Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Why There Aren't Crazy Horses

This post isn't on topic with anything to do with model horses, but it is one of those things that I find most model horse people just don't quite get since we hardly ever get a chance to actually interact and observe real horse behavior (though there are plenty of experienced horsemen who have their minds made up about certain breeds). Also, it has been on my mind lately, what with getting kicked by a "nutty Thoroughbred" and watching all the "insane, out-of-control Saddlebreds" at the Kentucky State Fair.

Very, VERY rarely, is any horse truly crazy. Now a whole book could be written about this (and indeed, there are some) but I hope to highlight a few reasons to give some perspective...

Is this a race or a rodeo? Yeehaw!

Most horses that most people ride are for pleasure. They are not highly competitive, high energy animals. They are usually even-tempered critters with chill attitudes that do the same thing every day, day in and day out. Perhaps the reason they are so chill is because... they do the same thing day in and day out, and it's usually nothing that strenuous. Whether it's the poor trail horse that's been taught to ignore whatever the wannabe cowboy on his back is daydreaming about or your lesson horse you school on once a week, these animals are NOTHING like creatures you see gracing the ring, barreling down the racetrack, or hopping over logs the size of your car.

THOSE are prime athletes. Born and bred for a specific type of work, proven themselves talented for such activities, and prepped and primed to be the best they can be at it, from their food right down to their shoes. They may be "quirky," certain behaviors overlooked for the sake of performance and winning. You won't see them in any leadline classes with a bouncing toddler in pigtails on their back.

Unless you're Mr. Muscleman, champion Standardbred trotter
who's sweeter than molasses on a sugar cane in a bowl of caramel sauce.
(photo from
Or Snowman, an old plow horse who would win a championship jumping competition
and then give the kids a pony ride...

One thing I notice people LOVE about horses in general is all those awesome pictures of them running in an open, grassy field, snorting with nostrils flaring, showing off, mane flying, muscles rippling, shiny coats, eyes wide and glistening... Oh they just can't buy enough of THOSE posters! We all had them as a kid, plastered on the walls and perhaps in our lockers at school. It is the pure, unadulterated spirit of the horse that we all fall in love with! A mighty stallion rearing tall and proud or galloping into the wind, invoking images left to us by books by Marguerite Henry and Walter Fraley.

Just add wings or horn for instant Dream Horse!
(photo by Tim Flach)

Now, because certain horses have been *made* for this kind of competition, when shown or put in a  situation that is not where people expect them to act like, well, horses, and are instead are actually supposed to be tamed and under our domination, is when people start to label them crazy. I mean, how dare a horse actually act like, well... the horse that we have pictures of on our walls? It's fun to look at, but when you have to DEAL with it....

Horses like Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Saddlebreds for instance, tend to get bad raps. They are related breeds (Arabians begat Thoroughbreds, which begat Saddlebreds) and all have something in common: The X-Factor.

Eclipse, Famous Thoroughbred and ancestor of both the modern Thoroughbred AND Saddlebred

Now, the X-Factor really has nothing to do with how their brains work, but it does mean they have these big hearts. Hearts made for pumping, that help them increase their stamina, that can let them expend a lot of energy for more than just a few seconds at a time. Because these horses can absolutely keep the "Look at me, I'm of FIRE!" look going, people begin to wonder... is this horse's head with ME? Can I control it? Or is that wild eye mean he's truly gone nuts?

This is what scares people. Everyone wants to ride something that will listen to them 100%. We put a lot of trust into a horse to keep us safe while we surf on their back. We ideally would like to work as one entity, minds melded, absolute obedience and submission to our aids so that there is no way this wild animals with a whole 'nother brain of his very own will betray us and leave use broken and bloody in the dirt.

To do this, some think they need to "break" the spirit of the horse in order to gain this dominance (anyone who's read Smokey the Cowhorse knows this technique), forgetting there is another way (and every "natural horseman" trainer in the world is going to say it with me):


How often will a horse follow YOU?

There is a way to work with a horse, still use our aids and tools, but not kill that exact drive that makes us love them for what they are.

Now, I'm not saying that usually this is completely natural, but you'll notice jockeys ride in such a way as to stay out of the horse's way and let him do what he does best. RUN!

If it weren't for those stirrups, they'd be barely touching them...

Oh yes, there's still bridles and bits and shoes and whips and other things that help the jockey guide the horse, but the unmitigated spirit is allowed to shine through. There are some who aren't kind about it, there's cheating in every sport, but I can guarantee you, that horse loves their job. When he doesn't, he lets them know, and the smart people see it and retire him. The sport on a whole, however, doesn't make for very long relationships between horse and rider... but when they do, they're always a force to be reckoned with.

Thoroughbreds tend to be a "One Person" horse... they have their person who they love and loves them. They get each other. When combined, they can do a lot together. This is why Off the Track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs) do SO well in their follow-up careers. They find their person. Their person knows how to get the most out of them by understanding their quirks and tendencies (most of which picked up on the track), and together, they form a SOLID bond.

Nothing like a girl and her pony <3

Another breed that gets called "Crazy" without even meeting them is the American Saddlebred. Their high stepping and alert expressions, flaring and snorting nostrils all give the impression the horse is barely under control, wild and spirited.

First off, let me explain that Saddlebreds are built for saddleseat... or rather, Saddleseat is built for THEM. They are born with long, upright necks, laidback shoulders, an natural, free, open, high-stepping moment. This yearling here for instance has never had a single piece of tack on before. And yet, look at what he does:

Can't get any more natural than that.

It's plain to see that the high headset of saddleseat will be easy for him, and as natural as asking any warmblood to go into a dressage frame. When a breed is made for this kind of action naturally, asking them to do it under saddle is easy and fun for them! The goal of Saddleseat is to ride the horse doing what he would do naturally having fun out in his pasture: head up, blowing, tail flagging, showing off that they're hot stuff!

