‘Green on Green makes Black and Blue’
Who hasn’t noticed how common it is for either a newbie to horses, or a ‘return to rider’ after a hiatus spanning years, to buy a young, un-started, or unfinished, very low mileage and inexperienced horse? Sometimes it’s several horses!
Often the purchase is motivated by kindness and a desire to rescue animals from a bad situation. Sometimes it’s literally life or death- as in ‘take him now or he is dog tucker.’
In these cases it is very, very common to ‘overhorse’ ourselves. In fact, one of the most common problems many trainers seem to get called upon to fix is caused by green horses being bought by green humans.
the scenario often starts with these various thoughts:
- ‘We can learn together’.
- the horse is much cheaper with less training
- I used to gallop everywhere bareback 20 years ago, so I will be fine.
- The seller says she is ‘quiet’ but just needs some mileage. I can do mileage on a quiet horse.
It all starts out great. A beautiful new horse is advertised, or a needy one that’s no less beautiful and the price is right. a 15 minute successful test ride in an arena precedes quickly falling in love, the mind is decided and the horse comes home. the problems will usually arise within 2 weeks, and these are some typical scenarios:
- the horse is hard to catch.
- They can’t halter him
- Or lead him,
- He fidgets when handled and uses his weight against you- and sometimes against the gatepost too.
- The human gets stomped on if she dares ask for a foot.
- The horse is completely different from when he was tried out and just won’t settle.
- you wonder if it was drugged for the test ride
- The horse won’t go, or won’t stop.
- The horse is a Master Grass Diver and this prevents you going out anywhere. it’s a constant battle raising his head!
- The quiet pony is now hyper alert and spooky, or seems to be fast asleep every time you want to ride him.
- the rider loses his nerve. it wasn’t what the horse did, it was how he felt. or maybe it was undeniably what the horse did if he got the rider off.
- the pony will not trailer load.
Some people get the help they need and get lucky, and persevere through it to succeed with their horse. Sadly however the most common result is the person gives up on their dream, and sells the pony.
Worst case scenarios also happen: the horse can be ruined by the inexperienced handling, and end up getting blamed, being sold cheap, getting a bad rep and eventually on the slide to the killers. Sometimes a person is irreversibly injured or even killed by attempting to cope without the prerequisite skill required to teach a young or green horse.
Here is something many folk do not realise. Every time you are with a horse, you are training that horse.
Repeat that out loud. it’s true.
So if you are an experienced trainer who knows this, then that’s a powerful tool in the hands. However there is a long wide continuum of skills, and if you are on the green side, then all your unplanned, unconscious, unintended mistakes as well as all your doubt and fears are going to show up in that horse. The horse gets pushy because he just spent two weeks moving you out his way, and you didn’t notice. or he gets hard to bridle because you bang his teeth every time. Maybe he becomes tense and jumpy, because you yourself are terrified to ride but can’t admit it. Or he just refuses to move because you are not clear enough and don’t know how to motivate him.
The thing is, we don’t know what we don’t know, right? its possible to be super talented with horses and still make basic mistakes that will cause a horse to act in a way that is not helpful. Pat Parelli once said “show me your horse and I will tell you who you are.’
He also said ‘ give me your horse and I’ll have him doing what mine does in a couple of weeks; but if I gave you mine she’d be like yours in two days.’
This is why it is critical to always train ourselves first, in everything you might need to know about horses. Keep learning, and practise with an experienced horse, preferably before you buy your own.
We have a huge effect on our horses, and every one of us needs to make sure we have a bedrock solid foundation of basic skills to ensure the best chance for safety for all concerned. Even if you think you are pretty good, there is always someone better to learn from who can help you. Horsemanship is a talent, for sure, but it is also a teachable and very learnable skill, Not a one of us is perfect, and we all benefit from upskilling. It’s our responsibility to make sure that any effect we have on our horses is a good one.
However the buying process is a big pit waiting to trap you. The excitement of buying a horse often overwhelms common sense and minimises good decisions.
Here’s what I recommend you do.
1. First off, prepare. If you are either inexperienced or a newbie, please go and get lessons first. You need to know what you are capable of and make sure you are qualified to own a horse by having the knowledge and experience you need before you buy. This applies to horse husbandry as well as riding/training/handling. Do not base this massive decision upon a memory from twenty years ago or an unfulfilled dream. You owe it to the horse to be as informed and capable as possible. Make sure you can afford the upkeep and that you have the right situation for your new horse, including grazing, herd, support, shelter, access to vets etc etc.
2. Qualify the horse. Write a list of what you are looking for and why. Age, height, purpose, preferred breed, all of it. Share this with trusted friends who actually know what they are talking about and ask them if it’s realistic. Don’t be the one to buy a wild stallion just because it’s your favourite colour and you used to read Walter Farley. Be patient and specific.
3. When you find one worth looking at, tell the vendor you want to see the horse being caught, and observe the process. Watch the horse.
4. Don’t just take a five minute arena ride to decide if he’s right for you, unless all you ever want to do with the horse is five minute arena rides. If you are wanting a trail horse, you need to know that this horse will load, unload in a new area, stand to be tacked up, and will ride down that trail happily and safely. So have the vendor do this. Follow them. You want to see them ride thd horse in the purpose you want it for, then you want to try it yourself. If he won’t, then do not buy unless there is a trial period and right to return.
5. Don’t believe the vendor. This is advice to take with a grain of salt, as you can obviously get some good info from word of mouth, but the truth is that anyone selling a horse is motivated to sell. They will talk up the best points and gloss over the bad. They will stretch the truth-not because they are all dishonest, but because many people simply retell the story that sold the horse to them in the first place. Horses are not their stories. Others will comfortably outright lie. More others are lying to themselves. Many simply don’t know and just repeat what they’ve heard. And sadly, I would say that many people who own and sell horses cannot read a horse to save their lives.
And they are all motivated to influence you to want this horse.
Very occasionally you will find people who care about the horses and wil insist upon matching you up with the right one. These people are golden, they do exist, but they are not common.
6. If you can get a trial period or negotiate one, then do it. Buying a horse based on half an hour in his presence is never going to give you a full picture. It’s like getting married after a speed date.
7. When you get him home, leave him be! Set him up with all he needs to settle, and let him. Few people actually know what it feels like to be ‘sold’. To the horse, it’s out of the blue, everything familiar and comfortable is removed and he is alone with strangers. It can take some horses weeks or more to get over this. They are social creatures and they will grieve what is lost and fear what is new. It’s not fair to expect anyone to ‘perform’ after this happens to them. Horses are remarkably adaptable too and many get over it quickly, but read the horse and give him the time he needs.
8. Use that time to build your relationship without any demands. This will pay dividends later. Go hang in the paddock, put out hay, pick up poop, fill the troughs, keep an eye out for danger and let him learn to trust you.
9. Make sure you are learning from the best. Never stop. Don’t believe anything, but think critically, ask experienced and honest people with no skin in your game for advice. The better you are, the better your horse will feel.
10. Know that you will make mistakes. That’s ok, it’s how we learn. Know your limits and when to get help.
Being good with horses is not the easiest thing in the world to do. You never, ever stop learning. Anyone worth their salt knows that the sum of what they do not know far outweighs what they do understand today, and that every day has new discoveries to explore or old ones to deepen and expand.