When you’re looking at a horse to buy, it’s good to know what you can fix. That’s very different from knowing what’s fixable.
The important question is: What can you fix?
To answer the question, you should consider your own abilities and dedication and the three categories of horse fixes: physical, training, and state-of-mind.
Physical fixes: Your vet is your guide to physical issues that could be of concern, which you might notice when you look at a horse or which might come up during a pre-purchase exam (PPE).
If a physical issue is fixable but you can’t afford to fix it…if a physical issue might be fixable but you can’t live with the outcome if the fix doesn’t work…or if spending money trying to fix a physical issue will affect your ability to buy another horse, then it’s best to pass on the horse. If the issue comes up after your PPE, there’s nothing you can do but cry in your oatmeal about your diminished horse budget after you pay your vet bill. When your tears are dry, you can be thankful you paid for that PPE (and those radiographs).
Skinny is easy to fix. So is a dull coat or rain rot. You can build muscle but you can’t necessarily repair muscle wastage. Sometimes chiropractic or massage work can fix stiffness or crookedness or pain, and it can be helpful to ask for a consultation from your chiropractor or massage therapist before you put Dobbin on your trailer.
Training fixes: You can learn a lot from riding the horse you’re considering, and even more from a trial if you can get one. Have you been told that the horse is “looky,” but you test that with distractions and find that he’s totally focused on you when you ride? If so, you probably have the tools to turn that particular problem around, if it’s a problem at all. If the seller or the seller’s agent rides the horse less well than you do, that’s also good sign that you’ll be able to fix basic problems.
If there are training issues that you’re not comfortable fixing on your own, you need to know what your trainer can fix. As a dressage rider, you may not know how to fix slow hind feet but your trainer should be able to. If you’re a hunter rider, you might not be able to handle a horse that overjumps a 2’6″ fence by a foot, but your trainer should be able to stay in the tack while your horse gains confidence.
If training rides aren’t in your budget, the question of what you can fix becomes more serious, even if you’re ready to take a few lessons a week (it’s even more serious if you’re once-a-week). Training your horse and you together how to fix things is something a good trainer can do, but the success will be dependent in part on your experience, the specific nature of your horse’s training problems, and your dedication (and/or courage and/or grit).
Sometimes, trainers can disappoint. A trainer you love can move to another barn or another state. You may find out that, as you grow as a rider, you and your trainer see things differently. Or your trainer might not get the job done. Be prepared with a back-up plan. Maybe you’ll want to seek out a clinician that’s compatible with your goals even though it might involve travel or extra expense. Be realistic about the resources available to you and their cost, if you require professional help.
There is a bright side. Depending on your goals and abilities, there may be training problems that are advantageous. Here’s one: let’s say you have no interest in showing but want to learn dressage, and you come across a Fourth Level horse that sticks his tongue out and is priced the same as that First Level/schooling Second horse you looked at last week. You might even fix the problem. It’s been done.
I welcome horses with mouth problems, because I can fix mouth problems and I enjoy “making a mouth.” Horses with mouth problems are often a bargain. But if you’ve never made a mouth or fixed a horse that has contact issues or curls, you may be setting yourself up for a long, hard and disappointing road, even with professional help. Maybe that’s something you’ll be good at or enjoy, but you don’t need to buy a horse with a mouth problem to find out. There are so many horses with mouth issues, that you can easily find out by finding someone else’s horse’s mouth to fix. Then you can look for the bargain horses or one of those super-sensitive Thoroughbreds. Just be aware that a mouth issue may be a neck issue, and that’s another kettle of fish.
State of mind fixes: You’re rolling the dice when you take on a state-of-mind that you want to fix. It’s entirely possible that a spooky horse has a magnesium deficiency or that a grumpy horse has ulcers or that a horse with a faraway look is simply bored. Unfortunately, it’s equally possible that a spooky horse is a spooky horse…that a grumpy horse has something physically wrong that isn’t easy to diagnose or to treat…or that a horse with a faraway look just doesn’t care for people and never will.
One thing is certain: love will not save the day. At least not love alone. It won’t transform a horse’s state of mind any more than it will keep an alcoholic from drinking. So don’t buy a horse because you feel sorry for her and think that all she needs is love to stop being spooky or grumpy or to change that faraway look in her eye. It’s true that she might need love, but you’ll need a good supply of patience and perseverance and maybe even some luck as you work on the problem.
That’s not to say you can’t change a horse’s mind. If you’re a thinking and feeling horsemen, chances are that a horse’s state of mind will change for the better in your presence. Just be aware that the more extreme the disconnect or disorder, the less likely you’ll be able to fix the problem, or fix it in a timely fashion.
If a good challenge doesn’t really excite you, if you want to get into or back into the show ring, or if a horse that’s difficult can make you sad or mad, then buy a horse whose state-of-mind is easy and comfortable for you to be around. Of course, if you like a challenge, I’m all for getting a horse that needs fixing. There are plenty of them around and they need your help. I think there’s nothing as rewarding as turning a troubled horse around but then, my walls aren’t covered with ribbons.
