Anyone who has been deemed “good with horses” probably gets asked one particular question at some point: “What do you think that I should do to solve this problem that I and my horse are having?” While I know some who get annoyed or even frustrated by it, by far the majority of the experienced horse people seem to look forward to having their knowledge queried. After all, such a query is as an opportunity to share opinions and insights with an individual who actually wants the input. That doesn’t happen very often.
And more often than not, the more experienced hand is able to offer some insight that might have a positive impact on a horse-human partnership. When that happens, it is a tremendously good outcome. Other times, though, no amount of advice or insight will do anything for the human being or for the animal. There are a lot of reasons for this: the owner might be trying to manage a behavior beyond their ability, or the root causes might have an intractable physical or mental origin.
As a result, every experienced horse person (whether they be a trainer, riding instructor or long-time rider) should keep one particular line in their arsenal of tools. It shouldn’t be used often, but there are circumstances where it is not only warranted, but necessary.
Here’s the short version: Sell your horse.
A slightly longer summary might be, “Right now, your horse needs someone who is better able to help him. You simply do not have the level of experience to get him through some of his rough spots.”
Such a line is bitter medicine, regardless of its occasional necessity. In fact, there are few other lines more powerful or devastating – no matter how gently delivered. Telling another to, “Sell your horse,” is a personal repudiation against another their judgment, passion and abilities. But even so, momentary psychic pain is a far better alternative to serious physical injury. Horses are big creatures and can be tremendously dangerous. Every good horseman knows this, it’s why we spend a disproportionate amount of time learning how to be safe.
Yet even when we keep eyes open and maintain good practices, there are still risks. I learned one such lesson the hard way. A number of years ago, I was helping a rancher friend to replace a large section of fence. The fencing had been damaged when a drunk driver had crashed into it the week prior. Because he had needed to graze part of his herd on the land, he had strung electrical wire and some special visibility tape over the damaged section until he might have a chance to repair it with a more permanent arrangement.
While we were digging replacement holes and cementing replacement uprights, twenty-five or so mares and foals came to investigate the new fence line. Neither myself, my friend, or any of the other people who were helping with the repairs gave this much mind. While energetic and curious, they largely avoided the main work area. One of the foals, however, wandered amongst the helpers, wheelbarrows and buckets. A number of the people present, myself included, thought this was rather neat. The foal was very interested in the work, and earned herself more than a few scratches and treats. This attitude changed, however when a large semi-truck passed very close to the fence-line.
Predictably, the foal exploded and set off pandemonium in the herd at large. If horses are good at anything, it’s mass hysteria. As one, every horse in the group tried to bolt in a different direction, resulting in a solidly impressive impressive game of bumper-pony.
And while not one of the horses bolted far, the confusion was enough that I found himself between two mares trying to go opposite directions. Horse 1, tried to move horse 2 aside by kicking at her. But instead of the blow landing on its intended target, she instead sent me flying. And though I recovered (more frightened than hurt), I learned an important lesson: horses can be unpredictable and when a big animal animal turns unpredictable, it is very easy to be hurt.
In fact, most injuries tend to happen in just such moments. Either the human is surprised, or the horse is surprised and the rider is unprepared for the resulting movement. But by then, it’s too late. The rider has been pitched, stepped on, run into a branch, or kicked. The horse didn’t mean for this to happen, it just kind of did.
Experience can help diffuse such situations immensely. I’ve done enough flying dismounts to have gained a certain level of control about it. But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate when something dangerous might happen and I can take steps to diffuse it. Early intervention and good timing are the most valuable skills you can use in a tense situation; and I have been in a lot of tense situations. As a result, I am comfortable in my ability to stay safe in nearly any circumstance. But many of the people I ride with, or I am occasionally asked to coach, do not necessarily have the same sorts of exposure I do. And far too often, I find that someone has made an emotional commitment to an animal where they do not have the necessary skills to keep themselves safe.
What is the right thing to say to such a person? I mean, how do you break the news to a passionate young horseperson that rather than audition for the Black Stallion, they might be better cut out for My Little Pony?
The teacher’s first instinct, where you ask yourself, “Can I teach this person enough in the limited time we have so that they will both be safe?” is an excellent starting point. Knowledge is power, and though the horse is naturally the best teacher, sometimes people require an interpreter. Serving as that interpreter is a wonderful opportunity to communicate that you are there to help both the horse and the rider.
But if the answer to that first question is “No,” then that is also something that you also need to communicate. You see, most people are pretty smart and they have a good idea of when they are in over their heads. The “foreboding sense of trouble” is often what makes people swallow their pride sufficiently to request help in the first place. And if that means that you believe the horse’s owner is in a bad spot, you need to share that opinion.
But when you do, please remember:
- Be professional and kind. People don’t dig themselves into holes because they are stupid, but rather because they can be shortsighted.
- Make sure that you are motivated by the horse owner’s safety, and not your own desire for a client.
- Offer any appropriate help and support that you can. If you do so, an uncomfortable experience might just be transformed into a positive one.
To those who might receive such advice, horses are a wonderful hobby. But as noted above. No horse is worth sacrificing your safety for. Just as some people will never get along, the same can be true for a horse and rider. I know that it can be hard to hear that you have bought a horse above your current level, but sometimes it is the most valuable advice that you can receive. And I can tell you that it is never offered lightly.
Telling someone to sell their horse is advice that no one ever likes to give.