Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Review Offer and What Do We Want In a Horse?

by Laura Crum

Yep, you can get a free review copy of my new book, “Going, Gone,” if you email Susan Daniel at 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 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 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


Mrs. Mom said...

I can't wait Laura, to preview the new book and post about it. It's got me really looking forward to March!

What do I want in a horse? Big solid body, and a VERY SOLID BRAIN. Physical talent is nice too, but if he has a solid brain, I can and will work with just about anything else. (Just ask Bunz!)

The older I get, the more a good level headed horse is valued. I don't bounce any more--- I merely go "splat". Going splat sucks. ;)

Linda Benson said...

Laura, I was nodding my head and saying "Amen" to this entire post. I have an article I wrote (called Back on Top) that just came out in the new Feb/2010 issue of Equus magazine relating to this same thing. And yes, as I get older I realize that everybody enjoys horses in their own way, and that's a good thing, in my opinion.

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom, I am looking forward to your review. You've really got a way with words. Its funny that you say "big solid body" because one of the things I currently value in a horse (which I didn't mention in the post) is that he be 14.3 or less. I'm short and stout and getting stiff and I have a hard time climbing on my old horse, Plumber, who is 15.1. OK, I can still do it, but I don't like it. I creak and moan a little as I drag myself up there. To think all my regular mounts used to be 15.3 (!)And a mounting block is not an option out on the trail. Both Henry and Sunny are 14.3 and that's the perfect height for me. But I second you on the solid part. I like a strongly made horse and it goes without saying I want a sound horse. And you'll be pleased to hear, Mrs Mom, that my whole crew is going barefoot right now and doing well that way. And yeah, solid minded, level headed, bombproof horses (sound, of course) are what's required here these days.

Linda, I thought you and I might be on the same page, reading what you've written about your past and current life with horses. Its nice to have company. Actually, I think there are a lot of us out there. The more I read horse blogs, the more I discover kindred spirits. Here's to happy, peaceful rides on our level headed horses.

Topaz said...

I just sold a highly trained, really nice, show horse that supposedly anyone could ride and took in a completely green pony because my needs changed when the highly trained show horse dumped me and I got a concussion. I'd just bought him and it turned out he bolted in wide open spaces and all I've got at my house is a perimeter fence. While the pony is not as drama free as I would like, she's still young and honest in her misbehavior. A nice change from the horse that would take off full speed for (as far as anyone could tell) no reason at all. Before I wanted the horse that knew a lot. Now I want the kind, non-reactive horse that I can teach stuff. My long term goals are the same, I want to event. It's just going to take a little longer to get there.

HorseOfCourse said...

Good post, Laura.

I love a good rider and horse combination, because then both parties thrive in each other's company.

But as you say, your needs change during your horse life.

I sometimes assist people in finding the right horse. One of the difficulties is to assess how the future horse owner's needs will change. Because they often do.

Sometimes you have to accept that a horse might be the perfect partner for a time period of a couple of years, but after that the rider and the horse might not fit each other so well anymore.

An example of that is when a first time horse owner starts out with the uncomplicated, sensible horse, but after a while wants to start showing. And the horse is perhaps not suitable for the rider's ambitions.
Then it might be better to sell the horse to another rider who will cherish and value this horse for what its worth, instead of trying to make the horse into something it isn't.
Which often ends with frustration.

We get more sensible (read cautious) when we get older. I do not mind my own rascals. I feel safe even if they play around some, but I don't mount other's misbehaving horses anymore.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the book - that's an achievement for sure (at least from where I sit!). I think each of us needs to be happy with the horse, but I also care about whether the horse is happy with me. It's also become clear to me that a lot of the trainer techniques/horse traits that lead to success in the show ring or show pen - as "success" is defined in those limited venues - is often at odds with a happy horse, or horses that many riders can be happy with.

I used to compete a lot, but I'm older now, and like you, my needs are different. Although I may not have the horses I might want - I've got the horses I have and I'm working with that. It's a challenge, but pretty interesting. It sometimes limits what I can do as I value my safety, but there are some benefits too. I'm learning a lot (sometimes the hard way), and think both the horses and I are better for it. It would be fun to have a reliable trail horse, and it may be that mine can get there, but maybe not.

I do agree that whatever people do with their horses, if they're happy and the horse is happy, then that's all good. Just winning a bunch of competitions doesn't do it for me anymore.

Maryannwrites said...

I enjoyed this post very much, Laura. For the past year I have been debating about getting another horse, as the one I have is not the one for me to ride. We got off on a a bad start and I have never fully recovered my nerve. But every time I go out - which is several times a day - he comes to me with a friendly nicker and we do enjoy grooming time and walking time and all those other times.
Reading your comment that maybe it's okay to just love a horse, made me feel better about my situation. Thanks.

Shanster said...

I liked this post! Very very true all of it...

I know my confidence has taken a hit latey and I think it's age related and absolutely about not wanting to be hurt or go SPLAT like Mrs Mom says...

In my past I didn't think about the mischeviousness - I'd get bucked off and get right back on - not a second thought about it.

I took on a couple young horses in the past few years. I wanted to see what it would be like to train a horse from the beginning..

My mare is pretty level headed - has her moments - but wow that was eye-opening. The training... she was 4 and an OTTB.

