Potential. It is a word that inspires our hopes, fills our dreams, and encourages us to get up each morning and try to be better. But potential is a double-edged sword: it lies.
It makes promises that often go unfulfilled, and can lead to poor decision-making and costly long-term investment. No one would ever become great without pursuing potential, but a necessary life lesson is that potential is an empty promise without the other oh-so-important building blocks of success—hard work, determination and desire.
In my real job I help a variety of children in academics. Some of my kids are geniuses (literally, in terms of IQ) but are failing every subject in school. Some of my kids are very challenged mentally (at least in the ways that academics require) but get scholarships into Ivy Leagues. The world doesn’t reward potential. It rewards those who do the work and want to achieve.
When it comes to horses, potential has its promises and its pitfalls. Sometimes, like a human relationship, we let the potential of the partner affect our ability to honestly assess the relationship. I am sure we can all look back on the boyfriend(s) that we stayed with for too long, and forgave too much, all because “he really could be such an amazing guy.” There are similar horses in our lives that we funnel money and time into because of the idea in our head of what they could be, often in conflict with the writing on the wall of what they actually are.
I think there are two main flaws that a horse’s potential commonly masks: character issues and soundness problems. At the very core, an upper-level horse must want to do the job and must be sound. Everything else is secondary. There are four-star horses that have bizarre jumping technique, unimpressive natural movement, and suspect breeding. And there are horses with all the talent in the world—beautiful jumpers and jaw-dropping movers—who wilt when faced with a challenge.
All too often we ignore the red flags of flaws because we are mesmerized by all the bells and whistles that potential promises. Even at advanced, an athletic animal is perfectly capable of clearing the height. What makes an advanced horse is less its potential to jump those tracks, but instead its character, work ethic, and soundness. And those are things we cannot change with training, no matter how hard we might try.
At any level, a good event horse has character and a desire to do the job. If doing a four-star were as easy as having the potential to do a four-star, all of our top riders would have an army of top horses. If you check in their barns, many have the most incredibly moving, scopiest jumping prelim and intermediate horses you have ever seen.
These horses have the potential to jump a four star or a grand prix, or do dressage at the highest levels. So why don’t we see them dominating at the four-star level in a few years? Because potential doesn’t mean success. Often the horses don’t want to play the game, so despite having every physical gift possible, they begin quitting when the physical demands surpass their mental commitment. They are the genius kids that don’t want to do the work.
Soundness is the Achilles heel of an event horse. We love our horses, we want them comfortable, and we are willing to invest to make sure they are at their best. However, it gets tricky when your 5-year-old training horse with loads of potential suddenly comes up with a soft tissue injury, or goes lame every time it bumps its leg. These are red flags we often ignore, sinking thousands into horses’ vet bills based on their potential, and often putting them into a cycle of injuries that is not fair to the horse.
I was talking to William Fox-Pitt after his clinic recently, and he was underscoring that with his young horses he runs them a lot (12 – 15 events a year), and he runs them in mud, and he runs them on hard ground, and he pushes them. Why? He wants to know if they are sound. And he means sound as a characteristic as well as a physical quality.
He wants to know that when they stud themselves on course they jog sound the next day, and when they bruise a foot on a rock they tough it out—that’s the character of being sound. He also wants to know their bodies aren’t breaking down at prelim, because he recognizes that if it is, they aren’t going to be his next four star horse.
Of course, this assumes that the rider is doing the proper work with conditioning and management. If you are, and the horse isn’t holding up at a certain level, then it will be near impossible to keep him sound at a higher level, even with increased maintenance.
It’s our responsibility, as riders and owners of these horses, to recognize when a horse’s potential is being overridden by his lack of soundness or desire. This does not mean that horses are disposable, or that we should toss them aside at the first problem, but rather that we need to make educated decisions based on the realities of the relationship. We owe the horses that much.
Potential should inspire us and guide us, but we have to be careful that the road of potential does not lead us to unhappy partnerships and poor investments of time and resources. We hold a tremendous responsibility to these great animals, but sometimes the most responsible thing is letting them go to a properly paired partner instead of pushing them past their physical and mental limits time and again.
Every horse has value, from the pony we learn to post the trot on to the elite athletes we cheer for around Rolex. While we may dream, we have a responsibility to our horses to live in a very grounded reality. I make sure my horse is happy and healthy, and that I put in the work each day, and I will aim for the stars. Whether I achieve my personal dreams or not, I won’t be judged by my potential, but by how I tried to realize it.
One of the Chronicle's bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles her riding with running her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, running the shows and events at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and riding her two horses, In A Trance and Lizzie. She grew up in Louisiana and bought "Trance," a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She's now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks.