The Ideal Average Owner’s Horse – ?

We all have our preferences (and a laundry list of reasons why) for what we consider the ideal horse. But in keeping with the underlying theme here at Hooves, that the discussion and focus is often primarily on riding and what constitutes good riding conformation, let’s stay on that train of thought…thusly based on several factors, including but not exclusive to, conformation trends within breeds, temperament, size and movement, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ideal average owner’s horse – that is your horse for your average older child (we’ll assume past the pony stage) to adult – is the Morgan.

If you rolled your eyes, slap the back of your head to put them back into place and hear me out. I didn’t just pull that breed out of thin air or my butt. I’ve said a time or two (or twenty) that Morgan breeders seem to have their acts together (for the most part). Whereas so many other breeds have been ‘Americanized’ (turned into a Thoroughbred replica), the Morgan is one that has stayed relatively true to type. There’s irony in that as the Morgan is recognized as the first ‘American’ breed.

The Morgan is still a smaller horse, squarer in build with a naturally arching neck set on high, has good substance, good feet, a big hip, well-placed LS joint, laid back shoulder, open shoulder angle, well-structured head, and generally of a more level build. All those traits make them excellent, versatile riding mounts; dressage, jumping, even gaiting. The Morgan is also an excellent driving horse. And before anyone says, ‘But, but, but with the exception of gaiting most horses can do all those other things at a lower level’, I’ll add that many Morgans can do all those things to at least a medium level. This is a breed that’s generally built well enough to exceed the capabilities of your average owner and in spite of your average owner.

It might help at this point to tell you why I don’t think the three most popular breeds; the Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse and Arabian are ideal average owner horses.

Thoroughbred: Most of what’s on this continent are specifically racing bred, which means downhill built with a straighter hind leg conducive to quick, thrusty strides, often lower set or ewe necked, and plagued with flat soles, underrun heels and stick legs. On top of that, this is a thin-skinned, sensitive breed that tends towards a weak constitution and thus it’s harder to maintain health and soundness. The OTTB – if it isn’t already unsound – requires retraining that shouldn’t be tackled by your average owner, nor could it be accomplished to the horse’s benefit by your average owner. Simply put, this is too much horse with too many potential problems. But hey, they are a dime a dozen and can be had cheap!

Quarter Horse: Navigating the QH breed is like taking the Titanic down a class VI rapids. The breed has several sub-types for specialty work, but that hasn’t stopped breeders from crossing those sub-types and making matters worse.  You then have to be on the look out for the post legs, low set neck, downhill build, closed shoulder angle, calf-knees, stick legs and double aught feet. While there are plenty of solid riding conformed individuals in the breed, there’s so many that are not, and so many that have been used up by the time they are three that it can be a daunting task. And while their temperament is often considered great for the average owner, I feel that their ‘I’ll take it and then simply shut off when I can take it no more” attitude means that many owners think they are doing way better with the horse than they really are.  A horse that’s forgiving is wonderful, but a horse that forgives all is on a slippery slope of self-destruction.  But again, dime a dozen and can be had cheap!

Arabian: It’s no secret this is one of my least favorite breeds, but it’s not because it isn’t a good riding breed. Indeed, with the exception of the halter-bred individuals, the Arabian is a very good riding conformed horse with few problems. I eliminated it from being the best choice based on its general sensitivity and natural tendency to want to excitedly prance around with its head and tail in the air. This puts the horse into a hollow, inverted posture that is often perpetuated by the average owner, who then hauls on its face. The Arabian is superbly designed for Competitive Trail and Endurance and because of this I’ve seen a vast majority of people show up at these events with horses that are not in fact conditioned properly, but that ‘up-ness’ that Arabians have coupled with their lower average heart rates, and the ever efficient ability to dissipate body heat so well, fools people into thinking they’ve done a better job at conditioning than reality suggests.  I find this breed is ignorantly physically used and abused a lot, but without the same repercussions to soundness of a bigger muscled breed like the QH, or the finer boned Thoroughbred.

