The Elusive Mind of a Horse

When you’re trying to pick a horse for a particular sport, it’s easy to select for particular physical characteristics—the quickness to cut cows, the scope for 1.60-meter fences, the speed of racehorse, the gaits for international dressage, and the gaits, bravery, and jump for top-level eventing. But selecting the right mind to go along with all those physical gifts can be quite a bit more challenging.

We bred Amani, so I’m very glad that, so far, she’s shown a great love of solving the puzzles of cross-country jumps.

Animal-rights types often like to decry horse sports as cruel endeavors, in which horses are forced in to activities by aggressive and uncaring riders. But anyone who knows much about actual riding and training horses knows that their attitude is a pile of horse manure, to put it in a politically correct way.

Last week, at the Galway Downs International Three-Day Event, international eventer Boyd Martin was faced by such a conundrum with his horse Trading Aces. This handsome bay gelding has been a part of Martin’s program for several years, and he was purchased because of his copious physical gifts—the horse is a great mover, scopey jumper, and a ground-covering gallop.

But his first time around a CCI4*, the horse tired and stopped out a few fences from home. Martin chalked it up to some physical issues and the need for increased fitness. He worked very hard on both things, and it appeared to be working. This spring, Martin was seriously injured on a different horse, and his friend and mentor Phillip Dutton took over the reins and had a top-10 finish at the Rolex Kentucky CCI4*. Dutton was then selected for the World Equestrian Games team on the horse, but about two-thirds of the way around the course, the horse simply stopped.

Martin took the ride back, and brought him to the Galway Downs CCI3*, hoping a less-testing course and terrain might get Trading Ace’s career back on track. But yet again, at around the seven-minute mark, the horse just stopped.

Martin’s frustration and heartbreak have been apparent in his statements since this happened, and what’s been clear through his statements is his belief that at this point the issue is more mental than physical. He’s seeing that, while the horse is an incredibly gifted athlete, he simply can’t put the mental pieces together to perform at the highest level.

During my years in the horse world, I’ve seen this phenomenon before. I remember a dressage horse who was unbeatable in the small tour, but whose brain short-circuited when it came time to learn to one-tempi changes required for Grand Prix. Many times, I’ve seen winning CCI2* and CCI3* horses who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, step up to the next level, the show jumper who was great over big outdoor courses but who panicked during indoor season.

And the hardest thing, of course, is that the mind is the hardest thing to assess. Conformation, movement, scope—identifying these things can be learned with a small amount of effort. However, watching 3- or 4-year-olds go and trying to decide how mentally tough they are is a far, far trickier thing.

Jack Le Goff, the legendary coach of the U.S. three-day team from 1970 to 1984, used to talk about not judging a horse’s greatness until he’d “looked in to his heart,” which usually meant that he’d fought his way to the end of a tough course.

When I’m looking at youngsters for my sport of eventing, I try to observe how the horse thinks and how they react to a bit of pressure. I give them a puzzle, and see if they can figure it out. But there is no perfect formula, and every trainer ends up with a few horses that simply reach an unexpected ceiling in their progress, one you can’t move past.

The hard part is that usually by the time you hit that ceiling, there’s been many years, and many dollars, invested in that horse, (especially in the case of international competitors, who are often owned by syndicates), so you don’t want to just give up and sell or give away the horse. You try different veterinary options, you change up your program—and sometimes it works, and, sometimes, the horse simply doesn’t want the job you’re offering.

This is the crossroads where Martin finds himself at right now, and I certainly don’t envy him. His affection for the horse is obvious, but he’s enough a realist to know that Trading Aces’ career as a team candidate horse is over (he said at Galway Downs, even before he stopped on course), and his future career as an event horse is certainly up in the air. Perhaps the horse will happily step down to be a young rider horse—or perhaps he’s just done with the whole thing. Time will tell.

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