Imagine that your talented five-year-old Hanoverian gelding was ridden the equivalent of “Second Level” at auction before being imported-from-Germany, but for some reason you’re not able to mount him without getting bucked off now that he’s home with you. You clinic with a trainer who helped you with your previous horse-with-difficulties, but she’s only in your area a few times a year so it’s difficult to get any consistent help. He’s sent to a different trainer who re-starts him. In a few months he comes home improved, at least enough for you to get on and ride if you’re really careful and are occasionally prepared to swing into the saddle fast and do a few wheelies before he can walk out straight, but you manage. You take lessons from a local trainer but after a few years you’re forced to sell him because you can’t really afford a horse at this stage in your life. You tell yourself that it’s okay because the new owner will let you continue to show and lease him three days per week, probably because he bucks her off when she rides. But in spite of his tension he scores well at Training and First Levels because he’s a terrific mover and you’re a competitive type-A so you give it your all. But you notice that he’s getting progressively heavier in your hands and backed off and just as you’re thinking of moving him up to second level for real, he starts rearing. The owner wants to send him to a dressage trainer with national prominence to “teach him some manners,” but in your heart of hearts, you know that punishing him for bad behavior will only make him worse. So you do the only thing that will ease your conscience. You tighten your belt buckle and buy him back.
At this point your horse is ten years old and unsafe to ride so you are forced to stop showing. Throwing away his promise and potential and your dreams of becoming a noted upper level rider is not an easy decision. But other things in your life are beginning to change. You foresee enough economic stability to think about breeding a mare and producing a colt that you can start yourself, one that doesn’t have a history of mishandling and poor schooling at a young age.
Yet there is that barely discernible whisper that keeps nagging at the back of your mind, What is wrong with my horse? One day you wake up and realize that you actually want an answer to that question. You’ve done the hard part by giving up showing. What could you possibly lose by trying to find an answer?
You want an answer bad enough that it makes trailering three hours in traffic each way every other week to the coach who helped you with your “previous horse with difficulties” seem worth it. Besides, you remember something she had emphasized at the last clinic you attended years earlier: “This is exactly the type of horse that, in the wrong hands, could easily be ruined,” and you wonder what she saw in him that foretold his fate.
“I don’t want to show him, I just want him to be happy being ridden,” you explain once you get there. “I’m going to breed a mare for a horse that I can start, a horse that’s more suitable for what I want to do.”
“Well…,” the coach stares back at you. “Going through the process of working with this horse will help you there.”
What does she mean by that? A red flag waves almost imperceptibly in the back of your mind and you ask, “He should be better in a year, right? I mean, I’m willing to give up an entire year.”
But all you get back is, “Let’s just work with him and see where we get.”
You think you’re prepared to do what it will take to make your horse better. But you don’t expect that you will oftentimes be asked to tolerate three hours of ground work because that’s what it takes before he is trusting enough to let you get on — but you can’t get on then anyway because the coach says, “He’s had enough for today.” Then, when you’re finally able to get on without him bolting you don’t expect that some days you will drive all that way and that’s all you will do. And after he has finally made some kind of breakthrough and stands quietly one time, the next time you show up you don’t get close to putting your foot in the stirrup.
Once you are finally able to get on and ride without fearing for your life you feel him balk at your leg when you ask for a simple trot. At his highest point of tension you are told “this is where he needs to move out,” but when you can’t make that happen through your own volition you hear the awful swish of a “flag” coming from behind, taking away your controls and doing it for you. You then certainly don’t expect to have to throw away your reins just at the point when you think he needs to slow down! More weeks pass, and just when you get used to riding him in that open way, you don’t expect it will be forever until he responds without pinning his ears, grinding his teeth and swishing his tail for the sheer displeasure of compliance. And by the time year three rolls around and those two yearlings that you bred for are already big with their own set of challenges, you certainly don’t expect to have to admit that it was really all about what you didn’t know and didn’t understand about this horse that made his re-schooling take so long.
But you also didn’t expect to ever see the day when he walked up to you out of the pasture, looking forward to going out for a ride. And you didn’t expect that he would actually learn how to stay calm in a tense situation just because you were there with him. And you didn’t expect to ever be able to take him anywhere and have him be happy to do whatever you ask because now you know how to ask for what you want in a way he can understand without stress or discomfort. So you find yourself here at the show grounds for the first time in four years. Your horse is now 14 and you will still not be showing Second Level, but starting over at Training Level while all the old memories come flooding back and you feel a sense of dread fill the pit of your stomach. You wonder if he will remember, too, the tension in the air, the pressure.
“What am I doing here? Why did I ever think this was a good idea?” You ask the question out loud.
The coach beams a smile of pride and says something about how feeling the emotions instead of pushing them down just in order to go through the mechanics of riding the tests is real progress. Take one step and see how far you get. That’s all you ever have to do.
