The Project Horse

Dec 26, 2007 - 10:00 PM

A friend of mine told me about some horses she tried in Florida. I laughed nervously, which I hope she interpreted as a laugh of delight, when she told me about the one she liked: An unflappable, 17.3-hand warmblood whose price is triple my annual salary.

On the one hand, he could very well be worth it. On the other, he is as likely as any trail horse to get a double-ended snap stuck up his nose (this really happened to a horse owned by someone I know).

This wild-card factor is one of the things that make horse ownership so exciting. It is also one of the reasons I would be reluctant ever to pay a lot of money for a horse, even if I had lots of money—or so I tell myself. More likely I’m just envious of those who shop in the stratospheric realm of the top hunter barns. In any event, I operate on a somewhat different scale. Although I have had the privilege of riding a number of special horses, they all started as “projects.”

Now, when a normal person talks about a “project,” he or she usually means something like making a scrapbook or refinishing a coffee table. Only a horse person would euphemistically call something that takes blood, sweat and tears, and sometimes goes on for years, a “project.” However, we are talking about people who will pay a farrier to put aluminum shoes on their darling while they themselves wear paddock boots held together by duct tape.

Keeping in mind the typical horse person’s disconnect from normalcy, it is easier to understand that when a horse person talks about a “project,” he or she usually means a horse that was abused, or perhaps a 5-year-old that someone bred and forgot to train, or some off-the-track wonder with three really good legs.

Not Your Everyday Eventer

One of my first projects was an Arabian mare that had already been shown with success at halter and in the fine harness division. I had moved to North Carolina after graduate school and landed on an Arabian farm (long story) with more time than money on my hands. When my Thoroughbred event mare went lame, I looked around the farm for a replacement. The Arabian mare, Carina, had “been there, done that” in the Arabian show world, and the farm owner was open to having her try new endeavors.

Carina was very sweet but easily could have been voted “least likely to succeed in eventing.” She stood at 14.1 hands, and her previous wins at Arabian shows all rewarded high head carriage and quick, almost frantic movement.

When I first rode her she went flying around the farm, overreacting to every touch of leg and hollowing her back at every attempt to collect her. The only time she paused was when I would point her at a little ditch or log, when she would dither and resist for 5 minutes before finally plunging over it. It was not fun in the beginning, but she was sound, and when she did relax she was actually quite cute, so I persisted.

After months of flatwork (endless bending and transitions) and jumping schools (convincing her that yes, she had to at least try to get over the jumps), we entered a schooling event. She won, finishing on her dressage score. Carina proceeded to win several more lower-level events, although pulling her off the trailer seemed to bring the equine career counselor out in people. I particularly recall one woman who looked at me with pity while I was tacking up before an event.

“You should try halter or endurance with her,” she said kindly, as if consoling me for an embarrassing loss before the event had even begun.

I made some noncommittal noises and continued to get ready for dressage, not bothering to inform the woman that Carina had already been reserve champion at halter for the entire region. This same woman didn’t have anything to say when Carina won the event, beating her warmblood by several placings.

Carina went on to help me teach a number of students to ride and won many hunter classes for them. One of the students eventually purchased her, but I’ll always remember our time together with affection and gratitude.

The Barbie Dream Horse
My current project is a palomino Appaloosa gelding named Comanche. He is 5 years old and was lightly shown in the halter ring as a youngster. My husband calls him the “Barbie Dream Horse” because of his gold color and his flaxen mane and tail.

Comanche’s behavior was anything but dreamy when I first encountered him, though. When he was stabled at an Appaloosa barn he was subjected to an old style of training. This involved tying his head around to his saddle at times and getting snatched in the mouth with a severe bit whenever he exceeded the snail crawl that some people prefer for the western pleasure divisions.

I know there are many breed show barns with excellent trainers, but I have visited this particular barn and observed these old-time training methods in action, and it makes me wonder why horses don’t kill more people. At any rate, Comanche objected to this treatment, and by the time I met him he was in the habit of bucking every few steps. Bucking was also his typical response whenever you asked him to move forward.

His owner, a well-meaning novice who bought and bred seven other halter horses in addition to Comanche because he “loves baby horses,” sensed that all was not well at the Appaloosa barn and moved his horses to the farm of a mutual friend. They idled in the pasture there for several months before I foolishly agreed to help. I say “foolishly” because I have been so busy with my two young sons over the previous five years, not to mention working, that I haven’t done much riding.

My involvement with horses during that time had mostly been caring for my retired mare, plus one sedate boarder. So I wasn’t really in the ideal riding shape to begin adifficult project. Nevertheless, no other options were readily apparent. A local trainer had refused to take Comanche because of his bad behavior. I resolved to try to help Comanche but did not make any promises.

I put him in the mildest bit possible, a loose-ring French snaffle. I was guessing that part of his reluctance to go forward was really a reluctance to go forward into a severe bit. Besides not wanting to go forward, Comanche would also frequently swerve violently, apparently to avoid the punishment he expected after acting up. I resolved as much as possible simply not to respond to his bad behavior. It was a gamble, but I decided to focus on praising him for any positive response to my cues and to ignore everything else as much as I safely could. At times I turned him in a tight circle when he acted up, but I did not otherwise discipline him.

