Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Young Horse

by Laura Crum

Lately I’ve been thinking about a very real peril of horseback riding that doesn’t get talked about much. In fact, it seems to be ignored by many people. And yet it is virtually 100% true in my experience. Its pretty simple. Young horses (by which I mean horses less than eight years old) will “misbehave” from time to time. No matter how good they are overall, they will have some significantly difficult moments. Disregarding this truth gets a LOT of people hurt. So today I want to write about this topic.

I am going to be the first to admit that I get seduced into this temptation just like everyone else. Despite the fact that I know my horse training days are behind me, I still allowed my friend/boarder to talk me into accepting his three year old colt as a mutual project. And even though we sent this colt to a damn good horse trainer for a year, and Smoky was/is a very gentle young horse who behaved perfectly 99% of the time, he did manage to spook and drop my friend Wally on the ground, seriously injuring Wally’s shoulder, and eventually threw such a huge fit tied to the trailer one day (we never knew why), that the colt ended up upside down underneath the trailer with his foot caught in the safety chains and injured himself so severely he was never 100% sound again. This story has a happy ending because I found Smoky a good home, but it illustrates the point I want to make. Folks, Smoky was/is a really gentle horse by nature. He was/is well trained. Now eight years old, he is being used to teach little kids to ride (he’s sound enough for walk/trot—not hard work). That’s how easy going and gentle and well trained he is. But still…at four, five, and six, despite what a nice horse he was, he had those moments—and as you can see, they resulted in some serious damage. And this is mostly how it goes.

Over and over, in my real life and in horse blog land, I watch as a reasonably experienced horse person decides to buy a new horse. Said person wants a well broke, drama free mount. Over and over I watch her/him select something four or five years old, thinking that the horse will have many more useful, sound years than an older horse. Who can fault that thinking? Over and over I watch as the carefully chosen, well broke, good natured young horse acts just like a broke older horse—sometimes for a long time. But inevitably it happens….eventually there is a day when the young horse acts up. Horse spooks or bucks or bolts—person is dumped and hurt, or just scared, and things are never quite the same again. Person has lost confidence in horse and perhaps horse has lost confidence in person. Sometimes confidence is regained, sometimes not. But overall, it’s a predictable story that could easily be avoided.

Mind you, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with choosing a young horse. I spent twenty years choosing, buying and training young horses. I had a great time. I was not at all worried or upset when my young horses acted up. Once in awhile they dumped me, and though I didn’t like that much, I accepted it as part of the deal. As my horses got older, they got solid. It was all good.

Now? Now I don’t want to get dumped. I’m aware that I’d come off easier, I’m aware that I’d hit the ground harder and break more readily. I don’t really have time to get hurt right now. I’m sure some would tell me that if I don’t want to get hurt I shouldn’t ride. And that any horse can dump you. I’ve heard that one before. And yes, in a manner of speaking its true. But no, my broke trail horse is not likely to dump me. I’m probably more likely to get in a wreck driving my truck, to tell the truth.

Despite the “any horse can dump you” wisdom, the fact is that if you’re an experienced rider riding a solid horse you know well on easy trail rides, you are not very likely to get dumped. In hundreds and hundreds of rides over many years, I have not once hit the ground from one of my broke horses. (Knocking on wood.). Yes, it can happen. No, it ain’t likely. Were I to buy myself a four year old my odds of hitting the ground would go up about a hundred times. Even if he was the nicest four year old on the planet.

The point of this post is not to run down young horses or anyone who has chosen to ride a young horse. Far from it. I admire and applaud you if that is your choice. The point is to make it very clear that there is a huge difference between a well broke horse of eight years old or older and a well broke horse of less than eight. Many, many very sweet four year olds go through a big “waking up” stage around five or six. Its not a bad thing—many a lazy young horse shows his potential to be a real “star” at some event or other right around this time. But so many people who chose a “gentle” three or four year old are very unhappy when this horse becomes a very much livelier five and six year old. Unfortunately, this change is pretty much the norm.

So today I just want to put this truth out there in plain language. If you want a no-drama horse, choose one that is eight or older. If you choose a younger horse, be sure that you are Ok with some “dramatic” moments. Because you are very likely to have them.

