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.