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Lessons from a Green Horse

I’ve had my young hunter Sasha for about nine months now, and they’ve been nine months full of ups, downs, and a lot of learning (for Sasha and for me). When I got Sasha, I knew that having a young horse would be challenging and that I had a lot to learn about bringing along a green horse. Here are four of my favorite takeaways from our first nine months together:

  1. Realistic expectations are the key to being happy with your rides.
    I’ve always had high expectations for myself, which has translated into high expectations for my rides. Unfortunately, that translated into a lot of frustration at the beginning of the winter. I wanted to be perfect and I wanted to do it all, but Sasha and I just weren’t ready to do it all. One of the most important lessons my trainer taught me this winter was to get on with low expectations. If I got on intending only to walk and trot, and we only walked and trotted, great! We did what I wanted to do. If I got on intending only to walk and trot and felt confident enough to canter, awesome! By keeping my goals for our ride realistic (and sometimes quite low), I was much more at peace with our progress and happier with our everyday rides.
  2. Ending on a good note, even it means cutting your lesson short, is a really smart choice.
    When you accomplish something new for the first time, it’s really tempting to want to do it “just one more time” to prove that you can do it again. I’ve learned that it’s best to stop and think before you do that. You think you’re going to do it “just one more time,” but “just one more time” can turn into “just twenty more times” and end with a tired horse and a frustrated rider. Before I go to drill an exercise again, I think about how long I’ve been on, how much energy I’ve got left in me, and how much energy Sasha has left. Most of the time, we’re better off ending on a good note and continuing to practice our new skill the next day.
  3. No matter how much you want every exercise to feel amazing every time, sometimes the not-so-amazing exercise is actually the best lesson for your horse.
    In a recent lesson, Sasha and I had a really ugly jump. We were trotting a small gate and we didn’t have a lot of pace, I wasn’t really doing much of anything to fix that, we got to a really deep distance, and Sasha had to heave herself over the jump. Upon landing, my trainer said, “That looked awful and it felt awful, but it was the right thing to do.” Sasha loves the long distance and we struggle with her rushing and wanting to take off too soon, so taking off from a deep distance was a good lesson for her. I’ve come to learn that our rides are about training and not about perfection, and it’s okay that some of our greatest lessons don’t come from being perfect.
  4. When everything starts to click and your hard work pays off, it’s awesome.
    There have been days where I’ve gotten off Sasha and wondered what in the world I was thinking when I got a green horse, lessons that ended in tears, and rides where I wasn’t even sure I felt comfortable cantering. But as challenging as those days have been, all of the frustration and hard work is worth it for the awesome feeling I get when everything comes together and we accomplish goals that once seemed insurmountable. Sasha and I have a lot left to learn and a lot more hard work to do before we accomplish our end goals, but in the meantime I’m looking forward to celebrating each baby step we take on the way there.
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6 comments on “Lessons from a Green Horse
  1. Valerie says:

    Been there, done that. My first horse ever to own was turning 6 when I got her. Not super young but she just had basic training and not much muscle tone. I wanted to zoom through the levels and get where I wanted to compete. She did her best to follow the “plan” but I understand how that leads to frustration and disappointment.
    In the 2nd year of her purchase, she wasn’t getting the lead changes which lead to a few vet visits and eventually suspensory surgery. I learnt quickly that having high hopes/aspirations is always a good thing and something to strive for. Expectations on the other hand can be unrealistic and keep you away from your goals.
    I had several months of rehab where I couldn’t ride her. It taught me to listen to her, develop her ground manners and grew our bond so much more than riding did. We took it slow coming back to work and concentrated on correctness. She is now back to full health and as it seems full potential.
    Owning is such a different animal. Young horses ask for a lot of patience but if you can learn to enjoy the journey, I think it is the most rewarding experience for both mount and rider.
    Enjoyed your tale. Hope it takes you where you want to go or very close!

  2. Jessica says:

    I recently bought a 3 yr. old Paint gelding, and I wish I had read this article sooner! He recently popped a splint, and I know it is from me expecting too much, too soon. I wouldn’t listen to him when he was telling me he needed a break, but now I spend time with him twice a day while he heals. I am learning to take my time and listen to my horse instead of just rushing through everything while he is still a baby. He is teaching me to slow down and enjoy the time I have to spend with him rather than only focusing on my long-term goals.

  3. Brenda says:

    My horse Finnegan was 4 years old when I got him. I had been off riding for 10 years, so the only reason I was OK with him being young is that we were going to be working with a Grand Prix dressage trainer, in his training barn.

    I actually went looking for a short, older, 1st or 2nd level horse. I got a 4 year old, now 17 hand, Irish Sport Horse, that can move laterally in his sleep, although not necessarily the way you are asking him to 🙂

    So, off we started, from the very beginning…

    Less than a year later, he has EPM, caught early enough that he makes a miraculous full recovery. Only, it takes 6 months of rehab after treatment to re-teach him basic coordination (read where to put every footfall in every stride), before you can then start all over from the very beginning…

    Less than a year later, he has a relapse of EPM, again caught early enough that he makes a miraculous full recovery. After treatment, 6 months of rehab, and then we started all over from the very beginning…

    At this point he is 8 years old. We’ve started from the beginning three times, and the EPM stunted his emotional maturity, so he is perpetually a fun (if lippy and a tad too playful) 6 year old. Lol, no, he has never matured further emotionally. At this point, he is training movements all the way up through 3rd and 4th level, but we still can’t do a training level test because he doesn’t halt!

