BEST OF WILLIAM MICKLEM - 1 - A special horseman…and a lifelong lesson about difficult horses.

This is an amazing true story about acceptance and lack of acceptance. It shows how wrong it is to assume all ‘difficult’ horses just need to be ridden more forward. It is wrong to assume that just because a horse is unwilling, napping, rearing or bucking that they are being naughty and need discipline. Indeed it is dangerous to assume this. A proportion will undoubtedly have this behaviour because of pain.


As part of his horse business my father was sent many young horses to be introduced for the first time to a human on their back, and most were riding through the quiet Cornish lanes in a matter of days. However we had three youngsters who tested everyone to the limit. They were all out of the same mare, Black Velvet, who herself became a brood mare because no one could ride her.


The first youngster was a mare, who we christened Duchess of Argyll after the lady whose divorce was a great scandal in England in the early 1960’s. Others had tried to ‘break’ her before but this lady was not for breaking. She was gentle in every way until you tried to ride her, when she would show an impressive athletic talent, culminating in her shooting the saddle over her head by lifting both fore legs to her nose and ducking her head, before returning to her best angelic look.

My father persevered and thoroughly enjoyed working with her but it still took nine months for her to ‘accept’ being ridden. She was fantastic and was sold to Judy Bradwell, the Olympic judge who was then a teenager, and became her first Advanced event horse.


Our second offspring of Black Magic was a gelding I named L’Empereur. He was meant to be called Little Empereur but my inability to pronounce this at his first show meant that he became L’Empereur or Lomp for short!

He was even more difficult and wild, and once again had learnt all the tricks of the trade from those who had failed with him before he arrived with us. He took a full year to be rideable. A year which included many hours of being driven in long reins round the Cornish lanes with my father sitting on the bonnet of a friends car!

Lomp could only ridden by my very athletic brother Charlie, who had to run alongside the cantering Lomp and vault on, as he refused to stand still to be mounted. He was bought by clients of Cherry Hatton-Hall FBHS, the trainer who taught Princess Anne to ride while she was at school in Kent. Despite being only 15.1.he finished his career competing at the four star Burghley Horse Trials.


The third youngster was the best looking and was by Spiritus, the soon to be very famous event horse sire....and joy of joys no one had tried to do anything with him before. However it was the same story. This one was not going to be ridden in a few days. Our hearts sank as we faced a long haul to acceptance. Then after three days my father had him put down. My brothers and I were amazed, but the post mortem showed a tumour on the brain.

We thought he was just wild but my father knew he was not well, and throughout my equestrian life I have remembered this. I always give difficult horses the benefit of the doubt until I am sure they are not in pain. In my experience a huge number of horses that are ‘difficult’ are in pain or have learnt their bad habits while they were in pain. Good listening and empathy to horses is an art, a huge pleasure, and a vital part of achieving acceptance . Happy days. William.

NEXT TIME...BEST OF WILLIAM MICKLEM - 2 - A good idea has to give way to a better idea.

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Comment by Jo on November 29, 2009 at 2:24pm
Hi William (and all following this discussion)

I think your reply to slc2 was Wembley Hack Championship status - very mannerly, probably one handed and during tumultuous applause. Remember Wembley?

I hope you don't take the following as a criticism, slc2, but your (first) comment reminded me so much of something which happened to me almost two decades ago. For a significant bithday treat "milestone marker" I was determined to meet a dolphin in the flesh, not having been around them since childhood in Malaysia. In the UK that meant capitive and I duly trudged from the south to the north of England to the only captive dolphin in the UK - it was the closed season of a theme park/safari park; my idea of hell whatever season, but it was memerising to get up close and personal with one of these engaging and charming mammals. I painted railings all afternoon and failed to pluck up enough courage to "fall in" because I really wanted to swim with him. (The trainer had forbidden any swimming).

However, during discussions with one, up and coming trainer, I was so disillusioned and, quite frankly horrified, to hear the terms in which this young man spoke about his charge. Criticism about the individual and the species (Genus, actually: sounds like the title of film!!) abounded. The poor animal was berated for being a lazy good-for-nothing shirker who would do anything to get out of doing his exercises properly. The the ill-will towards captive, performing dolphins was palpable and I tried, in vain, to get this young, ego-driven man to consider another way; in particular to consider the huge example of intelligence and co-operation that confined dolphins exhibit every day. I left feeling depressed and demoralised; the isolation of a social/sociable mammal, alone, was difficult to comprehend but the brutal assessment of his work ethic defied belief and intelligent conclusion.

