Horses like Elvis, and like Ellegria, and Dorian Gray, and Fiero, are unbelievably wonderful to train. They have their hiccups and misunderstandings along the way, but they’re generous of heart and mind, and talented of body and limb; they soak up the education presented to them like a sponge, and they make their way up the levels, and that’s that. It’s hard. Of course it’s hard. But it’s relatively linear. On a gifted and kind horse, you rarely despair. It’s great fun. I highly recommend it.
Then there are the Pucks. The Midges. The Fenders. The ones whose bodies, or minds, or both, aren’t always on your side. The ones who, at least for a time, do not care who you are, or what your credentials are, or how fair or methodical or correct you are; they do what they want. And what they want is absolutely, unequivocally NOT what you want.
Getting those ding dongs on your side is time consuming, exhausting, occasionally scary, and will fill you with doubt. There are times where it is sheer misery. And I freaking love it.
For those who aren’t longtime readers, Puck is a 2011 Dutch Warmblood gelding—real name Gretzky—who I picked up in the Netherlands as a 6-year-old. He was big and gangly and weird but pleasant enough when I tried him, and he just gave me the feeling that there was something yet untapped inside him. Plus, he had a belly spot and was vaguely affordable. So home he came.
That untapped thing? Yeah. It was a bomb.
Real throughness made Puck explode. Real honesty to the leg made him angry as hell. I tell people that I keep two lists: horses who, as young horses, were the most physically dangerous, and horses who, as young horses, were the most mentally hostile. Midge tops the former, and Fender the latter, but Puck takes reserve on both lists, and that made him pretty alarming. He would slam on the brakes when presented with pressure, gnash his teeth, and threaten and spin around and kick and buck and then hold his breath, eyes rolling, just waiting for your next move. And did I mention that he’s 17.2?
My longtime coach, Michael Barisone, one of the bravest riders I’ve ever known, upon first meeting Puck said this: “…why?” (And then wouldn’t get on him.)
We address these things not through great creativity but through quiet, persistent diligence. Every day, I picked a small thing, and I dealt with it until I won. As soon as I won, we went back to the barn. My leg. My hand. Really yielding to the bridle. Really going sideways. Getting on the trailer. Standing on the crossties. My leg. Leading like a civilized animal instead of a wildebeest on methamphetamine. The farrier. Going away from home. My leg.
Things got better. Small victories. At some point, he started smiling at me. At some point, he started looking for my car in the mornings. He learned his changes. He learned to piaffe. The hard stuff is really easy for him. He went to a show and behaved. He won something. He hacked quietly. We were rolling.
I was starting to feel like I was getting somewhere when, about a year ago, I broke my hand. I was on the bench for nearly eight weeks, and the timing was such that I had the pins taken out the day before we drove to Florida for the winter, so my first day back in the saddle was also our first day in Florida, after the horses had had a long trailer trip, and then a few days off to recover, and work in an outdoor arena, with no walls. I got on Elvis first, because he’s quite trustworthy. And then, I got on Puck. And he was foot perfect.
Here’s the thing about the ones that fight, the ones that rebel: By the time you’re done, by the time you get to the other side of the nonsense, they’re actually better than the ones who never argued. Puck is solid. Puck is virtually impossible to offend. Puck has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and he doesn’t care how much leg you use because he’s seen worse and embraced it. It’s not that the Ellas and the Dorians and the Fieros of the world aren’t dependable adults—they have all taught their respective amateurs well—but the reformed bad boys and girls of the world are, at least a lot of the time, even better for it.
This weekend, Puck did his first Prix St. Georges. It was not flawless. I’m still navigating the waters of throughness versus self-carriage, particularly on a big horse with Maserati hind legs and a short neck. Canter-halt transitions are hard. There’s another gear of trot that I am nowhere near controlling sufficiently to bang it out in a test. And it doesn’t matter if your horse accepts the leg beautifully if your brain goes on safari, and you forget to apply it. But he did the Prix St. Georges, with a big horsey grin on his face the whole time. He’ll be a Grand Prix horse for sure. And he’ll move on to teach someone else, because I bet he’s going to become one of the most emotionally solid and educationally dependable horses I’ve ever made.
The rogues grow up. With enough time, and enough diligence, largely about boring, basic things, they grow up. Puck grew up last weekend and made every ridiculous tantrum, every exhausting anger management session, and maybe even the broken hand worth it. (Well, maybe not that.) I’m being rewarded for my patience and persistence (a nice way of saying “my years of being a bigger stubborn jacka** than my horse”) with a delightful and capable FEI horse. I can’t wait for 2021, so I can show him off to the world.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.