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We Ask The Experts – What’s The Most Challenging, Yet Successful Horse You’ve Trained in Your Career?

Like the African Proverb, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors,” the same thoughts can be applied to horse trainers. Often, the most challenging horses are the ones that teach you lessons that you can apply throughout your lifetime. GoHorseShow asked some top trainers in the industry about horses that have been difficult, yet successful and what they have learned from these experiences.

Charlie Cole – Three come to mind. I know I’ve had plenty of other difficult or challenging horses, but these three were exceptional horses and some of the best I’ve ever ridden.

1. Kluzos Kandy Kisses – She was afraid and spooked at everything just about, but mostly cows, and back in 94/95, it seems every show we went to had cows. Instead of fight it, we just gave her more jobs. As a 4-year-old, she learned the working hunter, trail and western riding and was an AQHA World Champion in Junior Trail. She spooked through the whole course but never touched a pole and was my first World Champion. Mandy McQuay was World Champion Junior Hunter Hack, and David Connors was World Champion Junior Working Hunter, all the same year. We had to blindfold her to get her down the chute at the AQHA World Show, and Jason couldn’t get her to get out of the arena after his Junior Western Riding go.

2. Conclusives Bar Cody – He was possibly the most talented all-around horse we have had. He was a big bully. You had to do your prep work no matter if it was a small local show or the Congress or World Show. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. Nancy Renfro was the perfect rider for him and was always up for the challenge. Nancy won two World Show All-Arounds on him and several world titles. One year at Congress, Jason won Senior Western Riding and Senior Hunter Hack on the same day, and he won the Open Hunter Under Saddle Maturity with Chris Thompson.

3. Shine My Zipper – Homer was also unbelievably talented, but his work ethic wasn’t the best, and he was smart. He was always trying to out-think you. He didn’t take well to doing things your way. You had to meet in the middle. He was better with more jobs. I remember driving him at the Paint World thinking, “I don’t know how much longer I can hang on to him.” I was reserve world champion that year and I’m not sure I ever drove him again. He also wasn’t the most talented lead changer or even liked it. I also remember when I won the western riding at the Paint World thinking, “wow, I never thought this would happen.” Of course, he went on to win many more western riding world titles.

I never mind a tough horse that has all the “goods,” especially if they get to the show pen and are winners.

Kelly McDowall – Chex Is The Choice and Certainly A Blaze. How’s that for a pair of successful horses, maybe seven world and reserve world championships between them and probably ten Congress championships between the two. Chex Is The Choice is the hardest and easiest horse all at the same time. He is a very smart horse, and basically, it took us three years of trying everything I knew to get him right, and truthfully, all we had to do was trust him to do the job. He has become the easiest horse ever and has our complete faith as long as we don’t practice too much. If we start drilling patterns or obstacles, he just tries too hard and doesn’t present as well in the show ring.

Certainly A Blaze was one of the most nervous show horses I have ever had. I remember doing the first trail pattern with him, looking entirely out the gate the whole class. He was just totally stressed out about showing. We worked hard at never letting him show for a full year without being very tired. He was astute and a great learner, so we didn’t have to train on him much. We would pretty much pony every horse we had at the show a couple of times a day with him. We would pony with him all morning, then clean up and show then pony some more or just lope around with no spurs. After a while, we had to go to ball spurs, or he wouldn’t go at all. Finally, after a solid year of this program, we tried showing without all the work, and he was very mellow. The last few years before he was retired, he was straightforward to prepare.

Katy Jo Zuidema – Acertifiablehunter, and it’s not even close. He was my last youth horse, and he was massive, and a bully, super athletic and in a constant state of acceleration. To this day, I’m not sure if I’ve ever sat on a horse that felt like him. It was an impressive mix of power and soft, mixed with a little bit of fear from myself. “Tony” and I won the youth world by a lot. I think we won on four of five cards and the second-place horse had like almost 200 points less than us. But, then, I went to the Congress, and I had the best ride I’ve ever had on him in the finals until the last trot. For no reason, he just exploded and grabbed the bridle, and took off. I remember that, all I saw was his two ears like a silhouette right in my face as we bolted toward the gate in the Celeste Center. I wasn’t even that upset. He was amazing, and that was just something you might get with Tony. You were either first or last, and you were basically at his mercy every time. He died a couple of months ago here on the farm with us.

