Friday, March 12, 2010

The Perfect Horse

by Laura Crum

OK, maybe the title should have been, “There is No Perfect Horse.” Because what I am going to discuss today is a spinoff on my last post about “Choosing the Right Horse.” (And thank you, Shanster, for giving me the idea.) Just as its important not to set oneself up for failure by expecting to train a sensitive reactive horse into a bombproof trail horse, its important not to expect to find “Mr Perfect.” As in husbands, all horses have their quirks and idiosyncracies. You will not find a horse that does everything exactly the way you wish he would. We need to focus on what’s important, and let go of the idea that every single thing must be exactly right.

Take my bombproof trail horse, little Sunny. He’s a bombproof trail horse, all right, which is what I needed. He’s also a clunky mover, not all that well broke, and constantly tries little dominance games. If I had required that my bombproof horse be sweet and cuddly, well broke and smooth gaited, I would have rejected Sunny.

We all know those horse people who are constantly swapping their current horse in for something “better”. No horse is ever quite right. I, for one, don’t know one of this type of horseman who has as much success as those of us who find a horse that fits our needs and stick with him, tolerating his quirks…as long as he is basically the right type of horse for us.

Just as you don’t want to persist with a horse that is the wrong sort of horse for you, you don’t want to give up too easily on a horse that is the right sort. The best partnerships between people and horses are forged over time. In a way, it really is like a marriage. You need to pick the right kind of guy, but once you have, you need to hang in there when the honeymoon is over.

Two years is the basic window. Once you’ve owned a horse for two years, you pretty much know what he is and whether he’s the right sort of horse for you. If you think that he is, then its time to hang in there and deal with what comes up.

And when you’re looking for a horse, its really important to sort out what counts for you. For me, when I bought Sunny, it was bombproof trail horse who is sound, not too tall, and has no dangerous vices. It didn’t hurt that Sunny was cute. I did not add into my equation that the horse needed to be a particular breed, or age, or color, and it is very helpful to finding the right horse if you do not focus on these things. If all you want to do is look at your horse, by all means select a pretty one of the color you like. If you wish to ride your horse, put the traits you need in a riding horse first. (See my last post on “Choosing the Right Horse.”)

Anyway, those people who go after the perfect horse always remind me of a story my friend told me. She worked at a nursery and knew just about everything about plants. She said that novice gardeners invariably showed up at the nursery wanting “planta perfecta”. It was evergreen, bloomed all the time, came with flowers in the color of their choice, was easy to care for, draught tolerant, disease resistant, could deal with shade or sun, long lived…etc. You get the picture. There is no such plant. If you approach choosing a horse this way, you will never be satisfied.

Lets face it, if you must have a (name your color) mare who is sixteen hands, pretty headed, can win at (name your event), is a registered (name your breed of choice), is sound (of course, we all want that), perfectly straight legged and with no confirmation issues, is no more than seven years old, is safe for a beginner, smooth gaited, very well broke and responsive, and doesn’t cost more than (name your price)….you will be looking a long time. And when you find this mare (if you do), by the time you have owned her awhile you will discover that she (like all horses) has some issues. And you will have to decide if you can live with those issues.

As I said earlier, a lot of people never figure this out and are always convinced (once they discover said issues) that they can swap their current horse for something better. Something that will be “perfect”.

You can find perfect all right. My trail horse is perfect. Not because he doesn’t have any flaws. No. Because he consistently and reliably does the thing I need him to do—he goes down the trail in his steady, unflinching away, taking me (and giving my son’s good horse a lead) on well over two hundred trail and beach rides to date (in two years), without once getting us in trouble. (Knocking on wood here—horses are horses after all, and stuff happens.) I know what perfect is. It’s a horse who does what you need him to do. I can put up with Sunny’s little attitude and his rough gaits. He’s perfect for me.

So, how about you guys? Anybody have any stories to contribute on this subject? Do you have the perfect horse?


Shanster said...

Awww - thanks! I really liked this post because it is SO true. Not just cuz I got a shout out! heh.

My mare was ... ugh ... just awful for a while. I think it was longer than 2 yrs before we really got along well but I sure take my time about stuff, I'm not as "firm" as I could be - many times causing issues to stick around a bit longer than for those who are (I'm learning, I'm learning) and maybe the awfulness made it all seem like it lasted a lot longer.

Oh man. She would dive thru her shoulder and rear and suck back and when I took her to shows, she'd back out of the arena until she ran into something with her big red butt and couldn't physically GO backwards anymore. I had comments on my dressage tests like "VERY naughty horse!"

I dreaded coming out to ride her or take her new places or go to shows... for quite a while it seemed.

