The Reward of Breeding Your Own Horse

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The lead article for the October issue of the Horse Journal is one I wrote, called ?Do You Plan To Breed Your Mare'? In that article, and in my blog of Sept. 27, I strongly advised that you think two or three times before breeding your mare, before trying to produce a foal of your own, for a variety of economic, philosophic and emotional reasons. Well, last weekend?actually for the last couple of months?I've also been reminded of a very strong argument for breeding your own horses. that's because our 4-year-old homebred filly, Amani, has been growing up into the kind of horse I dreamed she would be, ever since I saw her very white nose insistently push its way out of her dam. Please, allow me to tell you a bit about Amani, whose name is the Swahili word for ?peace.? Amani was an orphan foal, because her dam, Gussie, was the first of the two broodmares we lost. She died less than 12 hours after foaling Amani, because of severe colic, caused, we think, by Amani nicking a blood vessel around her intestine during delivery. We spent countless hours bottle-feeding Amani, and I remember dreaming during some of those hours about riding her (usually late at night or early in the morning), especially over cross-country courses. We bred her to be an event horse, having chosen Formula One to be her sire, and during those hours of holding bottle after bottle for her, I decided we weren?t going to sell her, that she was going to be my event horse. As a 2- and 3-year-old, Amani proved to be a quick study, but also rather opinionated. Basically, she didn't mind being ridden, but it took several months to convince her to use her butt and her back to go forward into a round frame. That seemed like an awful lot of work, and she wasn?t easily convinced that there was a point to it. When I started to jump her last December, though, she started to see a point to the exercise. And when I started taking her across the countryside, at about the same time, she climbed aboard the exercise train. I took her to her first schooling event last January, and she was better behaved and performed better than I could have dared hoped. Five weeks later, we took her to her first USEA-recognized event?we hadn?t planned to take her there, but Heather?s horse developed and abscess and we didn't want to just forfeit the entry fee. I thought she might be ready, but she wasn?t. We didn't get over the first fence in show jumping, because she was completely distracted by everything going on around her, including horses going cross-country. So we backtracked and took her to several smaller schooling shows and took her on two trips for cross-country schooling, with the goal of taking her to her next USEA-recognized event in August. That event, Shepherd Ranch in Solvang, Calif., is a smallish and low-key affair, with beginner novice and novice courses that are very encouraging for young horses. Amani went greenly but willingly there, and she would have won if we hadn?t had a drive-by at fence 4 on cross-country. But it was an absolute baby moment?a dark green coop in the deep shade of a giant oak tree that she couldn?t figure out at first and just ran past. I reprimanded her and kept her galloping through a big circle, and she came back and jumped it as if it were four feet tall with trolls below it. But I was happy that she accepted my correction and then went where I told her to, despite her uncertainty. She was fabulous on the rest of the course, going right into both water jumps, over the ditch and up a bank. Last weekend?s Event At Woodside, in Woodside, Calif., had more than twice as many horses and three times the commotion, and on Thursday Amani?s eyes were bugging out of her head. But she went where I told her to go and schooled decently. That was all she needed, because she was absolutely professional throughout the competition. She couldn?t have gone better in the dressage ring, after surviving the crowded and confusing warm-up ring, and placed eighth of 20 with a good score. She then galloped beautifully around the cross-country course on Saturday to move up to fourth. The best part of cross-country was that, after the fourth or fifth fence, I could feel her have what I call the ?ah-hah moment,? where the horse grasps that cross-country is a course, a series of exercises they're to do (and that they know how to do), not just a bunch of scary things set in their path. that's the point where they begin to look for the next fence, to say, ?Give me more of this!? Well, I could feel her do that, feel her begin to take me to the next fence, and it was an even more fulfilling sensation on Amani than it normally is with other horses. In show jumping we just ticked one rail, for 4 faults, and still moved up to third place. Even though it was just beginner novice, just her low-level introduction to the sport, I felt tremendous satisfaction receiving that yellow ribbon on my ?princess.? Riding and competing Amani brings a different sort of pressure to me. Throughout my adult life, I've largely ridden horses with baggage, temperament problems or issues caused by poor training or disturbing experiences they?d had with someone else. So, in many cases, anything I do with them is an improvement, and I could always, if necessary, blame their shortcomings on the baggage they carried with them. Well, I can't do that with Amani. A friend of ours was actually the first person to ride her for the first three months, because I was hurt at the time. But no one else has sat on her in a year, and I'm the one who taught her to jump and to go across the countryside. So I have no one else to ?blame? for any shortcomings she may have. I've put almost all the buttons on her, and if they don't work, it's my fault. I'm thrilled with how well sHe's begun to compete, but what makes me even happier is how much I enjoy riding her and how much I believe in her under saddle. SHe's a joy to ride because sHe's teachable. I can feel her work to, physically and mentally, learn new skills, and I can feel her think, ?OK, this is part of my job. I've got it.? Last Thursday at Woodside I experienced the practical application of that understanding and of her confidence in me and my aids. we'd been there just a couple of hours, and the atmosphere was hectic as competitors and vendors unloaded and set up and the show staff buzzed around in tractors and trucks. I'd just gotten on Amani and was walking her toward the rings to work her, when she got frightened by a big white tent and a tractor moving garbage cans alongside it. She anxiously half-reared and spun away two or three times before I got her straightened out and convinced her to walk stiffly past the cause of her worry. What I really appreciated was how that moment showed our mutual confidence in each other. She was telling me she was worried, but I felt as if I knew what she was going to do. It was a measured reaction that was in keeping with her personality, and then her response to my aids was, ?If you say it's OK, then I'll go.? That little moment was indicative of our growing confidence in each other over fences, and I'd like to think that's a confidence I've inspired in her through training. I'd like to think that Amani, so far, is an example of how horses should respond to thorough and progressive training. She has light years left to travel in that training, but her positive and willing response to the first two years of it is what I'd hoped would happen back when I was holding bottles in her hungry mouth.