by Laura Crum
Advance warning—this is not one of my “feel good” posts.
I have an acquaintance who rides what I consider to be a difficult horse. I’ve known this horse, in a roundabout way, since he was born, and I knew some of his relatives, and I can attest to the fact that they were all difficult to some degree. This gelding was started by a competent guy (not the current owner), who rather rapidly discovered that he didn’t care for the horse. He got him broke so that he was reasonably useful…and he sold him. The horse had some ability, but he remained nasty.
What do I mean by nasty? He would and will kick at people or horses when he is so inclined, including when he is being led and when under saddle. He balks at any new thing, and if it strikes him as a real problem, he is willing to escalate his resistance so far as rearing and going over backward. He launches into bucking fits at unpredictable moments. And he will pull back for no obvious reason, and keep pulling until something breaks.
The guy that has this horse has been persisting with him for years. He got the horse cheap, and you CAN rope on him. He knows how to do it and though he is resistant, he can perform. He is reasonably athletic. You can gather on him and ride him through the hills, too—as long as you’re willing to put up with his crap. He’s dumped his owner a few times, and kicked more than one person and quite a few horses. He dumped (and hurt) a child that his owner was dumb enough to put on him (just meaning to lead him around with the kid on his back). He appears lazy and calm until something lights his fire—and then he is violent. He is, in short, a supremely untrustworthy horse.
His owner is a middle-of-the-road type of horse owner. He knows a little, not a lot. He “gets by” this horse by persisting, but he is not changing the horse’s attitude or fixing his problems. To be frank, I strongly suspect that even a very skilled horseman would have a hard time doing this. In my view, the horse’s bad attitude is partly genetics, and he has had many years of getting “solid” in his negative behavior. He could get better, sure. I don’t think you could ever trust him. I think he will always be willing to kick you…or dump you.
Now if this is the kind of horse you want to ride and own, well OK. I sure don’t. But I totally respect each horseman’s right to choose the horse that he/she wants to work with. I don’t look down on “Frank” for keeping this gelding. But I damn sure am not going to put up with Frank endangering me or my son because he’s riding this horse.
Because Frank can’t control the horse’s impulse to kick. And I have numerous times been riding alongside him, talking, as we all do, and the gelding has kicked out at my horse. I’m pretty good at reading horses, and I usually saw it coming and Sunny is wary and so far the piece of crap horse has not connected, but I am this close to just not riding with/around Frank ever again. I have told my son not to get close to him on horseback. And you know, it’s awkward. But that horse’s bad habit is truly a danger to others—both horses and people. One of the few fatal riding accidents that I personally know of was a child riding in a group lesson who was kicked in the neck by another horse in the group. The child was wearing a helmet--they all were-- but this was no help. Not to mention all the horses I’ve known of who had their legs broken by being kicked by another horse. It is something to take seriously.
The thing that gets me is that one day when Frank’s gelding kicked at my horse for no good reason Frank looked at me and said, “I sure wish he was more like your horses. He’s a real pain to deal with.”
Now my horses are not perfect equine saints. But they would not fire at another horse while I’m on them—to be fair, Sunny will hump up and aim a “fake kick” occasionally at a horse that crowds his butt on the trail. But kick hard at a rider alongside? Never. I’m not saying this is because I’m such a great hand. But I do know enough to pick out horses that are reasonably well-mannered—and to have trained quite a few horses that are reasonably well-mannered.
So when Frank said this I was quick to answer. “You could find a rope horse that was as well-behaved as my horses. There are plenty of them out there. You don’t need to ride that bad-tempered SOB.”
Frank shrugged. And that was the end of that. I did not pursue the subject, feeling that it would be rude.
But I would like to put something out there to the world. I (again) totally respect Frank’s right to want to keep and work with his horse. I also am NOT willing to put up with being endangered by a horse that is not my horse and that behaves in a way that I absolutely would not tolerate. If I owned that gelding, I would sell him so fast it would make your head spin. And I would buy a gentle, solid horse that was deserving of the very good forever home I provide for my horses. Those who know me know that I do love my horses and take really good care of them. But I have no interest in investing such devotion in a horse like that gelding.
