by Mitzi Summers
Horses, if we appreciate them for what they demonstrate to us every day if we pay attention, are a source of wisdom, amusement, modesty and constant wonder. They never cease to amaze me. They are really quite complex — just when you think you have one all figured out, they ‘change horses in midstream’ and come up with another trait completely out of the character that you have assigned to them. I have certainly learned never to take anything for granted.
Leprechaun was a horse that I worked with many years ago. Ann, her owner, was in the intermediate stage of riding, gaining an independent seat, but still working on dealing with her lovely but mercurial Thoroughbred mare. Leprechaun was somewhat cold-backed. We had had a saddle fitter, vet, and chiropractor check her out, but being off the race track I think that some of the mild and not-so-mild dashes that she subjected us to when we first mounted had to do with the marvelous memory of horses. She had then been owned by a barn that did not take time to quietly lunge her to warm up her back muscles, and who forced her in a “frame”. I think this remained with her.
“Leppy” was known to shy violently at really scary horse predators such as leaves and butterflies. The spooks were usually quite unsettling with no forewarning. In lessons I usually got on Leppy for the first few minutes and rode her quietly in a “light” seat so her back muscles could warm up. Things had been going quite well with Leppy and Ann in spite of the occasional spook or dramatic response when first mounted.
We all thought it was time for Ann and Leppy to attend their first dressage show.
I had taken them to several small shows to build up everyone’s confidence and it had gone well. This show was held at grounds in Cazenovia, NY. The trip there went fine, but when we arrived we had quite a surprise. We had not realized that on the same day as the show they were also hosting a circus on the other side of the road! Leppy seemed to accept the smells and sounds coming from nearby, and we all hoped for the best. However, as Ann came down the center line an elephant was led out of a tent on the other side of the road. It was not much further away than the length of two tractor trailers! Of course we all took for granted that was the end of Ann, and we were planning strategies centered about picking up the pieces.
Lovely Leppy simply halted, took a fairly disinterested glance at the elephant staring back at her, clearly said, “Oh, an elephant!” and calmly went about completing her dressage test. She even finished in the ribbons, but that was a minor concern. The major problem we had at first was stifling our laughter (after all, one must be quiet during a dressage test) at Leppy’s reaction. Of course about two weeks later Ann was briefly carted about for a minute when a leaf flew too close to her horse’s face.
A similar incident occurred with Jennifer and her pinto horse Patches. I had started teaching at a new barn, and I was informed that the pile of shavings in the corner of the ring was Jennifer’s “spot”. Apparently Patches, when he unloaded her, (which apparently was fairly frequently), usually at least provided her with a soft landing. Reschooling Patches using positive reinforcement, and lungeing Jennifer on a good school horse so that she could develop a secure seat and gain confidence in her riding, soon resulted in big improvements.
In a few months Jennifer decided she wanted to attend a local horse show. She was still a teenager and one of the classes she wanted to enter was a Costume Class. She wanted to go as a Native American and ride bareback. They had both been doing so well that it seemed possible. I would make certain that Patches was relaxed, and he had a Pleasure Class to go into beforehand so that he would know the ring. The Pleasure Class went well, Jennifer placed in it, and it was time for the Costume Class. She calmly entered the ring, and then the horse that entered behind her whom we had not seen before was a patient, heart-of-gold horse dressed as a double ride trailer! The material used to duplicate a trailer swayed from side to side. The horse certainly did not resemble an equine… more like a creature from a “B” rated horror flick.
This time we were all a bit more voluble trying to warn Jennifer to leave the ring, but to no avail. She did not hear us. Patches, however, spied the double-wide horse with his 340 degree horse vision, and kindly and calmly moved over a bit to make room for the poor creature. We had to exit the vicinity of the ring because we were laughing so hard. The whole class went really well, with the vehicle-attired horse winning first place.
Patches later demonstrated to me and taught me even more about how much we need to consider the horse, listen to the horse, and give him time to convey to you what he is feeling. Jennifer and I were having a lesson in the outdoor ring. Suddenly Patches froze and would not move. He was obviously frightened and started breathing in tight breaths, with resultant ‘hard’ eyes. Jennifer was mounted, and, as an instructor’s first responsibility in the safety of her student, I immediately went to Patch and tried to reassure him as neither Jennifer or I could see ANYTHING that would cause such a reaction. This is an example of taking the time to regard the animal.
When I touched Patches he was like a rock — his muscles were really tight. I immediately had Jennifer dismount, but we took the reins over his head and stayed in the ring as I wanted to try to find out what had caused such fear in him. He obviously was really afraid but was SO good! He trusted that he would not get hurt as we were both with him and soothing him. Finally I heard a strange noise in the sky, and then a hot air balloon slowly appeared, eventually traveling right over us emitting that rush of noise as air escapes. Patches actually got no worse and calmed a bit, as he had been hearing that noise all along. We stayed in the ring until it was out of sight, I put Jennifer on a lunge line and we calmly walked and trotted for a few minutes and then stopped the lesson. Patches was actually better after that. I think it strengthened the trust that he had in his owner. But think of the negative effect if we had tried to force him forward or chased him in circles or ‘moved his feet’. We would have upped his adrenaline instead of lowering it, which was our duty.
There are so amazing stories about that any of you can relate. I had a short list for this article and only had room for two examples. I really think that more and more people are looking at their horses as a wonderful opportunity to relate to another wise and wonderful creature, and not as a means to gain money and ego trips. If anyone would like to share a story, I would love to read it. My email is Summersdressage@aol.com. Have a wonderful summer with your best friends!