by Laura Crum
First of all, I want to give an update on Henry, my son’s lazy red horse. Last fall Henry developed the bad habit of refusing to pick up the lope. He would lower his head, brace against the bit and trot faster. This became very frustrating for my son. We worked on this problem all winter/spring. Henry got lots of rest; I determined he was sound and felt good; I rode him several times and reprimanded him for doing this; I put a different bit on him; and, finally, I coached my son through a protocol for addressing the problem. Every time Henry ignored the signal to lope and put his head down and trotted faster, I had my son pull him up (fairly roughly) and ask for the lope again from the walk, using the crop. Once Henry loped well for a few circles, I had my son stop him—before Henry dropped out of the lope on his own.
It worked. My son was able to lope Henry quite successfully at home in our riding ring. But he was still nervous about loping the horse at our local roping arena, where the problem first developed. Henry has a tendency to want to go back to the other horses and stop, and my son was afraid he would attempt to use his bracing vice again. I encouraged my kid to give it a try and the last few times at the arena, Henry has loped many perfect circles—willingly and with very little attempt to revert to his old habit. And when he did, briefly, put his head down, my son was able to correct him instantly. So, for those of you who wrote in and gave me good advice (and thank you—I found it very helpful), there’s my update. So far, its been a real success story. My son has definitely become a better rider because of this. He and Henry remain a good team, both in the arena and on the trail. I think this is a good example of the sort of problem that can be worked through, if the horse and rider are basically well suited.
And now, on to today’s topic.
A fellow horse blogger asked me recently about knowing when it was time to quit—or give up—on a horse, and said she thought it would make a good blog piece. I had to think about this for awhile. I’ve made the decision to quit on quite a few horses in my life—horses that I was training that seemed too unpredictable and resistant (horses that were violent)—I was afraid I’d get hurt. I chose not to ride them any more. And horses I owned that, for whatever reason, didn’t work for me. Some of these horses I sold. In my later years, however, I mostly gave them to good homes who promised to keep them or return them to me.
The reasons I “rehomed” these horses were various. But the bottom line was that they just didn’t work for me. And since I was asked, I thought awhile about what this means. And the truth is—I keep the horses that make me happy when I look at them. I rehome the ones that don’t make me feel happy when I look at them.
What does this mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that I keep the pretty ones. Pretty is fine, as far as it goes, but what makes me feel happy when I look at a horse in my corral is the inner certainty that I enjoy this horse. I like dealing with him. I like having him around. This can be an older horse that I no longer ride (like Gunner) or a horse I ride a lot (like Sunny)—doesn’t matter. I like to be with the horse, I like to handle the horse, I like to ride him (if I’m riding him), I like to look at him and touch him. He makes me feel good. I feel safe with him.
When I was younger I felt safe with a far livelier, more challenging horse than the sort I feel safe with now. But the important thing is that I realize this. I’m aware of how I feel. I like a quieter, calmer horse than I used to prefer. And that’s fine.
Some of my horses, in fact, all of my horses, give me a minor problem from time to time, like Henry did last fall. But I still feel happy to work with them and handle them, even though I may be frustrated with the problem. It’s a subtle thing. But the way I judge it is the fact that looking at that horse in the corral still makes me smile.
What sort of horse makes me not happy? A hard thing to explain. I don’t like having a horse that seems anxious or unhappy living with me. I don’t want a horse that seems in any way dangerous. I don’t want a horse that annoys me. And this is idiosyncratic. One horse annnoys me with his quirks, and another, with similar quirks, amuses me. A horse I find annoying, another horseman loves. Its personal. The main thing is that I’m aware that if a horse does not give me that happy feeling when I see him in my corral, its not a good thing.
I’ll give an example. Awhile ago I had a horse named Lester. Lester was given to me by my friend, who had given up on him as a team roping horse. Lester was, in most ways, a gentle, safe horse that anyone could ride. He was a good trail horse. In a group, anyway. Lester had a few quirks. Speed events blew him up. (Why he didn’t make a rope horse.) He was incurably herdbound—taking him out by himself was a total pain. He fussed with things in the pasture and corral, beating on fences and feeders, breaking gates, scraping the paint off sheds and trailers. Lester annoyed me.
I lent him to a friend for her teenage daughter (explaining exactly what he was), and they loved him. But the daughter outgrew her interest in horses. Once again I had Lester back. The very first morning he was here again, he woke me up by beating on his feeder like it was a drum. I was mad before I even looked at him. Like I said, Lester annoyed me. I did not smile when I saw him; I grimaced in frustration, even though I was fond of him.
I found him a new home with a woman who gave lessons. I explained what he was. She was a Parelli person and said her hobby was working with problem horses…if they weren’t dangerous. I said Lester wasn’t dangerous—at all—if he wasn’t asked to work at speed or be alone. I said he was annoying. She laughed.
To make a long story short, this gal has had Lester for many years and loves him. She lets lots of kids ride him—he does great. To begin with she tried to Parelli him out of his herdbound ways, but from what I’ve heard lately, she just sticks to riding him with other horses. I check on Lester once in awhile. He looks fat and happy. They think he is endearing rather than annoying. I’m thrilled.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m in favor of rehoming the horses that don’t make us feel happy inside. Sometimes it takes awhile to determine this. I usually give a horse six months—if I still like him at that point, I figure we have a chance. If I still like him after two years, I make a commitment to him. That’s my window.
My Sunny horse was on trial for the first six months I owned him. I had the previous owner’s agreement she’d take him back and refund my money if I found him unsuitable. But though I initially was doubtful about Sunny, who seemed cross grained and offered to kick, crowhop…etc, over time we came to a real meeting of the minds. After two and a half years, Sunny is my horse. I feel we make a good team and are each able to provide what the other needs. Sunny seems happy living with me. I smile every time I see him.
But if a horse makes me feel unhappy inside, for whatever reason—and I mean consistently, not just when we have a bad day, or a bad week—then I am going to find that horse a new home. I will be careful to be sure the horse does not end up in a bad place (to the best of my abilities) but life is too short and there are so many sweet horses that it isn’t worthwhile keeping one that doesn’t fit.
That unhappy feeling is varied. Lester made me feel annoyed. If I felt a horse was a danger to me or my kid, I’d feel anxious. I’ve had horses here that constantly paced or seemed restless, or just gave me the impression they were not content, and this, in turn, made me uncomfortable. All of these feelings are variations on “this horse does not make me feel happy when I look at him.”
As I said, this can be a fine line. Sometimes, as with Henry, a horse you genuinely enjoy can frustrate you for awhile. I think the secret of being a good (and happy) horseman is partly the ability to walk this line. To rehome the ones that don’t make us happy and keep the ones that do. And having the wisdom to know the difference.
At the moment, a huge part of what makes me feel happy with a horse is feeling safe. And I have enough wisdom to recognize this. So my answer to the horse blogger who asked me the question (who is an experienced horseperson herself and probably knows what my answer would be)—is that if I don’t feel safe with a horse I’m not gonna be happy with him….and I will find him a new home.
So that’s my take on it. Any other opinions?