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A Horse to Show and No Place To Go!

The woes of Covid competition cancellations have many trainers scratching their heads and pondering their next move. A carefully mapped out strategy for peak performance of horse and rider compassed by the calendar into years ahead by advanced level riders, is in disarray as event organizers scratch their plans to host shows at the last minute.

There isn't much to be done about having a horse to show and no place to go. Unrecognized competitions may be useful for introductions to the show scene for young horses or neophyte riding students and with the limits in place governed by the CDC guidelines the in/out routine can be a boon ( less stress as less horses and riders on the grounds), but this truck in routine and lack of spectators can also be a hindrance to engaging a horse and rider in the real fun and tension of a regular event.

For the professional riders, a show without points is a show with no point at all. 

As a dressage clinician/competitor/trainer and international traveler doing all three, 2020 is a complete blowout financially. 

We've accepted no horses in training due to the crisis, there are limited shows to book that provide a benchmark of progress for our students that would like to show, and we have had to postpone all clinics for 2020, in our effort to take the precautions suggested by the CDC seriously. Not that there is much option for heading to Europe or Canada with 14 day quarantines the other end. 

So. What is a riding instructor to do? Creative folks have set up visual teaching for the students, offered critiques of videos and begun podcasts and cinematographic endeavors to engage their audience. We are offering video consults and donating all fees to charity, in an effort to help out those in sincere need.

For the horse trainer the extra time can be a great boon for bringing on their horses and stepping up to the next level. I'd like to think this 'less pressure' timeline will allow the equines to be brought along a little slower and more deliberately and rushed training will be mitigated to the horses' benefit. 

Horse training is an art and a science. The vision of taking the individual horse to the next level on track with the changing seasons in some rote manner, treating each horse the same and expecting the same result for each is something best left to the beginner trainer. There truly is no cookie cutter approach when it comes to training horses and there is always much more to learn, whatever level your experience.

Horses are not trained or re-trained and fixed in a matter of months. It takes years and years to develop a horse. And most of the time we need to not think we are the 'horse whisperer', but rather listen more to what our horses are trying to tell us.

As Isabell Werth clearly explains in her wonderful book, Four Legs Move Me, all horses are very different when it comes to how they learn. You can truly never predict which horse will be straighforward and which horse will challenge you until you just want to give up.

A great example of how difficult it is to predict the trainability of any particular horse, however well you may know it and even if you home-produced it and knew its sire and dam well, is three mares we bred from the same stallion, GOV Gambol, that we sold from our breeding program due to our decision to retire to focus on our clinic giving ( and look how well that went! Thanks Covid!). 

All three mares were bred specifically for our breeding program and two of the three were bred in our program to produce more progeny, despite the soft market at the time they came of age for the breeding shed. Handled daily, all three mares are sweet natured, kind horses with no vices. However, none of them had received training under saddle, though two of the three had been trained to longe with a surcingle and boots and bridle before we sold them.

The oldest one of the three is a chestnut mare and with a 'hot potato' stallion on her topline, her attitude to sudden work under saddle after 8 years without proved a much greater challenge for her new owner than we saw coming. 

She had been well-handled, learned to longe easily and had a good work ethic. A perfect lady to have her nails done on the stand, and good to blanket, bath etc. 

When sat on here at home just bareback and led around at both walk and trot both times, she was quiet and happy. We posted all the videos of her work on our You Tube site when we marketed her and showed her first two rides plus all her longe sessions. She was working walk, trot and canter on the longe with side reins. 

Sadly, when she got to her new home she was not the 'walk in the park' horse to start under saddle we had anticipated she would be, based on her previous attitude to training.

This mare took happily to training - and displayed a good work ethic

Everyone Loves a Hug!

To this day we are not sure what went wrong. We did our best to advise the new owners on good practices for moving her to the new home, especially as she had only known our quiet, peaceful environment. She was used to being turned out in a herd, with just mares and was also quite happy turned out alone. Of course mares do require more finesse when it comes to training and will almost definitely require a different approach to a gelding. As horse breeders for over 30 years, perhaps we take this for granted. We love working with mares and stallions.

We offered our advice to the new owners as to how to proceed with their new horse that had never before been off the property. When you sell a horses as a professional, you give the advice and hope the new owners take it, but of course, each person has their own ideas. 

The first surprise came when the new owners arrived with their small two horse trailer. Loading was a challenge - our fault as we hadn't taught her. Though as her full sister had sold the year before and marched right on, as had many other of our home produced horses without trailer training, we did not expect any issue. Eventually with some patience and serious cajoling she went on. It took 3 hours and a small dose of tranquilizer (which didn't do much to help as she was already upset).

In fairness this mare did initially step right up to the trailer floor and walked all the way on except for one hind foot. But the small trailer was confining and we didn't realize until much too late that her nervousness probably stemmed from her feeling there was not room in the trailer for both us and her as we had not removed the front exit bar so we could move out of the travel space when she was on board. She backed off quickly and from there took a lot of convincing to load up. She is a smart horse and had already worked out that this trailer business was one she'd rather not engage and try.

As with any new horse in a new environment, we suggested to the new owners, as we always do that the horse be stabled for the 1st night, so she could explore her new surroundings after a good night's sleep safely ensconced in a sturdy stall. We also suggested first turnout should be on her own, then a meeting with a suitable equine companion should be introduced and turnout begun with just one other horse before adding her to a herd of horses she didn't know. 

