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When Conformation Meets Application | Building a Great Horse Is More Than Genetics

I was visiting with an old dear friend of mine this afternoon, and as it usually does with us, our conversation came around to horses. One’s that we liked, ones that we owned and ones that we’d like to own. When we got to the ones that we would like to own, we got to talking about what attributes we believed were the most important in making a good horse. Well, a horse has to have a good hip, yes, that's true, but they also need to have good feet because without good feet, you have nothing. While that's right, they also need good withers and a strong top line. We found that we agreed on all of the above but maybe not in exactly the same order. The most important thing we settled on was the horse had to have a willing attitude. Trainability is very important. You might have a horse with the most perfect conformation and pretty to boot, but without a good attitude, you would have a struggle developing a really good horse.

I believe that the attitude the horse comes with can be inherited as well as learnt. In saying that, I think there are more good-minded horses now than there have ever been. The reason being is that our breeding programs keep evolving. The reason that the colt or filly is here is that, as a rule, his or her mother was a good horse. And the reason why his father got to be his sire was that he was good at something. So when we keep breeding back to bloodlines with the genetics that we are looking for, our chances of getting offspring that carry those same traits improve.

With horses, like people, this doesn’t always work out. We all know people that didn’t turn out like their parents. For good or bad, their chances of them being like their parents are better than average. It sure makes it easier to develop a nice horse when you have one whose attitude is “how can I help you?” rather than one whose first thought is “no, I don’t want to” when you ask them for something.

It’s been my experience that it is very difficult to develop an exceptional individual if the horse doesn’t want to help you. That is one of the reasons why I think their early training is so important. If you can set it up in the horse's mind that what you are asking of him is a win-win situation, then they will develop a more willing attitude in everything you ask them going forward.

Ray used to say, “set it up and let them find it.” What he was getting at was that if the horse believed what you were asking of him was his idea, then he would be more apt to follow your lead. So if you’re always setting up your training by asking yourself, “how can I make my horse believe it was his idea?” you will work on developing a willing attitude in your horse. Now, how you go about this is up to the individual. It's been my experience that the end result that we are looking for in a well-trained horse is pretty similar. But how we get there can vary.

Buster Welch used to say that he believed that the application is more important than the method. What he meant by that was that it was more important how you applied the method than the method itself.

So don't be afraid to think outside the box a little when you are working with your horse. Trust some of your ideas about developing a willing partner in your horse. Remember, horses, like people, like to be asked once in a while rather than told all the time.

So yes, I do believe that genetics are very important in the making of a great horse, but the life experience they have accrued can also have a major influence on the horse they become. Just imagine how good a horse you would develop when this method of application meets up with a very willing student.

This, my friend and I both agreed on.

Happy trails!

-- KJS



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