Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Square Peg, Round Hole

“Deciding what to do with a horse is about appropriateness and fit. And that applies for both the horse and the human. It’s a bit of the square peg-round hole thing.”

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 shares her logic on finding the right fit for the horse and the rider.

Horses are tough — that definitely is not new news. And making decisions about and for them is often equally difficult. We put so much heart, time, money and sheer stubborn will into trying to craft these animals into the type that will make all of that effort worth it. Whether that “type” is the Beginner Novice Packer, the Upper Level eventer, the 1.20-meter show jumper, the bombproof trail horse, the kid’s hunter, or simply a horse said rider loves to be around… you get the drift.

Prada (On The Move) was once a hunter, but turns out that she is far happier as an eventer. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Often, as is common in the land of Thoroughbred training and consignment, folks lament honestly about how much they love their horse but how they just don’t know what to do. They feel that they have tried everything, unpeeled as many layers as they could find, called in every specialist, hunted for pain, used a bigger bit, changed trainers and barns, you name it. The horse they have just may not fit the ‘type’ they need — and the process of trying to figure it out no longer brings joy. At that point, the owner is staring down the woeful potential of having to put them up for sale to then begin the search for one that fits better or at very least, helps make the process of trying to make progress more enjoyable.

Such decisions are never easy. Deciding what to do with a horse is about appropriateness and fit. And that applies for both the horse and the human. It’s a bit of the square peg-round hole thing. You can hammer the square peg in until the edges round just enough to shoehorn the match — mash it into place. I remember the shapes game at my dentist office as a kid — and there was joy in both getting it right (the purple cylinders go in the circle opening) but also in upending its logic — everything fits through the star hole, or if I push hard enough the soft edges of the orange square-sided peg can be made to fit in the circle, too.

Forrest (Don’t Noc It) was my Upper Level hopeful for a number of years, but he is happier as a lesson horse/lower level dude, so that is what he gets to do. Photo of Forrest in Thoroughbred School with Eric Kasowski in the irons. Image by author.

Horses — and yes, life — are like that. Sometimes, you get the fit right — round peg, round hole — and everything is (suspiciously) wonderful. I mean, it is wonderful per the land of horses, ergo there were will still be set backs, vet bills, training challenges, etc. But when I write “wonderful,” I mean that progress is possible and the process becomes worthwhile.

But often we have a square-peg situation where either we need to change the shape of the peg or find a different shaped opening to drop it into. The metaphor might be overdone, but you all know what this feels like — whether it is with trainers, dating, jobs, horses… you name it. If you’re working so damn hard to not really get anywhere, sometimes it means something has to give.

Sometimes we need to change the horse. Sometimes we need to change as a rider.

I’m excited to see what job Ramen (Plamen) really wants to do. Here’s hoping I can get him out on the hunt field in NY this summer… Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

When I was in junior high, I didn’t really have riding goals, per se. My barn competed at local hunter-jumper shows and because we didn’t have the fanciest horses around, I generally rode in the equitation classes. At 11, my recently purchased Appendix showed that he had a consistent stopping issue should there be a filler in a fence. Shows quickly became stressful. The more I tried to force him over the fences, the less I enjoyed riding. For about a year, I would sit at home before heading to the barn and watch the weather hoping for rain on the forecast to have a reason to not go. The more I tried to make that redhead into an equitation horse, the more he pushed back. Square peg, round hole.

So I started trail riding and competing in minor endurance events. I changed my goals and shape and learned to love that often-cantankerous creature. In the woods he was brave, fun, nimble, and would jump any of the barriers or walls I pointed him at. We may never have made a show ring come back, but we nonetheless found a way to make it all fit. And hell, hours and hours of trails alone everyday probably kept my parents from sending me off to boarding school (though that may still have been a close call).

Crafty Charger out on a trail ride back in 2022. Photo by author.

Sometimes though, it is not enough or not reasonable to reshape the rider’s goals. Sometimes, it just needs to be a different horse who steps into the riding job. And then that former horse can move on to a different career or maybe a different human, or a different situation. While that is damn hard, it is also sometimes so necessary.

I’m moving the whole farm and business from Georgia to the Finger Lakes Region of New York at the end of the month. The move itself feels like a round-peg, round-hole situation. Sure, it won’t be without its headaches, growing pains and moments of “what the f$&% have I done?!?!,” but all the dots are lining up for the process to be worth the potential of the progress. Good.

One silver-lining benefit of the move is that I have a timeline to carefully assess each horse and sort out what I want their future to be — what is reasonable and what is responsible. It is giving me time to think on my manner of misfits and the number of square pegs I have collected here. And while I am moving nine of mine north (some are rehabbing, some for sale or lease, some in my potential UL string), not all of them get to go, and for those who are remaining in Georgia, I’m thrilled.

Two of my favorite rehab cases will be on the trailer north. Featured here from the left, Koops and Hudson (Primetime Spy). Photo by author

Uno (Hold Em Paul) matched with a young rider and is already out trucking around the cross-country fences like a pro. If I want to check on him, I open my social media accounts and smile about the bond the those two are building nearly daily. Aspenfiveoneseven has a great lease match, as does Jasmine. Curry is headed to Colorado for some slow and steady work with a lovely trainer. And on Monday, I led Crafty (Crafty Charger) down a paved road and then out into a field churning with other retired geldings and broodmares. I unbuckled his halter and watched him galavant off into official retirement, knowing that this was a round-peg, round hole situation.

Welcome to retirement, Crafty. Photo by author.

For years, I had tried to make Crafty into the talented eventer that I thought he could be. He came to me with the “dangerous” label for his sit-and-spin, rear, and unpredictable spooks. Having bought him when his owners wanted to fire-sale him off their bill, I re-trained a half-halt and ran him through Novice in eventing and show jumped around the meters. That was all well and good (and tons of fun). But his painful ankle chips, the late discovery of congenital cataracts in the middle of his vision in both eyes, a fractured cannon bone in 2022, odd medial-tendon inflammation in 2023 and mild head-shakers all combined to make me question why I was continuing to push.

Nonetheless, I loved riding him and adore his personality. So, I’d get him going, Pro-stride the ankles, leg him up, and something else would happen. I found myself struggling to keep him in work with a barn full of horses attached to paying clients. Alanah Giltmier, my working student, put in a ton of the hours getting him going, time and again. Hell, I even created Thoroughbred School in part to give him a job and see if he could cover his own expenses. We used him once there, but his level of unpredictable with new, often slightly tense, riders made the whole situation hairier than I liked.

Crafty rocking around the jumpers back in 2022. Photo by the Kivu Team.

At the end of the day, Crafty can’t see well, remains insecure to fences and in new environments, and if his ankles are not very-regularly maintained his behavior under saddle becomes not only consistently inconsistent, but unbalanced (my separated shoulder gets to attest to that last piece). I spent three years trying to turn this square peg into a round one. But when I let him out in that field at Ilse Simmon’s farm in Talking Rock, Georgia, things with Crafty had never felt more right. All that grass and that herd of comical Thoroughbreds was exactly the square opening that not-quite-round peg needed.

I could go on and on about the various examples of trying to find the right match between horse, human, and the job. No matter what, though, there will always be hard work needed with horses. There will always be long nights and some very hard days and maybe months or years. But when it is “right,” there will also be the real potential for forward progress and enough joy in the process to make it worth it – whether they are running around a retirement field or taking on the green numbers.

More Crafty spam just because. Photo by the Kivu Team.

Go ride folks and enjoy the process and the longer, warmer days.

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