by Laura Crum
After reading Linda’s post yesterday, this post seems even more appropriate then it did when I wrote it a few days ago. Its been rolling around in my mind for awhile. Every time I would read a post on a horse blog about someone who had been hurt and or scared dealing with a horse and was now afraid to ride, the thought “they need to find a solid-minded horse” would pop into my mind. And then Linda pointing out that her body wouldn’t tolerate much riding put another spin on what a solid-minded horse can do for you. But it was Kate who really got me intrigued with the subject when I read some of her recent posts.
Kate, over at “A Year With Horses”—listed on the sidebar-- got me thinking about what a solid-minded horse really is. Kate had been talking about “inner softness”, which to my mind, and I may be misinterpreting, is a horse that trusts the rider, even when the horse is scared, and is willing to remain reasonably calm and follow the rider’s direction at all times and under all circumstances. Now I’ve had horses like that. My two horses, Gunner and Plumber, both of whom I owned since they were three years old and trained myself (and they’re still with me—both retired now), trusted me at all times. They were sensitive, reactive horses, and to the end of their riding days they would spook, but neither of them EVER bolted, or resisted my direction when they were nervous. Neither ever bucked with me—other than a happy crowhop during warmup when they felt good. Neither ever threatened me in any way. I never came off either horse, and they were my mounts for ten and fifteen years, respectively. They trusted me, even when they were nervous—the worst either ever did was a startled jump and some prancing when something made them anxious. They did not panic; they remained obedient and responsive to my cues. They were “soft” on the inside, to use Kate’s expression. They trusted the rider and drew confidence from him/her at all times.
Now that’s a nice kind of horse—but its not the kind of horse I want (or have) as a riding horse now. What I want (and have) these days, for both myself and my son, is a solid-minded horse, one who takes care of himself—and me with him. They don’t so much derive confidence from me as I feel confident in them. They are confident in themselves. I said as much in a comment on one of Kate’s posts and then realized that I said nothing about how to get a horse like that—which isn’t very helpful. I started thinking about what I might say, and realized it was far too long for a comment. So I began writing this post.
First off, I want to say that the following thoughts are just my ideas. I didn’t learn them from an expert—they are simply thoughts that arise from my observations over the years. I’m not sure I’m right, and I don’t mean to tell anyone else what to do or think. But if these insights are helpful to someone else, that’s great.
Second, I have a specific background in the horse biz, and all of my experience (with a few exceptions) lies with cowhorses—QH type horses that have been used for ranching, roping, cutting…etc. I’m not sure if my insights will translate to horses of other breeds and disciplines. So I’m going to be very specific in what I say—and it doesn’t mean that other types of horses and disciplines are lesser, or less inclined to create solid-minded horses. It just means I have no knowledge on that subject.
Now what I mean by a solid-minded horse—one who is confident in himself—has almost nothing to do with inner “softness”—at least as I understand that term. My horse Sunny is not soft in any sense—either inner or outer. Sunny’s first impulse, when given a cue, is to be minorly resistant. I know, that sounds awful, but in actual fact the horse does everything I ask him to. I just have to be firm.
Why is this good, you ask? Well, it wouldn’t be, if I were trying to do dressage. Sunny would be quite frustrating. (And I believe his former owner did try to use him for dressage and found him frustrating.) But I am using him as a trail horse, and for easy gathers, and I find him perfect. Because Sunny is confident in himself, and when something unexpected happens, like the time we ran into a bouncy house full of screaming kids on a solo trail ride, and the time the sprinklers went off in his face (see my recent post “What Would You Do?”) Sunny reacts like a solid-minded horse. He gives the thing a good hard look. He rarely spooks. And when he does he is not panicked. He is never out of control. There is always a level of inner calm. Yes, he has confidence in me, but that’s not the bottom line. Sunny would (and has in his past) pack a very inexperienced rider and behave much the same. Not because he is taking care of his rider, but because he is confident in his ability to take care of himself—not particularly afraid of the unexpected and startling things that happen. He assumes he’ll be OK. All the rider has to do is stay with him, and he/she will be OK, too.
