- BY DON JESSOP
It's not all about color, or size, or breed, or even age. It's certainly not about flashy looks. The perfect horse has to have something else going for it. Something that can be trained, yes, but it's most desirable as a part of the horse's nature. Everyone has different ideas about what a perfect horse is, so don't read this thinking that I know what you want. I only know what I want.
Sometimes you get lucky and get a horse that is both handsome and smart, but... speaking from decades of experience, I find it's much easier to get a horse that's already smart, and then make it handsome, rather than get a handsome horse and try to make it smart. I have entire programs dedicated to making horses smarter but it's much easier to make a smart horse beautiful. So what does a smart horse look like? When you're looking at the raw, untrained horse, how can you tell what a smart horse looks like?
For this, I want you to memorize a simple acronym to help identify the horse of your dreams. And in case you already a have a horse, use it to help train the horse you already have to embody this acronym:
ATTENTIVE, ALIGNED, RESPECTFUL, CALM, SOUND
I love the acronym "aarcs" (one too many aa's I know), but I love it because an arc represents beauty in mathematics, simplicity in nature, strength in structure and a special kind of elegance that most people seek to experience in life. And when it comes to horses, the arc represents power, alignment, soundness of body and mind, congruence, and a special kind of respect. Specifically, the acronym means Aligned, Respectful, Calm, and Sound. These are the top five qualities to look for and train for in a horse.
Recently I visited a wild horse holding facility in Lovell Wyoming with a client and dear friend to wants to adopt a wild horse in support of preserving life and following a life long dream to connect with and tame the raw, fearful nature of the horse in our human world. While we were there I got the opportunity to talk about many of the dozens of available horses and burros. To be clear, she wasn't just interested in having another pasture pet. She has goals to ride and support her family to ride as well. So she wasn't just looking for any horse. She needed a horse that would, eventually, be safe and sound without the hassle of expensive and risky training for lengthy periods of time. She wanted something that showed potential right away. So it became a paramount task to find that perfect horse amongst the herd.
We didn't have all day, nor did we have the ability to stringently observe every single detail of each horse, but following the "aarcs" model, we could easily identify potential perfect horses for the ideal partnership. My heart goes out to all the horses, naturally, but you've got to use your brain as well as your heart when you get the opportunity to follow a life long dream. Too many people get a horse because their heart tells them to get a horse, even when their brain says, "WAIT, that horse looks too nervous, or unsound, or shows absolutely no signs of interest," but your heart tells you all those things will just go away, and if you're super lucky... they do. But too many people experience the opposite effect. The effect where the horse takes up too much time, money, and energy and eventually falls far short of your dreams. In the worst-case scenario, you become injured, and your experience sours for all horses.
So let's talk instead about best-case scenarios. The best thing that could happen for my friend is to find a horse that isn't prone to injury or excessive fear. A horse that is attentive, naturally. A horse that is calm, naturally. And in an ideal world, a horse that matches her ideal for color, size, and age. Is it possible to find all those things? YES... if you know what to look for. Hence we come back to "aarcs."
Years ago, I bought two beautiful, expensive warmblood mares. Both were judged and certified as elite breeding mares. But we didn't buy them to breed, we bought them to jump and do top-level dressage. One of them is beautiful beyond imagination. Her natural shiny white coat, perfect, tall, muscular, natural posture and balanced body cause people to stop on the side of the road and stare. I'm not joking. She is stunning. But she is missing one special piece. She's not attentive to people by nature. She's easily distracted and doesn't see or focus on the human well. She might catch your eye but it's hard to catch her eyes. With hours upon hours of training, she has become safe for most any rider but she still struggles to see or understand just how big and powerful she is compared to a human standing next to her. In the early stages of training, if spooked, she could run right over the top of you and not even notice you were there.
The other horse was elegant and refined, extremely beautiful in her own right. What she has going for her is her balanced movement and attentive nature. She never steps on your toes, not even by accident. She always sees you coming and always knows where you were. Not in a fearful way, but in a respectful way. She paid attention to social details. You probably know people like that too, right? Some people don't see the social cues and blast right past social boundaries, where others quietly observe and when the time is right, join the conversation. Each horse has its own quality but which quality ranks highest? Over time, the attentive horse proved to be the most trainable. It's always the case with horses. Just like students, the observant student gets the best grades.
