So the snow went away, we got use of the outdoor schools back and I thought we were going to make some progress with ridden work now that we could focus properly on our own partnership rather than worrying about sharing a small school and whether I’d be able to get home safely after the ride.
I think I should have known – that’s not the way things go with horses.
We got back into the big outdoor school, on our own, with all that lovely space to work in, but Drifter was being difficult. I’d finally cleaned my tack, so my first thought was that maybe I’d made a mistake putting the bridle back together with something twisted or asymmetric, so I dismounted and had a good look. All fine. I got back on and thought perhaps he was just a) being lazy because he’d got used to not working too hard or b) testing his rider, which was a phase of ownership I’d been prepared for. He was reluctant to move and more reluctant than usual to turn or take any “steering” aids at all. I pushed him on, but it was not a rewarding ride. It seemed like he might have decided that he was scared of the bushes and/or shadows, which is not unreasonable in the dark (with floodlights), especially as it was windy, but he wasn’t like this before. I decided I might need to remind him who was in charge and that if it carried on next time I rode I’d try carrying a little whip, which I hadn’t done with him before. I don’t usually ride with one for a few reasons: I think in a new-ish rider it can become a (poor) substitute for learning to give proper leg aids, I’m not that coordinated using a whip and it’s not nice to use even a little bit of violence if you can get the same result without it. I’m not against carrying a crop, but I prefer not to unless there’s a reason to do so. In this case the reason would be that if he’s not going to respect my aids and I can’t back them up with anything I’ll end up with a horse that knows his rider can’t stop him doing what he wants. Which is dangerous for me and possibly also for him, especially if he decides there’s a tiger in the bushes.
I hoped he was just having an off-day, maybe because he’d not had any turnout because of the snow, but turnout had been reinstated so he’d probably be back to himself next ride. But no, he was worse. He’d had his teeth floated and I was afraid that maybe that was the problem – maybe his mouth had hurt every time we rode before and now they were OK I’d got no control over the front end. That would be terrible – to have only been able to ride him because he was in pain. But for whatever reason I was on a horse that didn’t seem to be respecting my aids, so it was time to try riding with a crop.
For many horses it’s enough to carry the stick. They know it’s there and they know you mean business, so they become very obedient so you don’t have any reason to use it. I’ve also been on one horse who really freaked out because he was fine with crops but terrified of dressage whips, which I happened to have been given by the instructor that day, so I knew that just getting on Drifter holding a whip might evoke a strong reaction and if needs be I’d drop the whip immediately, grab saddle or mane and ride out the reaction as best I could.
He did not freak out, thankfully. He was tense about the sudden appearance of the whip, but not overreacting. It did not really solve our problems though. He was going forward but I was still struggling to keep him on the track. I touched him with the whip a few times (laying it on him, not smacking) and did eventually use one small smack. He went forwards but still wasn’t responding to the aids the whip was supposed to be backing up, so I decided the whip was causing stress but no useful effect to either of us and put it away, cooled him off and put him back in his stable. I knew I was tired and frustrated and resolved to have another go tomorrow. It was still extremely windy, which is likely to affect any horse, and it was late on Friday night, which is likely to affect any human, so we’d write this off and start a-fresh tomorrow.
Tomorrow came and I had the small outdoor school to myself but there was a rider with family spectators in the adjoining school, who found it hilarious that my horse seemed to be refusing to go around corners. He would go around the corners at the C end (because there are scary bushes and it was still really windy) but at the A end he just walked right into the corner through my aids. Only when he was practically against the fence would he let me make him go round the corner. I tried trotting and he trotted nicely until we got near the corner, slowed to a walk (despite me) and did exactly the same. (Cue hilarity from spectators).
There has to be a problem here. I took him to the centre line and dismounted. I walked him in hand trying to get him to bend so I could see what was going on. He tried to nip me. This is a horse that has never looked at me wrong. There definitely has to be a problem beyond the wind, the dark and his general attitude to steering. He has a problem and he needs me to solve it. His teeth have just been done, so that’s ruled out. He’d been shod a few days ago but there was no sign of favouring a foot and I’d felt nothing unusual in his gait. That leaves his back. What do I know about horse backs. Not a lot. But I know I put a saddle on it. I watched the saddle be fitted, so I tried to remember what the fitter had done. Hadn’t she run her hands under it like this checking for tight spots? Oh **** that’s tight! He wasn’t turning because this tightness was stopping him and keeping his body straight.
Being underconfident in my ability to be right about horse stuff I took him back to the yard and got an instructor to have a feel. She agreed I needed to get the saddle fitter out again. So I’ve booked an appointment and will not put the saddle on him again until that appointment.
I felt so guilty. I should have known sooner that something was wrong. I should have carried on looking for issues when I got off and checked the bridle, back in the first paragraph. But as the saddle was professionally fitted less than 6 weeks ago (and I told the fitter he was going to gain weight) it didn’t occur to me that it would be a problem this soon, so I didn’t think to check it earlier.
Hopefully we will be able to sort this out without too much time and expense, but until that saddle fits him it’s back to lunging him for exercise.