Confessions of a Horse Trainer- Our own horses get the least of our attention…
About a month ago, before I left my summer facility in the northwestern US, I had my vet come out to do my horses' annual dentistry. As we were looking at the previous year’s exam records, I noticed the date on my colt, “Pico”, said that he was born in 2004. Wait a minute. How was my “colt” seven years old??? That couldn’t be right. But with a little further investigation, it turned out that it was.
I think the old saying was, “The cobbler’s children had no shoes.” Well the horse professional’s saying should be, “The trainer’s horses are the least trained!” Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of trainers who have what I call “blue sky potential” horses that they put many hours into with hopes of selling or promoting, but in most barns or facilities, there always seem to be a few “project” horses that were usually acquired accidentally and somehow time had quickly passed leaving those equines pretty much as they were when they first arrived.
Now granted, in my own case, Pico finally had his “fair share” of attention this summer. I had a working student whose personality seemed to mirror Pico’s and they just clicked. It was great that the student had the opportunity to work with an “unfinished” horse. Poor Pico on the other hand was a little shocked at being “harassed” more than once every few weeks; but as he started to believe that his new “partner in crime” was relentless and NOT going to leave him alone after five minutes Pico changed his tune and soon enough the two of them were sneaking off into the woods like a pair of youngsters whose imaginations were running wild (I think “cowboys and Indians” might have been their theme.) I have a “loop” through the woods that usually takes riders about 15-20 minutes if they are really taking their time. Pico and his new partner would slink off and disappear for 45 minutes- by the time they showed up, I didn’t even ask…
Now for a moment, bear with me as I go back to the beginning when I “accidentally” wound up with Pico at three months of age. He’d been orphaned at birth and a gal had rescued him from his “get rich quick with horses owner whose stallion had gotten out of pasture and visited all the mares who were now having babies that the owner can no longer afford”. My vet had heard that I might, I said, might want a baby… So I showed up to meet the little red dun colt and of course, he came home with me. Even then, as much as babies are cute, Pico was quite plain. No real flash, no real movement, oh yeah, and that slightly clubbed foot. But as with everything, once you take them in, they’re part of the “gang” and Pico quickly fit in with my motley crew of misfits.
I think Pico was about nine months old when he made his first trip south to the warm winters of Arizona. At that time I was on a “ horse collecting” streak, and that winter I picked up a 17.2H bay thoroughbred from New Mexico that had been saved from the slaughter truck. It was so cold, icy, windy and frozen when I looked at the horse, we took him out of the stall, when I had him trot down the outdoor barn alley as chickens were flapping around and a tractor was zooming by. I asked, “Does he load?” and that is how he made his way into my life- unexpected and unintentionally of course.
He was the third horse bought from a person with the same name, so I started naming these newbies after their previous owner’s last name, and this horse, Houston, fit perfect. Now Houston had run and won over $70K at the track, and was somehow still sound and semi sane. He was just one of those “good guy” horses, but he was also very inexperienced in “the real world.”
From the moment I unloaded Houston, he and Pico fell in love. Now you have to remember Pico was nine months and very small for his age, and here was this very large, lanky thoroughbred. The two of them would pal around the pastures like they were soul mates. Talk about the odd couple. But the funniest part of it all was that Houston would follow Pico. So here was this rambunctious little colt storming about the pasture, splashing through our flood irrigation and for every short sprint or gallop where Pico gave his all, Houston would effortlessly offer a slow, long trot and easily keep up. All day long, round and round they’d go, with breaks in between to mouth, chew, rear, and climb on each other…
Anyways as time passed I dinked around with Pico, for fun. For the most part I never really felt compelled to do much as Pico’s mental, physical and emotional maturity seemed to take the “slow route.” So if I had a moment here or there we’d work ten or fifteen minutes… The day I first got on him I hadn’t even meant to. I had taught him to line up to the mounting block, as I do with all horses and was “desensitizing” him. Leaning on him, banging on him, banging on the saddle, clunking the stirrups, fussing with different “stuff.” He finally turned his head around to look at me, took this huge sigh, and I swear he said, “Just get on ALREADY.” So I did. Our first boring and slow ride (for those who have worked with me my GOAL for my students, the horses and myself when working with them is for the experience to be boring and uneventful) turned into another, and then another… and so on.
