Couples Therapy Part 2: The Grey Area
I wrote the first installment of my blog entitled Couples Therapy last week. It was the end of a long month where my horse and I battled constantly. He hated to be groomed, he hated to be caught. He hated to walk hack, to flat, to jump. And I was over it. I didn’t crave the ride that I had previously.
I went to the barn and tacked up Mak, and then Kennedy, and then stood in front of Nixon’s stall and stared at him. Contemplating if it was worth tacking up, contemplating if the stress of the ride was worth the risk of reward.
Would he be good? Would he actually trot and not jig? Would I be able to canter him without grabbing for the brakes every stride? Would I be able to stop him without turning him into a fence – and if I did turn him into the fence, would he stop? Or finally just jump?
And I wrote the blog explaining this exasperation because I wanted people to realize that it isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. That, just like any relationship with a human, there are good days and bad. You will have arguments, and disagreements, and sometimes – you will just want a day or two of no contact with the outside world at all.
With the invention of social media, we are immensely exposed to each others lives. There is a beauty in this, as it allows me to stay connected to friends from afar, and family members have access to my daily minutiae that they otherwise would not get to experience.
But the problem with social media is that we get to pick and choose what others get access to. My friends who are mothers post of their children’s dance recitals, but never mention them talking back or breaking that window with a baseball. My friends in relationships post of their loved ones surprise flowers and immense generosity, but never write of picking up socks or being infuriated by their lack of romance.
And those with horses post relentlessly – which I can’t complain about, because I do as well. We post of blue ribbons, and automatic changes. Flawless rounds, and horses galloping to the gate when called. We talk about finishing on our dressage scores, and how the stadium round was PERFECT with “only one cheap rail”.
My own Facebook page reads no differently. The majority of my horses are for sale, and even if they’re not, I’m cognizant of how easily social media can be stalked in the future. Mak was never meant to be a sales horse, but is currently listed – and I know that if prospective buyers scroll through my page, they will just see flawless photo after flawless photo and captions describing the athleticism, ease, and scope that he possesses. I did that intentionally. I did that with a purpose. No one wants to read the bad, they only want to hear the good.
And I tried that with Nixon. I kept our problems away from social media all of last summer, and instead tried to focus on the positive. I twisted bad rides into good moments, and never let anyone know that he was so tough. And, at the end of the day, it worked.
He turned into the horse that I had verbally proclaimed him to be. He ended up being the most ridiculously talented, athletic, winning horse I had ever owned. And win we did. We won combined tests, we won the dressage portion of the Retired Racehorse Project TB Makeover, we won jumper shows, and he won my heart.
And because of my exaggerations, and my ultimate lack of truth, I began to hear people talk about Nixon. At shows, fellow competitors would mention the fact that of course Called to Serve won. Or my friends would message me saying that they were happy that I had been placed into a different division. Heck, my amateur status was questioned by USEF simply because another competitor was concerned about their chances against him. He got the reputation of being good. Really good.
I began to realize that this was mostly my fault. I didn’t spend much time talking about the struggles. The toughness. The arrogance and the cockiness. The horse salesmen in me had a hard time admitting his flaws, but was good at promoting his strengths. They only saw him win, and didn’t see my lack of sleep the night before the show as I worried if he was even ready.
So I began to post more honest statuses, but always dubbed them “Conversation’s with Nixon” which my friends and followers rather enjoyed. I would explain some aspect of his poor behavior from his point of view, explaining why he had done exactly what he had. If he had bolted during his walk/canter transitions that day, I explained from his point of view that he just “wanted to win the gallop” in Tokyo. If he attempted to bite me while grooming, I told my followers that he had just been letting me know that his salt lick was finished and my sweaty arm would suffice. And my friends and followers ate it up. They laughed and commented of their own struggles with their horses.
But then three months ago, Nixon popped a splint. He spent 4 weeks on stall rest and 4 more weeks with no riding and controlled turn out. And then we began legging him up again. In these eight weeks, he gained about 200 pounds, and his ego inflated alongside his belly.
I got the go ahead to start legging him up about 6 weeks ago, and went about it hesitantly. At first he was great. Out of shape and without much steam, he began his trot sets like an angel. And then as his fitness increased, combined with his newfound size and strength, he got hot. And we began to brawl.
I wanted to know where my 2nd level dressage horse had gone. I wanted to know why we were suddenly charging cross rails again. I changed bits, I changed martingales. I tried to hack before, or hack after. We tried less riding, or possibly more. And nothing worked. I would come home upset and defeated, wondering what it was that I was doing wrong, or what lack of communication was going on between the two of us. Was it the heat? Was he in pain? Ulcers? Kissing Spine? EPM? A brain tumor?
I wrote the last blog during this time, and the response was pretty intense.
Because everyone who responded saw the situation in black and white. If he was misbehaving, it was either 100% my fault because I sucked at riding. Or it was 100% his fault, but solely because he was in pain, or telling me something was wrong. Many people messaged me and told me that they feared for my safety and that I needed to get rid of him before I got hurt. And others told me that I needed to find a horse better suited to my skill level, and let him go to a real professional. That it was obviously black and white – and he was black, and I was white.
And I’m here to tell you that horses are not just black and white. Well, they are, but they are also bay. And chestnut. And spotted, and dappled. And sometimes, they’re a beautiful grey.
There is so much grey in this sport. In these relationships with these animals. Because they are exactly that – living, breathing creatures with a brain, a heart, and four extremely strong legs.
Not all people are made for every horse, and I support that statement strongly. I have written blogs about finding the right horse for you, and I truly believe this to be true.
But, if you ride long enough, at a high enough level, you are bound to find both good times and bad. The horses underneath you have opinions, and emotions, and sometimes they just wake up on the wrong side of the stall.
And we as riders have stress from our jobs, our boyfriends, our income and our families. Sometimes we go to the barn as a stress release, with a clear mind and a clear heart, and sometimes we walk into the aisleway begging for a fight. Or as I like to say, cruising for a bruising.
I believe that you should be matched with a horse who is well suited to you, but we all must also understand that horses are not robots. And we are not dictators. This sport is a conversation, a partnership, and a relationship that continuously ebbs and flows, growing and regressing daily.
Last month was tough. I’m not going to lie and write a fluff status saying that it was a great time in my relationship with Nixon. Both Nixon and I were not in a good head space, and we battled because of it.
Because I have met a horse just as stubborn, tough, intelligent, and cocky as myself, and because of that – we can, and will, brawl.
But after writing the initial blog, I went back to the barn and regrouped. I tacked up, swung on, and reached down and scratched his neck. I draped my legs loosely around his barrel, and gathered my reins. I sat up straight and I asked him to bend, to soften, and to relax his poll.
And for the first time in many weeks, we had a fantastic ride. He remembered how to half pass, and how to do haunches in. The next day I set fences, and he calmly and softly cantered towards them and over them.
We are happily in the middle of Couples Therapy. Where there isn’t yes or no, life or death, black or white. Just a lot of conversations, negotiations, happy mediums, and grey area.