Saturday, February 25, 2012

Suitability: Overhorsing

I am so excited to see the rescue where I volunteer, Gentle Giants, being featured on the Snarky Rider blog...not least because the director of the rescue, Christine, is very entertaining with her guest posts.

Her post about Chase went along with a theme I'm seeing in a lot of other horsey blogs in the past week: suitability. As is usually the case at the rescue, the most handsome horses get a ton of calls from potential adopters, regardless of their ability and whether the horse is advertised as a bloodthirsty brain-smashing bronc. Chase isn't quite that, but he needs a very special adopter. Someone who can put a lot of time into building his confidence and handling his trust issues. Someone who doesn't mind playing lawn darts every so often when things like this happen:
Image from Chase's adoption page. I guess GG figures that a picture is worth 1000 words.
I was not that person. Christine asked me if I would be willing to ride Chase-- a horse with severe fear issues when mounting-- in exchange for a little cash this summer. I thought about it. I figured that I could follow the OCD-specific pattern that Chase required in order to not bolt when I mounted him. I'd never any problem mounting smoothly, and what's more, I'd never been paid to ride before. I said yes.

I was slightly dismayed that I had to ride Western, since I never feel quite as secure in a Western saddle, but I soon realized why it was necessary. Chase totally lost his marbles in that instant when a rider disappeared from his sight as he or she moved from the ground to the saddle. I'm not sure why he hasn't figured out that people don't magically teleport from the ground to his back after months of expensive training, but funnily enough, horses don't seem to register things like the ratio of money to expected results.

So in order to mount, I had to crank his head around as far as possible so he could see me the whole time, loop the rein around the horn for leverage, and then use the horn to pull myself up from the ground...all with those too-long Western stirrups. Now, I'm 5'4." Chase is 16 hands. It wasn't that I couldn't mount up from the ground on a horse that height--I did it all the time in high school, with my 17-hand Thoroughbred Spur--but Spur wasn't trying to BOLT as I pulled myself up.

I bounced up into the stirrup with one leg. He scooted his hind end away from me. I repeated this until I got up the guts to just swing my other leg over. And then I heard my helmet ping against the round pen and I was sitting on the ground, trying to catch my breath. According to the people watching, I flipped over his head, thwacked against the wall, and fell into a pile of manure. Wish I could have seen it myself. 

I'm trying to get to the idea that suitability goes to the core of true horsemanship, and sometimes the factors are out of your control.  I'm never going to be taller than 5'4," and I'll never be suited to mounting a tall horse from the ground. Especially one with some "quirks." Personally, I think Chase would do best with a guy riding him--someone with the height to mount up easily and the strength to keep him from bolting (which he has now in the form of a brave volunteer). Maybe I could have learned to ride Chase--but we're not suited to each other as regular partners.

But so many people overhorse themselves-- or worse, their kids. Poor little guy--even in the thumbnails you can see how terrified he is of his horse. His position is weak; he gets left behind or jumped out of the tack, and he's dealing with his fear by YANKING on the reins, only making the problem worse. They are not a happy pair. (You'll have to click the link for photos. It's a professional photographer and I don't want to step on anyone's toes.)

Another unhappy pair:
If you're jumping higher out of the tack than your horse is jumping the's not a match. Not to gloss over the death grip this rider has on his horse's face, but I just looove how the horse gets smacked for refusing around 3:07...when it's clearly the rider's fault since he was laying on the horse's neck, making it physically impossible for the horse to lift up his front end! (video found via Snarky Rider)

A guest blogger for FHOTD had some great tips for determining suitability when you're buying a horse. I think it applies to just trying a horse that you're going to ride regularly as well.

Moral of the story: The Extended Version
I'll put my responses (coming from the perspective of someone trying to ride cheaply) after the basic guidelines from FHOTD.

FHOTD says: Well, start off by being realistic; don’t try to buy a $50,000 horse if you cannot afford it.
I say:  Find a way to take lessons on performance horses, then use those skills to make yourself a great asset to any barn that needs horses exercised.

FHOTD says: Be serious about buying a horse.
I say: Definitely, though in our case it's leasing or free-leasing. You have to really think--Do I have time to ride this horse regularly? Do I have the money for whatever costs there are, like gas money, farrier money, whatever? Right now, since I've kind of been advertising that I'm looking for a horse to ride at school and work, I think I actually have to narrow it down. There are not enough hours in the day to do homework, work, tack up and ride 4 different horses living in 4 different directions.

FHOTD says: Don’t buy a horse that doesn’t meet your discipline needs. 
I say: Depends. Right now I am riding a dressage horse and I've only taken one dressage lesson in my entire life. He's teaching me to be a lot quieter with my upper body so I think cross-training can actually be quite helpful. I think this rule applies more exclusively to buying.

FHOTD says: If you have a trainer, BRING THEM WITH YOU!!!
I say: Not really necessary for a free lease or just a random horse you're going to ride a couple times a week.

FHOTD says: Don’t lie about your riding ability.
I say: Amen. Colossal waste of everyone's time. But that isn't to say that if you're a showjumper, you can't ride dressage or vice versa. To take Joey, the horse I'm riding now, for example--his advertisement said "goes best in a dressage training level frame." Do I actually really know what a training level frame is? No. But I did know how to get a horse to stretch down and use his back, and after some Googling I figured we might be a good match. A beginner might have to look a little harder or take a few more lessons before he or she is able to find a horse to ride regularly that will be safe and appropriate, but there are older horses or horses with soundness issues who would benefit from some walking and trotting once in a while.

FHOTD says: Be prepared, be honest and be communicative.  And most of all don’t come out with the intention of wasting someone’s time.
I say: Great note to end on.

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