What is Your Horse saying? If Chip Could Talk...

Jul 12, 2023
Horse eating grass

What is Your Horse Saying? 

By Victoria Williams

Story: If Chip Could Talk 

Many years ago, very early into my professional career, I had the opportunity to train for a ranch that raised paint horses with reining and cow-horse bloodlines. Their breeding program was the first of its kind; they were crossing paint mares who were homozygous for the paint color gene, (so any foal the mare birthed would have a pinto coat pattern, no matter what the sire’s genes) with the most elite, sought after, champion reining and cow, quarter horse stallions. Their program was raising some eyebrows within the industry, and in a sport where scores are subjective and it can be hard to stand out, especially at the upper levels, having a horse of a different color could be a game-changer. The flashier the better when you want a judge to pay closer attention to your horse’s sliding stops and spins.


One of the ranch-bred colts was already drawing attention before he had stepped foot inside a show pen. His name was Chip; he was an own son of the most popular reining sire in the world. Chip’s dad, was a reining champion, a superstar horse known for his breathtaking beauty, extraordinary talent, excellent disposition, and uncanny ability to pass those traits on to his progeny. 


Chip was a carbon copy of his sire; golden buckskin, long thick mane, and forelock, beautiful, keen head, talented, and full of look-at-me presence, only he also had four high, white stockings, a black and white mane, and symmetrical white markings over his shoulders and hips that accentuated his perfect conformation. He was magnificent, everything the owners of the ranch had hoped for and now all their dreams were riding on what he would achieve. 


When Chip began his training education, yours truly was tasked with that process. In the beginning, I loved working with Chip; he was easy to start. He was talented and willing and fun and I felt so lucky to get the chance to work with such a special horse. 


However, as word of his existence spread, the pressure, expectations, and egos of his humans began to seep into the barn, and Chip could feel it. One example of this was an impending visit from the editor of The Paint Horse Journal. He had contacted the ranch owners after hearing about their one-in-a-million colt and wanted to come out to see Chip for himself, take photos, and maybe run an article in the magazine. Of course, the humans in this story were ecstatic. 


How did Chip feel about it? Well, Chip started bucking. 


As soon as I internalized the information of the impending photoshoot with its implied notoriety, from there on, nearly every ride, Chip would buck. And, he would buck hard. We would be trotting along, everything feeling normal and cool, then seemingly out of the blue, with no warning or discernible cause, he would just start bucking. It was especially strange because he had never offered to buck when I put the first rides on him, or for the weeks after. I could ride him through the bucking episodes to go on working on whatever the lesson was that day, but it was forming a rift between us. 


I began to distrust Chip and so I began to ride that way.


This all coincided with the ranch owners’ practice of breeding Chip to mares on the ranch. 

In their excitement for the potential article in the magazine, they wanted to promote “Chip babies” expected for the following year. They hoped to capitalize on the publicity and exposure the article would bring. This two-year-old, green stallion had immense pressure, expectations, and agendas swirling around him, so he started to do the only thing he could do: he told the truth, which was that he was stressed and frustrated. When no one listened, he bucked. 


When I reported to his owners what was happening, that he was bucking and agitated and distracted, I implored them to pause breeding him; I thought breeding was the cause of his inability to enjoy his training process; his young mind couldn’t stop thinking about all those mares, all around the ranch. The owners would not concede, but we did have the vet out, the chiropractor, the acupuncturist, and the farrier to diagnose any pain or body dysfunction that could have been causing his behavior shift. The results were all the same; Chip was healthy, fit, and sound. 


What I know now is that Chip was responding to the energy that he was living in, the crushing burden of his humans’ goals, timetables, stories, worries, and hangups, especially mine. I was afraid, of success, of failure, of looking bad, of looking good - my young mind was not ready for this big break. 


The day before the photo shoot, Chip bucked harder than he ever had, seriously, and violently, finally bucking me off for the first time. I wasn’t hurt badly, but I was emotionally devastated. I loved Chip and I had thought we had a special bond. I was the one that had put the first rides on him. I was the only one to ever ride him. He had always come running up to the gate when he saw me. He had been soft and quiet from the moment we began working together. Now, he was chronically unpredictable and bracy, definitely not the willing partner I had come to know. 


Unfortunately, I did not have the wisdom, experience or confidence to create better boundaries for myself and for Chip, and I didn’t have the awareness to realize that his bucking was not a personal attack on me, or just a symptom of a young stallion under too much pressure. I know now that the bucking was Chip's desperate attempt to ask for my help, to convey to me that he needed an advocate, a steward, a real partner to listen to him and to adjust accordingly. 


The photo shoot happened the next day. Chip did buck...before the photographer arrived; I had the foresight to arrive early and warm him up, well before the shoot. I managed to stay on him and he actually rode beautifully for the rest of the morning, while his pictures were being taken. In fact, Chip and me actually made the cover of the magazine when it came out - a surprise to all of us. Although it was an amazing moment, the experience and memory are not happy ones for me. The experience still haunts me, even though it was a catalyst for growth and learning that I will never forget. 


Chip’s story didn’t end there, nor did mine, but the short version is, after that day, after the photo shoot day, Chip never bucked with me, again. 

The pressure valve had released a bit, and I guess Chip had said his piece.

 - Victoria