Not all older horses are drama free. There are many reasons why a particular older horse can be a lousy choice. Not all older horses have been competently trained. Some older horses have been abused—pushed too hard in the show ring…etc. Some older horses have been hurt or have physical problems such that they never going to be sound or truly usable as a riding horse again. Some older horses are just not of the right personality type to make a solid horse—this can be genetic—it doesn’t always come from poor training. So just being older is no guarantee that a horse is a solid riding horse.

BUT…if we are talking about two well broke, sound horses, of a good disposition, and one is ten and the other is four, your odds of a peaceful, drama free riding life go way up if you choose the older horse.

Again, I think choosing a younger horse is just fine if you are up for the occasional bit of drama. In my twenties I bought three year old Gunner, who was/is a sensitive, reactive, spooky horse. I was happy riding him; I knew he spooked; I could deal with it. One day, gathering cattle in the wind, I kicked four year old Gunner up to the high lope to turn the group of cows, who had taken off in a direction I didn’t want them to go. To my complete surprise, Gunner put his head down and started bucking. Now Gunner didn’t buck—he just never did. So this caught me completely unprepared. I lurched forward over his neck and almost came off, saving myself by a grab at the mane. Gunner wasn’t bucking very hard (more crowhopping than bucking) and my angry “whoa” caused his head to come up. I pulled myself back in the saddle, kicked him up to the lope again and off we went.

This is what I mean about young horses. Gunner didn’t mean to buck me off—he just felt good and it was windy, so he acted up a bit. But I damn sure came very close to hitting the ground, because he caught me by surprise. And now, in my fifties instead of my twenties, I would come off much easier and be much more likely to break something. This is why I don’t ride young horses any more (though I still have and love Gunner—and he’s still a big spook at 32 years old). The horse I ride now, Sunny, who is a very calm-minded critter in his teens, would not bother with such an energetic burst of bucking under any circumstances, wind or no wind. And this is why I ride him.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to discourage anyone from choosing or riding a young horse. Its just to put out a basic truth for all horse people to consider. If you want drama free, an older horse is a better choice. Young horses are growing and changing and coming into their own, and like young people, it is natural for them to test the limits at times. I have known several horses that grew a couple of inches and filled out to the tune of a couple of hundred pounds between five and eight. The amount of energy and the upwelling of “life” that goes with that growth can be surprising and unsettling if you’re not prepared for it. Again, its not a bad thing, but it is a thing to keep in mind.

Hopefully this post will spare someone somewhere some drama/injury he or she wishes to avoid. And I welcome all of your insights on this subject.

PS—For those who read on Kindles, my first novel, “Cutter”, is now available on Kindle for 99 cents. "Cutter" introduces equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy in a mystery that revolves around the intrigues of the cutting horse world. More descriptions and reviews are available at the site or at my website. Here is the link. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.


jenj said...

Amen, Laura!!!!

I can't tell you how many beginner/intermediate riders I know that didn't want an older horse because they "won't last as long." Or, they "don't want a deadhead," but instead "want a horse with some spirit." Oh no, no you don't. What's worse is that they are adults with checkbooks, and no amount of talking to them or explaining (as you so eloquently did) can convince them that they really need a solid citizen to build confidence, rather than some flashy young thing that's going to hurt them in an moment of youthful exuberance.

And you're right, not all older horses are solid citizens either. My 23-yo takes his cues from his rider, so if you're nervous, he's a hot mess. As someone said earlier, choosing a horse is a lot like choosing a spouse - you need one that fits you, and don't think you're going to try to change them!

Laura Crum said...

jenj--And even experienced riders often forget that if they want a no drama horse a young horse is not usually a good choice. I'm guilty of this myself, as I was quite willing to convince myself that my friend's three-year-old (a very sweet, laid back colt) would be "no problem." But in the end, he had his problem days, and they resulted in some serious damage, both to himself and his rider (as I pointed out in the post).

And you're so right about the fact that older horses are not all solid riding horses. My oldest horse (32) is the biggest spook I have. His basic nature hasn't changed as he's aged. But my two calm natured trail horses, in their teens and twenties, are absolutely unflappable, even if I mount beginners on them.

Linda said...

