We’ve had an uncharacteristically balmy fall. While the horses did come off the pasture a couple weeks ago, we have yet to have a hard freeze. This is pretty unusual for this late in the season.
I won’t complain about the mild temps. Unfortunately, work always really picks up for me this time of year, too, which inevitably translates to less barn time. On top of that, Steen had a little phase where his energy level seemed low and he seemed a tad off in general. I had some blood work done on him and everything came back normal, so I’m not sure how to explain it. We also had teeth and fall vaccinations and other general ‘horse maintenance’ type stuff taken care of. Everyone is doing well in terms of overall health. After her recent trim, Nevada was so relaxed it was kind of comical:
During the days Steen wasn’t seeming quite himself, we had a couple rides that were not so great. The first one was a day that started off good. Brian and I rode for a while, then took Steen and Laredo out for a jaunt through the fields. Laredo had a massive spook and bolt when some deer came crashing out of the corn right near us. Steen didn’t react to the deer or Laredo, but after Brian got Laredo under control and came back, Steen was keen to get home.
This is something I’ve struggled with the entire time I’ve had Steen. Fortunately, it’s a behavior that only crops up every now and then at this point, but sometimes during a ride he’ll get super focused about getting to one particular place. Sometimes that place is ‘home.’ Sometimes it’s towards whatever horse Brian is riding (because he knows he often gets to rest near Brian), or a gate he knows leads to the end of the ride. After Laredo’s spook, he was intent on heading in the direction of the barn.
It used to be he hardly paid attention to me at all when he got like this. He would prance and jig and brace and generally forget everything he knew. That’s not the case anymore. Instead, it’s a subtle thing. I can just feel he’s not with me, mentally. He’ll still do anything I ask, but his heart isn’t in it.
I have, of course, learned over and over again that getting mad at a horse only makes that horse want to hang out with you less, not more. Still, on this particular ride, I got a little irritated. The more irritated I got, the more Steen wanted to get home. And thus the ride devolved into me doing too much for the wrong reasons, and Steen feeling persecuted. I worked on the problem for a while, trotting him to the barn and away again. The difficulty is, Steen doesn’t actually misbehave when he’s like this. He goes where I want at the gait I want. I can just feel that as much of his brain as he can spare at any given moment is focused on his desire to be done with the ride.
Afterwards, I knew I’d mishandled things, and I felt bad. The next ride we had was also sub-par, to an extend that surprised me even knowing that I’d made some mistakes the previous ride. This got me thinking a lot about what we ask of our horses and what is a reasonable expectation to have. In the case of Steen, he’s now to the point that he is totally with me, both mentally and physically, probably about 90% of the time. In reality, during that 90% of our time together, he is working harder than I am. He has to stay focused on me and attempt to fulfill my every whim.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that when we hit those patches, that 10% of the time that Steen gets distracted or loses motivation or confidence or whatever, it’s not my job to discipline him back into the right frame of mind. For one thing, he’s too sensitive a horse for that. For another, it’s just not fair. No living creature can perform at the top of his game all the time.
So when Steen can’t get with me, it’s my job to get with him.
With this in mind, I went out for a solo midweek ride and took Steen out into the fields. We had an ok ride. While he was perfectly well behaved, he just didn’t feel happy. I’m aware that some of these distinctions I’m drawing in this post are murky and potentially impossible to substantiate. Nevertheless, though I can’t point to any distinct reason why, the ride was just so so. We went out and trotted and cantered around the fields. We scared up a bunch of deer and then followed them for a while. Steen was solid. He did what I told him. And he didn’t enjoy it at all. Still, I did everything I could to bridge the gap, keeping my own mental state positive, keeping my hands soft and my expectations realistic and syncing my body up with him as much as I could.
Finally, last weekend we had two rides that made me feel like we were back to normal. We rode in the tree pasture, and that feeling that he was just putting up with me was gone.
Then, today, we arrived at the barn in the morning. Steen saw me step out the side of the barn before I was even approaching the pasture. He perked up from where he’d been dozing by the wind block, stared for a moment, then headed for the gate. When I reached him and was a little slow with the halter, he tried to help by shoving his face into it. He kept sniffing me and touching me with his nose while I groomed him. When I got on his back, he had this feeling I can’t quite describe. He was ready, willing, and happy to go where I pointed. We had a wonderful ride. None of the nagging offness I have sensed over the last moth or so appeared at all.
So, while I suppose you could make the case that all of this was just in my head, I don’t think that’s true. The reality is, the further you get into horsemanship, the more these subtleties matter. To me, this little stretch was another lesson for me in being patient and a reminder to, in the words of certain people who are a lot better at this than I am, “Ride the horse you have today.” I hope whatever little malaise Steen was experiencing is behind us now. And I hope the next time something like this pops up for him, I handle it a little better from the outset.
Oh, and also, I hit my 2014 goal for hours in the saddle this week.
Horseback Hours YTD: 202:55