And now?

I love, love, love her.

Now we are a nice team together. I think we both know what to expect from each other. She is definately NOT perfect - I have some youtube on my blog with my last clinic. You can see one part of my ride where she is cooperating and the next part when she's had it, she's tired and she pretty much tells me where I can stick it.

We've come SO far together and it's been over the course of 3 or 4 years that I really feel I can truly enjoy her - take her places, go to shows and still have fun.

Now I get all sorts of comments about what a nice mare she is - I went to a schooling show in the spring where the judge said she was wonderful and a rider like me was hampering her ability! (which I didn't take to heart - I mean c'mon - of course a professional will probably look much more amazing than you can get as an amateur but how else are you going to learn for cryin' out loud?)

And over Halloween I was riding at a barn when some kids came over in costume running around with capes and shaking bags of candy. I could feel Sera's eyes widen and her head come up a bit but she never spooked and stood quietly with me up on her as I talked to the kids' mom - who is a horse vet, watched Sera's eyes widen and told me what a nice mare I had.

And she is nice. Now.

She has her quirks and isn't perfect by any means... and she is certainly perfect for me.

I am holding out hope on Rosso.. I haven't given him nearly the face time or wet saddle blankets I did with Sera. If it's not to be, it's not to be but I just really feel I haven't given him a fair chance.

After all when Sera was being a stinky fish, she was all I had to ride so I was sort of forced to get thru it faster. Rosso can go on the back burner (and has) cuz I have Sera to go have fun with! Tho' I'm prepared that he may not be the horse for me, I feel I need to give him a fair shot to find out.

And boy was I long winded - Sorry - Cheers - Shanster

Anonymous said...

My husband needed a replacement gelding for trail riding and finding it was one of the hardest things we've done in a long time. I was shocked at how bad the horses we looked at were, and how bad one of the ones we bought was. After spending hundreds in gas and time and thousands in the bad one we bought and unloaded, we found exactly what we needed. He was the color my husband said he definitely didn't want and bloodlines I wouldn't have thought of but he is sweet, kind and smart in a good way. He fits my big husband and is wonderful on the trail. Was it worth it? I guess we'll see this spring when we start trailriding again, but so far the future looks great.

Beth said...

It reminds me of the serenity prayer . . . accept the horse you have, or rehome that horse that never will be the horse you need, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Ironically the trainer I am with right now and I were talking about a similar topic yesterday. He was telling me about a horse he had in for training. He told the owner that he really needed to take lesson riding his horse or he will just have the same problems. Trying to convince the guy he said, "Well if you sell this horse you will just have the same problems with the next horse." The guy admitted that he had had the same problems with his last three horses. I didn't ask but I hope the owner will take lessons.

I am hoping that my latest horse will be what I really need. I am hoping to take her to said trainer to see.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--I enjoyed every bit of your comment--I like your stories. Your comment really illustrates the big truth (which Beth said better than me)--the whole trick lies in not persisting with the wrong horse and not giving up on the right horse...and having the wisdom to know the difference. Thank you, Beth. Sera was the "right" horse for you, Shanster. And Rosso is still in the "unknown" category. That seems clear. And Anon, again, you discovered you had the "wrong" horse and now hope you have the "right" horse, but, as you say, you'll know more as time goes on. I do think the "two year window" is a good rule of thumb.

As for ideas on how to walk that line--when to persist, when to rehome, I can only say that it really comes down to how you feel. If you're persistantly scared, I think its rehome. I had one horse, who, though a good horse in many ways, persistantly made me feel annoyed. After two years I found him a great home where they love him. And Sunny, though he might annoy others by his pushy little "butt head" behaviors, just amuses me. So, my advice, for what its worth, is go with your gut. And be aware that there is usually a "honeymoon period" (lasting somewhere around six months), a coming to grips with reality period (which hits you around the one year mark) and a time for making up your mind (which for me is about the two year mark). And yeah, I think this can be said of boyfriends as well.

Anonymous said...

I try to make the best of the horses I have, even if they aren't perfect. Some of my horses I've clicked with immediately, and some I've had have taken a long time. For the first several years I had my mare Maisie, I came close to hating her, but it took my making changes to the way I rode to connect with her, and making those changes and learning how to have a conversation with the horse instead of just making/forcing the horse do things has been immensely valuable to me. She still isn't perfect or perhaps even the horse I would really prefer, but she's mine and I love her.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--that's a really interesting point. Sometimes, perhaps, we don't get the horse we want, we get the horse we need. It seems as if Maisie taught you things you are glad you learned. But there must have been some reason you persisted with her. Something that spoke to you perhaps?

