Sometimes, I'm afraid I may not be a true horse lover. This is because I do not enjoy all horses.
Of course I love, and have loved, individual horses but there are many, many more I do not care for at all. Some of them rub me the wrong way almost on sight. I feel somewhat guilty admitting this. Like a parent who doesn't have a natural affinity for children. I admire those pure souls who love a horse--any horse--simply because it is a creature worth loving; created by the One who values life. Those who serve and care for the unlovely, unsound, and unstable in the equine world are a special lot. I "met" such a woman recently while reading posted comments on the web page of a horse rescue. My rescued horse is as ugly as a mud fence. I love her anyway.
I like to think that I am picky about my equine companions in the same way that I am choosy about human friends. AJ Arberry said, Good horses are few, like good friends, though they appear many to the inexperienced eye. I agree. There are three main things that draw me to a horse: Intelligence, work ethic, and good movement. In that order. Pretty is also important. It may sound superficial but lets get serious; ugly costs as much as pretty so you might as well have pretty. For me the horse is not mainly utilitarian, it is a thing of grace and beauty. Ideally, at least.
Of my three criteria, only movement is obvious. The horse is either blessed or cursed genetically and there's nothing much he, or his rider, can do about it. I can relate and sympathize here. But the other qualities may be hidden. Hidden, lets say, under a mud fence.
When I say intelligence I am not merely referring to the ability of a horse to learn. Even dim witted horses can learn cues and be improved with training. What I'm referring to is an overall personality, a depth of character, curiosity for life, and ability to think/reason. All horses are not created equal in this respect. I'll overlook a lot for a good mind and would rather walk than ride a dull horse.
A good work ethic also covers a multitude of "sins." Chance is a fine example of this. Chance wasn't a pleasant horse to train. This is because he thinks for himself and isn't particularly eager to please. That said, once he understood the expectations and gained confidence in human beings, he began to show an admirable work ethic. On his first trail ride this little horse kept a level head, plowed through a swamp, up and down hills, and out walked horses nearly twice his size. I thought to myself, I'm gonna like this horse. Since then he continues to impress me by working despite back/stifle issues and a bout of colic (which, to my shame, I didn't realize was happening). His conformation doesn't give him any breaks, either. A long back, narrow chest, and short, lean hip are not an equation for graceful self-carriage. Noone accuses Chance of being a pretty mover. In his case, work ethic makes up for his body shape.
Tango is a study in contrast. Clinician Richard Shrake has a scoring system for balance in equine conformation. This horse scores a perfect ten. A beautiful neck, soft poll, straight legs, short back, well sprung ribs, good length and angle of hip....he has it all. His stride is low and flat but with plenty of suspension. I love my Cadillac Ride. However, the Cadillac may, or may not, feel like working. This depends on many things--whether he is interested in the task (most important), his emotions of the day, the alignment of the constellations, the Solstice....anything can throw him off. Most often it is boredom. Generally the trail is where he does his best work. He has good endurance and can power walk up a hill. But get him in the arena and this horse can be maddening. Before being convinced into work, he may try out his ultra slow, pack horse gaits, keeping his head low and hind end strung out behind. He can nearly perform the four beat "dopey lope" western pleasure Quarter horses are famous for. That's embarrassing in an Arabian. Depending on his mood though, Tango may suddenly become terrified of a barn swallow, bolt, buck, or otherwise spice things up. Capable of brilliance, he only shows it to me in flashes designed, I'm sure, to frustrate me. I feel like my mother at report card time--You'd have A's if you'd only apply yourself! After seven years, I give up. He's a horse that makes me laugh and I never tire of looking at him. That is enough.
Barely under saddle, Eli is still a bit of a mystery but I have high hopes. He is highly intelligent, a lovely mover, and has beauty to spare. I'm crossing my fingers for the work ethic part.
Predicting potential in horses is fascinating. While breeding is important and can't be overlooked, the "mud fence" horses are the most interesting. The ones people like me cast aside for something prettier. Sea Biscuit was such a horse. Small and crooked legged, it took someone to look past outward appearances to develop his incredible talent. Also noteworthy is the horse, "Beautiful" Jim Key. The product of a Hambletonian sire and Arabian dam, Jim Key was so disappointing as a colt, so ugly and sickly, that his broken hearted owner named him after the town drunk. He was advised to put the colt out of its misery. Yet under this mud fence lurked unbelievable intelligence. Jim Key went on to perform his amazing feats--he learned to count, tell time, make change and spell--before presidents and dignitaries. It was said he had the IQ of a twelve year old and mastered academics to the sixth grade level (from the book, Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World).
Genetics aside, it seems harnessing potential in horses comes down to a few factors: Willingness to work with imperfection; investment of time; and simple belief. Sorta like God, actually. He patiently works with my imperfections, believes in my future and loves me, mud fence and all.