“Now push her underneath your hands, and add the spur to ask her to jig.”
No, I was not at the mercy of a truly bizarre square-dance caller. I was in the saddle, learning what dressage practitioners call a half-step.
“You want to sit back, to see if you can make her quicker off the ground, rather than moving further forward. Think like she’s trotting behind. Does that make sense?”
Mentally, I got the image of a car squealing its back tires. “I get the idea, but I don’t really understand how she could be trotting behind but not totting in front.”
Dauntless, my dressage coach began jogging toward us. “So, this is a trot, eh?” She paused, jogging in place, her knees and feet rising higher in their steps. “And this is the jig we want. Quicker off the ground. Like the floor is lava. That quick.”
Having grown up in Arizona, where summer sidewalks can steam during rainstorms, this was a concept that landed.
I held my hands steady, reins taut, seat tentatively still as I turned my pressing ankle inward to apply the spur.
First, Fiona swung her haunches into my leg, as though trying to push me off; then she swung them the other way, trying to avoid me. When I still kept up the spur’s pressure, she raised her left hind leg the way I might feign throwing an elbow. Finally, tired of me, she kicked out with the left hind, throwing me forward in the saddle.
My coach laughed. “So that’s her telling you very nicely that you’re pushing too hard with that spur.”
I flexed my ankles outward to remove the spur’s contact with Fiona’s body, then rode another round of the arena braced for the buck I knew was coming before stopping, slumped before my coach, reaching to remove the first spur from my boot.
“I think I’m disappointed that she’s so reactive today.”
My coach peered at me as though I’d proposed that Fiona wear tap shoes.
“First, she wanted to spook at the pattern of my shirt in the mirror, then she spooked when you moved the chair earlier—”
The dressage arena sits away from the barn on a plateau carved out from the hillside, with a tented seating area on the downhill long side, and double-decker horse-sized mirrors at the far end that can help riders evaluate things like their horse’s straightness or frame. Usually blasé about our growing size in in the glass, today Fiona had wanted nothing to do with the bouncing diamonds of my argyle blouse, and even less to do with the chair that had levitated next to my coach a few minutes later when the lesson began.
“And what happened when she spooked?” my coach asked.
I removed the spur from my second boot hoping to hide the flinch on my face.
The short answer would have been ‘not much,’ but I’ve never been an especially concise student.
“I kept riding, circled around, let her look at things, got our bend and flexion back, then did a few exercises with walking and halting next to the scary things so she could look at them—”
“So, she got back to work?” my coach summarized, taking the spurs back from me.
“She did,” I agreed. “And—”
“And you had the tools to help her do that?” she queried.
To say the weeks we’ve been working with her have been instructive would be like saying Gene Kelly’s had some dancing talent. I had learned to ride and lead Fiona without fear, knowing I could stick with her and help her through anything scary, for instance, like the grinds and shots and bangs associated with the barn re-roofing next door. Fiona had also unwound from much of her prior pain, muscles smoothing and softening and manner relaxing to the point of sleepiness. Some days I’ve had to wake her up to put her halter on.
“I did,” I agreed. “But I haven’t had to use them lately, and I guess I’m a little bummed because we’d been doing so well, and last time we got such a good ride, and today we’re doing something new, and it’s unfamiliar, so it’s hard again, and it’s fair that she’d get reactive—”
“Reactive would have been taking off bucking,” my trainer laughed. “She’s not reactive, she just communicated, very nicely, that she was uncomfortable with what you were asking her to do.”
All three of us know that the left direction is harder for my mare, who has a kind of J-curve to her body, the left hind traveling at a bit of an outside angle compared to her other legs.
“It was fair that she’d let me know it was hard,” I agreed. “And she wasn’t mean about it.”
My coach nodded as I struggled to find more words for what was bothering me.
“I guess, in my experience, when a horse kicks out, he’s about to try to throw you off.”
“I see.” A knowing expression came across my coach’s face. “But with horses, you have to look at the before and after. With a horse like this who’s usually so quiet her lower lip droops, if she suddenly starts bucking you probably did something really wrong.”
It was my turn to nod.
“But if she starts out calm and relaxed, and gets back to calm and relaxed after something like a kick-out, that’s communication, and you’re lucky that she’ll tell you things, because other horses won’t—they’ll just suffer in silence, stoic—until they go lame or get ulcers.”
“I’m just—” I thought of Bayley, who had walked, trotted, loped, bent, pushed, and flexed in response to my requests, never even hinting that her left hind leg may as well have been detached for all the help it could give her. Chronic inflammation had stiffened the hock and ankle joints into nearly-locked discomfort, none of which I could assess from on top of her, figuring she’d tell me when she couldn’t or didn’t want to work anymore. I just didn’t know she would choose a stoicism giving her a greater chance at reciting Shakespeare than stopping or even limping. “—I’m not used to this kind of conversation.”
My coach gestured us away. “The best thing to do after a horse gets upset with something new, is to go back to something really boring. Go trot some circles.”
Fiona wasn’t bored, she was soon grooving.
We traced circles in the arena, then a figure-eight, then a serpentine with three curves, four curves, five curves, six, smoothing through the tightening turns like a belly dancer might snake through spirals.
I couldn’t help smiling as we wound our way, relaxed and joined, through each pattern, then into a hugely stretchy trot at the end, Fiona’s strides lengthening like ribbons unspooling. I was thrilled for this mare to be capable of such fluid motion, and ecstatic to be able to experience it.
“She doesn’t hold a grudge!” I laughed as I rubbed her mane and neck at the end of our lesson.
“You also took off your spurs,” my coach joked. “But yes, she did very well. I just want to make sure you’re not telling yourself something happened that didn’t.”
“I guess what I might know as a trigger warning doesn’t have to be,” I conceded, with the creeping sense that I’d had a lesson like this before.
I untacked, then hosed Fiona down, letting her graze before I put her away. My mind worked like her munching jaw trying to break down what I had taken in.
Then I recalled it—the conversation—I’d had with a love many, many months ago when he’d suggested dinner a certain night, then had never followed up to tell me where or when, and couldn’t be reached at all that afternoon. Eventually we’d connected, but I’d been thrown by what I had seen as indifference bordering on taking me and my time for granted. Turns out, he’d had a last-minute visit from a client.
When we talked about it later, he’d suggested that in the future if I’m upset about something I just ask him “what happened that night?” instead of going straight to queries about whether our relationship had changed. I had learned from other men that not calling meant the coming of not ever calling, but in this man’s world, not calling could mean getting suddenly interrupted or pulled aside by his customer base.
I have a friend who quotes one of her teacher that ‘life’s greatest imperative is repeat pleasure, avoid pain.’
I do not imagine that directive is limited to human life.
We all have conditioned responses based on pleasure and pain, especially where the sensations have been pronounced, but they are rarely the best responses.
As the same friend goes on to quote, another teacher suggests reminding ourselves ‘that was my first response. It may not be my best one.’
How very blessed to be pairing with another creature willing to give true trigger warnings: mellow messages of discomfort approaching disobedience, not willfully, but needfully. Especially if I am able to register her behavior before and after those messages, I can place them in a context that tells me this is a partner I can trust to want to tell me things.
My coach points out that we can also ask Fiona questions: if I attempt the same maneuver in the same way and get the same response, I have confirmed a combination of things that does not work for her, which I can then attempt to break down into separate pieces to figure out which one is the main offender.
Again, the lesson as from a time before that we can ask questions. I hope not to need it hereafter.