Whenever I have the chance to touch a new horse, whether to ride it or work with it on the ground, I am always seeking that elusive, intangible thing called Potential. I ask my self; where is it? What is it? and, How much will be there when we find it? Potential is delicate. Potential is special, and in my mind it belongs to the horse. Coaching it to the surface and then developing it, is a work of art. And coming from a Problem Horse person, I think it should be treated with the utmost regard and the highest respect.
There are two parts to the horse's potential; The Mental part, and The Physical part.
When looking at the Mental side of things, I wonder Are they smart? Are they biddable? Are they even natured or do they need some special thing(s) to make their world ok. Some horses are simple thinkers, not dumb, just simple; they're not trying to out do you, or get ahead of you. And other horses are super keen, always on the lookout for change and how to react to that change. Each end of the spectrum needs different handling. The "keen" ones I like to think they "speak in fractions" and like the challenge, or are innately triggered by the little things in life. These horses need us to be aware of that and treat them as such, they have finer "keys" that stimulate them, they are complex. Where as the simpler minded ones have bigger, more forgiving "buttons," and that also needs to be taken into consideration during their training regimen...they may not see and feel the small things we want them to see and feel. They might require more coaching to realize the finer things are important. If you treat either of these ends of the spectrum with the alternate's tendency, you'll run into issues, from minor set-backs to major conflicts.
The Physical side of things is more easy for us to actually see and/or feel. One of the most exciting things to me is that first trot, or that first canter on a colt, and wondering if they are going to be smooth, even leaded, etc. We can see if they have a nice lay-back to the shoulder that should give nice reach and length of stride up front, or a nice short back, or a powerful hind quarter with good hocks. Having the right physical characteristics to do a job or sport is essential, because we've all heard and know, "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" ;-) Good breeding helps get us to where we want and need to go with the jobs we need the horse to do with us, from pulling and plowing, to riding, roping, reining, jumping, cutting, dressage and so forth. The better the horse is set up physically for the job, sport or discipline we are in pursuit of, the better the chance for overall success for the horse, and for ourselves.
Potential can be the thing that makes people spend a lot of time, and a lot of hard earned money on a horse. It can be a great thing, but the pursuit of it can also lead to the demise of a horse, especially if their genes hold promise to do something great in a certain sport or discipline. A horse can get put in the grind of a training regimen that rubs it all the wrong way...whether that training regimen is conventional or "natural." And in trying to find the physical potential of a horse, the mental potential can be damaged, there by ruining the chance of ever getting to 100% of what that horse had to offer.
Potential can also be something that is wasted, like trying to make an apartment dog out of a Border Collie or Kelpie. Some horses, like some dogs, are very physical; they want to get out and go do something, expend a lot of energy, and be challenged mentally. We ALWAYS need to keep in mind, feral horses can and will wander an average of 35 miles per day, and by depriving the horse of that physical output, we can also damage the mental potential of that animal by giving it no meaning to life, no fluctuations of highs and lows, both mentally and physically, just the same as they would have if they were living in the wild.
Getting to 100% of a horse's potential means you have to consider both the mental part and the physical part. And also either train, or find a trainer that coaches the horse along in a way that the potential reveals itself. I tell people all the time; with every horse it is a different compromise. It is our job to figure out what makes that individual "tick," what it needs to operate at 100% capacity. The key to bringing potential to the surface is having the discipline to observe, listen, and wait for it to show itself during the training process, and not getting into a rush to find it...rushing usually ruins things. Will Barbier, the husband of Sandy Barbeir my most influential mentor growing up, always said "The hurrier we go, the behinder we get," and no truer words were ever spoken about training horses. I'll leave you with an alliteration to remind you of how to find your horse's 100%: Have Patience in the Pursuit of Potential.