I have become smarter

I was lucky enough to grow up in a horsey family where we always had a variety of horses coming in and out of the barn. We had lesson horses, show horses and racehorses. I had the chance to ride anything that I wanted and the lessons that I learned along the way have benefited me when it comes to training young horses.

I admit that when I was younger I didn’t have the most patience in the world and I would easily get frustrated. My mom was good at letting me learn my lessons on my own without saying much. I was 10yrs old when I got my first off the track and experience set me back for a few years 🙂 It was going pretty well until we were at pony club grounds in Middletown, Delaware and he got stung by some bees that were lurking under a metal water trough. Pony Club grounds basically have two fenced in paddocks in the middle and the rest is wide open fields. Let’s just say that horse was as flat out as a racehorse can go and running blindly. I know they were all yelling for me to bail but I was too scared to bail (ha, I still never bail!) and he just ran and ran and ran some more and I finally pointed him at the dressage ring hoping he would stop. He didn’t stop but it was enough to slow him down and I rolled off the left shoulder. He ran across the road and hung himself up in a clothes line. It wasn’t funny at the time but sure is now that I look back on it. When we retrieved him it was decided he would go back to the track and wouldn’t you know he won his next two races. My stepdad always joked that I gave him a hell of a breezing 🙂

I was pretty scared of horses that went fast after that experience so my next TB was the one I would end up owning for many years. His favorite thing to do was run backwards. That was cool with me as long as he wasn’t taking off 🙂 He came in as a training project for my mom and she hated him so somehow I got on him and fell in love and begged and begged until my parents gave in. We called him scarface as he was so beat up and thin from where he had been living. He wasn’t allowed to go out in public for a while or else people would think we starved him!

I’m not sure that I would recommend a very green rouge TB to a 13yr but it was my choice. Now that I look back on it I wish I would have been smart enough to take my parent’s up on the offer to have a really nice horse 🙂 However, I really think that the skills I learned from him can not be replaced. I learned to just flat out ride a very difficult horse. Those first few years were an exercise in patience and humility and learning to become a smarter more effective rider.

My mom was actually tormented by other parents in my pony club and people even offered horses to me. She explained this was the one that I wanted. I wish my parents would have been good and video back then because you really had to see some of the moves this horse could do. Bronco bucks, the nastiest spook and spin moves, rearing, running backward and the dirtiest stops he could create at the jumps. I thought I knew everything at age 13 but he let me know that I needed to stop being cocky and learn to ride. I could have thrown in the towel but instead I committed myself to learning how to ride challenging horses.

I got excellent help with the flatwork for a great dressage instructor where we taught him to go forward no matter what. This was accomplished with lunging him and teaching him to respond to the voice and the whip and then she would ride him and teach him the whip meant forward. Yes, many Tb’s have zero concept of forward. Once they learn how to go forward a lot of the behavior can be controlled. Easiest way to stop the bucks is to send them forward. When you have them forward you can teach them how to work into contact and use their back. This kind of focus allowed me to control the spook and spin moves to a degree. I was able to think like a horse and before they even focus on the scary object I am there saying let’s do a little leg yield over here and please don’t look at that instead lets do a spiral circle here.

My horse had been a steeplechaser but it had shaken his confidence. I worked daily to build his confidence and become a better rider over fences. He punished me for taking long spots by bucking me off on the landing. I learned to create the canter that would get me to the proper distance and how to support him off the ground and not get ahead of the motion. I am sure it is probably the reason why I still ride quite defensively 🙂 I also learned a lot about building confidence by taking baby steps. Small fences that were decorated to be scary allowed me to teach him he had to go over, heck he could even walk over them. I very gradually introduced height but the horse jumped everything like it was 4ft. Height was never the issue it was simply making him believe in himself.

A difficult horse teaches you to think outside the box and train smarter not harder. You can’t force a horse to do anything and when you do it probably isn’t going to end up real good for either of you. I used to be super competitive and it was always about the ribbons. Funny how that changes when you have such a challenging horse and you come to realize ribbons have nothing to do with sense of accomplishment. Sometimes my goal was just to be able to survive the warm up or be able to get around the course cleanly. When I stopped putting so much pressure on myself and my horse our performance improved. The most valuable tool that I had learned was how to truly think like a horse and almost get inside their head. It was about slowing everything down and making sure I had installed all the right buttons. Be humble enough to abandon plan A for plan B if that is what is required. Put the horse first and not my own goals.

I am sure this sounds like a bunch of rambling but last night I had such an interesting ride on Shoes that once again I found myself being so thankful for all the knowledge I have been able to gain by riding so many complicated horses over the years. I still have a long way to go but I love the journey.

Shoes was being a very good boy at the walk and the trot but he was also being a bit nappy. Mogie has suggested I ride him without the spurs so no spurs. I was carrying my stick though as I always find it crucial on any horse to have the tools you need. He would just randomly slow way down almost wanting to stop. I was not quite sure what was going on? I ran the mental list in my head. Sore, tack issue or being a butt head. I kept focusing on the trot and he was relaxed and the back was swinging and everything felt good.

Wouldn’t you know it all came to head when I started to ask for the canter. Each time I would ask for the canter he wouldn’t pick it up. I tried various ways and he was not interested and got nappier by as we went to the point of just stopping and kicking out. I felt myself starting to get frustrated but I slowed down my thinking and thought about how to approach the issue. I couldn’t get him forward and using the stick wasn’t working. He was getting pissed and had stopped trying.

