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Behold, the perfect horse.

2015-02-22 10.31.192014-04-19 12.13.40

2014-03-30 14.42.06

We own the horse that everyone who posts on the “in search of” horse groups seems to be looking for. She is:

  • Child safe
  • Pretty
  • Goes hunt seat or western, jumps, runs barrels and poles
  • Perfect snaffle mouth; great bitless
  • No buck/rear/spook/bolt
  • Loads like a dream; hauls the best
  • Falls asleep at horse shows; nothing bothers her
  • Ties to the trailer all day without incident
  • Gets along great with other horses; no bite or kick
  • Easy keeper with no special needs other than plain front shoes

But if I were to write a completely honest sale ad for this priceless horse that we will never, ever sell, it would go something like this:

Senior mare, grey, 15 hands, retired polo pony, no papers, great on barrels and poles.  Cribs so badly she has no front teeth, so we have no idea how old she is. Could be thirty.  Cinchy as heck, will shoot backwards like a rocket ship if you don’t cinch her up slowly.  Cranky in her stall; will make ugly faces at you but don’t worry, the worst she can do is gum you!  Has an old broken coffin bone so one front hoof grows funky; fine if you keep front shoes on her. 

How many of you would rush out to see this horse?

Sale ads, like Internet dating ads, rarely mention negative qualities.  The reason is obvious – most will not come to see the horse/date you if you are brutally honest.  However, this leads to a lot of frustrated buyers, who go out to see horses and find a horse that they feel is not as described.  While dashing for the door is the proper response when you’re looking at a so-called beginner horse that bucks off his owner right in front of you (true story, happened to a friend of mine recently!), veto’ing a horse based upon a few negative qualities is the equine equivalent of meeting up with a handsome, funny, successful guy and turning up your nose because he’s wearing goofy shoes.

Nobody’s perfect and this has never been more true than in the horse world.  When I look back at every absolutely fabulous, beloved horse I have ever known, they all had a glitch.  Maybe they didn’t cross-tie.  Maybe they lost their marbles if you tried to trail ride them alone.  Maybe arenas with mirrors sent them into a tailspin.  I had a horse who was scared of men in hats.  I had an old rescue mare who was scared silly of the pretend cow the cutters had set up at one side of the arena. Repeat after me:  Flighty Prey Animal. If you are uncomfortable with handling a Flighty Prey Animal, even if that side only makes an appearance once every 5 years, horses are not for you.  The only horses you can trust to never, ever lose their minds and act like a Flighty Prey Animal are on rockers or merry-go-rounds.  A friend of mine’s solid 25 year old police horse flipped over backwards when someone inflated a helium balloon from a tank – because that is the sort of thing Flighty Prey Animals do.  (No one was hurt, thankfully)

Some of the most solid citizens under saddle have a serious ground glitch that is not going away. One that people talk about with an amazing level of venom is cribbing.  Cribbing can be a real pain in the butt if you have wood fences.  If you have pipe corrals, it’s kind of a non-issue.  Does it destroy their teeth?  Sure.  Does it keep them from gaining weight?  Nope, look at mine.  Can it sometimes be cured or greatly lessened?  Yes – try ulcer meds.  Will they teach everybody else in the barn to crib?  Nope.  (Hint:  When you see a whole bunch of cribbers in the same barn, it is because stressful conditions that create ulcers and gastric distress and cause cribbing, which relieves stomach discomfort, exist there.)  So why does it bother you so much?  Because they make a noise?  Because it looks funny?  Especially when I am looking for a beginner horse, I have a problem with bucking, bolting, rearing or spooking – I do not have a problem with a stall behavior that makes a noise and looks funny.  (Remember the old phrase “pick your battles” when horse shopping.  It is useful.)

So how do you stop nitpicking good horses out of the running and winding up empty-handed?  Make a list of which qualities are the MOST important for you to find, based upon who is going to ride the horse and the horse’s intended use.  My list, when I found this mare, would have gone something like this:

1. Quiet and predictable – especially at shows!  Kid is nervous enough without dealing with nervous horse.

2. Good in a crowded arena. No kick or reactive behavior.  Show warm up rings are scary!

3.  Willing over fences. Kid is not experienced enough to deal with a stopper.  She needs point-and-shoot.

4.  Calm in the line-up in flat classes. Previous horse was antsy and that scared her.

Then ask yourself – what are some flaws I can probably live with?  In my case:

1. Cinchy. No big deal, I can tack up the horse, or her trainer can, until she is old enough to learn how to deal with a cinchy horse.  We don’t allow her to ride unsupervised anyway, so it is a non-issue.  Also, I believe in massage and chiro and saddle fit – many owners do not, so this mare may not have had anything done to resolve the issue.

2.  Cribbing – If it doesn’t affect how she rides, who cares? I have pipe corrals, and metal on all of my wood edges.

3.  I could personally deal with a not-great loader.  We’re all good at loading and the kid isn’t old enough to load and go anywhere herself yet, so again…non issue.  And we could probably fix a horse who had loading issues.

