Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024

Lost In Translation

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Germans are great at a lot of things. However, clearing snow from train tracks is not a strength. As I stood struggling to decipher the ever-changing schedule of arrivals, departures and delays in the frigid breezeway of the Cologne station, it occurred to me that this must be what horses feel like when they arrive from overseas: slightly panicked, very much alone, and unsure of what’s next.

I had just finished trying horses in Northern Germany and felt oh-so-clever that I could take a relaxing train ride from there to Cologne and onto Belgium, pick up a rental car and continue my European test ride tour through the Low Countries. I hadn’t predicted this would be one of the snowiest weeks in this region in recent history, and that the trains do not run on time when the tracks are covered. My visions of pastoral scenes smoothly flowing past a picture window while I sipped a hot chocolate were abruptly replaced by cold, industrial confusion when all the trains to Belgium at my transfer point were canceled.

I’ve traveled a bit. This isn’t my first rodeo in a foreign train station. I don’t expect a personalized announcement in English. But some explanation would have been nice as the Germans directed all passengers destined for Belgium on to an unmarked train to take us to an undisclosed “other station.” I thought, “Wait a minute, uh, I’d like more information before I hop aboard.” Mercifully, the destination was Aachen, and once there, a kind, older German couple, recognizing my distress, helped me find an alternate route to Holland. A friend picked me up, and we got back to evaluating horses for the American hunter market.

All it took was a few compassionate, informed individuals to turn what was shaping up to be a travel nightmare into a mild inconvenience. It’s the same for the horses: No matter how humane we try to make it, import is very hard on them. Kind, compassionate, empathetic people can make all the difference for a horse arriving in the U.S.

Navigating the German train system during one of the snowiest weeks of the year reminded Paige Cade of what it must be like to be a recently imported horse trying to navigate it’s new life. Photo Courtesy Of Paige Cade

I own my own boarding, training and sales business in Middleburg, Virginia. Early on, I noticed that there was a real drought for quality horses in the mid-upper fives price range available domestically. Paying $40,000 to $80,000 is not an insignificant amount of money to invest in an animal, and it bothered me that so few options existed for these clients, so I decided to do something about it. Over the past eight years I’ve traveled a lot, tried a lot of horses and created a network of people I trust overseas. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with reputable sellers, breeders and great investors to build my brand and supply my clients with the best horses I can find.

Finding the horses is no small feat, but what comes after they arrive is just as important. That is the piece that that has driven me to vet my buyers as carefully as my sellers. Because it doesn’t matter how nice a horse is if it gets mishandled post-import.

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I hesitated to write this. I don’t want to cause controversy or incite the pitchfork/torch-toting masses. But as a seller and horse person, I’ve seen too many good horses labeled otherwise due to bad management, inappropriate expectations or just plain ignorance shortly after import. For what it’s worth, here are my observations.

As a seller and horse person, I’ve seen too many good horses labeled otherwise due to bad management, inappropriate expectations or just plain ignorance shortly after import.

I can’t overstate how vastly different the European system is and how challenging it can be—especially for the older horses (7- to 10-year-olds)—to adapt to our American style of riding. These horses are used to being ridden with two legs and two hands at all times. They find a great deal of security from pressure and without it can behave erratically. They are not being bad. They are insecure. They need us to be their version of a ThunderShirt. Expecting a European horse to understand our way of riding right off the bat is akin to asking a non-English speaking exchange student to ace the verbal SATs. Their failure to meet our expectations isn’t due to lack aptitude or effort; it is a translation issue.

So, we must meet them halfway. We must learn to speak their language in order to teach them our own. If it was a good horse overseas, it will be a good horse here given the chance to learn the job. That said, I actively seek out European horses who accept less pressure when I try them and relax into that type of riding. But that’s new for them. And when placed in a stressful situation, it’s perfectly natural for a horse or a human to seek security in what they know, and what these horses know is pressure.

What American professionals know is the off-track Thoroughbred. Many of us built our early careers retraining Thoroughbreds and learned a great deal of our horsemanship from them. Our American system was built on the backs of Thoroughbreds and thus, tailored to their specific needs. These horses (as a general rule) do not find security in pressure; in fact, some of them even fear it. Their tension is not initially alleviated by a rider’s seat and leg, and many of them have been trained run against the bit instead of relaxing into it. They must learn to accept it. No one would expect a recently off-the-track Thoroughbred to go around like a seasoned children’s hunter. If they did, they would be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean that this hypothetical OTTB isn’t destined to be a world-beating hunter.

