by Laura Crum
Several years ago my friend Wally bought a pretty black horse that belonged to a roper who needed to sell the horse quickly, due to losing his job and being unable to pay board. Wally knew this horse slightly and believed him to be gentle and a decent heel horse. The horse was said to be nine years old, he was quite sound (we jogged him in circles on the asphalt driveway), and he was priced to sell. So Wally bought him as a backup horse.
The black horse (named Coal) turned out to have strengths and weaknesses—like all horses. He wasn’t a very good heel horse, and he obviously did not care for being a rope horse. He was, however, a lovely mover and very smooth gaited. He would willingly lope endless circles in a perfect, collected lope and he didn’t seem to mind this at all. He would pack beginners with good grace—in the arena. He wasn’t much of trail horse and acted sulky and reluctant outside and hated walking downhill. After a couple of years of messing around with him, Wally decided the horse didn’t fit him and asked our friend Mark (who is something of a horse trader) to sell the horse for him.
Wally wanted to do right by Coal and we knew a rope horse home or a trail horse home wouldn’t suit the horse. So Wally asked Mark to try to find a Coal a good “forever” home as a walk/trot/lope arena horse. And truly, Coal was ideal for this.
How many people out there would like a sound, gentle, eleven year old gelding—very pretty, solid black, very smooth gaited and very solid in the arena? Coal was not a particularly friendly horse—more stand-offish-- but reasonably well-mannered. He would pin his ears when cinched and sometimes made little “dolphin” bucks at the lope when he was fresh. But these were not vices that would bother even a beginner. And Coal would pack beginners patiently—I watched him do it many times.
So Mark found what he thought was the perfect home for Coal. A middle-aged lady with a lovely horse property who owned five horses that were either too old or too lame to ride. She was keeping all of them for the rest of their lives. She just wanted a horse she could ride in the arena and do very low level dressage. She rode Coal and thought he was perfect. She seemed like the perfect home. Coal was sold and Wally made a nice profit. We all felt good about it. We thought we had done the horse a favor and placed him in a home where he would have a good life.
The woman kept in touch with Mark and it became clear that she was very timid and even this quite-gentle gelding intimidated her with his ear pinning and occasional crowhop. Mark encouraged her to take lessons on him, which she did, and this seemed to work. She said she was very happy with him and sent photos of the horse at the small dressage shows she attended. Coal looked good. We thought all was well.
Coal remained with this woman a year or two, but a month ago Mark got a call. The woman said that Coal had bit her and she was now afraid of him—and she wanted to sell him back. Mark agreed to take the horse back. Wally wanted no part of it. And, no matter how much I would like to help every good horse that crosses my path, I have no place to put another horse and no time to ride one. Sunny doesn’t get ridden as much as he should. I simply had to pass.
So now Mark has Coal and is trying to find another home for him. But…and it’s a BIG but. Coal is not the same horse. He’s pushy and disrespectful and testing the boundaries at all points. Mark (or any other competent horseman) can fix this rather easily. But the horse won’t be truly suitable for a beginner to own…ever again. And this is a very sad thing for the horse’s future.
This story is very similar to my Sunny horse. A flunked out heel horse (like Coal), gentle for beginners (like Coal), Sunny was sold (by Mark) to be a family horse and to do low level dressage and trail riding with beginners. Three years later the horse was for sale again and I bought him to be my trail horse. I soon found out why he was for sale.
The previously polite and well-mannered Sunny now offered to kick and nip, balked at loading in the trailer, crow-hopped when annoyed, sulled up when he didn’t want to do something, was hard to catch…etc. He was, in short, very spoiled. I soon cured him of this, and at this point he’s pretty well-mannered again and a pleasant horse to ride and handle. But he hasn’t forgotten. If I do something stupid, Sunny is quick to show me that he will take advantage. He has learned his lesson. If the humans don’t know how to be in charge, the door is open for the horse to take charge. Sunny has not forgotten this. He would not be suitable for a beginner to own—though I could sure put a beginner on him for one ride. But over time it would not work out. Sunny has been effectively ruined for beginners—he is lucky that I came along for him (as I am lucky to own such a reliable trail horse).
So people, take heed. This has been my single biggest problem placing horses over the years. I send a gentle, reliable horse to a home with well-intentioned people who are, quite frankly, dudes. But they mean well and have the money and the time and the desire to do right by the horse. I encourage them to get skilled help—and they usually try to do this. But the story so often ends like this. Several years later and they are afraid to ride or handle the horse—who now has learned to buffalo the person and is more or less a spoiled monster. Such once-well-broke horses (like my Sunny) are not that hard for a horseman to remind of their manners. But they won’t forget what they have learned from their non-horseman owners. And if they are owned/handled by beginners again, they will be quick to take advantage.
It’s hard to say what the answer is. Never sell a good horse to dudes? That seems a little extreme. We were all beginners at one time. And beginners really need these solid horses. But this is a very frustrating and extremely common story. Well-intentioned non-horseman can almost be guaranteed to let a horse run over them more than they should allow, and most gentle, solid horses suitable for beginners are that way partly because they are level-headed and tough minded. Such a horse is quick to understand that the owner can’t make him obey, and said owner is constantly giving way to every whim that the horse displays. And soon the horse is a spoiled monster. Such a sad situation—not good for horse or person-- and so very common. Anyone have any thoughts on how to prevent this?