Horse Wreck!

Learn how missed steps and mistakes taught important lessons to these experts.

It’s interesting how magazine stories come about. Not every inspiration is pain-free. Take this story, for example.

Several years ago, I added an abused mare to my trio of girls in the barn. She brought some serious baggage, but responded beyond my expectations to her new environment. One morning about five weeks after her arrival, I entered her paddock. She met me in the middle, and we walked calmly toward the gate to a large pasture, and her turnout. 

Talking all the while, I reached out to her flank, and lightly set my hand down. The next heartbeat I was airborne, bound for some distant planet, or so it seemed, until gravity took over. Her kick had one heck-of-a punch. 

I had plenty of time to contemplate the error of my ways during the next two days, cooling my heels between starched white sheets at a local hospital. Doctors were obsessed with my lacerated spleen, but several broken ribs inflicted the only real pain—not counting at least a million mental do-overs. 

Jenny Meyer, Horse&Rider’s editorial director and a wonderful mentor, called and caught me tethered to IVs, eating green Jell-o® to pass the time. 

“This gives me an idea for a story,” she said. 

Broken ribs hurt when you laugh. 

Time passed. The abused mare lived with me for a year, and I’m delighted to say, both of us recovered. In the rearview mirror, my horse wreck was more instructive than almost any success I’d had in a lifetime with horses. 

I remembered Jenny’s call. Yes, this story was full of possibility. 

Had top clinicians and competitors experienced a horse wreck that taught them something, too? (If they had, would they admit it?) And beyond the specific wreck, is there a broad application to their lessons? Can we learn from their pains?

Clinton Anderson 

Clinton Anderson hosts “Downunder Horsemanship” on RFD-TV, and travels the country, presenting horsemanship clinics and headlining at horse expos. In his native Australia, he was a top reining competitor and today, he’s deeply involved with the NRHA and its Reining Horse Sports Foundation. 

What & Where: I’d had a 2-year-old colt in training for about 30 days. He was quiet and doing very well, so I gave him two days off. After his little holiday, I got him out of the barn and saddled him. I thought about taking the time for some groundwork, but since he’d been doing so well, I went ahead and mounted up. 

The Wreck: He promptly bucked me off. 

The Lesson: Never assume a horse won’t buck, especially after a lay-off. Always begin with your groundwork, which I call, “longeing for respect.” Get your horse to pay attention and focus on you. It helps you focus, too.

Bob Avila 

Bob Avila is a versatile horseman, who’s won both the NRHA and NRCHA $100,000 futurities, and the World’s Greatest Horseman title twice. Based in Temecula, California, he’s trained dozens of AQHA world champions. The son of accomplished equestrians, Bob grew up influenced by California vaqueros and childhood idols like Don Dodge, Tony Amaral, Sr., and Jimmy Williams. 

What & Where: Nearly 20 years ago, clients sent me a horse who was known to flip over on riders. The owners weren’t sure how he got into that habit, and they couldn’t predict when or where it would happen. As do many young men, I thought I was invincible, and pretty much believed my own press. I could cure anything—right?

The Wreck: I saddled the horse, walked him into the arena, and climbed on board. I woke up on the ground, with no idea where I was. 

The Lesson: Never forget that horses are big, powerful animals and can hurt you. To this day, flipping over is the one thing that scares me. If you have a problem, be cautious; don’t jump forward, back off. Don’t skip steps, because real problems need real solutions. Take time to analyze the cause, get to the root of the problem, and correct it. Don’t ever be too much of a hero to ask for help.

Robin Gollehon 

ApHC Trainer of the Year, Robin Gollehon has produced more than 75 Appaloosa world and national champions, specializing in Western pleasure, hunter under saddle, and longe line, and has won at the Quarter Horse Congress and NSBA futurities. Robin and her husband, Roger, operate Gollehon Show Horses in Versailles, Kentucky.

What & Where: I had a 2-year-old mare in training, who was good-minded, laidback, and talented. Her abilities dictated the pace of her learning experience, and she was an exceptional student. Occasionally, she surprised me by spooking in the wind, but I made excuses and forgave her. When I entered her in a Western pleasure futurity, I expected to do well. She was a bit fresh before the class, so my husband longed her; afterward, she showed beautifully. 

The Wreck: When we left the line-up to collect our prize from the show officials, my mare started to buck like a bronc. After several painful bounces, I went off, over her head. She raced around the arena, nickering like a baby, and before I could get to my feet, she ran right over the top of me. I was bruised and sore for days. 

