Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Failure?

By Laura Crum

Once upon a time, a long time ago, when I was very young and new to breaking and training horses, I bought a three-year-old unbroken colt. I had known this horse since he was born, and always admired him. My uncle, who raised Quarter Horses, had bred his mare to a fairly well known stud and Ready was the result. A big, good looking colt with a pretty head, at three years old Ready was a handsome guy, and I flat fell in love with his looks. I’d broken and trained a handful of other horses at that point (I was twenty-three), and I felt perfectly capable of doing the same with Ready. I bought him and embarked on the project.

Right off the bat, things did not go the way I was expecting. Ready wasn’t the easiest horse to handle. Though easy going on the surface, he was somewhat numb and insensitive, with a tendency to bull right through me. It was hard to get his attention. Unlike the other colts I had trained, he seemed clumsy, as if he had a hard time figuring out where his feet were. Somehow it had never occurred to me that this thick-bodied sixteen hand horse might not be the cattiest thing in the world.

I persisted. I did the groundwork. Ready could be saddled and would trot and lope around me in a round pen. I felt he was ready to ride. To my surprise, this easy going colt bucked like a recalcitrant mule the first time I climbed on him. Not hard, like a bronco, but he bogged his head and tried. He just wasn’t athletic enough to buck me off.

I got him through it. I got him broke. He was never a very cooperative horse. Sluggish, lazy, numb and clunky, he would offer to buck from time to time. And rear. And bolt. In a word, Ready was resistant.

Still, I persisted. With time, and a lot of wet saddle blankets, I made a decent horse out of him. By the time he was five, the big, very good looking Ready would lope circles, change leads, stop, back, turn around, look at a cow, let you throw a rope off of him…etc. He knew how to go outside. You could part cattle on him…if the cattle weren’t too quick. And I was heartily sick of him.

I could see that I’d made a mistake. The horse was too big, a clumsy mover, and naturally resistant. He was still superficially easy going; he was certainly lazy. If nothing too strenuous was asked of him, Ready appeared gentle enough for a beginner. But if any pressure was put on him to actually get something done, he was stiill capable of unpredictable bucking or rearing. He frustrated me. I had Burt, my good ranch horse, and I had just bought Gunner, a horse I planned to show as a cowhorse. I determined to sell Ready.

It wasn’t hard. In no time at all a team roper I knew offered me a good price for my handsome, pretty-well-broke gelding. And I sold him.

Here’s where it gets tricky. I knew the roper wanted Ready for a head horse. On paper, the horse had the right credentials. But I had done all the training on Ready, and I doubted he was athletic enough to do the job. The roper who bought him tried for awhile to rope on him, didn’t get much done, and finally sent him to a well known rope horse trainer, a guy I knew. I waited to see what would happen.

Three months later I got the call. The rope horse trainer had seen my name on the papers. “Did you train this horse?” he asked me.

“Yeah,” I admitted.

“He’s a pretty well broke horse,” the guy said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“No way in hell is he gonna make a rope horse.”

“I’m not surprised,”I said.

“I told the guy he should sell him.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’ve got a lady who wants a husband horse. This guy can’t ride at all. What do you think?”

“I wouldn’t put my husband on him,” I said (though in fact I had).

We talked some more and in the end the trainer decided he could sell Ready as a “husband horse”. I told him he could give the people my phone number. They called me to ask the occasional question; they seemed happy with the horse. They used him for trail riding. A happy ending, right?

Well, almost. Years passed. Twelve years. I learned some interesting things. Ready’s dam produced several more big, good looking colts. Others besides me liked the look of these horses. Two people, one of them my uncle, chose colts out of this mare to use as stallions. And eventually, colts by these stallions were being started and trained.

Guess what? They were big, pretty, easy going horses. But every single one of them that I was around was a failure. Under saddle they were one and all resistant and not very athletic. They would resort to bucking, rearing and bolting to get out of work. Some of them were much more violent than Ready. Turns out he was one of the better ones.

Better people than me tried to train these colts and couldn’t get much done. I was around at least thirty of them, and I can’t think of one that made a good horse. I failed myself on a couple more of them (at that point I hadn’t figured out it was a genetic issue and that all the colts that traced back to that one mare had this attitude). To this very day a friend of mine is riding a grandson of this mare and struggling with this big good looking horse’s rotten attitude. Ikey will (wait for it) buck, rear,…etc when he doesn’t feel like working. The horse is superficially gentle and lazy, just like Ready, so much so that his owner (very unwisely in my opinion) puts his young son on him. But Ikey has dumped this kid more than once when something pushes his buttons and he decides to buck or bolt. When tied, he is capable of suddenly pulling back and flipping over backwards. Even after years of very competent training this gelding is so resistant and unpredictable he’s virtually useless as a rope horse. Another failure.

