as a backup rope horse, but Coal wasn’t a very good rope horse, and he wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. I thought of using Coal as a backup trail horse, but the horse absolutely hated walking downhill (to the degree I wondered if he was truly sound, though he appeared 100 percent sound on level ground), and all our trails are hilly, not to mention I didn’t have an extra corral to put him in. So we all agreed that our friend Mark, a young trainer/horse trader, who had been keeping Coal, could sell the 11 year old gelding, with the stipulation that it must be to a good, appropriate, home. Not as a rope horse. Not as a trail horse in hilly country. Hopefully to a forever home.
            I don’t have many photos of Coal, and, as a black horse, he was/is hard to photograph. But here is a shot of Coal and Mark bringing the roping cattle up the alley along with my son and Henry.

            So Mark sold Coal to a woman in her sixties who has six retired horses—due to age or injury-- and wanted one she could ride. Just a sound, gentle horse. She lives in California’s central valley, where everything is flat, so no hills. She just wanted a walk/trot lope arena horse. She has a beautiful horse facility; all her horses are given the best of care. She fell in love with Coal, who is certainly as nice a walk/trot/lope horse as anybody could ask for. And Coal passed the vet check—which inclines me to think that he just doesn’t LIKE walking downhill, and doesn’t have soundness issues. The X-rays showed no incipient problems. Before this gal even hauled the horse home, she insured him for medical. She readily agreed that we had the right to buy him back if she sold him. But she has never sold a horse. Coal has a stall with an attached 100 foot run. There is pasture turnout. Does this sound like a good home or what?
            But…despite the fact that this is obviously a good, loving owner, she is not a particularly knowledgeable horse person. And Coal, though well broke, has his “stuff” as all horses do. He is a bit cinchy and inclined to make faces when cinched, and to crowhopping when kicked up to the lope after time off. He couldn’t/wouldn’t buck anyone off, but he will hump his back and do those little dolphin bucks. He will spook occasionally. Mark says he gets grouchy if he isn’t ridden regularly. And Coal, by my own observation, though a polite horse, is not a particularly friendly horse. This all fits easily within my own definition of a gentle, broke horse, but then I think of my horse, Sunny.
            Mark was the one who bought Sunny from a rope horse trader, maybe eight years ago now. Sunny was cute and gentle and well-mannered. He was not, however, a very good rope horse. Too slow, not handy enough. Mark tested the horse on the arena and the trail, and thought he was absolutely a solid, bombproof trail horse/riding horse, and that this would be a better life for him than being a team roping horse. (I saw Sunny during the two week period Mark owned him, and can attest to the truth of all this.)
            So Mark sold Sunny to what seemed like an ideal home. A fairly experienced horsewoman, with several riding horses that she’d owned for years, who trail rode a lot, and dabbled in dressage, bought Sunny as a riding horse for her daughter and a backup trail horse in general. And to begin with, this woman loved Sunny. She thought he was perfect. But over the three year period that she owned him, the horse developed some bad habits. He kicked her daughter. He kicked her farrier. He tried to kick a friend that was tacking him up for a ride. He wasn’t always easy to load in the trailer any more. He didn’t behave very well (gate sour) in the arena, though he was still reliable on the trails. Etc, etc, etc.
            Eventually she decided to sell him. At the time, I was looking for a replacement/backup for my son’s pony, Toby, because Toby’s cancer had reoccurred and I knew the pony’s days might be numbered. (See my post on Toby here.) I remembered Sunny as a really nice little riding horse and went to try him. Well…
            The horse that I tried that day was a far cry from the well broke little gelding I’d seen three years ago. The gal had been riding him English, and all you English riders will probably yell at me, but from my point of view, the owner had taught him to pull relentlessly on the bit (I’m sure you don’t all do this). The horse had always been lazy, but now he felt reluctant, he bulled into the bridle, and he pulled hard toward the gate. The woman assured me I’d like Sunny a lot more on the trail, but I was looking for a riding horse for my son, and Sunny was far too much of a bully in his present form to be any good for a six year old kid. I turned him down.
            But I couldn’t forget the cute little palomino horse. I bought the MUCH better behaved Henry for my son, and we started trail riding together. But my horse, Plumber, let me know he didn’t care to walk down steep hills any more (just like Coal). Plumber was 20, and had been my riding horse for many years—I decided to honor his wishes, and not insist on using him as a trail horse. And I remembered Sunny.
            It was now nine months since I had tried Sunny and rejected him. In the interim the horse had been for sale. Many people had tried him. Nobody bought him. Mark had actually tried him for a client. When Sunny tried to kick Mark as he loaded the horse in the trailer, Mark rejected him, too. “That gal has him completely spoiled,” he said.
            But I wanted a steady trail horse and I believed Sunny was that. I took him on trial. And yes, he had some bad habits. I had to be pretty firm with him. Here is my post about how I retrained Sunny.
            You can see that I had to use some pretty “tough love.” But today Sunny is back to being a reliable riding horse, and is, as everybody agrees, once again a pleasure to be around. I really do love him and I think he is fond of me (see my post, “Love…and an Ordinary Horse”). But if I (or someone equally competent) hadn’t bought him, I have no doubt he would still be “Small Nasty,” as my friend Wally called him. A once nice horse that had been spoiled such that he was a bully. A horse nobody wanted. And I have to admit that I am worried about this happening to Coal.
            Coal and Sunny are, of course, very different personalities. Even so, I can imagine that if Coal’s slight cinchiness intimidated his rider, that behavior might escalate. And it is SO much harder to retrain a horse out of “bullying” behavior than just to not allow it in the first place. And this is the pitfall in selling a horse, even a well trained horse, to anything less than a competent horseman.
            I know, I know, I need to hope/trust it will all go well. And I do. I hope it works out wonderfully. I remember the horses I have sold or placed in good homes, and some of these were not competent horse people, but they are still giving the horses a good life (some of these horses don’t get ridden very often—but I think the horses are happy). I know I am not always the best home for a horse—some horses that I have placed have a much better life than they would have had with me—I really only have time to exercise one horse, and right now Sunny is that horse. But still…I can’t help the nagging worry. I want Coal to have every bit as happy a life as Sunny has today.

