I’d like to tell you about one of the most challenging exercises I was ever given in a jumping clinic. Before I describe the exercise to you, though, I want to set the scene. I was the hot shot of my barn back then, and I had an extremely scopey and talented mare who would and could jump ANYTHING. I mean, she never stopped. Ever. She never ducked out. Never hesitated. She just went. Every time. I was so proud of this mare. She was a gorgeous mover and a real looker. She’d been very successful at novice and training level in our area, and we were getting ready to move up. I’d been schooling bigger fences, more challenging combinations, and doing the big, “scary” prelim fences out on the XC course. I was SO ready for this clinic, and I knew Bri was too. I couldn’t wait to find out what fun and challenging new heights we’d be able to attain after the clinic that weekend.
There was one other rider in my group, which was the highest level offered that day, and both of us were a little baffled when we rode into the ring and the fences hadn’t been adjusted since the lower groups before us. The clinician greeted us and explained the task: we were to walk over a single pole on the ground.
The other rider and I looked at him, looked at each other, looked at the pole, and looked back at him. Sure that we had misheard, or that it was some kind of trick, we asked him to repeat what he’d said. He clarified the directions: walk over the pole, on a long rein, like you do it every day.
Feeling like this had to be a precursor to something much more fun and exciting, I volunteered to go first. I figured I’d get his silly prelude out of the way so we could get on to the good stuff. I nudged Bri into a walk, circled around, and to make a long, embarrassing story short, we couldn’t do it. Neither could the other rider.
As we approached the pole one by one, each of horses tensed and began to rush, forcing us to shorten our reins and try and hold them to the walk with brute force. When they got to to the pole, each horse leapt or jigged over the pole and wiggled around, unable to halt straight and calm or even walk calmly away afterward. And it happened again, and again, and again. It was a humiliating debacle, and over half the lesson was “wasted” trying to make Bri and the other horse understand that all they needed to do was just walk over the pole.
In the end though, I didn’t regret a second of it because the jumping I got afterward was some of the best Bri had ever done. What I learned that day changed my riding and my training philosophy forever. That silly ground pole led to Bri winning the area championship for me just a few months later, and it has since become one of my favorite diagnostic tools as a trainer and instructor.
When you ask a horse that already knows how to jump to simply walk over a pole on the ground, how the horse answers the question tells you a surprising amount about their confidence, balance, and understanding of the aids. A horse who truly understands and enjoys his work over fences will stay at the walk with soft contact, maintain a steady tempo and stride length, remain soft over the topline, and walk straight and calmly over the pole without any histrionics -- exactly as he should walk along the track if no pole was there at all.
But … what about the horse who rushes just because they love jumping so much that they simply can’t wait to get to the pole and go over it?
There’s no such thing. It’s a pole on the ground. It’s four inches tall -- about as high as your horse’s coronary band. There’s no need to be that excited, and what we might misread as eager anticipation to jump is exactly the opposite. Horses who get tense and rush over a pole on the ground are demonstrating anxiety, and if that’s how they behave over a ground pole, they’re even more likely to do the same thing over a fence, which isn’t good for anybody because tension adversely affects every aspect of your horse’s jumping performance.
Tension Affects Control. A tense, rushing horse is not responsive to the aids. The steering and brakes are affected when tension is present because the horse becomes either dull to the aids or hyper-sensitive and reactionary. Either way, tension causes a change in the normal communication between horse and rider -- add that to the challenge of negotiating a course and getting over each obstacle, and it’s a recipe for trouble.
Tense Horses Can’t Jump as Well. The topline loses its flexibility when a horse braces in the bridle, inverts, curls, or leans on the bit in order to rush to the fence. As a result, the hind end can’t come under as easily, the spine cannot bascule as effectively, and the horse misses distances, pulls rails, and has a harder time being canny when the take-off doesn’t come out as expected.
Tension Increases the Danger to Both Horse and Rider. In addition to the obvious risks posed by poor distances and poor form over the obstacles, tension causes undue wear and tear on the horse’s body. Backs and leg joints are injured more easily and more frequently when tension is present. Tiny soft tissue strain issues accumulate, and over time, this can can lead to expensive veterinary procedures and can adversely affect the horse’s longevity as a sporthorse.
Tension is often an indicator of an underlying problem, and sometimes a horse that rushes over a pole on the ground is crying out for help. There might be a pain issue that needs to be addressed, or perhaps the rider is tense and conveying that tension to the horse. Maybe the horse lacks confidence and needs to go back to basics and fill in some gaps over smaller obstacles or even on the flat … or it’s possible that there’s been a training error that needs to be corrected to keep both horse and rider safe and happy over fences. Whatever the cause, horses only have so many jumps in them, and I don’t believe in using those up on jumping incorrectly. That’s why I use the question of a pole on the ground with every horse or rider I start over fences.
If they can walk over the pole, we try trotting over it -- maintaining the same rhythm, contact, and calm as I expect on the flat. Then we canter. If the horse can do that, then I build a pile of three poles between a set of standards and run the drill again. If this can be done with calm obedience at all three gaits, THEN we jump, and not before.
How does your horse answer the question of the pole on the ground? Can you walk, trot, and canter over it with the same horse you have for a twenty-meter circle on a flatwork day? Hopefully, the answer is “yes”, but in the event that the challenge takes you by surprise as it did me, rejoice! Now you have a window into your horse’s thinking, and you can start problem-solving, without using up those precious body parts on fence after fence -- and you may be surprised at how many jumping issues evaporate when you and your horse master the art of walking over a pole on the ground.
How are you and your horse communicating?
You’ve talked on a walkie-talkie, right? There’s radio silence until somebody pushes a button. Then, sometimes there’s static or a click that serves as a warning for you to get ready to listen … or sometimes the talking just starts, maybe even with the first or last part cut off, so you have to guess what the person on the other side just said. If you happen to key your mike at the same time the other person does, nobody gets to hear anybody. It’s not an efficient communication system.