End of the story? The guy that owned Ready phoned me when the horse was seventeen. He was divorced, he didn’t ride, the horse had been turned out on a friend’s ranch for years. He wanted out of him. Would I buy him (for the same price the guy paid for him, of course)?

I thought about it. Ready wasn’t worth the asking price…or even half of it. But the truth was, even if the man gave him to me, did I want him? I can only afford to retire so many. This was not a horse that I felt very inclined to retire. But still, I remembered the handsome colt I fell in love with; I was, after all, the one who trained him….. In short, I agonized over it.

In the end I said no. I was getting a divorce myself. I wasn’t sure I could keep the horses I had, horses I really loved. I truly couldn’t afford to take another horse on just then. I don’t know what happened to Ready. It still makes me sad to think he may have gone to slaughter.

So, here’s the question. How did I fail? Ready was what he was…it wasn’t his fault. Time has shown he was genetically programmed to be an unwilling riding horse, but I couldn’t have known that when I chose him. I did a pretty good job training him, for what he was. And yet, I didn’t care for him. I didn’t want to keep him and ride him. I can’t judge the man who wanted to sell him to me, but I do wonder if I should have bought the horse back. Was I obligated? I picture Ready at the slaughter plant and I just shudder. I don't sell horses any more. I can't stand it.

So, where did I fail? What should have happened differently here? Where’s the right answer? I don’t know.


gillian said...

Personally, I think you failed to change this guys fundamental nature. I have it on good authority (mugwump) that anyone who tries to do this will fail.

If you really want to have something to regret, besides failing to do the impossible, I do have one thought.

Big R trains driving horses, and we had this very well bred POA mare in training. She was very stubborn but we got her pulling a cart and driving along. She was a miserable horse to drive. Constantly freaking out about the cart being behind her, difficult to steer, etc. Big R could drive her adequately, but she would never be anything but work to drive with.
She is now on her 20th or so ride under saddle. She really likes this job a lot better. She is still her little P.issed O.ff A.ttitude self, but she's already showing signs of being a pretty reasonably trail horse. We might even make a hunter prospect out of her.

Her problem is that she's very anxious about things being behind her. Still is. So a change of career helped, but it didn't change her basic nature, so I don't know if that would have helped your guy.

mugwump said...

If there was any failure hear I would think it is simply a failure to give yourself a break.
Let's pretend Ready was a big handsome man who had come into your life.
You took him on because you liked his sweet personality and his hot looks. He turned out a little more sullen than you thought, but you worked on it as best you could.After you had been together long enough to really get to know him you realized he was a sweetie only as long as he got his way. If he had to work too hard or try something new he threw a fit and tried to hurt you. He was clunky and clumsy and turned that into an excuse not to try.
You would kick this loser to the curb without a backwards glance.
You gave Ready a fair shot. He was unpleasant to ride and not particularly safe. He did not have a purpose and he wasn't even a reliable babysitter.
You probably gave him more years and chances than he would have had any other way.

gillian said...

Well said mugs. The perfect metaphor on several levels.

Laura Crum said...

Yes, Janet, I did give Ready as good a chance as he was probably likely to get. But your analogy can only go so far, cause I figure that a big handsome man has much more ability to choose his behavior than Ready did. Said man, once I dumped him, also is unlikely to end up in a slaughter house. Unhappy, maybe. Hauled to slaughter, pretty damn unlikely.
So I still wish I'd been in a position to buy Ready back when he needed a retirement home and turn him out with my pasture pets. Stupid, I know. But paradoxically, when I realized that all those other horses that were descended from that mare were that same way, I blamed Ready far less for his attitude than I had previously. What I really wish is that I'd never fallen for the great big good looking thing in the first place. I would know better now. I haven't picked a horse that I later didn't care for in a long time. But I was young when I bought Ready, as I said. I still wish I could have retired him. I am absolutely not selling any more horses.

joycemocha said...

Laura--life's too short to regret one horse that lacks a good mind.

Far as I can see, the choice for this horse was either slaughter or euthanasia. I'd have probably chosen the latter rather than retirement--too many good horses that need that support that I'd rather give the space to. Harsh? Probably. I'd sooner put the horse down than send it to slaughter, though--and I wouldn't spend the cash retiring it.

