Try a Different Breed

I am a Thoroughbred man, and proud of it. I’ve had Thoroughbreds all my life, and you can’t beat them for heart, courage, speed, stamina and just pure athleticism.

I’ve raced them, foxhunted them, done dressage and jumper shows, and competed them in eventing. Yes, they can be challenging. Thoroughbreds are usually (but not always) high-octane, mentally and physically, and they’re smart and quick.

But in the last few years I’ve trained other breeds, and it’s broadened my appreciation. I’ve worked with Quarter Horses, warmbloods, Irish-breds, draft crosses and Arabs.

One warmblood has especially demonstrated the generous, kind temperament that makes people value them so, a German-bred Hanoverian named Schultz, who’s one of our schoolmasters. He’s the most willing and generous horse I’ve ever seen, so absolutely hard-wired to be good that he gets genuinely upset if a student falls off him. He stands 17.3 hands, but we can put absolute beginners on him as well as more experienced riders. No matter who’s on him, Schultz takes care of them.

I’d only occasionally ridden Quarter Horses until the last year, when two arrived at our barn, both of whom I adore. They’re two very different horses, and neither is the ”cow-bred” type of Quarter Horse, in build or temperament. (Actually, they’re both afraid of cows.)

Apollo is a saint. In fact, we call him ”St. Apollo.” He’s not the brightest bulb in the box, but, like Schultz, he’s absolutely hard-wired to try to do what you’re telling him to do. I’ve competed successfully on him, and I’ve found — and I tell our students — that if you’re having trouble doing an exercise, it’s because Apollo doesn’t understand your aids.

Alba, a mare I’m about to move up to preliminary level in eventing, likes to do things her own way, usually rather quickly. She’s sweet and relaxed on the ground, and your grandmother could take her for a walk around the countryside. But when you put her to work (especially if it involves jumping), she goes from 87 octane to 110 octane. I don’t know what I could build that would cause her to refuse a jump. And can she jump! Much bigger than her 15.1 hands would suggest.

Arabians get derided for their skittish personalities and their upside-down way of going, sometimes deservedly so. But I’ve ridden three Arabians through 750 miles of endurance competition, and they’re gameness and stamina is amazing.

I remember interviewing Olympian Torrance Watkins at the 1984 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, where I think she rode six horses, and asking her if it was hard to go so quickly from one horse to the next. She told me, so beautifully, ”You know, it’s like having different dance partners, and moving from one to he other. You have to adapt your style to them to make the dance work. I think it’s a wonderful challenge.”

John Strassburger
Performance Editor