For my senior capstone as an environmental studies major at Wofford, I’m studying ecological horsekeeping. I’m interested in discovering what equestrian management trends are specific to the Tryon/Landrum/Campobello/Columbus area. If you own or manage a barn in the area or commute to the Tryon International Equestrian Center regularly for shows, I’d love to have your feedback! The survey takes about 10-15 minutes to complete.
Know anybody else that should take the survey? Please share it with them! If you’re interested in my work and would like more information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to talk to you!
For the past five weeks I’ve been living in Columbus, NC, hosting two teens from Boston as they competed in horse shows at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC). It’s been a blast introducing them to Bojangles, queso, Krispy Kreme, Cookout, boiled peanuts, grits, and other wonderful foods like sourdough bread… and they’ve introduced me to all kinds of foods, too.
This is not an area with which I am unfamiliar: I attend Wofford College just thirty minutes away and I have kept my horse in Campobello/Landrum for two years now. I ride at Clear View Farm in Landrum with the Wofford equestrian team, and I have loved attending Saturday Night Lights grand prix events at TIEC since its opening. I love the area.
Every day I drive between three counties and two states: Polk (NC), Spartanburg (SC), and Greenville (SC). Whether the drive is half a mile or twenty minutes, I almost always pass a truck piled high with logs. It seems that cutting down trees is a daily occurrence in the foothills. I’d be willing to bet that TIEC has a great deal to do with the rapid development of the area as farmland. I have to swerve to avoid a wide truckload of timber 9 out of 10 times I leave the house. This makes me sad–the clay-filled patches of cleared land will take years to become beautiful again, wooded or not. The topsoil lost will never really replenish, or at least not in my lifetime.
At the same time, I love the farmland. I love seeing horses, cattle, bison, donkeys and other animals grazing on rolling hills of lush grass. I love the hay fields and the rows of corn. But I love the trees, too. There’s got to be a balance. How does one keep a farm in a way that doesn’t destroy the area’s natural beauty?
The capstone I’m working on this summer involves studying trends in horsekeeping and land management in the area, especially since TIEC’s opening in the summer of 2014. I’m hoping to see how the development of TIEC as a major hub for equestrians has impacted the land around it.
My summer job is easy proof: I’m living on a ten acre horse farm, freshly carved from a wooded lot. The pastures have taken months to establish–runoff was a major hurdle in both construction and landscaping. The family is based in Boston, and will be until they permanently move here in about nine years. They built their retirement farm ten years in advance, sending their thirteen year-old daughter, her friend, and two horses here for the summer in order to compete at TIEC. Obviously, this area revolves around horses and is beginning to revolve around the equestrian center.
I’ve met many people from the area through our equestrian connection: waitresses that comment on our riding breeches, feed store and tack store employees that love to swap stories, or families in the grocery store whose giant bag of carrots we notice and ask, “Do you have horses?” The answer is almost always yes. We’ve met many area people by asking to pet their dogs as they walk around TIEC.
Everyone has a different opinion about how TIEC is impacting the area.
“It has done almost nothing for the community,” a woman says as we stand outside a Landrum restaurant. “It is so self-contained. Everything is right there–the food, the housing. You can’t even bring your own shavings, you have to use theirs. It doesn’t help the community tack stores, restaurants, nothing.”
I point out that TIEC has most certainly added a great deal of jobs to the area and has most certainly added business to area real estate–two of TIEC’s most significant contributions to the area. In my head, I also consider that if all TIEC competitors were required to find shavings and hay on their own in the area, there would be a severe shortage of both, and prices would be exponentially driven up for locals. But I don’t say that aloud… the economic implications of an establishment this large are expansive and complex, beyond my own understanding. The woman didn’t know that TIEC had done so much for real estate and jobs–“That’s good to know,” she says.
She’s also not wrong, though. The center has been understaffed and incredibly busy this summer, and I’ve heard complaints of slow running shows, un-emptied trashcans and bathroom facilities without toilet paper. When the US Pony Club East Championships were held at TIEC this summer, at one point TIEC ran out of food and water, according to one of the coaches we met. I believe that TIEC has grown so fast that they have outgrown their own staff–they are not quite as organized as they need to be. I also believe, though, that they will get there.
