The "Foreign" Horse

Several times now in the past few weeks a topic has come up in regards to the misconception people have about horses and their expectations and disappointments due to their totally unfounded preconceived notions.
I was having a conversation with one of the country’s top ropers the other day, and as I was giving my quick "run down" and assessments of a few horses we were sending with him to promote in the competition arena, I casually commented as to my disbelief of how many Texas horses were "missing" major portions of what I’d consider a basic education.

He laughed and quickly listed off the same major gray areas that I’d noticed as I was assessing the ranch’s "proven" show horses. And that was the spark of inspiration for this blog.
As I began to think back over the years I’ve spent involved in all aspects of the horse industry, I started realizing how many people I’d encountered that had "gotten into trouble" because of their belief that "foreign is better."

It does not seem to matter what equine discipline you are involved with, each one over time has acquired certain "assumptions" or "idealisms" in regards to stereotyping horses from certain places on the planet! Not to be cliché but, the grass does seem greener for a majority of equine enthusiasts as for the opportunity to pick that "perfect" horse for their sport from some far off land.

For show jumping, South America has been a huge hotspot; for Dressage, Germany still holds the "golden ticket" horse that will offer the perfect passage riders are striving for. In Three Day Eventing New Zealand long ago was put on a pedestal for producing bold, safe, sane and sound horses that would carry their riders to the top of the sport. Those in the south or southwest USA have long let their imaginations carry them away with romantic images flashing through their mind when imagining that perfect "ranch horse" that was smart enough to carry their rider safely, sturdy enough to navigate the most treacherous terrain and had the old time "authentic" working horse look; if you were anywhere else in the USA, Montana hands down carried that "romantic concept" of a person working cattle, covering vast amounts of land, and camping out under the stars with their trusty steed.

But then there is reality… And the reality in my opinion is there are multiple factors that are proving "wrong" the preconceived notions.

NOTE: My opinions are based on my experiences and although I will use generalizations, I know there are always exceptions to every "general" statement I may make.

First let’s just look at the quality of horses these days. I believe there are really only a handful of places nowadays producing mentally, physically and emotionally durable horses; most of these have "let nature take its course" and allow their broodmare bands and babies to be raised in "real" country, realizing that keeping the horse’s natural instincts intact will only help produce a better riding partner in the future.

But just as with most other things man has attempted to "improve" (i.e. look at the dog breeding situation) horses nowadays don’t even resemble what they once looked like. If you ever have the opportunity, try and find some pictures of breeds such as Morgans, Walkers, Thoroughbreds, and Quarter Horses, from the 1950s, then the 1970s, the 1990s and then present day to compare the general physical features.

In most cases, I don’t think that we have improved the breeds, and just as we have diminished bone quality and hoof size, I believe too we have decreased the production of "thinking" horses, by ignoring mental genetics and prioritizing breeding genetically for whatever the popular "look of the moment" may be without considering what sort of "brain" our horses were passing on to their babies.

Next, lifestyle has obviously changed from WWII on to diminish the percentage of our demand for working horses and replaced a majority of those with "pleasure" horses. As our lifestyles changed and agriculture became increasingly reliant on mechanized equipment, horses had less and less time spent with them.

Nowadays, a majority of horse owners in the US have their horse as a "hobby", which sadly and all too often causes the horse to be low on the list of priorities for the time spent with it. This also means that with less time with the human, there is less exposure to "the real world."

So in the past the plough horse was also commonly a family’s only mode of transportation whether it be hitched to a wagon or ridden by all family members. Irrelevant of the quality of what it’s owners taught it, the horse had miles and miles of exposure and therefor had better chances of becoming that "take anywhere, do anything with" kind of equine.

Fast forward even to just twenty or thirty years ago, folks who were die hard equine enthusiasts but without supportive parents, had to figure out "how to make it work." By the time they finally found someone’s leftover, half broke, goofy looking equine, they were so obsessed and committed, it didn’t matter how many times the "crazy" animal unseated them, mashed them against the trees, bit, kick or stomped on them… Eventually they and that same mount were the ones who would ride three miles to the local horse show, compete in every single class irrelevant of their knowledge, lack of proper equipment or training, and then ride home at the end of the day.

Society today has for one become so built up, that it is almost impossible to ride from point A to point B without serious planning and permission from private property owners, and second, people these days just don’t have the same level of "die hard commitment" in their horse endeavors. I believe a lot of the "instant gratification" our westernized society promotes is a huge problem in how we approach our horsemanship and riding.

When I lived in Europe 16 years ago, riding under two Gold Medal Olympians, their early successes (one was from the land down under) was mostly due to their perseverance, the fact that he rode a Kiwi horse had nothing to do with winning the Olympics, rather back then, Eventers were certifiable insane (click the Bromont Three Day Event from 1970s on YouTube and your heart will be in your mouth every moment watching the cross country rides). They crashed, they got beat up, they had many, many mishaps, but through sheer perseverance and the horse managing to stay sound, 10 years later, he was an Olympic champion.

In the Dressage world too, for decades it was a "known fact" that if you were real about following your Olympic dream, you had to go and be "slave labor" in Germany where for the first six months you would ride on a lunge line after a long day of grueling labor and "abuse". It was sort of like a "survival" challenge and if you made it through the first six months, then maybe, just maybe you’d get some real instruction.

Obviously Europe due to historical reasons will have a lot more variation and longer lineage of horses they produce, but I truly believe it is not the horse that "makes" the rider, but rather the rider that "makes the horse."

What I mean is that in the example above, part of where the Germans excel in "self-discipline" will obviously affect their level of commitment to their horses, and although it may seem like a far reach in comparison, that die hard kid with the backyard pony who rides every moment of every day, has to some degree the same perseverance as the classically trained rider from Europe.

Let’s also look at the Texas or Montana romanticized ranch horse. Obviously stories, legends and folk lore over the years associated with certain "looks" or dress codes, mannerism and adventures of the "Wild, Wild West," have caught the imagination of even the most deeply rooted city folk.
Hollywood has attempted to offer its version, though often I find they are totally missing the most basic foundation for their characters. Through the various folks I’ve met, worked with and had the opportunity to just "sit on the fence and watch", it is not about the location or "unspoken codes" or traditions of the Wild West. It is more about the simple truth that if a person is relying on a horse for their survival and livelihood, if they do not take the time to thoroughly offer a quality education to their horse, they are greatly decreasing the chances of their success and well-being. It is as simple as that.

Those true horsemen and horsewomen have nothing to prove, no one watching them, no statements about making statements whether it be through fancy gear or attire, but who do it because they know it is the "right" way to create a lasting and rewarding partnership with their horses.

Somehow once in a while an "outsider" may see one of these folks riding one of their finished horses, and it makes the outsider almost salivate! The horseman and their horse work as one, the communication is subtle, their work with livestock is efficient and effective. And thus, the legend of the "ranch horse" is born, and spreads like wild fire.

So just as I myself have "suffered" from believing the clichés different sports carry, I have realized over the years that although you can obviously find a more quality horse mentally, physically and emotionally over another, what it really all comes down to is YOU!

What do you offer the horse? How available are you to "growing" with your horse? How committed are you to your horsemanship and riding? Every answer will be reflected in your horse’s performance and learning.

Good Luck,

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