“But it feels like hell and I know I’m going to get comments about being on the forehand and stretching too low and not wearing a flash noseband and…”
You’re going to get comments you don’t like no matter how you decide to ride, is the reply, so you might as well ride for your horse exactly the way you ride at home. He’s the one you’re here for, nobody else.
You know it’s true and you know your horse. You know that what you have been doing has worked because you have been there to see and experience the changes. You know what has allowed him to find his way to being happy and willing because you were willing to put in the time and face the humiliation of starting over to develop an entirely new relationship. And because you have now learned to feel what “being with your horse” actually means, you can communicate with him that way here today too.
Okay. So there won’t be any pressure. You are prepared to scratch your classes if it all goes haywire, remember? That was the agreement you made with yourself, your horse and the coach.
So you walk him around. You’re aware that he’s a little tight from the long trailer ride but calm. By the time you wind your way through the show grounds and are heading back to your rig he’s hanging his head as he walks beside you on a long line. You tie him to the trailer to groom and he stands quietly. You put on the saddle. There is no hint of irritation the way there used to be when you tighten the girth. He reaches for the bit and takes a nap while you loosely fasten the throat lash and simple cavesson-without-flash noseband. You lead him up to the mounting block and he stands.
He has let you on his back.
You head to the warm-up arena. You’re grateful for insisting that, in spite of the distance it took to haul your horse here, your first show of the season be held at a place that is laid out in a simple, open design with large and roomy riding areas, good footing and easy access. The management is friendly and absent of adding drama to your already brimming nerves. You enter the warm-up arena at the walk and remember to start there, focusing on asking your horse to be soft and relaxed, the foundation to all your work over the past three years. When the coach asks you how he feels you don’t hesitate a reply.
“He feels good!”
Your first test goes well, but with the early show jitters you know you kinda went through the motions and weren’t focused enough on where your horse was. But now that you’ve gotten through it you are determined to be more present during your second test. You recite it aloud as the coach hands you water from a bottle and then your jacket which you put on without worry that your horse will spook at your flapping coattails, reminding you of all the positive sides to the years of flag work.
Who are you riding for? The question the coach has posed reminds you to stay focused on your horse. You are riding for your horse.
And how will you ride him? She is asking the question as you begin your lap around the outside of the show ring, before you’re out of ear-shot.
“Like I do at home!” You smile because you actually know what that feels like, and that it works.
You are ready when the judge rings the bell to enter the arena. When your horse backs off a little you encourage him forward. He responds. When he stiffens you use a bend through the circle to soften him. When he softens you remember to release and let go, just like you do at home. He sighs and lets go, too, puts his ears forward and does exactly what you ask for.
He’s relaxed on a loose rein as you walk from the arena and you are so pleased you thank the judge on your way out (instead of the other way around) but she smiles and lets you know that she thought, “Actually, that was a really nice ride,” as if it was a surprise to both of you.
Now imagine that you’re at the same show grounds with your eight-year-old Hanoverian mare, a cousin, in fact, to her trailer-mate and fellow Hanoverian previously mentioned. You bought her as a three-year-old because, after your last re-schooling project, you felt prepared to start your own young horse from scratch. Although a relatively clean slate without a lot of history to undo, she has always been high-energy and sensitive. Between that, the fact that this was your first young horse project, and the fact that your all-encompassing profession has only allowed you to work with her two or three days a week on average has meant you are now starting out at Training Level as well, a moment you have looked forward to for the past four and a half years. Meanwhile, you have done well to ignore the looks on faces affecting an air of superiority at the combination of your mare’s age and level of training.
You tie her to the trailer and recall the years you spent taking her to different places just to work on the fact that she was too ADD to tie to a trailer or to anything else. The patient hand-walking each time she was too wound up to keep her feet on the ground has paid off now as you groom, check her braids and prepare to ride. You mention to the coach that she’s been a little off lately, but not consistently; more like a kind of “rein-lameness” where passing stiffness brings about an irregularity of stride. But once in the warm-up arena it feels much worse. The coach agrees. It’s not like anything she has seen before with this mare.
You stay positive because it seems like your mare is working out of it and you press on with walk, trot and canter until it’s time for your test. You don’t hesitate when your coach asks if you want to continue, warning that you may be eliminated for lameness. You have put too much time, energy and precious financial resources into getting here to back down now. So you enter the arena and get through your test but your mare, while only showing intermittent irregularities of stride, is tight in her back and somewhat spooky. She picks up the wrong lead at canter and breaks her stride several times, but you know your test well by heart and you press on, the way you’ve trained.