So when you're looking for a horse or looking to improve the horse you have, it's important to see if the horse is paying attention and it's easy to test. Not as easy to train, but testing takes almost nothing and it could save you thousands of dollars on your next horse purchase and training process.
Heres' how you test: Put pressure on the horse and see what happens. Then repeat. That's it! After a while, some horses will ignore you completely, while others will continue to show fear. The ideal horse will always show some sign of connection to your suggestion. You'll see the ear flicker, or the eyes shift. With my friend I had her stand in the middle of the corral and apply very small visual hand gestures, like a small wave, to see what would happen. Most of the young mustangs jumped back and tried to run to the edge of the pen, always seeking to hide from the pressure. But two showed curiosity rather than fear. Given that none of them had ever interacted with humans apart from being rounded up and shoved into a holding pen, the curiosity was not very high, but it was certainly there. These two horses would brave the opportunity to look you right in the eye and hold the connection for longer periods, while the others reacted in fear, constantly hiding from pressure. After a few minutes, one of the horses checked out. He showed no signs of fear but also decided that because there is nothing to fear there is also nothing of value there. Whereas the other didn't check out. He calmed down considerably, like the other but he kept flickering his ear toward the gesture and moving his eyes to engage with her eyes.
You've seen horses that engage with you when you call them by name. Some horses continue to do that every single time you call them by name where others start ignoring you after a minute or two. As far as attentiveness, this young mustang was showing all the right signs.
Posturally a horse potentially has five major alignment issues. They are a headset, hip-set, shoulder-set, feet/leg-set, and coupling.
Headset means the position of the head as it rests naturally compared to the rest of the body. If the head is set high above the body it can sometimes indicate tension and high energy reserves, even fear. If the headset is lower than the shoulders and body, it can sometimes indicate dullness or introversion coupled with tension. If it's set more in the middle as it rests it's usually indicative of how well natured the horse can be and how calm but responsive he/she could be in training.
Hip-set means how high or low are the hips compared to the other body parts. This has very little (if anything) to do with attitude, but it can be important later for performance. When you stand your horse on level ground and look at his profile, if you see a low hip set it can be indicative of an unbalanced skeletal structure and could prove to be too weak for certain types of performance. I high hip set can make for an extremely uncomfortable motion during trot and canter gaits. The perfect hip set is balanced like Justice shows in this picture. The hip also looks proportionate to the rest of the body. A hip too small or too big might be your style but it doesn't end up serving you in the long run. Look at all great performance horses and you'll notice they all have a certain balance to their body parts.
Shoulder set demonstrates the same points as the hip set. A shoulder set too high or too low indicates imbalances that could prove to upset the apple cart in high levels of performance. Performance riders prefer a shoulder set slightly higher than the hips but when you look closely at the whole picture, the headset is also slightly higher, leaving a balanced topline. A shoulder set in the middle, no lower than the hip usually tells you that your horse is more physically able and shows higher potential. An exaggerated wide set shoulder or narrow set shoulder also indicate imbalances. We always look for balance if we're looking for the perfect horse (as if there is such a thing). A shoulder that slopes too quickly from the withers to the front indicates a sharp, uncomfortable way of moving, just like a hip that slopes too quickly from the point of the hip to the tail. You want an even, balanced sloping shoulder. Justice's shoulder isn't perfect. Nor is his hip, but for a mustang, he shows a lot of balance. Some breeds are harder to find balance than others but this mustang has a few good things going for it.
Feet and leg set means how straight the legs are. Do the feet twist out or in while standing still or while in motion? Do the knees twist out or in? Do the hocks stand back behind the tail, or underneath too far? We're always looking for balance, always. Justice doesn't show perfect balance with his legs. His feet are nice and straight as are his legs but his hocks stand a little too straight underneath his hips. It's ok and fine for his owner. I would hope to see a bit more balance in his hind legs but the legs overall are pretty symmetrical and straight. Also, overall this isn't going to make or break the horse for his lifetime. I've seen horses perform very well in spite of many the imbalances I'm talking about so take everything I say with a grain of salt and be patient as you look for the perfect horse.
