One of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people is to “Begin with the End in Mind.” This is great advice in life, but also in horses. Knowing where you’re trying to go is so important in training, so you put the right basics on your youngster to get you to your end goal. Obviously, you don’t want to teach a horse to be a pro at neck reining if your goal is producing a show hunter. A finer point, however, is that knowing what kind of feel you want at the upper levels of a sport can help you train for that even when you’re years away from it. This is a lesson I’ve always understood intellectually with horses, but in the past few months, it has become integral to my daily riding and training, thanks to a new horse and a wholly new and different view on training than I’ve had in the past.
In many ways, it feels like 2017 as a bit of a lost year when it comes to the horses, but in reality, it was a year long march towards an exciting new beginning. Last year was the year that I retired Cardoon from dressage and sold Healey. It was the year I was able to, just once, ride a confirmed Grand Prix horse. It was also the year that Halle came into my life.
When I decided to sell Healey, it was a tough decision in some ways, but easy in others. There is a lot to be said for having a horse in your barn who you trust and has a great brain, but I know that I still have FEI dreams and I don’t want to struggle against nature the way I did with Cardoon. The only reason he and I got as far as we did was because he was willing to try, but there was nothing that was easy with him (well, except the flying changes). Healey will be a little easier than Cardoon when it comes to lateral work, but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t made for the sitting you need at PSG and above. Knowing what I know now, beginning with Healey wouldn’t get me to the end I had in mind.
Fortunately, Healey sold relatively quickly and I was able to think about the next horse. It was an intimidating prospect to realize that while I had the biggest budget I’ve ever had for buying a new horse, I still was going to need to buy something young or less trained in order to get something with the FEI potential I wanted. To be fair, I’m a pretty decent rider. I’m also, based on what I saw when I sold Healey, pretty brave for an amateur. But for those of you not familiar with young warmbloods, even the kindest, best-brained of them can give you a pretty wild ride, and they often stay that way until they’re 7 or 8 or even 9.
Enter Halle. The one and only horse I tried. She was perfect. She was fancy. She had life experience and was easy to handle on the ground. She was a GIRL, and I’ve never had a girl. And most important, she was in my budget. We got along well, and the purchase went incredibly quickly. Within two weeks of Healey leaving for his new home, Halle arrived in my barn.
Of course, she is a five year old Dutch mare (Sir Sinclair x Consul), so that means she has opinions and she’s sensitive. And so I’m starting over, beginning with the end in mind.
Halle has good basics thanks to the two trainers who started her, but she’s now having to actually go to work every day, a sometimes challenging concept for a young horse. Some days are good and some days are like riding a lit stick of dynamite (especially those days when its 25 degrees, with winds blowing 15mph). Some days she can do most of the trot work from first and even second level, and on that same day, she might be utterly incapable of picking up a left lead canter.
Having had the experience of Cardoon, and working methodically through each level, trying to achieve mastery of Training, First, Second and then Third levels, I have a better understanding of where I’m headed this time. I also don’t feel like we need to master each level in sequence on the way up. I’m content to live in the young horse space this time, somewhere between training and third level until she is confident and confirmed in the bridle, connected over her back, and responsive without being explosive.
While I’m standing back at the same starting line I was at more than 5 years ago with Cardoon, I feel more prepared for the journey ahead and have a better idea of what the finish line looks like. This journey will be a different one, filled with different challenges than last time, but at least for now, it feels like a journey with the potential to go a heck of a lot further than the last one.
For now though, instead of gazing at that distant horizon where we can pirouette and piaffe and passage, I’ll go back to trying to focusing on the here and now – one where we can pick up a left lead canter and understand that my right leg is not some sort of rare instrument of equine torture.