4. We didn’t need a great trail horse.  Kid is mostly interested in riding in the arena and showing.  This mare doesn’t love going out alone.  She isn’t terrible but she is definitely a far more alert and spunky ride if you try to go out alone.  For some this would be a big problem; for us, it doesn’t matter.  If kid trail rides, it’ll be with a group. Mare is great with friends. She’s even fine if you pony off of her.  She’s just not a loner.

A beginner safe trail mare owned by a friend - who looked past the old cosmetic injury to the left hind.  How many buyers would have walked away?  9 years later this formerly slaughterbound rescue mare is still in a wonderful home.

A beginner safe trail mare owned by a friend – who looked past the old cosmetic injury to the left hind. How many buyers would have walked away? Nine years later this formerly slaughter-bound rescue mare is still in a wonderful home, and still the go-to horse when a grandkid wants to ride. 

Half the battle is figuring out which imperfections you can live with. Kicks other horses when tied to the trailer? Not an issue if you can put her on one side by herself, right?  Pulls back when tied?  Not a huge issue if he’ll stand when you loop the rope around the rail, and there’s always the blocker tie ring which fixes/minimizes the behavior. I think they cost $20.  (Also, once you figure out what kinds of things make him do that – like tightening the girth when tied or reaching for his face too quickly – you can frequently decrease the incidents so much that you’ll forget the horse was ever a puller).  How about head shy?   I have never had one not get a lot better with patience and cookies.  When you horse shop, remember that most issues are created by humans and can be fixed by different, more experienced, softer, more consistent humans.  I have seen horses have absolute 180 degree transformations in their first month here – the crabby become happy, the shut-down and dull become alert and interested.  As they become physically more comfortable and pain-free thanks to quality farrier, chiro, massage, a saddle that fits, etc. you see cranky, sullen behavior, refusal to move off the leg, head tossing, refusal to take a lead and general stiffness under saddle disappear.

So go shopping – just make sure your sense of reality is packed along with your wallet.  Perfect for you doesn’t mean perfect and flawless.  Perfect and flawless isn’t any more common in horses than it is in humans.  (Who doesn’t know that person who is forever alone because they have decided they require 46 specific qualities in their future partner?)  Decide what is important, leave room in the budget for a vet check so that you know exactly what the soundness level is, and then choose the best horse for you that is out there in your price range.  Close your eyes to color, size and gender unless they’re related to your competitive goals.  Mr. or Ms. Right is out there – don’t reject them because they are wearing ugly socks!



6 Responses to “Why I have the perfect horse – and you don’t”

  1. Denise

    Absolutely perfect!

  2. tbdancer

    Excellent column. And you’re right. No horse is perfect but many imperfect horses will be MORE than adequate for the job at hand. The gray mare is a keeper, for sure :o)

  3. Maria Wachter

    This is amazing! I must share

  4. Deb Woodworth

    Excellent post and totally true.

    I have many old horses that I use in my lesson program with children. Each one of them is kid safe, but has quirks.
    The mare I wouldn’t take many thousands of dollars for will buck you off at a canter if pushed to her breaking point (and it’s not HER idea), but she is otherwise as perfect as you can find.
    I have a pinto pony every kid loves and he IS perfect! except..well..darn, he doesn’t take his right lead very often. so guess what, he doesn’t win in shows. oh well.

    Having had many kids over the years buy horses (and I do try to stop them, believe me!)…I have seen it all and have a priority list I have them go through that does exactly as you say, makes them think about what they will NOT ever tolerate and what little vices they will tolerate. It does work as we used it to buy a horse for my daughter 12 years ago and still have the old Tennesee Walker who is a odd as they come but fit OUR priorities perfectly. Every horse person is different too. Now in my old age, I don’t tolerate spooking and dancing like I used to but will put up with some ground manner issues others hate.

    I love going with people to look at horses to buy and find the matching so interesting.

  5. Deb Woodworth

    oh and I just have to add as a comment to your last sentence,,, AMEN.

    I dislike Paints. Mostly because they were so overbred in our area due to their “purdy” factor. When I picked up two skinny horses last year, one was a truly fugly paint. Bred badly in so many ways, I can’t begin to tell you. Ugly head, sway back, down hill, etc. At least his legs are strong and his feet are good. NOW, I would NEVER have looked at this horse to buy EVER. But, guess what? He is what I need. We started riding him after almost no training ( he is 13), but also NO abuse, and he picked it up so quickly we were amazed. After just a few weeks, we were trailering him all over and taking him to trail rides and little shows where his relaxed nature took it all in stride.
    Now I have to eat my words with all my friends who say, you got a paint, eh? and then snicker… knowing my years of saying “NEVER”.
    Lesson learned.. never say never.

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