Horses don’t understand “potential”

For the past few days I’ve been watching another owner/rider dispute unfold on COTH. Certainly after reading about this experience, the Henny dispute and the  issues over La Biosthetique Sam, I’d sure as heck think twice about buying a horse for a rider to compete.

The comments on the most recent threads repeat several common themes. Some of which (have a contract!) I agree with; others that I don’t. The one I have the most trouble with is the romantic idea that the horse in question deserves to reach its “potential” through it’s magic partnership with the specific Big Name Rider (BNR) that is competing it. Here’s a comment from one of those threads that exemplifies that perspective. I have removed the name of the horse and ride because it is pretty representative of a way of thinking, not specific to this situation.

I have had horses in my own care custody and control where the selfish owner have decided that they wanted their horse to come home to be a pet in their back yard. Too often owners don’t understand what it takes emotionally and financially to make an upper level horse, and sadly not every horse makes it to the top level of competition like your horse has. To take him away from her now, before he has even peaked in his career is sickening. Your horse has the potential and capability to be a successful 4 star horse but I say that if he were to stay in BNR’s program. Not every horse thrives and prospers with all riders. Horses pick their partner and Your Horse has chosen BNR. For the interest of the horse I strongly hope that you change your position. It would be disheartening to see that horse end up in the wrong hands!

I’m sorry, on a day when the WSJ has an article about the potential re-opening of equine slaughter houses in the U.S. I find it hard to get too upset because an upper level event horse might leave the barn of one BNR and go to another one. Hardly a tragedy since, for the five figures this horse will command, he’s hardly on the way to the auctions. Most likely he’ll be well cared for and will perform adequately for his next rider.

Even if he never achieves his “potential” as a team horse and instead becomes an ammy-owner’s prelim horse or a young rider’s move up mount, he is likely to be a pampered equine who receives top notch care. And guess what — he won’t care that he’s not jumping **** fences and jetting to foreign countries to compete.

It’s easy to project our own goals and desires onto our horses. In truth, most horses seem pretty darn content with enough food, plenty of turn out and a sympathetic ride.

Years ago when I bought my Trakhener he turned out to have some issues that made him a difficult ride with a tendency to rear. I found a wonderful, tactful trainer to help me and I bemoaned the fact that my very fancy horse would achieve his “potential” because of some bad training that he got before I bought him.

“Nonsense,” she said. “If you hadn’t bought him he might have hurt someone and ended up at auction. He’s a lot happier with you.”

And he was. He was an unbelievably fancy mover who became an extraordinary foxhunter. I guess he had a different idea about his “potential.” He certainly didn’t want to be a dressage horse.

I agree that some riders are more tactful than others and can coax a good ride out of a difficult or sensitive horse. Certainly people buy horses that don’t work out for them, because the horse does have an opinion. But I’m afraid that the romantic notion of a horse choosing his rider and eschewing all others is a just that — a fairytale. A horse might like a certain kind of ride, but it’s likely that there’s more than one of those riders out there.

I had one of those horses. If he didn’t like his rider would stand in the middle of the ring and refuse to move. He figured out early on in his career that passive resistance was the most effective. Hit him with a crop and he’d kick out, but he wouldn’t move. When I started to ride him people were amazed by how willing he was, and how much talent he had hidden. I ended up buying him and noticed, over the years that I had him, that he remained picky about his riders. Put someone on him he didn’t like and he’d go right back to the middle of the ring;  for other riders he was a willing partner.

So what do all of you think? Is the relationship that a horse has with a certain rider so unique that it should trump ownership issues? Should an owner leave their horse with a certain rider because he or she can unlock his potential? Or have owner/rider relationships just gotten a little out of hand as the “value” of upper level event horses has reached epic proportions, putting the most talented horses out of the reach of all but the most wealthy? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “Horses don’t understand “potential”

  1. I have been reading those discussions also. The poster of those particular remarks sounded to me like a very young rider who is somehow on the fringes of the dispute and emotional about it.
    I think that people who are experienced in horse sports are always looking for horses with potentially great ability, but also know very well that all the stars have to align for it to work out AND the horses do not care. The horses deserve to be well treated, healthy and happy regardless of their status or ability and most riders I know understand this. The pros and upper level riders might momentarily sigh at a possibly great horse in the hands of a lower level amateur, but then immediately turn to the next horse. I owned a horse with the mind and scope and athletic ability to be an upper level horse, clinicians I rode with told me this repeatedly. Sometimes I (almost) wanted him to be in the hands of a pro who could see what he could do. But he and I were happy plinking around at my level and if he occasionally showed star potential when being ridden by a better rider, well, it was just fun to watch. And at the end of the day all he wanted was his familiar stall and his dinner.