    We change barns at this time, and I choose to start him over – again – with the basics. I’m not OK with a horse that doesn’t halt, lol. Two years later, he does his first First Level test ever, at a recognized show (his second show ever, his first was 4 years earlier with a high score on Training Level of 58%), and gets a 68%, with my trainer riding. Wow!

    Then, he goes lame. So subtly that only I, and not my trainer, notices. It turns out that he had equal soreness in both front tendons, which is why it was so hard to notice. I investigate, and discover that his front feet are shod incorrectly, including nails going through the sensitive laminae and unbalanced feet. The only full treatment is taking him totally barefoot, with a true barefoot trim, like you see in wild mustangs. Only, there isn’t a barefoot trimmer within 100 miles of me… And my trainer isn’t supportive and doesn’t see what I see…

    So, we move to a new barn, where the owners believe in a more natural approach to horse care, and where the owners believe the horse’s owner actually knows something about their horse. I, personally, pull his shoes and discover problems with his hooves well beyond what I had thought. In all four feet, the hoof walls are flared away from the interior of the hoof, and the laminae that is supposed to be “velcro-ing” the hoof wall to the coffin bone is mostly dead and decaying.

    That’s right, almost nothing was supporting his coffin bone from foundering, in all four hooves. As I began to understand what I was looking at, all I felt was terror for my horse.

    And so two months ago, my latest journey to save my horse from a dread condition began. (By the way, that is also when I put him on SmartPaks for his joints, tendons, hooves, etc. Every internal support I could while I tackled the problems from the outside.)

    I have no access to a barefoot trimmer. I am being mentored by a wonderful woman, Jamie, who lives out west. She has me reading anatomy books, studying cadaver feet, watching barefoot trimming videos, and buying the right hoof tools. I occasionally send her pictures, so she can see where he is and what I have done. Yes, I am now his barefoot trimmer.

    I have only done ONE light trim on his feet, to start balancing left-right and lowering the hoof wall enough that the frog hits first when the foot comes down heel-toe, like it is supposed to (but doesn’t when shod).

    Two days ago, he had a full centimeter of new, strong, properly sloped hoof wall growing down from the coronary band. I danced with joy!

    I also rode him. He had brilliant and big movement before. Now, he is incredible! Post EPM, 2nd EPM, restarting as my horse must halt, and two months into rehab for his feet, I have a horse with more raw talent than I saw when he was four! The joy has returned to his movement and his attitude. I am so blessed! How did I get so lucky? He is such an incredible companion and athlete.

    And yes, we are now starting over from the beginning… again… I think this is the fifth “start” of his training from the beginning (I’m getting really good at starting “green” horses, lol).

    Sure, I still have my goal of earning my USDF bronze medal and bar with Finnegan (that requires success in the show ring through 3rd level, both tests and freestyles). But first comes the happiness and health of my horse. And my relationship with him has become so precious to me, unlike when I started the first time.

    He’s just 10 years old. We have time. There isn’t a need for a trainer right now. We can grow and have fun together. Sure, when we get to the point of being serious about showing 2nd, or perhaps 3rd, we’ll need to work with a professional again. But right now is just about us, as he heals, learns to trust his legs and hooves (shod horses usually can’t feel their feet and have poor leg circulation), and relearns how to dance with me.

    I’m glad that in just 9 short months your horse has taught you to slow down and enjoy your time with him. That is, actually, what it is all about, because you can’t predict what challenges either of you will face. The long term goals are the icing, or the ice cream at the end of a sports game. You want them, they structure your efforts, but you will still love your horse whether you “win” or “lose.”

    I do hope you don’t have to “start over” as many times as Finnie and I have, but then again, I wouldn’t trade him for any other horse in the world 🙂

  4. sonja hampton says:

    Thanks for your post Lexi. Your suggestions also work for a rider who went thro a huge health issue with several months not riding. Im returning tentatively and your words struck home for me the rider.

  5. Denise says:

    I bought my Percheron X Paint filly as a weanling. We took two years to get to know and love each other on the ground. Shortly after her second birthday I started to ride her gently at a walk mostly, occasionally trotting short distances both in the arena and on the trails with other horses. She was wonderful considering that I had been out of the saddle for twenty years and had planned on getting back in by getting an older, been there, done that gelding. But as we all know, when we meet “our horse”, our heart knows it. I had been having some health problems that I was having a hard time getting diagnosed. Balance problems, pain and weakness in my arms and legs. I had only been riding Aloha for a few months when I had to stop. I was finally diagnosed with cervical spinal stenosis and unfortunately, there had been spinal cord damage by the time I was diagnosed and surgery was done on my neck to stabilize it to prevent further damage. I can no longer ride. From her second birthday to her third was like a transformation for her, physically. She got a little taller (about 16h) and filled out very much like her Percheron mom. She is stunning. Light on her feet and the sweetest girl (unless she is having a stubborn moment, I must admit she has them on occasion.) She is 3 1/2 now and I have a trainer riding her a few times a week to keep her coming along. I plan to have her learn how to drive this winter, something that I hope to be able to do with her. This wasn’t what I planned when I bought a weanling to start. I pictured us eventually jumping, maybe learning dressage and doing eventing. I did not picture being unable to ride. It does not change how much I love Aloha and how glad I am to have her. I hope to be driving with her by spring. She has that level headed drafty personality and I’m sure she will be great at what ever she tries.

  6. Lisa Neely says:

    Loved reading this; it let me know someone else has had the same wide range of feelings and experiences!!
    Recently, my trainer and I talked about the reality that training young horses takes whatever time it takes – that rushing simply doesn’t work.
    Thanks for this confirmation !!

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