I wrote a little about young horses on my post today, too. They are energy waiting to be directed, but that energy can be quick and explosive. It's my belief that they aren't to be ridden the same as an older broke horse...ever. I think of them like I do teenagers. I have a couple of young ones and I have been in NO rush to ride them all the time or push their training. I like to give them the time to mature, but constantly be looking forward. Another thought: I think young ones need more long rides. Right out of the chute each day they have lots of pent-up, stored energy, they need to get out and move a lot to wear it off. When Cowboy was young, I'd start him every spring on a certain trail that had nice hills completely surrounded it. If he acted up, we turned and worked the hill, up and down, up and down, up and down, ad nauseum until I felt him relax. Then we'd go off again. This would take several times each spring, so my rides would be very long and I had to budget time for them. He was a FULL time job.

Laura Crum said...

Linda--When I was training colts in college, our barn was at the foot of a BIG hill, with a nice dirt road running to the top. We would always get the colts out and just ride to the top of the hill (about a mile) first thing. It made everything easier. Great tip!

Yes, young horses are a lot of work (one reason I don't ride them any more--too lazy). But I well remember the satisfaction I took in training colts back in my younger days. If you have the energy for it, it is a great thing. When I was training Gunner, my high powered, spooky horse, I rode him six days a week. It was just what he needed. I don't have time/inclination for that now.

I'll have to go read your post.

Linda said...

I had another thought while I was walking around here--and that is I'm a big fan of 24/7 turnout with other horses for the young ones. The older, mature horses kick their butts into shape and they are constantly using up that energy. I had to stable two of our colts one time--they were turned out every day--but one day one of them got to running as soon as he was unhaltered and found a patch of ice we hadn't seen--slipped and broke his shoulder. My horses are out 24/7 now and ALL of them can navigate on ice. They know where every patch is and they know to be careful, plus they don't have a bunch of pent-up energy.

Laura Crum said...

Linda--I like to keep horses turned out 24/7, too. I have seen/heard of too many wrecks associated with "daily turnout". Just as you say, the horses often have a ball of pent up energy when they are turned out, and that can cause them to get hurt. The commonest wreck is too-rough play with other horses, which resulted in a friend's horse breaking a leg not so long ago. One of the reasons I had to ride my young horses six days a week (in my youth) is that I kept them in places where they lived in thirty by thirty pens (all I could afford). Now that all my horses live turned out in large paddocks, they can run around and exercise themselves if they feel the need.

Mona Sterling said...

Wow, I couldn't agree more. Especially as I'm one of those people that should have bought an older horse but ended up with a five year old. This happens when you take fifteen years off of riding and think that you are the same 25 year old that likes a bit of spunk. Ha! At this point, I'm keeping my youngster and working with a trainer but if the market were to change and I felt I could find her a better home I would love the security of a broke horse. I get reminders regularly that she's a young horse and will improve with time, but at 40 the idea of riding the bucks, spooks and stupid days is way less appealing.

Laura Crum said...

Mona--I hear you. I am so on the same page. Riding the spooks and bucks of the inevitable young horse "bad days" holds NO appeal at all any more for me. Just call me a big chicken (!)

Anonymous said...

That would be me . . . And Pie is as well-broke as you could expect a 4 (now 5) year old to be. But the spook's still in there and probably will be for a while - I just need to stick on a bit better! And it's interesting to see him mature physically - he's much bigger and more solid than when I got him a year plus ago, and I think mentally he's less in the "I'm a baby and I'll just go along without too many worries" than the "I'm all grown up and I'd better keep a good eye for tigers" mode.

But I'm still glad I got him - I think he's going to grow and mature into the horse I'll still be riding when I'm in my late 70s, but we've got a ways to go yet.

Dawn will be 15 this summer, but she's always going to be hot and spooky, but we pretty much have an understanding, and I never, ever ride her on the trail. Drifter's 10 but still fairly green and a bit of a hot mess right now, but I think that's going to straighten itself out with some training assistance.

But your advice is very good. Finding an older, sound horse without serious baggage isn't so easy, though. There's also a problem with trainers, in a variety of equine disciplines, who push their clients into buying that pretty young horse that the owner isn't really suited for - lots of training rides for the trainer to make money on. People can overhorse themselves on their own, but often there's a trainer at the bottom of it.

Laura Crum said...