It was hugely rewarding when things went well and so discouraging when I felt we took a step back. Overall - a really cool experience watching the theory behind the practice fall into place.

My thinking was that if I could train these young horses, the theory and practices would be even more cemented in my head. And the experiences I would have would make me a better rider.

I'm not so sure about that now - tho' I'm probably learning something about my struggling confidence with the 2nd younger OTTB - won't know til I'm on the other side if it made me a better rider.

Thinking about how I've changed, my riding has become more about the training, how it comes together, why it does and paying attention to everything coming together vs when I was a kid and just went or took lessons and "did" whatever I was told to do without thinking much about it.

Now I want to know more about the why's of it all.... and progress up the dressage levels for the journey and understanding of it all.

famous last words! HA!

And yes, I would prefer an older, mature, less spooky horse.

I think the experience with the younger horses has taught me that well broke horses are well worth their weight in gold and I don't think I'd have it in me for another youngster!

Not that it isn't rewarding, it's just SO much work emotionally because I'm much more of a chicken these days ... the first outings, tying, farrier work, the trailer, the first show, the first this and the first that...


Laura Crum said...

Topaz, sounds like you made a good decision. Any horse that bolts for no apparent reason has a huge hole, whether he is a "highly trained" show horse or not. I am so with you on the "kind, non-reactive horse" page. Good luck with your journey.

HorseOfCourse--I don't get on anybody else's less than well behaved horse any more either. And to think that I used to break colts(!)

Kate, thanks for the kind words about my book. And yeah, people happy/ horse happy....its all good. I agree.

Maryann, I truly believe that if you and your horse are both happy (and you're not frustrated by the not riding) than what you are doing is every bit as valid and worthwhile as folks who seem to be doing "lots" with their horse. In fact, some people who are showing and winning at a high level are miserable, and their horse is worse than miserable. In my book it is more than OK to just love a horse. Its wonderful, its really the point of the whole owning a horse thing. I'm glad my post was helpful for you.

Shanster, I so don't have it in me to train another young horse. I totally hear you. They are so much darn work. And I don't want to go splat either--I'm real sure about that. I really value my bombproof little riding horses and hope to have just such kind reliable horses the rest of my life. And when I get too old to ride I will happily pet them and lead them around to graze. And I'll enjoy that almost as much as I do riding. I think the fear issues that come up as we age are natural and appropriate. We are far, far more likely to get hurt if we go "splat" than when we were young. I've seen this hapen to many, many older riders. It makes me cautious, and I'm OK with that. How is your problem horse coming along, Shanster? Progress?

Fantastyk Voyager said...

I've never done much competing but I rode a lot more agressively in my younger days. In my thirties, I used to buy green or unbroke horses and finish them enough to be good riding horses. Nowadays, I like to partner with my horse. My horses are in no way fully trained but they do what I want and we have fun. That's what really counts, I think. We'll go for casual bareback rides in the arena or saddle up and go around the neighborhoods and local trails. I do want to go 'real' trail riding this summer though.
I've got an Arabian weanling that I will be breaking to saddle in a couple more years so that should be rather interesting.

Laura Crum said...

Voyager, you are braver than me. The very thought of all the adventures ahead when one has a weanling...well, let's just say I'm not tempted any more. Will you break and train this baby yourself?

Susan said...

I have always valued a good trail horse over anything, and I don't consider a horse "broke" unless s/he can be ridden out. I don't know if I could have been real competitive in an arena sport, because I value and enjoy trail riding. Arenas get boring and horses get bored loping circles. Trail riding may not win money, but it keeps us fresh and climbing hills keeps us fit.

stilllearning said...

Interesting post and interesting responses...I agree completely that needs change and priorities shift over the years. I'm like Kate, and must deal with the horse I have now even tho he's more challenging than I need in my old age :).

My NEXT one will be perfect, right? :)

Congratulations on your new book, Laura. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Laura Crum said...

Susan, that is exactly the place I have gotten to. I just really enjoy trail riding far more than anything else.

stillearning--thanks--I'm pretty happy to have eleven books out there. I'm working on number twelve and it may be the last. I might be ready to move on to something else. I thought your young horse was doing better, last you said. He's just not a keeper for you? I had a horse like that a few years ago--very talented, I got him pretty well trained, but he and I were not a good match personality wise and I found him a perfect home. They love him and have agreed to keep him forever, so its a happy ending.

stilllearning said...

Laura, nothing's changed, my youngster is still doing well. He's just not the horse I should have picked at this point in my life (using hindsight). As for keeping him forever...I still think of them all as projects, except for my old guy. (This project may take me 25 more years, tho...)

Moving on? Another book series? Or a completely different direction?

Fantastyk Voyager said...

Oh yes, I will train her myself, for better or worse. I trained my Scout from birth too, although I can't remmeber the half of it, it was so long ago. I have always enjoyed getting on the young horses. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the talent to really finish them off but as I've said, they turn out good enough for me. I would like to train Yalla! well enough to be shown though. We'll see.

Laura Crum said...

stillearning, I'm not sure what I would move on to. But my motivation to write mystery novels is less than it was...after twelve books. Also, publishing twelve books was always my goal...don't ask me why.

Voyager--I admire your grit. I guess I've just grown cautious (and lazy) in my old age.