            So, anybody have any thoughts on how horses do with less than experienced horse people for owners? I am hoping that we did Coal a favor…what do you think?

            Also, in book news—this is the last week to get my most recent mystery, Barnstorming, as a Kindle edition for $2.99. After Nov 15th, the publisher will raise the price back to $9.99 or something like that—much higher than it is now. I don’t know if the price will get reduced again, so now is the time to buy this one if you want to read the whole twelve book series on Kindle. Here is the link.

            And on a related note, the first two books in the series, Cutter and Hoofprints, are currently on special for a mere 99 cents each. Click on the titles if you’re interested.


Martine said...

Hmmm it's difficult Laura, but sometimes you just have to let go... especially when you have a "buy-back" option.
I know exactly what you mean, when the sweet natured horse goes to new people and quickly works out that he's got the upper hand and walks all over them, but hey it's still better than going to someone who's going to beat or abuse him

Francesca Prescott said...

I agree with Martine; sometimes you just have to let go and hope for the best. You're not the "red cross" (as my husband always says!).

And maybe the lady will learn to be firm with him if he tries to pull some wise guy tricks with her; I also believe that horses can teach us to be more firm, more confidence, more assertive. I know Qrac has (even if he's becoming even more of a coochy-coo horse every day...which I like).

Coal is definitely a pretty horse, and I know what you mean about black horses being hard to photograph!

Laura Crum said...

Martine--Yes, I honestly feel that Coal went to a genuinely good home--I'm crossing my fingers it works well for both horse and owner.

Cesca--Its true. Perhaps Coal will help his new owner to be a more confident horse person. I hope so. We did try to make the best choice that we could, given the overall situation.

Mona Sterling said...

