Friday, January 23, 2015

Open Horses

It wasn't until I entered the world of reined cowhorses that I heard the term "open horse." The term was closely followed by "non-pro horse."

It seemed there were two kinds of cowhorse. Those suitable for open riders, the people that competed at a professional level, and those meant for the non-pros, or the people who didn't ride for a living.

It took me years to understand what the difference between an open caliber horse and a non-pro horse really was.

An open horse can reach the absolute upper levels of competition and win. Their agility, instinct and drive are so incredibly high they can hold their own against all others. They are lightening quick and hard to ride, potentially impossible to stick if the horsemanship doesn't match. Open horses are ridden by open riders, trainers who do nothing else but ride.

A non-pro horse can compete in a non-pro world and succeed, without pile-driving their rider, our clients and income, into the dirt.

At least that was how I understood it then. It's all true mind you, but there is much, much more.

When I bought Madonna, there was a lot riding on my purchase. I had sold Sonita in order to get my next project. She had brought me enough money to buy something current, something bred right, something that would advance my career.

There was more. I had strapped on my big girl chaps, and sold the horse I had poured sweat and thought and blood and guts into, to further my career. I had never sold one of my personal horses before. I needed my next horse to somehow stuff my intestines back into the huge hole selling Sonita had left. I needed an open horse.

I showed K some photos of a Reminic bred gelding. He was sharp, bright bay, came from a breeder we knew and respected and even as a long yearling, had that edgy look I had learned to appreciate in the show pen.

"That could be a nice horse," K agreed, "I'm not sure it's the direction you want to go."

"Where do I want to go?"

"I'd like to see you on something softer, a horse that's biddable, that you'll have success on right away. A Chic O Lena would be a good choice. They're easy to ride and can still take you where you want to go."

I knew he had a Chic O Lena bred filly, but it was too easy a jump to make. I tried to get to the root of where he was going. K spoke in so many layers, it always paid to think things through before answering him. "You don't think I can handle a Reminic?"

"You can handle a Reminic. I just think it's time you showed something that showcases your talent as a trainer instead of your ability to survive."

I ended up buying the Chic O Lena and will be eternally grateful for the push. Madonna is everything he promised and more, but in the back of my insecure mind, I decided I wasn't worthy of the elusive open horse. I was being delegated to a life of riding non-pro horses and hoping to squeak into the money with the real trainers.

I have run into the same scenario in the dog world. I've been reading some training blogs and breed blogs, one of which is dedicated to Malinois and Dutch Shepherds.

These dogs are edgy, athletic, lightening quick and protective. They are bred for a job and God help the world around them if they don't have one.

They are, as far as I can tell, "open dogs."

Reading some of the posts and the following comments made me uneasy. There was a tone to them that was very familiar. I've been retired from the horse biz long enough to have forgotten that tone. I sorted it out though.

For many, there is a mystic quality to horse training. The idea that there is something magical about someone who can get horses to not only be model citizens, but spin, float, jump, slide, or move in amazing rhythms.

For some, it creates a feeling that trainers are better than them, an elevated human with a deep understanding of animals.

As trainers, we often nurture that feeling, after all, it makes us feel good, secures our income and helps justify the endless, grueling, mind numbing hours that go into becoming mystical.

I'm going to be honest here. It's a bunch of bullshit.

Becoming a horse trainer takes full time dedication to horses. Becoming a good trainer involves actually riding them, and it takes working and riding hundreds of horses. It needs to be an obsession about what makes them tick, so strong that the long hours, low pay and high injury rate mean nothing.  You might need to be crazy to be a trainer, but there is no magic.

There is the ever elusive feel, an ability to absorb and adjust to the animal--it's an asset believe me. It's still not magic. If I was into cars, feel would make me a good mechanic. Without feel, both mechanical and training ability  are still in reach, it just involves more sweat equity.

I am picking up the same vibe on the dog sites.

Here are a couple of quotes:


"Well said and in short most people lack the intelligence to train and give the Malinois what it needs to be mentally healthy and physically fulfilled."


"...our permissive, anything goes society has filtered down to our pets. no rules, no limits - that is the American way. our dogs, our children our society suffers for it."

