I remember vividly walking through a department store when I was expecting my first child. I was appalled at a screaming two year old and thought "my child will NEVER behave like that." However, the first thing I learned as a new mother was that you do not take your newborn baby and mold him like a piece of clay into what you think he should be.
I remember vividly my first endurance ride and looking at some ill-mannered horses and thinking "my horse will NEVER behave like that." Well... you know the rest of the story. Horses vary as much as humans and there are times when things do not go according to YOUR plan.
Having now been a mother of multiple offspring and a multiple horse owner, I have reached some conclusions. Luck plays a huge part in the game. My best horses have been ones I lucked into and not ones for whose special talents I can take credit. Once you have a talented individual, that you may have selected thoughtfully after much studying and asking of questions, but you more than likely lucked into, you have three options--train too much, too little or just right. Some people have a natural instinct for this. All the training in the world cannot make a winner out of a horse who does not have natural talent. Too much training can ruin a horse who does have natural talent. But I also think a mediocre horse, properly trained, will frequently out perform the super horse whose training has been handled improperly.
When I think of winners in our sport, I do not think of the horse that lashes brilliantly across our endurance skies for a couple of years and then we hear of no longer, but the horse who comes back year after year with great performances. The name of our sport is "endurance" and that means longevity on the trail. I hear people say they are "not into the mileage thing." I am. When I see a horse in our Yearbook that has anywhere in excess of 6,000 miles, I know I am looking at a horse who has natural talent and an owner who did it right. The horse who wins five rides in one year is not nearly as impressive as the horse who wins one ride a year for five years. There are those who do not have the time or circumstances to campaign to that extent and therefore cannot achieve such records. So I think it is a correct assumption that there are great horses and riders out there that have never had the opportunity to prove themselves.
Many people become famous in our sport because one exceptional horse put them there. Without that special horse, we may not have seen particularly distinguished performances from the rider. The mainstay and strength of AERC and endurance riding is made up of members who have never found that super horse, but come back year after year with respectable performances.
Attitude is all important in the horse. When you buy a horse it is pretty easy to tell if he is either hyper or laid back. But it is difficult to predict what behavior modification will take place as he is exposed to a rigorous training schedule and the excitement of ride day. There have been rides where I would not know that I was aboard the same animal that I had been training for a year. Personality changes on ride day will never cease to amaze me. And it happens with riders too.
If you find a horse that loves this sport, you are probably going to succeed. If you recognize when he has peaked and don't demand more than he can willingly give, you are very wise. From personal experience, I know that a previously well conditioned horse can return from a lay-off of many weeks and put in a sterling performance. I really feel that the low completion rate at some of the better known 100 miles rides are due to too many tired horses being asked to make supreme efforts. There are hundreds of horses that have completed the Tevis Cup Ride as a first endeavor. There are hundreds who have failed to complete it in spite of years of preparation in lesser competitions. There has to be a lesson in this someplace.
Attitude is all important in the rider. Many years ago a friend bemoaned the last minute cancellation of a ride with "I can't think about all that time I wasted conditioning my horse." If you do not enjoy the training, forget this sport. It's not for you. But if you enjoy the preparation, you have found your niche.
Finding the perfect horse is quite similar to finding the perfect mate. You marry someone and then you both mature at different rates and find different interests that may or may not be mutual. You are very simply not the same person you were twenty or so years ago. If it works, you are lucky! And it is the same with horses. What you start out with is not necessarily what you end up with. So, if you have found, or lucked into, a gifted athletic horse, who likes his work and you pay attention to your end of the partnership, we will probably hear about you. It only takes one good horse to put a person on the endurance map forever.
One of the traits I admire most in people is enthusiasm. But an enthusiastic ignorant rider is one of the worst things that can happen to a horse. I was one once and I heaped a world of abuse on a gallant horse because I was ignorant -- perhaps a good rider, but not a good horsewoman. There is a vast difference. And I was unbelievably lucky. She withstood my constant demands, lived to be 30 years old and gave me 9 foals. It is too bad that learning experiences have to sometimes come at the expense of a giving animal. So try to avoid pitfalls by letting common sense, inquiry and education walk hand in hand with Lady Luck. One of the most important guidelines I have found to determine the status of my horse is to look into his eyes on a daily basis. They tell you so much. Learn to read them.
Now lest you think I lay everything to luck, I do not. I am assuming that the horse owner puts a great deal of effort into making the relationship work.
You have developed patience; you have educated yourself; you have asked a million questions, discarded some answers and put others to work for you. You have been religious about your conditioning program and there are times when you have not done something because a hunch told you the right thing was not to do it. It is up to you to find out what works with your particular horse. When you cross an endurance ride finish line and you are feeling pretty good about it all, divide the credit between yourself, your horse and Lady Luck. It took all three. And then look into his eyes. He will tell you whether you asked too much or whether you did it just right.
Endurance excellence reaches its greatest heights when a talented horse, with the right mind set, is trained properly to endure -- for years.
Copyright © 2001, Juliette Suhr. All Rights Reserved.