As a trainer, every now and again your life gets complicated by a horse who just doesn’t live up to your expectations, whose body screams that he or she should be a really good horse, but they just don’t respond to the things you do to train other horses. For the last three years I’ve been training a horse like that.
And today I’m going to share with you the story of our latest journey with him—talking to him through an animal communicator.
Boogie came into our Phoenix Farm program in the spring of 2011—a 3-year-old Oldenburg who was then still a colt because his owner, our barn manager Roxanne Rainwater, hoped to stand him at stud. He was a handsome horse, a fabulous mover and an obvious athlete, so my mouth watered at the prospect of riding him.
He started nicely under saddle, but he soon proved to be a painfully slow-maturing horse, physically and mentally, and, of course, he was constantly distracted by the hormones coursing through his body, giving him thoughts that I don’t think he understood. We decided to geld him at the start of his 5-year-old year, because it was clear that keeping him to be a stallion made no financial sense and because taking him to any competitions was just too nerve-wracking.
Gelding him was the best decision we ever made. It allowed him to focus on his work, and he became the absolute pet we always thought he really was. But his jumping has still progressed rather like a rollercoaster. One day I’d think, “OK, he’s really getting it.” And the next day I’d think, “That was awful. I clearly don’t know what I’m doing.”
I’ve often said that, if I were a high school football or track coach, Boogie would be the kid that drove me crazy. He’d be the kid who’d be an all-star quarterback or running back, or a superstar sprinter or hurdler—if he’d just put some effort into practice. He’d give you excruciating glimpses of his passing skills, of his power or his speed, in practice, but then you’d look over and him just jogging slowly around the track or standing by the fence with a herd of girls fawning over him. You’d want to grab him by the shoulders, shake him, and scream, “You could be great if you’d just put some effort into it!!”
Finally, this summer we decided that at age 6, and having done nearly a dozen beginner novice and novice events, the time has come to move him up to training level. We decided that, as my father used to say, it was time to see if Boogie was going to “fish or just cut bait.”
Since he’d always run well at Twin Rivers (where we go three or four times a year), I moved him up to training level at their event in late September. He had only a mediocre dressage test, had one stop in show jumping at a difficult distance, and then jumped nicely clear on cross-country. “Yes,” I thought, “now we’re getting somewhere.”
Four weeks later, I ran him at the Fresno County Horse Park, and we won the dressage with a good score of 26 penalties, and then on cross-country he stopped at a rail on top of a mound between two ponds. Disappointing, but it was a very difficult fence that stopped about 20 percent of the training field, and he jumped quite well everywhere else. But then he lowered two rails and had a stop again in show jumping.
A month later we were back at Fresno, and we had a great dressage test, scoring a 22 (that’s 88% for you dressage folks), winning the dressage by 7 points. Show jumping followed a few hours later, and he lowered four rails, three because he just didn’t pick up his feet high enough.
That was extremely disappointing and frustrating, and we looked at each other in confusion, especially because he hadn’t touched a jump in warm-up.
So on to cross-country, where he stopped twice at the same jump as the previous month, which this time was located in the water next to the mound—so I didn’t expect it to concern him. But, after I jumped an easier option fence so we could continue, he jumped the rest of the course even better than the previous month, including a new rail-ditch-rail combination with striding that I feared would be short for him. But he jumped through it like it was a gymnastic combination I’d set at home.
Now we were thoroughly confused and frustrated. How could he go both better and worse? How could he feel, at the water jump, like he’d just given up and then continue as if nothing had happened, feeling uncertain only on the second water jump? (He’d been jumping through water just fine throughout his career, though.)
Driving home for five hours gave us plenty of time to ponder, and I figured it was time to, as they say, think outside of the box. Heather and I had once worked with another very talented but confusing horse, so we decided to try that, to see if “talking” to Boogie could put us in the right direction.
So last Wednesday evening Roxanne, Heather and I talked with a local animal communicator named Lori Pacheco ([email protected]), and we had an interesting conversation with Boogie.
To start with, we laughed when he said he thought we were for a party! But from this chat, we did learn several things that we can take action on.
The first was the big question: Did he like eventing, like going cross-country, and did he want to do this job? We were all afraid his answer would be no, he didn’t like this job. But he “said” that he liked it very much, that he liked being part of our team, and that he knew he needed to get better at it—and that he wanted to get better at it.
That was good news, for sure. But why did he stop at those jumps? Boogie responded that he sometimes has trouble with light, with what we interpreted to mean reflection or glare, especially at water.
Boogie also said that he has trouble perceiving his distance from jumps, and that he feels as if he has to touch them with his feet to tell where they are.
Third, he “said” that confidence was an issue, that sometimes he talks himself out of being able to do things. He said he thought he’d performed well in the dressage ring at those two events, but that he didn’t know he’d won. He liked to hear that, he “said.”
Those last two answers seemed to largely explain his jumping problems. We’ve long felt that he had trouble judging the height of jumps. We recalled that when we first started jumping him, he had trouble negotiating crossrails, because he was trying to jump over the highest part instead of the lowest—because he was looking at the top of the jump and not the bottom. So we set exercises to make him look down, which helped, and we’d kind of forgotten about this problem—but I think it explains his uncertainty about that particular cross-country fence.
I felt, both times, as if he wasn’t looking at it, and now I think the problem was that he wasn’t looking at it properly. He was looking at the top of the jump, not the bottom. So in October it looked really high, because it was on top of a mound, and last week he couldn’t see the bottom because it was underwater, and maybe he couldn’t see the top clearly either, because there was water behind it.
So I’m going back to exercises to encourage him to look down. Back to step rails (rails on Blox or similar devices, which I’ve tested for Horse Journal) and bright ground rails.
I’ve also purchased him a shadow roll, the sheepskin noseband popular with racehorses to encourage them to look down instead of raising their heads while being restrained. I’ve used a small one for more than five years when jumping my intermediate mare Alba. (I tried it on Boogie, and it certainly didn’t seem to negatively affect him.) For Boogie, I ordered the shadow roll in white, but, because of his sunlight issue, I think I may get a black cover to shade his eyes like football and baseball players do with black patches on their faces.
I hope those two things work, because I don’t Boogie can wear glasses! We did, though, try on a pair of plastic joke glasses we have. He seemed to like wearing them in the barn, but I’m thinking perhaps I should try sports goggles. I wonder if I can find them big enough?