 I don't know about you guys, but I read this and all I absorb is, if I can't handle a Malinois, then I'm stupid and my children are spoiled brats. 

Which leads me straight to, don't tell me I shouldn't own a Malinois, I'm going to adopt that 18- month-old male I saw on CL yesterday. That'll show 'em.

The real truth is, if you are interested in a breed of dog like this, then they need the same obsessive dedication it takes to become a pro in the horse world.

Trust me, there are stupid dog trainers with crappy kids, who can still turn out a high quality police dog. 

We crave to be as savvy as a trainer of national IPO champions or as wise as a dressage master. Of course we do, because we're convinced they have magical abilities we never will. 

It's easier to envy special powers than it is to dig in and do the work. 

It's easier to let ourselves feel superior to others than to reveal we're schlubs just like the next guy. 

The disservice comes to the animals.

Instead of Malinois being desirable military and police dogs, to be admired for the work they do, they are becoming yet another breed to elevate our place in society. If I can control this animal, than I control my environment. I am smarter, faster, stronger and better looking than all of you Lab owners.

The ruination of the breed soon follows.

It happens with horses. Horses are started by people with a video and good intentions. Young show prospects are bought by wealthy first-year riders, because of how they look under the trainer. They're trained, right?

If we could disconnect the status somehow, things would go better for our animals.

I finally understand what an open horse is. It is a horse with the ability to win big in the show pen. It can be mean, crazy, bad-legged, or colic every Thurs. like clockwork, none of these things matter. All that matters is it can win.

A good non-pro horse is kind, well balanced, mannerly and forgiving. A good one can still compete and win an open class. A good non-pro horse is priceless.

Most people work at something other than reining or fly ball for a living. Good thing, because us trainers need your dollah dollah bills. 

If we could somehow quit inferring that people with less knowledge than us were inferior, then maybe we would quit thinking the way to equality (superiority) is through the breed or the ride.












18 comments:

Louisa Murch-White said...

Really love this post, and (as always) has me thinking. I'm right there with you when you say the Non-pro horse is priceless. To me, a truly priceless horse though is a horse like Oh Cay Felix that won both the open, and amateur NCHA futurity in 2006. A horse that is gritty, smart and trained enough that they can literally switch their brain from an amateur ride to an open ride, and win both, is pretty incredible.

mugwump said...

That's what I'm talking about.

mugwump said...

I have known too many amateur riders that top the open classes to separate them any more.

MichelleL said...

Loved this one Mugs. Spoke to me on many levels. Thank you.

cdncowgirl said...

Ohmigosh yes, yes YES!!

Sharon Burdeshaw said...

I think you are very right about ALL of this. In fact, I hold the belief that some of the weird stuff you see in the open pen is to justify the trainers, not to make a better horse. For example, the extreme low headed round reiner, or the magically slow and (supposedly) correct western pleasure horse.

mugwump said...

Nah, don't blame the trainers. They train what the judges score.

Sharon Burdeshaw said...

But most of the judges are trainers, and I believe it is human nature to give extra points to the coolest new way to get the job done. I believe it probably starts with one day, the best horse in the pen has this little quirk, perhaps a banded mane, or a super low head set. Of course he wins, he is the best horse in the pen. Then the rest of the exhibitors, who of course want to win, pick up on that quirk, copy it, and poof, you have the next trend.

I was blessed with one of those "open/ammy" horses, too. It was not quite as rare 40 years ago, but my youth mare had more open points (with me in the saddle) in reining, western riding and trail than she did youth points. That was before amateur even existed.

Sharon Burdeshaw said...

But most of the judges are trainers, and I believe it is human nature to give extra points to the coolest new way to get the job done. I believe it probably starts with one day, the best horse in the pen has this little quirk, perhaps a banded mane, or a super low head set. Of course he wins, he is the best horse in the pen. Then the rest of the exhibitors, who of course want to win, pick up on that quirk, copy it, and poof, you have the next trend.

I was blessed with one of those "open/ammy" horses, too. It was not quite as rare 40 years ago, but my youth mare had more open points (with me in the saddle) in reining, western riding and trail than she did youth points. That was before amateur even existed.

Robin said...