It’s been a year since HighonEquine sent me a picture of their Morgan horse, Duke. In this picture, Duke is 17.

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The biggest issue is the lack of conditioning; tight back and loin, sagging weak abdominals, and excess bulk on the base of neck. My first thought was that this horse was gaited because I see nothing else in his conformation that would suggest a natural tendency to move hollow. I believe Duke is standing up hill, so he wouldn’t be as level built as the photo suggests, but also not as straight through the stifle and hock. He is tied in behind the knee, and we might want a less round eye, more almond shaped. We could nitpick a few other things; a little more femur length, a little less tibia length, knee set on a touch lower, but overall he’d be a good riding candidate for your average owner; far easier to ride correctly than most OTTBs or specialized QHs.

The floor is now yours, but let’s assume we all understand that some individuals within any singular breed might very well be ideal for an average owner.  No argument, and I’ve said as much already.  The exercise here is to consider what breed, as it currently stands in the world, offers the most to your average owner and why, while still being able to have a modicum of self-preservation.  A horse with a great temperament, but horrid conformation does neither its owner nor itself a service by suffering in silence and killing itself a little bit each day.  We’re looking for the whole package.  What say you?

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Bargain Horse

There are so many sale ads displaying over-priced, over-prospected, poorly muscled, poorly conformed, poorly trained horses that imagine my pleasant surprise when the first ad I came across yesterday was the one below.

http://www.equine.com/horses-for-sale/horse-ad-3301299.html

Experienced ranch/cow and trail horse. $2,750

11 yr. old AQHA Registered Gelding. Experienced ranch/cow and trail horse.

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Buster is a 2002 Bay gelding, 15.2 hh, 1,200 lbs. He has been used for gathering, sorting working cattle. Rope and drag calves and trail riding.  He is calm, gentle and an easy keeper. Anyone can ride him.

There are so many things to like about this ad and this horse.  The ad contains almost all the information a buyer would need to know in just a few short sentences.  And while there is no reference to tying, trailering, bathing, or if this horse is UTD on shots, I’m confident by what is written and what is shown that those things are likely a given.

Buster is a quality Quarter Horse, there’s no doubt.  The biggest riding fault is the downhill build, but I suspect he might be standing on a bit of a downhill slope.  But even if he is as downhill as the picture shows, it can be forgiven because everything else is so good.

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He could do with a bit more muscle conditioning in terms of freeing up his topline and strengthening his abdominals.  He’s got some rough muscling in the neck and shoulder that has created a dip in front of the withers and there’s a bit too much bottom neck muscling.  I suspect he’s worn a tie down in his ranch/cattle work, and frankly there’s just no need for it as his neck is structured superbly and set on high.  There’s also a bit of tightness along the length of his back, but that’s easily fixed with a little ‘Dressage’ work.  He’s got excellent substance, feet look good, and a classic head structure.  He’s got a big hip with lots of power potential, and a strong, deep loin.  

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When you consider his solid conformation, obvious experience, calm temperament, strong constitution, age and size, this horse is an absolute steal at the listed price.  Props to the owners for a great ad from picture to information content to pricing. 

A Study In Snow

A second brave soul, WinterGlitter, has offered her equine companion for closer scrutiny so that all might learn.  Below is a detailed background of how she and Snow got to their current point.  I think there will be some amongst us who’ve had similar experiences.

 

Snow is a 12 year old, 14.2H Haflinger/ Paint gelding.  I picked him up from a local rescue that I was volunteering at in December of 2010.  The only information I have regarding his past is a little fuzzy.  Supposedly, Snow had been sent out for training to ride and drive when he was 2, whether he was ridden at all after that I have no idea. 

 

When I first started working with him, Snow could only walk and trot under saddle (he was incredibly unbalanced at the canter – think freight train running faster and faster just so he didn’t fall down), had a very rough concept of steering, stopping, and backing, and had many basic manners/groundwork issues that needed to be corrected as well (i.e. herd bound, not lifting feet/leaning on farrier, standing tied – wouldn’t pull back, but wouldn’t stand still either – and generally behaved like a ‘lady’s man’).  