Sunny (and Henry, my son’s horse) is the opposite of a reactive horse like my horses Gunner and Plumber. But since a non-reactive horse connotes a dull horse, I don’t like to use that term. Neither Sunny nor Henry is dull. They are alert and eager to go on the trail. They look at everything, ears forward, and they move out readily. They are calm and solid-minded because they are confident, not because they are dull.
So what makes them this way? That’s a good question. And I don’t entirely know the answer. I’ve never trained a horse that ended up having this trait. The horses I trained that I kept as my mounts were more like what Kate is describing when she talks about emotional softness. They were “with” me. They trusted me and were confident in my leadership. But I wouldn’t say they were particularly confident in themselves.
The horses I’ve known that were solid-minded and confident in themselves shared several things in common. Over time, I’ve learned to recognize a horse that has this trait, and these days I select for it. But I’m really only theorizing when I talk about how they got this way.
First off, I’ve never known a young horse to have this trait. They may have the potential to have it, but truly solid-minded horses get that way after years of experience. All the solid-minded horses I have known have been at least eight. And all of them had a lot of miles on them by then. As you might expect, solid-minded horses are not overly reactive. They may be sensitive horses, but if so, over time they’ve learned not to overeact to stimuli of various sorts.
What else do they have in common? Well, now I’m going to say something that a lot of people probably won’t like. All the solid-minded horses I have known were trained by some pretty tough methods and used pretty hard in a pretty tough discipline—for many years. They were hauled plenty of miles, and covered plenty of country. And they all came from a past where no one was overly sentimental about them. Some were well cared for overall, others were not. At least one that I knew (and loved) was genuinely abused in his past.
Despite the fact that these horses were trained without ever really having much “connection” with their human trainer/riders, they weren’t trained by dudes. Again, a lot of people won’t like to hear this, but good intentions and much reading about horses and even “love” are not the same as a genuinely tough, competent rider/trainer, one who can stay with a horse through all kinds of “storms” and effectively punish the horse when he is resistant. Yes, some horses cave under this sort of training, and it isn’t the way I trained horses, but I can tell you for a fact, those horses that come out the other side of such a program with their sense of self intact have some real inner toughness. They are not big babies, fearful of all sorts of things and needing reassurance. They know what they’re supposed to do—obey the rider—and they know they can do it, even when things get difficult. Because they’ve been tested—hard—and found out that it won’t kill them. They can handle it. They are confident in themselves.
The horses I’ve known that were trained this way and came out solid-minded, were all team roping horses. I’m not saying they were particularly well broke, in a conventional sense, but you could count on them when the chips were down. Whether you were scrambling down a steep, rocky trail, chasing cattle through rough country, or facing the sudden, unexpected scary thing (see my recent post “What Would You Do?”) these horses stayed confident and sure of themselves, and continued to obey the rider. Yes, they might spook a little when startled, no they did not panic and bolt.
I think team roping has something to do with this, because it is such an intense thing for a horse to learn. All the whirling ropes (initially a horse’s worst nightmare), having to hold perfectly still and then run full speed on command (and remain under control), the need to stop hard at the rider’s cue and/or pull heavy dragging, leaping things—I can’t think of another discipline that requires a horse to tolerate and eventually cooperate with, more adversity, from an equine point of view. By the time a horse is a competent team roping horse, he’s dealt with a lot. And the good ones throw in with it. They know how to make a run, and they don’t mind doing it. They’re proud of themselves and confident in what they can do. I’ve seen this many times. And I think it takes the intensity and adversity of something like team roping to create this confidence. A horse who is babied along his whole life doing walk, trot, lope and minor trail rides has no opportunity to develop this sort of confidence and toughness. He CAN”T become solid-minded. In my view, it isn’t possible.