Kate, I know you've been there. But you do have tools to cope with your young horse issues and willingness to do the coping. As I said, I applaud those who are up for this. And I agree Pie is a nice young horse and will probably make a solid horse with time.

That said, Pie is a good example of what I mean. He appeared "easy" until he grew up and woke up, and though that does not make him in any way "bad", he did become a much more challenging project and one of his spin/spooks did uhmm, cause some rider damage. Fortunately he belongs to you and you are finding a good path for him/you. But very many people don't have your courage/resources/persistence and would/could be put off horses in a big way by such a situation. Anyway, a lot of words to say that some of us are better off not taking on that sweet young horse and then having to deal with the almost inevitable "drama days". And again, I have only admiration for those, like you, who are willing and able to work through it.

I have to say that the temptation to buy a young horse is just huge--whether encouraged by a trainer or just on one's own. To this day, despite my post, I must often remind myself firmly that I'm done with young horses. There are so many nice ones and...well, you know what I mean.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I remember reading that the cavalry preferred to buy horses aged seven or eight. The US Cavalry Manual recommended not even starting to train until at least six years old. Perhaps that was for reasons of more than just physical maturity.

Like you, Laura, I've ridden many miles on older trail horses with scarcely a mishap. I came off once when a horse tripped and fell, but that wasn't because of a spook.

Now, having bought a six year-old, well she has those moments that you describe. The occasional high-spirited buck does happen - nothing malicious, just a little buck forgetting that she is being ridden. The other thing about her, and here the hill comes in (if one has one) - she takes a mile or so to quieten down at the beginning of a ride. Rides around the 400 acre farm tend to be silly whereas trail rides out soon settle to a sensible approach. These behaviours might indeed put off a less experienced rider, especially as the mare came from a riding holiday business (therefore 'must' be easy to ride!)

That said, I used to put newly trained four year-old draught-crosses out on riding holiday trails with scarcely a mishap. But they were worked six hours a day, five days a week, in a group with older horses (including mothers and aunts). Plenty of work makes a sensible horse. It was a special circumstance.

Laura Crum said...

White Horse Pilgrim--"Plenty of work makes a sensible horse." Ain't that the truth. And yes, at the Sierra pack station I used to work at, some fairly green four year olds did pack "dudes". But their work schedule is just what you described, and they were in a line of quiet, broke horses.

For me, now, not wanting to ride virtually every day, nor wanting or able (timewise) to take rides much longer than two hours (let alone not wanting to hit the ground), my calm, older horses are much appreciated.

Lavender and Twill said...

I must say I am very interested in this topic Laura ~ right now I have a four and a half year old TBxAppaloosa and I am trying to figure out if I knew what I was in for when I brought him, and would I have done it if I did!

I don't think I did know ~ I knew that youngsters where hard work, but all the horses I've ever had where green, but older ~ I figured a youngster was like that but with more energy. I guess I didn't realize that there would be more of a mental "greeness" to deal with as well, or at least, I didn't realize how much drama that mental greenness comes with! Silly me, I suppose, but no one told me, and I didn't know. I was told that I could do it by my trainer {whom I trust}, but now I find myself doubting my ability.

Sorry for the long post, but I guess I am trying to figure out if I can train this horse to be calm and enthusiastic about work. I sort of feel overwhelmed ~ I definitely got more than I bargained for; yet at the same time I like the horse and feel like we could really get there with time. No I don't have money to send him out for someone else to train; it's me or nothing. I guess my question is ~ is it okay to feel uncertain/nervous/worried when training a young horse if you are prepared to keep riding despite those feelings?

Complicated, I know, but I want to make sure I'm not going to spoil him. He's already had one young owner who knew NOTHING about horses, let alone about training, and I don't want to be enforcing his previous behaviors that basically he could do whatever he wanted. Thankfully, he has a good nature so whatever he wanted didn't involve hurting people, but it did involve some rather athletic bucking that I didn't know about until I brought him! {I don't think my trainer knew about it either}.

Any advice would be sooo welcomed, and if you want to read more about it, I am writing up my experiences on my blog, A Riding Habit. I would love any help, advice, and/or ideas on how to work with this horse of mine!

bonita of A Riding Habit

Laura Crum said...