Jay Starnes – RL Just One Blaze. He was a very talented two-year-old and came around pretty early in the year, but he just would not take to a hackamore. So, I had no choice but to show him in a show snaffle. I was the only one in the arena in the Non-Pro 2s at the Congress in one, and won. This was before I turned in my non-pro card, so Joan Schroeder showed him (in a snaffle) at the world show for me. I went on to win the Amateur Western Pleasure with him the next year. I learned with him that not all horses could be made to do things they don’t want to do sometimes. He did go on and show in a hackamore as a three-year-old, though.

Debbie Kail – Our most challenging horse was probably Sucha Smooth One, who went on to be one of the highest point earning all-around horses in the AQHA. He was tough to start. He’d try to unload you as a two-year-old. He was accident-prone too, hurting himself in the stall at two major futurities he ended up winning. He had to have stitches without any drugs as we were leading the prelims. He unloaded me one day in the outfield of the Stockton racetrack. I ended up standing and holding the bridle reins in my hands as he ran around. He was indeed a beautiful mover and so talented. We sold him to Nancy Alto Renfro as a four-year-old, and the rest is history.

Alyse Roberts – The most challenging horse I had was early on after I had gone out on my own. His name was David Buckham, and he was a four-year-old gelding by All Time Fancy, out of a TB mare. He was big and beautiful and great legged. I knew pretty quickly after the first couple of rides that he had an attitude to match his size. He frustrated me pretty soon with his quirky antics, but he also made me realize I had to start to think outside the box if I ever thought I was going to make it to the show pen.  He wasn’t one that the usual tricks worked on. He made me figure him out mentally and what it took to get his mind in the right place, which included not longing him a lot at the shows, putting his earplugs in the morning at the shows, and having his feet reshod at about 3 1/2 weeks. He would start getting grumpy when his feet were getting a little long. He wasn’t a high energy horse that needed to be physically tired; it was all a mental game with him. Once I learned how to read him and figure out what was enough and what was too much, it all came together. He still always had his moments, and those usually came the night before a big class, but he always showed up with his game face on the next day, and he would show great for me. We ended up winning the Jr Hunter Under Saddle at the APHA World Show that year, my first time exhibiting at that show.  He has since gone on to win multiple other major shows over many years, but he still has that side to him. He knew he was great, and he made you work to figure out how to bring out his full potential.

Jennifer Reams – Certifiable Male – He was a huge, red gelding, beautiful, and loved to show. But, I hated him at home. Well, I didn’t hate him, but he was very challenging. He was an alligator when you tried to do anything with him, chewing on everything and anything. He was scared to death of the wash pit; he would curl himself up in the corner and snort at the drain, mind you, he was 17.2, so washing him was no easy task. He was scared of everything at home, and if you tried to correct him, he would just lose his cookies. But, take him to the horse show, and he was a different animal. I mean, he was still challenging to lead around and do stuff on the ground, but I would just ride him everywhere. I’ll never forget at the Congress, I was trying to get him out of the barn one night, and I was opening the big door, and he took off under it before I had it open enough, and he got hung by the saddle horn. He didn’t freak out, but he wasn’t stopping. He would just push a little harder, and finally, he released just enough and long enough so I could push the door up. All my friends said I thought you were a little youth kid trying to get your horse out of the barn. He was very talented for such a big horse. He could lope, and it was so effortless for him. Less was more with him, and I think that was the thing he taught me the most. After I figured that out, he was so simple, I would ride him and pet him and put him up, and he would show like a champ. We ended up being third at the world in the Junior Hunter Under Saddle in 2004, and that was the night I found out I was pregnant with Curtis. I think he will always be a favorite of mine.

