When You and Your Horse Have Different Agendas

DT Adult Amateur blogger Jennifer Wuorinen reflects on the unexpected circumstances that bring out the flight instincts of horses—and the occasional perks of these moments.
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We’ve all been there—or at least I think we all have. You are exhausted from a long day but you’re trying to be a good doobie and get your horse ridden. You imagine a ride that is relaxing and doesn’t include anything that is too difficult. I call these “yoga rides” where you focus on calm work that does an equine body good.

As you pull into the barn, maybe a brisk breeze blows through the almost-leafless trees and you try not to consider that a concern. You go through the routine of brushing and tacking up, then you walk into the ring. There are a few ways this could go:

1. The equine immediately perks up and notices the change in the ring, 

2. The equine doesn’t give an indicator that anything is amiss until you hop on, 

3. Or the equine is a bit up but not reactive until perhaps a couple of neighbor kids start hopping on a trampoline, that you both notice though the trees AT THE SAME TIME (true story).

Needless to say, whatever it is, your relaxing yoga ride plan has changed drastically.

Changes in the arena are sure to get the ears up! 

Changes in the arena are sure to get the ears up! 

You Changed the Arena!

My 12-year-old Drum horse, Trooper, is not a typically reactive creature. But when something gets his goat, he does not let go. He puts all those drafty-workhorse genetics toward the discussion that shall ensue.

So yesterday I brought him into the ring, started handwalking him as I usually do, but I happened to be on the phone with my son having an important conversation similar to:

Son: “Mom, there isn’t any food in the house.”

Me: “Yes there is, you just have to heat it up.” 

Son: *Sigh* “Can you bring something home on your way back from the barn?”

Thus I didn’t notice the shrubs were trimmed, and bright white dressage letters appeared, but Trooper did. I was sore from a lesson with a Grand Prix schoolmistress and really just wanted a yoga ride. To add salt to the scenario, I dropped my whip while mounting. Motivated by a touch of laziness, I took it as an opportunity to “refine my aids without tools.” So off I went trying to get Trooper to walk at a nice, forward gait on a long rein. I was not really paying attention to the path we were taking in the ring as my focus was just going forward. This proved challenging without the right tools. 

Side note: Folks sometimes wonder why I chose the Drum Horse breed to train and compete in dressage. I enjoy the fact that I don’t fret about what Trooper is thinking all of the time. Let's just say the story would be quite different with my former horse (who happened to be a Thoroughbred).

Back to the story. Trooper was actually moving sideways down the middle of the ring and he would not correct, I started to look around to see what the heck was bothering him. Ohhhhhhhh, yeah the ring looks different! SO scary (sarcasm). 

Really? I said in my head...or maybe out loud as I flailed with spurless-boots and no whip in a failed attempt to get Trooper to ignore the trimmed bushes and listen to me. Finally, I stopped him in the middle of the ring to quite literally catch my breath. Trooper, of course, calmly rested a hind leg, seemingly quite satisfied with himself. Frustrated, I reassessed the pain of the dismount to retrieve the whip from the ground, and begrudgingly got off to get it.

Re-mounted, I was able to pinpoint the monsters on each side of the ring. Surprisingly, some of them looked like horses who were then clearly visible from the ring. Of course, they were "helpfully" playing next to us (For the record: Not helpful!).

There are SO many schools of thought on dealing with spooky things, that I honestly don’t know which is best. So like the well-intentioned amateur that I am, I am completely inconsistent about it. This day my sore, tired brain won and we followed the "Stand and Let Him Look" method. 

Eventually we attempted looky shoulder-in-like-things and sad serpentines to keep us both on task. Even though this was incredibly annoying to deal with, Troop became pretty animated about the whole thing and remarkably I was not fighting for forward anymore. 

A couple of equine buddies happened to witness this part of our ride, and I heard comments like "Wow, he is picking up his feet!” 

Yes, these are actually compliments when you have a slight underachiever like Troop! He did feel great! I kept it short, due to his lack of fitness, and ended with a walk on long (but tactfully prepared) reins down all of the scary sides. He was not relaxed, but did it without any discussion. Good Boy! Trooper, I believe you unintentionally revealed a card to me that you may regret.

