Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Rest Of The Story

As promised, from long ago, here is the rest of Gretchen’s story. The story is not all mushy and sweet, as some stories are. Gretchen was the bane of my existence for the entire time I had her. However, she was directly responsible for one of the major break-throughs I had as a horse trainer. Gretchen taught me that some horses just are not going to change. To ask those horses to change, or to make it a mission to change those horses is futile. From Gretchen I learned that you can not train away a horse’s personality. Sometimes, the trainer is the one that has to adapt.

Once I gave in to Gretchen and let her live outside, stopped taking her places in the horse trailer and got used to having to periodically change her feed because she didn’t like it anymore, she became a lot easier to live with. She was still horrible. But she had her moments. She was very sweet when getting her ears rubbed or her face brushed. She’d bite and kick when you groomed any other part of her body though. She loved to go riding, but she hated being caught, getting groomed, having her saddle put on (she did like her bridle) and having the rider get on, but once the rider was up, she was quite happy and willing. If one could survive the process of getting ready, she was nice to ride.

Gretchen was a perfect longe lesson horse. She was consistent and obedient on the longe line so that I could use her for students when they needed position work. She became a good horse to learn cantering on because she would make a smooth transition. As she got older, her canter got weirder with a sort of corkscrew action going on, but she was good about cantering and staying in the canter and staying on the rail. She loved to do lateral work and was great for teaching leg-yield to beginners. She had a fantastic extended trot and loved to do it so she was good for teaching students what a real extended trot felt like.

Gretchen was actually very good at horse shows, it was just the trailering that was a nightmare. She did some very nice Dressage tests although if you were not paying attention, she’d turn around and leave when you made your centerline halt.

Her next to last trailer ride was on the way to a horse show with her best buddy, Pooh Bear. I thought that this would be the one trailer ride that she might enjoy because she had Pooh along with her. She was fairly good until we got within 15 minutes of the showground. Then, she decided she was going to kill Pooh Bear. When the trailer started lurching around with screaming and banging issuing forth, I pulled over immediately and promptly removed her from it. In her efforts to make mincemeat of Pooh, she had lacerated an artery in her leg and was spraying blood like a fountain from just above her shipping wraps. I called for someone to come and get Pooh so he could get to the show (there were 3 students there waiting for the horses to arrive) and called my husband (at the time) to come and get Gretchen and take her to the vet. There was nothing I could do with her leg as each time I even tried to look at it, she went into a screaming rage and tried to kick my head off. My assistant and I could only stand and watch her, tied to the outside of the trailer, spraying blood on all the shrubbery near-by and occasionally making threats to kill everybody. I had a tranquilizer that the vet recommended I give her, but it only seemed to agitate her more. After Pooh left and husband arrived, we put Gretchen back in the trailer and he quickly drove away with her. His instructions were to not stop for anything and I’m sure it was a harrowing hour long drive. As I watched the trailer pull away,swaying with each mighty kick she gave and listening to her bellowing inside, I was relieved that I wasn’t the one making it.

She got to the vet and was stitched up in numerous places and x-rayed for other damage. Even with quilted shipping wraps and bell boots, she had many lacerations and had even fractured a splint bone. I can’t even imagine what damage she would have done without the wraps on. After she recovered from her anaesthesia, I was then faced with the problem of getting her home again. Thankfully, the vet loaned me the use of his 4 horse stock trailer. Gretchen was crosstied in the middle of it and tranquilized enough to make her drowsy, but not so much that she couldn’t keep her feet and I took her home. That was the most peaceful trailer ride I ever had with the old Sasquatch. It was also the last.

Some may say that there could have been a way to trailer her without so much distress; a different type of trailer, or having her stand diagonally, or rear-facing, maybe. The truth is, it just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth the headache nor the financial distress of trailer repairs and vet bills, to keep experimenting. So Gretchen was grounded. Everybody was happier.

Gretchen was used in horse camp and a lot of lessons. She was a good horse for teaching kids and adults to be careful. If you were careless, she’d bite or kick. You had to be on your guard all the time. If you paid attention, you were okay, but let your mind wander for a second or get too complacent and she’d give you a swift reminder. She was also a great one for teaching someone to stand up for herself. If you backed down from Gretchen’s threats, she only got worse; the way a school bully preys on the weak and defenseless. If you gave as much of a threat right back at her, she’d respect you and settle down. If you coddled her or flinched, her power increased ten-fold and she became the wicked step-mother of all the most hideous fairy-tales.

Off the subject for the moment, but why was the step-mother always the wicked one in those stories? There were no wicked aunties or cousins, no evil father-in-laws or great-uncles. The step-mother got a bum rap.

I could write volumes about Gretchen’s exploits here on the farm. There was the time she trapped a student behind a tree. There was the time she tried to kill Rocket in the horse trailer, a half mile from home, and got hung up on the divider in the process so that I had to push her off of it. There was the time she ran away with a little girl in the field (all the school horses ran away that day) and the poor student ended up falling off Gretchen and onto a rock wall. For each of those times, there were more moments of her giving students a good ride in a lesson. For all of her quirks and disasters, I was fond of the cantankerous old mare.

She finally passed away at the age of 29 and she died the way she lived: on her own terms and making my life difficult. She passed away one evening after eating her dinner normally and giving no indication that it was her last meal. It is true that she was not in great health. She had Cushing’s, she was losing weight, her appetite wasn’t good, her teeth and eyesight were in poor condition and she was relatively feeble. She was discovered in the morning, dead in her paddock, with no signs of trauma or distress. It must have been a heart attack or aneurysm that took her quickly. I had a busy day planned with many important appointments and places to be that day, but it all had to be canceled so that I could arrange to have her buried.

