Our level of patience with horses is often times far less than it should be. We expect the immediacy of results or we assume that said results are unattainable. That our horse is unfixable or untalented or simply incapable of whatever our initial visions were in our partnership. While sometimes this may be true, we often write off a lot of things as being the impossible without giving them enough of a chance. We are quick to take shortcuts and whatever we believe will produce the fastest result, not the best one. As a result, horses who simply cannot keep up with the pace of what they’re being asked end up falling through the cracks. They become the fried horses, the crazy ones, the lame ones or horses that are deemed unfit for whatever their initial discipline goals are. Maybe, if they’re lucky, they’ll be picked up by someone willing to give them a fair chance, to roll back the speed and move at their pace. Who knows. Regardless, the horse world is often so fast paced with such ambitious goals that we refuse to acknowledge the limits of patience and perseverance.
I am guilty of this. 5 years ago, I adopted a skinny, ill mannered and stubborn 2 year old gelding from the BCSPCA. When I was initially horse shopping, I was looking for an older project who I could get going to prep as a jumper pretty much immediately, but something about this horse called to me and the rest is history. Initially when adopting Milo, I had no idea what I was in for, what to expect. What the challenges of taking on a “damaged horse” who had experienced some level of trauma could be. This caused me a lot of despair over the last 5 years, however, less recently nowadays. I was constantly hitting training hurdles, hurdles in his muscle development and overall looks. I would look at him as a 2 and 3 year old and tell myself that he would always have a pencil neck. That he would never fill out or grow tall enough for me to look “normal” on him or to fit in with other show horses who I deemed to be fancier. I thought he would “never” get over certain behavioural issues or problems in training.
As a green broke 3 year old, the common issue was his reactivity. The wind would blow once, the temperature would drop cooler, the weather would change and he would act like someone had lit a firecracker under him. Trotting normally one second, airborne the next. As a 4 year old, the next problems to arise were his explosiveness at shows. Our warm ups would consist of levade, capriole and various other moves that can only be described as a mixture of airs above the ground and the moves the broncs put on at the Calgary Stampede. No, lunging didn’t seem to help. It just got him warmed up. Primed and flexible to give Spirit: The Stallion of the Cimarron a run for his money. I don’t think he every actually wanted to throw me… Most of the time. If I’d turned him loose, he would’ve done the very same things. He continues to do the very same things today, though, predominately on his own time while out in the field. The fact of the matter is that Milo was overstimulated at shows and needed to sort out his brain moving a mile a minute by utilizing various athletic maneuvers. Many suggested getting after him for his “misbehaviour” as though hitting him and disciplining him would make him relax. I took the route of moving him forward, doing lots of circles, transitions and other things that I thought would distract him and working him through it.
The next issue, also taking place in the 4 year old year but extending far beyond that was his nervousness off property over fences. Milo once stopped at every single cross rail in a course at a show. Despite jumping a great deal of cross rails at home with the utmost enthusiasm. Next, when he DID start jumping the cross rails at shows, he would pull off his entire dictionary’s worth of athletic maneuvers between said jumps. The refusals and bronc fits after the jumps made me have to be a very defensive but adaptable rider to get him schooling off property quietly and less reactive to fences. In his 5 year old year, Milo broke my hand from broncing so hard that he jammed my knuckles into his neck after he got excited during warm up at a show. It started raining. In the temperate rainforest he’s lived in his whole life. It was riveting and deserved celebration, obviously. At 5, we still struggled to get around courses without stopping out. Any new coloured jump, with any new design (if the stripes moved even 6 inches to the left, we had a problem), any jump that “looked” at him the wrong way, he had to stop to inspect it. Sometimes, the scarier fences were A-okay and the plain white or grey ones were a massive issue. Who knew, it’s like he pulled a random card out of a deck to choose what jump to have an issue with that day.
At home, we also had struggles maintaining a consistent contact because Milo had to turn his whole head to look at every little movement and sound. Oh, the horse next door took a bite of a single blade of grass? Better look at it. Oh, wow, look at that rock on the ground, how neat. Oh, hey, a bird! No, he wasn’t what I would call spooky or nervous, he just seemed to be utterly incapable of focusing, like a kid on a sugar high. I kept comparing him to other people’s horses and despairing. I wanted him to have a better top line, a thicker neck, a more consistent contact. Better transitions. A less flailing head. I told myself that it seemed like this would NEVER happen.
