It's a Matter of Heart
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
From where I sit I can look out the window and see more than 20 trail horses; or I can look across the table and see a hockey photo of my son, who is streaking down the ice at Vancouver’s “Challenge Cup.”
I am thinking that horses and hockey players have something in common, something that everyone wants to see in a trail horse or a hockey player, something called “heart.”
If you are a trail rider or a hockey parent you have likely heard someone say, “Wow, does that horse/kid have heart!” But saying it is one thing and understanding it is another. If you have been riding in the hills or the mountains for a few years you may have experienced the difference between an average horse powering its way up a hill and a horse with exceptional “heart.” What a huge difference it can be; it’s like pulling a two-horse trailer up the Coquihalla Highway, which runs through the mountains in the interior of BC, with a Volkswagen compared to a truck with a one ton Cummings diesel engine.
Experiencing the difference is unforgettable but understanding where heart comes from and how to harness it may be as clear as the mud churned up by that horse with heart. Heart is elusive. If heart was easy to capture we would bottle it and sell it for millions. Here are some thoughts and stories about a horse’s “heart.”
Exceptional trail horses have a lot of “heart,” or willingness to work, endurance, power, and a steady disposition. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
First, do not confuse heart with nervous energy. People often convince themselves that their horse shows heart when, in fact, the horse shows misguided energy. This energy may be from a lack of respect for the rider, a lack of training, improper training, fear, programming for competitive events like racing or roping, or genetically hot bloodlines.
Experience has shown us that high energy or nervous horses lack durability and will actually quit or slow down when a few hours is on them and you try to push through some tough terrain or up some steep country. These horses can also be dangerous.
Several years back, in the Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories, a wrangler commented on how much heart his horse had. The horse was constantly moving about and seemed wound up like a tight spring. My impression was that the horse lacked respect and had an excess amount of nervous energy. Several days later the cowboy dallied his lariat around his saddle horn and attempted to drag a log into camp for firewood. The horse spooked at the sight of the moving object, went into a bucking frenzy, caught the cowboy in the rope, dumped him, and pounded him a little more. He survived, and I wonder if he still defends his horse as a good horse with lots of heart.
Some horses eat up work like candy. They can be obsessed with work ethic. I have seen horses that, if not checked or rested, will continue climbing a steep slope until they nearly drop with exhaustion. This type of willingness has more to do with breeding than training. It is a genetic gift, the attitude we often associate with workhorses at a pulling contest, an Arabian that willingly runs all day, or a Thoroughbred racehorse that lives to sprint around a track.
Last fall I was headed out of the wild country at the end of a trip. I was riding Sunny, a solid 15.1 hand Fjord cross with as much heart as any horse I had ever ridden. We had begun to climb a steep two mile pull from a river bottom to an alpine pass. At this point in the season Sunny was in great shape and I gave him his head, letting him decide when to stop and rest. Well, I knew he was a working fool but he just did not seem to know the meaning of quit! How tired he was did not even seem to fit into the equation. I had to hold him in check to give him a rest or he would have driven himself to exhaustion. It’s impossible not to admire a horse with that much drive.
With horse camping and trail riding, getting there is half the fun. Getting there while riding an impressive horse with lots of “heart” is more than half the fun! Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
For that reason it makes sense that many breeders of trail horses like to see some draft or “cold” blood — the working breeds — in their trail horses. Aside from generally providing some work ethic they can also provide a calm nature and bigger, stronger bone and foot.
Another example of inherited work ethic is a Morgan-Percheron cross that we had on his first horse camping trip in the Yukon when he was three years old. We were at the end of the day after a few tough days in and ready for a rest, but first we needed to cross a small but deep and bottomless creek that wound its way into a pretty mountain lake. Crossing the stream would have been a disaster. The lake bottom was more solid and so the outfit was led along the shore and crossed where the creek dumped into the lake. Everything was fine until the horses reached the point where the water deepened to neck height and the bottom turned to muck.
Horses panicked, splashed, flopped about, turned, and struggled back to the solid shore line — all except one pack horse, a dark mare that stuck in the mire. Back on shore I removed a couple of 45 foot lash ropes, tied one end to the mired horse, and the other to the empty packsaddle of the young Morgan cross. I pointed the young horse into the brush, said “Hiya!,” tapped him on the butt, and watched in amazement as he leaned into his chest collar, found his footing, and pulled, skimming the now unstuck horse across the water like a fat duck. What was truly impressive was that the horse continued to drive straight into the forest, with no guidance from me, for 80 feet until the mare was safely on shore. This was not something that was taught to the horse; it was all about heart and instinct.
Some time ago I got a 16 hand wall-eyed paint that looked like he should be a good saddle horse. But I was suspicious. When the horse was brought into the herd, he showed cocky and arrogant behaviour. It is not uncommon for horses to bicker and fight in order to find their position in a new herd but this horse appeared to carry this disposition as a fixture. He was, or thought he was, the ruler of the roost, nipping, biting, and pushing himself upon other better natured horses. I had thought, perhaps, that this dominant behaviour would translate into a trail horse with determination and drive.
As the days and weeks on the trail progressed and the horse realized that he had to submit to the rider as the dominant being and work as a way of life, he began to sulk and became difficult. Rather than accept trail conditions willingly he would hesitate and fuss when asked to navigate trail obstacles. Over the season his aggravated behaviour resulted in a loss of body weight. The lesson is that an aggressive or dominant horse does not necessarily have heart.
I believe that when we refer to a trail horse’s “heart” we are speaking about his willingness to work, endurance, power, and steady disposition, all qualities that trail riders should appreciate and look for when buying or breeding trail horses. These qualities are not necessarily more important than respect, friendliness, or softness (responding to cues willingly), but they need to be considered.
There are other factors that may affect a horse’s drive and endurance including the horse’s health and age. Horses need good nutrition if they are expected to have vigour. Worm infested horses will often be more lethargic which will affect the horse’s willingness.
Consider yourself lucky if you have known a horse with heart. At this moment I am looking out the window at our horses. I see more than a dozen horses that have, through the years, risen to the challenges of countless hills, rivers, tangled forests, bogs, and long days, and have done so faithfully. I am fortunate indeed.
Main article photo: Heart is a working nature that is primarily bred into a horse. Trail riders appreciate a horse with heart. These horses never quit, and are reliable partners through variable trail conditions. Photo: Shutterstock/Nick Vakhrushev
This article was originally published in the April 2009 issue of Pacific & Prairie Horse Journal.