I have first hand experience with this and with my current horse. I wasn't completely inexperienced, but after 15 years off (and I had only been riding for 10 before that as an adult!) and a bad fall, I came back with less confidence. I made doozies of mistakes with the horse I bought. Young, green broke, Arab, mare, not worked in a year....I think I covered most of the list of what not to buy. The first year of owning this horse she was sketchy about her back feet, wouldn't go in the wash rack, bucked when you asked her to canter and sucked back and threatened the rest of the time. I would go to cinch her up and she'd throw her head, roll her eye at me and try to bite. Hopefully, Coal's new owner will do what I did. Find a good trainer and have them assess the horse and help you out. I would have sold my mare as some sort of crazed alpha mare if I hadn't found my current trainer. She reassured me that I had the skills and that my horse wasn't crazy and that we both needed time and training. I had to learn how to lay down my limits and enforce them. We made it through our rough patch and though my girl is still a bit grouchy with the cinch, she now just gives a head toss or two. I think things could work out Coal's new owner if she's willing to get help if she can't do it herself. If she fell in love with him, hopefully she'll also think he's worth working it out for.

Sorry this is so long and rambly....I just know what it's like to buy a decent minded horse and turn them into a mess. Luckily, I also know what it's like to turn the mess back into a good horse (with a trainer's help).

Laura Crum said...

Mona--That is a great comment, and is exactly right on, in my opinion. In Coal's case, he really is a very easy, well-behaved horse. Lots of beginners have been put on him in the last couple of years, and he packed them like a real baby sitter. He's eleven, and pretty darn solid. So I don't think his new owner faces as many challenges as you did. But the overall truth is still the same. If she feels intimidated in any way by the horse, hopefully she will get help. Coal is a really lovely riding horse in an arena--I rode him maybe a dozen times, and he was a pleasure. It would be hard to find a better horse for that purpose. Crossing my fingers it all works well.

horsegenes said...

I had this very thing happen to a horse I sold to a wonderful (I thought) home. I sold a 5 year old gelding that I had purchased as a weanling, raised and had trained to be a reiner. He was is a lazy kind of horse and loping circles with no purpose did not light up his world. He liked to be trail ridden and work cattle but asking him for a large fast circle could work YOU to death! His turnarounds were labored - not that he couldn't go at lightening speed if he wanted to, he just didn't see the need and unless you were willing to kick his butt...he was going to flop around like a fish. He is a drop dead gorgeous sorrel with a blazed face, grand son of Peppy San Badger - all around nice horse. No bad habits except for the lazy thing. So I sold him to a gentleman (retired lawyer = money) that was a good friend of my best and oldest friend in the world. They live in an upscale area, the barn that he boarded at is a small private barn right off some manicured riding trails. The barn owner only feeds the best quality feed. - ridiculously good quality hay - She has someone clean daily, horses feed the same time every day, turn out etc. The gentleman had taken care of my friends horse and had ridden her when my friend didn't have time. He grew up riding and was an experienced horseman. Because he was retiring he would have more time to spend riding and looking for a horse that he could trail ride and do some team sorting on. Sounds perfect right? I delivered the horse to him (8 hours away) and everything appeared good - the only thing that I would have fixed was that his saddle was crap and old and really didn't fit the horse well. I told him that I thought he should invest in a newer saddle that fit the horse better. He seemed a little reluctant but agreed to check into it. I checked in on him via my friend from time to time and things were going o.k. The gentleman had injured his back playing golf and had not been able to follow through on this sorting plans but was riding the horse on the trails 3 or 4 days a week. The same trail 3 or 4 days a week - that sent up a red flag and I was hearing little things here and there that were sending up signals... like the horse was trying to bite at you when you cinched him. He was shaking his head going down hill and offering to get a little bucky. He didn't want to leave the barn sometimes. I again asked if the saddle had been replaced and was told that he was borrowing a different saddle. Fast forward 3 years later and I get the call... Cul is for sale. Fortunately another friend needed a horse, knew Cul and made a deal. We went and picked him up and oh my gosh what a BRAT he is. We picked him up in June and he is just now getting his manners back. And it has been VERY much a tough love situation. He is a powerful horse. He had gotten to be a lazy horse with a huge pushy attitude. He bucked, bolted, sullied up, whatever he could come up with to get out of work. This horse had amazing flying lead changes when I sold him. Right now you can not move in the saddle without him changing leads. Getting him to NOT change is more of a challange than getting him to change. He can back up with more purpose than any horse I have ever ridden - problem is that he does it to get you off. He shakes his head and offers to buck when HE decides he is done working. My friend that bought him is working through the issues but it is taking longer than either of us expected. And part of the problem is that when you get a new horse you don't want to spend all your time getting after them. She knows what a nice, safe horse he can be but right now she must be so viligent about his discipline that it has taken all the fun out of having a new horse. It is all very, very frustrating.