Comanche, like all of the Appaloosas in my experience, is a very smart horse. He usually makes a calculated effort, not offering more than is asked. Some might say he is lazy, although I’m sure if Comanche could talk he would say he is just conserving energy. The problem with smart
horses, in my opinion, is that they are smart enough to cause problems by questioning you—as when it took me half an hour to persuade him to walk through a puddle—but not smart enough to do something really useful, such as help you with your taxes!

Signs Of Progress

Gradually, however, Comanche warmed to the idea of moving forward. As the weeks went past his bucking fits subsided. He became more reliable, and I rode him outside of the round pen at the walk and trot. Canter was a different story altogether, because he resented my outside leg cue. I came to dread asking for the canter, as even a successful transition involved him kicking out, bucking, and then careening around the round pen.

In fact, my only fall from Comanche occurred because of his canter issues. He picked up a wrong lead, kicked out, then swerved sharply. I did not move sideways quite as rapidly as he did and slipped off the other side of him. I lay in the dirt, looking up at the sky as I did a mental check for injuries (thankfully, none) and thought, “I am getting too old for this.” 

Comanche is a big mover, and I sensed he needed more space than the round penprovides to find his balance at the canter, but perhaps it is understandable that I was reluctant to practice in my unfenced front field, where I normally do flatwork. Certainly the lack of a fenced arena at my farm had never seemed very significant to me before.

So one afternoon I had the brilliant idea that I should work on his canter in the pasture, so that at least we were somewhat contained. While warming up I tried to think positive thoughts. I was humming to make sure I didn’t hold my breath and convey tension to him, but I gave up on that when I realized I was humming “Stairway To Heaven.”

I rode him in the pasture where he is normally turned out, thinking that he would be more relaxed in familiar surroundings. He was an absolute brat, much worse than normal. He bucked, he shied, he planted his feet and reared. It was very discouraging. I finally managed a few canter transitions and dismounted to lead him to the gate, all the while contemplating calling his owner to tell him to come get the horse.

Once outside the pasture I remounted, intending just to walk Comanche around the farm to cool out. We arrived at the open front field and he felt good, so I tried a little trot. He did so well that I could not resist
trying a canter transition, and then another. He was clumsy but cooperative. It was amazing, completely different from just a few minutes before. Then I realized that Comanche probably did not like working in the pasture where he normally relaxes. Have I mentioned that he is very opinionated?

On To Competition

The next month I crossed my fingers and decided to take Comanche to do some flat classes at a local hunter show. After all, his owner said that he wanted me to get the horse sold, or at least to get him to embark on a useful life. I shuddered at the thought of prospective buyers trying him on my farm. While I have some insurance, I don’t think there is a policy in the world that would give me confidence about putting a succession of strangers on Comanche’s back. However, the show seemed like a good opportunity to test our progress. For the first time in five years I pulled out my show coat and packed the trailer.

After getting on the road successfully—meaning the horse loaded easily and I did not wake my family—I breathed a sigh of relief and contemplated the day ahead. I had always avoided this particular show grounds because there is no safe warm-up area. The arena is in a public park that borders an extremely
busy road, and I have always had horrible visions of horses spooking into traffic there. Nevertheless, the show is only 25 minutes from my farm.

To tell the truth, this consideration trumps all else now that I have two kids and very limited weekend time for horse activities. (I know, ideally I would just get them leadline outfits and bring them along, but to this point my boys have shown far more interest in bug hunting, monster stories and soccer than in horses.)
I parked near some friends and tried to get in the spirit of the day. Comanche did not seem overly excited, although he did not appreciate the judge’s tent that was being erected ringside. I walked and walked him in the ring before the show began, asking for his focus: Walk, stop, back up, turn, walk—his head came down as he relaxed.

He may even have been a little too relaxed for the first class, a halter class I had entered just to get him in the ring with the loudspeaker going. He behaved well and jogged for the judge, but then while we were in the line-up he dropped his peepee (forgive me, I have a toddler) and would not put it away. I’m not sure whether that influenced our last-placed standing!

During the under saddle classes he astonished me with his willing attitude, and he did not buck at all. The trainer who had refused to take him at her barn was watching one class. She stared as I cantered by, so I remarked jokingly, “Look, it’s a miracle” and floated the rein to Comanche. The last time she had seen him he wouldn’t canter at all and was only trotting a few strides between bucks.

Still, compared to the other horses it was clear he was green. His speed varied sometimes, he looked at things outside the ring, and we do not yet have the walk-canter tran-sition down. So, for most of the show, Comanche consistently placed last behind horses with more experience. Nevertheless I was pleased, and several people commented on his good looks and movement.

As the day went on I was able to float the rein more and more to Comanche. Here in Southeastern North Carolina our local shows are heavily influenced by breed shows, and the judges prize slow gaits performed in a very long and low frame. I prefer a more forward ride with more contact, but at this stage I can also see value in Comanche being able to go quietly around the ring on a loose rein. I was riding with this thought in mind when, for his last class of the day, he got a fourth-placed ribbon in a class of eight.

It’s hard to believe that fourth out of eight at a local show can seem like a victory, but for Comanche, my Barbie Dream Horse project, it really felt like winning.

Now on to his stablemate, a palomino mare who actually shows some aptitude for jumping…

Claudia Stack

Category: Eventing

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