In contrast, consider your cell phone. The communication goes in both directions simultaneously. You can talk while the other person listens or listen while the other person talks. You can both talk at the same time. You can pause or even offer a long moment of thoughtful silence … but the other person can tell that you are still on the other end of the line. Definitely more effective as a communication tool than a walkie-talkie, right?
Now think about how you communicate with your horse.
Your conversation with your horse needs to be like a phone conversation -- not on and off with radio silence in between cues like a walkie-talkie. This is because your position and your connection to the horse through your aids is the only way your horse knows what you want.
Let’s look at it from your horse’s point of view. Legs mean go, right? Right. Usually. However, if your lower leg has a tendency to come off the horse, or if your horse is nervous and you take your leg off to “calm him down”, then you’re a walkie-talkie. How so? When your leg comes off, to your horse, that aid has disappeared. He knows it’s going to come back on … but is it going to come back on to fix your position? Is it going to come back on when you mean go? Is it going to come back on when you have to clamp on a bit tighter to add leverage because he’s already about to break the sound barrier? And when? When will it come back on? And how much? And will you want him to listen to it and go, or ignore it and remain steady?
If all of those questions started to make you feel a little anxious, imagine how your horse feels -- especially given that he can feel a fly landing on his side. Your leg is considerably more powerful and weighs a lot more than a fly. No wonder he’s anxious!
Try this instead. When you’re mounted, soften your thigh and give your knee permission to come away from saddle. It might even turn out a bit, away from the knee rolls, but that’s okay for now. Don’t worry about it. You can even shorten your stirrups a bit to help make it easier to feel. Your foot might turn out a bit too, seeking alignment with your knee, and that’s also okay. As long as you keep your leg bones lined up, with your knee directly above your toe, all will be well. This is a transitional phase while you learn to use your “cell phone leg”. Now, let your leg bend. SOFTLY. Feel more of your lower leg come into contact with your horse’s barrel? You’ve just made a phone call. Your leg can stay there at all three gaits, with only its own weight and a soft bend in your knee to keep it in place -- and it doesn’t suddenly disappear and then reappear at random intervals like somebody tapping your shoulder in the dark. When you want to use your leg, simply apply energy to the contact, and when your horse doesn’t need you to actively use your leg, it just stays there, like a quiet, supportive presence on the other end of the phone call. With a soft and reliably consistent rider leg in steady, quiet contact, most horses will relax and become more responsive, and you will be able to use a quieter, more subtle leg aid to get what you want.
Next, think about how you use your reins. Do you dangle them like cobwebs on the edges of your fingertips to keep a “light feel”? Or do you hold on with an iron grip to keep your horse’s head and velocity down where it belongs? Both of these techniques are walkie-talkies.
Again, let’s look at it from your horse’s perspective. We put the bit in the horse’s mouth because it is the most sensitive part of his body -- even more sensitive than his sides, where he can feel a fly land. Every single movement in the span of leather between your hands and the bit is evident to him, and your horse is continuously wondering which of those movements mean something and which don’t.
If you dandle the reins with a featherlight touch, you aren’t helping your horse as much as it might seem. When you hold the reins this way, your contact disappears and reappears, and since your horse can’t read your mind, he has no way to know what will come next. Your hands tune in and out on his sensitive mouth every time you want a turn or a flexion, a “headset” or a half halt … or even if you just need to adjust your grip or change the length of your reins. And then they disappear again. He never knows when your hands will come or go or what they might want, and, it’s all a bit of a guessing game.
Too much solid contact doesn’t help either. If you feel like you have to hold on and brace to keep your horse together, it’s like a walkie-talkie with the mike key stuck. Neither of you can really hear the other, and he can’t answer the question you’re asking. He can tell you want something, but do you mean “whoa” all the time? Or only when you pull extra hard? Should he ignore a little bit of pulling? Brace himself and hold you up? Drop behind the pull so you can let go? The latter might feel right at first, but after you let go, then your contact disappears, and he’s left guessing. Like your leg, your hands need to be a cellphone, too.
To find this feel, imagine a polite, warm, non-competitive handshake. A parent of one of my students compared it to holding a baby. Too hard, the baby cries. Too soft, the baby thinks you’ll drop them … and they cry. Hold them in a soft, secure way, and everyone is happy. Got the image in your head? Good.
Now find a friend to play with you. Find a bridle with no horse in it and have your friend hold the reins down by the bit, and you hold the reins like you’re riding. (It might help if your friend is a really good sport; he or she can put the headstall around their neck to keep it out of the way.) Make sure your hands are your body’s width apart so the line from your elbow to the bit is straight on all planes, and put your elbows ever-so-slightly in front of your hip bones. Put the weight of your arms into your elbows, so your arms hang off your shoulders, but bend your wrists up just enough that your friend can not feel the weight of your forearms on the reins.
Keeping the weight in the back of your arms and not in your hands, find a soft, even contact with the bit. Be sure your contact is elastic, fluid, and steady. When you’re ready, ask your friend to slowly and smoothly start moving the reins forward and back, like you are riding the walk. Maintain the soft, elastic, even feel by moving your elbows with the reins. Avoid stifling the movement by getting stiff and try not to let the reins dip from lost contact. Try it with your eyes closed!
Once you have this mastered, your friend can start testing you by stopping without warning, picking the bit up, lowering it, or moving each rein separately. Your goal is to keep the same feel no matter what. The final step is to ask your friend to halt by lowering your elbows and offering resistance to the motion. Increase your resistance gradually until your friend stops moving. Be sure you end the resistance but maintain the contact when your friend stops. Ask your friend for feedback. Did your “whoa” feel smooth and fair or jolting or harsh? (Hint: You’re aiming for smooth and fair.)
The final step is to get on your horse, feel his lips on the bit at the end of the reins, and try to create the same soft, even, elastic feeling as you did on the ground with your friend. Have a conversation with your horse. If he feels bracey, check your own body. He’s probably responding to what he feels coming from you. Is his head too high, or is he leaning on the bit? Check where your hands are and how are you using them. If you want an elastic feel from your horse, show him how to do it. Lead the way. If he gets soft and light, if he stretches his neck forward and opens his throatlatch, if he relaxes and blows his nose, you’re doing it right! It will take some getting used to, but if you stay soft and listen to your horse’s feedback the same way you listened to your friend, the two of you will benefit from a pleasant, two-way conversation about contact … and no more walkie-talkie reins!
