“What do we need?”
These are the words that echo in my mind each time I ride Nixon and he is in one of “his moods.”
I own a very forward horse. Some would even say the most forward horse. A horse that by all other means should now be standing in a chandelier draped breeding shed in Lexington, Kentucky and covering 200 Zenyattas a day.
But regardless of his speed, and moreso because of his opinions, and therefore the removal of his, em, cowbells, he is not. He is instead living with me in the pursuit of $3 ribbons, and more importantly, XC schools that do not end with abrasions and a blown air canister.
And each time that I ride him and feel those gorgeous thoroughbred muscles clench and that engine start to hum, I know it is time to do the one thing that the neurons in my brain can’t seem to fire. The one thing that my body is screaming no although my brain is saying yes.
I need to add leg.
Or as I often think; cowbell.
We have all seen the skit on SNL where Will Ferrel thrusts his beer gut around in a belly shirt while hammering a cowbell as hard as possible. It is unnecessary, it is annoying, and it is the last thing that the song needs. But each time that the band leader (Christopher Walken) halts the song and demands a fix, the only thing he can come up with to solve the problem is to add MORE cowbell.
It is the opposite of what the band thinks. It is the opposite of the obvious.
It is, simply, more cowbell.
And that is what goes through my mind each time I feel that hotness, that tensing of his core. When your body is staying pull, when you should be hearing push. When you want to go into the fetal position, when you actually should sit up and ride.
When every fiber in your being is telling you to grab his mouth and pull, even though the truth is that you should be sinking your weight down, lifting your hands up, and adding leg.
Your leg is your cowbell.
And yet it is so hard to convince yourself to do the exact opposite of what you have been programmed.
Horse goes fast, you pull on their mouth, horse slows down. Horse goes slow, you kick with your legs, horse goes faster.
But in this case, with this horse, it is the opposite.
It is not as simple as horse goes fast, as Nixon knows whoa. He has the training and the tricks up his sleeve to behave when he wants to-hence the accolades adorning my mantle.
And it’s not as easy as pull back and whoa. For every time you touch this horses mouth, he accelerates harder. Faster.
It has come down to realizing what triggers the speed, and what acts as the brake.
Balance, or the lack thereof appears to be the trigger. He is such an innately balanced horse that he appears to float over the ground, and in fact did for many years and $500,000. But when he feels unbalanced, his immediate reaction is to find balance yet again. And as a 1400 pound, 17.1hh thoroughbred who ran long and hard, a gallop is his sweet spot.
He knows that if I would just let him run, he would feel comfort. It is easier than shoulder in, or haunches out. It is simpler than a canter/trot transition, or a halt.
Nixon didn’t leave the track because of lack of interest or lack of wins. He left because his owners wanted to finish him before that one last race, that one bad step. But in his mind-the racetrack is home. And maybe even more importantly, the gallop is comfortable.
So I have learned that instead of searching for or demanding an E-brake, I had to find a new comfort zone. A down shift. And that comfort zone is my legs. My cowbell.
My friend Alexa jokingly referred to them as his Thunder Blanket, and that couldn’t be any closer to the truth. Because when I wrap my legs around his core, I am supporting him. And more importantly, I am able to use that training and those tricks to rebalance him. To reassess which part of his body isn’t in comfort. I can use the haunches in to slow, or the shoulder fore to flex.
And for a horse who demands happiness, and more importantly, balance, this relaxes him.
It is not an argument with my hands. It is not a punishment with my spurs. It is simply a support. A comfort. A Thunder Blanket.
And it is my cowbell.
But it is still so hard to convince myself to do something that goes against every fiber of my being. My body is aching to pull back on the bit, and my shoulders are tipping down towards his neck. His gallop intrinsically demands that I lean forward into two-point.
But my brain knows that it is time for the down shift. The cowbell.
It is time for the thing that might seem so counter productive and so counter intuitive, and bang away with force. With gumption. Without hesitation.
I hope to be the best cowbell player out there for Nixon. Put on my best Will Farrell game face. Ring that cowbell with abandon. And support my horse.
More leg. More cowbell. Rock on.