Monday, May 16, 2011
Gretchen In The Beginning
Sometimes, I have an opinion on an issue or a training topic that I feel could benefit other equestrians and sometimes I just feel like telling stories about horses I have known. Today, I feel storytelling-ish.
Gretchen is a horse that no one in their right mind would, on purpose, own and lovingly take care of. That is probably why she had 6 different owners during her 30 years of life. She spent the last 12 of them with me. Gretchen was a Thoroughbred/Hanoverian mare, bay, 16.2 hands tall, an attractive horse, a good mover but a nasty wretch. Of course, she had moments when she was pleasant, but they were elusive.
The tale I have been told of Gretchen begins at the farm where she was bred; a place where the young horses spent their first year or two at pasture, growing, moving freely and socializing. As they reached the age of 2, they were brought in to the barn to begin their training. If they needed a bit more growing time,they went back out for another year. Gretchen was one that went back out. At 3, it was deemed that she needed yet another year, she wasn't quite ready to begin work. At 4, she still needed of more time. This continued until she was 6. The mare basically ran loose until she was 6. This is what I attribute to most of her belligerence. The rest just comes from her having a screw loose.
Gretchen had some good Dressage training under saddle as a young horse but a problem was discovered with her stifle joint (the equivalent of a human knee) which sporadically would lock up. In the horse, the ability to lock that patella is what allows them to sleep standing up. As useful as the endowment is when sleeping, it is not welcome when the horse needs to to trot. Gretchen underwent a surgery to permanently disable the locking mechanism so that she could continue her career as a riding horse. The surgery was successful which meant that her stifles would no longer catch as she was in motion but they no longer would catch when she felt like having a nap either. For Gretchen's entire life, she would do a perfect London Bridge is falling down when she got drowzy.
At a certain point, Gretchen topped out in her Dressage training. At 2nd Level, a horse is required to begin showing true collection and with her particular conformation (Gretchen's back end was a little farther away from her front end than is necessary or desired) and her stifle issues, she could not comfortably do the work into and beyond that level. Rather than push the horse beyond her capabilities, her owner was compassionate enough to find her a new home. This is when I met Gretchen. She came to the stable where I was working to be used in the lesson program, but to be sold to an appropriate home. I was 16 years old then. Gretchen and I had very little path-crossing at that time. I did ride her for the purpose of making a sale video and it was the first time I rode a Real extended trot. It was an amazing feeling to have so much air-time between strides and though I hadn't asked for the big trot, it was thrilling just the same.
One of the students at the stable bought Gretchen and eventually moved her to her own barn at home. Years went by, I went to college, moved to New York to work at a stable there for several years and then moved back home. While looking for a property where I could start my own stable, I went back to my high-school Summer job. Gretchen had also come back. She was now owned by the daughter of the woman who owned the stable but wasn't really doing anything other than being a nuisance. My own horse was inching toward retirement so I was looking for a horse to ride and remembered enjoying my ride on Gretchen as a teenager.
At this point in the story, you are probably wondering when the horribleness comes in. It had been there all along, I was just either blissfully ignorant or not exposed to the brunt of it. That would change in a hurry. My first few rides on Gretchen, as a more knowledgeable rider, found that she was very out of shape and had numerous resistances and imbalances in her body, but I was eager to ride and she was a potential Dressage horse for me to start with. Plus, that blissfully ignorant thing hadn't really gone away.
When I did find my own farm, the woman who had been a mentor for me for so long, asked if I would like to take Gretchen along with me. Her daughter would sell her for a $1 just to know she'd have a good home. My mentor also threw in a pony to sweeten the deal. She even offered to trailer Gretchen up to her new home for me. Here is when I should have been suspicious of why everyone was so eager to get rid of the mare.
Her penchant for destruction became evident upon her arrival. She had kicked dents in the back of the trailer. Going out to feed the horses the next morning, I found Gretchen, still in her stall, but the sliding door no longer sliding and instead, dangling from it's hanger. She took the door down the next night also and also smashed her feed tub. Now with a rubber feed tub on the floor and a stall guard instead of a door, she was tucked in for the night again. In the morning, water bucket was now slightly mangled and the stall guard lay on the floor with not one snap whole. The next night, rubber water bucket, feed tub on the floor and chain across the door and she greeted us in the morning, again still in her stall, but with the chain no longer connected in the middle. Being creative or determined or stubborn, I refastened the chain the following night and also connected it to the electric fence charger. In the morning, no destruction. It was not a safe or efficient method to contain her, so I made the decision to leave her out in the paddock at night. She was content, I was relieved.
Gretchen's claustrophobia was the tip of the iceberg. She also was anorexic and just plain grouchy. Having her in my back yard and dealing with her daily, made me quite aware of just how much trouble she was. The first time I went to get her for a ride, she alternated between threatening to flatten me and running away. After a lengthy determined and stubborn effort to catch her, I finally resorted to calling my mentor. "How do I catch this horse?!" I asked her in exasperation. At Mentor's stable, Gretchen was in a small paddock attached to her stall which didn't allow her much freedom to express her feelings on being caught. Here, all of my known methods had failed including tempting her with grain (doesn't want to eat, remember?) so I needed help. Mentor replied, "Take a whip out with you and show it to her." I was quite positive Mentor was losing her marbles because surely the whip would just cause Gretchen to run away faster. This was the first time I would see just how contrary the mare could be. I returned to the pasture, whip in hand, and when Gretchen threatened to run by me and flatten me on the way, I held up the whip and growled at her "GRETCHEN! Knock it off!". To my absolute surprise, she stopped dead in her tracks and stood calm and still (though with a sour face) while I approached and put her halter on. From then on, I never went out to get her without a whip. There were times when I forgot to get one beforehand, but I improvised with a stick. I could brandish the smallest of twigs and she'd stand and wait for me to get her. In her elderly years, I could go out to get her and just point my finger at her and say "Gretchen, you stand there!" but anyone else still needed the whip.
The whip was necessary for grooming her while she was tied in the barn too. When cross-tied, Gretchen would swing side to side, throw her head, snap her teeth, kick, and fling herself back and forth. Unless you held the whip. Whip in hand, I could groom her in peace while she stood. I never struck her with it (except for when she started in the lesson program and she tried to bite the students, then she got a swat) I just had to hold it where she could see it, which presented a problem when I would need to get something from the tack room. I would have to get the longest longe whip I had and hold it out the door of the tack room while I, with feats of amazing stretchiness, would reach for whatever I needed.
The grooming and tacking up process itself was a constant flip-flop between Gretchen snarling and being serene. She loved her curry comb, hated the brushes. Except on her face, she loved having her face brushed, especially her ears. She hated her saddle, but would almost put her bridle on by herself. She loved her bit and would take it into her mouth before I even asked her to. No matter how gently or slowly I did up her girth, she still fumed about having it fastened. She hated having someone get on her, even from the mounting block, but loved going riding. I never found any physical reasons for Gretchen's complaints. It was all mental.
After I had owned Gretchen for a while, Mentor found a sale video for Gretchen made by her first rider. It was delicately edited so that it shows the owner getting Gretchen's halter and heading out to the paddock, then it cuts away to a shot of Gretchen being groomed, but not tied. It shows the owner bringing the saddle to the horse but then switches to a shot of her riding. All the scary bits were left on the cutting room floor.
To her credit, Gretchen taught me, and many others, some valuable lessons. I'll continue Gretchen's story in the next post. The best and worst is yet to come.