I guess that's what I mean by going with your gut. Sometimes a horse may be very diificult for us, and yet there's some inner conviction that we want/need to persist. That this is, in some important way, our horse. Other times the connection just isn't there, no matter how much we would like it to be. There really isn't any simple rule of thumb.

The point of my post, I guess, was just that no horse comes without issues of some kind--you simply have to decide if these are issues that you can/want to live with.

Topaz said...

Fudge was my perfect horse. My trainer and I are pretty sure Penny Pony has the potential to be perfect for me as well, she just needs more miles.

Joy said...

I have my perfect horse. He makes me work and grow. Just enough, never too much, never too harsh. He's done more for me than I can ever explain to anyone. He gave me the gift of patience. Truly. (btw, patience feels exactly like peace.) I believe we will continue to grow together. And I'm perfectly happy with him.

Would someone else say he's perfect? Well I can say at least two or three others, but that's about it. That doesn't really matter.

Shanster said...

Exactly! I sometimes think "oh so and so's horse looks SO good"... and then I sit and watch a clinic or I listen to stories from the owner and really we ALL struggle with something in our partnerships with our horses.

Not one person I've talked to or had "horse envy" of has said it's been a 100% cake walk. Just like us, each horse has it's own quirks and faults.

It's finding the quirks and faults we can both live with (horses and their hoo-mans) that make fun teams!

Heck - I kissed a lot o' toads 'fore I found my Furry Husband and i wouldn't trade him in for the world. It's similar I think in finding horses!

Fantastyk Voyager said...

There really is no "perfect" horse.

My older Arabian mare, Nadia, is going to be 27 this spring. We bought her when she was 14 because 'the grandkids couldn't ride her and she was a very fat pasture ornament'. In our early days of ownership, she actually bolted and tried to run away with me. I pulled her up and she's never tried it since. Nowadays, I would put anybody on her. And not just because she's old, she can certainly still run, but because I know she has a good heart inside of her. Even the best little horses can have bad days.

When I first got my Annie I was thrilled~ although she was very green broke, she was a beautiful, registered 4 year old Arabian with a fantastic, pure Polish pedigree. But she came with lots of issues: trailer loading, kicking, bucking, tieing, you name it. I actually hated her for years because she kicked one of my other horses who died as a result of the throat injury she received. For a long time, I only kept her because I knew that I could never again afford a horse of her breeding. I bought her for much less than she was worth and that was because of her problems. After we purchased her, I found out about her kicking issues and that she had kicked another horse in the knee which had to be put down. I always wanted to breed her and then sell her off.

Last year, I finally got the foal I wanted from her but, some how in the dozen years that passed since I've owned her, I've grown to love her completely, quirks and all. She still won't tie but she stands still for grooming and saddling. I hired a professional horse trainer to teach her to trailer load so I could breed her. I've ridden her out on the trails a few times and discovered her to be calmer and more willing in strange places than I'd ever expected. She always comes for love and attention and even keeps the other horses from me.

Yes, it's a special relationship that we develop with our horses over time.

Laura Crum said...

Topaz, I had a horse (Flanigan) who seemed like a "magical" horse to me. I doubt others would have seen him as perfect, but he enabled me to do so many things I never thought I could do (rope effectively and be competitive, cross the Sierras many times on multiple week long pack trips...etc). When Flanigan died I was very sad, but Plumber and Sunny have given me so many special times since then. I hope Penny Pony can be the same sort of "replacement" for you. Not that any horse can make us forget the special one, but we can go on to have other "special" ones, or so I find.

Joy, its obvious you and Willy have a great bond. What a wonderful gift that is.

Shanster--that's so true. When you talk to someone whose horse looks "perfect", you always find out that horse has (or had) some issues, too.

And Voyager, that's an interesting story. I have never persisted with a horse that I felt that negative about (other than when I was paid to ride them), but both you, Kate, and Shanster have similar stories, so there must be some important truth there. Of course, when one is training a horse, there are always frustrating periods--with every horse. However, in general, with the horses I kept I was always pretty clear that these horses were well intentioned and "fit" me.

little K said...

Someone once said to me there is no perfect horse but there is a perfect horse for you. I think you really hit that in your column. My horse for example is 14.3. In the hunter world this is a big no no. He's too short to make the striding in a hunter class and too large to be ridden by a junior. But his undesirable height made him affordable enough for me to buy. And he is perfect for me and I love him to bits. As a small rider I fit great on him and his excellent gaits will make him a good dressage horse and he definitely has enough go and pony sensibiliy to be a good eventer. An inch shorter or a hand higher would have put him out of my price range so I feel it's almost kismet that he ended up mine.

