Horsemanship

The Generalization Game

Photo by Susan Black

I have been asked to write on a lot of topics.

Why are Thoroughbreds better than other breeds? Why are geldings better than mares? Why do I love bay horses and not chestnuts? Why are sons of Storm Cat crazy and Malibu Moon so chill?

And I refuse to write them all.

Why? Because generalization, and more importantly, correlation, doesn’t equal causation.

And yet we as equestrians love to do it. We love to say that chestnut mares are crazy and bay geldings are sane. We love to assume that Thoroughbreds have bad feet, and warmbloods make good hunters. We are the first to tell someone that their Thoroughbred will be anxious, and the last to say “I told you so” after someone purchases a hot mare.

But we need to stop, and here is why.

No two horses are created equal.

I love Thoroughbreds, but honestly, I love them because they are what I know. I know how to assess their pedigrees, I know how to investigate their race records. I personally know many of their breeders, and their trainers cell phones are in my contact list. My detective work is therefore made easy, and my bowl of information stays large before I ever sign a contract or write a check.

And because I love Thoroughbreds, I unintentionally appear to love bay geldings. With over 75% of the breed coming out this color, natural selection limits my adoration to be rerouted to any other hue or shade. Chestnuts aren’t as available, and grey’s even less. It’s slim pickings, and my options are limited. And then you add in the variable of sex, and I’m shoved even further in the corner. The fillies are sent to the breeding shed, and the testis are cut on the other 48% of the population. Therefore, my options are lesser bred females, or the castrated male. I’ll choose either, but the castrated male is the offer I am made the most often.

So I start with a plain bay Thoroughbred gelding, although I don’t intentionally seek them out specifically. No part of it is because they are better, or easier, or prettier, or fancier. It’s just what’s out there offered to me at a discounted price. They fit within my budget, my wheelhouse, and my knowledge base.

But then comes the other generalizations. Because I got a horse off of the track, I MUST let him down. He MUST have shoes. He MUST be high strung or anxious. He WILL hate trail rides. He WILL hate crossties. He HAS to eat 20 lbs of grain a day. He HAS to have ulcers. He CANNOT be ridden by beginners. He CANNOT be a hunter. He MUST be scared of dogs, cats, small children, pitchforks, trailers, red cars, and shadows.

And I just have to laugh.

I learned a long time ago that not one size shoe fits all.

I can remember my first day as a wrangler on a ranch in Wyoming like it was yesterday. The haze of fog lifting over the mesa, and the sound of 200 horses happily munching on timothy. The jingle of spurs as they made their way over the planks of the hastily built tack room. And the foreman sitting me down to give me a lecture on what I could look forward to in the upcoming months. And he said one thing that has resonated with me for the next 15 years:

By being responsible for the care of 200 horses, I would see more in three months than I would owning one horse for the rest of my life.

I would see more unique injuries and experience more quirks. I would learn that not all draft horses were sane, and not all rope horses were hot. I would watch white hooves hold up to the mountainous terrain, while observing black hooves crumble. And I would learn to never assume.

And I would learn that if you found me a horseman who says that their “system” works on every horse, then I just need to find them a few more horses.

We breed 20,000 Thoroughbreds a year. Less than half of those horses were raised on a Kentucky farm, and even fewer will ever see a starting gate. Only 5,000 will see the sales, and even fewer will actually sell. There are thousands of listed trainers that can lay a hand on them, and over 100 sanctioned tracks for them to race on.

No two horses will have the same upbringing. No two horses will have the same genetics. No two horses will have the same metabolism, the same physiology, or the same experiences.

We all can rationalize this. We all acknowledge this at front of our brains. And yet we are quick to push that knowledge to the back of our minds.

We generalize our horses by gender, by color, by breed, and by pedigree. We are quick to judge and quick to assume. We gasp at the people who push them seemingly too fast, and yet roll our eyes at those who go too slow. We lament of the organizations which applaud the rapid retraining, and yet shake our heads at the horses just sitting in fields.

No two horses are the same. And because no two horses are the same, no single program or path will work for each. Some will need time, some will need activity. Some will do better with long slow miles and some will be bored by the process. And if the quickest way to recovery is in admitting you have a problem, then the quickest solution to this horse training dilemma is to stop generalizing.

We as riders need to stop putting square pegs in round holes. Quit putting limits and limitations around our equine counterparts. It will never work. Trust me, the minute that you think you have the program figured, you will meet a horse that it doesn’t work on. So instead, remove the boundaries surrounding your bubble and broaden your education. Work with more horses. Work with other types. Go get that chestnut mare, or that scrappy 15.2hh colt. By broadening your knowledge base, you will eliminate the broad strokes of generalization.

And by removing generalization, you increase your chances. Of finding that one in a million horse. Of finding that perfect partner. And at the end of the day, that doesn’t just benefit you, it benefits the horse.


About the Author

Carleigh Fedorka holds a Ph.D. in Veterinary Science from the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the Thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.