Jag. He's still my number one boy.
Like everyone else, I’m thinking about my resolutions for the new year. However, when it comes to riding, I’ve not yet managed to pin down exactly what I’d like to accomplish, so I”m going to reflect on what the last twelve months taught me.
Looking back, 2010 was a strange year. One year and ten days ago, I was laying in my bed, slightly concussed, spectacularly bruised, coughing up arena dirt, and thinking that I’d have to go get my left hand looked at – it was monstrously swollen and very sore. (It was in fact broken, I would spend the next six weeks in a cast.)
That was also my last ride on Jag, who we later learned had recurring kissing spines and was no longer sound for riding. As unfortunate as that incident was, it taught me a couple of very important lessons.
1) Listen to the horse, and listen to your gut. That ill-fated ride was on a very cold day – too cold to really work. So I got on, just planning to walk and stretch. I was working on asking Jag to bend to to the right, and he was resisting. I continued to pick, asking for serpentines and circles. He just didn’t want to give me correct bend. Now, we had some questions about whether or not this was some sort of new, testing behavior, or if it was a pain issue. I had a sneaking suspicion it was the latter – chiefly because Jag had always been the most uncomplicated of horses – pleasant and willing under saddle. The only times in the past he had been unwilling was when he hurt. But I didn’t listen to my gut, or my good horse. I kept picking at that right bend, thinking that because we were working at a gentle walk, it wasn’t too taxing for the horse. Boy, did I get that wrong, and I paid the price. I unwittingly goaded Jag into a rage, and when he finally had enough, he took off at top speed and dumped me unceremoniously on the mounting block.
So here’s what I took away from this experience: Keep an eye out for new behavior. Horses are not deep thinkers. They don’t while away hours in their stalls, thinking up new behaviors to tick you off. If a new, negative behavior crops up, there are two reasons. 1) The horse has a physical issue, and he is communicating this to you; or 2) You have trained this new behavior, either through ignorance or incompetence, and it’s your own damn fault. Either way, you need to pay attention. Listen to the horse. And if you have a nice, honest, willing horse, behavioral anomalies are big red flags. Ignore them at your own risk.
I’m glad I learned this lesson. It came in handy at my first show with Mads, when she pinned her ears and was downright nasty when I went to tack her up for the last class. A quick inspection revealed to me that she was back sore. The deep footing and a too-wide gullet had taken their toll. We scratched the class. And I shudder to think about what the outcome would be had I pushed it.
2. Love rules all. If you love your horse, and do right by your horse, everything will be okay. I know this sounds simplistic. But this is actually the more important of the four lessons, and I told you a few paragraphs previously how lesson #1 saved my butt. I was devastated when my vet broke the news that it was time to retire Jag. I had always planned on giving him a nice retirement, but was hoping to have years of fun in the saddle first. I started to look for places to board him, and resigned myself to a lot less riding.
In the spring, after his kissing spines were under control and he was back to being a happy, pleasant horse, Jag went to Wyngate Equestrian, a beautiful barn 30 minutes north of Woodstock (and my current barn).
A bleached-blond Jag basks in the summer sun.
With the help of the talented and caring woman who runs Wyngate, Jag successfully transitioned to living barefoot, and out on grass. He had a blissful summer and is extremely contented today. I visited him weekly, and soon learned to relish my time with the big guy, grooming, feeding treats, walking around the property, finding delicacies on which to browse. It turns out that giving a much-loved horse a well deserved and luxurious retirement is very gratifying.
Things have a way of working out. I made a slow return to the saddle, starting on my friend Kim’s marvelous boy Frankie, progressing eventually to Maddie, with whom I’ve clicked. Maddie has made me work hard, and learn a lot (especially about maxim #1.2, training a horse new (and unwelcome) behaviors.) (More on that later.)
In addition to these two lessons learned courtesy of Jag, two other things I learned last year truly resonated with me.
3. Practice discomfort. George Morris talked a lot about overcoming fear in the clinic I audited in November. His sage advice? “You have to practice what is not comfortable. If you’re not comfortable going fast, you practice fast. Practice your discomfort.” He’s absolutely right. I won’t improve if I don’t push the envelope. However, GM is not encouraging us to go forth and be stupid. Which is a good segue into lesson #3.
4. Get the basics DOWN, and perfectly (or as close to it as you can.) Dressage is built on a progression of skills that require a rider (and horse) to have solid fundamentals to perform well and get good scores. And while I’ve spent more time working at the trot than I care to think about, the fact is, this deliberate approach has set me up well for Training level, which showcases trot work. And there are other benefits. As I master new skills in the trot -from half halts to bending to shoulders-in and leg yields – and learn to feel what correct execution feels like, I can take that education with me to different gaits. And as I learn, I only become more solid and confident, and wake up one day ready to try something new, because I’ve given myself sufficient strength and confidence to take that next step. (Special thanks to Christy, who is the architect of this lesson.)
So I’ll take these lessons into 2011, which I guess means that I, Sarah, do hereby resolve to remember and apply the lessons I learned in 2010, and use them to guide my progress in this coming year.