Even after all of the times I cursed her, and all the times she hurt herself, I still grieved her passing. I accepted her for who she was and kept her until the end.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Doing More Than Riding

Here's another post that may get me in trouble. And when I say "may" I mean "will". It is not my intent to offend anyone, but someone, I'm sure, will take this the wrong way. Here goes nothing... Hold on just a minute, why do we say "here goes nothing"? What does that even mean? English is a weird language. Here goes the whole thing...

My particular favorite equestrian sport or discipline, is Dressage. There are people who will snort with defiance at the mere mention of the word. Others scoff at how "boring" it is. Some will lambaste Dressage aficionados for their participation. Dressage isn't for everyone, which is fine. Good riding and good horses are a pleasure to watch no matter their classification. The equine world is vast and varied and that is what makes it so interesting and entertaining. However, Dressage appeals to me personally, in a lot of ways.

I have never been the type of rider that was satisfied with just riding for riding's sake. Even as a young girl, riding my pony, Ivy, around town, I yearned to do something with her beyond just going for a ride. My Mom used to do her paper route with her horse. Oh how I wished I had a paper route! I wanted to ride my horse to the store, do a little shopping and ride home. I wanted to ride my horse to school. I wanted a job for my horse and I to do. It's not that I didn't enjoy riding, because I certainly did. Ivy was a wonderful little horse and we canvassed every inch of the neighborhood, exploring, trying out new trails, riding down the street, checking out the beaches, and seeing just how far we could get. She was game and I was looking for adventure. Yet, as time went by I found myself not just wanting to go for a ride, but wanting to work on something. I guess that's why I became a horse trainer and not just a horse rider.

When I started riding in local horse shows, that hunt for something more was satiated slightly. With competition came goals to meet. We did Western and English classes, jumping, games, equitation, trail, costume... everything that was offered. There was still something missing.

It wasn't until I truly started to understand Dressage that I became interested in pursuing it. Dressage is much more than just following a pattern. It's not even until relatively recently that I have come to appreciate Dressage thoroughly. For those that don't like it or have negative things to say, I have to point out that not all Dressage is done correctly. As in any equestrian event, there are people who take things too far, or in the wrong direction and it spoils the perception of the sport. And yes, I will admit that watching Dressage tests at a show, especially at the lower levels, can have about as much thrill as watching fingernails grow.

The appeal, for me, is in moving up the levels, advancing the horse's fitness and suppleness, and doing more than walk, trot and canter around the ring. I'd rather watch Dressage tests all day than watch a Western pleasure class. It's like watching the equine version of the Stepford Wives. I realize I am making a generalization here, because there are some really good Western pleasure horses. It just doesn't appeal to me. It would bore me to the point of having to bring a good book with me to read while I rode. The top Western pleasure horses all look like drones. They are beautiful animals but look like they've had lobotomies and are wearing concrete shoes. Please refrain from snacking me because I said that. It just isn't in my genetic material to be satisfied with riding a horse around and around and around going as slow as possible.

I think that with competition, the original design of the sport is lost. A Western pleasure horse is supposed to be a horse that you could comfortably ride all day long. With the modern Wp horses, it would take you all day to ride anywhere. Instead of showing horses that are comfortable to ride, they have made them slow enough that you could build a house of cards on top. Relaxation has been replaced with unresponsiveness. Instead of a horse that carries his head level with his body, the horses look like they can hardly carry their heads at all. It's not just in Wp that the competition has trumped the purpose.

Modern, competitive Dressage horses have undergone an evolution as well. The horses getting the high scores today are the ones showing exaggerated gaits. The gaits have become more important than the harmony and calmness that once was Dressage. Mistakes in tests, disobedience, even leaving out entire parts, is forgiven if the horse has spectacular gaits. It should not be so. But so it is.

Look at what has happened to the Tennessee Walking Horse. Here was a horse with a naturally smooth gait that could be ridden over uneven terrain and go great distances for many hours and the rider wouldn't feel like a tossed salad. Now, the gait has been outlandishly exaggerated through often cruel and inhumane methods to the point that it looks bizarre. Watching a "big lick" TWH makes me cringe. The horses don't look like horses anymore. They've become a kind of spastic kangaroo.

I do compete but not at the risk of my horse. If he needs a harsh bit, a tie-down, several inches of weighted pads on his feet, having his chin tucked down between his front legs, rowel spurs or anything else that causes him pain, then I'm not going to go to the show. I also like to go to shows where more is offered than just walk, trot, canter around the ring. That's why Road Hack is my favorite class, I get to WTC but also extend the trot and hand gallop. Once, I even got to ride in a Show Hack class which had collected walk, walk, walk on long reins, trot, collected trot, extended trot, canter, collected canter, extended canter, hand gallop, halt and back up. I was like a duck in water for that one.

My sport isn't perfect. There is a lot of undesirable stuff that happens through ignorance or pursuit of prizes. The root of Dressage, training a horse to be responsive, supple, well balanced and happy, is what I find intoxicating. I like my horses, eager, yet controllable; comfortable to ride, yet with expression to their gaits; calm but not dull, and well-balanced, yet maneuverable.

I'm sure someone reading this will be put out by something I have written ("Hey!! I'm a Western pleasure rider and I am definitely more interesting than fingernails!") but this is my blog, with my opinions and thoughts. I haven't meant to pick on anyone, but only to point out that some of our riding has gotten out of touch with its original intent, just like I got out of touch with the original point of this post.