My Three Examples Of Why You Can’t Train All Horses The Same Way

Horses mature and develop at their own speed and in their own ways.
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Horses mature and develop at their own speed and in their own ways.

At last weekend’s Woodside Horse Trials, I did something I’ve never done before—I competed three homebred horses. It was a proudly fulfilling moment to think that we’d bred and produced all three of them here at our Phoenix Farm.

Amani was precocious but often disobedient as a young horse.

Amani was precocious but often disobedient as a young horse.

And these three horses are each an example of how horses mature and develop at their own speed and in their own ways. They’re a strong reminder to me that, as a rider and a trainer, you have to have your program—your method of developing horses—but that it has to be a framework, not an ironclad system. Sometimes you have to be willing to wait, and sometimes you have to be willing to push ahead faster than you would ordinarily. And you often have to be willing to do some things differently or in a different way.

The horses I competed at Woodside are:

Phoenix Amani, whom we call Amani. She’s a 7-year-old Irish-bred/Thoroughbred-cross by Formula One, who’s in her second season at preliminary but was making her first start of 2014. She recorded her seventh clear cross-country round in seven starts at this level, but she also had her best dressage test and her first clear show jumping round at preliminary, to finish fifth.

Phoenix Bellisima, whom we call Bella. She’s a 5-year-old Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred-cross, by Palladio, for whom Woodside was her third and final novice start before moving up to training at the end of June. She finished second, with effortlessly clear cross-country and show jumping rounds.

Phoenix Promiscuous, whom we call Piper or Pooper. He’s a 5-year-old Hanoverian-bred gelding. Woodside was his first beginner novice start, and I thought I was going to win the dressage in the warm-up. But he had some baby anxiety in the ring, for which the judge nailed him, before recording faultless show jumping and cross-country rounds.

Here’s how they’ve been different to develop:

Amani was precocious but often disobedient as a young horse. At 3 and 4, when confronted with something new or unexpected, her immediate reaction was to rear and spin. It took work to convince her that was the wrong answer (although she’ll still do it at times). She was always a very gifted and careful jumper, but her belief that she’s the most beautiful and special girl in school and that the body beautiful must never be soiled was why she often reacted that way to jumps.

Once I convinced her that was the wrong answer when jumping (about halfway through her 4-year-old year), Amani has moved along quickly competitively. She did beginner novice and novice at age 4, then spent her 5-year-old year doing training level. At the beginning of her 6-year-old year, I moved her up to preliminary.

Her weakness, though, has been dressage. It’s partly attitudinal—“I don’t want to work that hard!”—but it’s partly conformational. She has a short, uphill neck, which is great for jumping, but it makes it rather hard to get her round and working through her topline. By last fall, it was clear that she would rarely place at the upper levels if we didn’t more fully address that problem. So she spent last October through March doing almost nothing but dressage, primarily with my wife, Heather, and last weekend showed that paid off in numerous ways. Developing her back and topline will be a continuing work in progress.

As you can see, Bella and Piper are the same age. In fact, they were born only 17 days apart. But their progress as riding and competitive horses has been vastly different. Even though they’re both fabulous movers, they’re physically and mentally very different horses.

Basically, Bella reminds me mentally of a sled dog—she has a very quick brain and a workhorse mentality. She’s like an Iditarod dog, the kind where you have to be sure the sled is securely tied to a stout tree before you put on the harness, and then you better be in the sled and ready to go before you unhook the sled.

Piper is an extremely willing and kind horse, but his body has grown and matured much more slowly, and his brain works much more slowly than Bella’s. In fact, we often laugh at him, because sometimes I swear you can see the brain cells connecting and trying to form a thought.

I started competing Bella exactly a year ago, taking her to a schooling dressage show in early May (where she was very green!) and then starting her eventing at the introductory level at the end of June. (I wrote a blog about it then.) She then did two beginner novice events and one novice (clear cross-country in all), before she developed a cough that sidelined her completely for two months. Then she did her next novice in April before Woodside, where she proved to me that she’s ready for bigger fences.

Basically, she has always felt, at home and in competition, as if I only had to show her how to do something once. I recall that moment, the second time I took her cross-country schooling, when she grasped that cross-country is a series of jumps and began looking for the next fence and taking me there. That’s a trait that some horses take numerous events and schooling, through months or years, to develop. It’s like endurance horses looking down the trail or cutting horses looking for the next cow.

Piper didn’t compete at all until last November, when I took him introductory, following one cross-country school and no schooling shows at all. That was because we weren’t sure what we were going to do with him. He was supposed to be the perfect horse for Heather, but we hadn’t yet accepted that he’s simply too big a mover and jumper for her back, which she’s injured several times, to handle. (That’s why we’ve now reluctantly decided to sell him.)

But, looking at Piper this weekend, standing in the stall next to Bella, I thought, “I think it was a good idea not to push him. I don’t think he was ready before this. He’s like that tall, uncoordinated boy in school—the one who trips and stumbles and can hardly run, but in his senior year becomes the star of the basketball team.”

He now looks like a handsome, mature horse, and he learned a lot about his job this weekend. I’ll be competing him again in a few weeks, and I’m really looking forward to feeling how much he’s improved.

Just for fun, here's a cute video of Formula One (sire of Amani):