What I Didn't Know Then (About Starting Horses Young)

It seems that most things I learn about horses, I learn in hindsight. It’s not a bad thing. Horses learn that way, too.

When I was younger I had a great grasp of the little picture. And by that I mean the same way Wile E. Coyote had a fist around the Roadrunner’s long skinny throat…tight enough for reality to have a blackout–his own. I’m not saying I was no fun, but I also believed that patience was an excuse for procrastination. Type A people seemed lazy to me. Clearly it was going to take a horse to get my attention. In a moment of divine intervention, an Appaloosa crossed my path–a weanling naturally. It was the perfect situation. If you’re not averse changing everything.

I have a shoe-box theory of life. The short version is that the universe has perfect order and reason and love. Sometimes it doesn’t look that way because I live in a shoe-box and I can’t see over the top. If I was taller, I’d understand, but as it is, I can just do the best I can. Oh, and my shoe-box has a barn in it.

The biggest thing that escaped my limited view, is that there’s always a continuum of change: there’s the horse you started with, the horse you have now, and the horse he eventually became. Change is a constant but what they don’t tell you, is that the largest changes won’t involve your horse at all.

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” ― Cynthia Occelli

When is the best time to start a young horse? The disagreement starts early; studies say that growth plates don’t convert to bone for several years. Now some conservatives say wait to start a horse until they’re as old as six. It could feel like a waste for an impatient human but horses don’t believe in wasted time. Or time at all. On the other hand, the racing industry runs two-year-olds hard. And to spread the blame evenly, a few years ago at a nutrition seminar, most of the questions asked were about how to get Quarter horses ready to go as long yearlings. Horses live short lives and so we hurry.

In the beginning my young gelding had many huge issues, and by that I mean, I had many huge shortcomings that I was very committed to. I’m not proud to say he paid for some of that–not that I blamed him. I blamed everything else instead. That’s how he knew I was a keeper.

So I waited forever and started him at three. In hindsight, I wish I’d given him another year. It’s what I’ve done with every horse since him. With a little more mental maturity some of the issues can be avoided entirely.

Years flew by and we hardly noticed. Then his tendon injury gave me time question my chosen discipline; lots of reining horses retired early. It was the first time I heard the clock ticking, so I took the leap to dressage. In those days, competition dressage horses were elders, by comparison. That has changed some in the last twenty years, to the shame of contemporary dressage. Practiced properly, dressage can make a horse stronger and buy you more time. That was my new goal.

At the same time, I was learning the art of consistency; to quietly ask for his best every day. It wasn’t hard for him. By then we were partners and our bickering was replaced by high-level negotiations. But it required more diplomacy and mental focus than I possessed. And physical control was a huge issue; my body, not his.

Is there anything more beautiful than a horse in his prime with a rider who has figured out how to get out of his way? It feels like a shaft of golden light follows the two of you every stride. The line between horse and rider gets blurred and if you find a breath of focus so light and open, there are moments when it’s impossible to tell where the horse stops and the human starts. Oneness is a shabby, flat word for moments like those.

There’s this sweet spot that we call a horse’s prime. It’s when they are at the height of their physical strength and mental ability; the intersection of fully developed muscles and confident minds, and if a rider happens upon this precious moment with an open heart, magic happens, but it’s elation combined with dread. It’s why we see professional riders always looking for new horses, even as they ride world-class horses. The work doesn’t necessarily destroy them but everyone knows the clock is ticking; that sweet spot is temporary. It isn’t’ going to last longer than any other flower of a moment.

Blink and it’s over. Most horses start a slow decline but my gelding had an injury as definite as the flip of a light switch. I’ve been lucky, my Grandfather Horse survived, and now we’ve had as many retired years as we had riding years. It’s given me extra time for hindsight learning and the horses who have come after have all benefited. We owe him a debt, but it’s still bittersweet.

Even now we want them to live longer.

It’s unkind to force the work past that sweet spot and unkind to force the work before its time. The sad truth about my Grandfather Horse, now thirty, is that his physical prime was truly the shortest time of his life. There was no need to hurry to get there.

In early years, blame was an issue… for me; horses aren’t nearly as attracted to it as humans are. With my usual shoe-box hindsight, I had to acknowledge that our years of connection didn’t start when we got it right. My loud thoughts had made a racket inside his head from the beginning. We shared a shoe-box; of course my horse felt those dark feelings. Better to give up blame entirely. With all that extra room, forgiveness could stretch out and brighten the place up.

If I had it to do over again, I’d start him on day one by forgiving him for having a shorter life. Those were the good old days already.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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Comment by Anna Blake on May 12, 2016 at 9:53pm

Thank you!

Comment by Robynne Catheron on May 12, 2016 at 9:48pm
Beautifully written. You're absolutely right about the growth plates! I'm a big fan of Dr Deb Bennett, and especially her studies on this very topic. It's called "The Ranger Piece," and it's well worth the read. You'll find it in the left margin.


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