I do believe it is possible to train an obedient, pleasant riding horse by many methods—including persistent walk/trot/canter/trail rides. But I don’t think you can teach a horse to be confident in himself in the face of unexpected adversity without training him to tolerate a lot of adversity, such as a horse must tolerate in order to become a solid team roping horse. I don’t think de-spooking can do the trick—no matter which method you use—because there is no point to it that the horse can grasp. Team roping horses get the point of what they are doing—that’s part of what creates (or can create) their confidence in themselves. They understand that the point of all this struggle is to catch the steer. And the good ones, as I say, throw in with the goal.
Not all team roping horses are solid-minded, by any means, but a lot of older team roping horses will qualify. They are used to keeping their heads and continuing to obey when things get exciting and scary (team roping runs often get pretty wild—due to the unpredictability of the cattle), they are used to tolerating less than perfect rider cues, because even the best riders give less than perfect cues when roping—it is impossible to focus on catching the steer and pay full attention at all times to how you cue your horse—can’t be done. Team roping horses forgive that less than perfect cue and keep on trying to follow directions—and this can be a very useful trait in a horse. Because a team roping horse must be a steady platform to rope from, they aren’t taught to be nearly so touchy and responsive as the cutters and cowhorses I used to ride—and again, this is a good thing when you don’t want that sudden sideways swerve because something moved in the bushes. I’m sure there are horses of other disciplines that would qualify as solid-minded just as well. Polo comes to mind, though I have never been around polo so I don’t know. Perhaps someone else can chime in on this in the comments.
Now I can hear you all wondering if I think this sort of training/background is a good thing for a horse in an overall sense. And I have to tell you, I have mixed emotions about it. The horses I trained myself, Gunner and Plumber, are really attached to me—in some ways they are more like dogs than horses. They will snuggle with me and show affection; they would never, ever hurt me in any sort of purposeful way (any horse can step on you or knock you down by accident or drop you on the ground by spooking—this isn’t purposeful—but in fact neither Gunner or Plumber ever hurt me in any way), they nicker when they see me—even if its not feeding time, even if they’re with their equine companions…etc.
Solid-minded little Sunny and Henry, on the other hand, were trained by some pretty tough cowboys. Neither horse likes to be petted or messed with, unlike Gunner and Plumber. Sunny and Henry are very interested in me (primarily as the bringer of food), and they know they must obey me. They are perfectly accepting of this, though Sunny has a need to “test” me in minor ways. They are reliable, solid horses to handle on the ground and ride—at all times. They can (and do) tolerate weeks off at a time and remain steady, calm, and dependable (though I must point out that I keep them turned out in big corrals where they can run and buck if they want). I certainly would not say they were affectionate with me, though I believe they trust me—I don’t think they are interested in affectionate gestures from people. Since I have owned them, both horses have become much more expressive, by which I judge that they are happy and trusting that they are in a good place with good owners. And I love them. I don’t need them to be affectionate—I just need them to keep us safe and let us enjoy having horses and riding—and they are wonderful at this. They are just what I need and want. I can climb on Sunny once a week and walk him around for five minutes, if that’s all the time I have to give to riding, and he is quiet and pleasant and enjoyable. It makes me happy.
I loved and still love Plumber and Gunner, but I love Henry and Sunny just as much. I know that my current horses are perfect for us right now—I don’t want to have to be attuned to and reassuring to my horse. I want a horse that has been there and done that and feels confident in his ability to handle the things that happen in the world. A horse that can take care of me (and my kid) as we ride the trails. A solid-minded horse.
Such horses do exist and you can find them—for all of you who have been scared and/or hurt and are looking for a way to enjoy horses again. Look for a horse in the double digits who has been a solid team roping horse (readers, please supply other disciplines) and is known as a reliable “babysitter”. Be forgiving of a few arthritic complaints, perhaps. Don’t expect a perfectly broke, cuddly, dream horse—value your horse for his solid-minded reliable ways and how safe and confident you feel on him and with him—because sometimes that IS the perfect horse. At least it is for me—and perhaps there are others who feel this way, too. Any thoughts?