I hope Coal ends up in a better situation and for the life of me I don't know what you can do.

I guess it is better that they go to a good home and become brats than a bad home and become dead. ???

Laura Crum said...

kel--That is exactly the scenario that I worry about--and to a lesser degree, that is what happened to Sunny before I bought him. Side note--my friend Mark has another horse in for "re-training" right now that does the same constant switching leads thing when he doesn't want to lope circles--I had never seen that before. An ex-reiner.

I guess, as Martine says, better spoiled than abused, but its a tough problem. As I said in the post, its so much easier not to allow those negative behaviors than to fix a horse that has gotten confirmed in being a bully. I am hoping that Coal and his new owner do well together--he is a really nice horse. And I hope your Cul goes back to his former self...Sunny did, but it took a couple of years.

FD said...

Well, I won't pretend I haven't seen exactly the scenario you describe (because that used to be a significant chunk of my income!) but I have seen a pony sold to a family and become a complete ratbag caricature of a rotten kid's pony, except with the eighty year old greatgrandma who was a lifelong rider, but very tottery and frail. For her, and for her only, he was angelicly quiet and careful and never put a foot wrong, not even to mug her for carrots. I was watching them together one day, along with the father of the grandkids and he said musingly, "I hate to anthromorphise but it's just like he knows that she's the only thing standing between him and my shotgun."

re the lead switching -that's a classic uncomfortable in the back sign in my experience. The other times I've seen it it stemmed from having been asked to go forward while being held back. And horses who've been ridden like that tend to be very tight in the back anyway so I'm not sure now that I think about it that there really are two clear cut categories there.

Laura Crum said...

FD--That's a great story about the pony!

Interesting what you say about the lead switching. The horse I have seen is an ex-reiner who "burnt out". Essentially he was asked to do reining patterns, including flying changes, so much that he began using the flying change as an evasion. I have seen this sort of thing in horses that were backed a lot...they will begin using the backing as an kel describes her former horse as doing. I had one like that in my younger days. I broke her..and I backed her too much. It took me a LONG time to get her over using backing as a way of resisting what she did not want to do.

horsegenes said...

FD... We have been wondering if this horse could be a little stiff in his back and hip just because of some of his other antics. The head shaking going down hill, etc. That might indeed answer the lead changing thing. On Sunday we were at a horse show, Cul was loping a nice small slow circle, about half way through, Laura reached up to adjust her hat and he changes leads but keeps right on going quietly - I don't know if he is just being ultra sensitive or being a brat, or hurting.

We have scheduled an appointment with our equine massage lady - she does wonderful work and she will be able to give us a definite answer.

Thanks for putting that out there.

horsegenes said... are dead on with the backing thing. When you get after him and he didn't want to comply, he will start flying backwards. We have pretty much gotten him past it now. He tries it (very unsuccessfully) once in awhile but the episodes are coming further and further apart. It was a shocker because he is LAZY and that type of behavior was just so out of character for him. I think he figured out that little burst of energy could get him out of any work at all. It probably scared the guy and he got off.

Laura Crum said...

kel--That backing up thing is a nasty/dangerous evasion. I'm so glad you are getting the horse past it. The mare I had who developed this habit (all my fault) became pretty scary. My uncle actually had to back her until she fell down (in a nice soft arena) before she began to turn the corner. Needless to say, I was careful not to make that particular mistake again.