Well that didn't quite go to plan. The new owners turned her out the very first night with 3 geldings at dusk in a large field and needless to say, it didn't go well. One TB gelding took a fancy to her and probably didn't leave her alone. Intimidated by all the activity she took down the gate of the field in an attempt to escape. 

The new owners made a valiant effort to start the horse under saddle but her new environment was evidently too challenging and she began to act up. Off she went to a professional dressage trainer. This unfortunately did not go well and it ended poorly also, with the trainer telling the new owners she suspected there was something physically wrong with the horse. 

So the new owners then spent money on vet evaluations, which concluded as we knew they would, that the mare was perfectly sound. We suggested they send her to a professional Western trainer, as the methods they use, even at times including hobbling the horse, might be necessary. While we have never sent any of our horses out to be started bar one back in 1991, we had heard good things about the other methods out there from Western riders that attended our clinics. So off she went and thankfully the guy the new owners found apparently did an awesome job and according to the new owner is now a well broke horse that she enjoys trail-riding.

Neither my husband or myself envisioned that this mare would transpire to be so difficult at the outset. I'm glad that the new owners stuck with it and found the right trainer to work with her that could figure out what was needed to address the difficulties the mare presented. Not every person works well with mares and certainly the horse had experienced plenty of time not having to do much and becoming set in her ways. Our fault! We should have found the time to start under saddle work with her earlier and before selling while she was in a familiar environment with people she trusted.

Her full sister meantime, a year younger, had also never been taught to trailer. In her case she walked on almost by herself and calmly began eating hay. While we chatted with the driver she didn't lift her head or worry. It could not have been a more different attitude and as this horse as mentioned had sold before the one above and thus we had expected as full sisters both would go on the trailer with the same lack of fuss. It was a long 5 hr trailer ride to her new home and she traveled quietly. 

The new owner took lots of time allowing her to get used to her new environment and took the training slowly too. There was a professional trainer on hand at the barn that helped along the way. It's always helpful to have a professional on hand when starting a young horse. We had started the mare on the longe and she had come along very quickly with the ground training also. This mare is also doing well - but the progress also took patience and a different route. 

Professional handling from birth helps, but no-one knows for sure which horses will be the easy ones to train.

The third Gambol mare we bred was out of a Thoroughbred dam. This mare is certainly a much bigger mover and more to handle than the other two. A very kind and loving mare but not one we'd recommend to a neophyte trainer. Again not started under saddle or in fact in this case, even longed. 

This mare did not want to trailer anywhere! After one afternoon spending 3 hours patiently working on her she stood on the ramp and even placed two front feet on the trailer floor. But no further. We had to reschedule the transport company and call in the vet to tranquilize the horse, and the horse took a heavy dose before she would depart. 

Professionals Emily and Victoria Sherras, VT, have done an amazing job with this WVH mare.

In fairness, again our fault for not teaching her to trailer earlier. Also she had a young colt in the stables that she probably did not want to leave. 

Within just a few months (just as indeed her mother had done when we had sold her a few years earlier), this 'hotter' horse was working well under saddle for her new owners. 

The difference here perhaps was that the new owners were professionals and starting horses was what precisely what they did for a living.

So all 3 horses with similar bloodlines, brought up the same way at the same place by the same people all had different reactions to their new environments and requests for work under saddle. 

We are very happy that all have worked out so well and grateful for the hard work, diligence, finance and emotions that the new owners have put into them. As Isabell Werth says in her book, there is no way to know which horses will be easy and which more challenging to ride, but it is our job to figure it out.

Certainly it would have been to the benefit of all three mares ( and their new owners), if they had been started by us under saddle before they went out, and been started much earlier than 8/9 years old. Although then the sale price point would have been much higher.

It is hard for a person without experience working with different equine temperaments and mindsets to adapt their methods or find other options to solve an issue. All horses need time to develop trust with their trainer so they can relax and then learn what they need to understand at their own pace. 

The extra time we all have on our hands now as competition schedules have gone awry provides a great opportunity to move at a more considered pace in our training demands and build a stronger foundation both gymnastically (physically) and mentally in the horse. And actually, ourselves too.

Even if you are like myself and someone that has extensive experience developing horses to reach their potential, you must always question if the training method you have developed is the best one. There is always right and wrong to some degree, but there is also better and best for each individual partnership. 

Just because you have always done something a certain way does not mean that it is the best approach or method. The partnership between any horse and rider is unique to them, and it is built over years of trust and understanding. But there are ways to improve how you work with your horse. 

There are many great books out there to help educate the rider that offer an easy to assimilate program that can be put to work straight away. A great book to get you started on a new 'right' track is Horse Brain Human Brain, by Janet Jones, PhD.

It is smart to always strive to do better and to constantly educate yourself. It is also always good to take a horse back to what it knows when training, if you do hit a road block, to build confidence. Look for different approaches and ask for help from the right professional if you find yourself overwhelmed or the horse is regressing.

Don't be afraid to use these unprecedented times to self-evaluate, self-reflect and build it back better!! Reach out to new resources online to help, and spend the extra time you have on your hands furthering your understanding of everything equine.


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