Thursday, July 7, 2011

The mathematics of horse shopping

I intended to start this blog five weeks ago—five long weeks in which my new buddy Blue (a.k.a. What In Blue Blazes, a.k.a Not Another Gray Arabian) came home to me. 

The story of how I got Mr. Blue is a long one. It begins back when I first moved to the beautiful Northwest from the cold, windy, flat Midwestern cornfields of my youth.

In 2005, literally the day after I arrived in Washington, I traded a handmade dollhouse for Topper, a very sad-looking breeding stock paint yearling. I spent a lot of time, effort and tears making him into a perfect casual trail horse. Perfect ground manners, WTC, not herdbound, not spooky, traffic broke in all situations. He could load, clip, bathe, etc. You could blanket or deworm him loose in the pasture. Good for the vet, good in groups, camped like a champ and cute as a button. But I got interested in endurance and did a few LDs with him. Let's just say speed was not his forte. I decided to sell and get something with a bit more giddyup.

I was not too keen on arabs (despite the dreaded EPP—Endurance Peer Pressure), but was willing to look at crosses and other light breeds capable of toting my not-unsubstantial bulk up a mountain. I was looking for an experienced trail gelding under 10 years old. 

Now we come to the math:

Of the 10 "well-broke trail horses" I tried, three bucked within the first five minutes. One of those also reared. I never asked for anything more challenging than "walk a circle." 

Of the 7 non-buckers, two had no steering if you took them out of whatever enclosure they were used to being in. One of those was also a former breeding stallion, which no one mentioned until I was already riding him. Sheesh. The other one was supposedly 7 or 8 years old (no papers) but had the teeth of a teenager. Again, sheesh.

Of the 5 non-bucking horses that could be steered, one was a 4-year-old ASB whose only experience outside the indoor arena was walking up and down the quarter-mile driveway. Again, this would have been good information to clarify before I drove up there. Funny how "good on trails" is such a subjective concept…

Of the 4 non-bucking, able-to-be-steered, actually-experienced-in-the-real-world horses, two were full arabs. Both were big, well-bred and gorgeous. However, one of them was covered in scars that were clearly wire cuts, and the condition of his paddock made me think he liked to go over, around and through the fence. That wasn't going to work in camp. The other one had very small, shelly feet and his movement just felt wrong to me. I didn't want to take chances on future lameness.

And then there were two.

Only two horses out of the 10 I tried  were mentally and physically sound and as-advertised. By then, I'd spent hundreds on gas, vacation days, food on the road, etc.

The horse I probably should have bought was a 14.2 morgan. He did everything I asked with little-to-no fuss and was just… cuddly. But he was also smaller, rounder and more expensive than I wanted. Even after negotiating, he was $500 more than I had in my horse account. And his smallness and roundness made me worry about his metabolics carrying an HW. I decided to keep looking.

I bought the next horse. Otto was a greenbroke arab/TW cross who was a spectacular dark dapple gray. He is lean, wiry, elegant, gorgeous, moves out and loves the trail. He was affordable, and seemed to have a good start and a solid mind. He has impeccable ground manners. Absolutely perfect. He top 10s LDS effortlessly and wants to do 50s. I think he would trot all day just for the sheer joy of movement. 

He is also balky and spooky when he doesn't feel like doing what I ask. He crow hops and rears when he doesn't get his way. He fights arena exercises. He leans on my hands and side steps and spins and occasionally kicks. He doesn't move off pressure and has not responded well to groundwork. He is not afraid of traffic of any kind, but comes unglued at the sight of deer in the woods. All he wants to do is TROT. FORWARD. FAST. The perfect endurance horse.
 Looks harmless, doesn't he?

When we were competing, he was exactly the horse I was shopping for. In all other circumstances, he was a big, beautiful *jerk* that I hated riding. I put enough money into his training and lessons for me that I could have just bought the morgan… almost twice.

Earlier this spring, I got Otto back from a short "refresher" with my favorite local cowboy trainer. I love this guy because he isn't afraid to just tell me what he thinks. The gist of what he said, with the four-letter words deleted, was that my horse was fast and smart and no fun to ride. Even the trainer had trouble with him, and this guy has been doing this a long time. He said I could put six more months of training in him (at great expense) and I  just might end up with a better horse on the other side of that… or I might not. He recommended selling my gray and finding something that I got along with better. And I knew he was serious because he could have just as easily gotten me to pay him six more months of training fees.

I took the horse home. I top-tenned an LD that very same weekend. And I confirmed with myself that all the winning in the world is not worth the fear and anxiety of riding a fire-breathing monster. (Even as I watched other riders on even worse-behaved horses grinning their way to 50-mile finishes.)

What did we learn? I was dazzled by beauty and raw athleticism. I overestimated my own riding ability and the scope of what I was doing. I bought a Tevis-level horse and I only do a half-dozen LDs a year. I have bad knees and so-so balance; what made me think that riding a powerhouse would make me happy?

So, six weeks ago, after 18 months of dealing with Naughty Otto, I felt much older and wiser. I was shopping for temperament first, ability second. I wanted a horse who could restore my confidence and joy in riding. 

And that's how I found Blue, a BLM mustang. He is 11 (older than I wanted) and ugly as sin. In five weeks he has gained 100 lbs, but he is still rough and raw-boned. I am not afraid to admit that he looks like a refugee, even now that I've clipped him and given him a bath. He is a labrador mutt next to my sleek greyhound. And you know what? I couldn't care less. He follows me around, puts his big, ugly head in the bridle and rides off without any nonsense.
Blue on his third day home. Trust me, this is a case of inner beauty.

Anyway, I wanted to share this story because sooner or later, we are all shopping for something big, be it a horse, a car, a job, or a significant other. And it is always a journey. Even now, I am amazed at how dishonest (or delusional?) people can be about what they're selling. Worse yet, even when I found what I thought I wanted, he turned out to be all wrong for me. Really, all told, it has taken me two years and (shudder) thousands of dollars to find a horse I think I can love. Finding a husband was comparatively easy.

So be PICKY out there. The right horse (or car, or man, or school, or job) will come along. Keep the faith!

In the meantime, would anyone be interested in buying an experienced half-arabian endurance gelding? Very pretty with lots of natural ability and only mildly psychotic? :) He's very nice once you get past the bucking, rearing, spinning, herd-bound, scared-of-everything, hard-mouthed, arena sour part. (Just kidding—he's already sold. But that's a story for another day!)

Otto on a "relaxed" day.


  1. Hey Ruth, just catching up now on your new blog--I'm glad you've found Blue (even though he's in the Pen for now, and not a Standardbred!). Keep writing, because I want to keep reading!


  2. I think I found the post you were referring to. Yep, sounds like you know where I'm coming from, and vice versa. How many of those did you have vetted? I've had two fail so far, one scheduled for Sunday. :-) Glad you found your horse, and I hope I find mine soon!

  3. I will admit now that I've never done a vet exam. I know it is a good policy, and everyone says you should do it, but there you are. I always take my chances. :)