Jenn Wheeler – When I just started training out on my own, I had a youth looking for an all-around horse, and it had to be a double AQHA/APHA. I kept coming back to a super cool legged gelding, Pleazun N Te Son, which we bought. I had three trainers call me and tell me how crazy I was for buying that horse, that he was “fried” and a runoff. He was quirky and had some trust issues, but he was hands down the most fun horse to ride after we got him past his mental breakdown. I trail rode him in the hills for four months. Let him just be a horse in between training days. We made it so he wanted to go slow instead of forcing him to. My youth kid was a great rider, and she was quirky too, so maybe that’s why they fit so well. Just letting him be a horse and not making him fit into so many boxes was the best medicine for him. We all had a lot of success with Te. He was the best teacher in the end, because if you didn’t use your hands just right, or your feet just right, he would call you out on it. He never won anything major, only some all-around and circuit awards, but I owe him a lot in getting my career started. He taught me a whole lot, and he showed a lot of people that I could fix the weird ones.

Carli Pitts – I’d have to say Just Found Chocolate. She was so unbelievably talented and taught me so much. She had that mare passion that I love; she was just very passionate. All of the past mares I showed taught me how to handle her. Tell her she’s pretty and feed her a mint before she goes in, and she’ll show great every time. It had to be her idea; she did not like to practice. She took me to the Level 3 Senior Western Riding finals, and we were 8th at the Open World. We were also Reserve in Level 1 and Level 2 Western Riding. She is a great horse that taught me so much about the class.

Blake Carney – Well, so far for me, HR Zip Me was most certainly a challenge. We bought him just coming off a Number 1 14-18 career and many world titles in APHA. He was very well known and was a real pleasure to watch show. What most people didn’t realize is how much he hated my facility. I also don’t think people realized that the client we purchased him for, Abbey Turner, is a leg amputee, and preparing him to ride for that change certainly wasn’t simple. I gave up two weeks in. I sent him to the very capable Laren Harmon, who had prepared many horses for Abbey before and after her leg was lost. After a year, he came back to me, and we hit the road. He was very successful winning high points, Top Twenty buckles, a reserve world title in Masters Amateur Western Riding at the APHA World Show, and uncountable world titles at the Pinto World Show. The problem was, he hated my arena at home. He was very spooky in it, even the slightest breeze, and he would hop around. Any time Abbey would come to ride, he spent most of the day before tied in the corner of my arena and being longed extra, and in the morning before she got there. At the horse shows, he was all business, and it was frustrating at first to know that you could take him anywhere in the country, and he was fine, but he wouldn’t ride great at home. Then, I decided over time to just let it go because he was doing his job in the show ring, and nothing I was trying at home was doing any good. I think he made me realize that you have to take each horse and work with their personality. You can’t make every horse perfect every second. He knew his job and where to shine. We just had to get through keeping him fit enough to show, and the rest is history.

Farley McLendon – That would be Tonights Honor by Signature Of Honor out of Sunny Tonight. He was a big gangly colt that looked like a baby Clydesdale. When we started him, he was super spooky and snorty. It took me all year, but he got broke and was top ten in the masters that year. He went on to win some NSBA titles the next and, if I remember correctly, an AQHA Reserve World Championship. He was the first horse that I trained up that I was offered a lot of money for. He was good hocked and could trot. He taught me never to give up and keep pushing towards the goals that were set.

Becky George – I’ve had several, but one of the recent ones for sure is Hello Im Johnny Cash. Johnny was and is a super trail horse. I was ninth place in the Level 2 Senior Trail in 2017 on him, and in the same year, he won the Congress Small Fry Trail with his owner, who had never even been to the Congress before. Johnny is for sure quirky. He can walk into the arena daily and spook from the trail obstacles that he has seen over and over. The key is not to fall for it. If you ignore it and continue to ride, he’ll take a deep breath, forget all about it and ride around like a champ. He was a challenge to figure out, but he taught me a lot. Sometimes horses have their program, and no matter how hard you want to change them, you need to learn to adapt to them. Johnny will always be one of my most favorite horses.

Have you had a challenging, yet successful horse in training? Tell us about it.