Bonita--Thanks for reading and commenting here. I can certainly relate to your feelings, and I am quite sure that most of us who ride young horses (in my case this would be in the past) face feelings of uncertainty and anxiety from time to time. That's perfectly natural. If you're willing to persevere, and you have someone to help you when you get stumped (which it sounds like you do), you're in good company with all the rest of us who struggled through training our first few horses. Perseverance and wet saddle blankets counts for a LOT, believe me. As White Horse Pilgrim pointed out, plenty of work makes a sensible horse.

Other than that I can't really advise you, since I know so little about your situation, even after reading your last few blog posts. But I wish you the best of luck and it sounds like you have a great attitude.

Lavender and Twill said...

Thanks for replying Laura, I must say that even your reassurance that some anxiety/uncertainty is normal in those circumstances has helped me a bit. I guess I just needed to know that I am allowed to have those feelings and that they won't ruin my horse! So thank you. I will keep on with and yes, wet saddle blankets for the win. :D

bonita of A Riding Habit

Lavender and Twill said...

P.S. - I did write more about my anxiety after reading your post, so maybe that might shed some more light on where I am at rather than my previous posts if you think it could be helpful to advise on.

I guess I just worry because my nervousness isn't just once in a while, it's pretty much every time I go to ride him with a greater or lessor degree depending on whether I am on my own or not. Thanks again for your time, I appreciate it.

bonita of A Riding Habit

joycemocha said...

It really depends on the person's skill and background, though. I bought Mocha as a five-year-old and she really didn't settle until she was about eight or nine. I think there's a reason some old timers didn't call a horse "aged" until about nine or so....

Riding with the trainer I do, though, I've seen enough older rehabs that I don't think there's a guarantee (and, conversely, I've seen some pretty good young horses as well). The key for most amateur riders is their access to a professional or more skilled handler for training help.

I had Mocha in schooling lessons pretty steadily for several years, but we had training issues to work on, such as picking up canter leads and moving in balance at the canter. I also rode her outside of lessons, but I know of some owners of young horses who came through the barn who only rode their horse in lessons. Those were the more timid/less skilled handlers and doing that worked for them, they improved their skills and the horse got practice under supervision.

I've ridden enough challenging horses that if I don't want drama in horse land, I don't climb on. Otherwise, I figure it's all relative. I do prefer a horse with good discipline and a good mind--but even those horses will have their reactive days.

Mrs. Mom said...

At the moment, we have that exact situation in our paddock. A solid minded 12 year old (Phat Boy) and a green, laid back, seemingly unflappable, not spooky, level headed, lower lip hanging, lazy, sweet as the day is long 4 coming 5 year old.

Guess what *I* am waiting for, as we work to expand his horizons.... that very same awakening that you spoke of.

I stay very aware and vigilant around Tater. I stay hyper vigilant when the Locust Brothers are near him- for grooming or just petting him. Like you, I've seen far too many "solid" young horses have a moment of pure goofy where they express themselves by big actions- and I've seen too many people and horses get hurt from it.

With that said, the question comes up- why is Tater here? My only answer is, that in about 4 or 5 years, that colt is going to make a fine, FINE solid trail horse/ baby sitter for the Locust Brothers. Finding his mindset is a tough job. He is sound. He is intelligent. He likes the boys. In time, with miles, Tater is going to make the kids a horse of a lifetime.

Can't pass that by!

Thanks for yet another good read Laura!

Laura Crum said...

Oh dear, Bonita. I read your post and I hear you. This is exactly why I wrote my post. But, of course, its a little late for my words to be of any help to you as you are now IN the situation that I worry about. Kate, of "A Year With Horses" (listed on the sidebar) has posted quite a bit of very insightful stuff regarding what she has gone through after coming off her young horse and being hurt. Suffice it to say that many, many people have gone and are going through what you are feeling. Its a natural, normal thing.

That said, the answer to the obvious question--should I keep riding this horse or give up on him--is going to be different from person to person. I can only tell you to listen to your own gut. For myself it is not worth it to me to ride horses that I am scared of. I don't want to get hurt, and I want to enjoy my riding time. To be frank, even riding broke, gentle horses has plenty of possible anxiety (the unknowns of the trail, even a solid, gentle horse can fall...etc). I simply don't need/want any extra stress. But I did ride many young horses in my youth. I have to say that if you are afraid the horse is deliberately trying to dump you, that is a very different thing than typical young horse "acting up". Even in my younger days, I passed on horses with that much of an attitude. And perhaps that's one reason I never got hurt (knocking on wood).

