Before and After

“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.


“Got it!”


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.





A Pain Response

“I think she’s really sore.”


I read these words from the dressage coach I sent Fiona to in the San Diego area. I was lucky to work with her a year prior, and when Fiona had some troubles, she seemed the best resource to be able to help Fiona either improve, or find a new home in the rich horse market that is California.


“Maybe nothing that would be a big deal on its own, but something that could make anxiety a lot worse.”


I tend to think of pain as a narcissist, a self-important voice focusing on the “I” in its name saying “I’m tired, I hurt, I need something else, I need more, I am absolutely the most important thing you have to think about.”


Now I thought about pain as an amplifier.


I was recently out to dinner with my mother. We had a beautiful view, savory food, and each other’s company. We also had a phone-focused couple next to us, the female of whom had a high, nasal voice reminiscent of an air leak, and a large party beside us with kids doing as they will when parents suddenly develop amnesia and senselessness to their children’s presence. Without a squawking left hamstring, I could have blocked out ‘booboo’ coos and galumphing kid feet. Not being able to sit in any position without pain like an embedded ice pick, I was distracted to the point of just wanting the meal over—ridiculous in the same way as if I were awarded a trip to Hawaii and just couldn’t stand the smell of coconut sunscreen. I knew I was in a great place, knew I wanted to feel wonderful about it, but, despite myself, I felt crummy and couldn’t help shifting around just trying to get more comfortable.


Now I thought about Fiona.


Nothing about her had looked sore to me.


“She was moving sound and didn’t flinch when I groomed her,” I texted back. “What’s hurting her?”


“Several points along her spine,” came the reply, “and extremely tight hamstrings. Nothing that would test in the pre-purchase exam, but enough to really bother her.”


Both of us have sore hamstrings? Since when is tightness a communicable condition?


“Will be interested to learn how you figured that out,” I wrote back. “Good to find out about these things before they cause bigger problems.”


“I’ll show you when you get here,” she promised, then said Fiona had also been tilting her head and didn’t seem to be able to walk a straight line for being so crooked.


“That’s funny,” I confessed. “I’ve worked with her so much on a circle trying to get her to bend, I haven’t even tried a straight line.”


So far, Fiona’s routine under saddle seemed to be to start quick and stiff, then progress to quick and flexing at times, to more relaxed and bending after about thirty minutes. Because she’d been so unresponsive to rein pressure until minute thirty-one or more, I hadn’t wanted to ride her in a straight line where she could pull against me, preferring the circle work to be able to use body weight and position to keep her turning rather than building speed.


I thought more about pain.


It makes sense to me that pain should be as variable in horses as it is in people. In my own case, for example, I can walk without a problem, swim with only minor twinges depending on the stroke, and can dance without any aggravation. Run more than a few steps, or any faster than a jog, however, and it’s as though I can feel my hamstrings pop, squeeze, then begin to burn like I backed into a stove. As a result, I have nixed running workouts. Racing my nephew in the park, however, is worth every hot spike.


Suppose that Fiona has something similar. Nothing structurally wrong, so a vet wouldn’t catch it doing the typical horse activities of walk and trot, especially if Fiona can look like she’s interested in something that causes her to turn or tilt her head. Little could we know at first that her tilt-and-turn isn’t interest, it’s pain management. Nor would I necessarily pick up on her carriage when I’m focused on trying to relax her out of being stiff: to this amateur rider, stiff and straight is the same problem as stiff and crooked. Either way, I have a resistance I need to supple before I can rate speed or posture.


Now let’s suppose that Fiona, like me, is reactive to her pain only when asked to move certain muscles, or when something (saddle, bridle, my leg) moves against her in just the wrong way. I am nothing like a nephew to her yet. There is no way she could associate the poker of pain with a cost she’d gladly pay. I can immediately see why, if she feels at times the way I have felt, she could only think about escape. Never mind that I’m friendly, never mind that she’s been stabled with access to grass pastures, or that she’s treated to carrots after every ride – if she hurts, she’s looking for the first exit from serene countryside because all she can hear is pain’s needling voice.


I haven’t had to query a horse about discomfort before.

Usually it’s shown up like its own signboard with a lame gait, bloody gash, or side-biting, pawing, sweaty symptoms of colic.


This is more like the old joke, “Does it hurt when I do this?”


If yes, the answer is scripted: “Then don’t do that.”


But ‘not doing’ doesn’t work so well.


Most things are a matter of degree and strength; of testing how much of this can we do before the hurt is prohibitive? Can we change that over time? Or with more support (supplements, acupuncture, rest) and a different routine?


This is a conversation I’ve never had before, especially when the need for it has triggered dangerous behavior. If I were still ten, just learning to develop confidence as a rider, there is no way most trainers would want to keep a horse around that had run backwards. We are a litigious society, and there is also plenty of competition for our discretionary dollars. For completely understandable reasons, wise trainers partner youth riders with proven, reliable mounts, and if they should falter or misbehave, they will get disciplined, possibly drugged to be able to get through ‘something important’ like a show or event, then likely sold with the explanation that this horse needs a more experienced rider. If the horse bucked or kicked, the trainer isn’t advising a kid’s family to stick around to figure out why; they’re just going in the direction of something safer.


My dressage coach is outraged by this culture.


“As a European,” she points out, “I’ll tell you that none of you learn to ride a horse in this country because you’re never given a real horse to ride. You’re given horses that won’t move so no one will get sued.”


I remember the time I was thirteen, and my horse leapt out from the steady trot we’d been maintaining because of a rock clanging into the side of a lawn mower. My trainer made me jab and yank at that horse back and forth along the offending newly-shorn fence line until he was lathered and I was past crying.


“He has to learn he can’t do that to you,” she had shouted.


I don’t think either the horse or I learned much that day except to hate lawnmowers.


The horse went so sore shortly thereafter, we had to sedate him to keep him quiet enough to maintain stall rest.  When he could be ridden again, he was sold to an older rider.


At the time, my family acted on our trainer’s advice. This is, after all, why we pay subject matter experts.


Now that I can look back at that time, I can see that I was taught a certain range of skills to apply to a certain spectrum of horse behaviors. The only way I was to react to events deviating from that norm was to treat them as willful misbehavior and apply smacks, spurs, yanks, pulls or to surrender the horse altogether for the trainer to ‘fix.’


Thirty years on, we’ve all learned a lot more about horses, with a prevalent trend toward reading body language, and making a right decision easier for a horse than a wrong one rather than forcing anything.


Two weeks ago when my trainer had to help me keep Fiona from running me over or dumping me, she sent a corrective message  about manners and safety, but she didn’t beat it in, nor did she re-state the point again and again and again. At the time, she kept me safe, got Fiona under manageable control, and agreed that our place just didn’t bring out Fiona’s best.


Who knows what it was about us there: the separation anxiety on top of her pain, the fit of my saddle, the combination of work to rest creating sore muscles; we won’t ever know.


However, having kept her, Fiona can introduce me to a whole new vernacular, and I am grateful to have my learning assisted by people who believe in dialogue rather than the lash of a fear or dominance-based response. I note that this San Diego barn has no planted pasture whatsoever; it’s groomed dirt or hillside scrub. Maybe in addition to grumpy hamstrings Fiona and I also have some trauma around grass. We’ll surely have no shortage of conversation topics.