Before it’s time for your second warm-up your coach has formulated an opinion. It’s not rein-lameness, she is saying, but foot soreness. You discuss the fact that it’s been an early spring that dries the ground rapidly after the rains, causing a horse’s feet to contract. Although your mare has great feet and has never needed shoes, you acknowledge they are worn down more than usual by the unyielding rock-hard terrain.
You don’t know how your mare would react to having shoes put on, or if they would help ease the pressure from the bottom of her feet, or if having nails in the hoof wall would make her sore in a different way. You are not prepared to make that decision on such short notice, so you go with declaring the use of Butazolidin for your second test. But she is worse and you are eliminated before you get half way through.
After your ride you regroup and consider your options for showing the following day. Show management has a farrier on call, but he does not respond to your message. The hours pass by without hearing back so you try another, leaving a message with him as well. You decide not to worry or get too attached to how things work out. But just as you come to the conclusion that you will not ride the next day, you are able to reach the first farrier. He is willing to meet you at the show grounds at 6:30 the following morning so that you can make your 8:30 ride time. You don’t know the man or the quality of his work, and you realize that having your mare’s front feet shod will be an experiment. You won’t know if it was the right decision until you test it out. Life is like that sometimes.
The farrier is prompt, polite and takes his time in the cool, early morning breeze while you stand at the end of the rope that’s attached to your mare who stands quietly in spite of the fact that she hasn’t yet eaten breakfast or had a chance to move around after spending the night in a small pen on site. The coach asks if you’ve administered any bute yet and you remember that not only have you neglected that task this morning but the night before as well. You ignore what the ramifications of what that might mean along with the coach’s attempt to mask a brief dear-in-headlight’s response to your, “No. I forgot.” But she is back to hand-walk your mare when the shoeing has been completed, less than an hour before your first test, and to coax the sticky paste into the corner of her mouth for you while you write a check to the farrier and linger to express your gratitude to him for going the extra mile for a stranger.
You find your way back to the trailer where the coach has your horse at the end of a long line, letting her move around for the first time that morning. While you confer that she seems to be moving better you are reminded that her braids have fallen out during the night, that you are not dressed, and that she has neither been groomed nor saddled. “I’m just going to forget about the braids,” you say as your coach brings her back and ties her to the trailer. But by the time you’ve donned your show clothes she’s been groomed and extra black rubber bands are already being wound around the once braided and tidy sections of mane while you grab saddle and bridle.
You can’t help but feel a swell of pride as you ride through the parking area to the warm-up arena at a brisk but relaxed walk on a loose rein. According to all that’s happened combined with her inherent energy, this mare should be leaping out of her skin. But she is not. You have spent all your time with her helping her learn to be confident within herself, confident amidst new surroundings, and confident with you, and you know her like the palm of your hand. It took you longer to begin showing than it would have for most ambitious riders, but by not pushing her in the way that they would have you know there will never be a need for her to be anything but happy to be your partner, rather than merely your vehicle to stardom. The meaning the journey forward holds is palpable.
You have barely walked her down one side of the warm-up arena when you hear your name coming at you in a long shout. You recognize the voice of the coach still standing back at the gate, delivering four simple words that descend over you like a cloud.
“You have five minutes!”
Five minutes? Five minutes to warm up before your test. Five minutes after nearly an hour and a half waiting and for the kind stranger to carefully place two new shoes on her front feet for the first time. Five minutes after all of yesterday’s considerations over what to do about those feet on top of the hours spent that morning driving to this show so far from home. Five minutes after the past four years of morphing 20 minutes a few days a week after work before dark to turn ground work into a training session, sandwiched between weekends when you could ride in your too-small arena with questionable footing. Five minutes after years of lessons and training to insure your progress forward, proving that a diligent and mindful approach to your training can transcend any circumstance.
Five minutes and you don’t even know if she’s sound yet with weight on her back.
Suddenly a fire lights up in your belly and you ask for a trot. Your mare follows your lead and there you are, bending through a forward circle like the devil is chasing you. Whatever hesitation you may have felt in the past 24 hours vanish as you get blood pumping and move up to canter in both directions. She is responsive. She is soft. She is sound!
You walk out of the warm-up area to the show ring, donning jacket and saying your test aloud to the coach while she leads you to the gate, nodding all the while to let you know you’re on track with your memorization. You have learned to take your time when your mare spooks at the judge’s booth, even as the bell is rung, slowing to a walk to let her look before riding past and around to the entrance at the far end before 45 seconds has elapsed. No longer foot-sore she is able to respond fully without distractions. You’re no longer concerned with what you look like from the outside, but with how your horse feels. It’s a relief to not have to worry about your score or winning a ribbon. This test is for you and you alone, and you are up for the challenge.
After your ride you huddle with your show mate over the computer that replays both tests the coach taped and uploaded for feedback. It looks as good as it felt.