It’s lovely when talent is obvious and the path to success rapid and predictable. Lovely, but rare. More of us are tempted to quit when plans don’t pan out rather than refill our patience tank.
The worst horse to train is the one that gives up, quitting without ever looking for an opening. There’s not much you can do with someone who refuses to try. You can’t shape, groom, or develop them because they’re more blob than potential.
It’s impossible to correct or encourage when nothing is happening. Sometimes pressure and motivation doesn’t lead to curiosity or movement, but hits the kill switch. The engine grinds to a stop and locks. Sometimes that’s the end of story.
But not every time.
When Promise Doesn’t Pan Out
Belle, a gorgeous daughter of Dandy Zippo, Western Pleasure stallion extraordinaire, was a challenge to start under saddle. No matter how small the bind, she wouldn’t try. The moment she felt the slightest restriction she quit. Quiet. Calmly. Quit.
Just lightly picking up a rein to suggest a bend stopped the lesson. Belle didn’t brace or resist; she just quit. When I added a bit more pressure she seemed more resigned to her fate. I tied her rein to the stirrup on the near side and left her to think without any distractions from me. If she moved her nose an inch and a half to the left the stirrup would fall straight and any hint of pressure would disappear.
A Beautiful Quitter
I watched Belle stand in the round pen a long time. She didn’t move or look for any release. Not one hoof moved. Ears didn’t wiggle and she didn’t lift her head up or down. I messed with this and messed with that. Nothing. She was a beautiful, sweet, quitter.
You can’t train a horse without movement. Teaching a horse to learn requires some effort or response. It’s impossible to refine or build on what you can’t get. Belle never resisted; she did nothing, completely frustrating me.
I got her broke to ride but couldn’t get her trained. There’s a difference. We could walk, trot, and lope, but that’s where it ended. I dreamed of showing her before breeding her to one of my stallions. Now I didn’t know if she was worth breeding.
Pedigree Guarantees Nothing
Pedigree suggests potential. Promise. It doesn’t guarantee anything.
I could have gone the bigger, badder, bind option, forcing Belle to react by applying increasing pressure until she had no choice. Years ago, one of America’s most beloved equine clinicians wasn’t as polished as he is now. He ran horses around a round pen until they were lathered in sweat, sucking air when they didn’t respond as he wanted. His explanation to the audience was that, “Eventually the horse’s lungs will force it to pay attention.”
That clinician would be the first to criticize what he used to do. I’m better than I used to be with more tools in my tool box and a greater understanding of what horses need than I had twenty or thirty years ago.
Even then, I reserved force for horses who declared war on me. Not only wasn’t Belle on offense; she wasn’t even in the game. When she didn’t respond to reasonable training methods, I quit.
The showing part of my plan for Belle wasn’t going to happen. We bought her as an early two-year-old, thrilled to have a beautiful filly from one of the hottest stallions in the business. Not only didn’t Belle try, but she wasn’t gaited like a pleasure horse, with no jog or lope; she trotted and cantered.
After getting her broke I turned her out as a three-year-old, letting her chill with the broodmares. A year later I decided to sell her, so brought her into the barn for a tune up.
As a two- and three-year-old Belle was less than ordinary. At four, she was fabulous. The first time I rode her after a year off she was amazing, offering a delightful easy jog. I was shocked, not sure that I believed what I was feeling. We walked and jogged both ways, easily transitioning from one to the other. Would she jog the next time I asked or go back to her quick-step gut-jiggling trot? I was skeptical.
She jogged, softly and cadenced. Every time. I decided to go all in and ask the big question; what happens when I ask her to lope?
What A Difference A Year Makes
Belle lifted into an easy lope, physically responsive and mentally engaged. I remember breezing around the arena wishing I had a witness. This isn’t how training normally progresses. I did the work, but there was a year’s delay in Belle’s response.
Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.Proverbs 22:6
It was all there. Belle just needed time to grow into who she was. Every great horseman knows that if you put a horse away right it comes out right the next time, whether that’s tomorrow, next month, or next year. And sometimes, miracles happen.
I’d love to report that Belle went on to be a superstar in the show pen. She did not. She was sweet, a delight to ride, and learned all the skills a show horse needs. But she wasn’t consistent in the show pen. I never bred her.
Importance of Patience with Horses and Children
There’s still something to learn. Always end a lesson when your horse is happier and more confident than when you began. Every interaction with your horse should produce a net-positive experience, even if it doesn’t turn out as you planned.
Some folks are late bloomers and not every kid achieves the hopes his or her parents hold. Patience gives both horses and children the room to grow into who God made them to be.
Help them make the most of who they are today. You never know what may happen years from now. Julia Child didn’t write a cookbook until she was fifty years old. Vera Wang entered the fashion industry at forty, a failed figure skater. Colonel Sanders didn’t franchise KFC until he was sixty-two years old!
Saul of Tarsus failed miserably as a career persecutor, but made history as the Apostle Paul.
Patience pays off. God created the miracle of metamorphosis. Even if you feel like an ugly gray moth today, be patient and don’t quit.
You know where butterflies come from.
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