Thursday, September 17, 2015


Or Smack Down, Ashke Edition:

I lost my temper last night. With my horse.

It started in the out door arena, where he was spooky and wound tight as a spring. I am feeding him all of the calories necessary for long distance riding - 10 to 20 mile training rides at a time - but his work has dropped off significantly since T started back to school. This means that I have a very well  conditioned horse with lots of energy who isn't being ridden very often. This can result in a very energetic animal who flat out decided he didn't want to work.

It really started in the stall, when I was saddling him. He did not want to stand still and he kept pawing. Now, I'm not one to get after him for that, since often it is his way of telling me something (that place is itchy, I'm a little sore, you are taking too damn much time) and information is a good thing, right? He was also very lippy and although he didn't catch skin, I could tell he wasn't happy.

We started in the outdoor, just as the sun was sinking below the mountains. The whole reason for the ride was to work on our dressage (dust off the rust) and get him thinking arena work rather than trail. We are entered in the Working Equitation (recognized) Show on Sunday and we haven't done anything remotely connected to WE in two months (not since our last ride at Circle Star Arena). From the moment I got on him, he felt coiled. Like a spring. On steriods. Think explosive. I really have no idea what was going on with him. If we had been out on trail, we would have opened up his big trot and put him to work, but it seemed like the shape of the arena was focusing the energy back on us.

I started out asking for a walk, which seemed like too much and not enough at the same time. He was bouncing up and down, but not really moving forward. I don't know if it was the sun setting (getting darker) or the other horse in the arena cantering circles around us, but he would not settle. His head came up higher and higher, and then his front feet started following. I tried leg yields at a zig zag (four strides or so between changes of direction), and he offered a side pass at almost a trot, but none of that work made it better. When his front feet began to come off the ground more frequently and his neck was tight as a drum, plus the hump under the saddle was getting worse, I got off. I asked J to bring me the lunging rope and dressage whip. She did and I lunged him for the first time in two years.

He sent himself out at a bucking gallop, doing the Arabian scootlebutt around me at such speed that his hind legs slipped out a couple of times. He galloped for a solid ten minutes, with me just turning in a circle and letting him get the willies out. Once he was willing to stop on a verbal command, I turned him in the other direction and let him run around to the right (clockwise) until he once again stopped on my verbal request. He was dripping sweat and blowing, but still up. His breathing had slowed by the time we got to the indoor arena, where I led him since it was getting dark outside. He was still incredibly spooky and the hump was still under the saddle when I swung up.

To add to my frustration, one of the trainers had left their jumps up in the arena (even though the policy in the barn is that they get put away), which did not help my temper. I was frustrated and feeling anxious about working Ashke in the indoor anyway, and that didn't help.

When I swung up he was spooky and trying to bolt, with a hump under his saddle still. Jamming his head straight up into the air and trying to get away from the bit. I let it go the first time, trying to get him resettled and refocused, but the second time, when he bounced on his front legs and almost launched me, I was done. Now I was scared he was going to throw me and I was pissed about his behavior. This was the point where I could have used a riding buddy to talk me down, tell me to relax and not take it personal. When N and I rode together, we would do that for each other. She would see me start to get angry and talk me through it and I could do the same for her, before it escalated into smacks with the dressage whip, rearing and shying. I don't have that in my life now. It devolved into a fight: him fighting the bit, me fighting him. He got smacked on the neck with my hand, and pony club kicked a couple of times, plus a couple of fairly firm taps with the whip. He hates the indoor and instead of recognizing that there was something (maybe all of the dead baby sparrows buried in the sand of the indoor arena - I picked up three last night) that was setting him off, I reacted emotionally. He ended up dripping sweat and I ended up in tears; he ended up chastised and confused while I was frustrated and despondent.

I almost called to cancel my entry in the show.

J called it a smack fest.

Go ahead. Judge me. The other three people in the arena did.

At the end of the ride, we were both pretty wiped out. We managed to stop the ride on a positive note for both of us, after Ashke managed a canter around the arena in both directions without bracing or trying to get rid of me. I managed to calm down and reward his effort. There was not a dry inch on either of us, and I at least was in tears. I unsaddled and rinsed him off, even though it was pitch dark at the wash rack. He sighed in relief as the water cascaded over his body and seemed to enjoy just standing there. I tucked him into his stall with fresh shavings and a second mash, then dragged my poor body home.

On Redemption:

I spent a lot of time thinking about what had happened and my approach. I think in part, Ashke wasn't interested in working that night, at least not in the arena. He loves being out on trail. He tolerates the arena work. He also is so much better in the outdoor arena that it becomes frustrating to deal with his behavior in the indoor arena. Having foreknowledge that he is going to react badly to being inside does not make it easier to deal with, and in fact, my apprehension at how he is going to behave is causing me to brace against him. We needed to do things differently.

On Weds night, I started out walking. We went clockwise to start and it took 4 times of walking the perimeter of the arena in a circle for him to do it without any tension in his body. When we turned to go in the other direction, I was prepared to walk in that circle for the rest of the night. It took 11 turns around the arena before he was able to do so without any tension. Then we turned back the other direction and began our trot set. We worked at the trot for twenty minutes before he was able to trot the diagonal, turn along the short end of the arena and trot the diagonal back to the other end (an elongated figure eight) without any tension at all. The two times he spooked and tried to bolt, I calmly brought him back down to a walk and we walked the arena perimeter until there was no tension again. Then we went back to the trot. He was giving me great bend and good forward movement in both directions. Calmly. Without angst.