For a horse to go well -- for him to be responsive, confident, and relaxed -- it’s imperative that he knows what to expect, and we do that by making our aids consistent, fair, and available for the conversation 100% of the time. No radio silence, no surprise cues. Horses don’t like surprises. As riders, our goal is to ensure that our aids don’t ever fall into that “surprise” category, and the communication between us and our horses goes both ways. With a steady, relaxed leg and consistent, elastic contact, you will invite your horse to the conversation … and he can show you the rest.
Friends, I'd like to share with you the Ultimate Answer to Riding, the Universe, and Everything, and no, it isn’t 42 -- although it felt like it took that many years for me to figure it out. Until I learned the trick, though, I struggled and struggled and struggled to improve my riding ... especially in dressage.
But of course it was a struggle, you might say. After all, riding is complicated, isn’t it? There’s so much to learn, so much to understand … and then you get on a different horse or ride with a different clinician, and it starts all over again! Learning to be a better rider is going to be tough, no matter what you do, right?
Wrong. What if I told you that the key to making it all understandable is so simple that a child can do it? In fact, children usually excel at it without any instruction whatsoever.
Do you want to know the Ultimate Answer to understanding all your deepest riding questions? Are you ready? It’s profound. The Ultimate Answer to riding, the Universe, and Everything is … asking questions.
Seriously, it’s that simple.
The trouble is that as we get older, life teaches us otherwise. We learn to follow directions without talking back; we learn not to ask ‘stupid’ questions; we learn that knowing what we’re doing means knowing all the answers, and that asking questions is a sign of weakness, ignorance or disrespect.
Take me, for example. As a young rider, I was a natural. I was always able to get horses to do what I wanted -- mostly by feel and guess work. If my instructor said something was good, I made it keep happening with very little technical grasp of how I was doing it or why it worked. I was also the sort of kid I call a “pleaser”. I had been taught by my parents to do as I was told, and that unquestioning obedience transferred to my riding lessons. I wanted my instructors to like me, to be happy with my performance, and to be impressed with what I knew. And I sure didn’t want to look stupid. A great deal of my self-confidence was wrapped up in being a good rider, and I wasn’t willing to let that image slip. If I was unclear about something the instructor said, I’d either go with what I was doing until it got corrected, or just figure it out later. No way was I going to interrupt my instructor or my lesson to ask some silly question. I just worked around what I didn’t understand, and as a result, my riding education was riddled with holes.
As an adult professional returning to a regular lesson schedule in search of a stronger understanding of dressage on a very, very difficult horse, my inability to ask questions didn’t get much better. In fact, before it got better, it got a great deal worse. The more technical my instructor’s demands became, the more the gaps in my understanding prevented success. The more my success was impeded, the more frustrated I became -- and frustrated riders are extremely hard to teach. I’d shut down and not even hear what the instructor was saying, or I’d only partially do what she said, or do it by rote without feeling or understanding why it was important.
My poor horse would get tense, then angry, then dangerous, and it would take a near-death experience, with me considerably outside my hot-shot, sticky-seated comfort zone, to get me desperate enough to listen to what I was being told to do. I cried in lessons, got so angry that I’d have to dismount and stand quivering at the end of the arena until I got a hold of myself, or hide in the tackroom to cry in secret afterward. I snapped at my instructor, was short-tempered with my horse, and generally felt hopeless about ever “getting it”. It was hard to keep coming back, but I wanted the knowledge so, SO badly.
I don’t know how long I tortured myself before the answer (or, the question, as it were) finally came to me -- and when it did, it felt like defeat at first. It felt like I was utterly giving up when I came to a full halt in the middle of an exercise, turned to my insanely patient and understanding teacher, and dropped the reins. Then I cried as I admitted that I didn’t understand something that she’d said ten minutes ago, and that was why I wasn’t able to do it now. I still remember her expression of surprise -- not so much that I hadn’t known it, but that I hadn’t asked.
She’d had no idea that I’d been confused by that one tiny piece of theory. How could she? And she’d been grasping at straws trying to sort out why her explanations hadn’t been working. You see, there’s no way an instructor can know what’s going on in your head. If you don’t ask about something, or worse -- act like you understand when you don’t -- they have to guess where you need help. And while you’re struggling to sort it out, your mind is busy with that instead of feeling what your horse is doing, connecting with him, and responding to the signals he’s giving as he tries to learn what you want him to do. It becomes a vicious cycle of frustration for everyone, and the crazy part is that it’s so easy -- and at the same time, so hard -- to stop it.
For me, at first, I was so blocked in my own head that I couldn’t even identify the point of confusion, so at the beginning, I had to resort to taking a time out when I felt the frustration mounting. Instead of just fuming until I could pull myself together though, I would stand there by my instructor, reins on the horse’s neck, mentally rewinding through the last several minutes and sorting emotions until I figured out where the block was. It was hard. Harder than the lesson. Harder than the exercise. But, once I settled on a question and worked through the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance of new learning, things always got better.
From there, I learned to stop as soon as I needed a question answered, and yes, it did get in the way of the riding occasionally, but I had to train my brain how to learn, and I couldn’t do it on a moving horse!
Finally, as I got more comfortable with formulating and asking questions, I was able to ask while I was riding, and that’s when the clouds really started to part and my progress took on a whole new trajectory. I had discovered the Ultimate Answer: asking questions.
And now, you know it too. Asking questions is the most powerful piece of equipment you own, and it's free, never breaks down, and comes in a limitless supply. You can't use it up, so instead of pressing on in a haze of confusion, or walking away still unclear about something you heard or did, STOP. Call a halt and think of a question -- even if it takes a while -- then ask. Ask until you understand because that one little answer might be just the key you needed to unlock the door that's blocking your progress.