TIEC is a fabulous facility and is a wonderful place to compete. The center is intentionally available and free for the community to come explore–even people who know nothing about horses are welcome at TIEC, and I admire that. The restaurants are super tasty, and though they may be slow at times, the food is worth it. One local trainer told me that TIEC has really improved the quality of eating out in Tryon, diversifying the options and increasing the overall quality of restaurants in the area. Restaurants in Landrum, Tryon and Campobello have seen some increased business, too. Not everybody wants sushi or diner food, however good, every single day for two weeks.
Other horse-related businesses have benefitted from the center, as well. After a particular weekend of showing in extra hot weather, one of the horses was not feeling great. He was anemic, and we needed to buy a certain supplement to help him feel better. I went to three different feed stores in order to get enough. “We had some gallon buckets yesterday, but someone from [TIEC] came and cleared us out yesterday,” said one woman at the register as I plunked the last three small bottles on the counter. When TIEC’s two tack stores do not fill the need–and they focus mostly on equipment and apparel–competitors will shop at local businesses.
So how do my observations fit in to my project? Well, the short answer is that they are my project. I’ve been working all summer on a survey to give to boarding operation owners in order to gather more information about how horse management in the area has been impacted by TIEC and the area’s environmental factors. I’m SO close to distributing this survey and I can’t wait to see what feedback I receive!*
In addition to surveys, I will be conducting interviews and site visits with several managers in order to continue what I’ve been doing all summer: engaging people in conversation about horsekeeping in the Tryon/Landrum/Campobello area. I want to know what narratives about land management, horsekeeping and TIEC are present here, and how I can blend these narratives together to paint a more complete picture for Tryon horsekeepers to use and learn from as they see fit.
I cannot wait to enjoy the remaining weeks I will spend here at Ladybug Farm, I cannot wait to continue my project work into the fall, and I cannot wait to watch TIEC grow and thrive in this already horse-obsessed community. After all, I’m practically a local, now.
*If you are the owner or manager of an equestrian boarding operation within an hour’s drive of the Tryon International Equestrian Center and would like to help me with this project by taking my survey, please contact me by commenting below! Thanks so much.
My farrier recently told me she is sometimes unsure what to do when a client is talking, letting the horse graze behind and the horse steps forward onto its lead. Do I say something? Do I let it go? Will this horse freak out, or… Oh, it’s okay it moved off it anyway.
I know the feeling. Although innately confident and fairly dominant, my horse is incredibly claustrophobic—gates, cross country obstacles, trailers, aisles, wash stalls, cross-ties, creeks, and puddles can be a challenge for her to navigate. But Dancer also panics when she feels trapped around her head, which means that just asking her to lower her head a few inches can feel about as safe to her as me plopping a mountain lion on her neck.
I’ve taught Dancer to lower her head and relax, and she will drop her head all the way down to the ground with just a few ounces of pressure at her bridlepath. This “porcupine game” uses steady pressure to communicate what I want my horse to move (her hips, her face, her neck, etc.) but it also tells where: down, up, back, forward, left, right, etc.
I once assumed that the “where” of the porcupine game is always “away,” and… it is, technically. I want the horse to move off pressure, not against it. If I push my horse’s chest backwards, I expect her to step backwards. But it works the other way, too: if I use the lead to ask my horse forward, I expect her to step forward and off the pressure instead of leaning backwards or even rearing at my feel.
When I watched my horse almost step on her leadrope and cringed because I knew she would panic and hop off the ground and fling her head to release the pressure, I decided to use the porcupine game to address this issue. I could already lower her head with downward pressure from above (pushing on her bridlepath), and I could already ask her down with the leadrope under her chin (downward pressure from beneath her head), so why couldn’t I ask for her to stay down using the same kind of steady pressure?
