Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Listening to Your Horse

About a week ago, Val posted on her blog about an awful experience she had at a show - her horse had a meltdown in the rain and although Val rode with tact and patience, the judge made less-than-supportive comments.  It's an honest post and I recommend reading it if you haven't already.  Click here to go to the post on Memoirs of a Horse Girl.

Ever since reading that post, I've been thinking about a similar experience I had with Jackson.  I was lucky enough to have an excellent judge so my experience, while frustrating, was also positive.  The judge gave me a lot to think about and I learned to listen to my horse.

A few years ago, in March of 2010, I took Jackson to a schooling show.  Jackson is a pleaser but he isn't very brave.  In fact, he ended up with ulcers in the short time that I competed him.  He just could not handle the stress of being in a strange place, with strange horses.  I feel very guilty about that, still.  Even if he were sound to ride, I wouldn't show him or take him to competitive trail rides.  We would stick to familiar trails with familiar horses.

When I took Jackson to the show, he was schooling at training level.  He was not naturally straight or balanced and he has average gaits but he was doing well in our lessons.  Jackson is a registered Paint with a fair amount of TB in his pedigree.  He had a lanky athletic build and a forward brain.  He was a blast to ride.  At the show, I expected we would score in the 60s -- maybe even the upper 60s -- in the Intro and Training Level tests in which we were entered. 

Show day dawned after a night of heavy rain.  The show grounds were wet and the warm up arena was a mass of puddles.  Jackson was nervous and high headed in the warm-up and we didn't get anything accomplished other than dodging puddles and other horses.  Jackson stood quietly while we waited our turn to go into the court.

When we entered the court for our test, Jackson proceeded to have a melt down.  He called constantly, he cantered off when we were supposed to trot, and he went sideways instead of straight.

I could feel his heart beating and the fear through the reins.  I sat deep, took deep breaths, and tried to convince him that there was nothing to fear.  We scored a 52.  We got 5s for impulsion, submission and gaits.  But I got a 6 for my position and the effect of my aids.  The judge wrote "Much to worry about for him!! Patient riding.  Make sure that moving forward comes before a round frame."

A good friend, who also rides dressage and has an excellent eye, was at the show to support me.  She saw it a bit differently.  She thought Jackson was being disobedient and that I should have been firmer with him.  We found a deserted sandy area away from the crowd and I worked Jackson there before my next test.  He settled down in the quiet surroundings with Flash nearby for support.  I took a deep breath and rode over to the arena for my next test.

Jackson reacted exactly the same but this time I was firmer with him.  When he called, I gave him a swift kick.  I'm cringing as I write that.  We got a few strides of decent trot but overall.... a 55.

 We scored higher on gaits and impulsion (6s) but lower on the effectiveness of my aids - 5.  The judge wrote "Some better work but also some big issues. (major disobedience on first 20m circle) Canter is a bit out of control."

Two years later, when I think of that test I still cringe.  I learned that riding with tact, patience and understanding is more important to me than anything.  I want harmony.  I don't care about showing for the sake of showing, I want a happy partner.  I'm not saying obedience isn't important because it is and an obedient horse is a happy horse.  But looking back, I don't think Jackson was being disobedient to be a brat.  He was scared.  When he called out in fear, I kicked him -- no doubt confirming his fear.

I learned a lot from that show and from that judge.  I learned to ride with compassion and I learned to trust my gut.  Winston is a completely different personality -- very brave, very confident -- so when we start showing I think he'll be fine.  He'll probably stick his tongue out at the judge and eat the flowers.


  1. This is also a very brave and honest post, Annette. One of the hardest and yet most important things for me to learn was to listen to my horse and try to hear when he/she was telling me something was wrong. I made some awful, awful decisions, especially with my daughters' "serious" competition ponies, and looking back I'm horrified that I couldn't see what the ponies/horses were trying to tell us.

    I bet you and I are not the only ones who have made such mistakes. At least we learned from them :-)

  2. Jackson (and you) looked gorgeous. Sorry it was so stressful for nice that you learned from the experience and ride with compassion. All horses deserve that.
    Smart Mama.

  3. Jackson found the best owner in you any horse could ever hope for and that is all that matters...

  4. First, it is so cool to see you and Jackson all decked out. Black and white all around. You two look absolutely beautiful!

    And second, thanks for writing about your difficult experience. You are right. Patience and compassion were more important than a few extra points. Jackson is a sensitive horse emotionally-speaking. I guess showing requires a more stoic personality, which my guy is not either! Harley doesn't spook at umbrellas or thunder, but he does feed off the energy of the show atmosphere which makes it difficult to put in a solid ride.

  5. Thanks for being honest about kicking him...we've all been in similar situations..usually per bad advice. I was told to yank on the reins real hard when Cowboy jigged. Ummmm....didn't work. The only thing that worked was lots of patient riding...riding...riding. I also kicked him in the gut once...after he braced and tried to take a kick at me. All I had was my boot and it served the purpose of moving his hind end away fast...he also never tried to kick me again. You're right though, you have to listen to your horse and discover for yourself what is happening and how to react. And then, we're also human and will make mistakes, as will they, but I've found them to be very forgiving.

  6. Annette - You and Jackson do look great, but more important is your honesty and your concern for him shine through. Watching the horses in the Olympics, and the emphasis that most people place on obedience, it's such a relief to read what you write about allowing for the horse's fear and other emotions. They aren't sports cars or tennis racquets -- they are sensitive, emotional, generous beings. I'm sure that Jackson and Winston appreciate your compassion and trust you.

  7. I couldn't agree with you more about listening to your horse and to your gut. No one knows your horse better than you do. The most important thing to me is harmony and enjoyment for myself and my horse. That is why I ride. Since I've gotten older, I absolutely don't care what spectators say, unless it's someone I trust and admire greatly, but in general because everyone has an opinion, it's just that - their opinion. I love that you love and respect your horse, and put their level of comfort and enjoyment at the top of your list. They have the biggest hearts ever and do so much for us that is outside their comfort zones, that all I ever want to do is earn their trust and hopefully, a little respect as their leader. Besides, nobody's perfect - we all have our "off" days, right?

  8. You and Jackson look great together. It's hard to be honest when we look back on things we did. I know I've made a lot of mistakes because I listened to others who I thought knew more than I did. I regret I didn't have the nerve to speak up for my horse.

    I'm glad I"m at a point in my life and my horse's lives where I can take time to listen to them and to myself about what we both need to do. We do learn from our mistakes.

  9. Hi Annette, good to see you decked out like that!.......You could be riding in England!

    But to my point, Gracie always blew her brains in competition, mostly when involved in arena work and obstacles. Outside the arena, she is really good, never freaks. But since she has matured this competition stuff hasnt gone away. Maybe. its not meant to be for some horses.

  10. what a great post! Irish is not a brave horse either. He has adjusted to showing and is much better but he can get tense at the drop of a hat. Once he's tense the game is over- there's no suppleness or forwardness (although there might be rushing). I have learned to deal with it. I do like to show- not for ribbons but for hanging out with other dressage (nuts) enthusiasts.

    I am looking forward to showing Steele. I think he too will eat the flowers. And probably stop at the judge for a carrot!


Thanks so much for commenting! I love the conversation.