It’s been over a year since my last article. A busy year. A sad year. An exciting year. Through it all, Grimm paved the way, even though his recovery from the DDFT issue didn’t go as hoped.
Last fall, we moved to a new barn where I was offered a position as an in-house trainer. The board was high, and the thought of moving again, losing a client base, and starting over was terrifying, but the footing and care were far superior to where we were, and I went because my last hope for Grimm was that the soft, indoor footing at the new facility would allow him to come back to work.
While his unevenness improved minutely, his attitude toward work did not. Despite everything I tried, he was monstrous on the longe, and grew positively homicidal when asked to work correctly. I tried to press on with a consistent program, but he simply wasn’t having it. He didn’t seem that lame, but he sure didn’t want to work any more. As my optimism waned and acceptance took over, my motivation to write here drained away. Months passed, and then, in April, I finally understood what had been bothering him for so long.
At 6:30 am, on the morning of April 16th, 2017, I got that call from the barn that every horse owner dreads.
“It’s Grimsby,” Sam said. “He is sick. You need to come.”
It was a Saturday morning, and I tried frantically to get a vet to answer my calls as I drove to the barn. When I arrived, things didn’t seem so bad, but Sam was adamant that I needed a vet. I believed him and kept calling. I finally got one to come -- from Tacoma, an hour away.
We started walking, and it became obvious as the endless minutes passed, that this was no ordinary colic. Grimm went downhill quickly, suffered a spasm that dropped him to the ground, and he was in severe distress by the time the vet arrived. Her diagnosis: lipoma.
Lipoma is a benign fatty tumor that develops in the mesentery, a membrane that attaches the intestine to the abdominal wall. A lipoma dangles from a stalk that can -- and usually eventually does -- wrap around the small intestine, cuts off the blood supply, and … well, I’m sure you know the rest.
The vet offered the option of referring him for immediate surgery, but it didn’t take long for me to consider all that entailed. I couldn’t do it to him. I wasn’t sure he’d make the trip anyway, and I wanted him to go quickly, in as little pain as possible. By 9:30, Great Grimsby, the horse who changed everything, was off to a better pasture than I ever could have bought for him, bound for his eternal retirement.
The universe took him from me way, way too soon, but not before he made sure I got a few more lessons. The first was to listen to my gut. I KNEW there was something wrong with him, even though the vet said he should be okay to work under saddle. He had been telling me every way he knew that something didn’t feel right; I just wish I’d had a crystal ball so I could have understood sooner exactly what was hurting him.
The second lesson was about moving on. He came to me as the answer to what I thought was the end of the world. He left, and it felt like the end of the world again, but in truth, when he left, he allowed ME to move on -- because while losing him was the hardest thing I’ve ever endured, it also opened doors.
In his absence, I spent the spring and summer starting my young horse, Bel, which I’m not sure I would have made time for if I’d still been trying to work with Grimm. Without his needs to consider, my house-hunting parameters opened up, and I found my way to a perfect piece of property that NEVER would have worked for him. And finally, in taking his leave, he set me free to remember him with joy, gratitude, and love instead of worrying and wishing he could be what he used to be.
My handsome boy may not be nickering at me from a stall in the barn, but he’s with me every moment: when I’m riding, when I’m teaching, when I’m sitting in my beautiful new home where his picture hangs on the living room wall. I will never ride him again, will never kiss his perfect white nose or let him whisper in my ear, but I will always have what he gave me: memories, knowledge, and some really, really great stories. I think I'm ready to start writing again, now that I finally summoned the courage to write this article. My posts will take a new tone because I'll be writing without him as my starting point, but I'm keeping the name, "One White Horse", because without him, there would be nothing to write.
I love you, Great Grimsby. Thank you for everything.
How many times have you wished that you could read your horse’s mind or longed for a magic spell to make your horse talk, even for just a minute? I don’t know about you, but if I had a penny for every time I’ve made that wish, I’d be a millionaire. Being able to know what a horse is thinking or feeling at a given time would be like the magic key to the equestrian universe, but sadly, no such spell exists. There is something that’s close, however: tiny changes in your horse’s behavior, tiny signals that, when you listen, can be the magic key we all wish for.
Horses communicate with their entire bodies all the time. They use posture, facial expressions, and breathing rate as well as vocalization to communicate with each other, and they use the same system to communicate with us. Sometimes, it’s easy to decipher: a nicker in greeting, ears pinned in annoyance, a flying hind leg as a warning, the fear response of a spook, impatient pawing…. You don’t have to be around horses long to pick up on the basics; my students start to learn to read horse behavior from day one. But sometimes, there’s more to it -- far more than seems possible, in fact -- and if we aren’t paying attention, it’s all too easy to miss the tiny signal that tells us what we need to know.
It was subtle changes in Grimm’s behavior last year that told me he was injured -- even when he was showing as sound on the longe line. A couple weeks ago, it was his uncharacteristic resistance to bending that told me his SI and right hock needed more support for this next stage of his rehabilitation. However, just after that, just after he went back into work with an exuberance that told me in no uncertain terms that his back and hock felt SO much better, Grimm started acting … off.
And it hasn’t been subtle.
In the last couple weeks, his temper tantrums have escalated to monumental levels, hearkening back to the early days of his training. Between tantrums, he’s alternated -- sometimes within the same lap around the arena -- through some of the best work he’s ever offered and some of the worst. Earlier this week, it got to the point that I called the vet in despair. Maybe he was telling me that he just isn’t able to do it. Maybe it just hurts too much to trot at all. Maybe it's time to call it quits.
The vet wasn’t ready to give up. And so, armed with a new regimen of large circles and perhaps some cantering to help him loosen and strengthen his back, with a hefty dose of doubt, I had another ride on Wednesday.
He was … okay. He definitely enjoyed the new plan; it felt like old times, and he tried. He really did. But something was still wrong. He was still had bouts of sulky, angry, and unwilling. And his stride was just as uneven as before. I went home in tears but vowed to give it another day before calling the vet for what I figured was going to be the last consultation. The day after that, Grimm handed me the magic key, and once I figured out what he was saying, I wanted to kick myself seven ways to Sunday.
