Confession: I had a disappointing ride today.
It wasn’t bad, per se. Any day I get to spend at the barn is a good day. Any day I get in the saddle is an amazing day, because I so rarely have time lately. I’m not a fan of setting resolutions for the new year (more on that in another post). However, I do tend to have a quieter work schedule in January and February, which makes it a perfect time for me to focus on conditioning myself and the horses.
I pulled out my Barn Time Planner, and focused on my goals for the month. I like to set three small goals to help me achieve a larger goal = getting the horses fit. Ferrous was up first because he’s my Steady Eddie pony. He can go from the paddock to the arena after weeks off and be absolute perfection. I know how special that is. Yet, I still work with what he is willing to give me and what he feels like that day. Because Ferrous felt fluid and forward, we focused on our walk to canter transitions and hit a real high point when I found the right button to keep him on the outside rail and soften into the inside. Success!
Where there are highs, there also feel like there are lows too. Not all rides can be so fulfilling. Yet we hope each one is, time after time. Alas, horses aren’t machines and each one is different.
Nothing can be more true than looking at the differences between Ferrous and Delight. Both geldings tend to the lazy side, have a lot of opinions, and take care of me. Usually. But, Delight is highly sensitive and is always a bit of a wild card. He has moments of dominance and challenges me from time to time. Our last ride was our huge success going out on the trail together two months ago.
Today, I was excited to get on him and use our new close contact saddle by Schleese. It is absolutely gorgeous and fits him wonderfully. I did send it to get a complete panel replacement in October so that it could be even more perfect. Today was the first ride, and with the money and effort (not to mention, time) I’ve put into this horse I had expectations of beautiful, forward movement and a very happy horse.
The reality was a bit different. We mounted beautifully and stood at the block, relaxed and calm. We walked off nicely and he changed directions without any issues. When I asked for the trot, it all unraveled quickly.
He has a very powerful, suspended trot. I absolutely love it because it’s like we are floating. However, because he is so long in the neck and the body, he tends to toss his head for balance. Wow, he has not tossed his head so much since I’ve been with him. It took me by surprise honestly. So I thought, “something is wrong.” I stopped and changed directions to see if he was so unwilling to move forward in both directions, and he did go forward but after half the arena he stopped and began to toss his head again, quite vehemently. So I listened and we walked.
Once he seemed happy and calm again, my friend Jill and her horse passed by and I asked him to follow at the trot. Big mistake, huge.
Delight ran up his backside and aggressively tossed his head side to side, and then back so that I had to sit up and avoid getting hit.
Now, some may say that he was being spicy after time off. Sure, it happens. Others may say that he is just being lazy or even testing me. Absolutely, I have been there before. And this horse loves to test me. But he also LOVES me. He always takes care of me and those “reasons” or “excuses” just didn’t feel right.
Even though I didn’t push the trot, he actually became more problematic, pinning his ears and trying to bite a passing horse and then, shockingly, rushing the fence where I pony was just standing. I’ve never seen him act like this under saddle. In the paddock, sure.
Something felt wrong. So when he walked quietly and I asked him to stop (not his decision this time), I got off.
- I was scared.
- I was tense.
- I was afraid to push him further and risk escalation.
None of those things were going to help us. Do I baby my horses? Absolutely. I don’t often push because of my timidity. Yet, I also trust my instincts and my horses. When they tell me something, I want to be the rider who listens. It’s a delicate balance, but so far I have zero regrets and it’s only strengthened my confidence.
I checked my tack* and then decided to lunge Delight and see if he was spicy without a rider.
Whoa nelly, SO SPICY. Now, that isn’t to say he was bad in any way. He moved off my aides perfectly and listened even better. But he did scoot tracking right and break into the canter tracking left when I asked for the trot. He also slipped and then took off a little as well, something he hasn’t done in over a year.
I do feel much more confident pushing him on the ground. We’ve had a lot of practice and I firmly believe that it translates to the saddle- both the confidence and the aides. On the ground, I can use lunging and groundwork to watch him more closely for signs of discomfort or explosion. He telegraphs everything. And I found a possible reason for his behavior.
His saddle pad, a new one I purchased at Equine Affaire, was sliding back and not staying in place. Any horse would find this uncomfortable, but especially my sensitive Thoroughbred. Could this be the reason?
When we were done I checked his saddle marks and the saddle itself seemed perfect so I’m definitely going to try another pad that I’ve always really liked. He was still spicy on the ground when I went to put him in his stall, and had to be blocked so he couldn’t bite at me, something which he hasn’t done in a long time.
So is this horse just being spicy or is he uncomfortable and frustrated?
Everybody is entitled to a bad ride or a bad day. Our horses aren’t machines. Instead of focusing on the things that went wrong or pushing him into a full temper tantrum, I chose to step back, reevaluate and look for a possible cause. Tack is always a good first choice when troubleshooting.
This isn’t a set back. He communicated and I chose to listen rather than push. Some may disagree. But that isn’t the type of rider I want to be. So tomorrow, I will return to the barn and lunge him again, without tack to see if he still feels off or if he is truly just a little spicy.
What would you do in this situation? Would you assume it was bad behavior or pain?
*after note: despite the multiple tack checks we did indeed find a problem when my trainer looked- I had my right stirrup leathers under the panel rather than where they should be. They were likely rubbing on his sensitive rib cage. How I didn’t realize and, in fact, rode without a problem is concerning. I think I need to work on my focus. Even though I have a huge amount going on in my life, safety has to be the first concern.