Justin came to me to get fixed before he was ever successfully started. Supposedly, he turned into a bucking, grunting bronco the moment anyone straddled his back. I took my time with him, leaning on him, laying over him, having my farrier who would be able to keep me safe if Justin tried anything lead me around on him while laying on him and eventually while I sat on him bareback then with a saddle. He had a few meltdowns, which the farrier never allowed to escalate to real meltdowns, and eventually worked through his anxiety of having someone on his back.
The first day I rode him completely alone, I stepped up on him and waited for that deep sigh of relaxation. Instead, he arched his neck and stretched, like a cat, while I sat there in awe of the moment and fear of the next. He stretched his hind legs, spooked and spun, then exhaled. We walked around the round pen in each direction, we stopped and I dismounted. He never turned into a bronco with me, and I bartered with his owner to keep him. He’s the most athletic horse I’ve ridden. His body is a lithe combination of power and suppleness.
Everything comes so easily for his body, he’s picking up lateral movements very quickly, through transitions are his body’s natural way of going, and I can’t wait to compete him. But, his head still needs some work. He will throw in the occasional buck, which I’m okay with – he gets reprimanded and we move on. What frustrates me is when he thinks he should stop steering. Because the horses back at the barn or somewhere nearby in the pasture are too much to deal with.
Some days he’s perfect, and it also helps when we’re in the arena near the barn. But when we’re in the jump field, it’s hit or miss. Like the other day. We’d jumped Friday (very well-behaved), had Saturday off and went back Sunday. He started to warm up great, then all of a sudden wanted to take me through the field rather than turn a circle left around the jumps. Rather than soften he’d prefer to brace, come to a halt and hippity hop in place. He might start to soften, but then decide against it. I’ve tried to be nice, to get him to give, just a little. This just gives him more opportunity for him to dance around. Even though he’s very sensitive I’ve found that if I try to close my leg on the outside or get him to bend more around the inside and manipulate his body it might work or he might find another way to evade.
This Sunday, I thought I’d try longing him – with side reins but in a more “natural horsemanship” way to get him really thinking about me. He tried the same bracing on the longe, but worked quickly through it. When he kept an ear on me and his body softened, I figured it was time to get back on. The moment I was on his back, he went above the bit and tried cantering off and taking me … somewhere. I “tied him around” – both reins to one side on the girth to get him giving and turning on his own accord for a minute or two each way then got back on him… again. (This time I lengthened my stirrups 3 notches. I’ll never understand how people feel more secure in jump seat opposed to having your legs around the horse.) Mane and rein in my right hand, left rein in the other, I brought his head around – gently but directly, yanking and jerking with just make tense tenser – and locked my hand on my butt. After a few successful turns left, I repeated the exercise right.
We went back to the jump field and started over. Successfully steering at the walk, we moved up to the trot. We started turning a circle left then went careening across the field. This is where the commitment comes in: you have to swallow that hesitation and fear for the larger fear of creating a naughty habit in your horse. I locked my left hand on my hip, grabbed mane on the other and didn’t release until he had started going left again. It didn’t matter if the fence stopped us, if we went though some palmettos, swampy footing, what have you, my hand stayed locked in place until our trajectory was no longer careening around, but on the path I chose. As soon as he started to give in and turn, even if it was 50 yards from where we started, I could soften and give him an attaboy. We’d make it so far, and he’d try again, change direction and he’d try again. The agains became further apart until we were circling and figure-eighting and cantering and trotting peacefully, softly, relaxed. We finished by going over a low jump a few times, then going on a short hack around the property.
I’m in no way condoning beating a horse to win. That’s not even slightly what I did. Some horses that works, but Justin is not one of them, and well, I don’t want a horse who behaves only out of fear. I want a horse with spirit and a kind soul. He has the sensitivity and stamina of his Arabian mother and the stubbornness of his Holsteiner father. Time and consistency will get those attributes completely on my side.
However, there is a line between being nice, between doing what we think should be correct and what actually is. I like being as sensitive with my horses as they’ll let me, but when I tried to get a slight give out of Justin, it wasn’t big enough to make a lasting impression. When I asked him to turn after a slight give, he kind of gave me the middle finger. Crossing that line between nice and correct can be a little scary sometimes as you go leaping around on a 16.3hh, 1200lb creature, but sometimes that’s what you have to do so they can remember steering is much easier than airs above the ground aka to let them know you mean what you say. I tried being nice by going back to longing. Some horses that works, others are too smart. I simplified (left rein means left; right means right and didn’t potentially shut him down with too many other aids), rode through his shenanigans and immediately rewarded when he gave me the desired response.
I love riding because each horse is its own puzzle you’re trying to piece together. Especially with young horses, you might get one new piece in place then temporarily lose another. What works with one horse might work on another – or it might not, but time, consistency and commitment will eventually get the job done and you’ll have formed an awesome bond in the process. Being willing to think outside the box helps too.