Here’s the thing: Dancer doesn’t see it coming. She raises her head from grazing—or tries to—and all of a sudden the halter tightens around her, like something heavy landed on her. She can’t process the fact that she is standing on her own leadrope and tying her own head down. For a claustrophobic horse, it makes sense that the only option is to fling her head violently and rear up so that the pressure is released. For a while, it was her only answer—it was the only way for her to feel safe. So how do I create a repetitive practice of this, in a way that only releases the pressure when she does?
I’ve seen horses tied by the bridle to gigantic tires for hours, unable to lift their heads more than a few inches—this process usually ends in a bloody-mouthed horse that ran in circles for hours before giving up. While this method is certainly safe for the human, I strongly believe it is more traumatizing than helpful for a horse, especially one that is claustrophobic, unconfident or even super dominant. For a reactive horse like mine, flooding her and trapping her by force is absolutely not helpful. With that said, the message still has to go through: stepping on the lead rope is just another porcupine game… it’s no big deal. But what to do?
Standing with my foot on the lead rope is ineffective because it is hard to keep the same amount of pressure on the rope when she flings her head, however slow, and it could be hazardous. When I first started working with Dancer on recreating her head claustrophobia, it was the first method I tried since I figured it would keep me safely standing near her and not crouching. Unfortunately, I was still teaching her to break through the pressure instead of yielding to it.
Next, I created the “football pose.” I placed my fist around the rope—a few feet from her halter so that I was positioned next to her and not under her—and planted my fist on the ground. I watched her feet and her head to be aware of her movements… I could get out fast if I had to dodge a bad rear, but I could also stand up as she flung her head, still keeping the same amount of pressure on the rope.
I concentrated on keeping my fist on the ground and waited for her to bump into the end of the slack I’d given her. When she raised her head and her feet to avoid the pressure, I stood with her, still pushing my fist toward the ground with the same amount of pressure. When she landed on the ground and then dropped her head again, she won the round and got to graze uninterrupted again. After a few repetitions, she would bump into the pressure and just keep grazing, un-phased.
The second time I played this game with her, Dancer only got worried once. As we continue to practice this game, I’m able to put my fist closer and closer to her halter, and I can safely use my foot on the rope provided I leave enough slack. Soon, I’ll allow her to step on the rope herself, and I won’t cringe inside like I have before. It’s got to build, though. I believe this grazing game works well for Dancer because I’ve asked my horse to lower her head countless times from above and below, from the ground and from the saddle. I’ve thrown ropes around my horse’s head many, many times, and she’s still getting used to ropes hanging by her ear. This is certainly not the first thing I’d do with a headshy horse, but it’s what works for us right now. These things take time. And if we take the time it takes, one day it will take less time. One day, I’ll be talking to my farrier after our appointment, and my horse might step on her rope and nobody will even cringe.
Can you relate? Do you have a claustrophobic horse? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
I’ve done a lot of writing in the past four months – about 63,000 words, to be exact. It’s been a whirlwind! This semester was filled with many newspaper articles, a handful of personal essays and an as-of-yet unfinished novella. Don’t ask… I’m not ready to share yet! I will say, though, that I’ve learned a lot about myself during the creative writing process, and despite its messiness, I so appreciate what this semester has taught me. The Old Gold and Black garnered a record twelve awards from the South Carolina Press Association, including 1st place general excellence in our division! Personally, I was awarded the 1st place individual use of social media and 4th place feature story… I am so thankful and so proud to be a part of this newspaper and I can’t wait to spend one more year on staff. This spring, when I wasn’t writing, I was riding or teaching riding! Here’s the short version:
Dancer turned 10! We’ve been making what I’m calling mini-milestone victories in various areas of our relationship, from crossing water to accepting ropes around her head. I don’t get to ride her much, but each time I interact with her I’m reminded that I have to take the time it takes… the results are so rewarding! Going into the summer, I’m so excited to see what we can accomplish together, but I’m also just going to enjoy being with her… because that’s what I love the most.
One of my most versatile HALTER horses passed away, and for the first time in my career I had to tell my students that their equine partner wasn’t coming back. It was hard, it created all kinds of logistical problems and left me bitter that an incredibly healthy horse died so suddenly and left me struggling to fill the holes. It’s been challenging to navigate the rest of the session without him, and I sometimes forget that Beau isn’t available for Thursday afternoon classes when I need a horse that can do everything. I guess I’m learning to avoid making assumptions about the tools I’ll have at my disposal on any given day. But I still miss Beau.
