Wow, it’s been a while! I was out of town, and then sick with some sort of never-ending throat thing, so I apologize for that! The hard part here is I’m not sure what to write about today. I could write about re-learning the lesson of never saying “always, never, or watch this!” when it involves horses. Or I could write about the amazing and wonderful ride I had on Afton last night, as he’s finally really getting this idea of stretching down and out- he’s getting great at the walk, and even trying at the trot, too!
But instead I think I’m going to ramble on and on for a bit about working with these guys in general. Recently, Allie added an entry on Parker’s blog about how people approach TBs (or green horses in general, really), and why there are so many people out there who think TBs are nutty or difficult or “hot.”
I’m at a point now where I would never think such a thing, and my general impression of Thoroughbreds is that they’re the best breed on the planet (er, second best, after Saskatchewan Warmblood, which is what my horse is). I think of them as smart and willing- they’ll give you 120% if you’re fair to them. I also have come to realize they are mirrors… you know that quote, it goes something like “show me your horse and I will tell you what you are” or something like that? That’s a Thoroughbred in a nutshell- what they put out is mostly what you put in, and how you approach them. I’ve come to realize that a tense and nervous horse often denotes a tense and nervous rider, and that a horse going well means a rider riding well.
I bring this up now because in my Real Life ™ I have gotten many comments from friends that I’m too hard on myself and my riding on here. “You need to give yourself more credit!” they say, or “You do NOT ride like a monkey, omigod I would KILL for your seat!” But I have this thought that everything a horse does, he does as a reflection of me. Obviously, a horse who is incorrectly muscled isn’t going to go perfectly at first for the best of riders, but the better I ride, the more support and help I’m giving him, right?
I’m rambling and a little incoherent, which I’m blaming on my lingering cold, so bear with me if it seems like I’m jumping around a lot.
I’m going to go back in time a bit, to when I was a teenager. In a sort of ill-advised horse shopping fiasco, my mom and I ended up taking ownership of a lovely little bay mare. She was absolutely beautiful- a little short, maybe, but the perfect Thoroughbred hunter type, with a slick, silken coat and big beautiful eyes. She was the second attempt, actually, after a tall chestnut gelding who looked like Secretariat but had somehow made me terrified of him (that’s a whole other story, that in hindsight is much clearer) with some rearing. Anyway, Victoria’s Secret (jockey club registered as “Wizard’s Keepsake,” with nine starts at Fingerlakes Racetrack) came to be mine and I was in love.
It was pretty immediately apparent that she was “a typical nutty OTTB”. She seemed to take great pleasure in massive bucking sprees that consistently landed me on my shoulder or head (I believe my mother actually got bored/annoyed at picking me up at the hospital- the first few ER visits she was suitably worried, but it got to be pretty old hat after a while). When jumping, she got into the habit of throwing her head down on landing and bucking. Sometimes, she’d “pretend” to spook at stuff to justify a launch. Eventually, I got pretty good at staying on her (it wasn’t easy- she did this amazing leap up in the air, snapped her back, and then would rotate on the way down. She was quite an athlete).
It would be easy for me to have walked away from that experience with a persistent stereotype in my head, of “hot” and crazy thoroughbreds. But looking back, I”ve come to realize that she was just a mirror of me, and that she wasn’t crazy or stupid at all, but just trying to tell me things. Things like:
- My saddle didn’t fit. I didn’t know any better. I thought the dry patches under the panels meant it fit well.
- I rode defensively. Because of the bucking, I put myself in a place to try and stay on: braced legs, chair seat, tense lower back, and tense arms. These things are uncomfortable for ponies.
- Over jumps? Forget it. I tended to jump ahead (still do) and land early/hard. Part of it was to try and protect myself, I’m sure. But it meant hitting her back and often catching her in the mouth. Should I be surprised?
Through college (love it or hate it, IHSA teaches you some perfect skills for this!) and the time shortly after, I didn’t so much learn training skills as I did riding skills. I never got to a point where I’d win a national championship, and my eye for distances never improved much. But I did learn how to happily ride whatever was under me- I learned how to soften my arms, follow with my hips, and essentially not fight with horses. And as a result, I haven’t really had major problems with the TBs Allie throws me on.
I’m not sure my end point fits well with where I started out… but when Allie was mentioning that stuff in Parker’s blog, it made me think of all this history I have and why I tend to be hypercritical of my own riding.
Even last night, when I rode Afton, all of this came into play. It would be soooo easy to get really frustrated with his lack of stretch- it’s tempting as a rider to try and get stronger with my hands, or start fuming with the “whyyyy must he be a giraffe!!!!” running through my head. But even though he’s stiff and somewhat resistant, the real answer is always in trying to improve my riding. And every time I manage it, something good happens. Last night? Afton really seemed to get the stretching out thing. At the walk? Like a kid with a new trick. He even managed it at the trot- not a whole lot, but enough that I consider it a big step forward. What did I do differently? Well, in addition to working on the ground on his flexibility, I spent the whole ride thinking about ME.
I recently pointed someone else to a photo of this statue- a work cited in my old, battered copy of “Centered Riding,” as a means of showing her what to imagine when she tried to relax her upper body, go with the horse more, and open the chest. I took my own advice yesterday, and spent the entire ride breathing deeply, and trying to emulate this (short of throwing my head back, of course!). I focused on following the motion and letting my legs drape, keeping my weight consistent no matter how he was going.
Lifting up with my upper body, and opening the chest so my arms could relax, I found all of a sudden I had a more engaged horse. I was not so concerned with the reins or with him, but practicing riding as if I was on a very well trained school horse.
The more I focused on that, the better he got. Which makes PERFECT sense- he can only put things together if I do. He can only support himself if I’m supporting myself. He can only be brilliant if I let him 🙂
Without more frequent lessons, I’m never going to be a fantastically amazing rider. But part of the reason I think I’ve been having a pretty good time with this is that I realize how much a horse is a reflection of the person. When the horse seems nervous or goofy, or isn’t responding how I want, my first thought is about what I can do or change, or at the very least trying to identify what I might be doing to make it worse. This is why, though I do it in a light and mocking way, I might seem a bit “down” on my riding sometimes.
People can be great riders and still have problems, of course. People can be mediocre riders and not have them at all. There’s something about confidence, expectation, and taking responsibility that seems to make a huge difference in how the overall experience goes. I think those who expect a horse to be “hot” subconsciously ride in a way that makes it happen (like me with Victoria all those years ago. She bucked, so I expected her to do it again, so I rode in a way that made her do it more). I think because most of the time the confidence and expectation is there, I haven’t had any major problems with these guys (though on occasion I can sense when I am pushing buttons, and try to find a way to defuse it). For the most part, I think they forgive some of the riding stuff if you have the awareness and the other pieces.
But still, it’s amazing what horses tell you about yourself. 🙂
(Right now, they’re telling me I’m still quite crooked, even when I think I’m not! hee!)