I’ve never been good at remembering dates, so sometimes I measure my time with horses by when I learned things. Was it when I was still clipping whiskers for shows because we were all told to. Was it when I kept my horses in stalls for my convenience? Was it before I knew about ulcers? An education in horses comes over time but not always by making mistakes. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Good horse-keeping requires that we always try to do better. Call it a learning curve.
I started my Grandfather Horse at two and a half years old, as was generally accepted back in the day. In hindsight, I wish I didn’t have hindsight. The current information about growth plates wasn’t available then. I took advice given, as people still do. As time went on, I gave him supplements for osteoarthritis in his teens, inevitable in mature horses. Later in his twenties, his back dropped. Along the way, he taught me a way of communicating that I later learned had a name in the dog world: Calming Signals. No horse changed me more, or maybe I changed for him. But still, even if I’d never ridden him, his joints would have still worn out. Aging is fair that way.
By the time I got my Iberian Sporthorse weanling, Nubè, I knew I’d start him later, instead I was down a rabbit hole about ulcers. There wasn’t much information available and no supplements. Vets recommended buying Ranitidine over the drugstore counter and dosing them a few times a day. Ranitidine is off the market now for causing cancer in the digestive system, including the stomach.
It’s hard to imagine a time I didn’t know more than I wanted about ulcers, so when I had a chance to go to a nutrition seminar given by a veterinarian employed by a famous feed company, I went with a prepared list of questions. When the floor was opened, a Quarter Horse breeder asked about beefing up his futurity crop. How to build muscle mass because they started them as yearlings. Just smart business, the earlier the start, the more money in it for them. No one was ashamed to ask, it was like talking about fertilizer for crops. The veterinarian gave him recommendations. It wasn’t a secret and presumably, the vet knew what she was doing. I left without asking any of my questions. I still refuse to buy feed from that company. When I listen to “employed” experts, I question their ethics. And yes, now I know about the remarkable number of people in all areas of the horse industry who don’t care about horses. It isn’t that I didn’t know they existed; I was shocked that they had no shame.
I continued to bring my young sporthorse along slowly. I taught him to pick me up at the mounting block as a yearling, long before I thought about getting on. I wanted him to think the purpose of a mounting block was to give humans enough height to scratch effectively.
At two-years-old, I had memorized his gaits. Watching his trot, I thought about riding him so lightly that he’d move just the same under saddle. At two-and-a half-years-old, I watched his shoulders float up as he pushed forward to the canter and promised to not interfere with his transitions.
When Nubè was three, I thought about Barbaro, that Kentucky Derby winner. They were the same age, born days apart. I was rubbing the bumps on my gelding’s lower jaw, sore enough for him to show me, when I heard Barbaro had been euthanized. Run and done, before he got his adult teeth.
Finally, the longest four years of my life and my gelding’s fourth birthday fell on the same day. He was perfect; coming up on seventeen hands and lanky. Athletic and beautiful. He did tempi changes at play. He also had the mental maturity of a toddler picking his nose. He spent so much time wrestling and squealing that friends asked me about the Andalusian stall toy I got for my donkeys. I remained the only one who didn’t think fart jokes were riotously funny. And I waited.
By then I’d been training professionally a few years. My first client had been a breeding barn with a passel of weanlings that were my responsibility. Beyond that, I’d started enough young horses that it had dawned on me that most of the problems aren’t their structural maturity as much as their mental maturity. They might shy and shut down, becoming intimidated when we don’t notice. They act out, get frightened and panic. Their balance was more dependable than their thought process, and they’re still awkward on their feet. Bitterly counting each day, I gave Nubè more time.
Young fillies have it worse. All the usual angst but will a full dose of hormones. They require a different patience. And sometimes people contribute to the lack of confidence in a young horse. We kiss them on the nose one minute and whack them for being in our space the next. We bait them with food and yell at them for searching for more. We hyper-sensitize them with tickling and teasing until they make faces, then we laugh at them. We coo and baby talk, we yell and rattle. Am I the only one old enough to remember getting in trouble for teasing animals?
As time dragged on, four years and one month, then two, I reluctantly waited. By that autumn, there was a day that it all felt different. Nubè had a sweet calm, he could focus for more than an instant. His eyes were softer and he seemed to have a new-found confidence. I didn’t train him to behave; he was mentally ready. Barbaro had been dead for just under two years.
You know where I’m going with this. Most of us claim to not watch the Kentucky Derby. Most of us have seen the viral video of the winner, a horse they call Richie, in a post-race altercation with an outrider. I’ve watched comments on all sides. I’ve followed all the cheers for the win and jeers for the aftermath. I’ve listened to the arguments and rants and excuses. I heard the defense of the sport and the rage against it. Humans are extremists with a purple passion for horses.
If you’ve ever met a Thoroughbred, you know they love to run, like Labradors love to play ball. It’s in their bones. I don’t think other breeds are much different. I raced my horse, King, at the local schoolyard when I was a kid. He loved to run so much that we faced the wrong way at the start line and he still pulled ahead. It was thrilling and terrifying, partly because once he got going, no amount of pulling stopped him. Now I know that he ran into that bit out of pain. I know about growth plates and autonomic nervous systems. I understand the fear and flight response, I can explain in scientific terms why domination training is wrong.
Richie is a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. It’s ordinary in immature horses. I won’t make up a story about his training, I’ll just acknowledge that in that moment, his nervous system ruled him. Yes, he was hysterical and dangerous but also a toddler.
On the high side, Richie didn’t drop dead and his owners are skipping The Preakness. It’s something. Between this and Baffert and Santa Anita, the racing industry is facing a reckoning. Those of us who know the shame of falling short with our horses will hold the line. Change is slow but also inevitable.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t send our young girls off to defend the country doing gymnastics and we’d let horses who love to run grow up first. We would let go our romantic fantasies. Instead, we would bear our responsibility as an honor. In a perfect world, we would value maturity.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.
Want more? Become a “Barnie.” Subscribe to our online training group with training videos, interactive sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and join the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.
Anna teaches ongoing courses like Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and more at The Barn School, as well as virtual clinics and our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.
Visit annablake.com to find archived blogs, purchase signed books, schedule a live consultation, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses.
Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.