Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Cautionary Tale


                                                by Laura Crum

            Several years ago my friend Wally bought a pretty black horse that belonged to a roper who needed to sell the horse quickly, due to losing his job and being unable to pay board. Wally knew this horse slightly and believed him to be gentle and a decent heel horse. The horse was said to be nine years old, he was quite sound (we jogged him in circles on the asphalt driveway), and he was priced to sell. So Wally bought him as a backup horse.
            The black horse (named Coal) turned out to have strengths and weaknesses—like all horses. He wasn’t a very good heel horse, and he obviously did not care for being a rope horse. He was, however, a lovely mover and very smooth gaited. He would willingly lope endless circles in a perfect, collected lope and he didn’t seem to mind this at all. He would pack beginners with good grace—in the arena. He wasn’t much of trail horse and acted sulky and reluctant outside and hated walking downhill. After a couple of years of messing around with him, Wally decided the horse didn’t fit him and asked our friend Mark (who is something of a horse trader) to sell the horse for him.
            Wally wanted to do right by Coal and we knew a rope horse home or a trail horse home wouldn’t suit the horse. So Wally asked Mark to try to find a Coal a good “forever” home as a walk/trot/lope arena horse. And truly, Coal was ideal for this.
            How many people out there would like a sound, gentle, eleven year old gelding—very pretty, solid black, very smooth gaited and very solid in the arena? Coal was not a particularly friendly horse—more stand-offish-- but reasonably well-mannered. He would pin his ears when cinched and sometimes made little “dolphin” bucks at the lope when he was fresh. But these were not vices that would bother even a beginner. And Coal would pack beginners patiently—I watched him do it many times.
            So Mark found what he thought was the perfect home for Coal. A middle-aged lady with a lovely horse property who owned five horses that were either too old or too lame to ride. She was keeping all of them for the rest of their lives. She just wanted a horse she could ride in the arena and do very low level dressage. She rode Coal and thought he was perfect. She seemed like the perfect home. Coal was sold and Wally made a nice profit. We all felt good about it. We thought we had done the horse a favor and placed him in a home where he would have a good life.
            The woman kept in touch with Mark and it became clear that she was very timid and even this quite-gentle gelding intimidated her with his ear pinning and occasional crowhop. Mark encouraged her to take lessons on him, which she did, and this seemed to work. She said she was very happy with him and sent photos of the horse at the small dressage shows she attended. Coal looked good. We thought all was well.
            Coal remained with this woman a year or two, but a month ago Mark got a call. The woman said that Coal had bit her and she was now afraid of him—and she wanted to sell him back. Mark agreed to take the horse back. Wally wanted no part of it. And, no matter how much I would like to help every good horse that crosses my path, I have no place to put another horse and no time to ride one. Sunny doesn’t get ridden as much as he should. I simply had to pass.
            So now Mark has Coal and is trying to find another home for him. But…and it’s a BIG but. Coal is not the same horse. He’s pushy and disrespectful and testing the boundaries at all points. Mark (or any other competent horseman) can fix this rather easily. But the horse won’t be truly suitable for a beginner to own…ever again. And this is a very sad thing for the horse’s future.
            This story is very similar to my Sunny horse. A flunked out heel horse (like Coal), gentle for beginners (like Coal), Sunny was sold (by Mark) to be a family horse and to do low level dressage and trail riding with beginners. Three years later the horse was for sale again and I bought him to be my trail horse. I soon found out why he was for sale.
            The previously polite and well-mannered Sunny now offered to kick and nip, balked at loading in the trailer, crow-hopped when annoyed, sulled up when he didn’t want to do something, was hard to catch…etc. He was, in short, very spoiled. I soon cured him of this, and at this point he’s pretty well-mannered again and a pleasant horse to ride and handle. But he hasn’t forgotten. If I do something stupid, Sunny is quick to show me that he will take advantage. He has learned his lesson. If the humans don’t know how to be in charge, the door is open for the horse to take charge. Sunny has not forgotten this. He would not be suitable for a beginner to own—though I could sure put a beginner on him for one ride. But over time it would not work out. Sunny has been effectively ruined for beginners—he is lucky that I came along for him (as I am lucky to own such a reliable trail horse).
            So people, take heed. This has been my single biggest problem placing horses over the years. I send a gentle, reliable horse to a home with well-intentioned people who are, quite frankly, dudes. But they mean well and have the money and the time and the desire to do right by the horse. I encourage them to get skilled help—and they usually try to do this. But the story so often ends like this. Several years later and they are afraid to ride or handle the horse—who now has learned to buffalo the person and is more or less a spoiled monster. Such once-well-broke horses (like my Sunny) are not that hard for a horseman to remind of their manners. But they won’t forget what they have learned from their non-horseman owners. And if they are owned/handled by beginners again, they will be quick to take advantage.
            It’s hard to say what the answer is. Never sell a good horse to dudes? That seems a little extreme. We were all beginners at one time. And beginners really need these solid horses. But this is a very frustrating and extremely common story. Well-intentioned non-horseman can almost be guaranteed to let a horse run over them more than they should allow, and most gentle, solid horses suitable for beginners are that way partly because they are level-headed and tough minded. Such a horse is quick to understand that the owner can’t make him obey, and said owner is constantly giving way to every whim that the horse displays. And soon the horse is a spoiled monster. Such a sad situation—not good for horse or person-- and so very common. Anyone have any thoughts on how to prevent this?
            