One of the things that really struck me on Weds night was how much effort Ashke was putting into mending our breach. Just like when you argue with a spouse and they go out of their way to try and make things up to you, I feel like both Ashke and I were trying to do so all night. He was snuggly and affectionate with me in the stall. He liked my shirt, licked my ear, groomed my shoulder, stood calmly while I groomed. Call it anthormorphizing if you want, it certainly felt like we were trying to be better with each other. Once we started to work (asking him to give at the poll, reach for contact, bring himself into a frame) he really tried. He listened and gave all that he could, trying so hard to do what I was asking for. It was a huge jump forward for him in terms of reaching for contact, in trying to do the dressage stuff for me. It felt like a huge apology on both of our parts.

After the walk and trot work, I pulled out the gate, the garroucha and the sidepass pole. We worked on Ashke doing the obstacles while still be flexed at the pole, without throwing his head up and bracing. Some of his behavior is rooted in how difficult it still is for him to move his hind end sideways with his right leg. It's so much stronger and no longer twists under him, however, he lifts his head with the effort. We worked the gate backwards eight or so times, until he was doing it off of my leg aids, with very little rein. Then we just refamiliarized ourselves with the garroucha, which he was fine with. Finally we worked on doing the sidepass pole without ticking the bar. I think I figured out the technique I need to use to get him over that without touching the pole or bracing.

I put the obstacles away and decided to try the canter. Ashke could sense the tension in me caused by that thought, so we trotted a 20m circle until we were both calm. Then I asked for a canter and we cantered one loop, then returned to the trot. One circuit to the right and then changed to do one to the left. We did four sets of those with only one reaction on Ashke's part. We were cantered and I asked for the trot, he threw his head straight up in the air and braced against the bit. I tightened my seat and started verbally cueing a halt, trying to stay soft with my hands. He finally brought his head down and stopped. I conversationally asked him what that was about. He dropped him head and relaxed. I asked him to back up three steps, which he did and then we turned in the other direction. The final three circles in each direction were soft and he tried really hard to maintain contact.

When I got off we were both serene, pleased with ourselves and dry. His mouth was covered with foam and his eye was bright. He snorted softly to me on our way back to his stall.

Of course, there was no one in the arena to watch us redeem ourselves.


  1. Love it! There never is anyone there to verify a great ride! Don't worry about being judged. We all have our less than stellar moments. Our horses love us anyway. And I have seen mine try to make it up to me after a bad ride. I have heard they have the intelligence of a 4 year old. And certainly realize when we are hurt or down. Best wishes, Carol

  2. I am glad you and he had a god ride after, but I will say, I don't think you necessarily did anything wrong the first time. Every horse/human relationship is different, but for me there does come a time when I say "do this" and even if the horse doesn't want to (having a bad day, doesn't like the arena, that part of the trail, etc), he needs to do it, and right now (even if just a little bit, which I think you did totally well). I am not asking for anything dangerous, but I am the leader, and I have asked you nicely (as long as you feel safe, I totally get that riding an unexploded bomb feeling too).

    But it's all such a balancing act, which is why it is wonderful and awful at the same ride, or two different days. Good job on refinding you and Ashke's center.

    1. It's such a hard balancing act between determining whether it's my responsibility or him just being a horse on that day. We have so many good days that when a bad day comes, I feel like it's my fault. I know that I make less than stellar decisions when I get angry, but you reach a point where you are just done. I'm not going to do the "stop work because you are throwing your head in the air" thing any more, but I want to be able to think myself out of that box, which I can't do if I'm angry. And after three and a half years and over a 1000 miles on trail, I expect him to be the same horse every time I ride. We are working through that brace on trail and now I have to work through that brace in the arena.

      I never thought of it that way until just now: he does the same thing on trail and I am working through it. If it comes from the same place, it stems from him not wanting to listen to my requests to work a certain way. At least in the arena I am not at risk from falling off the side of a freaking mountain. I've long suspected this brace is due to him not wanting to use his right hind leg when cantering in a circle, so he is using it as an avoidance. Unfortunately, the leg is not going to get better if we don't work it correctly. I'll just incorporate that knowledge into our rides going forward and make sure to ramp up the work level accordingly.

      And thanks for the supportive words.

  3. It is so hard to leave your emotions at the door. I got mad at my horse yesterday, and while I'm proud I didn't do too much out of that anger, it's still lingering inside me and I know my next few rides will be tough because I'll have a short fuse.

  4. This brought back so many memories. I really think they know when they have pushed you too far because it always seems like the next ride is beyond amazing. It is also a testament to your relationship that you can bounce back so quickly after a negative experience on both your parts.

  5. Working with animals that read body language so much better than we could ever hope to is so difficult at times. Leaving emotions at the door is definitely hard, too. I'm so happy to read that you both had a better session your next time out. Bumps in the road are the least fun part of the journey, but we learn so much from them!