In high school my first and only job was working as barn help at a local, privately owned dressage barn. It was the only place in the area I knew of where anyone rode dressage, and it was my first real life experience with it.
At the time I was riding Western because it was the only thing available to me, and it was preferable over not riding at all. But for all of the years I wanted a horse all I wanted to do was ride English. This barn cemented that, dressage, and Enya into my teenage self. Don’t judge. You don’t know. “Wild Child” will forever bring me back to those perfect afternoons of cleaning stalls, bringing horses in, and watching my boss ride her Shagya Arabian gelding, who, despite being an Arab, wormed his plucky little self into a soft spot in my heart.
That job and that barn influenced a lot of things in my life: from what I expected in a horse barn and the care of my horses, to turning the art of sweeping into my own special neurotic chore (that I have since passed on to many other teenagers and young adults), to learning all about the wonderful world of boarders that also double as a royal pain in your ass. And that you should definitely learn Dressage from a male trainer that always wears breeches and has an accent.
Stories for other days, people. Stories for other days.
Despite owning a horse myself, horses were still fairly new to me. I’d read every book I could get my hands on, and while that information is helpful it does not actually teach you how to deal with horses in real life. That only comes with experience. Until I acquired that experience, I could only compare what I saw to what I’d read.
So, when one day I saw my boss feeding her gelding a treat like you would hand a dog a treat, I made some comment about “Aren’t you worried he’s going to bite your fingers…?” Like this way of feeding treats was some act of bravery or rebellion. As though feeding treats with your palms not flat was something that a horsewoman of decades couldn’t handle.
Go to any barn and watch people teach small children how to feed treats. “KEEP YOUR PALM FLAT, SMALL CHILD, LEST YOU LOSE YOUR HAND TO THIS DANGEROUS AND CARNIVEROUS EQUINE.” This is common knowledge, you guys.
Now, she had bred this gelding and had been raising him since day one. He was around the age of 10 when I started working there. She just said, “I’ve had this horse since he was a baby and I know him like the back of my hand.”
(“That you are going to get bit off one of these days,” I thought). Ok, I really didn’t think that. I was a little bit in awe. I actually thought, “I want that. I want to know a horse like that. I want that relationship.”
And I saw the good and the bad. I wanted the whole package. I knew that sometimes he bucked her off, but she always seemed to take it in stride. Shake her head, shrug – that’s horses. That’s this horse. He can be stupid sometimes. The understanding and acceptance in that, and the obvious love for the animal even though he could be absolutely frustrating, that’s what I wanted.
And obviously this is the part where I say: Be careful what you wish for.
Just kidding. Sort of.
It’s actually the part where I wax poetic about how much I love my horse and I can say without hesitation that I know her like the back of my hand. Level unlocked.
And last night through all of this losing my head over the fact that something is off and that she may have arthritis and she’s only 12 and has good conformation and is it something I did??
…we had a really wonderful ride. It was quiet, it was fluid, it was stretchy. And it wasn’t perfect, but they rarely ever are. And she works out of her stiffness so it’s not all bad, it’s just going to likely require some treatment.
I took the ride slow, slow, slow. We walked forever and I didn’t worry about getting her round or what she was doing in front of me, but rather making sure she was doing all of the small things I asked promptly. Leg yield a few steps. bend around my inside leg. Move forward, slow down. Stop. Go.
And so on. Eventually I asked for a trot and while it was stiff and a little short, she was forward and trying to stretch right off the bat. Lots of long lines, changes in direction. Slowly working out that left side. A little more give, good, reward to the right. A little more. Bits of easy canter. Easy, all of it.
Through the whole thing she listened and tried and eventually had a nice, swinging trot that was nothing like what we started with.
And after she followed me into the barn, bypassing her stall and the bits of hay on the ground to go back to her grooming stall and put herself in there, because that’s what we do after rides.