17 comments:

Val said...

Thank you for such a thought-provoking post. I remember this horse from the story of his sale.

In therapeutic riding, this can be an issue because we look for very solid horses, but consistently being handled by beginners or volunteers can bring out vices in some smart horses. The solution that worked the best was giving able-bodied lessons on the horses and having the instructors work the horses from time to time. We also worked to train our volunteers but very few truly had good horse sense, so that was not a fail-safe. We also had this plan backfire when a very tactless rider overworked our horses souring (and soring) one to the point where he had to be rehomed. It is worth noting that there was also a management problem arrising that prevented the rider from being given the boot, but that is a whole 'nother can of worms.

Laura Crum said...

Great points, Val. In this case the new owner WAS taking lessons from a trainer and it really did seem to be going well. Apparently it wasn't the riding that became the big problem, it was handling the horse on the ground. Coal was a very polite horse when I knew him, but not friendly--stand-offish in the way ranch raised horses often are. He would pin his ears when cinched (which is not a crime in my book--not at all), but apparently this intimated the new owner and the ear pinning escalated to nipping.

Gayle Carline said...

I think in a lot of cases, it has less to do with the amount of experience and more with the mindset of the owner. When I started riding, I was a newbie to horses, but I had owned plenty of willful dogs that I had to teach manners. I had a basic understanding with my dogs that every interaction was a conversation about who was in charge, and I was determined to be the leader. I managed to transfer that over to the horses. I'm not saying I was good at it in the beginning - far from it! But it was easier for me, once I learned their body language, to step up and quash any ideas they might have about taking over.

P.S. I'm a generally agreeable gal who loves to cuddle her dogs and I often kiss my mare on the nose. They're just not allowed to be the boss of me.

Laura Crum said...

Gayle--That is such a good point. There are people I know that should never be horse owners--just based on the way they treat their dogs or kids. Horses really do need owners with a little "iron" in them--a willingness to do what it takes to be the leader, just as you say. And, also as you say, this doesn't mean that one doesn't love the horse or "cuddle"--it just means horse is never allowed to think he/she is boss. Well said--I completely agree with you.

Dom said...

This is the kind of thing I worry about with Dancer. He came with a bad rep when I got him. It turns out he's a mild-mannered horse who is eager to learn and willing to please. He has been a joy to train and ride. I worry that when I sell him, he'll end up with someone like the people you've described here... and that he'll end up in danger because of it!

Laura Crum said...

Dom--I hate to say it, but it's a legitimate worry, in my book. It's such a common problem. But you are good at reading people. I hope/believe you can find Dancer a great home.

1sthorse said...

Here are a few suggestions from a been there, done that "dude" who hopes she isn't as much a "dude" as when she first got her horse.

Required reading before purchasing a horse: Horses for Dummies, A Complete Idiot's Guide to Horses

Required riding: Take lessons for a least six months, riding as many different horses as possible. Make sure the instructor will push you outside your comfort zone especially if you are timid or have trouble being assertive. If you already own your own horse find a riding instructor who will travel to you barn and give you lessons on your own horse as well as their lesson horses.

horsesfortrail said...

We try to spend a lot of our time educating people who aren't familiar with horses. Even the best horse can be spoiled just like a child. It is unfortunate that our horse knowledge is fading away with the increase in technology. So much of the little people know about horses comes from movies, novels, and even cartoons.

jenj said...

Matching horses with people is super hard. Someone with a timid personality needs a horse that's well schooled and won't walk all over them - generally one that's low on the totem pole but not timid. A more dominant horse needs a more dominant owner, or else the owner is going to get walked all over. When we leased Reddums (who is very smart and very dominant), I made sure to ride him several times per week just to remind him he couldn't get away with the crap. It mostly worked.

The good owners try really hard to match horses and riders, but even then you can never be 100% sure. Sometimes they hit it off, but after a few months/years it's not going so well. Sadly it's always the horse that ends up being blamed. Short of keeping them for life, I don't have any solutions. :(

Laura Crum said...

Good suggestions 1sthorse, horsesfortrail and jenj. I don't think there is any real solution to this problem, but those are all really helpful thoughts.

RiderWriter said...

Once again I return to the story of my friend, who inherited an extremely pushy, dominant and intelligent horse from a friend. This behavior was compounded by the fact that he's nearly 18 hands of giant German WB with a particularly large head. Horse wants to walk over you? He's gonna do it.

