All I Want for Christmas

I was talking with my friend recently about what horse she might like to buy. I am always having conversations like this, but it is usually me that ends up buying another horse…However, on this occasion we stuck to topic and I asked her what she really wanted to do with her next horse. I meant – do you want a horse to hack out, one to tart up to go to shows, one to jump jumps with, one who you might really enjoy schooling?  It’s important to consider this stuff when planning what horse to buy next. This is what I try to do before buying yet another horse with a nice mane.
Anyway, what she said was, ‘Oh  I don’t want to do anything fancy really or win any competitions, I just want a really nice, soft, willing horse,  one that’s easy to handle and ride’. Hmm, unlucky.  What you want is about YOU,  and you can’t get that on HorseDeals.

 I know you can start with a horse that stacks the odds in your favour. Some breeds and some individuals are more predisposed to being cool about life and that does help with developing some nice stuff.   Some horses are naturally more mellow and inclined to want to work with a person.   Horses that are very spooky and anxious can make things tougher, but equally, if you get things right and can tap into this sensitivity that can be a real joy. Horses that are too laid back and don’t enjoy  putting out any energy can be as big a challenge.

It is relatively easy to do ‘fancy’ stuff on a horse that is  talented, or through the use of intense pressure and gadgets. It is very hard to do that stuff with a horse without force, whilst keeping him  turned loose mentally and physically. That requires a lot of VERY hard work on the part of the person.   And a lot of that hard work probably wasn’t much fun. I bet that person spent many an evening with their head in their hands wondering what on earth to do to help this horse stay cool while continuing their training.

It is actually very hard to have a horse that you can hack out, by himself, who is totally responsive to your aids, and  cool and content about being out in the world with you (without the need for draw reins, martingales,  strong bits or kicking and pulling). In my entire horse career  I have had 2 horses that I would say were truly confident about being out in the open countryside just with me, and who were just as responsive and easy to ride as they are in the school or in equine company. I haven’t logged the hours I took to get to this point with them, as life is short and all that.

I currently am lucky enough to have two young Iberians to work with. They are not related as far as I know, but they are very similar. They are both naturally brave and curious, they think humans are pretty cool, are highly responsive and ‘care’ about what is going on between them and a person. They are both a delight. However, I am very aware of what a responsibility this is and how easily I could make some big mistakes that could take this stuff out of these horses.  With horses who care this much, you had better care too. About all the small stuff – you know, how your hand feels on their side, what is going on with their feet when you’re moving around them, how they are responding when you place the feedbucket in their stable. It all matters.

With both these youngsters  (and young horses everywhere)  an array of possible paths lie in front of them which will be shaped by the humans they come into contact with. In future years the horse that others will see will only be described as ‘soft and willing’ if certain humans worked  hard to develop and maintain this.

I recently came across a great blog by Mark Manson entitled,  ‘ The Most Important Question of Your Life’  What he says is that it’s all very well dreaming about where you finally want to get to, but you really need to consider whether you can take all the blood, sweat and tears that you will need to put  in along the way.  

Let me tell you about my fantasy (no not that one…) I want to train and ride my horses to high school and keep all that softness and willingness in there.  I want to prance and dance and have my horses flip their manes while they passage around with my friends on their equally highly trained horses.  I also want to hack out across Dartmoor, have summer evening rides to the pub and hang out with my relaxed horses while we sip a pint (my horses like booze too). What Mark Manson recommends   is that we need to stop spending hours dreaming about those bits and start really considering what it is going to take to make that happen. The end result is easy to picture, but do you really, really, REALLY want to take the steps along the path to get there?

Let’s take my friends dream of a soft willing horse. She doesn’t care so much about the passaging or sideways stuff, but she probably would like to hack to the pub on her horse and have that be a pleasure. To get to that point there is a huge amount of work that she is going to have to do which may not always be ‘fun’. Aside from the day to day slog of heaving vast amounts of manure around in the rain and mud, there are going to be a long line of challenges which she is going to have to meet and respond to.  Some days she is likely to wish that she didn’t know there was such a thing as a soft and willing horse and could just be happy with a shut down obedient one.

She could probably buy a horse who would transport her to the pub, but in my experience it is  rare to get a horse who will act as a taxi that  is also very tuned in to the person, responsive to light aids and a ‘joy’ to ride. She could buy a horse who is very responsive naturally, but these horses usually need quite a lot of direction and support from their rider. Either way, she is probably going to have some work to do.   If she really wants a horse who is going to be all those things she has outlined then that means that every interaction she has with that horse has to matter. Leading him needs to count; picking up his feet needs to be important;  putting on the bridle or headcollar needs to feel good to you both. And you haven’t even put your foot in the stirrup yet. Let’s just say, this way can sometimes feel like a pain in the proverbial.

In addition, you need to care about his feet, his body, his diet and his saddle. These things are all likely to bring you to tears on more than one occasion (per day).  Then, before you even slap a saddle on his back you had better assess whether he is strong and flexible enough to at least carry you at a basic level. I would want to be pretty sure that my horse understood what the bit means and feels ok about it before I head off down the road.  Oh, and we haven’t even started to consider whether your own body is in a fit state to be on a horse.  How tight are you? How is your balance? How easy do you find it to do one thing with your hands (independently of each other) while you manage your seat and legs?  And,  probably the biggest challenge – what is going on in your own crazy bonce? Do you need to crack some of your own demons before you start beating your horse over the head with them?

All of this could stop you in your tracks and prevent you from  riding or working with horses ever again. That’s not what I am suggesting.  I want to spend as much time in the saddle as I can before I drop off this mortal coil. What I am saying is that you can’t start at the end. And all those billions of tiny steps which you will need to take to get you to that final fantasy may sometimes test you more than you think you can bear (which is why you need to keep the dream in mind too). So I am with Mark Manson on this one – if ‘all’ you want is a soft, willing horse, stop pouring over HorseQuest and have a big long think about whether you really want that enough to go through what lies ahead of you.  For some of us, this has stopped being an option as I think it has become what is known as an addiction. Could be worse I guess ??????