Monday, December 21, 2009

If I Knew Then...

Sometimes I engage myself in a mostly useless thought experiment.

If I knew back then - when I first got Bailey - what I know now, what would I do differently?

The list is long.

I would do these (different) things as soon as possible, in roughly this order:

Find a barn with year-round, daily pasture turnout for him.
Feed him as much NICE hay as he will eat, plus maybe some alfalfa pellets.
Pull his racing shoes and find a quality, patient farrier.
Have a chiropractor out. Several times.
Start him immediately on a course of ulcer medication. (Gee, do you think my incredibly girthy, grumpy, nipping, hard-keeping ex-racehorse who wouldn't eat enough hay may have had ulcers?)
THEN add small amounts of grain if necessary. Also a hoof supplement.
Spend a month or two on ground manners, in which he was sorely lacking.
Start with a french-link snaffle instead of a single-jointed one.
Start work in-hand, bridled, on relaxing the head down and walking calmly.
Once suitably controllable, start taking him for long walks out in the countryside.
THEN begin riding work. Quietly and calmly. After he gained a couple hundred pounds.
Trail ride. A lot.
Join Pony Club! ;)

There are some things I did right, too. We did not canter until more than six months after he came home with us-- and I am sure he needed that time to build strength. We focused a lot on relaxation in our rides and didn't worry about the head or forcing him to slow down: just lots and lots of ring figures and patience. He received quality dental care and we always gave him free-choice hay.

Eventually, we learned to deal with his behavioral issues. Punishment didn't work, nor did appeasement. What did work was a very big round pen and a simple rule: in the middle, we do what I want to do and you're nice. If you're not nice, you get a big whack on the butt with my whip and you have to run until I say you can come back.

This was something Bailey understood. It was a simple binary: be nice, or work your butt off. His choice. He liked having choices, that's for sure. He hated feeling trapped.

I say the thought experiment is almost pointless because, well, I can't go back. I did the best I could by him and learned a lot, just like we all do. It's interesting to think about how much easier things would have been if I knew what I know now, and how much happier he'd have been early on. (Most of the things on that list eventually happened except lots of trail riding and ulcer treatment.)

But it's not entirely pointless because it puts things in perspective. In another five years, I'll probably feel the same way. "I can't believe how ignorant I was...I wish I knew more back then..."

So it keeps me humble. It sure reminds me to keep learning! And I know that I can do a better job each day with the horse I have. I'm always searching for better, because good isn't good enough: does my saddle fit perfectly? Are the training strategies I'm using working well? Are there other ways to do this that will result in a happier horse or a softer response? Is my horse's diet perfect? Are there holes in our training?

If I could do it over with Bailey, I would. I wish I could have a chance to own him again, even now, though I know that can't happen. But none of that means I regret my lack of knowledge back then-- it just drives me to learn as much as I can so I can do the best for my horses. Another chance with Bailey would be wonderful, but I will have just as many chances with every future horse that comes into my life too.

If you could go "back" to an earlier time with your horses, would you change anything? What would you do differently, knowing what you know now?


Heather said...

I would have given my gelding turn out time. When I was young I really thought that horses didn't like to be outside. I thought the pasture horses were the cast offs and unkempt. I really wish I could go back and give him that.

Leah Fry said...

I would have bought with my head, not my heart.

summersmom said...

I would never have listened to my "trainer" friends and bought a green horse. Then again, maybe I wouldn't have learned so much.

Sydney said...

I don't think I would change much.
I might have taken more riding lessons but I know I would have ended up like a lot of those lesson kids who could look pretty on a horse but not really ride when it came down to it.
I would have been bitless many more years before I did initially take the bit out of every horses mouth I rode.

RuckusButt said...

I really like this post. I've had similar thought experiments (great term, by the way!) with dogs I've adopted in the past, before I really understood training and motivation from a canine perspective.

I haven't owned a horse since I was a kid. In fact, I'd be one of "those" lesson kids/people right now if it wasn't for the random green-broke horses I ride. So I'm reading your list with interest because I will be experiencing my "first" ownership woes before too long.

I love your attitude of not regretting, just learning and moving forward. It's hard sometimes to realize things could have been different "if only" but what is important is using that knowledge in the future. Good on ya!

Heidi said...

I would have left my dressage barn and found an eventing/Pony Club barn! I have learned more in the past few years at my eventing barn with a good PC national examiner/USEA ICP trainer than I did in all the many more years at my dressage place!

stilllearning said...

My list is long too, and different for every horse. I've learned so much from each, and have made many trips down "side paths" along the way, some dead-ends, some wonderful.

Figuring out the puzzle that was each horse was most rewarding, tho. If I'd done everything correctly the first time it might not have been as interesting.

Good post, thanks.

L. Katie said...

I would never have sold any of my horses. I would have stopped showing the navicular horse a lot earlier. I would have done a lot more thinking for myself, and whole lot less blindly following my trainer's advice to the detriment of my horses' health and happiness.

Heather said...

L Katie- I second that. I still regret selling my old show gelding.

tangerine said...

Hi, I just found your blog off of COTH and seems like you're going through some of the same stuff I am. I love hearing about people's learning experiences with their horses and training new ones etc... I think it's super helpful to see what you would have done differently and I'll definitely be back for your advice (if that's ok) about my 5 yr old TB mare that I want to do Novice 3-day with. She's had the equivalent of 30 days under saddle and is way under weight. You can see my story @

Thanks for any insight!

manymisadventures said...

Hi Tangerine,

I will certainly come check out your blog. Welcome!

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