 

All training and riding that he’s had since I’ve owned him has been done by me.  I’d like to continue that way, and would rather learn how to improve on my own with a professional’s guidance than have a trainer do it for me.

 

When I started working with Snow I did many, many hours of groundwork and ‘manners’ training: natural horsemanship, clicker training, traditional lunging, etc.  Snow has wonderful ground manners now, isn’t herd bound, and I wouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to let anyone else handle him.

 

I started out riding western, dinking around doing competitive trail, so that’s how I started riding Snow.  A little less than two years ago, I became interested in Dressage and Jumping, and started taking lessons with an Eventing Instructor.  I love it!  Both Dressage and Jumping are incredibly fun and I still dream about getting to an event one of these days, even if it’s just at Beginner Novice.

 

For about a year after I started lessons with this instructor things were going pretty well.  Even though I only averaged two lessons a month, I think we came along decently, working through some of Snow’s (and my) major roadblocks such as lack of rhythm, balance, suppleness, MY difficulty taking up contact (so used to throwing my reins away and riding on the buckle!), Snow’s stiffness and willingness to just brace against everything. 

 

However, last summer I started to notice some things I was not happy about with my pony’s training. I noticed he had started ducking behind the bit and breaking back at the 3rd vertebrae, which had never been his problem.  I was angry, angry at myself because I had followed a trainer like an unquestioning sheep and had allowed her to teach me to ride in a way that I knew was not right.  Her focus on pushing me to use more rein to force his head into a position was definitely not right in my opinion!  The more I thought about it, the more I noticed things I had been taught to do that were not right for me, my horse, and the level we were at.  I should mention at this point that cantering was still an issue, I could get a canter when I asked, but could not get the correct lead either direction (more typically to the right – firmly believe this has been an ongoing lack of balance in both horse and rider), and that I was – surprise! – unhappy with my instructor’s solution of using exaggerated haunches-in when asking for the canter; constantly, every time. 

 

So I quit.  I haven’t ridden with an instructor since then because I am being much more careful in my instructor search this time around.  I have continued to ride and work through the fall and winter when the horrible temperatures have been bearable, and sometimes when they haven’t been.  All the things my former instructor was advocating, I’ve ignored, and while my riding may not be truly benefitting Snow, I am confident that I am at least not harming him.  I started working more on long and low, relaxation, rhythm, suppleness, and making sure that my pony is balanced before I ask for the canter.  I can now pick up the lead I’m asking for (100% of the time as long as I’ve set Snow up to succeed) and I can even get a walk-canter transition with correct lead. 🙂

 

I’d like to know if Snow has athletic ability and suitability for Dressage and Jumping, and overall for Eventing.  I’m willing to work him up the levels as far as he will comfortably go, but more important to me is his sustainability.  Does Snow have any issues in his conformation that I’m going to be working against? Anything that could cause damage, pain, or lameness the more we ride and train?   

 

Without further ado, I present Snow (props to WinterGlinter and her excellent ground tying training):

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Neither the Haflinger nor the Paint is ideally suited to Eventing or the three disciplines of Dressage, Stadium Jumping and Cross Country Jumping that make up Eventing.  WinterGlinter doesn’t say how far up the Eventing ladder she wants go.   The lower levels can be tackled by a vast majority of sound, sensible equines without too much trouble.  Snow doesn’t have to possess any significant discipline specific traits, but rather just needs to be an all-around solidly ‘riding’ conformed individual with a good temperament to achieve those.  Let’s have a closer look.

Snow’s overall conditioning is lacking; sagging of the abdominals with a corresponding tightness over his back, and no clear definition of muscle groups confirms.  What’s below the belly line needs to be moved to fill in the topline – specifically a strengthening of the abdominals and the stretching and filling of the back and connecting soft tissue.

