In Praise of Difficult Horses

Sometimes the process of working through a horse's problems yields lessons that will last a lifetime
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They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think that’s true of difficult horses as well. If you endure the worst and manage to build a partnership, you’ll find that somewhere along the way, most of the chinks in your own character have been patched. This is the way it was for my husband. 

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Dave was the typical horse-husband. He mended fences, fixed sagging gates and every so often, he’d hop on my Haflinger gelding, Morgan, for a quick ride around the barn. He just wasn’t all that interested in the horse thing. Like many of us, he started new projects with a lot of enthusiasm and then fizzled out before finishing. Better he not get into horses, I thought.


But, one late August afternoon, Dave told me he was thinking about getting a horse of his own. Now I could tell by the light in his eye that this new idea included a well-bred horse, a nicely made Western saddle, a little dust and the wide open range. No matter that we live in suburban Connecticut. In his mind, the image was as clear as a Montana sunrise. I think there was even mention of riding the Continental Divide.


I set about finding Dave a horse, trying to match the dream with reality. What I found was a horse named Mighty, a coming 5-year-old Haflinger gelding. Dave loved Mighty’s look. At just 14.3 hands, Mighty had the carriage and presence of the Baroque horse. There was the arched neck, thick mane and tail, feathered fetlocks and super-muscled hindquarters. 

During our three test rides (on three separate occasions), Mighty’s behavior was stellar. In fact, before we signed the check, he never gave us a lick of trouble. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint just when things go wrong, but in Mighty’s case it was clear: Things went wrong from the moment we brought him home. Gone was the steady mount we’d ridden in the seller’s open field. In his place was a pushy, belligerent, powerhouse of a horse. Longeing Mighty, who weighed about 1,300 pounds, was like holding onto a raging river of energy. For everything Dave asked him to do, from standing still to moving forward under saddle, Mighty had just the one stock answer: “Make me.”

Problem child
On the ground, Mighty was an expert at pushing and shoving. I’d dealt with horses who crowd at gates before; Mighty took it to a new level. He was determined and quick. In fact, Mighty did everything fast. Ask him to do something, and he’d do the opposite, quickly. 

Trail riding was out of the question. Mighty balked at water crossings, deep mud and any sort of downed tree limb. If we met hikers, Mighty would freeze, spin and bolt, scattering me and my horse or anything else in his way. I placed a call to the seller. “Well, yes,” she admitted. “He bolted with me … um … once.” When his registration papers finally came in, we saw that Mighty had been through six homes already, and he wasn’t yet 5 years old. There was no use getting mad. We either had to get help or sell him, and I knew Dave wasn’t ready to give up on his dream just yet. However, as disheartening as things looked, I saw little things in Mighty that gave me reason for hope. 

Things you might miss if you were sitting in the saddle, scared beyond measure. When Mighty spun and bolted, he never once offered to buck. I’d had the chance to watch his expression. The horse was terrified but fervently hoping Dave could stick the ride. And the funny thing is, Dave did get better at sticking the ride, literally learning to ride by the seat of his pants. And sometimes, after yet another bad ride, Mighty would sigh and rest his head against Dave’s chest as if he too wanted something better.

We sought the help of several teachers and friends who were further along in their horsemanship journey. Everyone we spoke with had a gem to offer us, but mostly it rested on one thing: proving to Mighty that Dave was a good leader. That meant gaining Mighty’s trust and respect. For the next several months, Dave spent a lot of time on the ground.

The turnaround
I can’t tell you when things began to turn around. If this was Hollywood, I’d show you the scene, the one shining moment that changed everything. Only this wasn’t Hollywood. And it didn’t happen that way. 

At first, it was pretty basic. Mighty no longer crowded the gate. He waited 20 or 30 feet away, back leg cocked, with a soft expression on his face. But getting that accomplished was an Olympic moment for Dave and Mighty.
Once, after dismounting, Dave looped the reins over Mighty’s neck and moved away. Mighty followed him of his own accord, matching Dave’s every step---turning right, turning left, trotting, stopping and backing up. In his own way, Mighty was reaching out to Dave.

Day by day, tiny cracks opened in the wall Mighty had built around himself. Dave re-introduced Mighty to the trails, giving him all the time he needed to check out water crossings before asking him to cross. Dave accepted that a “trail ride” might mean he’d never get beyond the first water crossing. But, as long as Mighty offered a try, Dave considered the ride a success. 

Over the course of one long summer, they became such a good team that they began leading other less confident horses over obstacles. The pride and carriage in both horse and rider was obvious. Last year, we took the horses on a clinic vacation and Dave went swimming with Mighty in a deep creek---a notable achievement for a horse who couldn’t cross a tiny stream without panicking.

Things are not perfect. Dave knows there’s still a good spook in there, but there’s also a sense of goodness back in the horse. Mighty believes in himself and so does Dave. And while they still haven’t ridden the Continental Divide, they haven’t ruled it out yet, either. 

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