Pasture Evaluation for a Prospect by Dick Pieper
My guidelines below are for the type of horse I’ve found to be the most trainable and the most able to excel in any range of use, from the very top show horse to the very best recreational horse.
First of all in the selection process, I look for a prospect that’s a happy-acting horse. Whether I approach him in a pasture, pen or stall, I don’t want him to pin his ears or have a bad attitude; that type of response only gives me a negative impression of the horse. I’ve found that the horse that seems to be in a good mood and happy most of the time is able to become comfortable in almost any situation I put him.
When I walk with a normal, nonthreatening posture toward a group of yearlings in a pasture, I’m not going to go directly to any one horse. I just walk out there slowly and watch to see how the yearlings react to me and to the other horses. I’m very non-confrontational but I closely observe how the young horses react. In a typical group I see very dif¬ferent personalities. Some appear to be curious, let me approach them or even step up to me with their ears up. Other horses try to get away; their eyes are big and maybe their tails are up. They want to run away and try to get the other horses to leave with them. Then there’s the aggressive horse that strides right up and tries to be my boss.
I watch how the horses respond to me and also watch how they interact with each other. When I look at horses in a group, I’m probably not there to look at the herd boss—the one chasing everyone else away from that feeder. I’m also not looking for the most timid individual in the bunch, the one that gets chased away from the feed.
The boss horse often has a temper and can be an overly aggressive in kicking and biting other horses, running them away from feed, and just being extremely bossy. As trainer, establishing myself over him in the pecking order might be harder than it is with a horse that isn’t the herd leader. The herd boss wants to treat and respond to me the same way he does to other horses—fighting back, trying to be boss. The herd leader is mentally bolder and more aggressive than other horses. Trying to train that horse mentally to do exactly what I want and when I want can lead to confrontations with him.
I’m always after the horse in the middle of the pecking order, the one that has his ears up and seems a little curious. He might be timid but he’s not afraid. In my experience, that translates to the kind of horse that almost enjoys or looks forward to the training process —as long as he is treated fairly, corrected when necessary and praised when needed. This kind of horse has almost no limits mentally to the level I could take him.
I don’t want to consider a horse that’s really afraid and timid. When I approach, that’s the one who wants to turn and run to the other end of the pasture, and stay there. When it comes to training this horse, he generally is sweet and easy to teach, but often can be gutless when it’s time to step up and perform. He might be afraid of a little piece of paper on the ground, to cross the water or step over a log. When I take him into that arena, he’s scared of shadows and on the trail he finds a lot to fear. In the show pen, maybe the ground doesn’t suit him or he’s a little tired, so he just gives up. Or maybe the announcer’s stand looks spooky, so he’s afraid to go near it.
I’ve found that, later in training, I can improve this horse’s confidence to a certain extent; he gets better as he learns to trust me more. But when in a different situation, one he’s not comfortable with or doesn’t understand, he probably always reverts to flight as a solution. In the pasture he’s afraid of those other horses, easily pushed away from the feed and easily intimidated, and possibly those other horses pick on this timid one.
You can overcome a lot of these obstacles by training. But you can’t overcome all of them to the point that a timid horse becomes a total top-shelf horse you can put in any situation and trust.
Ultimately I want a horse that makes an effort, whether on the trail, in the show ring or working cattle. If I ride him up to a vertical wall, he says, “I don’t know, boss. It looks tough to me but I’ll try it for you.” That’s the horse I want to develop and that timid horse doesn’t always get there. Certainly during the training process, I make him better, more confident and fairly dependable, but he’s never as good as the horse with that unafraid mental outlook.
Selecting a prospect, based on his mental outlook, comes down to whether the horse is gutless or gritty. The gutless horse has been fearful and nervous all his life. Even though you modify his behavior with training, under extreme stress he reverts to his original mindset. The horse that is curious about you and life in general, a little careful but not totally afraid, is your ideal. His curiosity and interest overcome his fear and he wants to know what you’re about. This horse, in the final analysis, can be the gritty horse that is always there for you—solid in every situation.
Dick Pieper is internationally recognized as a horseman’s horseman and this iconic individual has influenced and developed the careers of riders and their trainers for decades. After fifty plus years in the horse industry, his name has come to stand for a special brand of arena excellence that never compromised the welfare of the horse.
For more information, go to dickpieper.com
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 10