When we first moved the horses last year, I was very pleased to find that Steen was bombproof at the new place. He was happy to truck around the unfamiliar spaces and up for anything I threw at him. This was after I’d scarcely even seen him for six weeks due to COVID. He had good energy and was happy to listen. We had some really great riding for quite some time.
But something started to shift as the year progressed. By the end of the summer I realized Steen was experiencing some intermittent pain. On my vet’s recommendation, I started him on meds to help with mild arthritis. But around this time he suddenly became spooky and jumpy. I would swing into the saddle and it would feel like he was ready to explode from the first step. He never did anything huge. But he had a handful of big spooks and he ran off with me one time. He hadn’t felt so unpredictable in years.
I couldn’t figure out if the pain was making him jumpy or if the drugs were making him feel so frisky he had become explosive. I still don’t honestly know. I’m sure it wasn’t helping that I was less stable emotionally last fall than I’ve ever been at any other point in my adult life. Between riding a lot less in general and consistently struggling to feel like we were on solid footing when we did ride, I had moments of frustration with the horse a few months before I’d had felt confident doing just about anything with.
Going back to green
Then Roland arrived. And part of the plan with him is that we’re going to be helping K with his training. The first day I did groundwork with Roland, I remembered how different it is working with a horse you know nothing about. I brought no expectations to my work with him that day. All I knew about Roland was that we didn’t know anything about how to talk to each other. When I asked for things, he waffled between not responding at all, responding with too much energy, and responding with not enough energy.
That’s a green horse for you. Of course, I did not get frustrated or even vaguely annoyed. I did what you do when you’re training. I worked on meeting him at a point where he could understand me and encouraged every try.
A few days later, I tacked Steen up for the second time in 2021. The first time was the day before we drove up to get Roland and I knew I would be riding a young, green, unfamiliar horse the next day. But I hadn’t ridden any horse at all since the year before. I wanted to at least sit in a saddle for a few minutes.
So I got on Steen even though the weather was cold and the footing was iffy. After a few minutes walking around, I got off again. He felt antsy and distracted and just not good. I again found myself uncertain whether the problem was emotional or physical. We then had loads of rain and riding was impossible for a while.
But as I got Steen ready for our next ride, I found myself thinking of how I’d approached Roland and how different that was from how I was even then approaching Steen. To say I know my horse pretty well is an understatement. We’ve been together for 13 years now. I know where and how he likes to be rubbed by which grooming implements and exactly the way to touch his ankles to get him to lift his feet. He swings his head over when I take his halter off so I can put his bridle on and squares himself up before I mount so he’s nice a stable when I step on. As far as riding goes, we can sometimes be like an old married couple. Which is to say we’re great partners a lot of the time but can sometimes get on each others nerves.
Familiar can get lazy
The moments of harmony with Steen are all the more noticeable now that I have Roland for contrast. But I noticed something else as I got Steen ready too. Expectations are a double-edged sword. As I walked Steen over to where we would ride, I realized I expected him to be ready for me to get on. Over the years, I’ve done progressively less groundwork with him because he had so thoroughly demonstrated for so long that he didn’t need it. Last fall I got back to doing more in hopes of getting to the bottom of some of our struggles. But I was doing it with the idea that I was trying to solve a problem. It didn’t do much good.
That day, it occurred to me that I could choose to approach Steen the same way I had approached Roland. I could offer him something, see how he responded, and meet him wherever he proved to be that day.
As it turned out, that day I moved through all the basic groundwork exercises I would with a green horse and Steen just totally checked out. He did everything perfectly. I got on. And we had a light and short but highly positive ride. He didn’t feel edgy or antsy or spooky. He felt sound if a teeny bit stiff.
The next ride, though, we started with groundwork the same way. And he was in a really different state of mind that day. When I asked him to walk off in a circle, he went charging off with way more energy than I’d asked for. His attention was on the outside world, not on me.
Instead of getting annoyed and correcting him like I might have done in the old days (because seriously Steen, how many times have we done this?), I treated him the way I’d treated Roland when he did the same thing. I lowered my energy and practicing sending him softly, working until I had him focused and attentive enough to just take one step without throwing in a bunch of sloppy movement besides.
It took a while. Which surprised to me. And working on the ways he was over or under responding helped me and Steen get on the same page again. By the time I got on, he’d steadied. We had another really nice ride.
Find our new groove
Since then, I’ve ridden Steen four more times. Each time, we’ve had moments where he started to feel stiff and nervous. And instead of shutting him down with a bend or a block (which seems to wind him up lately) I’ve been working on getting him vertically soft and asking him to yield something. Maybe a hip, maybe a shoulder. It depends on what position we’re in when he starts to stiffen.
So far, this is working well. Multiple times each ride, we’ve approached the beginning of the downward spiral we couldn’t seem to avoid ending up on last fall. Every time, we’ve found constructive ways to come back together.
I still worry I will ride him too hard. But our vet has told me repeatedly that Steen will stay healthier longer if I keep him in work, that he’s really pretty darn sound, and no one has ever seen an off step except when he’s carrying a rider. Even then it’s intermittent and only when he’s doing a few specific things.
In reality, it’s more my problem than his. I need to find a way to adjust my expectations of our work together. I need to hold myself accountable and not let my imagination run away with me with worrying I’m causing him pain when he’s not showing any signs of discomfort.
But mostly I need to let go of all my expectations. 2021 is a new era in a lot of ways. I need to figure out ways Steen and I can still fit together going forward.