I have this horse. You may have heard of him.
He is far from a perfect specimen. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s pretty cute and he’s not hideous or anything. He has straight legs and a short back, but his bone leaves something to be desired, and his neck is definitely on the twiggy side of the spectrum. We describe him as “goofy” and it means both funny and “sometimes a huge pain in the ass”. He can jump some things, and has moments that hint at something a little more special, but if there is anything more than cute under there, it’s hidden fairly deep. Nobody saw this three year old prancing around in a field and thought, “oh, there’s my next 1* prospect!” He doesn’t have any kind of exciting suspension or enormous uphill movement or attack-machine approach to any and every stick of wood he’s ever looked at.
Murray’s conformational flaws mean that there’s no tricking either one of us if he’s not working correctly. When he is not engaged, you can see it, and (fortunately) I can feel it. There is no toe-flicking or enormous knee action to mask weaknesses in his training. Murray’s neck is not big and strong and naturally arched, suggesting lift in his withers when in fact he is not. He trips over his own feet when we are walking around and doing nothing. With a horse whose movement is average at best, improvements in movement mean you know exactly when you are doing it right.
Murray can jump a bit, but he’s not preternaturally talented – he didn’t jump beginner novice cross country fences on his first ever jumping outing. He’s not going to any Young Event Horse competitions any time soon. There’s no grand prix in his future. In fact, we’re not even sure we can tell what is in his future for jumping. Sometimes, my trainer laughs about the miracle that this horse even jumps at all – he did, after all, crumple into the fetal position the first time he ever touched a jump pole with his feet.
Lainey Ashker’s fresh-off-the-track baby jumping the first time ever
Not perfect. Not even close.
But what would I do with “perfect”? Do I like toe-flicking? Nope. Could I even sit (or post) a trot with a lot of suspension? I think not. Would I be able to appropriately guide and teach a young horse so game for fences that he could compete at training height as a five year old? I know not. Let’s not even talk cost… a horse like that is so far out of my budget he might as well live on Mars.
So with this perfect young horse, what would I even be doing? Ruining it. Without a doubt. I won’t pussyfoot around it and say I wouldn’t use a fancy young horse to his potential – that much is a given – but I would very likely ruin this horse. I would hold him back when instead he needed to learn how to go. I would struggle with his suspension and gaits and, even with my best attempt to ride well, fail to ride to his level and instead rein him in to my level. His zeal for fences would probably scare me, and I would be incapable of teaching him what he needed to excel.
But with Murray I have to work for it. And there is something deeply, deeply satisfying about this work I have to teach him how to hold himself, how to lift his back, and carry his body, and move like he’s a little bit fancier than he’s naturally inclined to be. Would I have learned how to do that on a horse that did it naturally? Nope. Would I have learned how to do it on a horse that faked it? Bigger nope. I have to teach Murray to be confident about fences of any size, shape, color, presentation, angle, or location. I have to teach him to be strong and confident and use his body correctly. I would not be learning how to achieve a quality canter if Murray approached all fences with a quality canter, or if he rushed the fences and took over in his desire to get to them.
While I am teaching Murray, he is also teaching me. He is actually a wonderful teacher, if I can just listen.
I embrace my imperfect horse. In fact, I love all the imperfect horses I’ve ever worked with – and yes, I know, probably not horse is perfect, but some of them certainly look it. There is more for me to learn from an imperfect horse than I could learn from one who never put a foot wrong. And Murray’s imperfections make it all that much better when the two of us do something perfectly.
Perhaps someday I will be worthy of a fancy young horse. But for right now, my unfancy horse is perfect for me.