He started to be the “go to” horse I rode for “fun” once in a while because it was easy. He was light. He was a quick learner. Hey, he was actually fun. BUT his attention span was about 20 minutes or less. And honestly, in my life of training, teaching, office work, property maintenance, etc. that was all I needed for a fun ride.
Now don’t get me wrong. I knew he had some major “holes” in his education… But kind of like that diet we all talk about going on “someday,” I had the same perspective with addressing Pico’s missing links in his training. Yeah the “horse trainer” has a horse scared of plastic bags. (Pico’s enthusiasm and curiosity got the best of him as a two year old and he picked up a plastic grocery bag in his mouth. He took it to share with the other horses in the pasture, from which they all fled. He started freaking out because they kept running away from him. Then he couldn’t figure out how to “let go” of the bag.) Or the famous, “I clipped him a few years back, but now he won’t let me near him.” Or things like the water hose. WHAT??? Not my horse.
I have clients who on a daily basis bring me horses with serious behavioral “issues” and I spend hours helping them get long term changes through revisiting the basics and using clear communication in order to build their horse’s confidence so that the horse learns how to be “reasonable” in how they address life’s scenarios. Why didn’t one of my own horses have that same time put into him?
I made that diet reference earlier. How many of you have ever committed to going on a diet? Okay, now how long did it take you to FIRST mentally convince yourself that a.) you need to go on a diet, and b.) that you actually will commit to one? The same thought process went for my attitude with Pico. That little voice in my head had a million reasons (all the explanations my clients get on a daily basis) about WHY it is so important to create the quality foundation, and that time was ticking… But somehow, it just kept ticking.
Eventually as I decreased the size of my herd and I could feel Pico at first staring at me longingly then after enough of my ignoring him, he started to act like the unaddressed teenager being dramatic in his small annoying behaviors. (Example: All the horses know how to “put themselves away” and he would insist on taking an extra lap, exploring, and then, sigh, eventually heading over to an empty stall for the night.) Just little stuff. But his attitude was clear.
So fast forward to this summer and the new student who “took on” Pico. I realized after the first month that the student had ridden my horse more than I had in all the time that I had owned him. We’d do sessions together each day, and then they would head out on their own to do who knows what… But in that time, Pico’s brain, enthusiasm, and experience expanded. He started greeting us at the pastures again; he started offering a “try” without being asked. His mental endurance slowly started to increase from his “usual” 20 minutes… And yes these days, rubbing bags all over doesn't faze him...
Needless to say, I’d taught Pico to bow a few years back. Again, for those who do or don’t know, I’m NOT into teaching “tricks” but rather my goal is that I can ask anything of my horse and he can offer a try. In the case of bowing, it was asking a balance of mental relaxation and trust along with a physical yielding of his front end lowering it to the ground; to the rest of the world it looks like a bow.
Two days ago was the first time I “played” with Pico in probably two months… I hopped on and we had a great ride. The next day I worked with him from the ground on suppling exercises (even though he is petite, he is the most stiff-as-a-board Quarter Horse I’ve ever encountered.) At the end of our session I asked him to bow. He did so easily even though we hadn’t done if for a good six months or so. It was so easy in fact, that I then continued using a light “yielding to pressure” that he was familiar with, asking him to bow lower and lower until the moment I saw him switch his thought from bowing, to, saying “More?” I released and asked him to stand and we dinked around for a minute scratching his “itchy” spots. Then I asked for the bow again, and then a little more, a little more, and then he gently sighed, and laid himself down for me. He lay flat out, with the side of his head on the ground, and as I rubbed and sat on him, he started nibbling grass as if that were the most natural thing to do while having been asked to unnaturally and unnecessarily lie down. That is SO Pico. After a few minutes I asked him to get up which he quietly did, and then looked at me, and like his partner in crime from the past summer, it was as if he asked, “What next boss?” I turned him out to graze with an ear to ear smile on my face.
So the point of this blog, whether you have a “regular” job, family, life, or yes, even if you are a “horse trainer” – don’t feel bad if your training goals/accomplishment or “schedule” hasn’t gone “according to plan.” You have time, your horse has time. As long as in the meantime he gets to “act” like a horse living a balanced social life with room for natural movement, don’t beat yourself up for not accomplishing “what you thought you would have” by now. Instead enjoy the time you do spend with your equine partner and appreciate what you have accomplished. It will make each experience more positive for the both of you.