My friend had absolutely no idea how to handle this beast and their relationship did NOT go well for a long time. They also managed to get kicked out of about four barns. Now, my friend is not a quitter, and she never gave up, but it took landing in the hospital a couple times before she finally realized that babying this guy was just not going to work and she'd better learn how to get firm. I bet 99% of other ammys would have thrown in the towel and unloaded this well-trained for riding (3rd level dressage) horse on someone else. His looks and manners would have been a difficult sell, though, and I imagine he would have come to a very bad end.

I'm happy to say that nowadays - and this has been the case for about four years - the horse is much better. He still needs frequent reminders that no, he is NOT the boss, but he's not nearly as life-threatening on the ground. I myself am his "auntie" and we get along just fine. But if it wasn't for my friend's love of the horse, willingness to learn/change and commitment to the memory of his former owner, this story would have had a much different ending.

Laura Crum said...

Wow, RiderWriter--That's quite the story. Good job on your friend's part. I do think that the basic answer is just that. Owner needs to realize how to be in charge. Coal's situation would no doubt have been just fine if his owner had been able to do this.

Sunny said...

This subject needs a book --and I'd be the first in line to buy it. As a new rider, even though I've had decades of experience with dogs and teenagers (high school teacher), I didn't know what the earliest signs of pushy/dominant behavior in a horse looked like until my horse displayed full-blown anyone-can-see it rotten behavior. Also, when I looked for help, most (all?) sources would tell me how to deal with balking, spinning, nipping, threatening to kick -- but not what a horse's way of "saying no" looks like in the beginning.

It wasn't until I read an article of Andrew McLean's that the light went on. He listed a spook progression: the quickly swiveled ear AWAY from the rider's preferred line of travel, followed by a slight head rotation, followed by the feet. I'm paraphrasing, but he put it in a list that I could recognize -- and he pointed out that "good" horses might just do the ear swivel, but hot, reactive horses would do the steps lightening fast. He said that to deal with it -- the rider/handler had to keep a very clear picture in their mind of what exactly the horse should be doing with its body --every second-- and not vary that picture to accommodate the horse.

I realized two things when I read this: I gave up my picture of good horse behavior ridiculously easily and way too fast (I have learned that keeping a picture in mind might mean constantly keeping the goal in mind while dealing with the current 'no' -- not letting the horse change the subject of the conversation) and that I had only "the big picture" in my mind, but I had left all the little details up to my horse, which left her with way too much leeway to say no. She went from a willing, highly trained arena horse to a spinning, rearing, "scared" dangerous horse.

It took two years for me to work through the mess I created. I prob. wouldn't have made it without the help of thoughtful, observant horse people, and I still am a WIP.-- Sunny

Laura Crum said...

Sunny--That is huge. I never heard it put exactly that way, but it makes perfect sense. It's what I mean when I say that you have to learn to "read" a horse before you can deal with the horse effectively, but this isn't very helpful to beginners who don't know how to read a horse at all. For instance, my Sunny horse is a "testing for dominance" type. When I am saddling him he will occasionally take his left front foot and put it down close to my foot. Because I can read him, I know this is not accidental. I tap his foot with my foot--gently--to let him know I won't tolerate the step-on-my-foot move. If he leaves his foot where it is, we are good. But if he picks it up again and moves it closer to my foot, I kick him in the ankle hard. This is all it takes--for that day. The thing is, this wouldn't be the right thing to do with a nervous horse who stepped towards me because something had startled him. To react correctly to a horse you have to understand what the horse is thinking, and this is why beginners get in so much trouble. Your approach sounds like one of the most practical ones I've heard.

Alison said...

I love this post and the comments, and Gayle, you hit the nail on the head when you related it to dogs. Ziggy weighs 14 pounds but every day he slips in a disrespectful moment when he is testing me. I have to be alert to what he is doing (like Sunny and moving his hoof closer to your foot, Laura! Loved the image.)and firmly but patiently make myself 'de boss' again. I am so glad that huge old Relish my horse doesn't have to continually test! I hope Coal can really find a forever home next time he is sold.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

An owner has just been kicked out of our barn. She was ground driving her dominant and rather aggressive horse when he took charge and made to attack another horse. Some people don't listen, don't look and don't learn.

Back when I ran a riding holiday business it was necessary to match horses and riders every week. For a week away riding the relationships had to work. I learned to see the exercise as matching people to horses, and not the other way around. Of course I knew the horses better than the people, but so would a dealer.

I'm also reflecting on Brena. She was the beginner's horse at a riding centre. The owner did ride her from time to time. She was also one of the slower horses and tended to be focused on keeping up. Now, as an individual riding horse, she is a pusher of boundaries. Freed from the discipline of regular work her personality has emerged, and it requires management to keep her behaviour in line. I do wonder just how much wilful behaviour would be overcome through more work and no more food than necessary. As with dogs and children, a tired horse tends to be a good horse.

Laura Crum said...

WHP--In the training barns I worked in, difficult horses were often dealt with, just as you say, mainly through diet and exercise. They were ridden every day until they were tired and not allowed to be fat. It does work (I know you know). The downside is that these same horses often became untrained as soon as they went home to a life of less exercise and plenty of high energy feed.