Even through all of our rough times, Grimm has always been a horse that wants to work. He meets me at the stall door, puts his head in the halter, takes the bridle himself, and stands at the mounting block like a saint. At the beginning though, before I got his back issues under control, he was awful to groom and saddle. He’d fidget, flinch, and kick out when I’d brush with anything harder than a mitt and soft, natural brush. I thought he was just ‘thin-skinned’. When it came time to put the saddle on, it was always complicated by a game of ‘evade the tack’. I figured he was just antsy. Once the saddle was up, he’d almost always do a downward-dog type stretch just before I tightened the girth. I chalked it up to how clever he was, stretching out his back before we went to work. And then he’d toss his head, pin his ears, and gnash his teeth when I girthed him up … but aren’t all racehorses ‘girthy’? I dismissed all of it.
Then, one day, well into his training and after his back issues were under control, I realized he wasn’t doing ANY of that anymore. I could groom him with a curry and brush with all the elbow grease I cared to exert, and he loved it. He stood like a rock so nicely that my ten-year-old students could tack him up for me without a single issue. No stretching, no aggression -- just a quiet, happy horse, ready to go to work. Whenever something starts to bother him, though, those signals come back. Downward dog is his usual; it means he worked too hard yesterday and needs his shoulders stretched. He’s even gotten to the point where he hands me his front feet to do the stretch. Twitching under the brush means he’ll need a longer warm up and maybe some liniment afterward. Big fidgeting is how I know it’s time to consider bute or a dose of muscle relaxers, or maybe it’s time for another back injection. But even when these signals show up, his girthiness is gone. He never pins his ears or gnashes his teeth at the girth.
At least until yesterday.
Yesterday was the day of that moment-of-truth ride I was dreading. I approached it with grim determination (no pun intended) but had braced myself for the final heartbreak that was to come. I’d know after that ride if it was time to pull the plug.
He stood like a rock as I groomed him, as he has done for the last few weeks, even when I brushed him more thoroughly than necessary because I was putting off the inevitable. We had snuggle time, then I put up the saddle. Still he stood like a statue, a perfect gentleman, as usual. Then I attached the girth and pulled up the slack, just as I always do … and he pinned his ears and tossed his head.
I checked over the blanket and girth, stretched his front legs (which he really didn’t seem to care about), bridled him (he reached for the bridle and put it on himself), and led him out, with that tiny signal writhing around in my head. Girthiness. Odd. And I'd missed the obvious.
He warmed up at the walk really, really well. In fact, he was offering his back better and faster than usual, and he felt truly fantastic. My hope rekindled. Then I asked him to trot.
Half of my brain went for the worst: the work yesterday was too much and that proves it’s over. But the other half refused to go down that road, and on a whim, I stuck my finger into the gullet of the saddle.
It barely fit.
Somehow, the perfect storm of his changing topline, the regular use of the saddle, my weight, and perhaps the change in the weather has changed the way his saddle fits. The flocking that was adjusted just for him, on his saddle that I had carefully checked just a few weeks ago to be sure it still fit … didn’t. It was too wide and squeezed my finger uncomfortably every step. I nearly cried.
Kicking myself for not having checked it earlier, I got off and took him back to the cross ties. Fortunately, I still have the pad we used to use back at the beginning, when the saddle was too wide for him before. I put it on, checked the fit again, and went back out.
He was reticent at first. Every time I asked for trot, he’d start off reluctant, but then he’d slowly relax and build to a lovely floating trot. After a bit, most of the unevenness in his stride was gone for the first time in weeks. He didn’t throw a single tantrum. We even did a little very, very careful canter. He blew his nose every stride.
So, yesterday was NOT our last ride. But that tiny signal -- that little toss of the head -- could have been so easily overlooked. I could have ignored it, assuming he was just grouchy, and then where would we be? Thank goodness I didn’t.
Too often, we attribute certain behaviors to ‘just the way they are’. But the truth of the matter is that sensitive skin and girthiness are signals, not personality descriptions, and they should not be ignored. Like Grimm, horses who hurt somewhere will often behave poorly when tacking up. It’s usually a saddle fitting issue, but it can also be an indicator of back pain, and when we ignore what they are telling us, we continue to make the problem worse, ride after ride. A saddle fitter and a vet can work wonders, and when we pay attention, it’s as good as knowing what your horse is thinking. Pay attention. Listen. Tiny signals, those little changes in your horse’s behavior, are gold. They’re the closest we’ll ever get to a magic key that lets you understand your horse’s thoughts. Don’t let them slip by unnoticed; your horse is talking to you the only way he knows how.
As I'm carefully bringing Grimm back into full work, one important factor keeps coming to the fore: relaxation. And boy, sometimes that's a hard one!
The tension in his back is ever-present at this point because he doesn't have the stamina yet to trot for very long. Without lateral work and the muscles he'd develop and maintain from full and correct work, he starts every ride stiff ... which, understandably, makes him rather irritable, especially at the beginning of our ride. If anything else contributes to his discomfort -- like distractions around the facility, changes in the weather, or any number of things that might put him on the alert and cause tension -- relaxation goes right out the window, and it's my job to put it back. Quick.
My secret weapon is unbelievably simple: I praise him for breathing.
At first, the idea sounds ridiculous. I know. I didn't believe it the first time I was told to do it, either. It was early in our partnership, at my first clinic with Pierre Cousyn, and Grimm was behaving like an absolute monster. His explosive response to everything I asked of him had garnered a full and avid audience of blood-thirsty spectators, and the extent of Pierre's instruction had been "haunches out" and "forward" ... then silence while I worked to keep Grimm in the arena and me still in the saddle. I was about ready to die of embarrassment.
When Grimm finally dropped to a tense and ugly jig-trot for a moment between rounds of Grimm-nastics, and then gave a quick, sharp snort, Pierre shouted at me to "Praise him!" I was pretty sure Pierre had lost his mind. Why would I praise my horse for that?
There are so many reasons.
