Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ups and Downs

Unfortunately, the post title is not figurative. The ups refer to various parts of Steen's body and the downs refer to me. The end of the ups and downs found me, literally, at the lowest possible point of horse ownership.

It started with a Sunday afternoon. Working with Steen is always more of a task on a weekend, because there is more likely to be a great deal of activity at the barn. When Meryl and I arrived at the stable there were already a number of people around, someone riding in the indoor arena, someone riding in the outdoor arena, and someone using the round pen. Meryl and I used the outdoor hitching post to get him ready to go, and then adjourned to the outdoor arena, where all the fun began.

A strange dog, a car parked where no car is normally parked, another horse and rider all combined with the fact that the herd had been moved to a pasture that Steen could see from one end of the outdoor arena, added to what I now recognize as Steen's confusion over the commands I've been trying to give him with a rope-halter dove-tailed into a moment that was apparently too much for Steen. After a few turns around the arena, he started resisting my suggestion that we walk away from the spot where he could see the herd. He didn't want to, I kept pressing him. Of course, it hadn't even entered my head that he would do what he did next, so I was in no way prepared. Suddenly, he front end rose up off the ground. I leaned forward to stay on. He came back down. Before I could sit back up, his back end came up. The first buck threw me off balance, the second one threw me off Steen entirely.

Fortunately, I was no more injured than should be expected after taking that kind of fall. Meryl caught Steen before he could trip himself on his reins. I got up, put him on a longe line and made him run in circles for a long time. The other girl who'd been in the arena, of course, saw the whole thing and asked a couple of questions. I explained how uncomfortable Steen was with the bit his previous owner used to ride him. She asked to see it. I showed it to her. She said, "This bit is way too narrow for your horse."

And here everything suddenly clicked in my head. I've been reading and reading, talking to people at the stable where I work, talking to people around the barn where I board, watching what other people do with their horses and I've been so concerned about doing everything "right" that I've more or less undermined my own authority. I knew Steen's bit was too narrow - I could see it when I put it in his mouth. But somehow I couldn't believe that the person who sold me my horse could have been so dreadfully wrong about something.

I could also see that trying to take in too much new information had caused me to think too much and act too little. Steen has been using my hesitation to get away with all his bad little habits, fidgeting when tied, making slow, lazy turns instead of nice quick ones, balking at things that shouldn't scare him, etc. Meryl affirmed my realization by saying, "You're letting him walk all over you." So, we took him inside, I rode him a little bit but was in a fair bit of pain, and then she got on. As I watched her ride, I could finally see him for what he is. He is not like Tommy, the last horse I rode a lot, who was genuinely scared of people and who would retreat into a shell at the slightest reprimand. Steen is a young, clever, strong, intelligent horse who will take whatever liberties you let him.

So, when Meryl got off, I rode him again a little but I saw now the rope halter was not working as an effective mode of communication. We cooled him down and went to untack him. He started his fidgeting routine, and I slapped him (open-palmed, of course) on the chest and said no. He looked at me in astonishment. He started to fidget again, I slapped him again. He held still for a moment, had one more go, got one more slap, dropped his head and stood more calmly than he's stood since I bought him as Meryl and I took off the saddle and brushed him down. We put him back in the pasture and left.

Yesterday, Meryl and I went to a tack shop and bought a nice, wide bit of the kind I've used my whole life and understand through and through. We went back to the stable, set up the headstall, and brought Steen in. He stood relaxed while tied through the whole tacking experiencing. Then I put the bridle on and led him to the arena. I got on and he started walking before I told him to. I pulled back lightly and he tossed his head three times before he seemed to notice the bit wasn't pinching him. The he started working his mouth and looking astonished. After a moment, he dropped his head and relaxed.

What followed was amazing. He is a transformed horse. He will trot, lope, stop, back (though backing with some reluctance), walk and trot over poles and between barrels and turn sharply on a light cue. I even got him to side-pass a little. Meryl and I both gave him a good, solid ride and he barely broke a sweat. The last three weeks of consistent light riding has gotten him into really good shape physically, and now the bit and my realization that I can't let him push me around anymore have put him where he needs to be mentally. Meryl loves him, and so do I, though I'll be happy when I stop waking up stiff as a board and walking around with a crick in my spine.


  1. Ultimately then, I'm glad to hear that your relationship is more grounded. Adventures of the sisters...

  2. But somehow I couldn't believe that the person who sold me my horse could have been so dreadfully wrong about something.

    Heh. Yeah, the number of times I've seen people, who grew up around horses no less, do things that are obviously wrong is astonishing. Badly sized bits, improperly fitted bridles, saddles, halters, even various leg ailments that were supposedly "nothing". There's no agency that monitors pet ownership, or really any sort of qualification process before acquiring an animal, so people just assume they're right.

    Anyway, learning to trust your own knowledge is a good lesson. Both with horses and with life. But one should never be afraid to ask for a second opinion if unsure.


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