(Most of you know that when I bought Sunny I found that he was willing to offer a sort of “bluffing” kick at someone who walked out to catch him. He never connected, mind you, and he wasn’t kicking hard. Even so, I was very close to rejecting him for this behavior. I took him on a trial basis, and rapidly realized that Sunny was merely testing. Once I established that I was in charge, he did not offer that behavior any more. In effect, I found that I could train him out of his negative behaviors—though it was more like reminding him of his manners—and since he was in every other way a reliable, willing trail horse he became a “keeper” for me. But had he persisted with the kicking behavior, or EVER kicked out hard in an effort to connect with a person, he would have gone straight back to his former owner.)
The point of this post is not to discourage or denigrate anyone who has a cranky, kick-prone, difficult horse that they love. Though I would suggest that it is YOUR responsibility to make sure that horse does not endanger others, not the responsibility of the others to somehow know that they must grant an absurd amount of extra space to your horse, because of its issues. But I would like to say, to anyone new to horses, that all horses are not created equal. Think twice before taking on a horse with a cranky, difficult attitude that is prone to violent, dangerous acts, in the belief that you can “fix” the horse with love and treats. Be fully aware that it is perfectly possible to choose a horse with a calm, sane attitude—one that is very unlikely to ever hurt you. Think hard about what you want your life with horses to be like, and what will give you the most joy. If there are children in your family, think about their safety, and what will help them have a good experience of horses. And think about how you will feel caring for and handling this horse for many, many years when it is past riding age.
My advice would be to reject that pretty critter that is so prone to pinning its ears and kicking, and so resistant when you are on its back. Go look a little further. And see how you feel when you are handling/riding a horse that isn’t so adversarial and does what you ask willingly. Don’t be too fixated on “pretty” or color or such. Don’t put “rescuing” a particular horse in need as your bottom line. If that sucker cripples you or even kills you (and it does happen), it will not seem worth it. If you want to compete at an event, certainly you’ll want a horse suitable for that event. But even within those parameters, there will be sane, willing horses and resistant, difficult horses. I know which one I’d choose.
Finally, different horses work for different people. The folks who had Sunny before me had a bit of trouble with him, from what I’ve heard. But I get along with him really well. So a horse who has a “bad” attitude for one person may be cooperative for another person. Also, when you buy a green horse or an unbroken horse, how that horse turns out will have a lot to do with what kind of training you put into it. And I don’t mean to “dis” rescue horses; some rescue horses are jewels. I have known several horses (like Wally’s Twister or our Flanigan) that came to us with an untrusting, fear-based attitude, and over the years we owned them proved to be wonderful, reliable horses as they learned to trust us. And there is that thing called persistence. Many unlikely seeming horses became great partners for their person because that person persisted (those were damn lucky horses, in my opinion.)
What I am trying to say here is that just like people, some horses are saints (like our Henry), some have quirks but within their parameters will give you SO much if you are the right match for them (this would be most horses I have known), and some are resistant by nature, including a few that are downright nasty—and they won’t be trained out of this attitude. I know a lot of horse lovers won’t believe this, and also won’t like to hear it, but in my lifetime of training, owning and riding horses, I have known quite a few horses with this sort of resistant attitude. And my choice is not to own or ride or interact with this type of horse. It is so frustrating, and a novice horse owner is so often defeated and discouraged (not to mention frequently scared or injured) by such a horse. I’m not a novice at this point in my life, and I’m quite aware that this sort of grief is completely avoidable. There are so many good horses in the world that really need a forever home. It’s win/win when we choose one of these for ourselves and give them that home that they deserve.
And hey—I’m happy to hear dissenting opinions. I’m sure that everyone who has a cranky mare that likes to kick but is, in the owner’s opinion, a great horse, will heartily disagree with what I’ve said here. Fire away.