Tension in horses -- and in riders -- is caused by stress, the automatic activation of the fight-or-flight reaction in response to a perceived threat. It floods the body with adrenaline and causes muscles to tense up, the heart to beat faster, and breathing to become quick and shallow. In this state, the horse and rider are hair-triggered, ready to leap into action to avoid the coming danger, be it real or imagined. Communication takes a back seat to self-preservation, and the longer it goes on, the more tension mounts, and the more dangerous the situation becomes.
Praising the horse for breathing helps to break the cycle.
First, let's look at the physiology behind it. In order to 'blow his nose' as Pierre called it, the horse must take a deep breath and expel it. This will cause the need for another breath. Snorting causes a break in the tense, short fight-or-flight breathing rhythm and increases the oxygen supply, which in turn promotes relaxation. Additionally, the snort is a natural part of equine behavior that includes stretching the neck lower, expanding the rib cage, and releasing tension, which can manifest as a momentary softening of the eye, improvement in the gait, or a new swing in the back. Even an incremental change in a positive direction is an improvement, and this is a behavior we want to encourage. Praising the snort increases the chances of it happening again and reverses the cycle from building tension to reinforcing relaxation.
The rider must remember to breath, just as the horse does. Often, if the horse is tense, it's a natural response for the rider to become tense, and it works the other way as well. If the rider is tense, it could be why the horse can't relax. Speaking the words of praise out loud requires breathing. Doing it loudly enough that your instructor can hear it requires even more air, and thus, praising the snort physically requires the rider to breath, even if only momentarily. But it doesn't end there. Praising the snort causes it to happen more , and the more the horse snorts, the more the rider must praise and thus breath, and thus relax. Both rider and horse benefit when the rider is breathing, too.
Praising the snort has psychological benefits, as well. Tension can be caused by a lack of confidence or understanding. The more tense the horse becomes, the less likely it is that he will feel 'good' to the rider. As a result, it's harder to find anything to reward, especially for riders who are new to feeling and understanding what is happening in response to their aids. The snort is a black and white, easy-to-mark behavior that any rider can identify. And it's NEVER the wrong answer! Praising the snort gives the horse a needed reward, and it tells both horse and rider that something went right. The more success the horse and rider perceive, the better the ride will be. Communication will improve, the gait will get better, both horse and rider will be less hair-triggered and less likely to over-react or to react aggressively to mistakes ... praising the snort is a win, no matter how you look at it.
The final benefit of praising the snort is that horses learn to use it voluntarily. It begins as a praise-seeking behavior, but soon, the horse realizes he feels better when he snorts. I have a video of Grimm from a few weeks ago, before we'd finished treating his back. He stumbled behind, and I know it hurt. However, instead of throwing a fit, he started snorting. He snorted for several strides with his neck stretched down, his ears pinned -- but his eye was soft. Then his ears came up, the swing came into his back, and he trotted out. A few years ago, that stumble would have set the tone for the whole disastrous ride to follow. Here, he took care of it himself. Another example happened yesterday, when our facility became an unbelievable morass of distractions just after I got on. By all rights, it should have been the ride from You-Know-Where. I used praising the snort to keep myself from unraveling in the midst of it all, but Grimm used it too. Each time I praised, I was able to help him center and focus his attention on relaxing instead of becoming increasingly tense and anxious, and by the end of the ride, he was doing it intentionally. He'd tense up, then immediately diffuse his aggression with a snort; I'd praise, and he'd expand his back and offer an extremely expressive -- but beautifully relaxed -- medium trot instead of blowing his stack. Praising the snort was the key to keeping that particular ride successful!
It's like magic. I kid you not.
The snort is a great signal from your horse that tells you when to take note of good things happening, and it's a great way for you to tell your horse how to give you something you want that's EASY. Next time you ride, try it yourself. Pay attention to when -- or if -- your horse snorts. Praise him when he blows his nose, and notice how his performance changes in that instant after he takes that deep breath. Notice how your attitude changes the more you employ praise, and see if you can feel your riding changing too.
Praising the snort is a tool that every equestrian should have in his or her toolbox. Add it to yours; you'll LOVE the results.
Dr. Haberman came today.
Before she came, I got Grimm out for a little hand-walk, just to make sure his back was limber and to burn off some of my own nerves ... and Grimm was easily as wound up as he was yesterday. I'm pretty sure that he could still smell the bear.
Even with a break in his stall after the walk, we still decided to tranquilize him a bit before trotting him up. We didn't want to take any chances that he might get too excited on the longe and do something ridiculous. It was probably a good call. After a bit of screwing around, including snatching the longe line in his mouth and pretending to take off with it -- mind you, this is WITH the tranquilizers on board -- he finally settled in and did his work so we could assess his progress.
The verdict: 80% improvement.
The other 20%, we may never get back. Or, it could be stiffness or lack of strength in the tendons that he might work through, something coming from his back that we can work on later, or that fetlock that showed up on the MRI that hasn't been treated yet. Still, at 80%, he can go back to work, and the other 20% can be managed. And even with that 20% lingering, he offered the most fluid, willing trot I've seen from him since last July.
Dr. Haberman was happy with what she saw and pronounced him ready to start, as she put it, "excruciatingly slow rehab". We will progress excruciatingly slowly so that I can stay tuned in and watchful to catch any change for the worse that signals a need to stop and adjust, before it turns into a big issue again.
So, the journey begins with baby steps. Here's the plan for the first week:
And hopefully no bears.
This is the sight that greeted me this afternoon when I pulled Grimm out of his stall for the last hand-walking before his soundness check tomorrow. The weather at 4:30 was overcast and too cold for a bath ... and the vet is coming immediately after work tomorrow afternoon. I was going to have to try to get him back to white and presentable again with nothing but a good brushing -- and anybody who has ever had a white horse knows exactly how successful that ends up being.
"Bad horse," I grumbled as I fastened his halter and glared balefully at the wet paddock out the back of his stall. There's been just enough rain to make that beautiful, black Washington dirt stick to him like an all-over mud facial ... but thankfully not enough to turn it into a morass and force him to be locked in. At that moment, however, I would have preferred him to be locked in. At least his shavings were clean.
