In Honor of Our Equine Teachers

Great horsemen always say they learned their craft by letting the horses teach them. I’ve heard this from two of my own mentors. Racehorse trainer Carl Nafzger, who often tells me he doesn’t train horses, they train him, and Bettina Drummond who, when I first began as one of her students, told me that each horse, however humble and average it may be, will teach me much that will help me with the next horse. I most discovered the truth of their wisdom one recent day when I experienced a moment of quiet, complete harmony with an old equine friend and suddenly realized how far that one horse had taken me in my education as a trainer. So, to my dear equine friend Magique, I say that I now take back every bad thing I ever said about you (well, most bad things).

It was a friend who saw Magique  — then nameless and feral — in a field as a weanling and suggested I grab her while she was “cheap.” My friend said, “Yes, she’s a bit wild, but she’s pretty, moves nice and you can probably get her for next to nothing.” All true, but Magique was wilder than just “a bit wild.” She was untouched, impossible to catch, even harder to halter and most certainly absolutely ignorant about the concept of being led in a halter and lead rope. But she suited me because she was affordable, young enough to be a replacement as my other horses aged out, had relatively good conformation, was healthy and sound. Her sire had “Magic” in his registered name so I added a touch of class with a French version and called her “C’est Magique” (It’s Magic).

Three years of ground work to prepare for the start of her break-in didn’t improve her attitude much. She was highly independent and extremely determined. In her first day out with my best buddy, an old Appaloosa named Easy, she was determined to eat from his hay pile. Easy could put the fear of God in most horses but not Magique. He attacked her, she came back. He admired scrappiness. He let her share his hay. During the break-in phase I was told to beware because she was the worst kind of b….. (witch but with a ‘b’). I said, “what kind is that?” and the response was “a smart one.” Yep, Magique proved to be many things but stupid she has never been.

What she has been is an astounding teacher. Patience and perseverance were two traits she first instilled in me that are critical for a good trainer but something I often lacked in my younger days. My first experience with what would become her modus operandi occurred within the first months of break-in when I went to send her forward and she locked up. And I mean, locked up. For a moment I felt that some strange neurological disease had suddenly afflicted my horse. I felt her quivering under me but a sort of rigor mortis had set in. It was like her body could not move. When it did, her front end came up and the back end buckled beneath me. I thought she was coming over on me so I pulled her down to her left side. I rolled off, my left leg was smashed but she jumped up and tore around the ring in a mad gallop screaming and striking her front legs as she went.
The rigor mortis routine immediately became the norm. I did what I have done for the last many years of my life whenever a training issue has surfaced that has baffled me. I called Bettina. When I told her of Magique’s strange condition, she said what she often does, “That’s interesting. Bring her over.” So, I did.

I got on Magique in Bettina’s ring. Magique locked up. I kicked her. I added some spur. I added some whip. She quivered like a cover ready to explode off a boiling pot, but she did not move. I looked back at Bettina and said, “see what I mean?” Bettina came toward us asking if I was ready. “For what?” I asked. She said she didn’t know but refusing forward momentum was not acceptable. With a bit of help from Bettina, Magique moved. More accurately, she leapt and flew around the ring, exhibiting one of her astounding tantrums. We won round one; she was moving.

That was the first of a multitude of temper tantrums through the years. Take her somewhere in the trailer, she’d have the trailer and truck rocking in anger if you left her. Took her to a dressage show. She jumped out of the ring (this after insisting for some time that she could not jump even a pole on the ground). Then one day, she showed that she could jump after all. So, we tried some jumping. She was good. We went schooling on a cross country course. She tore it up as she followed bigger, more experienced event horses over the course insisting that she could do even the jumps we told her were too big for her. “She’s done cross country before?” one of the other riders asked. “Nope, never seen a cross country course before,” I said. “Hmm, scrappy little thing,” was the response.

Jumping became her passion but with all things, she always wanted it her way. During an event, she charged a warm-up jump like the crazy thing she could be.  I shut her down, tried to explain that wasn’t the best way to jump. She insisted she knew better and as the gate opened for her to enter the stadium jumping ring, she refused forward motion. If she couldn’t jump her way, then she would once again show me her skill in faking rigor mortis. Fine, I dropped the reins and let her jump it her way.

Amazingly, she managed to clear every jump, but sometimes in a crazy, twisted way. That jumping round was out of control and ugly. Our jumping coach simply commented on it by saying, “don’t ever do it that way again.” We hit the cross country course right after that. Magique tore out of the starting gate on a mad dash to the first jump. But Magique is smart and she knows the difference between good and bad. As we approached the first jump I asked her if she wanted to jump cross country the way she had jumped stadium. Perhaps she was open to a suggestion of another way? Hmm, I sensed her thinking and then felt her response – okay human, have you a suggestion? Magique had taught me how to have a dialogue with a horse. This proved to be one of the most valuable lessons she gave me.

For many years, I longed to unload this seemingly crazy horse but my ethics would not allow me to drop something as challenging on Magique on another rider. Now, I’m thankful I never did. What I most feel in our rides together now is lightness, balance, harmony between two old friends who have been through much together. Magique has done much more than teach me new techniques and approaches to training and riding. She has taught me what Carl Nafzger has often told me one most needs in working with horses — respect for them. Magique is an independent thinker. She taught me that horses have ideas too. Granted, those ideas are not always right and can even be dangerous and sometimes the human in the partnership must insist the horse reject its ideas. But we cannot always discount their ideas outright. Working with horses requires a willingness to discuss, negotiate, at times compromise, but always to respect the horse and its perspective. Magique taught me all this. And getting this lesson from her has made all the madcap rides of the past worthwhile. It has not just made me a better trainer; it has made me a better person.

I am only thankful that, unlike her barn mate Scooter, Magique is not on the internet because if she ever saw all the good things I’ve now said about her, there would be no living with her from this point forward. If Scooter sees this post and tells her of it. I will deny its existence and take away his computer to hide the proof.