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The peaked croup needs to become less obvious by the loin becoming less tight and angular, and the dip in front of the withers needs to fill by reducing the bulk of the lower neck.  This can all be done with just good, correct basic ground and under saddle work.  There’s no magic or miracle required.  Six months of a consistent (5-6 days per week), well-thought out program that includes some stretching and massage, high quality feed, and plenty of turnout would transform Snow.

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There’s a lot to like about this horse, so let’s run down the list of strengths.

  • Excellent substance – we can thank the Haflinger for this.  He’s likely to move a bit more like a construction worker rather than a ballerina in the Dressage ring, but we’d have never expected Snow to be Baryshnikov in the first place without a good dose of Iberian
  • Excellent length of pelvis, almost 35% gives Snow a ton of power potential for collected work and jumping
  • Well-placed LS joint
  • Medium length of back
  • Proper angulation behind
  • Plenty of length to the humerus bone

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Like any horse, Snow isn’t perfect and possesses some traits that require working with/around.

  • Downhill build with an overall tendency in posture to place weight over his lower than ideal point of shoulder
  • Poorly constructed and set neck
  • Over-sized head
  • Withers don’t carry back particularly well, taking away strength of back structure

I did not mention the closed shoulder angle because it’s artificial, created by Snow standing over his point of shoulder and with the foreleg too far under the body.  Here’s another shot with him standing more correctly, but still in that forward and down posture tendency.  The shoulder angle is still closed, but only slightly.  Once Snow has been reconditioned and encouraged to move correctly his posture will lift and he’ll possess an adequate shoulder angle of 90 degrees.

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So how will these faults and weaknesses affect the final outcome?

As I’ve already suggested, twice, the final outcome should be viable; not entirely easy, but certainly achievable.   The downhill build makes getting off the forehand more difficult, but with such strong conformation behind there’s no reason why he can’t gain the strength to do it.  Hill work would be on my agenda for this horse and certainly doing cavelletti, gridwork and jumping on the ‘uphill’ would be included.  Downhill work – a requirement for cross country – would be saved for when Snow had already gained substantial strength, suppleness and adjustability on the flat.  Downhill work now merely encourages the poor posture.

Snow has a good bit of angulation to the hind leg, suited more to Dressage, but his femur is shorter than his tibia, which creates a shorter, quicker, thrustier stride suited to jumping or galloping.  Ideally for Eventing we’d want a femur and tibia of equal length with a little less overall angulation.  Still, it’s a solid hind leg that won’t interfere with lower level Eventing.

Even more than the downhill build, it is the construction and set of the neck, along with a bigger, heavier head (it’s a counter balance) that present the biggest challenge; hammer-headed and ewed.    I know that last may come as a surprise to some, since this is not typically how we envision ewe-necked horses.  The big difference for Snow is that his neck is far more deeply set and far shorter than most horses we see with ewe-necks.  He also possesses a good amount of fleshy cresting.

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WinterGlitter was generous enough to send along a riding photo.  While this is clearly a photo taken ‘before’ WinterGlitter started her new quest with Snow, it illustrates why simply shortening the rein and raising a horse’s head (what her instructor had her doing) in no way equates to correctness.

The lower cervical curve is dropped and bulging, the throat closed.  If Snow had a medium or long upper cervical curve, instead of the short one (and the mane was on the other side), you’d easily see that he’s broken at C3.  The entire neck is compressed as the rider has taken up contact, rather than horse stretching and seeking contact.   In part the horse’s resistance to accept contact comes from a too straight arm.  Elbows should be falling relaxed and bent at the rider’s side (red dot).  Too much inside rein has resulted in a shortened inside leg stride.

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WinterGlitter was right to question the direction her instructor was taking her in.  Perhaps when the relationship first started, she needed to become more focused and assertive in her riding.  A hired set of eyes that can identify that and push you forward isn’t a bad idea.  But ‘setting the head’ is a vicious cycle, particularly when you have non-ideal neck structure like Snow.  He wouldn’t naturally be carrying his head in that ‘Dressage position’ and by forcing him to carry it there through use of hand and rein means that to do it he’d have to invert his neck and make matters worse.