Rolling in the mud is a perfectly normal equine behavior. I know this. I know that it's good for his skin and coat, REALLY good for his back, and the only harm -- a dirty coat -- is merely an inconvenience to me, but that one perfectly normal act of being a horse got him branded "Bad Horse" before I'd even taken him out of his stall.
It's interesting how we often blame the horse and call them "bad" for doing things that make perfect sense ... to a horse.
Today was a prime example. You'll notice that Grimm's nose in the picture is cut off. That's because he wouldn't stand still for the picture I was trying to take of the Bad Horse brand of make-up that he'd put on for tomorrow's vet visit. The best I could get was him walking in circles while I juggled camera and lead rope.
It was exasperating, but I really couldn't blame him. I've been changing up the routine enough that he's been pretty good most days, but today his behavior seemed to be saying that he was as sick of stall rest as I was, and he just didn't want to stand still. He wanted to DO something. I wasn't going to fight him on that one. I gave up on the picture and just let him get moving, but that didn't seem to appease him, either.
For the next twenty minutes, Bad Horse gave me a real run for my money. He reared and wheeled around with front legs flying more than once. He threatened to kick at the arena rail. He tried to prance and when I told him "no", he struck the ground -- not AT me, but with very clear frustration about my rules. He glowered and did the Grimm version of an angry Bad Horse Spanish walk, striking with every step. He cut the far corner of the arena by the round pen -- almost every time we passed it -- shouldering not QUITE into my space, but tossing his head and stomping his forefoot with agitation when I made him bend and yield back to where he belonged. In the last couple minutes, he repeatedly slammed on the brakes and gazed off into the distance at nothing with his 'look of eagles', playing 'stallion on the hilltop' like I didn't even exist until I tugged like I meant it on the end of the lead.
Nothing he did was overtly threatening, and in between it all, he was his normal mannerly, gentlemanly self. But for the most part, throughout his exercise time today, he was certainly bad. Very bad. In fact, if he'd have dared to try any of that nonsense -- let alone ALL of it -- when he wasn't at the end of almost a half year of lay-up, he'd have been in a whole lot of very Bad Horse trouble. But today, I thought I understood.
I was wrong. I didn't find out the real reason for all of his "bad" behavior until we were done. Here it is:
I didn't take this picture. My friend Tracy took it from her car on her way to the barn just as I was finishing up with Grimm. It's a black bear who'd been hanging out in the neighbor's paddock -- at the house just across the street from the round pen -- until he took off across their driveway and headed up the hill through the pasture right across the street from the arena.
All this happened, mind, while I was blithely walking my "bad" horse around the arena just a couple dozen yards away.
So. What was Grimm's lesson today? Well, actually it was a reiteration of something Chris McKechnie said to me during a clinic years ago. It's a lesson I've always remembered but really internalized at a new level today.
My mare had done something infuriating during a lesson, and I was sulking at her, so Chris set me straight. I don't remember exactly what Bri had done, and it doesn't matter. What Chris said about it is the important thing.
"If the horse was in her paddock," he asked, "or out in the wild and she did that, would it have been considered 'bad'?"
"No," I answered impudently. "Because I wasn't trying to ride her."
Chris replied, "Exactly. It's the human that makes the behavior 'bad'. The horse is just being a horse."
Nothing Grimm did today was bad either. He was simply being a horse. He reacted exactly as a good herd leader should to a very real and present danger. There was a bear practically in our driveway, and if Tracy hadn't been there to take that picture, I never would have seen it. But what if I had lost my temper with Grimm over how he was acting? What if I had taken his behavior at face value and made it my mission to teach that BAD HORSE a lesson? What if I never found out about that bear?
The thing is, horses don't decide to be bad simply for the sake of being bad; they just aren't wired that way. To understand a horse's 'bad' behavior, instead of blaming the horse, you as the human have to look for the metaphorical bear on the other side of the fence, because there really are no bad horses ... there are only horses that are reacting to the bear you didn't see.
Grimm's second lesson is one that I will be learning for the rest of my life -- and it was such a hard lesson at the beginning that he needed back-up. That's where Heather came in. With Heather acting as a sort of Rosetta Stone to bridge the gap between us, I learned that, first, I will never be done learning to listen. Second, Grimm has taught me so much more than just how to be a good partner for him; he's taught me to really, truly strive to understand. Every horse I've worked with since meeting Grimm has given me something new to listen to and try to figure out, something about what they need, what they fear, where it hurts, how they think, what they want me to tell their rider.
It would be impossible to list here every single thing I've learned since Grimm became my partner, but beyond the personal growth and improved grasp of dressage that I've acquired, there are four HUGE, foundational horsemanship points that have been driven home to me again and again over the past six years, until I can honestly say that I well and truly understand them. I wish every single rider could embrace them, too. Here they are:
1. Proper saddle fit is non-negotiable.
2. Correct use of the back is imperative.
3. Horses show pain in ways that aren't always obvious to humans.
4. A pain-free horse is a willing and happy partner.
As I continue with this blog, I will refer to these four points often because they are the basis for my philosophy. Once I really understood and accepted these four truths, the roadblocks between Grimm and me fell away, and our amazing partnership was able to flourish. Getting rid of his back pain was a four-year-long journey, and sometimes I thought we'd never get through it, but in the end, I had a pain-free, happy, athletic, successful dressage horse, and honestly, as hard as it was, I wouldn't trade the experience for the world. The universe sent me the horse I needed, to learn what I most needed to learn. Thanks to Grimm, I know that my job as a horseman is, as Stephen Covey's so-famous quote goes, to "seek first to understand and then to be understood."
Fast forward to present-day.
In June of 2015, I moved to Washington from Arizona. Before I left, I had Grimm checked over by his faithful and knowledgeable vet. Grimm was pronounced (still) pain-free, and ready for the trip. I took every precaution: I fed him up. I started him on ulcer medication, electrolytes, stress and calming supplements. We stopped frequently on the trip and unloaded at night. I took three days instead of pushing for two so he wouldn't be stressed in the trailer. Nevertheless, by the time we got to Washington, Grimm's poor back was a mess.
