It's a frightening spot to be in, and it is one that tests our very mettle.
What it really comes down to are two decisions: do we keep the horse, and work through the problems, or do we sell the horse, and get one that's more level-appropriate?
There are major problems arise with this question:
1) the human ego. We don't like to admit we're wrong, or don't know enough, or aren't strong enough, or ... well, we just don't like to admit that we aren't enough, period.
2) we feel that we've somehow let the horse down. We humans (most of us anyways) get attached to the animals in our lives, however briefly. By the time we realize that the horse is too much, we've already gotten attached. Thus, the thought of selling said horse becomes more difficult.
3) we have been bombarded with so many stories of the underdog (read: inexperienced horseman) taming the wild horse that a lot of people have started to think this is the norm... it is not.
...right along with this point is...
4) the romantic idea of "taming the wild horse" is very, very over-played. Believe me, there is nothing romantic about taking a problem horse and trying to fix it. There is a lot of blood (so to speak), sweat and tears. The end result is worth it... if you know what you're doing. If you don't know what you're doing... well sometimes it doesn't end well at all.
Sticking with it
This is the option that most of us at least flirt with for a while. The biggest problem with this option is that when we buy a horse that's too much of us, obviously we don't have the experience to deal with the problems the horse has, or to bring the horse along correctly. This is a catch-22. We try our darndest, but we cannot see what we're doing wrong, as we just don't have the experience to see what we're doing wrong. So we keep doing things wrong, thinking we're right -- um, the problem with this is apparent.
So how do we deal with this?
The most obvious answer to most of us is get a trainer/instructor. That would be fantastic... if only we could point at any name in the Yellowpages under "Horse Trainer" and get exactly what we need. Oh, and there's also the slight hiccup of money - trainers cost money.
Not all trainers are created equal... in fact, I'd be so bold to say that there are more bad trainers out there than good... so the odds are stacked against you from day 1. Well, that's kind of crummy, to say the least.
Nonetheless, finding a decent trainer will likely take care of our problems. The horse can either get sent away for training (and come back to us with more wet saddle blankets and miles under its girth) or we can opt to take lessons and learn with the horse, and how to handle its problems and quirks.
With a good trainer, either of these options can be very beneficial, and you can end up with the horse of your dreams... or at least one you can ride and handle.
So, how do we go about finding that special trainer? Your best bet is word of mouth. People like to talk. A lot. They especially like to talk when they can complain - so go hang out at your local tack store, go to shows.... and keep your ears open.
Anyways, that isn't really the point of this post, more of a side-tip. The bottom line is that if you are in over your head with your horse, finding someone reputable that can help you is one of the best steps you can take.
Unfortunately, due to many circumstances, a lot or people that are in over their heads to not get help.... or get the wrong kind of help - though I'm not quite sure which is worse. A lot of horse owners keep a horse that is too much for them. They think they can work through it, but either can't or won't spend the money on a decent trainer, or they don't have any decent trainers around them to help.
With that intro, let's move on to the main point of this post: When to quit playing the hero.
Like I said earlier, it's human nature to either not want to admit we have a problem, or not admit we need help when we do realize that we might just have a big problem on our hands. Couple that with our human need to care for living things, and you can see how easily this becomes very dangerous.
We want things to end up like they do in the movies; we want so badly to be that main character that is able to tame the wild horse that we don't really see the big picture, nor the lack of romance that real life really offers us.
Horses are big animals. They can throw their weight around, and they can hurt us. They can kill us. It's not in their nature to do so, no, but if we're in the wrong place at the wrong time, or react wrongly, well.. we can end up dead.
I don't think enough people appreciate this sentiment.. especially not when we're young and invincible.
Training horses takes a lot of instinct, or 'horse sense' as some call it. The nice thing about this instinct and horse sense is that it can be learned. The problem is, it takes a darn long time to learn it... it's not an easy lesson, nor is it readily acquired.
When a horse is untrained beyond our abilities, and we have no trainer or mentor, we are very liable to ruin said horse, at least for a while. A trainer once told me that we ruin the first 10 horses we touch. We don't have the know-how, we don't have the instinct, we don't have the experience to truly to any real favors to the first horses we touch.
How do we acquire such talents? We learn from experience. We learn from talking to people who know more than us. We learn from paying people who know more than us to teach us how to react in various situations. We attend clinics from people who know more than us. We read books written by people who know more than us..... see the pattern?
As a disclaimer of sorts, I must say that there are some very rare people that can learn by trial and error, and fix a problem horse that they originally had no idea how to fix and do it on their own.... but, let me say this very clearly.... this is not the norm, and it is very very rare.
How does it usually end, if you don't seek help?
More often than not, there's an event or two that lead the owner to realize that they cannot do this alone. Usually this realization results from injury, either to the horse or to the owner.
Sometimes it takes a serious, life-threatening injury to make the owner realize that something has to change.
When you realize it's time to move on.
Right off the bat, I want to say that there is nothing wrong with selling a horse that is too much for you, and getting something more your level. Nothing. In fact, I commend people who realize that they are in over their heads, want to find a good home for the horse, and find a horse that is more suited to their abilities.
This usually comes after flirting with the idea of fixing the horse yourself, or even after having someone try to fix the horse for you. Sometimes it happens when the person sustains the injury I mentioned a few paragraphs above.
If you cannot afford to hire someone to teach you how to deal with the problem horse, or send the horse away for training, or there is no decent trainer around you, I usually suggest selling the horse.
If you try and "play the hero" and fix the horse yourself without any know-how or guidance, it usually doesn't end well. You either don't know how to react in a situation, or react poorly in a situation, and make it worse. For example, I saw one lady that simply jumped off her horse when it started to hunch up or buck; she didn't know how to deal with the bucking horse, so she taught the horse that if it hunched up or bucked, it would be rewarded by being allowed to relax. The owner had no clue what she was doing wrong, and grew more and more terrified of the horse, and kept teaching the horse bad habits.
If you don't know how to fix it, can't send the horse away to get fixed, and can't get the help to learn how to fix it, sell or give it to someone who DOES know.
A horse is not worth your life. If you can't get the help, it is not worth risking your life to fix. It is also not worth ruining the horse more for the sake of your pride.
Sometimes, a horse is just too much for us. There is nothing wrong with admitting this. Even if you've worked with a dozen trainers, and you're still in over your head.... well.... it's time to move on.
It will be best for you and the horse to part ways. You can take necessary precautions to make sure the horse ends up in a good home - usually, a problem horse won't fetch a lot of money, but they also won't take up more of your money in feed and upkeep costs. This way, the horse can be ridden and trained by someone that has the knowledge to work through the problems.
You, in turn, can either spend money on lessons, or buy a horse that's more appropriate for your level of riding, and learn on it.
Of course, another option, if you have the time and money, and if the horse is safe to handle on the ground, is to retire the horse to a pasture ornament. This works for some horses, and not for others... some horses need to work to be happy, and others are perfectly content being a pasture puff, but it is another option to consider.