OK, I’ll admit it, I get a little irritated with some of the ideas I hear and read about horse breeding. It seems that often decisions about what stallion or which mare should be used to produce the next generation are not based on useful information. As a rider and trainer, in fact a trainer frequently of last resort whose work might make the difference between a horse finding a useful life or work versus being shipped off to become “dog Tucker” as they say down under, I feel that my words need to be heard.
First I ask, what is a horse to be used for. If all we want is a pasture ornament, then you can stop reading here. However if you are a rider, or a driver, someone who puts his or her pink (or brown or black or yellow) body in the middle of their back or God forbid in a wheeled vehicle dragging behind them, I submit that you will find that there are a constellation of traits that need to be considered in breeding horses.
Simply put a horse needs to be sound, that means sound of mind as well as sound of body. Additionally a riding horse needs to be smooth, whether a diagonally gaited horse or a laterally based gaited horse, no rider truly wants to be banged around and made uncomfortable. Unfortunately a horse can be made to look smooth by the way he is ridden. And horse shows can be misleading as a breeding selection criterion. Judges only have a short time to sort out a class of horses. Breeding decisions should be made slowly and deliberately, taking in all the available information, not just breeding to the “in vogue” national champion.
Sound of mind also means trainable. Horses need to be friendly and willing to use all their wonderful power and speed to help us not to hurt us. Fear is a natural trait in a prey animal, but a saddle horse, and particularly a driving horse, needs to have self-control. Everything else is details.
“What kind of bit should I use on him?” I am asked this question a lot. My answer is sort of smart assed sounding – “ask him.” This leaves you cold if you don’t speak horse, though, doesn’t it? The truth of the matter is that I don’t really know what it is recommended. I experiment a lot until my horse seems to respond like I want him to. That’s why my tack room is such a train wreck. I have no earthly idea how many bits and bridles are in there.
When I start colts are usually let them “soak”, tied to a ring hanging from a tree limb with a saddle on and a snaffle bit in their mouth. They spend a lot of hours becoming accustomed to the foreign object in their mouths before I actually begin to use it as a signaling device. Then when we start work I usually let them continue to carry a bit while I start work on the longe in a halter cavesson or Hackamore.Finally, before I commit to actually crawling aboard, I work for some lessons doing in-hand work with the double bridle. That is a snaffle or bridoon (we call it a filete) under a leverage bit such as a Weymouth bit. When the colt begins to lick and chew, and get light in my hands and crosses over with both front and back legs smoothly and rhythmically in response to a cluck of my tongue or light touch with the “stick” he’s ready to try riding . Some we actually pony off an older horse first, or hand lead with a ground person.
From there, once the colt has started working, it’s just experimentation with different bits. When he seems happy and light, and isn’t resisting, spitting out the contact or shaking his head, he’s probably accepting the bit. Sometimes the type of bit is dictated by, or related to, the type of work, event, or breed you aim for with your ‘ol pony.
“What is lightness?” I am asked. My answer is that it is a way of riding in which you don’t feel pressure, and after careful training, neither does your horse. You ride balanced on his back and do all kinds of things with no more effort than thought and slight movements. “You think it”, “they do it” or “balance and signal” are the mottos of riding in lightness. It’s the way old reining masters rode, the California Hackamore and spade bit vaqueros. It is the horsemanship of the Iberian bull fighter, the rejoeador. In lightness is the secret of the horse whisperers who ride Roman on two horses backs while four other horses gallop alongside, doing circles and going over jumps with no tack nor harness. It is a type of horsemanship that is millennia old and it is based on understanding the language, limitations and attitudes of horses. If you put ground and liberty work together with French classical equitation and a lot of imagination you will be pretty close to finding true lightness and harmony with your steed. Experience counts a lot, open mindedness helps, but the real key is the good fortune and blessing of finding a mentor. These are people who pass down wisdom and techniques garnered through the ages from their mentors in turn. Mentors have knowledge that they have suffered to learn and are willing to share with pupils who are going to work to achieve results. I must say that I have been blessed with a number of these mentors and I often have not thanked them enough. So if you are out there still, here is my deepest thanks, and I honor you, and praise your patience, and forbearance and guidance and knowledge.
Madison Avenue’s advertising geniuses would have us consuming more fried fast foods and sweet soft drinks, but in ranch country there’s an American conspiracy to grow our own food, eat wild critters, and consume fewer carbohydrates. (Unless you include biscuits and gravy. Oh well.) Also, we get a lot of exercise, especially the ranchers who use horses. There are a staggering number of ways we can burn calories working with horses. From hauling hay, hauling feed sacks, and shoveling stalls, to backing horse trailers and driving tractors with front end loaders. We work both body and mind. Add to that walking behind a colt on long lines in deep sand for an hour, riding at a rising trot for fifteen minutes, and loping circles in search of that perfect, cadenced, collected, slow canter. And that’s just a normal morning’s work around here.
I’ll admit horse ownership is expensive. Other activities can be too. Sporting equipment, event tickets, clothing with names stitched on pockets, large television screens and fancy vehicles can draw down a bank account. On the other hand ownership of land and horses, feed, tack and saddles can indeed add up. But “you gets what you pays for.” Horsemen get to work outdoors, lots of healthy exercise, and you have the opportunity to stimulate “the little gray cells” while you try to solve problems involved with attempting to coerce another thinking being of another species and language into doing your bidding. This, in the view of the “being” in question, having its own agenda. You get the chance to learn patience.You can study books, videos, and clinics to increase your knowledge. Finally, you add in love and caring. Yep, in this age of infernal combustion engines for transportation, ol’ Equus Caballus still has a place in our lives!