What Have I Learned This Year'

One of my favorite sayings is that you can learn something every day from horses, if you pay attention to what they’re trying to tell you. The trick, of course, is that they can’t communicate with us verbally, so we have to figure out what they’re saying in other ways. that’s why I thought I’d end the year by pondering what the horses we own and the horses we train tried to teach me this year. I’m going to start with the three horses I work with the most?Sisko and Alba (the two horses I’ve been competing at eventing?s preliminary level for the last year) and Amani (our homebred 3-year-old filly whom we started under saddle in April, whom I started jumping in November, and whom I’m now aiming for her first schooling competition in January). they’re very different horses in type (Sisko is a 17.2-hand Thoroughbred gelding, Alba is a 15.1-hand Quarter Horse mare, and Amani is a 15.3-hand 7/8-Thoroughbred filly) and in personality, so they present me with rather different experiences as I train them. Sisko is a very smart, very clever (like a fox) guy, and He’s so powerful and so sensitive that he feels like you’re sitting on a cruise missile, ready to launch. But even when He’s doing what I call his ?histrionics? (his trademark spin and rear), I don’t have trouble riding him through it because I know he doesn’t want to hurt himself. These histrionics are his way of objecting to something I’m asking him to do, because he sees no need for training since everything seems so easy to him. Sisko continually tries to teach me to be willing to do things differently, to not just try to ride him the same way as other horses. He also continually reminds me not to try to ride from strength (a very common ?guy problem?), and he reminds me to make him be responsible for the jumps, not to try to do everything for him. He reminds me to make jumping his job, not mine. Alba is an over-achiever?sHe’s constantly trying to anticipate what we’re going to do next. So she continually reminds me to ride softly and quietly, to not ?shout? at her with my aids. But the big thing she taught me this year was to be prepared for horses to change, to evolve, and to not just ride them like the horse they used to be. If I were a schoolteacher, Sisko would be that 16- or 17-year-old star athlete (he might be the football team?s quarterback and the center on the basketball team) who always goofs off in the back of the room but frustrates you because he always knows the answer when you call on him. Alba would be the short girl who always sits in the front row and throws her hand up to answer the question before I’ve even asked it. They can each be frustrating, but at the end of the day I have to smile and pat them?and trust them to do things their own ways. Amani is the understudy to my two current star pupils. She appears to have every bit of their athleticism (maybe even more’), but so far she seems to have a much more trainable personality than Sisko and to be more able to listen than Alba. We call Amani ?the princess,? and if she were in my class, she?d be the beautiful girl who’s always surrounded by a gaggle of adoring friends. But sHe’s not just beautiful.? SHe’s reminded me of the importance of the horse wanting to do whatever the job is, of the importance of being eager to face challenges head on. SHe’s a reminder, too, of the fun of breeding and raising your own horse. it’s just too bad it’s also the emotionally hardest and least cost-efficient way to get horses to ride. Sam is a 15-year-old Thoroughbred who was Heather?s competitive partner and is now our grand schoolmaster. I decided to do a jump school on him in October (since I hadn?t ridden for six weeks because of my injuries and because of working at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games), and he stopped at an oxer off a corner and dumped me over his head. He reminded me not to jump for the horse, to meet the fence with your legs and your hips, not your shoulders. I can think of three other students who learned from him in the same way this year. Myster, a Paint Quarter Horse gelding, is Heather?s current competitive partner. They finished third and second in two beginner novice starts this year, and He’s reminded us that little horses with short legs can often do more than you might think initially, if you train them right and give them a chance. (Alba reminds us of this every time I compete her too.) Swan is another Paint Quarter Horse, but, unlike Myster, sHe’s a mare built like a racing Quarter Horse. We sold her two years ago to a young teenage girl, and we were delighted when they returned to us this summer. They?d been having problems with another trainer and with the stabling situation, and Swan taught us that you shouldn’t try to make horses what they’re not (Swan is a wonderful horse, but she was never going to be an FEI-level dressage horse), and that trainers shouldn’t just tell students to get another horse if things aren?t going well. If safety is an issue, yes; but if it’s not, why not put in the effort to make the partnership work’ Two horses reminded us this year that, unfortunately, sometimes horses just don’t work out like you hoped they would. And that can be very, very sad. It can also be rather painful, as Sparrow, another 3-year-old homebred filly, taught me by bucking me off twice this year. The first time was in May, when I went to get on her the first time and ended up with several broken bones, and the second time was in October, which resulted in some rather extensive bruising. We ended up giving her away to a promising young rider. As I’ve written before, I blame myself for the first fall. Having started her two older brothers and longed and ponied her for almost a year, I expected her to be as easy to introduce to my being in the saddle as her siblings were. So I went to get on her without the usual pre-mounting preparation, and she objected violently. But then, six months later she threw me for no reason, just after I’d picked up the canter, and we decided she had to go. It was a tough and disappointing decision, because we’d bred her and because we’d thoroughly prepared her for her working life, and yet she declined to step up to the challenge. I hope her attitude changes over time with a new rider, someone much younger than me, who bounces and heals better than I do these days. The owners of another 3-year-old filly we had in training this year, named Hopi, endured an even sadder ending. They sent Hopi to us in the spring for our kindergarten program, a 90-day training program to introduce young horses to working under saddle. She seemed fine (and was beautifully athletic) until we went to actually sit on her. She was extremely anxious, and when we finally got on her, she would sink or squat down and then move sort of like a crab. She was clearly not at all comfortable. Initial diagnostic work was inconclusive, and the owners asked us to give her two months off and try again. The result was no different, and more extensive diagnostic work revealed, first, that she had kissing spines and, second, that she had a kidney stone, an almost-unheard-of malady in horses, that explained her back sensitivity. The kidney stone couldn?t be broken up or removed without extremely invasive, basically experimental surgery, and, even if she survived the surgery (the chances were better than 50% that she wouldn?t), she?d still have the kissing spines. After much discussion and soul-searching, the owners decided that the best thing to do was to end Hopi?s discomfort, just before Christmas. It was a lesson that you simply have to do what’s right for the horse’s well-being. At times like this, the decision shouldn’t be guided by your own sentimentality or your ego. it’s what’s best for the horse that’s most important. May none of you have to make decisions like this in 2011. And may all your rides of 2011 all be educational and rewarding.

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