Managing Expectations: The Highs And Lows Of Horses

We’ve all seen that meme: the one that shows a chart or a road going from where you are now, to where you want to be. It’s never a straight line. There are ups and downs and turnarounds along the way.  Maybe there’s an ocean full of sharks to wade across. Or a ring of fire one must leap through. I’ve never seen something describe the highs and lows of managing competitive goals with horses as accurately as this.

I’ve owned my off-track Thoroughbred for almost two years, and our training has been a long slog, at best. There’s been lots of sputtering and false starts. For a few months at a time, I’d feel a glimmer of hope as we progressed toward small goals, only to later feel crushing disappointment as we took three or five or ten steps back.

It’s a process. I get it. If it were easy to take on a project horse, or to ride up the levels on any horse, everybody would do it. And of course it wouldn’t be as rewarding, reaching those big goals and even the small ones, after all the blood, sweat and tears you’ve poured into your horse and the journey, after all.

But man, it can be soul crushing sometimes.

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I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve come close to hanging it all up on this horse. At one point I briefly listed him for sale. I’ve considered taking a break from horses altogether during our lowest of lows. It’s made me miss my heart horse terribly, whom I lost tragically and unexpectedly to colic before I bought said green OTTB.

There are times when I’ve most definitely felt ashamed with just how frustrated I’ve been. But there’s a yearning underneath all the anxiety and the uncertainty that keeps me going.

I’ve been around horses in one way or another for so long, that maybe I’m afraid of the person I’d be if I didn’t have one, even if it was a horse that caused me more stress than joy. Nevertheless, we always seem to get through it, usually with a little encouragement from some friends.

Vets and specialists help. So do trainers. But most of all, I think it’s just the investment of time getting to know my horse. When he is unrideable, and even when he is sound enough, it’s the the time I spend just listening to him that seems to unlock our biggest barriers.

Lately, things have been great. My project horse is the fittest and soundest he’s ever been. He’s eager and willing to work. He’s soft and rhythmical under saddle, and seems to be listening to me, too. It’s as if something’s clicked, finally. Maybe it’s a culmination of a lot of things.

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I recently went to a small show, where we competed in small classes, mostly against kids or nervous, beginner-type amateurs. It’s hard for me sometimes to just take a deep breath and understand that I can’t rush my horse, his healing or his learning process. And that I need to get over that where we are is just where we are, and that’s not a good barometer of my ability, or his.

It’s probably normal, to feel impatient. I hope it’s normal, at least, to feel embarrassed or slightly uncomfortable to be riding at little shows or in divisions with kids when you’re trying to log the miles on a green horse. I watch the videos of our rounds and I beam because I can see progress. When I examine us just through that lens — through our journey with no other outside factors — I feel that glimmer of hope again. We are making progress, even if we’re not where I expected or hoped we would be today.

And that is enough of a small victory, I think, to keep me going. At least for now.

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