Flash forward a few years, including about 8 months of healing and slowly rehabbing a minor injury at the end of his 5 year old year, and we are finally beginning to get over much of these issues that I experienced over the years. There were more issues than I could possibly describe in a singular article and issues we still do experience today, but this piece serves the purpose of reflecting on the problems that immediately come to mind as things that wore on me for a lengthy period of time. Things I felt wouldn’t get better fast enough. That we would always struggle with. Things that made me embarrassed of the horse I loved or made me feel inadequate when I shared our progress.
At 7 years old, Milo finally seems to be maturing. He’s most of the way through a show season with a record low of bucks and bronc fits during warm up. He warms up in some of the most stressful, high energy show situations without spooking at the various loud and distracting things he is exposed to. He can be stabled at shows without screaming and trying to climb over the walls of his stall to see his neighbours. He no longer gallops in and out of his stall doors, in fear of catching a hip (because running through recklessly to risk demolishing a hip is the only correct solution aside from planting one’s feet and refusing to enter or leave the stall). Most shockingly, he is refusing less. For his 5 and 6 year old years, we were mostly stuck in the 2’6” ring. I attempted to take him into 2’9” a few times as a 6 year old and it didn’t really go well at all. At the time, I compared him to other horses, many of which can easily make that move up or more in a single season. But, he wasn’t ready. Looking back, if I’d been more patient and less focused on moving on a schedule like “the other horses” were, we probably would’ve actually progressed quicker because I would’ve been going on HIS schedule, not other horses’. We recently started competing in the 3’ or .90m jumpers. Milo won and placed top 3 at his first Gold shows at this height this summer, second Gold (or A rated) show ever. His first one, we only got through 2 classes before stopping out in the rest of them (this was in the 2’6” ring). He also went to his first show at a fair this summer, being exposed to cows, llamas, pigs as well as various loud rides, concerts and large crowds of people. He won 5 out of 6 classes, competing at the 3’ height and paid for the entire show and more with his winnings. Most recently, Milo attended the PNE fair, show in the 1m jumpers, and while this didn’t go quite as well because we did have some refusals, one of which resulted in us being buzzed out of the class, he was still far removed from the horse he used to be. Milo had an excellent warm up in the meters, 5th in his first class with 1 refusal (he refuses to poop on the go… still.. one thing we haven’t fixed. Maybe 10 years from now when I write a blog post from my spaceship we will have overcome this hurdle). Now, for many, a refusal in a class would be a letdown. But, for Milo, it is growth. All of our shows in previous years that had refusals would result in us being excused from the class because he would not just stop once, he would continue to stop at the same fence or the one after. Now, he will stop and will go the second time without issue when I ask him, which is a major change in his trust in me. Anyways, the rest of the show went on with the occasional refusal or poop induced refusal, but always the offer to jump again without question if I asked. His final class was phenomenal, for him, considering how tired he was and some of the challenges earlier in the show, but alas, I went off course and robbed him of his speedy round and likely decent placing. BUT- he didn’t let me down. He gave me his all and while some moments of this show were frustrating, I’m amazed by how much he has grown up and how much he tries for me.
While we still struggle with consistent lead changes on course, Milo now offers me semi contained changes at home. While we may have the occasional refusal for me now, Milo is willing to try for me even if he is scared or thrown off his game for whatever reason. While he still may have some exuberance that people may view as undesirable, Milo can be ridden bridleless virtually anywhere, trail ride alone and cope with many spooky events with sanity that lots of other horses couldn’t handle. While we still may lose marks for nervous tension at dressage shows, Milo is consistent and supple in contact, especially at home, and is starting to look like the well broke horse that I always wished that he was years ago.
I still have frustrations, I still have doubts sometimes but at the end of the day, I have hope and the desire to keep trying to make the best horse I can out of a horse who has taught me more than I could possibly imagine. I am so incredibly glad that he trained me and forced me how to figure out his sensitive nature and work with it instead of trying to break it and force it to fit my mold. It has made me a better trainer and a more empathetic rider. Most of all, it has given me hope when working with horses viewed as difficult or as the underdog. It has made me realize that even if a horse isn’t initially visually appealing or pleasant to ride, there are often positive things that you can see through the cracks and if you really work hard to make the best of the horse, more and more light will start to shine through the cracks and maybe, just maybe, you’ll realize that the horse you thought was a mediocre find is really a diamond in the rough.