The Wofford Equestrian team finished our second season, but we are still busy preparing for the fall! The Wofford administration has been so supportive of us this year and we are working closely with them to grow the team. If you don’t follow us on Twitter yet, you should! We are always reporting from shows and sharing pictures of our adventures. I’ll be working all summer to be ready for the novice over fences division!
I’ll be living, working, studying and riding in Tryon this summer – I’m so excited! I’ll be studying sustainable horse-keeping in one of the nation’s fastest-growing equestrian hubs… I can’t wait to share what I learn. More than learning, though, I’m hoping to live restfully – that’s the biggest and hardest lesson I learned this semester. I can’t do everything. So here goes… something.
Natural horsemanship from the eyes of a therapeutic riding instructor
Every Thursday afternoon, I leave campus straight from class – stopping for coffee on the way – and spend the rest of my day at HALTER. I teach twelve students every week, each as inspiring as the next.
I’m 20 now, but I was only 18 when I started the process of instructor certification through PATH Int’l. I’ve been working at HALTER since May of 2014, and I’ve learned more about horses in a year and a half than I had in ten years of previous horse experience. Before coming to HALTER I knew very little about natural horsemanship, and it was there that I was introduced to the Parelli program. Since then, my understanding of horsemanship has changed drastically and my skills have skyrocketed. I’m still learning, especially from my students: whether they know it or not, my Thursday kids teach me something new about life, horses or riding every week.
I became a therapeutic riding instructor because riding is my therapy, too, and I have a huge heart for sharing horses with people who would otherwise miss out on the joy of riding. Participating in most traditional sports is physically impossible for me, but riding has always been my passion and horses help me stay fit. From the moment I got my horse, Dancer, I wanted to share her with as many people as possible. When I found a therapeutic riding center near my barn in high school, I was hooked. This desire to share horses with others is what brought me to love therapeutic riding and natural horsemanship as one entity – “therapeutic horse-man-ship” is a big part of my life.
Here’s what I get to see from the middle of the arena:
Yes, it takes a special horse to be a therapy horse, but let me tell you: the horses these children ride are saints. They can handle almost anything, and they do their job every week even if they aren’t feeling their best that day. They form deep connections with their riders in ways that I rarely see in other lesson programs. They can adapt to various riders, from the most timid four year-old to the independent walk-trot rider. In all of this, they manage to maintain their quirks, opinions, and integrities – they are anything but machine-like, “broken down” horses. I credit this to our use of natural horsemanship.
Unlike most therapeutic riding programs I’ve encountered, at HALTER our riders spend time working with their horse both on the ground and on horseback. My students use groundwork games and challenges to prepare them for the lessons we are teaching them in the saddle: the touch-it game can get a rider thinking ahead and planning in a way that helps her follow a sequence of instructions, for instance. Knowing the friendly game allows us to have discussions about energy when the child is not being so friendly. Sending the horse to/over/around an obstacle changes the way the rider thinks about transitions, and riding becomes less about force or strength and more about energy and communication. Victories in these games say to each child: Yes! You can communicate complex ideas – maybe even without words.
The results are phenomenal. I’ve seen my riders gain muscle tone and coordination, speak full sentences and communicate more clearly than ever before, dramatically increase confidence or learn how to follow a sequence of instructions.
One of my classes of three riders can all trot independently as of a few weeks ago, with no help from spotters. When I first started teaching, these riders were just learning to trot with lots of support and for short amounts of time – small circles on a lead line or a few steps along the rail with sidewalkers, for instance – and now they’re capable of changing their horses’ speeds, managing their spacing, balancing and steering all at once! They can use the zone 3 driving game to practice transitions on the ground and lateral flexion to practice their emergency stops or changing direction with an indirect rein. It’s beautiful to watch. Despite their various disabilities, they are learning skills from their horses that translate to their everyday lives.
