Thoroughbred Logic: Reputations and Red Flags

“In contrast to humans, a horse’s agency is perhaps more circumscribed by the situations, hands, tack, health, and living situation they find themselves in . . . They are not going to be the same creature for every rider or at every home. Some will bring out the best in the horse, some simply won’t.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her approach to the reputations of the horses in her barn.

I wrote this title and was like, well crap, I might as well be writing about the last decade of my dating life. Alas, this article should be interesting but maybe not *that* entertaining.

Horses, like humans, often cannot escape their reputations. Their stories come in as gossip, as former social media posts, or as well-intentioned messages from a friend. They show up as show records and scores — numbers and letters that represent their past but are assumed to speak to their future.

For better or worse, unless someone is talking about the wrong horse (easy to do here — we have seven plain bays in my barn currently), these reputations were clearly earned at some point. Yes, the multiple E’s on cross country at the water probably did happen. Yes, if it ran prelim or scored a 76 in Second Level, I bet it indeed did those things and indeed earned that score. And equally, yes, if someone says it rears, bites, kicks, bucks, throws itself to the ground, I bet it has also done those things. And I’d wager that given the right situation of pain, displeasure, or frustration, it might do them again. But it doesn’t mean it always will.

On the positive side of reputations, Prada (On the Move) scored a 29 on her first dressage test. Hopefully, it is indicative of her future potential as an eventer. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

In contrast to humans, a horse’s agency is perhaps more circumscribed by the situations, hands, tack, health, and living situation they find themselves in. (Though I write that and I’m like, hmmm change a few words there and that sure applies to humans too). They are not going to be the same creature for every rider or at every home. Some will bring out the best in the horse, some simply won’t. Add the sensitivity of Thoroughbreds to this conversation and grab the popcorn to watch how the behavior and ridability can vary wildly over time, space, and care.

A recent shot of our top field at Kivu Sporthorses & Training. Photo by author.

Over the past four years, I have built a facility that caters to Thoroughbreds to the best of my ability. It’s far from perfect, but we try. For the sake of this article, it’s not worth going into what a Thoroughbred-forward training facility means (that’s an article unto itself). But what is relevant here is that a good portion of the time, reputations — and the pile of red flags that the horse came in with — do not necessarily bear out. I’m enormously grateful for that trend.

Crafty Charger not long after his arrival here back in 2020. Photo courtesy of the Kivu Team.

Crafty is one of my favorite examples — and one I can comfortably use as I own him and he’s not for sale. Years ago, I got a call from a trainer (who has since become a good friend) asking me if I was willing to get on something that was “downright dangerous.” She let me know time and again that I didn’t have to take the risk, but that she couldn’t think of anywhere else to send him in the area. “Rears, bucks, sits and spins, is totally nuts,” I think summed him up. Amanda, a friend and student who is always down to watch a rodeo, pulled up a chair. Crafty was tense for that first ride here, but he didn’t do anything too wrong. Amanda left comically disappointed.

Crafty clicking around a Novice Round at a Big Cheese Eventing Jumper Show in 2021. Photo by the Kivu Team.

And Crafty kept not doing anything too terribly wrong. I squinted. Took him off property. Sure he had a stop in him and needed a bunch of confidence. Sure, he needed his tack to fit correctly and will start to pop up/stand up when his ankles hurt and need tending to. But over the years, he has settled and turned into a total goofball. Hell, I have used him for lessons and in Thoroughbred School. He’s also one of my favorite go-to trail horses. Quirky? Hell yes. Dangerous? Not really — at least not here.

Crafty hanging with Caroline Templeton after a trail ride in 2021. Photo by author.

Right now in my barn there are at a number of horses who have arrived trailed by stories of their past. With most of them I received descriptions upfront — “can be playful or naughty,” “can be opinionated,” etc. *Let me caveat to note that I’m super grateful to their owners and former connections for these descriptions and all the info I have.* But as they have settled in, their past has continued to filter into conversations and my social media inboxes, filling in the gaps in the stories with added details. I keep mental track of the anecdotes and descriptions (hell, I’m an anthropologist, I love analyzing stories). Meanwhile, in most of their cases, their actions make them look like a totally different horse. It is wild. They are not.

