Tact and Compromise
December 9, 2010 3 Comments
I was looking forward to my lesson tonight. My new position is getting stronger. The temperature was 18 degrees warmer tonight than last’s meager 10 degrees. I put on a cool black sweater and my tall Mountain Horse Fusion boots. Yes, I’m cheesy enough to think they look cool. As I swaggered out the door, my thoughts were of big trots and leg yieds, of forward horses and gorgeous canters. I grabbed my Flip. Yep, I wanted some video of tonight’s ride.
At this point, experienced horse people have fallen off their chairs laughing at this post. They know what comes next. Or, more specifically, they know what *doesn’t* come next. The following account will not be a tale of a magical ride. (Those happen when you’re wearing an orange t-shirt, trashy pink saddle pad, and haven’t knocked the mud entirely off the horse.)
No, the rest of this post will be devoted to telling a tale of plans gone awry.
I pulled Mads out of her stall, after greeting her with some neck scritches which she eagerly accepted. But about two seconds after putting her in the cross ties, I noticed that her demeanor was different. Her ears were up. She was staring straight ahead down the aisle into the arena. She was tense. I picked, curried, brushed and tacked. We went into the area, and Maddie’s thoughts were clearly everywhere but on me. Her muscles were quivering, nostrils were dilated, her eyes wide. The ears were pointed everywhere but at me. You see, it was pretty windy outside – you could hear it gust and howl – and there were occasional banging noises on the metal arena doors. Christy told me that a lot of horses had been acting up that day. I guess it was our turn.
I finished the routine, tightening the girth and walked her a minute. She was tense and jumpy, snorting and ignoring me. I pulled the stirrups off the saddle and picked up a longe line.
I quietly led Mads to the middle of the empty arena, and asked her to walk. Her head was turned away from me, and she was blowing a bit through her nostrils. The doors banged and she hopped into a tense, giraffe-y, nervous trot, spooking and shying. By this time, Christy had made it into the arena, and told me to get control, which seemed at that moment to be unlikely – Maddie’s attention was everywhere but me.
We were going straight back to some of the groundwork lessons I had done with Mads earlier this summer. I have yet to write about those adventures – but the gist of the situation was this – I was being a pushover, letting Mads get away with behaviors I shouldn’t, and she was becoming disrespectful. Simply put, I had to get my act together if I was going to continue riding her and working safely around her. And I got the job done! We did a lot of basic groundwork, and I quickly had a much more pleasant horse. She really was looking for a leader, and once I established the fact that I was the boss, and gained her acknowledgment of that fact, I had an entirely different and happier horse. This process did teach me that you have to stay on top of these things, however, and not let familiarity become an excuse for unwanted behavior. Occasionally, we go back to Basic Groundwork 101 and tonight was one of those nights.
Christy told me to assert myself on the longe, and had me shorten the line so I could maintain some contact and bend as I worked the mare. As I longed her, Christy also had me move forward, and move the mare around the arena. Any movements that were not my idea – an uninvited turn, change of gait, a spook – were not to be rewarded. The pressure had to intensify when Mads reacted in an unwelcome manner.
We longed all over the arena, and for a long time, Mads was simply not listening to me. The drama continued but I kept at it, changing direction and moving her around while Christy coached me from the sidelines. Eventually, Mads started to relax, stretching as she trotted, even as the wind howled outside. I asked her to walk, and she exhaled deeply, stretching her neck out. She was relaxed. Her ears relaxed, and one was turned toward me.
Okay, so the mare had mellowed out, but I certainly hadn’t. All the confident swagger from earlier before had long vanished. My heart was pounding and I swear, my femurs were both missing – my legs felt far from steady. Leading my now relaxed, floppy-eared, drooling mount back to the mounting block, I tried to get a grip on myself. Christy suggested putting the quarter sheet on – a chilly horse is a sassy horse – and I agreed. I needed a bit more time to compose myself.
I took a minute to convince myself to put my foot in the stirrup and swing up. “Breathe,” came the crisp command from Christy, who started us walking in circles. She knows me and Mads cold, and she knew that I was rattled. We walked in figure eights and small serpentines, keeping the mare engaged and bending. “See? You’re fine,” she said, reminding me that really, none of Maddie’s spooks were bad – she pretty much spooks in place, and I’ve ridden them before and will ride them again. The wind howled and we rode on, me barely breathing, and Maddie chewing the bit and stretching, probably wondering what the big deal was.
Tonight marked the first time that I had ever worked a horse down from a high energy/high stress situation into safe riding mode. So, despite the fact that the real work happened on the ground, the win was in fact in the saddle.
George Morris, in the clinic I audited recently, said something as he was watching a talented rider give her hot and super-forward Thoroughbred a beautiful, tactful, empathetic and effective ride. “Thoroughbreds require tact and compromise,” he said, watching the pair make child’s play of a difficult course of jumps.
It sounded good at the time, and I nodded to myself in agreement when he said it. But after tonight, I really understand what he meant.