Still others are learning to walk unassisted by crutches and walkers, managing their emotions, increasing their capacity to focus, improving balance or any combination of the above. Not every day is perfect. If you are involved in therapeutic riding in any capacity you know that the work is hard and plans rarely go how we imagined they would. But the tiny miracles that keep us going are always happening.
I get to see our volunteers learning skills and gaining confidence, too. I still remember the moment a child spoke his first full sentence while I served as his sidewalker four years ago. I still remember the smile of a rider that trotted for the first time as we ran along the fence. My time as a volunteer was incredibly impactful for me and I get to see this in the volunteers that serve with me at HALTER, as well. Learning to “think laterally” is good for anybody!
Finally, I get to see how proud the riders are of their accomplishments. When they run back to their parents and say (or sometimes, yell across the arena): “Look, mommy, I did it!!” – My heart melts. One of my favorite parts of teaching is to brief parents after a lesson… to tell them all the wonderful things their child(ren) can do.
At HALTER, there is no can’t, and I have yet to find the limit. These riders (and horses and volunteers) can do anything. I’m so grateful to be a small part of that, and to share in the magic that these horses give us.
N. B.: Originally published in the HALTER e-newsletter in an abbreviated form. Pictures from HALTER Facebook page except when noted otherwise.
Here’s why the Wofford College IHSA Equestrian Team is one of the best things to happen to me since… well, Wofford.
I’ve been riding for nine years now, and I can’t begin to measure how great the benefits of riding have been for me. Equestrian team, however, has been a particularly special moment in my equine career. Here are a “few” reasons why I would’ve joined the team even if I’d been forced to eat lots more ramen to do so:
I can ride [just about] anything. When I began pursuing instructor certification through PATH Int’l as a freshman, I knew that I would have to attend a certification and ride a test on an unfamiliar horse. I had ridden very few horses since moving to South Carolina and I knew my riding style needed to be reinvented from Saddleseat position, which is WAY different than most riding seats (another story, another day…).
While the amazing Jaime Robertson at HALTER helped me make the first changes to my riding throughout my internship, I knew I needed to ride more than our eight plodding ponies in order to successfully ride any horse.
Enter Bennett and Abby. Both are accomplished equestrians and were both highly disappointed that Wofford did not have an equestrian team, so as sophomores, they started one. To say I helped is a huge overstatement. I didn’t, really, but as one of the sophomores I did what I could from my end to make the team as successful as possible.
I rode So. Many. Horses in our first season alone, from lesson horses to mounts I drew at shows. My teammates who compete over fences rode double that amount throughout the season, and I watched every class. I got to observe what I was learning (having a “big R” judge as your coach makes for some first-rate ringside commentary, for sure!). I saw what worked and what didn’t, good and bad draws, horses and riders that floated along perfectly together and… other pairings. I learned so much from the horses I rode, and I learned almost just as much watching my teammate’s rides and walking their courses with them.
I learned how to do something hard with a team. Our team is just over 10 people on its best day, with injuries or financial breaks at any given time, but we compete against much bigger schools with success, and we have gained the support of the Wofford community and administration over time – we have proven to be more than just an attempt at a team. It was a struggle to get the school behind us – and it still is! But we have done tremendously with the support we’ve been given.
Throughout our six-month season we grew in number, placed well in our region, and worked through crazy logistics as a team. We scheduled our lessons and riding groups, organized carpools to lessons and shows, pitched in to bring food to shows, shared equipment and helped each other with show prep, frantic moments and bad rides. We offered advice and took pictures and videos for each other so we could be better next time.
We learned what it takes to get two carloads on the road at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday. We ate gallons of ice cream straight from the container with a dozen spoons in our hotel rooms, shared beds, jackets, and occasional shoulders during car rides. We worked hard, shivered and sweated together from September to February. We are a team.
I learned to work for it – and trust that God would provide what I couldn’t. I joined the team knowing that $50/week for lessons was $30 more than I was currently earning, and that I would have to pay big bucks for the equipment I didn’t have for horse shows (everything was different than my existing gear!). I knew that this was my “last chance” to compete, and that the competition could only help my experience as a rider and instructor. My parents helped with some of the startup costs, and I spent money I shouldn’t have in order to pay for lessons. There was much prayer. After just two lessons we went to our first horse show. Even though I was riding on the flat, each lesson was a leap of faith.
