Sometimes you meet a horse, and it’s immediately obvious that they’re in the wrong job. Or have been, and you just feel for them. Well I do, and I feel sorry for them that they’ve been so misunderstood and unhappy.
I met a new client recently with her new loan horse. He’s owned by a lady who hires horses out for hunting, but is now spending the summer (and longer if I have any say in the matter) in a one to one loan home. I really like this horse, but I feel he is so much more suited to a private home. This isn’t to say I don’t agree with hiring out hunters, it’s just to say that I don’t think it suits this little horse.
Let me tell you a bit about him. He’s a Welsh cross… possibly with a bit of Shire in him as he’s a bit heavier than a pure Welsh Cob and has a common head. But he’s sensitive. And tense. We spent the first lesson getting him used to the idea than life doesn’t go at one hundred miles an hour, and that the leg can be applied without him tensing and accelerating. He’s a quick learner, and keen to please because by the end of that session his trot had slowed, the stride was longer, and his neck had lengthened as he became less tense. Transitions between walk and trot were really useful for getting him less reactive to the leg, and for his new rider to find the right buttons. The aim was for him to move up into a steady trot rather than race for half a dozen strides. Then we wanted the downward transitions to come more from the seat so he didn’t tense his neck and lift his head up.
We worked on the same principles in the canter, and now it’s just down to repetition and practice. He’ll always be a bit of a pocket rocket, but I can’t help but feel that being hired out to strangers must have been very stressful for him as he’s so sensitive to the aids and having riders of different shapes, sizes and abilities will have confused and worried him.
As a hireling, he can jump. But again, it’s a bit panicked and rushed. He seems very worried by poles, and his instinctive response is to rush and overjump them – in case there are crocodiles waiting to leap out at him obviously. This causes it’s own problems because the rider gets unbalanced and left behind over the poles, thus scaring the horse even more.
When we’ve jumped in lessons we’ve just begun by walking and trotting over the poles very quietly and calmly, repeating it with praise after until he stops rushing. Then we’ve built it up to a small cross pole, and repeated the exercise. We’ve kept it very calm, with positivity, and repetition so the horse understands the question, starts to trust his rider, and slows down. Last lesson he started by over jumping, leaping like a deer, and not basculing at all, but gradually as he slowed down a bend started to come over his back. Once he stops rushing after the fence we’ll link it to another one, and so build him up slowly.
Unfortunately I think it’s going to be a long, slow process of this horse learning that his rider is his and his alone, and that she can be trusted not to pull him in the mouth or crash down in the saddle – which now fits him so should help. Once he learns to trust her I think he will relax and be less tense in his response to the aids, which will enable us to work on getting him to stretch over his back on the flat, thus releasing the right muscles and endorphins, which will further reduce his levels of tension. Then hopefully, with a less tense body, he will be able to move and jump more correctly and thus find it more comfortable.
After I’ve taught this pair I always seem to go away wondering what this horse would have been like if he’d only had a private home. He’s quite bold, honest and willing to please, but easily upset (he often has a bit of a worried look in his eye) and I think if he’d had positive experiences with just one rider he would be more confident tackling the unknown, and far less inclined to rush – personally I think a few too many riders have socked him in the mouth, or been left behind over fences so now he runs away from potential physical pain as much as anything. Part of me thinks that hiring him can’t have been hugely enjoyable because although I think you’d have jumped everything with the pack, you would have felt slightly out of control the whole time. But then, I’ve always been a rider who likes to have a bond with the horse I’m riding.
I love working with these quirky sorts of horses; getting to know them, working out what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them. And then seeing them improve. I really hope that the one on one effect starts to help this horse, so he can let go of his worries and go out and have fun with his loaner. It will be interesting to see how he develops over the summer, and I hope he doesn’t go back to be a hireling over the winter because it’s a job he’s just not suited to, and I think he’d be happier staying where he is.
Next lesson I want to see if we can build on his suppleness on the flat, whilst encouraging him to stretch his neck forwards and down an inch or so, to start lengthening the muscles of his topline and releasing over his sacro-iliac. I’d like to link two fences together, but there will be no pressure to do so before he slows and relaxes into the jumping.