Riding your horse only under supervision or having your trainer ride him for awhile seem like the best solutions for you, but this doesn't seem to be an option in your case. I really can't say more--but please consider whether what you and the horse are learning together is worth the chance of being badly hurt. Leaving aside the issue of how unpleasant it is to feel scared, horses are truly dangerous. I wish you the best whichever way you choose. As pointed out in another blog post, it is not a bad thing to find an appropriate home for a horse that is "too much" for you, or just no fun for you. You can do this with love and make sure the horse does well. You are free to choose what your heart tells you to do without feeling bad about it either way.

Laura Crum said...

Good points, as always, Joyce. Certainly riding only under experienced supervision changes the dynamic a LOT. And a given individual young horse can be "easier" than a given individual older horse. For sure. I am obviously making a generalization in my post. But your saying that Mocha didn't really "settle" until she was eight or none is exactly what I'm talking about. Thanks for a good insight.

Anonymous said...

That's why I'm so happy that my gelding will be six this year. He's almost mature. He seems to calm down a little more each year, and this year I'm hoping the big light bulb over his head will come on.

But, even though he's basically a quiet horse, and I've trained him carefully, he still likes to act up from time to time. I'm hoping for a lot less drama this year.

Laura Crum said...

redhorse--At least you're realistic. I think that's half the battle. I always wince when folks seem to assume that they won't ever have "drama days" with a nice young horse, and then are very upset when it happens. When you are prepared for it and understand it, I think you do better with it. For me, between six and eight has always been the window when my young horses got "solid". Lets hope in your horse's case its six(!)

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom--That is weird. Your comment just appeared here--in its place. It wasn't there yesterday. I can only assume that one of the other EI authors fetched it out of the spam folder, where it must have mistakenly landed.

Anyway, I know you and I have corresponded about this, and we're on the same page. Keep on teaching that Tater colt to be a good horse--it sounds like he'll be very solid eventually. And you're so right about those good minds being hard to find.

Mel said...

When I'm looking for a new horse (usually an arab for an endurance prospect) I won't consider something under 7. My goal is to find something between 7 and 9. It doesn't seem to matter how much training they have at this point - they seem to accept whatever I throw at them - and they don't change much. If they are quiet at 7, they stay quiet as they age - I odn't have to go through a period of "naughtiness". I've always prided myself on getting green horses and starting them on endurance from step 1, but a couple of years ago, I found myself thinking that when I have to do it over again (my current mount is 13, so there's a new horse in my future in a couple of years), I may send them off to a local trainer who I personally like and who turns out excellent started endurance horses. I'm not sure I like the adrenanline of the spooks and bolts on the trails any more, and I really just want the horse to be a pleasure to ride. I think it was important that I have the experience of starting my own endurance horses - I have an appreciation for what it takes and the mechanics of it - but I"m not convinced I need to start each and every horse of mine in the future. (FYI when I say "start", they already have basic training, and been backed - I'm doing the trail/rating/vet check/obstacle stuff).

Lisa said...

I think a lot of the 'young horse dumps rider' scenarios can be mostly avoided. We have two young mares. They are both currently 5 and a half, and we seem to be getting past the 'terrible 4's' stage. My sister's mare came to us as a two year old - totally unhandled and wild on the back of a cattle truck. Poor filly had so much to learn, but she is now well broke and fairly quiet. HOWEVER she needs a very confident rider. I am a very confident rider. My sister, however, was not (at the time). I was dumped once with this horse? My sister was dumped many times.

My horse came to us as a partially broke well handled 4 year old. She was bought from the breeder, and had always been handled by confident, professional people. She is a quiet, take anywhere, do anything type of horse. I'm not saying she doesn't have her I confident moments, but there have been less episodes with her.

My point is that I think when a young horse has a dummy spit or acts up or is naughty, in my experience they are confused about an aid, or have gotten scared or something similar, then they have looked to the rider for the confidence they lack. If they find it there in the rider, all is well! If not, they explode. This can take a spot second with a youngster and to be honest I thrive on it. Not. Lot of riders do, and there is the crux of the problem, and why young horses have a bad reputation.