Coupling could mean many things. It could mean the way the back is shaped. Is the horse short-coupled, meaning short back or long-coupled meaning long back? For our purposes, the coupling means how the body comes together. Is the back long or short, is the neck long or short, are the legs long or short for his body? This horse shows pretty good balance for his size. Nothing seems way out of proportion. He obviously needs good feeding and health care at this point and moving forward, but he shows decent signs of alignment.
Respect is hard to read in one short introductory session with a horse. You usually need four or five sessions to be clear on how well he respects pressure. Generally, you would think that an attentive horse would also be respectful, but respect has a deeper meaning. Yes, you want your horse to like you and you want to gain rapport with him but the type of respect I'm talking about is related to pressure. All horses react to pressure in the beginning but some continue to react even after many sessions. They are the type that will lean on the halter or pull away when something scary happens. A disrespectful horse will push or pull through boundaries when stressed by the environment. A respectful horse will not. Imagine a horse pulling a cart. If the horse becomes fearful, the cart and the passengers in the cart are at risk of breaking to bits as all 1000+ pounds of pressure bust through the harness, fences, ropes, crowds, you name it. A horse can be fearful, but they don't have to be disrespectful. I've seen many horses keep their head under extreme pressure. These are the horses you can trust. Respect (and disrespect for that matter) can be trained but what you're looking for is how easy is it to train? For Justice, the mustang respect proved to be easy to train. He often needs a little support but that's just it. It's only a little support. If all hell breaks loose he doesn't break loose with it. At least not while you're around. Another mustang we have in training is quite the opposite. He's taking a long time to learn the same simple lessons. It's nothing personal. He doesn't disrespect people. He just doesn't respect pressure. It bothers him or scares him or makes him upset until he realizes, in the end, it's just pressure. Justice, on the other hand, gets it quickly. This will help him advance to higher levels very quickly. It won't take as long to build the foundation of respect to pressure.
Calm is similar to respect but better. A respectful horse can remain tense. I've ridden many Arabians that will carry me to the finish line without ever pulling on the line too hard or needing tons of support to keep going but still they were tense. Things seem to bother them, they would stand their ground but remain reserved about the stimulus. A calm horse, on the other hand, both respects the stimuli and trusts it. It's like they know that nothing humans do is bad. Within seconds of being surprised, they often settle and remember for the rest of their life never to be surprised by that thing again. Calm horses can be dull horses, but a calm and respectful horse is perfect. With this kind of horse, you can wave your flag with the fury of a hurricane and they don't care, but when using that same flag to ask them to take one step they kindly say, "Sure, anything you like!" That's the kind of horse we all want. Most of which can be trained but some of which is a natural part of the horse you have got. Justice showed signs of calmness within a few sessions. The other signs, earlier signs, of attentiveness and alignment often indicate a calmer horse. In his case, it worked out to be true.
Is the horse limping? Is the horse bobbing his head while trotting or walking? Are the feet cracked to high-heaven? Do his motions look even? How about his weight and size? Is he going to last with you given his size and your desire to perform any level of tasks? These are all questions to ask yourself as you look for the perfect horse. A horse that's limping indicates unsoundness, you would naturally want to get a vet to take a closer look to see what kind of issue you're dealing with. Some issues plague the horse's entire career. Some are just minor. A vet can support you. How about his size and weight? I typically follow the 20% rule. If a human weighs more than 20% of the overall bodyweight of the horse, this would be considered abusive to ride in any type of performance. The horse will not last the years if the mechanics and mathematics don't work in your favor. You could enjoy a short ride for a few minutes at the walk if your upwards of 20%. You could even train the horse for a smaller client, given you wouldn't be spending much time past a certain point. You want to look for a horse that is big enough to handle your body and strong enough to handle your desired level of performance. Jumping horses typically need to be a bit taller and stronger for instance. 10-15% is better for sure but keep 20% as a general rule. Justice is young and will grow to be about 1000 lbs. I weigh 200 plus with all my tack. I'll help train him but he'll never be a good fit for me. But for his owner, he's the perfect horse.
I hope the 'aarcs' sticks with you as you look and train for the perfect horses.
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