Pat Parelli talks about “foundation before specialization.” Achieving our Level 4 is just the beginning. After that, we’re supposed to find our horse’s “sport.” Sometimes this is easier said than done.
Take Mharquis (Markie). Markie is my Levels horse. When we found him eight years ago, he had been a Halter Class horse. At age four, he had been bought by a woman who found out she had heart disease the day she brought Markie home. Her doctor told her she could never get on a horse again. So Markie ran wild in her five-acre pasture with his buddies for four years. The day I met him, I stepped on a twig the size of a straw and he ran all the way to the end of his pasture. As he galloped away with his head high and his tail flagged out behind him, my husband said, “Isn’t he beautiful?! We pick him!” His owner had to go get him again. He was green. I was green. Somehow we made it to Level Four together.
I remember the day I thought he was sick. He wasn’t; he had just turned a corner. I had never seen him so calm. He has remained that way with few exceptions. Well, there was that one day we were in the Arena Grande at the Pagosa Springs campus and he turned into a wild man and did the cloverleaf like a Right-Brain Extrovert on steroids. I remember the day I knew he was ready for a trail ride, just the two of us. It was wonderful. I remember the day I knew we were ready to jump a course bareback and bridleless. I cried after we were done. I cried the day Parelli sent me the email that let me know we’d gotten our Level 4. And I cried again the day I got my actual black string.
Finding Markie’s sport wasn’t easy. We tried hunter/jumper. He did pretty well. But he wasn’t happy. And it turned out he has stifle issues. We tried dressage, and both of us yawned (I know. I know. We’ll keep at it.). Then one day we were at our local equestrian park when we saw a man and his Arabian. We started chatting and somehow we ended up going out with him on his “training” session with his horse. All of our horses are Quarter Horses or Fjords. To move out with another Arabian was an eye-opening experience. Markie came alive in a way I had never seen before. He was not right-brained.
The man talked us into doing an endurance race. Five minutes into our first race, Markie said “Mom, this is what I was born to do.” I have never seen him so happy. Markie would “hunt” a jump in our cross-country park. But I soon discovered he would “hunt” a horse and pass them in an amazing way in an endurance race. He was filled with energy, purpose, and determination. Best of all, he was listening to me. It was transforming for both of us. He is so into it, I ride him on a totally loose rein 95% of the time. I let him choose his pace and he’s proven he’s good at it, because we come into our vet checks well under their target heart rate every time. We just finished our fourth race and he is in heaven.
Then there’s Annie, my four-year old Fjord. I bought Annie’s mom, Kjor Tina, as my first Equine Assisted Psychotherapy horse. She was in Washington State. I’m in Utah. There was a bad snowstorm, and the truck was delayed in picking her up. Tina’s owner is a breeder and she called me saying Tina was in heat, and asked if I really wanted to put Tina in with Fair Acres Ole, her stud. I personally had never wanted to raise a baby horse, but my husband had been talking about it for over a year. My husband had also told me that if I ever bought a Fjord he would divorce me. Since he didn’t know I had bought Tina, I thought it might save both of us if she came pregnant. I said, “Yes.”
Fortunately, I had all of the Savvy Club‘s “Raising Smart 7″ DVDs. So I just did what they told me to do. Anyone who meets Annie says the same thing: “She doesn’t know she’s a horse! She acts one-third human, one-third dog, and one-third horse.” So what do you do with a horse like that? If I was in the circus, that would be perfect for Annie. She LOVES showing people her “tricks” (I know. I know about that, too. But SHE doesn’t.).
So, since I’m not in the circus, what sport do I choose for Annie? It turns out Annie loves jumping. She not only loves it, she’s quite gifted at it. So Annie and I started competing. Our first show didn’t go so well. It turns out I had never done more than four consecutive jumps when I was training Annie, and at the show she was quiet adamant that she was done after four jumps. I have the film to prove it. I didn’t want to ruin it for her. So I didn’t make a big deal out of it.
Our first show had two days, so I took her home and “played” with her a bit. The next day she did better, but she still thought she could pick and choose, saying “No thank you” to a jump if she didn’t like the look of it. Fortunately for us, Parelli Professionals arrived at my barn the evening of the second day. After showing them the video of the first two days, they committed to helping us. They accompanied me to the arena where the show was located at 6am the next morning. I was put over jumps for an hour, while they played their horses too. It was really clear to all of us that it was a dominance issue, rather than a confidence issue, for Annie.
We had another show the following weekend and Annie had zero faults. Wahoo! She came in fourth, which isn’t bad for a 14 hand Fjord who took 90 seconds to do a course that’s judged for 67 seconds. Can she help it if all the other competitors were 16 hands or larger?!
Oh and there’s Tina. My husband had been saying he wanted to “drive” a horse for a few years. So, for his Christmas present, I decided to teach Tina to drive. She took to it like a duck to water. I couldn’t believe how quickly she adapted to it and even seemed to enjoy it. She’s at the gate waiting for her Sunday morning drives.
So, finding your sport isn’t always easy, but it is definitely worth it. If anyone asked me for advice on the subject I would say, “Listen to your horse. Your horse will tell you.” And they do, if only we listen.
Jo is a 2-Star Parelli Professional in the Salt Lake City, UT area and is available for lessons and group instruction.