I've had to put a lot of work into him. I bought him unbroke so it's been a journey to get him to this point and at times I've really thought twice about my choice but I'm so glad I stuck with him.

Laura Crum said...

Little K--I find it very ironic that 14.3 is an undesirable height in the English show world. Others have explaineed to me before about the stride length thing, and I realize that 14.3 is technically not a pony, but these technicalities aside, if you don't show in English hunter type classes and you're short (or, in my case, short, stout and getting stiff) 14.3 is the absolute perfect height. Both Sunny and Henry are 14.3 and I love, love, love the size they are. Big enough to carry anybody, easy to get on, small enough not to feel intimidatingly large for a child, big enough to compete at any event I ever did (cowhorse, cutting, roping), small enough that I easily duck under low branches on the trail..I could go on and on. At this point in my life I am firmly resolved to always own 14.3 horses. My horse, Plumber, is 15.1 and believe it or not, those extra two inches are a real nuisance when I'm climbing on. Being 14.3 is part of what makes Sunny perfect...for me.

little K said...

I know, I think a lot of people are missing out on a lot of great horses in the hunter world because of the size thing. With all the warm bloods imported over the last decade+ it's really uncommmon to see anything under 16hh in a hunter class. And even though my horse can make the striding we'd never place well because it would look different than the bigger horses that can walk down the lines. But I love my little horse and he is totally capable of performing the job I need him to do so I cart him out to play with the big boys anyways and although we may not do as great as the bigger horses I get a lot of jelous looks when I can mount without the assistance of a mounting block or leg up.

Mel said...

This is a great subject!

My horse is perfect because she goes down the trail at speed without losing her mind and go from a full gallop, to a stop with a low heart rate. She is the perfect endurancehorse.

That said, she does buck a bit, is opinionated and easily bored in the arena, is another "brown horse", and honestly can be a bit pokey with beginners as long as we aren't at an endurance ride. Sometimes she pulls back, she eats with her bit in (a good thing in my opinion because of her job) and is too efficient a mover to ever get excellent scores in dressage.

But she's safe and sane even on unfamiliar trails at speed and will take care of herself and her rider at the end of a 100 miles. She's perfect.

Mel said...

I really like the idea of after 2 years you know the horse and should be able to make a good decision regarding its future. If after 2 years Farley has never bucked me off, never bolted for the hills, or reared. She probably isn't going to - it's probably not in her nature. Of course, excpetional things happen, but as long as we continue in the same manner, I should expect the behavior I've come to know in the last 2 years and a change in this probably means something else is going on.

OneDandyHorse said...

The two year rule is EXACTLY right! I've now had my horse for 2 years. I bought her as an unbroke 2 year old and BOY did I ever question my choice back then. She was thin, gangly, and somewhat neglacted (hooves never done, winter coat not shed out by June), she had burrs in her mane and tail that the owners CUT OUT!!!!! She had a big Percheron head. I just looked at her and thought: "What did I do??"

Her feet remained long until I could get her to give her feet for at least 1 min. So I took it upon myself to trim her hooves. Her fronts took 1.5 hours and her rear feet could wait, she was a kicker!

I bought her because, I felt bad, she was going to the local beef auction and would've been dogfood for all I know. I could tell that she had good legs, a nice hip a good neckset and that she had potential.

Today, I am extremely proud of what I have accomplished with her. She is now a very reliable trail horse and trusts me with all that she can. She is respectful and listens. She is not the fastest or the prettiest, but I know how much potential she really has and it is astonishing! She could excel in English or Western, I am planning to start her English soon. She is just 4 years old now, so I can finally start working a bit harder with her.

My next goals are to obtain collection, leg yielding, side passing and maybe teaching her to Piaffe just for fun! I also want to start her on small rails... All goals are english, I don't see her in reining, although she is good on a cow, she is not fast enough... or doesn't want to be fast enough!!! LOL

She is absolutely perfect for me and I hold her dear. She will always live with me, no matter what!

Laura Crum said...

OneDandyHorse and Mel--I have found that two year window rule to be really useful. I don't mean that you always need to keep a horse for two years--if a horse does something that doesn't work for you at all, than fine, he's not the right horse. But if I've selected a horse thoughtfully, and most of what he does seems OK, I always assume it will take me two years to understand who he is and what he's really capable of. At the end of two years I can almost always make up my mind if that horse is a keeper (for me).

Joan Zurell said...

I know what you mean about getting used to your horse's quirks. I got unloaded regularly until my mare taught me how to stay aboard. I ended up keeping her for 26 years, and she was a joy.

Joan Zurell