I tell this story not to liken dophins to horses, but to illustrate that we, as handlers, have a huge responsbility towards animals who, through no choice of their own, are asked to perform exercises which are fundamentally against their nature. (Leaving their herd/security, working alone, jumping over or into potential peril ......).

I, too, would prefer to give any horse the benefit of the doubt. Incidentally, despite his obvious short-comings, the dolphin trainer didn't refer to dolphins as "it" - something many equestrians are guilty of. Can I make a plea to all horse-lovers out there to make a vow NEVER to refer to any horse as "it". He or she isn't too much to ask for, is it?

I expect I am coming across as an eccentric (English) lady who coos and kisses her equine charges. Do you know - everything in this last sentence is true!

The story of the horse with bone cancer is tragic. I hope it doesn't sound too idealistic to say let this be a lesson to all of us.

Regarding horses needing a "tough professional who is unemotional and firm" I find "a professional approach with fair and firm boundaries and lashinhgs of love (even the edible kind)" works wonders.

In answer to the points about all behaviour being rigid, I couldn't disagree more. I find horses genuinely have personalities with their quirks and foibles, preferences and dislikes. These behavioural traits do not follow consistent pathways; surely it is celebrating and deciphering these characters which makes working with horses so rewarding? We would be tuning-up motor bikes if we wanted predictable automatons wouldn't we? I realise that I am speaking form the luxurious position of being an amateur - in that I don't have to make money from my horses. Time - aka money - seems to be a recurring theme which these horses need. Be that in their early handling or later starting - just when does "starting" start? |Happy training all x
Comment by William Micklem on November 29, 2009 at 11:20am
Sic2 makes many interesting points and it would be great to meet in person over a good meal to share experiences and look for better ways....and to talk about the evidence in the nature/nurture debate. It is my opinion that the research on twins shows how important it is to have both a good as possible nature and as good as possible nurture.

But I stand by what I said at the conclusion of my blog. "I always give difficult horses the benefit of the doubt until I am sure they are not in pain. In my experience a huge number of horses that are ‘difficult’ are in pain or have learnt their bad habits while they were in pain. Good listening and empathy to horses is an art, a huge pleasure, and a vital part of achieving acceptance."

I did not say that all 'difficult' horses are in pain and yes it is obviously challenging to discover if some horses are in pain (so I can only ever be as sure as the evidence allows - therefore I should have said as sure as possible), but the key point is that giving this initial benefit of the doubt opens the door to a strategy which in my experience oftens provides the answer to difficult horses. I would apply the same approach to 'difficult' people!

I hope my story illustrates that my Father's had sufficient empathy with horses to distinguish between a horse that was simple lacking in acceptance and a horse that was mentally sick or in pain, and that it is well worth working to become more like him and be able to understand and communicate better with horses. This is an effective and humane approach that few would challenge. It it also, as I said, a huge pleasure for many to improve their knowledge and feel, which as a result can lead to dramatically improved effectiveness.

I would always suggest having difficult horses examined thoroughly by an equine vet and then, if nothing was found, to restart them as though they had never been ridden or handled before. Then it is a matter of progressing step by step as normal with most of the problems both showing up and being sorted out in the first few days.

But please do not suggest that I am talking about horses that are simply pulling my leg or being what we would describe in Ireland as being a little 'cute.' I like these horses and they bring joy to my life...they are a real pleasure to work with as I think you know.

Of course the great difficulty with written communications is that you cannot see smiles and inner feelings of pleasure....the written word of someone who finds things obvious is often somewhat harsh and superior. I never wish to be like this ....and I enjoy discussing and sometimes disagreeing with people who show good will, a respect for others and a sense of joy in what they do.

