My experience with young horses has been almost exclusively with two kinds. The first are ones with very good characters who weren’t international quality. As they’ve been owned and ridden by amateurs, that’s been by design. They were bought so that their owners could ride them as they developed up the levels, so the trade-off—less power, better rideability—was absolutely what they needed.
The second kind has been wildly talented, pig-headed doofuses, ranging from the pleasant enough, but tight and bananas, to angry, hostile little turkeys who spent most of their young energy telling me to stuff it. The Midges, Fenders and Pucks of the world go through their younger years being unrideable jerks, and eventually, through diligence, basic work and a boatload of patience, they emerge on the other side of their adolescence ready to take pressure and learn the big work. They’re armed with a ton of coping skills at that point and are a hell of a lot of fun to ride.
I knew that there were creatures out there who were both talented and uncomplicated, but I’d never met one. Until I met Swagger. And I’m coming to appreciate the dirtbag teenagers. Having one with crazy gaits and an eagerness to please at 5 years old is freaking me out because I’m really feeling the weight of the responsibility to not push too hard, too fast.
The thing about the challenging young horses is that they don’t let you press on too hard. Midge and Fender, at 4 and 5 and 6, were too busy running away from my leg (Midge forward, Fender backward) for me to put a crazy action trot on them. Puck couldn’t have started more intense collection because he kept slamming on the brakes. Ella and Danny did learn tricks before they learned an honest connection and honest self-carriage—Danny at someone else’s hands, Ella at my own—but I got Danny in time to undo it, and I wasn’t yet a “good” enough rider to push Ella into tricks at big, crazy gaits, fortunately for all involved.
There are exceptions, of course, but it’s so rare that the ones that are capable of Big Amazing Things as young horses are also the ones winning at Grand Prix. It’s not the only reason why we so rarely see the winners of young horse championships also in the top ribbons in high-performance competition—many of them reroute from performance to breeding careers after they’ve had some success in sport; some of them get sold to people who aren’t going to develop them in the same way a Grand Prix-minded professional would; and some horses get hurt or ill along the way for the most banal of reasons, like they do at every level of every sport and discipline—but the push for early excellence can fry a horse, physically or mentally. It takes tremendous discipline and mental fortitude to be excellent, at any level, at any stage, and the ones that can do that at 4, 5 and 6 are easy to over-face, especially on young bodies.
I wonder if there isn’t a corollary to human development. How many child stars have huge success in their young years only to fade away, because drugs and partying lure them into trouble, or because they burn out from the huge demands of excellence? How many young star athletes are retired from blown ACLs or too many concussions by 23, multi-million dollar contracts from the NFL or NBA put on hold because of an overuse injury? And how many kids who play the flute or dance in Swan Lake or, closer to home, win Young Riders, give it up because it stops being something they find fun when it starts getting serious?
Maintaining excellence for three, four, or five decades in a human is a rare feat, and so is maintaining excellence from the Bundeschampionat or 3-Year-Old Materiale Championships all the way to the Olympic Games. The Damon Hills of the world are as rare as the Isabell Werths and Ian Millers. I’d be willing to be that there are far more horses at the Olympic Games that were nasty little prats at 5 than there are ones who were winning their nation’s version of the USDF Finals at second level.
And there are lots of reasons as to why that is as well, but on the list must be that the thing that makes them difficult to train is the thing that keeps them safe, safe from the ambition of some riders, and from big gaits. When I work a horse like Puck, I’ve only just started to tap the “big boy” trot, because I couldn’t have found it with both hands and a map at 6 anyway, but even if I could have, he would have weaponized it and used it against me, pushing me away when I needed to teach him how to be small and adjustable.
I didn’t know Elvis at 5, so maybe he was a rogue warrior, but he doesn’t strike me as that type. And so my hat is off to Nicole, his previous owner, for keeping his workload reasonable and not over-facing him. At 8 he is wonderfully fresh and eager to work, and also—please lord let me touch wood as I say this—very sound and healthy. She found a balance between encouraging his brilliance but not getting run away with it.
And so, as I make my plan for Swagger, on whom it would be so easy to turn up the gas and really let him rip because he’s talented and also mentally game, I tread carefully. I make sure that he works in an arena no more than four days a week, with one day of hacking or some other form of play. My rides are rarely long, and I mostly work on boring stuff. It means that you won’t be seeing him in any Young Horse Championship qualifiers, even though I feel like I could take him, because I’d get walloped by others who have mastered bigger gaits. And maybe those horses will stay sound and sane and trounce my horse when we all get to the Grand Prix level. But it’s not a risk I’m willing to take.
And since I don’t have bad behavior to slow me down, I have to use my brain to keep myself humble and hungry. Talent and willingness in one package is a thrilling responsibility, but it’s a responsibility. The bad boys (and girls) do keep us humble, and while it’s hard to remember that as I’m getting bucked off or run away with, I think it’s a tiny little blessing in disguise.