Last Tuesday I had an 8 a.m. lesson with a boarder and her sweet gelding. He’s had a good summer; they even made it to a couple of schooling shows. This gelding had a checkered past with previous owners and when this pair started with me, he was a wild man. The lunge line doubled as a life line back then. But he’s been a solid citizen for the last couple of years–honest and responsive. My client has done a great job and the judges rewarded their good work together.
The air was fall-crisp as the three of us walked to the arena. He nickered a bit on the way but once inside, the gelding spun, faced the barn, and the real caterwauling began. We thought it would pass and didn’t over-react. I remember thinking as wide as his mouth was open, the bit could practically fall down his throat. We gave him some time… but he elevated it to haunted-house-worthy screaming–a twitchy-eyed-and-quivering-lip wailing. Who is this guy?
The gelding could have been an anomaly, but he wasn’t. The next day as I drove up to another barn for a lesson, my client and his sensitive, sweet mare were belly-spinning with fear-glazed eyes and a very humped back. Two other horses in my extended herd of clients are lame from “playing too hard”–both cases left over-night manure piles reduced to confetti. At home, my mare and one of my geldings managed to open the two gates between them. By the time I got out there, my mare swaggered toward me, the clear victor, covered with welts and cheese-grater wounds on all sides, while the gelding looked freshly groomed and just out of church.
It was the first week of nights with temperatures in the forties. Winter coats are blooming on every rump and the pasture is dead-brown. There’s been a change in the wind. The mares are all in raging heat cycles and the flies are all in a death-snit. Yes, it’s a huge deal: season change. The barometer rules. Especially if your senses are about 200 times keener than a human’s.
Back in our home arena, my client has the lunge line on her gelding who’s bouncing straight up and down, bucking like rank stock, landing stiff-legged, and not one inch ahead of his last hoof prints. We share dubious glances and expect an alien to spring out of his chest any moment now.
On days like this, a question hangs in the air. “Should I ride?” Are you being a wimp if you don’t? Or a dominating jerk if you do? Would you cancel a lesson if you had a migraine or a shoulder sprain or another invisible ailment? Would you cancel if he was obviously lame?
What do you do when there is a lesson ticking away and you don’t recognize the horse on the end of the line? What is his problem? Humans ask why; we need to dissect it and find the cause of the demonic possession. I repeat, he is a sweet, kind, and honest horse. Has he swallowed a chain saw? We don’t think he’s hurt or sick… and we can guess all day long. The truth is that it’s probably a perfect storm of a few things. The cause isn’t as important as what we do next.
“You can’t let him win.” We’ve all been told that since our first horse. “You have to climb on and ride him through it. If you let him get away with this it will spoil him forever,” comes some voice from the past. Never mind that he is using everything he has to tell us that he isn’t okay. Never mind that he’s an honest horse who doesn’t evade work normally. Never mind that you planned a lesson.
A reminder: the only way a horse has to communicate with us is by using his body. Your frustration complains that he certainly knows better! We know our gelding does… but today is a unique day and I notice there are days that I can’t find the bottom of a bucket. What if he isn’t being disobedient? Whatever he’s trying to tell us is very real to him–he isn’t faking his anxiety.
Does your ego demand that he behave right now? Is compassion a sign of weakness? What kind of leader are you when he needs you?
After a bit of lunging, our gelding is moving forward halfheartedly, still watching for the apocalypse. Did I mention he’s nineteen this year? In spite of current appearances, their work together is not so fragile. When a horse’s emotions get hot, we have to stay cool.
And there’s a miracle cure. In dressage, we believe that you get a horse’s attention by asking for transitions. So we asked for changes of gait on the line. They weren’t pretty, but he got praised for them anyway. Sure enough, they improved, and he gave us a short blow. Then we began to supple him on the lunge line. Most of us don’t use lunging to its full purpose. In truth, anything we ask for in the saddle is available while lunging. We put his brain to work with a positive conversation and he soon found his way back to his usual self. The other term for this is building trust. He’ll pay us back in the future by showing us grace when we need it.
Your gelding wants you to know that anxiety isn’t soothed by harsh discipline. Your mare wants you to know on your worst PMS day, you aren’t all that compliant either. Take a breath and relax, Human. Ground work is your friend. My advice? If your common sense whispers to stay on the ground, do it with no apology. Ego is never worth an injury, for your horse or yourself.
Besides you’ve got plenty of time. Rome didn’t burn in a day.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.