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.
Well said (as always)!
Brutally honest. And all so true. If we all will read this with the same honesty, all horsemen should realize that we too have had similar situations in our times with our beasts. I love my old man, but we too have had moments in our 30 years together, maybe not to this degree, but moments nonetheless. Bravo Carleigh, bravo. Keep it up. And don’t let the naysayers get to you.
Thank you for such a wonderfully honest post (well, two of them, as I enjoyed the last one too).
Been there, done that, got the T-shirt and am in a similar ‘WTF am I doing this’ state of mind (and my spot of bother is not half as talented as yours, trust me !!).
As you say, a relationship – any relationship – is challenging, even at the best of times. There is a lovely story from a friend of mine who was complaining bitterly about her other half one day and a friend said ‘are you going to divorce him?’ to which she raised an eyebrow and said ‘Divorce him? No dear. I could cheerfully murder him most days of the week, but divorce him? Never!’ Which kinda sums it up sometimes.
There are horses that are fantastic – and then awful – and then fantastic again (lather, rinse, repeat), just like there are people who are the same. And there are some horses that are just fantastic, or just awful, or a random mix of all the above. And there are some combinations that just work and some that just don’t (even though both parties are really nice and really like one another). Some just rub each other up the wrong way. So either one has to change or one has to make a change. Simple, right?
Wouldn’t it be nice if life was quite so black and white? As I said, I have one that sounds a lot like Nixon, except mine is 15’1 on his tip toes and chestnut with horns masquerading as ears. He doesn’t even have the benefit of good ground manners. So, some days I wonder (as does my husband) why the hell I don’t just give up. The answer is “I don’t know”. Or maybe ‘I’m just not ready yet.’ But I just can’t (and yes, it’s illogical and pointless and quite possibly dangerous, but there it is).
I was talking to a friend recently about ‘why horses?’ when they are so expensive and dangerous and infuriating (and did I mention expensive?) and the best answer I came up with is the old racing expression that no-one ever committed suicide with an unraced 2yo in the barn. Above all, horses give us a reason to hope. We hope that the next ride will be better. We hope that the show will go well. We hope that one day we will be the characters in those idyllic photos where everything looks so light and easy.
So (for better or for worse) I still seem to have hope somewhere deep inside, so I’m going to keep my little gremlin and keep chipping away and just see what happens. Life’s a journey, right?
I write this not because I know a lot, but because I have a coach who does and I am appalled at the danger you are exposing yourself to. Unfortunately, horses do not have “grey areas” or negotiations. In horse-thinkl, there is only yes or no. They try things and if it works to their advantage, it is a yes for them and they will continue. Our failure is in not recognizing their modes of operation. In every horse herd, there is a hierarchy. When we work with a horse, we become a “herd of two” and it is up to us, as the creator of that herd, to establish the hierarchy. If an alpha horse wants a particular patch of grass, he flicks an ear or gives the evil eye toward the lower-status horse. If the other horse does not move, the alpha escalates to bared teeth or even reaches to bite. When his goal is achieved, the discussion is over and everyone is quite calm about it. We must establish that we are the alpha member of the herd by establishing and zealously guarding our personal space, generally about 3′ in all directions. We can invite the horse into this space, but the horse must never encroach this space on his own. A slap in the mouth will send him out of our space. One quick flick of the wrist. Once he has withdrawn, you can verbally tell him he is good in order to reinforce that he made the right decision. Also, use the back of your hand to stroke him, so your hand does not become a visual cue that he will be hit. Pushing the horse’s head away is meaningless to the horse and wastes your energy – his neck can weigh almost as much as a person. Horses don’t push each other, they bite. Your slap is the equivalent.
Having allowed Nixon to believe he is the alpha member of your herd means you will have to work harder to convince him now that the tables have turned. But the rules are the same: one smack at a time. If the hand doesn’t work, you may need to escalate to the butt-end of a whip — the thick rubber kind, not a mushroom-cap whip. Don’t poke, use the side of the whip. Again, use it to stroke his neck when he has done the right thing to prevent it from becoming a visual cue. When he keeps away at the halt, the same goes for leading. Because of the lead rope, the horse normally follows if you turn away from him, but if you walk across HIS path, he should now get our of YOUR way. If not, the smack in the mouth until he gets it. When you walk, he should walk. When you halt, he should halt. If he misses the cue of your stopping, you can add the British-style two extra steps in place when you halt, but then it is time to correct him. If a tap in the chest doesn’t work, then escalate to a smack. If that doesn’t work, use the whip under the chin. Horses naturally bring their head up when they halt, and this uses their own action.
All of this sets the tone for our relationship with the horse. Another woman in my barn spent the weeks while her horse recovered from suspensory issues doing groundwork established by our coach, and it totally transformed her horse’s outlook on life. The next time I saw her riding, I could not believe it was the same horse, who used to toss people, object to canter aids, etc.. Loving them, pleading with them “please don’t do that,” “now, be good,” gets us nowhere in the horse world. They have no goal of pleasing or displeasing us, they just learn what makes their life easier and what doesn’t. If we fail to understand horse-think, we are doomed to being nothing more than hoof-padding.
You sure wrote a lot about everything Carleigh is doing wrong for not knowing a lot. Carleigh is an experienced horsewoman (I know because I’ve seen her work with Nixon a hell of a lot and seen how much he’s changed for the better) and knows how to keep herself safe with her horse in addition to getting through to him. And trust me, if Carleigh slapped him in the mouth like you’ve suggested above, she’d have a huge fight on her hands that she couldn’t win.
There are different ways of making horses understand who is in charge and Carleigh has done a great job making Nixon know she is.
As I said, I wrote because I am appalled at the danger she is exposing herself to. I’ve seen the techniques work, even with horses who think people are chew toys and mustangs who think everything is life-threatening. A simple smack like you’re flicking a fly away is so fast the horse just gets surprised and then thinks about it. She’s the one who has said she is in an abusive relationship and these are tools to change the situation. She can try something constructive or she can continue to be battered and bruised.
I wrote this blog to speak of the fact that not everything is rainbows and butterflies with training horses, but if you read closely, you would read that he has become cantankerous after a period of stall rest. He has not been like this every day for years, nor am I severe danger of being hurt.
With that being said, I have a strong resume for working with tough horses–both from when I was a yearling manager, to now as I finish my doctorate in reproduction–focusing on stallions. I have trained a variety of horses, and consider myself fairly good at what I do. While what you are recommending does serve a purpose at times, it can also do nothing more but irritate and enrage an already upset horse. I have handled hundreds of colts and stallions, and have learned that 99% of the time, a gentle confidence does more than any reprimand ever will. In the case of Nixon, if you had read the attached articles, you would have read of his past. He was famous on the track for being difficult to manage, and men attempting to outmuscle him or reprimand him got them nowhere. I do no tolerate his poor behavior, and he is reprimanded when he kicks or bites or shoves, but my battles are chosen wisely and carefully. What you are recommending would not only not work, it would simply piss off a horse that already has a bit of a temper problem and is 1400 pounds.
But please, don’t fear for my safety, as I am fully equipped to handle a horse like him. This blog was more written from a place of where I am able to handle it, it’s just not fun to deal with daily.
Great post! Can’t wait to see what happens next, good or bad, as we have all been there, even if we don’t post about it on social media