Another former sale horse who came in with quite the reputation but became my favorite ride in the barn. Photo by Cora Williamson.

So what does one actually do with these bad reputations?

Well, this is where I can take a page from my dating life. I think this is a whole lot more successful with horses, though. When I began dating a now-ex, a good friend of mine was like, “Honey, don’t you see all those red flags?!?” I think I responded with some dumbass quip, “Yep, I just pick them up and toss them in that pile over there. I see them. I just don’t need to pull them out and address them until they deserve that attention.” Over the phone I could practically hear my friend roll his eyes at me. “Be careful.”

Also, you should know that all red flags in my world look like eventing flags — little red triangles or diamonds stuck to long posts. This particular instance was a big ole bonfire-able pile of them.

My mental red flags take this shape. Walker the dog greatly improves the photo, though. Photo by author.

While this approach is dubious-at-best with humans, it actually works quite well with horses. So when I hear the bad reputation stories that the horses come in with, I listen. I take a good look at what folks are saying and the situations in which they are saying things happen. And then, to the best of my ability, I put the red-on-right flags in a pile off to the side and while staying vigilant, taking precautions and remaining careful, I allow the horse to show me who they are here.

Let me add something important here: there is a big difference when a horse comes in for training “BECAUSE they rear, buck, etc.” versus for further training or sale with a reputation that says that “they have been known to buck/rear in the past.” The former I immediately have to figure out how to “untrain,” the latter I need to be aware of, but carry on as usual. I don’t have to trust the new horse, I just need to trust my seat, senses and resources. Amanda, who always pulls up a chair to watch the first rides in case there is any excitement, is usually (and thankfully) more bored than anything else.

Mostly this tactic works, but it doesn’t always pan out perfectly. Madigan Cat, who was known for bucking off jockeys (he can bronc like no other) gave me a few good months of riding before he reverted to his old ways. This happens… so we’re taking a break, reassessing and will come back to try again this winter. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

But then, what if the horse is good? What if they don’t buck or rear? How long does this reputation follow them and get to dictate their future? How long do they have to prove that they are good and kind and willing before the years of “bad” get effaced or at least fades to a comical “can you believe it used to do X” type of story? I don’t have a good answer for this — for horses or humans.

At the end of the day, I think most horses want to be good. Given a chance, confidence, a situation that makes sense to them and a minimization of pain (ulcer care, correctly fitting tack, proper farrier work and joint injections as necessary have made a world of difference for many), they will try the best they can. Humans? Humans are perhaps more complex.

Another favorite shot of one of my favorite quirky-as-hell redheads. Good boy, Crafty. Photo by the Kivu Team.

Another way of looking at this comes from my former life as an Anthropologist. While working in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, I would ask my Congolese friends about their past, things they have done before, and relationships they have had, etc. While many would oblige me with stories, some just brushed it off. I’d talk about my past and some would glaze over. Culturally, I was a bit stumped. At some point, a friend explained, “Look, I don’t really care who you were. Everyone has checkered pasts here [the region has been notably riddled with conflict and enormous hardship for the past three decades]. We can’t rely on those to tell us the future. I only really care about who you are to me today.”

Well that was liberating. And mildly terrifying.

Gratuitous photo of the city of Goma, where I was based in the eastern DRC. Photo by author.

I have spent the last decade hanging onto that, especially when that pile of red flags for stories of past vices starts to get quite impressive. Hell, sometimes I’m like, we could flag a whole course with those. Yikes… carry on as normal.

With horses, that liberation from who they were in the past doesn’t mean you just go get on something deemed “unridable.” But it does mean that many deserve a chance to prove IF the “who they are today” is different from the “who they were four years ago.” If we need to take that flag back out of the pile and address it, train it, or hunt down the pain that might be causing it, OK. But if not, sweet, check out this awesome horse and the eventually funny story of how bad they used to be.

Kick on, listen closely to the stories, *be careful* and enjoy the ride.