For the purposes of this argument, he’s got all the pieces—super nice horse, great brain, good conformation, no soundness issues, attractive type—but those pieces need assembling. That assembly requires time and patience. We know that the Thoroughbred needs time to let down from its racing career physically and mentally before it’s ready to begin a new vocation. (Trust me, I’ve tried to rush this process, and in case anyone needs a reminder that the fastest way to go slow is to try to go fast—I challenge you to restart a race-fit young OTTB without giving it the proper let down period.) But we know this. It’s part of our American riding culture. It’s part of the conversation many professionals have heard all our lives. We readily make these accommodations for the young Thoroughbred; why does the recent import not receive the same?

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Paige Cade with one of her imports, Leena M. Laura Lemon Photo

Money, for one. Your average OTTB can be purchased for significantly less than the cost of the flight for an import. And with a greater investment often comes greater expectation. Newsflash, your horse has no idea how much you spent on him. Your horse does not care if you could or could not really afford to spend those dollars. Or if you have an investor expecting a return. Or a child expecting a ribbon. These are fundamentally human problems that recent imports are often asked (unfairly) to bear the burden of.

The OTTB was purpose-bred to run fast, in a straight line and with incredible endurance. Though some of these traits are useful in sport horses, they require significant retraining. Everyone can agree on this. This horse was designed to be a bullet train. And even if he was ultimately a very slow bullet train, we can all acknowledge that this is the framework we’re operating with, and it will take time, patience and perseverance to teach him to do something very new and different. And let me not forget that some OTTBs were well-started by regular horse people and had a little primer in basic American style riding before going to the track. They may not have seen the movie, but they watched the trailer and understand the basic plot before walking into the theater and are therefore a step ahead of their peers.

There is a common misconception that because a European import was purpose bred for sport and is jumping that coming to the U.S. and starting a career in the hunters or lower-level jumpers should be a lateral, if not step-down, move for the horse. False. European breeders aren’t aiming for long-stirrup hunters or 1.0-meter child/adult jumpers. They have carefully combined what they feel are the best possible genes to produce a top-level sport horse. These are careful, scopey, powerful animals that are accustomed to working five to six days per week. Character is often a secondary consideration after athleticism. The Europeans have the depth of rider talent to develop the most exceptional equine athletes, even if they’re absolutely wild as 4-year-olds.

Sales graduate Tangelina now shows in the 3’3″ amateur-owner hunters with Cara Garito. Kimberly Loushin Photo

Your beloved amateur horse is the byproduct of a system designed to produce the best jumping horses in the world, piloted by the best riders in the world. Now, these people are not stupid, and they’ve realized horses who have little value in Europe as lower-level amateur horses can be extraordinarily valuable in the U.S., so the cost of these horses has increased (which complicates my business model). Some breeders have even begun purposefully breeding for American hunters. But the fact remains that, just as the OTTB is purpose-bred to be the bullet train, the imported European jumper is bred to be a rocket ship. And even if the rocket ship only has 1.0-meter scope, he was still bred to be a rocket ship. He still needs time and patience to understand that though his job involves jumping, we expect him to do it in a very different way for a very different kind of rider.

“It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” Anti-heroes aside, Taylor Swift really sums it up. We are the problem. It’s drilled into us from our first riding lesson. If things aren’t going our way, odds are that it’s human error; the horse is only operating with the information he is given. And European horses are used to receiving a lot more information with a lot more consistency than the vast majority of American riders are trained to provide. There is a literal and figurative language barrier to communicating with recent imports. But that doesn’t mean these horses are innately stupid, spooky, bad or trying to be naughty. That means we have to learn to speak their language in order to teach them our own.

I didn’t wake up one day inexplicably good at this. I had to relearn riding. And I think my willingness to do that has made all the difference. I’m not a savant. I’m a very average American pro. But I listen to my horses. I make my best effort to recognize their distress and offer kind, compassionate directions to the next station.


Paige Cade has operated her training, competition and sales business, Country Fox Farm Inc in Middleburg, Virginia, since 2015. She specializes in European imports and takes pride in finding her clients the perfect match. Paige has developed young horses through the grand prix and international hunter derby level and enjoys training riders of all ages. Follow her on Instagram (@paigecade) and Facebook. 

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