Dear Reader: Thank you for visiting. Due to the distress that the above photo of me not wearing a helmet while sitting idly in my arena on my retired gelding has caused many readers, I decided that I should post a short caveat at the beginning of this blog for any future visitors. (Spoiler alert!) The moral of the blog below is that sometimes imperfect horsemanship inadvertently teaches a horse to be a better partner. When choosing the photo, I looked for one of me performing very poor horsemanship as an attempt at humor, and evidently I struck a nerve. I assure you that I am an advocate of wearing a helmet and do so daily, but I also believe in the freedom of choice and helmet or not, everyone is welcome here. Thank you for being so concerned for my safety, and please enjoy what is meant to be a fun, noncontroversial read!
I’ve always said that the coolest cats are raised by kids. They are used to loud noises, being touched all over, keeping their claws to themselves, wearing clothes, being walked on a leash, giving Barbie a ride…they’re just way better than the prissy, self-centered cats that are raised by adults. I would argue that a tiny amount of torture does a kitten some good. I think the same can be said for horses. Is there anything better than a horse that will pack a kid around the farm, a show ring, the trails? One that gets jumped bareback and dressed up on Halloween? One that will stand tied for hours upon hours while being slathered in gold glitter hoof polish and bound in pink ribboned braids? No. Not a thing.
So in early 2014, when I brought Megatron into my barn, I did my best to give him the kid treatment. As a result he’s gotten pretty good about most things, and I get a huge kick out of intentionally performing poor horsemanship and then announcing, “Safety first!” to any mortified passers by. However, because he was so difficult to start (see below), I’ve always treated him with kid-gloves when it comes to riding. Don’t scare him. Don’t upset him. Don’t do anything sudden… (see below again)
When it came to jumping, I was pretty worried that I was going to create a dirty stopper. I started training Megatron to navigate ground poles pretty much immediately after he [finally] allowed me onto his back. Because this horse was started a year late and then had a grueling and painfully slow start, he was well behind the curve for his age. We had some catching up to do. Plus, he was always so focused on his rider that having to pick up his feet to go over poles was a welcome distraction for him. Most importantly, I surmised that if I started trotting him over poles as soon as he could physically carry me over them, he would always just think poles were part of his job. This is what we do - we go over striped poles, and it’s no big deal.
Still, when we started approaching those first ground poles Megatron was slightly less than what I would call "under control." Additionally, I’m an amateur and am in no way a perfect rider, so I knew that as jump training progressed we would find ourselves in some sticky situations. I was just praying that he wouldn’t hold a grudge, and was relying on his gorgeous trot in the event that we had to fall back on a dressage career (still am, by the way).
When I initially raised the poles to small jumps I still had a very green horse that didn’t have much adjustability. He’s a naturally lazy animal who was perfectly satisfied cruising around in first gear. Thus, I found myself crawling to every fence, seeing a distance and always moving up to it because there was no option to take momentum away from our snail’s pace (note: I no longer endorse this particular strategy for a multitude of reasons). It was my only choice, but it wasn’t always the right choice. Thus Megatron learned to miss. He learned to leave a little long if he could or throw in a chip if he must, but he never really got upset about it. Tiny tortures.
Even once his adjustability developed and we started jumping fences higher than a foot, he had to be okay with a miss. As I said, I’m an amateur and he’s a greenie. Imperfection is inevitable, and simply became part of his job.
Most recently, in my effort to get this now fairly well-trained greenie out to some shows, I started taking Megatron on field trips to local farms. I wanted him to see all kinds of unfamiliar jumps, keep his focus in new environments, be around new horses, etc. One day last month I took him to a farm down the street and hopped on, warmed up, and then jumped all the jumps in an effort to simulate a horse show. Megatron was great and I was impressed. We jumped some scary things for a youngster with no experience, including a large vertical with a wide liverpool beneath it. Megatron took it in stride. I came around to it again a few minutes later off of a short turn, saw a wait, requested one, didn’t get it, then asked more firmly at which point he slowed down to a near-stop and jumped with no impulsion or momentum. He relied on sheer power and will. I relied on him. I’m an amateur and he’s green - shit happens.
He probably should have waited when I asked, but barring that, he probably should have given me the middle hoof instead of balling up and jumping 5 feet in an effort to clear the thing. But to him, we simply went over a striped pole, and it was no big deal. We landed and moved on. Tiny tortures.
I’ve said before how important it is to have a horse that can handle a big ugly miss, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how to create one. I was suddenly thankful for all the times that my eye didn’t work or that he didn’t respond the way I’d anticipated, and we got to a fence at an awkward distance and he had to figure it out. It’s made him a better horse.
There are many other ways to turn a horse into a dirty stopper and I’m certainly not out of the woods, but today I’m actually thankful for some of my imperfections. Next stop: gold glitter hoof polish...and possibly dressage.