I own a (very) successful graded stakes winner. He is opinionated, tough, massive, and strong. He was taught at a young age that he is a champion. He was told that he was a great. That he was the best. And he got away with murder.
That horse is now seven years old, and it has taken almost a year of retraining for me to convince him that life is a whole lot easier once he realizes that I am his equal and not his minion. And yet each time that I vent or complain to my friends, they always respond with “well, thats a graded stakes winner for you.”
And at first I agreed. I had never experienced this level of horse before; at least not underneath me. I had handled tough yearlings, and strong mares, but I had never had to saddle them. And I thought that maybe that was exactly it. Maybe all graded stakes horses are like this. They are the best of the best, as only 2% of all thoroughbreds will ever win a race at that level. And maybe it takes that cocky swagger to make them run with that much power. Maybe they are all strong. All bullheaded. All kinda, slightly, a little bit mean.
But then I got Kennedy (formerly known as Larry) back. And on paper, he was so similar to Nixon. He was also a graded stakes winner. He was also massive. He was also strong, and also won almost $500,000. He also towers over me in the cross ties, and takes up an entire 12×12 stall. And I thought “well, here we go again.” And I prepared myself for another tough, long, and hard journey, and began the retraining with hesitancy.
But where Nixon is a bully, Kennedy is a lover. Where Nixon attempts to threaten me at every turn, Kennedy is constantly seeking approval and rewards. And where Nixon is just, quite simply, tough, Kennedy is exactly the opposite – he is the definition of easy. And in only a few short months of retraining and riding, he is XC schooling the same fences as Nixon is after a year. He is happy to hack out on the buckle, happy to pack around a beginner, and happy to just stand still and be groomed for hours. So similar in so many traits, but so different when it comes down to whats really important.
So I went back to the drawing board. Do any of these things that we use to assess our thoroughbreds potential abilities really matter? When we look at their race records – does running 3 times really mean that the horse is lazy? And running 85 mean that they are hot? Does never breaking a maiden mean that they are less athletic? Or is a graded stakes winner more likely to get to Rolex?
Because if you look at the thoroughbred entries at the 4* events, there are rarely any who were a success on the track. But why? Did the successful horse just end up in the breeding shed? Or did they end up in a field? Were they too tough? Or too broken?
And then there is pedigree. What can we really elude from that? I have now heard that there is another Afleet Alex floating around the dressage universe – bred identically to Nixon. Does that Afleet Alex blood really indicate an uphill, balanced, cadenced mover? Should every dressage rider suddenly hunt down that blood? I don’t think so.
In contrast I owned an Empire Maker that wanted nothing more than to be a 3’6 hunter. I remember taking him to his first lesson with my trainer Allie and explaining his pedigree, and she laughed. Because she had an Empire Maker that could jump a 1.4m fence with ease, but whose fuse ran about as short as a firecracker. And as she stared at Mak falling asleep in the middle of the ring while fellow students jumped a grid, she shook her head.
And you hear that Unbridled’s Song will always throw something that will break down, never holding up to the rigors of jumping – but Kennedy has that blood all over his dams side, and he ran over 50 times without a break.
And that got me to thinking. While it is good and all to study race records, and learn pedigrees, and observe conformation and movement, maybe the most important aspect of horse training, and horse ownership is much simpler. Maybe all we need to do is to take each animal that we encounter as an individual. As its own being.
No two horses are the same. No two beings can fit into one bubble. No two training methods will work identically. And in order to become more successful in this endeavor, in this training or retaining of the most majestic creature I have ever encountered, we need to acknowledge this. Appraise and assess each alone. And unlock that specific horses true ideals. Their true passion. Enhance their strengths and conquer their weaknesses. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover…or its record.
Because lord knows my sister is a marathon-running surgeon, and I can’t jog a mile. My brother is a hockey-playing lawyer, and I hate the cold. But me, well I’m a blogging scientist who enjoys nothing more than mucking a stall and galloping a thoroughbred – and no pedigree, conformation, injury, or record will ever slow me down.