I’ve been blessed by others. Since I joined the team, I’ve been given two pairs of tall dress boots (the most recent pair far too expensive for me to buy myself!), a jumping saddle to ride in with my horse so that I can work on my position, a pair of half chaps for schooling, a coat to borrow for shows, boot pulls, etc. So many people have asked how they can help the team as a whole but also me as a rider, and one special mentor in particular once said, “… Because you need to ride!”
Every time I think I can’t pay for a lesson, God provides. Sometimes He provides after the fact, but I have learned to trust, and this makes the unexpected support from others that much more sweeter. I’ve been moved to tears and certainly moved to thank God again and again for bringing me to this team.
I learned to embrace failure – even the embarrassing kind. Flush, the horse I drew at my first IHSA horse show, “flushed my dreams down the toilet.” He was quite uncomfortable with the show and tried to make himself invisible as we struggled to trot at eight miles-per-hour around the ring – we were going more like six. My cues were going nowhere.
This should have been a red flag… unconfident, introverted horses (like any horse you would describe as “gentle, calm, or sweet”) shrink deeper into themselves under pressure before they can’t take it anymore.
But I was totally caught off guard when Flush exploded in center ring, bucking for a solid four (… seven?) seconds and then halting next to a jump. My only thought when he erupted: I JUST bought this helmet five days ago and I am NOT spending that much money replacing this thing, you jerk! Don’t you DARE buck me off!
When we stopped, I chuckled to myself because I had stayed on… and then I realized I was sitting on the horse’s neck.
I laughed at myself again, then shimmied awkwardly back into the saddle and rejoined the class. Our second direction was lovely and my face was a lovely shade of red to match. No ribbon, but no medical care needed – so began my hunt seat career.
Since then, I’ve learned to chuckle at an awkward transition or an ugly lead change. This doesn’t mean I don’t take mistakes or hiccups seriously – I am always aiming at perfection and accepting whatever my best may be that day.
Mistakes are for giggling (because we just can’t be perfect) and for learning. If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning anything and you’re not riding.
By the end of our season, I had been in the ribbons only twice. But I learned more than I can list. While I’m aiming high this year, I’m unafraid of bad results, and this mindset has helped me as a rider tremendously.
Ribbons don’t matter much to me, but the success of the team makes me beam. At our final show of the season, Wofford was fourth overall (and Grace was High Point Rider!) against teams like the College of Charleston, the University of South Carolina, Clemson University, Furman University, Converse College, Lander University, and many others.
Some of these teams are NCAA D1 teams with more expensive gear than we will ever be able to afford, but we can definitely ride with them! We are hoping to grow in size this fall and I cannot wait to see how our second season goes.
I’ve grown as a rider. Midway through the season I started jumping, and after just my 12th jumping lesson I competed in an open show and won champion over two-foot fences. I have ridden all kinds of horses in the past season. Hopefully, I’ll do well and qualify for the novice jumping class by March – I’ll need at least five decent, early ribbons in order to compete over fences by the end of the season. If I succeed, this means I’ll also qualify for regionals. As a rider that never competed seriously growing up, this is a weird concept. But I’m chasing that goal like I stole the horse I’m riding.
I’ve learned that this is only a glimpse of what I will learn and achieve. In just one season, I have learned to compete with poise even when things went horribly wrong. I have learned to instantly recognize the kind of horse I’m riding, and how I need to behave (lightly, enthusiastically, strongly?) in order for the horse to perform at its best. I have learned to calm my nerves – to block out any what-if scenarios and ride like I know I’ve already won. Each time I enter the ring, from the first instructions of the loudspeaker to the final line up, I’m in heaven. I fly.
I’ve learned to work with all kinds of people – teammates, coaches, and competitors – and I have learned to find a way to pay for my passion. I am now paid to teach where I once interned as a therapeutic riding instructor, I work three other jobs, and I try my best not to spend money on anything besides horses, as necessity allows. I’m riding as many horses as I can for as long as I can, while I still can.