I've seen too many bad-minded horses go through the training barn. Dangerously bad.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--You (and Janet) are, of course, right. Life is too short to regret the bad-minded horse. Resources should be conserved to retire the good ones. There are too many of those who don't get their much deserved retirement. That said, I still wish I could be sure that Ready didn't go to slaughter. I just can't forget how attached I was to him at one time. Its like your high school boyfriend. You don't want him back, but you remember how fond of him you used to be. You hope his life works out OK. I wrote the post because I was thinking of Ready one day and wondering what I could have done different/better to have helped that horse. And retiring him when I had the chance was the thought that jumped to mind. But again, you're right. The ones I did retire were more deserving. And you can't keep them all (see Janet's last post here).

Gayle Carline said...

Sounds like the mare's offspring didn't fit anyone's expectations for what they were "supposed" to do. The mare may have looked, on paper, like she would pass down cowhorse genes, but maybe these horses were meant to do something else.

We had a mare at the ranch who was bred to be a pleasure horse. Slow, right? Except she didn't like a slow, collected gait - she wanted to go fast. And when you asked her to do her job, and she was in a foul mood, she would stand on her back legs instead of moving forward. Nice.

Her people bred her, hoping to get in reality what existed on her papers (yeah, I know - never a good idea). They got a filly, who, once she was started under saddle, had a curious way of standing on her hind legs when she didn't want to go forward.

The trainer noticed the filly liked speed, so on a whim, she sent her down to her daughter's facility, who trained reiners. The filly loved running, spinning and stopping! She'll never be a world-class reiner, but she's a solid performer who is happy with her job.

My gelding has a similar story. I bred my little mare to a big, pre-potent QH stud who primarily does English events. I got a big horse (16H) with long legs. Guess what? He likes to go slow. He likes trail poles. He doesn't want to move out with a big stride. He started out a little clumsy, he's quite dead-sided, and acts like an idiot on the ground. But get on him, show him a pole and he's the happiest horse in the arena and a joy to ride. Good thing I like to ride trail!


Jennifer said...

You didn't breed him, you didn't create him. You tried to make him useful, and tried to give him a job.

His best "job" would be the occasional leadline with kiddos, or babysitting a goat. :)

Nothing for you to feed bad about,, imho.

i know nothing said...

This relates to one of my theories about life. We tend to put up with a lot more BS from someone/something who is good looking. For a while anyway. And longer than we should.

Anonymous said...

Laura, I didn't like reading this post, because I'm in the middle of dealing with this same situation. My "dream horse" with the great conformation and movement has turned out to have a very resistant attitude to almost anything that resembles work. I bought him as a 3yo, barely broke, and mistakenly read him as mostly lazy and green, which seemed perfect after a lifetime of reschooling tbs.

Three years later he's come a long way towards being broke, but that unwilling attitude still crops up on occasion. Today, for example, was deemed "too hot" and grounds for refusing all work beyond a walk. Sigh. I had to get out my over/under and get thru that before doing anything else. (And as a dressage rider, even OWNING an over/under tells just how many things I've tried with this horse on the quest to find forward!) As usual, once he was working, he was great. It's very frustrating.

Reading your story made me realize that he may never "outgrow" this, that it's just who he is. He'll be marketable, since he's big and gorgeous and has enough talent that he can cruise along barely working and still satisfy many people's requirements. But I was hoping he'll eventually be MY horse--until I read this. Unfortunately, it rings very true.

Laura Crum said...

stilllearning--Your comment really touches my heart. That is exactly what I went through with Ready. What helped me to sell him was finding a wonderful, athletic, very willing horse that I just had to buy (despite the fact that he was way too expensive). This was Gunner. At that point I pretty much had to sell Ready (and I farmed my good gelding Burt out to friends). To help you, I never was really sorry I sold Ready. It frustrated me no end to ride him. And I have loved Gunner ever since (I still have him). I just wish I could have retired Ready when he got old, or better yet, known that someone else did. If I had it to do over again, I would just have tried hard to find a good permanent home for Ready as a trail horse. He did reasonably well there. So maybe you could look for your current horse's perfect owner/home, at the same time you look for your own perfect horse. Its just a thought. I know how hard the situation is. Though I didn't really want to keep Ready, I still shed tears when I sold him.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks, Laura. I always cry when I sell a horse, too, even to a great home. It's just part of the process for me, great salesman that I am.

Several people have commented that this horse needs me right now. I know that I'm learning alot from him, even when it's not fun. I think he'll be broke enough to place soon enough, but worry about that attitude cropping up unexpectedly and snowballing with the wrong person.

I really sympathize with how you feel about Ready, even while agreeing with the logic in the other responses. I will probably wonder what more I could have tried with this one, too.

In the meantime I'll keep working, enjoy the good days and keep an eye out for that next horse. If I find that "secret cure" I'll let you know.

