Meet him at late 3 or early 4 years old. He’s keen-eyed and clever-looking, and he walks, trots and canters under saddle. He goes when you drive and whoas when you gather and mostly steers. He stands on the crossties and gets on the trailer and stands at the mounting block. He’s balanced and shiny and remarkably organized, with nice conformation and clean legs. You love him immediately, which is good, because two weeks later he’ll have kicked the stall and sliced his leg open, and grown an inch behind, and lost the capacity to turn right. Love him anyway.
One month in: He’s doing a great job of going with his neck down… maybe too great a job. Time to start riding him with his neck up.
One month later: Now he can’t put his neck down anymore.
One month later: He can bend left, but not right. Time to start teaching him right bend.
One month later: Lose the capacity to bend left. Work on finding it again.
Take him on his first outing, to a neighbor or friend or client’s farm. He’s perfect, both on the lunge and under saddle. Enter a show.
At the first show: try desperately to hold on to the equine-shaped kite you’re flying on the lunge line, incorporate clean flying changes into your training level dressage test on the first day, and then have such an exhausted horse on the second day that you can’t canter to the right at all.
He’ll turn 5. Your sweet, gentle-natured horse will grow two inches, refuse to stand at the mounting block, and bite your mother.
You’ll ride him with a Big Deal Coach in a clinic somewhere. He’ll tell you to sell him, that he’s not worth your time. Cry in your truck.
He’ll turn 6. He won’t be able to counter-canter to save his life, offering you beautiful, clean flying changes. When you ask for the changes, they’ll be late behind every time, for six months.
You’ll try the half steps. He’ll show absolutely no talent for them whatsoever. Leave them alone.
He’ll turn 7. He’ll start getting it together. You’ll take him to a show at third level, and the Big Deal Coach will see you. “Maybe there’s hope for this one after all.” You’ll do pretty well, not crazy scores, but good ones. You’ll feel like you’re on the right path.
The next day, in turnout at home, he’ll get cast under a fence and take huge chunks of flesh from his body, requiring epic time at the clinic, thousands of dollars, and six months to heal.
He’ll turn 8. You’ll try the half steps. He’ll show absolutely no talent for them whatsoever. Leave them alone.
He’ll turn 9. You’ll show him Prix St. Georges. He’ll mature, take a deep breath, and figure out life. As you’re hacking him out on a loose rein (something that absolutely would have gotten you killed at 5 or 6 or 8), someone will approach you asking if he’s for sale. The number he’ll throw out there is a game changer. You’ll tell him you’ll get back to him.
You’ll lie awake that night, thinking about how you can hack him on the buckle, how he was completely unfazed when the bit checker’s tent blew down, how he’s so smart and even to the contact now, how good you’ve made him. Maybe he could be an amateur’s horse.
On Tuesday morning, call the trainer back and tell him, thanks but no thanks.
On Thursday morning, have your wonderful, potentially-expensive-amateur’s-horse buck you off when a leaf floats by the arena window.
You’ll try the half steps. In three days, he’ll have five to six steps of piaffe better than most of what’s out there. You’ll have no idea what you’ve done differently now than at 6 or 8.
He’ll struggle with the ones. He’ll struggle with the ones. He’ll struggle with the ones. He’ll struggle with the ones. Your coach will get on and get 15 the second time he asks. You’ll get on… and struggle with the ones. You’ll cry in your truck.
He’ll turn 10. You’ll get the ones. You’ll enter your first Grand Prix and… blow the twos.
But then you’ll do more. He’ll get cleaner, more organized, less oh-my-God. You’ll start producing clean tests, where nothing holds you hostage.
He’ll turn 11. You’ll have a brief lapse where everything starts to go to hell in a handcart again, but you’ll go back to basics for two weeks, and then turn in your best ride yet. Your scores will creep upwards. You’ll beat the pants off the Big Deal Coach who told you to sell him.
And then, things will get real.
Stay tuned for Part II: How To Make Your Grand Prix Horse Amazing. I’ll write it just as soon as I learn how. Check back in, oh, 20 years, give or take.