The reason I wrote 1700 words on purpose: to all my fellow Terriers out there who might be tempted to try our team but feel like you don’t belong: You do! We want you to join us, and I guarantee that you’ll be surprised at what you learn. My list is different than everybody else’s – come find yours!
My horse is impressive. She’s one of the most complicated horses I’ve ever met, and she’s definitely the most sensitive. She’s got spirit to spare, she’s fairly athletic, and her mind goes 100 mph. She’s a showoff. She is everything I love about Saddlebreds and everything I dislike about Saddlebreds. She’s petite, but she’s about as easy to handle as an unruly racehorse. At our barn full of [traditionally trained] eventers and jumpers, she sticks out like a giraffe in a herd of wildebeest. And I love her to death.
Recently, though, I’ve been a little discouraged at how slowly Dancer and I are progressing with our “language” learning. At this point, she is usually too unconfident to trot on a loose rein – she has a hard time carrying herself at all without micro-management and she is still sometimes highly reactive to pressure around her head, even if she is “yielding.” We haven’t hacked out on the cross country course in months because she hasn’t been confident enough in the arena. There have been hoof problems and attitude problems to negotiate, herd dynamic fluctuations to adjust to and plenty of bad weather to wait out. (Additionally, between a full-time load at college and four jobs, I’m not as consistent as I’d like to be with my horsemanship.)
In short, it’s not been the summer of huge improvement that I imagined.
But there have been so very many victories, friends. A few recent comments:
“Wow, Dancer carries herself really well!” (said to me while we were riding at a walk, playing the “follow the rail” game)
“That horse LOVES you, Sarah. She doesn’t respond that way to anyone else.”
“Dancer is so sweet. Not sweet like, gentle, but sweet in the kind of way where she wants to be loved on. She’s definitely not gentle. But she is so sweet.”
“She’s not as bad as she could be – she comes back down to earth really quickly. You handle her so well.” (said to me by our farrier, who gets to see Dancer’s full “potential” when it comes to reactivity…)
There have been other successes, too: the day Dancer jumped crossrails like she had been doing it her whole life, no worries in the least. The day Dancer finally learned that pressure doesn’t always mean go forward/faster/farther. The day Dancer was really nervous and I scratched her withers until she was “grooming” me back. The hundreds of times she nickers to me in the crossties – every time I walk away and come back.
Sometimes I get frustrated that my horse is “the crazy horse” and that each moment takes intentionality and effort and lots of emotional fitness on my part. But on other days, when it is obvious to others that Dancer and I have a deep connection that outweighs our worst days, I smile.
That goofy girl is mine and she is adorable, even if she’s terrified that the wash stall is going to eat her or if she accidentally steps on her leadrope and thinks a mountain lion has just landed on her neck. Now, she’s always learning, not just reacting or submitting. I’m learning that this subtle change is enough.
I’m learning that our baby steps are snowballing. Our groundwork is translating wonderfully to the saddle, and Dancer’s confidence is only increasing as my leadership skills develop. I am learning just how sensitive Dancer is and just how little effort it takes to communicate to my genius girl. This also means that I am learning just how little energy it takes to totally ruin her confidence – it happens all the time. But our foundation is growing and people at our barn are starting to notice!
“Performance equals Potential minus Interference.” -Pat Parelli
With the amount of potential Dancer’s got, I can learn to work through a few [hundred] interferences.
One day, trailers won’t freak her out so much. One day, we’ll go for a nice hack in the cross country field without an adrenaline spike or a spook. One day, we’ll wade through the water trap and enjoy it. One day, I’ll be able to ride Dancer bridleless over jumps and play with her at liberty the same way I do now with a rope.
But for now, I’m thrilled when she drops her head and yawns during her farrier visit, licks her lips in the wash stall or transitions from a walk to a trot without getting emotional. I’m thrilled when she turns her head and asks me a question at the gate or paws at a barrel out of curiosity, and I am over the moon excited when she trots to meet me in the pasture.
I am a good enough horsewoman for this horse. I am enough.