Thanks to all of our earlier work, I knew how to manage it, and I brought him back slowly, carefully, correctly, but about the time he started to come back around and I had him back under saddle, he got a stone bruise. I laid him up and had the farrier and the vet on it. It took forever for him to get over it, and I started him again, but he didn't feel quite right. I had the farrier investigate, found an abscess, and put him in pads. More lay-up. Started him again. And he didn't feel quite right. The vet had me test him for insulin resistance and Cushing's, just to rule them out. The results were normal. It went on and on.
To make a months-long story short, every time I tried to put him back to work, he seemed just mildly off, and I could always attribute it to something different. He had several tiny abscesses, sometimes he seemed sore in his back, sometimes he just didn't seem to want to go forward, or he just didn't look like himself on the longe. Sometimes he was crabby and bronc-ish under saddle. I convinced myself it was his back ... except he didn't show ANY of the other symptoms, and to everyone who didn't know him, he looked fine. But I knew something wasn't right. He was trying to tell me there was a problem, and I heard him. I just couldn't understand what it was.
Finally, after months of frustration, he started limping in earnest, in his right front, and I couldn't attribute it to anything else. Finally, I had something we could investigate. I called the vet out again.
We blocked him and isolated the pain to his hoof and over the course of weeks, we started working to solve the mystery. His x-rays were essentially clean. There were some things that are normal for a horse his age with his history, but nothing that should indicate the lameness. The ultrasound found some hints of inflammation, though. So we tried Prevacox and more lay-up. Back to light work for a week, and he was off again. Hoof injection and lay-up ... and he actually came up lamer than before. Things were not looking good.
The problem is that Grimm is not a retirement candidate. Because of his back issues, he needs to be in work to be pain-free. Without work, his back will lose flexibility and the degeneration will accelerate; he can not be a stall ornament. In addition, mentally, he MUST have a job. Without one, he is miserable. He beats the ever-loving tar out of his stall, fights with his neighbors, becomes depressed, quits eating .... And he can't be retired to pasture, either. Alone, he frets and frets. He trots the fence line until he is coated in a froth of nervous sweat, and then he keeps going. He will run himself almost to death, throwing shoes like frisbees, and injuring himself right and left. If other horses are in the pasture next to him, he tears down the fence trying to get at them, and with company in the same pasture, he can't really be trusted. I'm not sure what happened since he was out with the other geldings at the rescue, but when I put him in pasture with company now, he goes into full stallion mode. I've watched him go after a mare with blood-lust in his eyes -- he nearly ran her through the fence before I could get in and get them separated -- and he's literally gone after other geldings with the intent to kill. Worse, even if I COULD find a pasture-mate for him (and risk that horse's life to test it out), Grimm's hooves won't handle being outside here in Washington with the mud and the wet. He'd be crippled in a week.
So, with this weight bearing heavily on my heart and soul, in March, I took him to Portland for a standing MRI. Either, I'd know for sure that I had some very, very hard decisions to make, or we'd find something we could treat.
Thankfully, it was the latter.
The report came back with a reason to hope:
"Mild fluid, navicular bone and distal phalanx, right fore
Mild navicular bursitis, right fore
Mild deep digital flexor tendinopathy, right fore
Focal mild to moderate sclerosis, third metacarpal bone proximal phalanx, right fore
Mild to moderate arthrosis, metacarpophalangeal joint, right fore"
Basically, lots of related inflammation, all mild or mild to moderate, probably caused by contusion or a mild degenerative injury. Dr. Haberman, Grimm's vet, assured me that she has brought several horses back to soundness and full work with this same diagnosis. It's not a guarantee, but it's something ... and that's where we are today.
Grimm's diet has been changed to a modified (read as not QUITE so strict) insulin resistant feeding regimen, just in case. The tests aren't 100% reliable, and there is some evidence that cutting out sugars and carbs and upping the amount (or at least making sure to feed the recommended daily allowance) of iodine, copper, zinc, chromium, magnesium (very important), vitamin E, and calcium can help control inflammation, even in horses that do not test positive for IR.
He gets a mixture of timothy and alfalfa, heavy on the timothy, and Renew Gold (a low sugar, low carb feed) to keep his weight on. He gets prebiotics and probiotics to help ensure hindgut health, which is also indicated for horses with IR. As a supplement, he gets LamineX, by MVP., which is formulated to 'support healthy joint function, blood sugar levels and hoof growth in horses recovering from founder and laminitis.'
Dr. Haberman has treated him with three shockwave therapy sessions, an injection of Osphos, and a navicular bursa injection. We will be doing a fetlock injection, too, later this month.
The farrier has him in a reverse shoe to keep support under the heel, but to allow the hoof to break over sooner when he walks. This is to keep the pressure off the tendons that must extend at the end of the stride. He may need to be shod this way for life. I can live with that; it's super fun to ask an unsuspecting student to pick his feet ....
Most days, he gets hand-walked in side-reins or turned out to walk in the arena right behind the barn with me to keep him company. As long as he isn't left out too long, he stays quiet. He also has a stall with toys and a very large paddock -- when it's dry enough that it doesn't turn to mud, which will soften his feet. He gets groomed regularly, but he's impatient about it -- probably because his back hurts. He fidgets and threatens to kick, which isn't like him. He has trouble reaching around to scratch an itch on his flank; his back just won't bend enough anymore. If he pulls through, the rehab on his back will start all over again.
Last week he learned to play fetch with his Jolly Ball, but this week, the novelty has worn off and he refuses to play. I can tell he's getting sick of not working. He nickers and comes eagerly to his stall door whenever he sees me and keeps nickering as I put on his halter. He seems a bit disappointed, though, when all we do is walk around the arena, and he's starting to screw around when he's supposed to be walking quietly. I'm hoping this is a sign that he's feeling better and ready to work. He still has three more weeks off. I'm going to have to come up with some new games to entertain him until then.
At the end of the month, we find out if all of the treatments and the time off worked. At the end of the month, I'll have my answer. For now though ... for now, I just hope.