Laura Crum said...

stillearning--If I learned one thing from Ready (and his numerous cousins), it was that there was no magic solution. Those horses were what they were. I knew a guy who persisted with one for almost ten years as a rope horse, and one day, after all that, the horse did some stupid, resistant, violent thing, and the guy just hauled him to the saleyard. Not that I would have done that. But those horses weren't fixable. I don't know your horse, and he may not be in the same category. Persistance works wonders on some of them.

And in case you're wondering, Ready is dead by now, almost for sure. He'd be thiry-five if he were alive.

Anonymous said...

My hope is that my horse is not quite in Ready's category. He is resistant, yes, but hasn't done anything that could be termed dangerous since that initial rear, and even that was in slow motion (in hindsight). He is very quick to back down if you read the challenge and address it immediately. We have little battles of will now, usually settled in the warm-up. He gives me reason to hope--but that's why your story rang true with me...I'm sure you had many hopeful moments with Ready, too.

I am trying something a little "out there" in addition to the wet-blanket and traditional training. It is addressing his nutritional balance via muscle testing; also addressing some emotional imbalances. So far it has made a huge difference. It's in the "try anything" category; I'm not comfortable yet discussing it because I don't completely understand it, but the premise is that his resistance stems from a physical weakness; resistance has developed as his coping mechanism. It's quite interesting. Miraculous if it works, and does no harm if it doesn't change anything. (Eyes are rolling at my barn...)

So, I'm still in the hopeful stage. I don't feel in danger when working with him; his resistant moments are decreasing in number and vigor. He's working better.

I'm keeping an eye out for his new owner: the one who can ride thru his nonsense and enjoy him without making big demands.

If my own dream horse appears, that will change the situation completely. I will not keep this horse and let the good one get away. (keep repeating that)

Laura Crum said...

stillearning--if the horse is resisant but not prone to stupid, violent, dangerous actions (or reactions), he may still make an enjoyable horse. My trail horse is in this category, and though I have to beat him up regularly, I feel very safe on him. He amuses me with his quirky, resistant attitude. I would not enjoy him if I were trying to use him for something besides trail riding, though. The difference between Ready and Sunnny is that Sunny is smart. Ready once came within a hair of tuumbling off a good size cliff. Not paying attention, stumbling along in his oblivious way, tripped...etc. His rider (a friend of mine) bailed off. The horse was literally pulled back on the trail as he scrambled to save his life by the rider and another guy who also bailed off to help. Ready was just plain dumb and clumsy. I couldn't even enjoy him as a trail horse. Sunny is smart and is never going to get in trouble like that. His self preservation instincts are very strong. So, all these words to say, some resistant horses can work out OK...if you have the right niche for them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, this makes me feel better.

It's good for me to acknowledge the resistance, and the frustration, but I'm not ready to give up yet. I also don't think I have a horse that's as tough as Ready and kin.

This horse was bred to be a hunter. The breeder didn't think he "moved right", but I now suspect that was b.s., and they were sick of the resistances. I use jumping as his break and reward, and he loves it. Dressage is a sport that requires constant obedience and rider direction; he would do better with a less-directed task like jumping a course. So, that's my back-up plan, to sell him as a hunter.

Have to wait and see. Have to wait for him to quit growing, too.

Thanks for all your advice.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, what was Ready's breeding?

Laura Crum said...

Ready's dam was named Cat's Panther. She was by Catecue (sp?) , which is real old-timey QH foundation-type breeding. The recalcitrant genes came from her. Her two stallion sons passed them on, and she herself, bred to several stallions, had get who also had this attitude. Ready's sire, Sugar Wes, produced many good, willing colts. The problem didn't come from him.

In case you're wondering why this mare continued to be used as a broodmare and actually had two of her colts chosen to be studs, the answer is that she produced very good looking colts who were quite easy to handle on the ground. It was only when one started riding them that the problem became apparent. As someone else said in the comments, its best not to be seduced by looks, whether you're talking about horses or people.

FD said...

Like the others, I don't think this story represents a failure of yours - the lingering regrets are just rueful regrets, not guilty regrets. Or at least shouldn't be. It's normal to be rueful when things don't work out right, and you gave it as good a go as anyone could. We take horses on, and if we're a decent person, we do, and will always have worries at the back of our minds, because when we domesticate animals and meddle with their natural instincts and chances, it's an awesome responsibility.
But there are some things we can't control or predict - from what you're saying, he just didn't have the mind for a saddle horse, and all the training and care in the world cant change that.
Obviously, (like in the post of mugs which I just read) there are 'horses for courses,' but it just doesn't sound like that - it sounds to me like he wasn't a horse for any course.