I realized we have a lack of communication issue going on and we have lost our forward button. I asked Kurt to go and get the lunge line knowing that the best way to tackle the issue was to remind him of the forward button. Now he hadn’t done anything wrong but he simply wasn’t answering the question correctly and he was getting pissy. He is not sore, his tack fits and he knows how to canter. He just didn’t want to (well that was my opinion).

I put him on the lunge line and we did some sharp walk trot transtions and that looked fantastic! When asked to canter he was MAD. He didn’t want to canter and was making a lot of excuses. I got after his cute little butt and reinforced when I said canter I really meant canter. Buck, kick, buck, kick for the next 5 min. I would bring him back to the trot and repeat over and over again the canter transition and let him canter a few circles.

You could see him thinking and processing (probably thinking that I am a major b**ch 🙂 ) but sure enough he started to canter like a normal horse. I repeated the transition twice more and got a perfect response and then stopped him and told him he was a very good boy.

Kurt thought I was done but I said that now I had to get on and let him know that this translates to under saddle as well. I mentioned this horse is smart but he truly is that smart. I asked for the canter and he picked it up right away with no back talking and cantered three lovely circles. He got big pats and I got off and hand walked him to cool him down. That was proof enough to me that he did know what I wanted he simply had made up his mind he wasn’t going to do it. I convinced him without making a big deal out of it. I didn’t lose my temper while riding him I just went back to good old basics. I realize a big part of it is still muscling but cantering is not hard. He just wanted to be a butthead 🙂 In the perfect world we would hit the trails and just canter and canter but that would require the white stuff and rain to stop falling for at least a week or more!

I really don’t think I would have won that battle on his back but by utilizing the lunging I was able to teach him the lesson in a smarter way. I let him be hard on himself and come to his own conclusions. Keep being silly and you keep getting worked. Stop being nappy and you get rewarded and life is easier.

I really had been giving him the benefit of the doubt so in some ways I take some of the blame. I knew he didn’t have a lot of muscling so I hadn’t been getting after him for not picking up the canter when asked or for bucking and kicking out. It is our job as the rider to define the boundaries and when you ride a smart horse like Shoes is they pick up on your lack of detail.

I never was much of a fan of the lunge line at all but this year has changed my thinking. I had such a great experience learning how to teach a horse who struggled with balance in the canter how to engage the hind end on the lunge line. It seemed like one lunge session was all he needed and he completely changed. It opened my eyes up to the fact that sometimes you have to take yourself out of the equation and go back to the ground work and show them what is expected.

I cannot wait to get home today and ride him again. I know that he is so smart he is going to be really good today. I think my favorite part of working with green horses is figuring out what makes them tick and finding ways to get the best out of them.

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5 responses to “I have become smarter

  1. I learned that with my OTTB is was not about the ribbons at all and when I started to only beat ourselves, beat our previous score, survive warm-up, not take off on XC, then we started doing really well. Like you said 🙂

  2. I could definitely relate to this post. Sometimes I feel a little ancient to have a horse like MJ (Tavern), but I wouldn’t have been ready for him any sooner. There is not a “dirty” bone in his body, but he is not easy and is the most emotional creature I have ever dealt with. And when you add all that emotion to his incredible scope and athleticism – and in the beginning, a large amount of insecurity….he was, and still can be, a handful. Dealing with him has taught me the value of keeping my emotions in check. I am all about a calm, quiet, confident demeanor with him. Your paragraph that begins “A difficult horse”, really speaks to me and mirrors my situation with MJ. All my little goals and time tables are out the window – I’m on “MJ time” – it’s all about the journey. Thankfully, he is an exciting and fun horse and it’s very rewarding watching him learn and develop.

  3. tracy jefferson

    Jessica, I love your blog…as always..this blog just touched me. I always remember the frustration as a younger rider and when tempers were lost, I always felt guilty afterward. I have been hesitant to reengage in my midlife crises as being a horse person again because I just didnt want all the emotion that came with my competitive nature. Finding a patient trainer and really focusing on thinking outside the box and being a smarter rider not just a more pushy rider has really given me the excitement I needed to make that jump back in. I love how you handle Shoes and cant wait to hear from the rider who takes him home to love him.

  4. Wonderful blog overall, but this entry really hit home, and made me feel like I’m not going crazy!
    I bought my first horse back in November, a lovely 10 year old OTTB. One ride King is full of beans, eager, forward moving. The next time out he’s reluctant to move forward, and when he does he is slow and fussy. I wonder if he’s sore up front (his shoes are off for winter), if his tack is pinching somewhere, etc. etc. I usually just give up and head back to the barn because I don’t want to push him if he’s uncomfortable.
    It never occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, he was being a bugger and playing on my inexperience! Next time he plays to slow-poke-fussy-horse card I’ll have to really assess what is going on and figure out how to deal with it.
    I have so much to learn both about my boy King and about horse personalities and quirks in general. I love every second of it, even when he’s being a little bugger!
    Blogs like yours are entertaining and helpful – thank you!

  5. Loved this, Jess! And I cracked UP about the horse running backward (which was ok, as long as it wasn’t forward) HAHA!

    You rock 🙂

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