With his owner on holiday for the summer, I've commandeered the ride on Tres, the wonderful PRE stallion that I trained to Grand Prix. Horses don't forget their educations, of course, but his new owner is just beginning her dressage career, and so for the last year Tres' job has been to care for Donna and teach her about connection, impulsion and balance.
I've taken my time in building up his fitness, both cardiovascularly and muscularly, over the last few weeks. Tres was originally purchased for my mother as a barely Prix St. Georges horse with a stellar temperament and a lazy streak. He was never supposed to be a Grand Prix horse, and the piaffe was never that great even when I showed him. Valegro he is not, nor was he ever intended to be.
But as I rode him around this week, I kept remarking to myself, "Good grief, he feels amazing." The coolest he's ever been when pressured. The best in the bridle. The smartest to the leg. The absolute, hands down BEST in his back and his body and his muscles. The most confident in his own skin, and in his job. In short, he's the best he's ever felt in his life.
He is 14 years old.
Michael quotes Ashley Holzer, another exceptional rider who trains her own Grand Prix horses, as saying that she doesn't know if a horse will go Grand Prix until he's 9, and won't know how good at it he'll be until he's 13. And I think there's no greater truth. While, yes, there are world-class successful Grand Prix horses at 10 and 11, how many more have there been at 13, at 14, at 15? How many horses who no one would ever have believed in as kids turn into superstars as teenagers?
I think that 12, 13, 14 and 15 are, for most horses, the best years of their lives. They get comfortable in their own skin, and in their bodies. They know their jobs, and understand the ground rules. They're seasoned enough to really "get" the work: before, even if they're going Grand Prix, there's an inevitable element of riding their talent and not their training, and after, their bodies start to show the wear and tear, even with the best care on the planet.
Tres is not the first horse about which I've felt this. Billy was his absolute best in 2006, at age 14. My other Young Riders horse, L'Etoile, was the same way, as are the horses of my Junior and Young Rider students. And Ella, 13 this year, keeps getting better and better, transcending even Michael's wildest hopes for her.
It's a tough call, how hard to push and when. I can take or leave the Young Horse program, but I do believe that there's a window in the education of future international horses when they have to learn to take pressure, accept the rider's aids and learn to work in a dressage way, and that that window closes before the horse is terribly old. The Young Horse program is a good schematic, though not gospel, of what a young horse should at least be working on, and when, in order to become an upper level horse someday.
But between learning the changes at 6 or 7 and doing its first Grand Prix test at 10 or 11, there's a window where all bets are off. Maybe a horse shows the Small Tour; maybe it doesn't. Maybe it learns to make baby piaffe at 7, or maybe it's the biggest yutz in the world about the half steps until he's 10 and then, one day, it wakes up having figured it out. Maybe they get hurt and need down time (athletes, inevitably, no matter how well you feed and care for and equip and train them, get hurt); maybe they don't.
And it's usually in that period of time where things feel awful. The progress comes quick and often in the young horse: Wowie, my 4-year-old turned right today, amen! Holy smokes, my 5-year-old can trot around the ring with her head down without falling over, amazing! But the goalposts between third level and Grand Prix are smaller, more elusive, and much, much more spread out. It's easy to lose the faith.
I, obviously, have the best students in the entire world, and several of them are on developing horses in that age and education bracket. They're almost straight. They're almost really collected. They've almost got the changes, or the pirouettes, or the half steps. Almost really sucks. Almost is where the faith gets lost. My students are not filled with doubt—in fact, they've all said to me, in so many words, "I love the journey!" But if they haven't yet had that moment of panic I know so well, when it all feels like it's going to hell, they will.
In that moment, it's my job (or, when it's my own horse who is "almost" something and I'm at my wits end, it's Allison or Michael's job) to remind the rider that it is, in fact, all going to be OK. That it's a marathon, not a sprint.
That the best course of action is the one you're on, sticking it out; sometimes we really do have to do the same thing day in and day out and expect a different result. And that the best is, truly, yet to come.