With Horses, Temperament Trumps Almost Everything

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Last week we faced the hardest decision with horses?euthanasia. And we now realize that losing this horse gave us a reminder of how important equine temperament is.

This time the decision was particularly difficult because the horse was only 4. Fortunately, his condition made the choice relatively clear.

The Thoroughbred-cross gelding came to us for training this spring with, the owner admitted, a history of intermittent lameness. It seemingly traced to an incident as a long yearling, when he had jumped out of a paddock and not stuck the landing. But, as our training progressed, his lameness became more than intermittent. Perplexed and concerned, we convinced his owner to let us take him to the University of California-Davis Equine Medical Center for a complete examination.

The findings were bad. Terminally bad foot problems, and ultimately the kindest thing for this lovely young horse was to free him from what would have a short and pain-filled continuation of his life. His owner was heartbroken, but she made the kindest decision of all, and he went peacefully in the operating theater. (As an aside, the diagnosis had nothing to do with his fall; rather, it was a stark reminder of what can happen when you breed mares with soundness issues. But that's a blog for another day).

In the few days since we said goodbye, We've had all kinds of thoughts racing through our minds. But one has now come to the forefront.

This horse had been in considerable pain, despite our efforts. And while did show us signs that things were not OK, he didn't in display the severity of his problems during the 2 ? months we had him in work, after seven months with another trainer, getting started under saddle. We determined in a few weeks that he was foot sore, and we put front shoes on him, which helped. He had two chiropractic sessions, which, unusually, didn't seem to help much at all. I did a lot of slow, careful conditioning and stretching and suppleness-building work with him, to overcome the stiffness and weakness caused by his fall, and he seemed to be heading in the right direction. Until about three weeks ago, when he suddenly went very lame.? we'd been pondering his lack of improvement, and when he went lame we stopped riding him and urged the owner to take him for a full clinical work-up. Something definitely was wrong.

But at no time did his behavior ever deteriorate. He was always happy, friendly and kind. While he showed some resistance under saddle, he never bucked, reared, bolted or demonstrated any ?nasty? behavior. He kept trying. He was, to his last moment, a good boy.

Contrast that with some other horses. We've all known the type: If there is a hair out of place, a wrinkle in the saddle pad, or they're a day overdue for their shoeing, they simply ?can't work.? Or they respond to any discomfort with an acrobatic display of rodeo proportions.

While we're always the first to look to physical causes when a horse is displaying incorrect behavior (and, often, there is a physical cause) this incident has reminded us that the really good horses overcome adversity. It reminded us that the ones that aren?t willing to work through the tough stuff with you simply aren?t as good.

That may sound like a harsh statement. And it's not meant to discount that as horseman we have a constant and unwavering duty to work for the comfort and care of our horses. But just as we humans are going to wake up with the occasional ache or pain, so too in to every horse's life a little ?not-perfect? must fall. And the difference between a good horse and a great horse is that the latter will not try to dump you when He's got an ache or pain. he'll perform like you?ve taught him to perform.

We're talking about the mental toughness that makes the best equine and human athletes, especially racehorses or runners. The desire to win is what makes winning racehorses. In eventing, we're talking about the horse who at six or seven or eight minutes of the cross-country course might be starting to get tired but jumps even better over the last few fences. As German Olympic show jumper Ludger Beerbaum says, ?it's the horse who fights for me? who is the champion.

We have another horse in for training, a child?s pony who had been regularly planting its junior charges in the dirt. When the pony arrived, we found it had several physical excuses for its behavior, and we rectified them. But the pony?s discomfort was mild, compared to the youngster we just lost, and yet it's behavior was dangerous and disconcerting, while the young horse kept fumbling along, trying to be a good boy.

Life is short. Most of us have limited resources: financial, emotional and logistical. And the world is full of horses. While every horse deserves our best while they're our responsibility, when you're considering which horses to take in to your care, consider that a ?difficult,? ?sensitive,? or ?high-maintenance? horse costs as much in fiscal and emotional capitol as a good horse.

We're not suggesting that you should just discard a horse who won?t perform as you want. Dealing with problems is good education, and, if you succeed, highly fulfilling. But if you can't deal with the problems, find someone who can?pay them or sell or give away the horse?and move on, instead of just making you and the horse miserable.

As professionals, we have now and have many times turned around difficult horses (and enjoyed and loved them). My two-star horse Merlin was one, and my current one-tar mare Alba was another. A friend gave us Merlin because he wasn?t working out, and a client left Alba with us because they thought she was crazy. And I can't imagine what my life would have been like without these two wonderful, but admittedly challenging, horses. But neither of them suffered from a lack of work ethic, mental toughness or physical toughness. Merlin did, and Alba still does, ?fight for me.? Confidence in each other is the lynchpin of our relationship.

But, for the average horse owner, their time and effort and heart is probably best invested in an equine of the more simple persuasion.? There are a plethora of horses out there, begging for homes, who will be happy to see you and go to work every single day.