There was a time in my life when I believed trainers that could produce the quickest results and progress through the levels the fastest were the best trainers. I believed it showed how much skill they possessed. It made me want to prove that I could do the same‒this was a huge mistake.
My biggest mistake in this regard was rushing my own horse, Talon, through the levels of Eventing. I was young and I wanted to prove myself (You can read more about that in my previous blog “Stop Struggling.”)
Horses are often asked to do too much, too fast, and far too young. Many competitions encourage this by offering futurities and makeovers. You might be able to convince me a young horse is mentally prepared for what is being asked of it; many horses with a good start in life can adjust to the demands of performance mentally quite well from a young age...BUT, you will never convince me they are physically mature enough for what is being asked of them. In other words, they might be willing, but that doesn’t mean they are physically ready. They aren’t done growing. Their skeletal systems are still not mature and are so delicate. However, this problem isn’t always age related; a horse of any age can be asked to do something before it is physically and mentally prepared, and all too often–to their own demise– they cooperate.
They may cooperate and perform what the trainer asks, but they will show warning signs. These whispers of warning from the horse come in the form of “bad” behaviors, resistances, and even medical issues (e.g. ulcers). Many training methods would encourage riders to punish the “bad” behavior or apply gadgets to force the horse to hide the problem (e.g., draw reins, tight nosebands, martingales, etc.). These training methods do not recognize the behavior/resistance stems from pain and/or stress. In many cases, the horses will continue to work through the discomfort until they just can't anymore; they go lame, become dangerous, or shutdown.
In my personal case, I always said Talon just had and “angry” personality. I even nicknamed him “The Angry Red Pony.” The truth is he was always trying to tell me he was in pain and stressed...I wasn’t listening. At this time in my life, I wasn’t aware the behavioral issues he was having were his way of communicating he was in pain and stressed. I just kept pushing him, blindly believing it was all a behavioral issue. He never went lame. He never hurt me. He shutdown–he just refused to continue.
If your horse is showing any warning signs I urge you to SLOW DOWN. Warning signs can be as subtle as tail swishing, ear pinning, and wrinkled nostrils. If you already know something just isn’t quite right work to find the root cause of the issue. Injections and pain medication are quick fixes that treats symptoms. They will help your horse feel better temporarily, but do not address the root cause of why your horse is in pain in the first place. Physical pain can come from many sources including poor training methods, crookedness, unbalanced hooves, poor saddle fit, dentistry, and stress-related medical issues. If your horse seems stressed, I encourage you to look at their entire lifestyle. How much turnout do they get? Are your training sessions and competitions stressing to them? Do they get adequate socialization with other horses? Do they have access to free choice forage?
The more and more I progress in my own horsemanship the slower and slower my work with horses becomes. What I thought was slow enough even a year ago now seems way too fast. Slow Down. Listen. Be Patient. In horsemanship it is best to be the tortoise.