Sometimes I forget that I’ve not yet done a full year of horse owning. I was reminded of this last Saturday.
It was a very windy day and, owing to my chiro appointment in the morning and D’s lack of turnout on a Saturday, I had to lunge him. As the riding school is still in operation this month that meant waiting until 6.00 for the lessons to stop so that I would have somewhere to lunge. And that, at this time of the year, meant it would be dark. It would have to be outside because of the new surface in the indoor school not being suitable for lunging on.
I hadn’t really been aware of how windy it was until I got to the yard, and heard the wind howling and loose things flapping around. Great, I thought, cue spooking in the pessoa again. Oh well, needs must. I tacked him up but didn’t put the pessoa on him – just carried it round to put on if/when he settled. As we went round to the schools and left the protection of the buildings the wind hit us. I knew then that putting the pessoa on would be a bad plan, but he needed to move, so I’d lunge him without any artificial aids, letting him carry himself as he would, and sacrificing the training aspect of the session. I didn’t bother with the lunge whip. he was not going to have any issues moving his feet tonight! The floodlights warmed up and I started him walking … and the fireworks started. Of course, it was the weekend closest to bonfire night. It goes without saying that he was not happy about the whole situation – the dark, the wind, the banging and flashing. He was keyed up but not jumping out of his skin, so we carried on, me hoping that a bit of exercise would calm him down and settle him. Between short rides and rest days I really felt he hadn’t had enough exercise and Usually we lunge on a 20 meter-ish circle. Not this night – he didn’t want to get that far from me. I was touched that I have now become his “safe-place.” I thought he would settle, despite the challenges of the environment, and we managed walk and trot with a reasonable number of transitions on both reins and he did his best to focus on me. As we’d got this far I went on and asked for the canter, once on each rein. We started with the difficult rein, which he’s not cantered on in any circumstance for a few weeks, one way or the other. It was achieved, but only via 2 big bucks and some gallop strides (actually I think that’s the first time I’ve seen him gallop). Obviously he got much praise for managing it, once he was there, and to be honest I hadn’t expected a pretty transition! After a quick go in the other direction we’d done about 15 minutes so I cooled him down off the lunge, hand walking him round the school. Well, actually not all the way round the school because the tree whipping about down the end was best avoided. When I eventually led him back towards the stable he was so keen to get back that he kept trying to break into trot (although the slightest pressure on the lead rope was all that was needed to keep him with me).
With hindsight I should have given up on the idea of lunging when we first got out there, and hand-walked him in the indoor school. This time next year I will be mindful of the likely firework-filled nights and avoid ending up in this position. Nothing bad happened, but if it had it would have been my fault for putting him in a very stressful situation for reasons that really weren’t good enough. I was so focused on “he needs exercise” that I wasn’t thinking “what if he gets so scared he pulls me over, jumps out of the school and runs off, black horse in the black night.” No horse needs exercise that much, and I should have abandoned it. But we got away with it and we’ll chalk it up to experience. On the positive side, he stuck with me and trusted me and listened to me.
I put him to bed, picking up one last manure pile from his bed on my way. The muck trailer is reached by means of a ramp and after dark there are no lights on the area. Usually if I’m using the muck trailer after dark I stand beside the ramp and throw my scoopful up, but for some reason I decided to go up and dump my scoop properly on the top of the heap.
But something tripped me. As it cracked and splintered against my shin in a painless way I realised it was a plastic bladed muck shovel. I also realised I wasn’t going to be able to correct my stumble before … my head met a soft wall of manure and shavings. A very painless stumble for me but the shovel blade was in shards (most of which I couldn’t see in the dark) and the neatly shoveled-back muck heap wasn’t as neat by the time I’d righted myself. I was pleased to find that the experience was not as dirty as I would have imagined, the heap being quite dry. Nevertheless I was very pleased that I have a seat cover protecting the drivers’ seat of my car!
