by Ron Meredith
More Learning from Horses: Sometimes It's the Horse
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Horses have taught me most of what I know about training horses. This is a secondhand story, but the story and the horse impressed me enough that I never forgot it. If memory serves, the guy who told me the story was Bud Blackburn, one of the first people to bring Quarter horses into our area. Bud had a stallion named Rock and was doing quite a bit of breeding.
One day a guy called Bud and said his mare was ready to be bred. Could he bring her over? Sure, Bud says, and pretty soon he sees a flatbed truck (that means it had no sides or back for those of you who aren’t into trucks) coming down his driveway. Bud had to rub his eyes when he saw the payload. The mare was standing in the center of the truck platform looking over the top of the cab. The guy pulled into Bud’s yard and found a bank he could back up to. The mare was wearing a Western saddle. There was a rope running from a stake pocket on one side of the platform, up and around the saddle horn, and down to a stake pocket on the other side.
The guy and the mare were both cool as cucumbers. He untied the rope, unwrapped the horn, and unsaddled the mare. Then he turned her around, walked her to the back of the truck and she jumped down. Off they went to find Rock and get her bred. When the party was over, the guy asked the mare to jump back up on the truck platform and she complied. He tied the mare’s halter rope over the top of the cab and put the saddle back on. Then he ran the rope up from one side of the truck, around the horn, and down to the other side again. The fella paid Bud and off he went with his mare standing on the flatbed, leaving Bud to pick his jaw up off the ground.
I guess the moral of this story is that some horses are so darn good you can get away with anything. We had a horse like that once named Mama. She wasn’t much of a looker but she knew the drill so well that she could make anybody look good in the show ring no matter how bad a rider they were. We used to rent her out at shows so people could go home feeling good because they’d won a ribbon.
If there’s a lesson here, it might be that if you go to someone who calls themselves a trainer, check out the kind of horses they work with first. A good trainer should be able to work with all temperaments, all breeds, all sexes, and all kinds of horses. We get all kinds every year here at Meredith Manor. We get baby horses that have been running wild in a pasture before they arrive. They’re a totally clean slate. We also get a lot of reform school candidates, even a few that have been rejected from clinics by some of the current gurus traveling the country. And we get everything in between.
There’re all OK with us because we want our students to experience what it’s like to work with the hard ones as well as the easy ones. Anybody can be a success with the easy horses. But professional trainers don’t get the easy horses. They get the ones the owners or other trainers have given up on. They can’t depend on the horse’s good nature and willingness to cooperate to get the job done. They have to have a systematic way of putting a foundation on the horse that will eventually allow the horse to specialize in whatever game the owner wants to play.
There’s another lesson. A good natured horse that just goes along with whatever you ask relieves you somewhat from the responsibility of having a training system that can work with any horse playing any game whether that game is dressage or reining or jumping. Some people focus on the game they want to play and all its rules and idiosyncrasies. They build their “training program” around following those rules instead of making sure that the horse progressively develops the rhythm, relaxation, freedom of gaits, acceptance of contact, straightness, balance, impulsion, suppleness, response to the aids, and collection (to whatever degree he’s physically capable) that allow him to play any game.
The nice thing about having a system, whether you’re an amateur rider with one horse or a professional trainer with a barnful of them, is that you’ve always got a place to go to figure out what the horse knows and what he needs to work on. So the horse comes to you with a bad habit or gets confused or cranky somewhere along the way while you’re working with him, you can always back up in the system until you find the hole, fix it, and move forward again. If you’ve got a good system, you’ll never have to worry about being a one-horse wonder.