The Lesson: The steps you skip in training will come back to haunt you! This mare was so talented and easy-going, I’d been guilty of omission. After the futurity, I gave her the winter off to grow up and just be a horse. In the spring, I started her basic training at square one. We visited all the steps that I’d left out—particularly sacking- out—and didn’t move forward until she had them down. The next summer, a youth rode her in three pleasure classes, and won all three.

Clint Haverty 

NRHA Hall of Fame inductee, Clint Haverty, picked up his first NRHA paycheck in 1981, and there’s been no stopping him since. He’s ridden an NRHA Limited Open Derby Champion and a Superstakes winner, and in 1996, he and Colonels Smokingun, a.k.a. Gunner, captured the NRHA Open Futurity reserve championship. The Krum, Texas, trainer is a devoted family man with a rascal’s sense of humor. 

What & Where: About six years ago, I had an assistant trainer who had some challenges with a 3-year-old colt, and asked me to ride him. I climbed on board, and pushed him into the bit. 

The Wreck: Very quickly, he flipped over, and in the process, my ankle was broken. Later, I learned that the colt was wearing a caveson for the first time, and on checking it, I found it was too tight. 

The Lesson: Always check your equipment before you ride. Make sure it fits and is fastened correctly; make certain your horse is comfortable with it. Check to see that the caveson allows your horse to open his mouth a little, and get some air. Don’t ride a fresh horse—longe him first. Don’t pick a fight with your horse. And slow down. Almost every wreck I’ve ever had, I’ve been in a hurry. Take the time to listen to your horse: If you listen, he’ll tell you things you need to know. 

Ann Myers

In 1984, a young, Ohio horsewoman named Ann Myers bred her 16-year-old mare to Zippo Pine Bar. The resulting colt, Zips Chocolate Chip, is the first horse inducted into the NSBA Hall of Fame in both the show and breeding categories, and today is the AQHA’s all-time leading sire of Western pleasure point earners.

What & Where: I sold a weanling colt to clients who wanted to get a very early start on their long drive home. The colt had never seen a trailer before, so I knew it might be scary for him. In the past, I’d had success loading youngsters with their mothers or babysitter-mares alongside them for confidence. So, in the dark of early morning, I went to catch the colt from inside a large paddock. I had my assistant stand outside the paddock gate, with the colt’s mother in hand. 

The Wreck: I walked the colt through the gate and turned, just as the mare’s hoof slammed into my stomach. I doubled- over and waited to catch my breath. Then, we took the mare and foal to the barn and put them into separate stalls. I didn’t think I was hurt, but felt nauseated. Fortunately, my husband, a surgeon who usually heads to work early, was home. He persuaded me to go to the hospital to get checked out. There, tests revealed that I needed emergency surgery to repair my small intestine, which had been perforated by my spine from the impact. 

The Lesson: Slow down! It’s easy to miss warning signs, if you’re trying to do something tricky in a hurry or in the dark. My mare probably pinned her ears or swished her tail, but I missed it. That particular mare didn’t usually kick, and wasn’t bossy or mean-spirited, but often the horse you trust most, is the one that will hurt you if you let your guard down. Stay in “safe zones” at the side of your horse’s shoulder or close to his hip, where you’re less likely to be run over or kicked.

Pat Parelli

“Parelli” is a household name in today’s horse world thanks to the wide acceptance of his natural horsemanship teachings, which aim to create better lives for horses and horsemen. At 17, Pat entered his first rodeo. Bareback was his specialty, and he was the 1972 Bareback Rookie of the Year. Today, you’ll find Pat and his wife, Linda, riding bareback before enthusiastic audiences, from Colorado to Florida; England to Australia.

What & Where: In the late 1970s, I was a young trainer working out of Troy Henry’s stable in Clovis, California. His clients brought a gorgeous buckskin stallion into the barn. The horse had flunked “Show Pen 101,” and Mr. Henry thought he’d be a good project for me. 

The Wreck: I struggled with him for two months, with little success. He was definitely more horse than I had horsemanship. One day, I longed him, saddled up, and got on. I decided to sidepass, so I pushed with my leg and my spur. He roared, then reached his head around and wrapped his mouth around the saddle’s fender and my ankle. It took two long minutes of coaxing before he let go. 

The Lesson: Mr. Henry watched, and said, “What’s in your hand, is what’s in your way. Take that bridle off.” Not quite believing it would work, I chucked the bridle over the arena fence. The stallion— with me on board—ran around the 300 x 300-foot arena like a raging idiot for about 20 minutes. But when I finally relaxed, he relaxed. That day was our first step in the right direction. It was Mr. Henry who helped me understand a horse’s mental and emotional perspective as a prey animal, an outlook which formed the foundation of my teachings today. 

