I moved to Australia in 2003, and to do that, I made a drastic life change. People often ask me about that story, and it is a long one. In many ways, it took a long time to get over.
One of the changes was my career. In the US, I was working at a university as an academic advisor to hundreds of art students and teaching. In Australia, I became a horse trainer.
The Australian fellow I came over here to work with was a trainer I had met when I towed my Arab mare from Kansas to Arizona for a horse clinic with my friend Harry Whitney. Ross worked in a similar fashion with horses that considered the horse and the person, and for which I felt was deeply important.
Anyhow, I hit the ground running on that June day, over 11 years ago. For a few months, I cleaned paddocks, rode a few horses and by December, I was starting some clients’ horses.
Half our business, Good Horsemanship, was starting horses under saddle, some ground work, and the rest were troubled horses, many one hoof away from the saleyard with owners frightened or at the end of their choices. We had a reputation for successfully helping horses and their people come out the other send and making it work.
We required clients to come along as often as they could to watch us work with their horses, then we began working with both horse and human until at the end of the process, they took a halter out to the paddocks, came back with their horse and did all the work.
It was empowering for the person, who then owned the knowledge to make a change in their horse. It was attempted to ensure a less troubling transition for their horse when it went home.
Over the years, I must have worked more horses than I can remember. A few hundred, including the horses I rode and worked at clinics here in Australia and in the US, lesson days and demonstrations.
You lose track of the horses, but a few always stand out, and there is one that was the catalyst for me to decide to leave the business after eight years, working nearly every day of the week.
He was a big fellow; a Morgan-Warmblood cross, bred for his athleticism and appearance. I think he was about four years old and stood about 16.1, but he had such a tense frame, he seemed to be well over 17 hands and was rock hard with anxiety nearly all the time. For non-horse people, at five foot five inches tall, the top of my head was about even with his withers.
I think he was bred by a woman who had done a bit of work with him. I can recall her name, but I’ll call her Leslie. I can’t recall the horse’s name, but I’ll call him Charlie. He came to me for starting and Leslie gave me snippets of a vague history.
I suspected from her protective attitude around him, and his lack of focus on her that the relationship was extremely strained and her work had been damaging, to say it kindly. He seemed to be completely oblivious of her and any person around him.
But that wasn’t too much to worry about, and I had worked with some tough horses over the years. I might be able to do something with this gelding despite the owner. To give him a chance. In the end, it is firstly about the horse because they don’t get a choice.
Most readers won’t have had much to do with horses, so to go through the particulars might seem a little inaccessible, but suffice it to say, the old adage, ‘Everybody lies’, fits the horse-training business and it applied to the story behind Charlie.
What usually took me a week, took two, and nothing felt solid. When the time came to begin the saddling process, I learned Charlie was a spectacular bucker and like most large horses, very powerful. There was a mental detachment in Charlie that was alarming, and though he would go through the motions, there was a deep need inside this horse to remain remote. To protect himself. Stuff had happened back home on the farm.
I spoke to the family who came en masse to watch on the weekends that I had grave concerns about who would work with Charlie when he eventually went home. Leslie said her 16-year-old son ‘Bob’ would be the one riding Charlie, and at this I wasn’t too surprised since Leslie was built like a refrigerator, and just about as nimble.
Bob usually watched what was going on in the round pen with half his attention. The other half was on his girlfriend. She would come along to watch, and as she sat in her white plastic chair, Bob would stand behind her and rub his crotch against the back of her head. Embarrassing teen hormones aside, I pitied the kid. On the first day I asked Bob to come into the pen to do some work with Charlie, he reached for the lead rope with a shaking hand.
Those shakes were explained at the family’s next visit. They had left behind a horse blanket (or ‘rug’ down here) the week before, and I discovered Charlie had some deep concerns about that rug. My husband helped me get Charlie more comfortable wearing the rug as the big horse would leap like a grasshopper when I approached him with the thing even folded up in a wad. This was a horse who I was already saddling, so again, my suspicions were triggered.
Anyhow, there they came, a family shaped like nesting dolls, except for lanky Bob, on a Sunday morning. I led Charlie up from the paddock and they all stood staring from the other side of the gate.
“What’s up?” I asked them.
“It’s just that you got him rugged,” Leslie said. “We’re amazed. When he had it on last winter, it took my husband and Bob to get it on, and he knocked Bob out and gave him concussion. We couldn’t get it off. He wore it all winter until he just tore it off.”
Ahh. I wasn’t surprised, This kind of story wasn’t unfamiliar, but I didn’t feel too positive any of this was going to work out. Not with this woman.
Time passed, and I could work Charlie saddled in the pen, though he had a habit of freezing and bolting at the end of the rope. We worked and worked until I felt reasonably confident I could take him out. I worked him outside the pen in the paddock without a saddle until one day…
That was the day I decided I had had enough.
It was morning. I had Charlie saddled and led him around the paddock. He was occasionally distracted by horses and activity about us, but came back to me with little trouble. All the time I was working, I felt a great trepidation about what would happen to this large and lost horse in whose owner I felt no confidence whatsoever.
I stopped and gave Charlie a pat. Then I faced him, raised my hand, lifted the rope to the right as I had a hundred times before to ask Charlie to step his forehand to his left.
In a flash, Charlie leapt straight up in the air. I don’t know how I reacted so quickly, but I ducked to my left. Charlie let out one incredible buck and bolted away. I remember seeing his belly fly over the top of me. He hit the double gates in paddock corner square with his chest, flipped over the fence, got up and bolted down the laneway where he ran straight into an older gelding that had been grazing in the lane.
Then it was over. I walked straight up to Charlie and he was all in a sweat. I led him back to the yard, unsaddled him and put him back in the paddock. I had some things to say to the owners and as far as I was concerned, this horse was far too troubled for any of them to ride. Not with shaky Bob as the designated monkey. Not with anybody to keep anybody safe.
And I could have been killed. That concerned me.
What I will never forget, and I have been lied to too many times by horse owners to count, was Leslie’s guileless reaction to my concerns.
“Oh, yes, he’s done that before,” Leslie told me. “Maybe four times. He just pulls away and bolts off into the paddock when I’m lunging him.”
I didn’t need a full explanation of the damaging work she had done with Charlie; I didn’t need a list of every issue she had. Her ego wouldn’t have admitted any of it if she could help it. But what would life be like for this animal who came to me a lost, tangled mind of a horse that was probably once a foal so desperate for the right answers, but suffered for years in the hands of this useless woman?
People cannot understand how a lack of clarity can deeply affect a horse in such a negative way. It is no different than children. And with horses, coupling that confusion with a certain kind of mind, a certain predilection, is a recipe for disaster.
I could write a book of the sadnesses I encountered in horses that had an ocean of try inside them and their owners who only wanted a quick fix. But it took Charlie to make me decide I could not lay awake another night worrying about the welfare of a horse when it went back home. I have learned too many times, horses are willing to change, but people rarely ever make that leap of faith.
The husband came for Charlie the following weekend after my conversation with Leslie. I asked what their plans were for the horse while I loaded him on their trailer.
“It’ll be another trainer or a bullet,” he said shortly and latched the trailer door.
And that was it.
-This is me riding Sally, a friend’s Standardbred mare during a lesson in the paddock where Charlie bolted. The double gates are in the right-hand corner.