This delightful day reminded me of some other interesting days when I suddenly realized my agenda was not the same as that of my equine. There are stories of white rocks, sunny spots on the ground and even the letter “B” but the most interesting were the Mystery of the Missing Horse Trailer and the Terror of the Trampoline.

The Mystery of the Missing Horse Trailer

In the Mystery of the Missing Horse trailer, I learned that our equines were a little too used to a quiet setting in a backyard farm. Apparently, no one ever leaves and objects like horse trailers don’t go anywhere. This “mystery” of a trailer that left its original spot affected every horse at the farm and pretty much informed us humans of how boring our routines were. Here’s how it happened:

Years ago, I went out with my Thoroughbred to do our warm-up walk around the ring. In my experience, I have noticed there tends to be a scary side of every ring. Because of my anxiety issues, I have a special super power to pinpoint such a part of the ring almost immediately with any horse. Yes, very productive for any ride. So I tried to let the reins be as long as I felt comfortable on that day and allowed my guy to warm up at a walk. He was nice and relaxed heading toward the spooky spot when suddenly all changed. Instinctively I picked up my reins before looking, but per usual, there was nothing. I urged him to move on. Nope, we now have pricked ears and nose flaring. Wonderful. In my best equine riding fetal position (you know, tight reins, excessive clamping with legs but kicking anyway) I somehow got him past the spot.

Whew a moment of reprieve while I try to talk myself out of calling it a day and chillin with an adult bevy. Tempting, but I decided to soldier on. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was until the second trip around when I wasn’t AS fearful for my life. The horse trailer that has been in the same spot for years...MOVED. I couldn’t believe it, he was spooking at an OPEN SPACE. An open SPACE??! Yipes, so scary! What is the world coming to?! That trailer should jump out of the trees any time now. Mystery Solved.

The Terror of the Trampoline

The Terror of the Trampoline was even more fun as it happened mid-ride. It was also years ago on my Thoroughbred, on one of those days when I obsessed over something we were learning and I worked harder than the horse the whole time. I was at a point of exhaustion and I called it quits.

Suddenly, I noticed something moving up and down through the trees. In slow horror-film fashion (complete with “Jason” music and my life flashing before my eyes), I realized that a trampoline was installed in the yard next to the ring AND two kids were having a grand time jumping on it. Luckily, I noticed this before my horse did so I could quickly pick up my reins and start steering him away from the danger. Maybe he won’t notice, I thought to myself. 

Well, that didn’t quite work out and I suddenly had a lovely fire breathing dragon under me. I still have much to learn in dressage but I have more tools now than I did then. There was no dismount. I had to ride this one out. We basically did many, many, many 8-meter circles and figure eights and whatever I could think of to keep both our brains together. Surprisingly (for me) this eventually worked and he started to have a blast trying to keep up with my attempts at keeping him guessing. Darn smart horses! 

Eventually he settled and was listening so I was able to stop and get off, soaked with sweat and even more exhausted. He, of course, was beaming from ear to ear. “That was fun mom!” That is one things I have to say about my experience riding a Thoroughbred: Even though they have their moments of, um, complexity, which makes most things more difficult than they should be, they have a joy about learning that is much easier to reach than a certain unnamed fluffy equine. The trade off, of course, was that it took me way too many years to feel safe on my Thoroughbred than it did for me on Trooper. 

Why is it that our creatures are terrified of a leaf on the ground one day but a large monster piece of machinery tearing off a roof is not scary? 

Gasp! A terrifying leaf!

Gasp! A terrifying leaf!

It’s a shake-your-head puzzle that I am pretty sure is unsolvable. Regardless, we are riding the most adorable flight animals, and there will be days when we see a side of them that we do not typically see in our endless 20-meter-circle of life. Yes, we trade off that perfect ride that was in our head, but what we sometimes get is a little nugget of information, as they show us something that we didn’t know possible. In Trooper’s case, he’ll never be allowed to drag his feet across the ring again! 

Read more of Jennifer Wuorinen's blogs here.

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