Snow absolutely must stretch that neck and seek contact before WinterGlinter takes up the slack.  Both horse and rider need to rely heavily on the great haunch.  Forget about what’s happening in front of the saddle and just ride the haunch.  Feel each hind leg as it leaves the ground, swings forward, and lands.  Control them with leg, seat and weight.  Ride the circle properly.  Embrace transitions within and between gaits.  Use terrain to your advantage.  Master shoulder-fore, then master shoulder-in.  There is no magic here; it’s just plain ole correct execution of the basics.

Displacement of the haunch to achieve a canter depart is wrong, all day long, every day.  Forward, rhythm, suppleness, acceptance of contact and straightness inevitably leads to a crisp, accurate depart.

Taking Snow beyond the lower levels would be a more difficult task.  I don’t believe it would have anything to do with him being unable to remain sound.  The ability to make the faster galloping times for cross country are just simply not in the wheelhouse of the bulkier equine.   His jumping form and scope will improve with correct riding, as the transfer of work to the haunch will change the front end musculature, but will it be enough for the larger obstacles?  Certainly the higher levels require a horse to be much handier, far more adjustable and braver.

Best wishes to WinterGlinter and Snow.  I hope to see some pictures of them together at an event in the near future.  If anyone else has some ideas and suggestions for them, I’m sure they’d be appreciative.

Blackhorse

Recently I watched a documentary called Blackfish.  It’s about a large, male captive killer whale that attacked a number of its handlers and trainers over the years, either hurting or killing them.  Cruelty, greed and stupidity knows no bounds in the human race, and for me this film was a prime example.

Killer whales, like dolphins, seals and the like are trained via operant conditioning.  Using a whistle, clicker, or other consistent sound, the command is bridged to the reward.  So simple.  So effective.  So powerful.  I first stumbled upon clicker training in 1999 at Equine Affair in Kentucky, bought a book written by Alexandra Kurland, and watched a demo with a horse given by a former Sea World trainer, whose name currently escapes me.  Naturally, I went home and tried it.  I repeat: so simple, so effective, so powerful.

Back to our killer whale…  There was no surprise to me that this massive mammal, kept in confinement, often beaten up by other captive whales, sometimes mistreated, drilled repeatedly, and put on public display would turn against those who claimed to love him.  Inadequately educated, the ‘trainers’ were chosen for their looks, charisma and ability to engage an audience, not for any real or imagined abilities as animal trainers.  Despite all odds, many of these ‘trainers’ lived to tell the tale, only to reinforce the generosity of this individual whale.

I could see ‘it’ (the killings) coming as plain as day.  My non-trainer husband, who watched with me, could see ‘it’ coming.  In hindsight many of the trainers, at least, could see suggestions.  The whale sometimes didn’t listen or ignored the command, and sometimes showed obvious agitation.  How embarrassing that that should happen during a live show.  The response by the trainers:  push harder, or worse, punish the whale by purposely withholding food, which acted as the reward.  Behind the scenes, the pushing and the punishing was even more severe.

So what exactly does all this have to do specifically with horses?

I’ve worked with some of the meanest, most aggressive horses.  Each and every one of them had good reason to be that way; people made them that way.  Consider this your friendly reminder.  While the horse is not nearly so big and powerful as a killer whale, it’s still big and powerful enough to put you in the ground before you can blink; always have the utmost respect for that.  Pay attention, be observant.  Behavior out of character is not to be ignored.  Stop.  Take a step back.  Consider.  Punish sparingly and certainly don’t do it out of some warped sense of ‘I’ll teach you a lesson’, because that’s likely to come back and bite you in the ass at some point.  Fair and consistent treatment rules the day.  Withholding of food or water does nothing more than frustrate an animal that can not reason at the level of a mature adult human.  Engage your brain and at least try to recognize that you aren’t the center of the universe.  Educate yourself, and be open to further learning.