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The Perfect Horse

The Perfect Horse

By Betsy Kelleher

It is fascinating to see the number of horses for sale on the internet that need more training! The ads for horses so well trained and quiet that anyone can ride are usually marked "SOLD," which tells me that’s what most people are looking for. Just like us.

Maybe we are all looking for the "perfect horse." A well known trainer’s magazine by that name is meant to help us fix whatever we own to make it become that ideal. But fixing any horse takes enormous time and patience. Not to mention that a bit of skill and knowledge also comes in very handy.

Each rider’s image of the perfect horse is different, depending on what that person wants to do with the horse. You can’t fix what isn’t broke, referring to the horse’s natural personality and temperament. A deadhead is perfect if you’re an old man with a bad back, for example, but not if you want a good performance horse. 

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to train my own horse. My first horse needed more training than I knew how to handle. Fortunately for me and Fanny, God sent me a new friend who did know how to handle that job. Training Fanny was one of those special experiences, even though I must admit that Pam did most of the work. And 27 years later, I’m still learning and relearning stuff regarding this never ending task of horse training.

I’m not claiming to BE a trainer, but I’ve bought enough books that I should be an expert (guess I need to read more of them to start with -- and then actually doing it is still another matter!). Seriously, a horse never trains itself. It’s up to us owners and riders! You do realize, of course, that even though you are not a professional trainer, whatever you do (or don’t do) with your horse IS actually training it one way or another. And any horse without human influence is a horse that needs more training.

After watching Ryan Gingerich’s demonstration on "de-spooking" at the Illinois Horse Fair last month, I was eager to "de-spook" our own horses! Several years ago, I had watched John Lyons do a similar thing (Gingerich is a certified John Lyons trainer).  I thought it was a bit overdone at the time, and I thought I could do it just as well with fewer steps. And maybe cutting corners is one reason some horses are not as bombproof as others!

Horse training takes time and patience (have I said that already?). The more I work with horses, the more I realize how much more I should be doing in a lesser way. Trying to teach too much at a time causes frustration, even blowups. It takes hundreds of repetitions for a horse to learn a specific cue and respond correctly 100% of the time. And it takes the giving of a specific cue in a specific way for the horse to gradually learn what that cue means. A quiet, relaxed owner who can patiently focus on one specific task at a time (without making it boring or aggravating to the horse) will find rewarding results. One thing I’ve learned is to break down each job into the smallest "piece" possible and be very sensitive to the horse’s reaction. Taking tiny steps forward is much better than being thrown backward, if you know what I mean!

I’ve been reading a book by Charles Wilhelm, "Building Your Dream Horse." It’s actually about Wilhelm’s "Ultimate Foundation Training," co-written by Allison Houston. An excellent book for anyone who owns horses. This book gives me what I’ve wanted for a long time: a step by step process. It is proof of the old saying, "When the student is ready to learn, the teacher will appear." This book is my teacher of the moment, and I am ready for its lesson! One sentence on the back cover explains: "In this book, Wilhelm trains you to use his tried and true principles in training your horse." Another sentence says readers should "recognize why it’s never, ever the horse’s fault."

We have books, videos, magazine articles, and there are countless trainers out there, with seminars and clinics and lessons and really, folks, we can get all the help we can afford! Sometimes it’s cheaper than buying another horse.

My first experience with a horse trainer was not a good one. Fanny started out as my oldest son’s 4-H project, a headstrong young mare that had not learned to stand square for a halter class. We took her to a woman who was supposed to teach her that one thing.

A week later, I visited the trainer, hoping for quick success. I saw whip marks all over Fanny’s chest and rump. The trainer told me, "This horse needs to learn discipline!" Fanny’s first experience with a trainer was definitely not what I had in mind. She had leaned on fences, broke boards, kicked in her stall, and actually kicked out one section of the barn wall. She probably cost this trainer more in repairs than I paid for one week’s training.

The whip marks alone led me to take Fanny home. We had to start all over. Whipping had gotten her attention, but not her trust. She was more of a handful than before.

Fortunately, more trainers today understand the need for kinder methods. The problem comes when the trainer brings back our horse and we have to take over. Owners often find themselves sooner or later back in trouble, because a horse’s actions are still dependent on the owner or rider’s influence!

I want to share an e-mail from a new internet friend who is also looking for another perfect horse. She has one, she says, just what we want, but he isn’t for sale.

"My fox trotter Sam would be a good match, but I am too fond of him to ever let him go. One reason I bought him was because the seller had an artificial leg and could mount him from either side and climb up on things to do so if he needed or drag himself up into the saddle. He also called him from the field and Sam came running. My fiancé says he is a pest because he is right on your heels all the time, like a puppy dog, but I love it. While I am brushing another horse, Sam will lay his head on my shoulder and chew on my hair or breathe on my neck. He will be with me forever because of the bond we have made. You can lead him behind a four wheeler or just grab some of his mane and lead him around. He has developed a wonderful gait and he is smooth in both a foxtrot and running walk. He is excellent on trails and neck reins, which many of these gaited horses do not do."

OK, let me see the hands of everyone who would like to own Sam! First of all, he must have a natural quiet disposition, but someone spent a lot of time and effort with this horse! Please forgive me, men; I can’t resist an observation here in response to her fiancé’s comment. I think men want to ride a horse and women want a relationship! But that’s why women often do better with horses. They’re usually eager to take more time and patience with horses (have I made my point yet?).

It’s the relationship that gives horse ownership its true joy! It’s the bond that gives me incentive to ride, to groom, to care for these special animals. And they recognize that love we give and respond to it. A horse needs a human’s good influence in order to trust and respect mankind, to overcome fears, to work through training issues and advance step by step toward becoming the perfect horse. 

In the same way, we need God’s indwelling Presence to help us be all we are meant to be. On our own, we are separated from our Creator by sin and guilt. But Christ’s death on the cross provided the way for us to be born into God’s family. In humble repentance, we can go to God, because of His Son, Jesus, and trust in His forgiving grace. In John 15:5, Jesus reminds us that "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." Paul, in Philippians 4:13, says, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

A horse’s natural untrained state is a humbling challenge or opportunity. We want a horse to come to us, to love us in its own way, to respond and to obey. Have you ever realized that this is the same that God wants from us? He created both horse and man. But He created a special gift in man, the ability to enjoy an intimate relationship with Himself. Through that relationship, we can find a new existence of peace and hope within His grace and love with the added strength of His daily guidance. It takes time and patience to learn who God is and what He can do in our lives. But the bond, the intimate fellowship, makes it all possible and worthwhile.

(Originally published in the April 2005 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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