Ted Robinson 

When it comes to reined cow horse events, no one has earned a visit to the winners’ circle more often than Ted Robinson. In 1987, he won his first of seven NRCHA Open Snaffle Bit Futurity Championships aboard the now legendary Nu Cash, and twice he’s taken home the World’s Greatest Horseman title. One of the nicest guys around, Teddy is a past president of NRCHA, and a founder and current president of the National Stock Horse Association. 

What & Where: Twenty years ago, I took a talented, but green mare to the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity. During the “fence work,” riders and their horses pursue a cow straight down the arena fence at high speed, and turn the cow in a pattern to earn points.

The Wreck: My mare, who was pretty cowy, started down the fence fast, but with too much bend in her body. If I’d been training at home, I would’ve taken the time to straighten her out. But there are no do-overs in Reno. As a result, we were out of balance when we went into our left turn, her feet went out from under her, and we fell to the right. If you fall in the direction you’re turning, you’re almost guaranteed a soft landing.

 Not so, if you whip up and over to the opposite side. It all happened very fast, and we had ourselves a real hard landing. Both of us were back on our feet quickly. I was a little dizzy, and the mare banged her ribcage. 

The Lesson: I never needed to get sideways again! But more importantly, it demonstrated that in order to stay safe, a rider must stay balanced and keep his horse in correct position—in my case, straight between my legs and parallel to the cow. Some people worry about the risks involved with fence work, but it really isn’t dangerous if you stay balanced and in position. I’ve heard riders blame a fall on their horses’ shoes or the ground, but the ground can be hard as rock and slippery as ice, and if your horse is set up balanced and correct, you’ll be just fine. The faster you go, the more important it is to be balanced.

Linda Tellington-Jones 

Linda Tellington-Jones is an internationally acclaimed horsewoman and teacher, whose Tellington TTouch Equine Awareness Method celebrates its 33rd anniversary this year. Today, the little girl who grew up on a farm in Alberta, Canada, has a devoted global audience that devours her videos and 14 books, now published in 12 languages. 

What & Where: Many years ago, I took a stallion into show training. When they brought him to me, his owners mentioned not to longe him. He was a complex horse who tested me constantly, but he never kicked, reared, or bit. I’d had him in training for about a year, when one lovely morning I took him into my outdoor arena, and decided to longe him. The Wreck: He traveled stiffly for about half a circle, then, with his ears pinned flat and his mouth wide open, he turned and charged me. Without a moment to make a conscious decision, I screamed and charged toward him. At the last minute, he weaved around me and continued until he hit the end of the line and came to an abrupt stop. He stood trembling, while I did the same, attempting to get my adrenaline rush under control. My first impulse didn’t involve forgiveness. However, I took a deep breath, walked to the horse, and put my hand on his shoulder. He understood that I forgave him. 

The Lesson: First, listen to people when they offer warnings! But here’s the bigger picture: Aggression comes from fear and is a cry for help. You can’t beat a horse, and expect to solve his aggressiveness. I did some investigating and discovered this horse had been abused while on a longe line. Today, with TTouch all over a horse’s body, we can release old fears and replace them with positive experiences. 

Sheila Varian 

In 1961, a very young Sheila Varian and her Arabian mare, Ronteza, surprised the biggest names in the stock horse world by winning the prestigious Open Reined Cow Horse Championship at San Francisco’s Cow Palace—the first woman and the first Arabian horse to earn the title. The National Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee has bred generations of champion Arabians, and has several times been voted the Arabian Horse Breeder of the Year.

What & Where: This occurred years ago, descending a steep hillside, on my cousin Jack Varian’s Biddle Ranch. It took me less than an hour to gallop from my farm to the Biddle, where I frequently helped gather cattle. Mostly, I rode Bay Abi, a national champion stallion, and ponied a young colt to ride in the afternoon. 

The Wreck: I usually picked the silliest colt in the training barn, and gave him some real exercise and a change of scenery at the Biddle. There, steep climbs and natural obstacles provide a positive attitude adjustment. This particular colt was 4 years old, and by the time we headed down the mountain and home, I could tell he was getting leg-weary. 

As we galloped down a steep hillside, I realized I’d lost control because he could no longer control his legs. We plunged headlong down a ravine. I knew there’d be no stopping at the bottom. He went down, and I flew over his head, across a dry creekbed, and lay motionless under a bush until I could breath again. We finally got up and rode home pretty sore. Later, I learned that my scapula was broken. 

The Lesson: I’ve never again pushed a horse to the point of being leg weary, because they lose the capability to stay upright. That colt would’ve loved to stay up, but he couldn’t. The larger lesson? Don’t ask a horse to do something he isn’t ready or able to do. Capabilities differ between horses, and it’s our responsibility to assess them properly

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