I can give many examples of difficult horses that were found to be in here is one more. I rode a very unwilling horse in a BHS examination and gave him a strong ride round a course of fences. He jumped clear. No one else competed a round on him without at least one stop. In subsequent years I observed this horse continuing to be both unwilling and unhappy but completing his work...just. Then one day he fell down in the yard and broke his spine...he was shown to have bone cancer. He was actually a brave and willing soldier who deserved the benefit of the doubt, some better communication and some better veterinary assessment. That is all I am saying. William
Comment by Laura Coffey on November 27, 2009 at 11:24am
Bravo William, Thank you for sharing your lovely story. On a similar vein, I had a lovely WB that was a bolter. He was a big strong horse and his behavior became increasingly frightening and dangerous. Luckily,my vet at the time specialized in lameness issues. By chance I mentioned the problem to him one day which inspired a flurry of x-rays etc. It seems my boy had arthritis . The vet began to inject his hocks and the horse never bolted again.

This was an important lesson for me. One of which I am particularly thankful because now I have a horse who acts out every little ache and pain. I am now extraordinary mindful of any issue that could cause my horse discomfort. I have my (custom)saddle refitted regularly, his teeth checked annually, and while grooming him I diligently check for pulled muscles and sore spots. While it all sounds like a chore,this attention to detail is rewarded by a sensitive, soft ,supple, willing horse. Laura
Comment by Jackie Cochran on November 27, 2009 at 8:55am
The best thing about Fridays is that I usually get to ride. The second best thing is coming home and getting to read your blog.
Comment by William Micklem on November 27, 2009 at 8:46am
Jo..I agree with all of what you say...well done for rescuing those two horses...agree about role model...not only of mare but small herd...young horses need to be in a group if at all possible...thank you for your enthusiasm and good sense...William
Comment by Jo on November 27, 2009 at 8:29am
Great horses often DO have quirks and sensitivities not displayed by the "ordinary" ones - but then there is the huge topic of trainers/riders into whose hands horses come. They have no choice and it must be a real lottery for them. We are a small, family yard where, in a relatively short period of time, we have had two horses who were deemed "unrideable"; in fact, they were both badly started and with careful handling and training they came right within surprisingly short timeframes. One was a mare, the other a gelding; they both came from dressage yards and had been "professionally broken" - not sure which word is operative within that statement. I feel sure their early backing was rushed - they each had their own problems and were very different; the common denominator was a mistrust of tack (lack of acceptance) - possibly due to inappropriate introduction. An increased anxiety in a manege (as opposed to hacking out) was also obvious. Both are long stories - too long to go into here - but with very happy endings. There was no malice in these horses - but great fear. I, too, think great diligence should be shown in identifying and eliminating pain with "difficult" horses. The gelding mentioned here definitely had a sensitive sternum and needed care for girthing. His behavioural problems were always manifested during or shortly after mounting - bit like your long-reining boy!

Incidentally, the dressage yards, where their problems started, trained with an almost complete absence of jump/pole training. Both these horses improved immensely by increasing their self-confidence and all round sense of self and joie de vivre by being introduced to poles and jumping. This ties in to one of your other articles "Reasons to Jump your Dressage Horse" ?

Didn't mean to be rude re breeding from the mare - two out of three is not bad! But she stamped her stock with behavioural problems, didn't she. That's another fascinating subject - the influence of the dam on her foals - genetically and behaviourally - particularly with the increase in the use of embryo transfer using surrgoate mares. The dam is a role model - no? But I digress ....!
Comment by William Micklem on November 27, 2009 at 6:19am
Hi Jo...I hasten to add that we did not breed any of these three horses and I have no idea what made the dam so difficult...but she must have been talented!
Comment by Jo on November 27, 2009 at 6:13am
Hi William,

Your comments are fascinating - particularly the bright idea of breeding from the mare because she couldn't be ridden! Not exactly up there with "ridden performance testing" for mares which is, slowly, coming through from the Continent for mare gradings.

I agree - most horses are innately co-operative and WANT TO PLEASE their handlers and riders. They don't stand in their stables or paddocks thinking up ways to get one over on the humans the next day! We, as handlers/riders are often guilty of assuming that horses should accept whatever we expose them to - including tack and training "fashions" which come and go. There is no substitute, surely, for good solid mutual confidence and respect. The little chap on the left (foal) is a real livewire if his lead rope is anywhere from his withers backwards - it could be a wolllluff! Happy training! x

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