What about those wild and crazy eyes? The snorting! Obviously these horses are terrified, right? Uh... no.

Oh yes, what a dangerous creature, you can tell those children are absolutely terrifying "Silks"...

Believe it or not, those eye whites you see is similar to the sclera you see on Appaloosas... but instead were selectively bred for the shape and style you see here: more up toward the top: up over the whole eye, and can be seen even when the horse is relaxed. When actually working, they look very pronounced because, well, he's looking at his surroundings and not half asleep like Silks up there.

When these horses get in the ring, they know their purpose: SHOW. OFF!

Photo by Doug Shiflet

Remember that big heart, stamina, energizing thing I mentioned earlier? Here's where it comes into play. That wild free spirit of a horse you dream of as a kid is suddenly under a rider who is doing what they can to stay out of the horse's way so they can do what they were bred to do. That's why the saddleseat rider sits farther back: to keep the weight off the front end so the horse can step up and do his thing. But, they are in control (and often with that curb reined slacked). So often people think that these horses are out of control and bouncing around the arena at top speed wherever they wish. Not true.

Yes, the bigger arena the better because that gives them more time to gain some speed to really show what they can do. To do it in anything smaller would be like asking an Olympic swimmer to do laps in a bathtub. But it also gives them room to manage themselves around other entrants in the class (anyone who's ridden in any arena with another rider or two knows just how easy it is to suddenly think that you're sharing an elevator.) Their horses may look like they're moving big and crazy fancy, but it's no different than a western pleasure class as far as traffic problems.

But seriously, if you think they're out of control, then obviously this child is terrified...

Gets me every time, he can't even see over the ears but still so serious! SQUEEE!
Photo by Doug Shiftlet (taken by Rachel Kelly)

As is this one:

"Dancer" doesn't appear having a problem standing still for her little girl.
Photo by Doug Shiflet

Basically, you can't condemn a whole breed based on what you see. You'll also notice that this breed, as a whole, does tend to have a very regal and alert look, even the kid-safe ones. Now consider the ones that need to really perform and churn those legs to win the overall Grand Champion titles... well yeah, they're going to look scary to ride! Trust me, it's not. yes, it is obvious that not just anyone can ride these horses, but neither can just anyone ride a Grand Pix Jumper (Snowman excluded) or Dressage horse. No one gets to the top by accident: they are piloted by some of the very best riders in the nation who have some serious experience. Much like a jockey or event rider. And I've NEVER seen horses that LOVE going to do their jobs as much as a Saddlebred. They get very excited! Not scared. Not angry. HAPPY excited! I get to play now! Everyone look how pretty I am!

This year's 5-Gaited World Grand Champion.
Howard Schatzberg Photography

So next time you think a horse is nuts, just look at some of these "crazy" horses my friends have:

Obviously this Arabian is a ticking time bomb for his first-time rider (and I mean first time EVER.)
Although Jared may be a tad TOO relaxed... LOL

And this Thoroughbred is out of control! I mean look, she has no reins!! (Despite the act he's going in a nice easy canter, still in a decent frame, supporting well with his back and listening with both ears to make sure she's well taken care of.)
Ya know, part of me tells me the rider is crazier than the horse...
Moments later... yeah, it's definitely the rider (photobombing in the back on her "wild steed")

Keep in mind, btw, that this rider is highly skilled and has a long lasting trust and relationship with her horse.
She doesn't always goof around like this.

Yep, Thoroughbreds are really full of it....

Cuddles, that is!

Now anyone can compile a bunch of photos of horses looking sweet and innocent. But I won't deny that some of these horses do have "quirks." They are ANIMALS. And prey animals at that. They have a fight or flight instinct. If they can't run away, they will do what they need to do to get away. It's nature, and one has to respect it. But so long as you treat these animals with respect and confidence, they will actually seek to be your friend, to include you into their herd. These "crazy" breeds, for whatever reason, tend to love people... to the point where they may worry for you. All those romantic stories of becoming actual friends with a horse... it happens. It may not be exact, but there are certain people that just *get it*.

And I won't deny it takes a certain kind of person to love them back. Maybe not the skydiving and bungee jumping set (though I swear most of my friends that have done those things ride Arabians and Thoroughbreds...) but generally people who are willing to take some risks and have adventures. And I mean stuff that may be as "exciting" as leaving the arena on occasion to go on a trail ride to maybe jumping that log bareback. And you know what? These are the kind of horses that would love to join them.

Off the Track Thoroughbred "Tigger" is willing to jump off small cliffs for his girl!

Remember the X-Factor? Big hearts just mean big love. Gushy, I know, but sometimes, it just fits.


Shannon de Waal said...

What? No love for barefoot TWHs? ;)

Braymere said...

I've ridden a lot of Arabs and Thoroughbreds and have albums filled with photos of them acting like... normal horses. I really don't find them to be wild and crazy at all, just a little more reactive and sensitive. This doesn't bother me. I'm a relaxed and confident rider so I actually prefer a "hot" horse.

Right now I'm leasing an Arab, and I think he's easier to ride than my old previous lease horse (a
Welsh Cob). However, I've had a number of riding friends (most of whom own QH's or Paints) tell me that they wouldn't enjoy riding him down the trail. They view his raised head and look-y manner as a prelude of spooks to come. I know that's not the case. He's really not spooky at all. He just pretends like he is.

I haven't had a lot of experience with Saddlebreds, but the few I've known have all had very good minds. One of my current riding buddies is 62 and trail rides her Saddlebred, Scarlett many, many miles each week, often solo. That mare is as good and solid a mount as I've ever known. I'd be happy to own one just like her.

Anonymous said...

Love this story :)