One of my favorite movies and books of all time is The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley. I loved the whole series of books as a kid, and I still get choked up watching the gorgeous movie as an adult. But as an adult, and as a professional, I’m afraid that this wonderful fictional tale has spawned a lot of misconceptions among the horse-owning public about how to procure or develop a suitable mount.
Because the reality is that while The Black Stallion has a happy ending?and, yes, there are the occasional real-life versions of horses from unknown backgrounds, sometimes with behavior issues, who become suitable mounts?the vast majority of people need to be a lot more aware of what kind of horse they really need. And they also need to better understand how much it’s going to cost to find or to develop such a perfect mount when they go looking for a horse they want to buy.
While there is no question that someone who wants to be a professional at some point will need have a very wide variety of experiences with different types of horses, I’ve come to strongly believe that having an experienced, confidence-building horse at the right times in your riding career is the utmost important thing there is.
Inexperienced riders, especially kids, are a vulnerable population, and they deserve the best equine help they can get as they start their journey in the horse world.
My wife, Heather, and I can speak from experience here. As teenagers, we each rode a lot of what can be best described as ?random? horses. These were horses from a wide spectrum of types and experience, and they taught us both a great deal. Some good?like how to get the most out of a less talented individual and to work with youngsters. And some bad?Heather had to learn how to overcome fear and confidence issues about jumping after a parade of dirty stoppers and bad jumpers who simply fell down on her from time to time.
This is largely in contrast to me: When I was 10, we bought a 4-year-old Thoroughbred mare, who was initially far too much horse for me, although we would learn together. After she died in a pasture accident when I was 13, her successor was another green Thoroughbred who lacked any kind of confidence over fences and nearly ruined my own confidence.
Fortunately, my mother had by then learned enough to see that our partnership wasn?t going to work, so we sold that horse and bought a considerably bolder and more experienced Thoroughbred gelding, a dependable horse who taught me how to ride bravely and confidently over a wide variety of obstacles and terrains.
But, as trainers, we see so often combinations of horses and riders that make our heads spin. A few examples: A rider who is a timid soul on a quiet schoolmaster buys the flashiest and best-moving youngster she can find, and then she gets scared trying to simply post the trot. A 30-something mother of two purchases the same type of horse she enjoyed as a teenager, only to discover that she isn?t the same person?or nearly the same rider? as she was. A family with absolutely no horse experience, other than a child spending two weeks at horse camp, acquiring a horse from a rescue that is dominant on the ground, aggressive in the stall, and unpredictable to ride.
With that last example in mind, I’m going to make a suggestion to the leaders of most rescue organizations, especially those that specialize in finding new homes for retired racehorses: If you consistently adopt out horses to inexperienced homes or to people to whom they?ll be unsuitable mounts, the chances are rather high that these horses will end up needing to be rescued or adopted once again. And you may also succeed in driving the adopter out of horses altogether, frustrated and likely frightened. Either way, the horses lose. So those of us who periodically have to try to solve these mistakes wish you would develop a better plan to screen the horses and the potential owners.
Bluntly, the reason that trainers like us are often unsuccessful in reversing these catastrophes is money. You end up paying for good, experienced horses one way or the other?either in the up-front cost or by paying a professional to train the horse and/or you to be a safe and confident match. Unless you are quite an experienced rider and horseman, you have to be prepared to pay on one end of the other.
Understandably, potential buyers often turn to rescues because they’re attracted by the low up-front cost. But if they’ve been blinded by The Black Stallion, or they think keeping and enjoying a horse is just like having a dog or cat, and then they’re amazed by and too often unwilling to spend what it costs to keep high-octane racehorses or physically or mentally unsound other horses. If the horse is lucky, he spends the rest of his life comfortably as a pasture ornament. If He’s not that lucky, well, the range of what can happen is broad and perhaps unhappy.
We’ve all been victims of our own dreams at some point?from the lowliest beginner to the highest pro, We’ve all had an unsuitable horse. Those of us who are experienced will probably admit we had doubts or concerns and pushed them aside for one reason or another: We thought, ?He didn’t get a good start, I can bring him around.? ?But He’s so talented.? ?I’m a different rider/trainer than the previous owner.? But, often, a new rider is a victim of nothing more than their own ignorance?and inability or unwillingness to correct it.
There are a lot of compromises to be made when finding horses?age, size, ability, even experience and sometimes level of soundness. But temperament shouldn’t be one of your compromises. The horse must want to do whatever job you give him, and you should enjoy riding him and handling him. If He’s unwilling, or you don’t enjoy him, then you need to take steps to address the situation.
The trick often is to convince a kid, their parents or an adult that they really do need the help and that it’s worth paying for. Because the reality is that few of us are Alec. And even fewer horses are The Black.
Unlike the famous stallion, the real truth is that reliable and suitable horses are made even more than they’re created by birth. they’re reliable and generous because someone took the time (and spent the money) to make them that way.