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Fear the Little Bay Mare – The Clinicians

fear the little bay mare clinicians header

Not long ago I told the story of my mare Petie, who has been my almost constant companion throughout my journey as a dressage competitor and trainer. In the first part, I wrote about Petie’s graceful and gentle nature which made her nervous and easily spooked.

In this post I’ll tell you about three important clinicians who were able to see the cause of her troubles (Spoiler alert! It wasn’t anything wrong with Petie), and more importantly saw more potential in her than, at the time, I ever could.

Spooked at everything

When we broke out Petie, she lacked faith in the friendly nature of the universe. A sunspot, a shadow, a noise, the corner of the arena with nothing in it; she spooked at everything.

This combination is not great for a competing horse even under ideal conditions. But when combined with an inexperienced rider, who thought her job was to control the horse through each Purpose of the Level test like steering a boat, it was almost a recipe for disaster.

That naive rider was me, BTW, how embarrassing!

Your older, hopefully wiser blogger

Perfect in all other respects

She was a wonderful baby. After foaling, Princess, her dam, fell in love with her. She followed her all over the paddocks. When halter breaking, Petie was easy and polite. She clipped, hauled, bathed, stood politely for the vet and farrier. But when stressed, or in season, she was psycho with a side order of boundless energy.

If we went to a horse show, she paced relentlessly in her stall, sometimes wearing a path in the floor. Tied up she would eventually stand, but as soon as she was released, she’d start pacing. She wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t drink. Ugh.

I would lunge her and show up early and stay late to ride her over and over again. When she started showing Dressage, we would enter the arena, ride up the side to check in with the judge and scribe, but never make it. Halfway there, she would spin and try to leave. When I got her over that, and began the test, she would decide that the judge’s box and anywhere near it was the black hole of death. As she trotted up center line or toward the end of the arena with the judge’s box, she’d tense her entire body, suck back, and take quick, tight little scurry steps. This was after I had already spent a year hauling her to shows and then not showing because I couldn’t get her in the ring.

Unfortunately for her, this was in my early days of Dressage and I was still getting over old habits from my previous life of training horses, so we fought. Translation: I kicked her ass trying to make her obey me.

In my defense, because I need one, that was what I learned from my days as a trainer for the Arabian round ring. Neither of us enjoyed one minute of it.

I am seriously humbled by this mare’s forgiving nature.

Clinician #1 – Sue

Enter Sue. She is the reason I changed. During my first lesson with her, she stopped me and said, “I really like this mare.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Petie and Sue are the reason that I can say I am an expert at working with spooky horses. Sue told me that the mare had a ton of potential, but we had to build trust and get rid of tension. She literally had me trot around the arena counting my steps, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four… we worked figures keeping the same slow tempo all the time. Sue told me the counting helped me keep Petie’s feet slow and get out of my own head so that I wasn’t over thinking.

Bad habits are to be ignored

As far as the spooking, my reactivity was just compounding the problem and I needed to embrace the philosophy of extinction. Extinction philosophy states that you extinguish an undesirable habit by ignoring it. Literally. You don’t offer comfort, you don’t punish, you don’t act like you even noticed the spook, you just continue calmly with your work like nothing happened. Hand on my heart, this is the secret of the universe. Try it with your spooky horse.

The problem, and this should be obvious in retrospect, with punishing the spook is that the horse is already afraid, and then he is afraid of you too, especially if you get mad. Imagine your child afraid of a storm, you wouldn’t yell at her and tell her to get over it. Model calm behavior and calm behavior follows.

I diligently followed Sue’s advice and by the next spring we were ready to start training Dressage. Within a year Petie was learning her changes. Changes can take a year to really confirm, but within six months, not only had Petie learned her changes, but started her tempis. Sue couldn’t believe it.

Petie had ruined me for life because future horses would never be that quick.

Sue the clinician

Clinician #2 – Jane

I hauled to a clinic at a different barn to ride under an “S” level judge. It was a two-day clinic with Jane. Jane had a sharp wit and an ability to tell you EXACTLY what she thought of you. When I was a demo rider the first day, I could tell as I was warming up that Jane did not like my horse. After my ride, when she was evaluating the test for the audience, she confessed that when she first saw Petie, she didn’t like her. She thought that she was just another Arab who could do the tricks but wasn’t strong enough to perform at the purpose of the higher levels.

After watching her, Jane said, and I quote, “She is a ballerina. She can do anything! She is so tuned into your aids and has such incredible focus; she’s a trainer’s dream!” Jane also informed me, out loud to the audience:

The problem with this horse, is that she is paying so much attention to you that you have to be perfect, and you are not.”

Jane the Clinician

Score one for Petie.

Clinician #3 – Jess

When I started riding with my current instructor, she was always positive and emphasized developing Petie’s quality of gaits. We knew she was highly capable of the movements of each level, but since she had always been a little bit of a spook, I tended to shut her down, trying to manage the spook. She had settled down significantly since her younger days, and Jess focused on developing quality into what she could do.

This changed everything. Because of Petie and Jess, my mind was opened to a new level of understanding Dressage. Taking a horse that I knew from the first day she was ridden and feeling her learn to use her body and back, how to trot with a longer step with more swing. Feeling her engage her hind end, all changing due to tiny, incremental changes to my position and thinking. These two changed the quality of my riding, teaching and training. Jess because of great instruction always founded on the basics, and Petie because she responded and gave me instant feedback when I did something correctly.

One day, I asked Jess if she thought Petie is even capable of learning the movements for Grand Prix, since she has little suspension. Jess replied, “I wouldn’t think she can’t! What I love about this little mare is her generous spirit and willingness to try hard.” Yep. That’s my girl.

I included this part of Petie’s history because the horse show is just a cherry on top. The highs and lows in my relationship with this horse is the point of all of this. This journey called Dressage is never ending. I owe this horse the world; she has taught me so much.

38 thoughts on “Fear the Little Bay Mare – The Clinicians

  1. how beautiful are the foals at birth

  2. thanks for the info

  3. Thanks for the info

  4. Horses also have fear, you just have to calm them and reassure that everything is okay.

  5. I’ll mention to my niece, the horse owner

  6. sounds hard :/

  7. What a thought provoking story.

  8. Supeerbbbbbb

  9. Your mare sounds awesome! You are both lucky to have each other.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

  11. Good stories

  12. so cool!

  13. I like hearing the different perspectives. Very interesting!

  14. sweet…. lovely

  15. Thanks for the info

  16. Sweet story, highs and lows are in every relationship.

  17. Sweet stories

  18. Sweet story lovely bond

  19. […] So is evaluating your success at a horse show. The reason we all engage in this discipline is the relationship you develop with your horse. A horse show is a minor part of that relationship, and many people pursue Dressage and never show. […]

  20. Great history and lovely horse.

  21. Very thought provoking

  22. Every horse has such a unique personality. Just like humans. We have to tune in to the fears and their desires; not our desire for how they “should “ behave and react.

  23. It’s wonderful that you could learn from your mistakes. She sounds like she was well worth the extra work.

  24. Very interesting

  25. Amazing what you can see when you are not in the thick of it. Often it is the inexperience that can ruin training.

  26. Interesting read

  27. Great article!

  28. Useful information to be shared with every horse-enthusiast.

  29. Its amazing just how intelligent horses are. I’m glad you still gave her a chance and worked with her.

  30. First, super cute foal, second, good read.

  31. I’m glad you had good advice.

  32. Enjoyed reading. Thanks

  33. I am glad you figured it out, thanks for the info

  34. nice info

  35. Great story


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