Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Going the Long Way Around

When I was four years old, the riding instructor told my parents, "If you let her ride now, she'll get bored with it and stop. I've seen it a million times. Better to wait a couple years and then give her lessons." But I'd wanted to ride since the first time my Dad set me on a horse's back at eighteen months old, so my parents put me in lessons anyway and led a dozing pony with me aboard in endless loops over uneven sawdust.

Someone asked me once why I wanted to ride in the first place, and I was totally stumped. Like with writing, I started doing it long before I thought about why I wanted to do it, or what I wanted out of it. I just knew what felt right and went for it.

At four and six and ten, going for what's right is as easy as red light or green light. You canter the horse or you don't. You finish ten pages even though your hands are cramping or you don't. You get back up after you fall or you don't.

When I got my first horse, it wasn't a My Friend Flicka decision. He was a powerful, well-bred Thoroughbred, very sweet-natured, and very cheap. Unfortunately there's no such thing as a free lunch, and he was also half-crazy due to some extremely poor previous treatment. I went in with both eyes wide open, fully aware of the fact that nobody else would even go near him. I called him Whirl, which only became ironic in retrospect. But in spite of the fact that sometimes I spent more time on the ground than on his back, I was positive that this would work out best for both of us. I had the patience to work him through his issues, and in return I would eventually get a strong, well-trained horse.

And it pretty much worked out that way! Pretty much.

After about five years of solid training, Whirl had put his fear behind him. He was bright-eyed and eager to please. He didn't bolt in panic at the first hint of confusion or surprise. Carrying a crop didn't make him blink an eye. He let me cross-tie him. We even went swimming, me on his back and him vaguely disgruntled about the whole venture.

But he never, ever lost his fear of jumping.

Even today I don't know exactly what the problem was. Jumping is a risk on the horse's part, yes, but so is swimming, or going down a steep hill, and Whirl never had issues with either of those things.

Oh, he would do it - we were jumping four feet by the time I stopped. But he was on edge and panicky every single time, with never the slightest hint of enjoyment. I'm not a starry-eyed believer in the loving bond between a horse and a rider acting as one yadda yadda, but most animals do appear to get a certain level of satisfaction out of performing a task well. They enjoy it the way that we enjoy going to the gym or playing an instrument. It's an effort, but a worthwhile one.

But no matter what I tried, Whirl never stopped being afraid of jumping.

The day I stopped was the day that I jumped a friend's horse and had the thought: "Wow, this is actually fun!" I realized that after years of work it wasn't improving for Whirl, and it was starting to ruin jumping for me. I never jumped him again.

For the past year I've been training a ginormous, totally green horse that I've nicknamed Giraffe because seriously, ginormous. At first he acted out, used to riders that he could push around by bucking and rearing and generally being a pain in the arse, but once I established myself as the one in command, he settled right down into a surprisingly good nature. (And no, for the record, establishing myself as the one in command doesn't involve lassos or spurs or whatever. It does involve a lot of transitions between gaits to muscle him up, and an awful lot of time patiently pushing him back into place every single time he moves in the stall once I've told him to stay.)

Since I gained his trust, Giraffe's come so much farther so much faster than I could have imagined. He went from running in circles in his stall and bucking when asked for just a walk, to me being able to walk away for minutes at a time with his stall door open without him moving a muscle. A few weeks ago he walked up onto a raised platform just because I told him it's okay.

And then tonight he went and blew past all my expectations again.

He's definitely old enough and strong enough to jump by now, but nobody had tried it yet. We were doing exercises in the ring and I thought... hey. Why not just try?

(I have that thought a lot, truthfully. Sometimes it works out better than others.)

So I dragged out a line of light plastic boxes - much bulkier than the normal poles, but I figured if were gonna do this, we might as well do it by getting Giraffe used to the idea of going over something substantial. Just a foot in height; short enough to walk over with ease, but as with many things, it's all mental.

I let Giraffe have a sniff at the jump, and then hopped on board after tightening the girth and raising the stirrups. I could feel some of that old tension rising up. Whirl would hate this.

Why not just try?

I walked Giraffe up to the jump without rushing; I let him pause in front of it but then urged him onward. Yes, this is what I want.

And I kinda wish there had been someone there with a camera, because damned if he didn't raise up one leg and lift a single hoof out and over the barrier, hovering it there in a silent question. Really?

I bit back laughter and urged him onward. Yes, really.

Bless his soul, Giraffe set that hoof down and stepped awkwardly over the jump. I praised him the whole time. (Some horses are praise-sensitive; some aren't. This one definitely is.)

We did the same thing a second time with more confidence, and then another time in each direction. Then we trotted at it; no big deal. Then we cantered at it - more of a challenge to time correctly, but I've been doing this for a long while, so Giraffe never even realized I was setting him up to go over the jump right.

All of this without a single refusal or attempt to shy away. It was beyond anything I could've hoped for. After we'd cantered the jump in both directions I stood there and stared at it thoughtfully. If he could do this...

Why not just try?

I got off and went to the jump and reorganized it so that now it stood 18" high. Still a joke; something a horse can easily walk over. But it's all about perspective, and this was a test of Giraffe's. The average person can, with extremely rudimentary instruction, dive off a 10m platform with extremely low risk of injury. It doesn't mean those 10 meters don't look awfully high.

I got back on, shoved away the part of me that was waiting for Whirl to bolt, and aimed Giraffe at the jump.

As far as I can tell, he didn't even notice the height had changed. I told him to jump, and he did. After so many years of it being so hard, it was suddenly that simple.

I leaned back to attempt a decent picture, and Giraffe
attempted a thorough investigation of my Coke.
Sometimes things don't come to us the way we think they will, but it doesn't mean they'll never come at all. I never in a million years would've guessed that a green problem child like Giraffe would unquestioningly hand over something I'd been wanting for so long.

I'm going to try to remember this, and try not to panic when I don't get what I want or work for. Not every setback is a roadblock. Sometimes you're just going the long way around.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so proud of you (and Giraffe!!) :) Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!