  2. I agree that the quote did seem to come from a younger rider but I read a lot of similar statements on both COTH and Eventing Nation during the Henny crisis. The implication is that the best place for “the horse” is with the BNR in question.

    I feel sorry for the riders who lose the ride on the horses they have nurtured. But I don’t honestly think most horses care to the extent that we riders want them to!

    Equestrianism is unlike almost any other sport in that success is a result of the partnership between horse and rider. But since the rider isn’t always the owner, it’s a fragile alliance. Look at the horse racing world. Jockeys lose their rides on top horses all the time. The Mike Smith/Zenyatta partnership or the Calvin Borel/Rachel Alexandra partnership is the exception, rather than the rule.

  3. I’ll weigh in as someone who has gained and lost mounts because I exercise rode for owners. I inevitably became attached, to some horses more than others. I was not always the best rider for a particular horse, but I didn’t need to be. Exercise rider. Some of the horses were very attached to me.
    They didn’t care (in the big-time angst way) when/if we got separated. I doubt Pops ever had a mental picture of me go through his brain after he left. Some horses showed signs of “missing” me, but hey, that was when I was in view. I was still there with carrots, and we all moved on.

    It’s a tough place to be in, if you are in actual love with a horse you don’t own. But if it’s about potential and riding, I agree with you Liz: 3 squares, plenty of fresh water and turnout, and some grooming will bliss most horses out to the rafters. I don’t think a horse ever thinks: “You know, I really want to get out of 3’6″. I know my potential is in 4′. I can DO IT.”

    The non-owner rider gets the privilege of the ride, often payment for training, and possibly the glory of the winners circle. It’s sad to be separated, but I don’t think the rider can claim “emotional ownership” of the horse’s future.

  4. I see two parts of this post. I agree on potential – I think horses generally just don’t care. But I disagree with you on heart horses/horses loving riders.

    I believe some horses don’t fall into the normal herd dynamics, in which they get attached to one rider, perhaps, but can get over it and get attached to another instead, too. I think that’s how it typically works. I’ve known two horses I think were exceptions to that, though. My first horse… who I almost wish hadn’t been sold to me in retrospect. I believe she truly loved her first owner, and she spent the first few years I had her acting out trying to bite, kick, throw, etc. It wasn’t the riding that was a problem, she was in a decent situation – but I truly believe she was THAT attached to her previous owner. Eventually she became attached to me, but not to the same extent, and she learned to enjoy other people, too. It just took a long time for her to get over Amy, the girl we bought her from.
    My current horse seems that way with me. Other people at my barn knew him for 5 years, and he was unhappy that entire time. He likes my trainer, and she competed him the year before I bought him (before I started riding with her.) He liked her, but was still unhappy. Within two weeks of my starting to ride him, he suddenly stopped the bad habits he’d previously had. He stopped trying to bite and kick people, stopped the nasty cowkick, the pinned ears went away, the upper lip was no longer wrinkled/curled back. He now interacts differently with everyone, not just me, but spends his time looking for me if he knows I’m on the barn property anywhere.

    My argument with Henny is that from the published reports it appears as if Peter has been paying all expenses for years. To me that becomes a different argument than “well, the two really like each other.” If I were allowed to ride my horse for free (I know of another horse where that is the situation) and he decided he loved me, I still would have no right to him if I hadn’t bought him. Partnerships sure look messy, and I hope to be able to keep myself happy in my riding without ever having to go into one.

    As for potential, though…. I think a horse deserves to be well cared for. I think a horse deserves a decent, sympathetic ride. Does that mean a perfect ride? No, and most horses don’t care if their ride is perfect or not. If the sympathetic aspect is there, and the horses aren’t in pain, they will typically do their best for you. Provide ample turnout and freedom to move, and try not to force a horse into a discipline it hates. I don’t think my horse would care if we were stuck in training level vs. going Grand Prix. I joke that he wants me to hurry up and be good enough for Grand Prix because he keeps offering me more high level stuff than I’m asking for, but I know in reality it’s just a reflection of the times I get things right and his natural tendencies, rather than “wanting” to fulfill potential.

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