Things that need fixing — whether mental or physical or due to improper training — have a way of sticking around, while our tolerance has a way of diminishing with time. So before you go shopping, think about what you can fix, how easily you can fix what you want to fix, and what help you can get while you try to fix whatever it is that needs fixing. If you’re considering a big fix, think twice.
I was lucky enough to get a trial with my TB to learn what I could fix. I intended to buy myself a pretty small mover, likely off-breed, to learn the correct dressage seat, then sell it on to someone else who needed to learn and buy myself a horse with upper level potential. Instead I bought myself a TB who took a total of three months to grow his trot into the hardest one I’ve ever tried to sit! What I knew were my strengths were getting horses to relax through their backs and toplines and I swear I’m horsey prozac for tense and high energy horses, while still encouraging them to be very sensitive and forward. I really dislike working with spookers, though – just being near them zaps all energy from me. What I didn’t know if I could fix was my horse’s tendency to curl up to avoid the bit. He’s one of those sensitive TBs who probably learned to curl on the track and had been doing it ever since. I had a one month trial with two lessons a week and daily rides on my own. Within the first week we made the amount of progress I wanted to make over the entire month, and I discovered I did have an ability to improve that.
A good, experienced trainer would have fixed my horse’s contact issues more quickly, but I helped him completely re-learn how to use his body and the contact issues were fixed through that. Two years later as soon as I get on he reaches for contact instead of hiding from me. And I’m now a better rider for learning how to deal with it, and having a trainer who made me start from the beginning as if he were a green horse who only knew walk/trot/canter as we reshaped his body and taught him to push and carry from behind while swinging his back.
Oh, and this is the horse who used to be labelled “crazy” – who I just found out enjoys live mariachi bands playing at the end of our arena. Yep, my horsey prozac effects kicked in there, too!
Net, you have so many good things to say here, and you do so many things that I admire in a rider — you develop the horse’s strength so he can work properly, you understand that a horse needs to be calm to learn, you go back to the beginning rather than leapfrogging over the holes in training (bravo to your trainer for showing you the way).
I’m glad you raised the issue of curling, as it can be a hard fix.
But tell me — does your horse REALLY enjoys live mariachi bands playing at the end of the arena? I’m equally curious — why do you HAVE live mariachi bands playing at the end of your arena?
Our arena and our next door neighbors’ backyard border each other. They have a large family and a business which they run as an extended family, so they often have parties in their backyard. I try to ride during the parties because it’s good exposure to who knows what, but on Saturday I was rained and lightninged (the bigger issue) out of riding. About 30 minutes before dark the rain and lightning stopped, and they started up a party. Since I didn’t have time to saddle up and ride I decided a nice hand walk over just to give him some exposure since they had a mariachi band playing. It turns out he’s fairly indifferent to the live band itself, but he really perked up in a relaxed and interested way during accordion parts, and got a happy swing to the beat of cowbell when he heard that.
I’ve now trained my horse to not mind crowds of people to the point he sees a party or large group gathered for some reason and starts looking to see if anyone’s paying attention to give him treats, rather than thinking there might be something to fear or a race to run.
Also, I admit to having been one of those kids who rode my quarter horse bareback everywhere. Convenience store? Fast food? Along bikes on narrow pathways? Over the hills 4 wheelers were racing on so I could strengthen her hind end? With three other people piled on behind me? Play with cattle when the ropers needed help getting them somewhere? Of course!
There’s a kind of broke that behavior teaches a horse which my fancy dressage horse doesn’t have. I want to fix that, though, because I feel it was missing from his early education. Tina Konyot apparently treats Calecto V like that, and I enjoyed watching the awards ceremony Saturday – where he stood like an old cow horse while the other horses got worked up and excited.
Net – Thanks for explaining your horse’s fondness for the mariachi bands and how they ended up at the end of your arena! My retired TB is one of those horses that goes to the sound or the sight rather than shying away from it, and that’s one of things I love about him.
Exposing your horse to different sights and sounds and environments is the best thing for building confidence, for horse and rider. I know what you mean about the “kind of broke” that is rare in the dressage world, and riders and horses are the poorer for not having it. Although I have to admit that I’m quite happy to be in the manege every day…or in my big grass field…and trail riding just isn’t my thing.
I remember hearing Tina Konyot talk about how she takes all her horses trail riding and how she feels that it’s important to let her horses look around — as long as they want. Have you come across any other tidbits about the way she educates/desensitizes her horses?
I can’t even remember if I read about her or if it was Axel Steiner talking about her training during the competition webcast…. I don’t know a lot other than Anne Gribbons told her she can treat him like a pet after the Olympics, but needs to train hard now. So no playing in the creek with him instead of training. Personally, I think a swim in a creek sounds better than hosing a horse down to cool off after training!
Thanks. I’m so glad that Tina is going to the Olympics. I’m such a fan of the way she rides and trains and even though she says she’s not good at teaching, I think she’s a fabulous teacher.