As the lunging session had been less than satisfying and hadn’t made me feel that we’d gone any way to redressing the balance of his exercise needs, instead of our usual rest day on Sunday I decided to ride. Unfortunately it was still ridiculously windy. I managed to get a school (a challenge during the day at the weekend) but unfortunately the turned out horses in the adjoining field were bucking and generally in a spirit of high uncontrolled energy, so I wasn’t receiving D’s full attention! He was resistant, worried about the wind, keyed up from the nearby crazy-horse energy and generally not going to make things easy for me. His resistance meant that I was quickly exhausted so again we were only able to manage a short ride. But it was a short ride that otherwise he wouldn’t have had, and I’m sure he spent lots of energy resisting me, even if he didn’t spend much working nicely.
The next day I tried again, and thankfully the wind had dropped back to a level that meant all the horses were a bit calmer, but unfortunately he was still resistant and argumentative. I suspect that he too feels that post physio/chiro it is like a new horse & rider. And horses challenge their new riders once they feel confident to. I’m pretty sure this is where we are now. Of course I should consider the usual back/saddle/teeth/hooves causes of “bad” behaviour, but I’m pretty sure this just attitude because all but the saddle have been checked very recently.
The day after that was bonfire night itself. Again, he had no turnout so needed exercising, but it was a chiropractor night so I wouldn’t be able to ride. Waiting until a school was free and then lunging in the dark when there would definitely be fireworks seemed stupid after our experiences a few days previously, so I decided to make do with hand walking and trotting him before my appointment. If I wasn’t going to tack him up I’d be able to skip grooming and with the time saved not grooming/tacking up/untacking afterwards I’d have time for 20 min hand walking and trotting and still have time to get to my appointment. So this was the plan. Unfortunately his bad mood extended to this also! But it proved that the issue was not the saddle, as the saddle was still in the tack room! He had a fleece rug on as it was cold and I didn’t know how much trotting we’d get to do – it would depend on who turned up to ride. As it happened we had a school to ourself so we could do whatever I chose. We started out walking around the school and he set a very fast pace and we strode out together. But his ears were back and he wasn’t happy. We carried on. He pretended to bite me. (This is what he does to see how much trouble he’d be in if he did bite me. Basically he bites the air about a foot away from my arm and then pretends he didn’t. Sometimes he’s quick enough and out of my field of vision that I’m not sure if he’s done that or not so he just gets a hard look, but sometimes I catch him and he gets told off. If he gets away with that first one then he might escalate it to biting a couple of centimetres away from my hand/arm so that his whiskers and/or lips make contact but his teeth don’t. Then he gets told off and smacked. There’s only been one occasion about 6 months ago where he actually bit me with teeth (while being girthed). But enough aside, back to the main narrative…)
So he was obviously unhappy over something. We did some trotting and walk/trot transitions to try to keep me from losing my breath too much as well as some walk/halt which went better than I expected. But his ears were back the whole time. I wondered if he hated moving in the fleece rug and as we’d been trotting decided he was warm enough to remove it. The ears stayed back. Not the rug then, just a horse in a bad mood, it seemed. We carried on and after a bit he tried bucking. Bucking on the lunge I accept as a necessary evil if I’m asking him to do something he finds very hard. Bucking on a lead-rope is unacceptable. I feel that I conveyed this message to him quickly and successfully and once I’d finished shouting we continued, with a somewhat subdued D behaving himself better.
Not the pleasant jog around the school with him that I’d been expecting. But he’d got exercised, whether he liked it or not, and I got to my chiropractor appointment.
At the appointment I was reassessed against my records and the chiropractor and I agreed I’d made excellent progress. Hurray! I no longer need to go twice a week – once a week will do. Although part of me really enjoys going and will be sad when Mr S goes to his 2nd appointment of the week without me, this will make it so much easier to manage Drifter and meant I could book a lesson. Hurray!
D and I had Wednesday off from each other and I rode again on Thursday. We shared a school with the lady with the slow pony again. Like me she doesn’t do much cantering and so it’s much easier to keep out of her way and plan my ride to avoid crashes than when sharing a school with the teens. The drainage at one end of the school was awful but with only two of us and not much cantering it was easy enough to avoid the worst of it. Professional advice is being sought on the state of the schools. It was most unfortunate that just after extra (too much?) surface was added to the outdoor schools we had weeks of heavy rain and they just don’t seem to be draining.