Great post. I had horses as a kid and love them to this day. Your blog has been so interesting. Besides the fact that you write so well, you do a lot of thoughtful posts that make me think. I’ve followed your life with Brockle and am impressed with the way you researched it and the way you have been working with him. So many people only take on a dog that is as problem free as possible and just dump the less than perfect ones in the shelter/rescue.

I foster dogs for Malinois Rescue and get very impatient with the kind of people you were describing in this post. The “if you can’t handle a Mal, you are incompetent and your kids are stupid” ones. I will say I do think Mals are wonderful, insanely smart dogs who are not for everyone, but must because you do not want to train your Mal to the nth degree in protection/agility/obedience/ something does not make someone a bad or stupid person. I give my personal Mals plenty of exercise and love but not a lot of structured training and they are fine dogs. I just try to ignore the idiots.

Again, great post and I’m looking forward to the post with the results of Brockle’s DNA results. Should be interesting.

Scamp said...

This post speaks to me, too. I think my new horse may fall into this category - he's not *easy* but he's forgiving. And when the trainer rode him last season in a fairly big NRHA show out here, he scored a 72.5 on him to win the class.

I aspire to be able to ride him to his full potential, in all my almost 60yo, amateur, and new to reining glory , but will be thrilled to be able to bond with him as his new partner and not drive him crazy with my mistakes.

mugwump said...

Scamp- I ended up deciding that my talents were best used creating nice horses. If they were good cow horses it was an awesome bonus...but the most satisfaction I get is when I see clients from 10 and 15 years ago, still mounted on horses I trained for them. I realized I gave horses longevity...which is more than enough to make me feel it was a career well spent.

Helen said...

I had never heard of Malinois before, so I googled. What beautiful, beautiful dogs.

Mugs, your last comment is so spot on.

Peanut said...

"the most satisfaction I get is when I see clients from 10 and 15 years ago, still mounted on horses I trained for them" - love that!

Anonymous said...

So very spot on! Although, I don't think being permissive in dog training is breed exclusive. The brattiest, most ill-behaved dogs I see at the vets are the little frou-frou dogs, usually dressed in a sweater and named Precious. Or Heaven.

Amy in Ohio

Clancy said...

Training enduring horses who stay with their people long term - definitely something to be very proud of in my book. :)

Unknown said...

Personally I've found that there isn't much difference between most high level horses and normal horses - with the exception of of some of the very, very top ones (as in FEI World Champs top 10 horses) - these horses just seem to have that bit extra attitude that can be a bit much for "normals" to handle.
I wouldn't call myself a trainer, however I turned a few slow racehorses into reasonable horses for mid/low level show jumping, eventing, trail riding and general stuff - including being able to help round up our small mob of sheep. (The only horse that completely failed at this was the 17hh + TB - her turning circle and ability to follow stock was abysmal!)
These horses went on to become long term horses of their owners, I spent a lot of time teaching them to tolerate all sorts of things - having abandoned live lambs placed in front of the saddle to get them up to the yards, walking with me as I dragged jump rails into position, bush bashing out on trails. Some of these started off a bit jumpy but teaching them tolerance for stupid human stuff makes them so much less likely to end up in a bad place.

Austen Gage said...

I own huskies. I talk about them a lot here, but they're a driven and interesting mind. They aren't hard to own for people who haven't developed a "feel" for dogs. But they can be. The really driven ones can be. They are rarely going to get dangerous, but they'll destroy your couch, eat your neighbor's cat, and dig out of your yard. I love that about them. I love feeling their energy, and their love for life. I love using that to push me to keep moving and staying active.

The same with my horse. He's not a pro-quality dressage horse. His movement is mediocre, and his arthritis will keep him from true extensions. But he has that pro-attitude. He's demanding and sensitive and requires that his rider puts in the time to learn and understand his training and the way he communicates. It's not an impossible task, but it's one that takes dedication and a little talent to learn.

The same as learning to write well. Or be a good public speaker. Or a swat team member. Or a football player. Or ... anything that requires you to understand and in some ways manipulate the emotions, actions, and reactions of those around you. You can learn to read a crowd, or you can learn to read an animal. Both take time and experience.

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