I’d arrived to ride prepared for a fight. Following the resistance I’d met any time I did anything with him, I’d come to the conclusion that I should expect a bit of argument during the ride. Some argument was presented, but less than I expected. I concentrated on my ride and we worked hard. After 20 min we were both sweating hard, despite the cold, his clip and the fact that we’d spent a lot of the time in walk. It was good walk, with good trot transitions (mostly). The lady with the pony left and we had the school to ourselves. I realised that D had settled to working and wasn’t fighting me any more. My shoulder didn’t seem to be dropping off so we were good to work some more. What could I do for something different now? I crossed my stirrups across his neck to try some sitting trot without stirrups. It seemed to go quite well. He kept a nice shape, which suggested I wasn’t causing him too much discomfort and I felt quite good. One rein was easier than the other – whether because of the way he moves or the way I do I’m not sure, but on the more difficult rein I still did OK. As we were passing the scary tree in sitting trot without my stirrups he had a tiny spook sideways. Probably to someone on the ground it would have been barely noticeable, but it was enough that in the past if it had happened without stirrups I might have expected to be grabbing the saddle to stay on (and maybe losing the battle). But I absorbed the motion and stayed with him. I was astounded. I really must be getting better at that! I took the stirrups back and had a little canter on his good rein, including a really nice canter circle, the best we’ve done. Feeling relatively confident I tried for the canter on the awkward rein and thought it might have been right, but couldn’t be sure.
I wasn’t able to ride on Friday but had a lesson on Saturday. I was really looking forward to it because I felt like I’d been riding him much better since I’d last had a lesson, but I really needed someone to tell me if I was right about that! Before the lesson he was being really difficult. Waiting outside the school for the previous lesson to end he refused to stand still, barging me, trying to yank his head away from me, pretending to bite. Telling him off and smacking wasn’t getting me anywhere. I took him back from the door and walked him to see if he’d settle. It didn’t really work but it was easier for me than trying to stand. Once we got into the school he continued, making it hard for me to tighten the girth etc. I was thankful for the instructor holding him while I got on, and then we were off. He walked at top speed and I let him walk off his grumps with the reins on the buckle, only taking up some contact once he’d let off some energy. The instructor was caught up in conversation, so we had plenty of time to warm up before her attention was on us, but once it was, she was impressed. He was on the bit, working nicely. As the lesson went on, so did her praise. Some of it was quite incredulous, along the “OMG, you’re STRAIGHT! HE’s straight. You’re both STRAIGHT!” sort of lines. Yes, it seems we are officially on the right track. Unfortunately this didn’t extend to the right rein canter. I tried and tried. We put a pole across the corner and he still went on the wrong leg. The instructor got on. He got it right. But she’d kind of thrown her weight sideways at the right time to help him. I got back on. I tried shifting my weight like her and D and I both found it very unsettling. We tried again and managed it. It felt quite strange, which makes me think he was on the wrong leg the other day when we’d tried. Again I resolved not to try without the instructor. Then it was time to cool down and for her to go. During the cool down she told me how much better he’d felt when she was on him. He was much lighter in her hands. She felt an improvement as well as seeing one. OMG that must mean … I’m finally riding well enough to improve my horse!
I didn’t realise until afterwards, but he hadn’t bothered to fight me during the lesson. He hadn’t tried hanging off my arms. He hadn’t cantered on the spot when he was frustrated. He hadn’t tried to ignore me. Perhaps we’re coming through the argument stage and into something nicer. Perhaps I’ve won enough arguments recently that he’s giving it a rest. Perhaps he’s getting stronger, and it’s not so uncomfortable to him to do what I ask and carry himself properly. Perhaps …
I may be pretty inexperienced, but I’ve learnt enough to know that the next time I ride it might be dreadful. This might have been a pleasant one-off that might not be repeated in a month of riding. But I can take that possibility, because it seems that I’m finally improving my horse.