Walking without help, wondering when it would get easier.

April 1, 2018. I’m dating these posts because I’m a little behind, and it’s been a journey. Over the last three weeks I’ve been heading down to the barn to ride Bizzy at the walk. She’s been very up when we bring out into the ring, and broncing on the lunge line. When we would walk, at first, Lauren would lead her with me on her back, like a pony ride.

One day she was so up, and it was so windy, we didn’t ride her at all, which is so unusual for us. Lauren lunged her, and then I lunged her, and then we took her inside and groomed her and discussed emergency dismounts. Why was that on our minds? Because the week before Lauren had hopped down mid-bronc back to the gate in the middle of what had been a good-ish ride.

So over the last few weeks, when I’ve had a couple of walks on her that went well, and where Lauren left us to walk on our own, it felt like a breakthrough. But it wasn’t the real breakthrough we were looking for, as it felt tentative. I was aware of her ears constantly. She was looking for excuses constantly. Pricking her ears forward at anything. “Come on, Bizzy,” I would think as I drew her back to me, her ear flicking back or just flopping down as indication she was listening again. One of the times recently, when Lauren was still walking beside her, she tried nipping at her to get a rise out of her, to get an excuse to flip upward.

It was like that the whole time. Each time there would be a spook or a scoot; a few times I felt what it was like to get air between my seat and the saddle. But each time I would be centered, and after that initial adrenaline-inducing surge, she wouldn’t really do that much – and we would live to ride another day.

That was our winter into spring. Snow squalls, huge winds, nervy horse, wondering if it would get better, when it would get better, would we ever trust it and trust her.

Taking it down to the walk.

Over the course of November through March, really through the winter, Lauren was working her at the walk and trot. By February, we started only walking her. She was so up every time, so over-responsive to every aid – especially contact – that it seemed the only thing to do was just to walk it out.

We lunged her, of course. Lauren rode her more and more, around the snowstorms and whenever she could. I rode whenever I could get down there. Bizzy stopped going into orbit the way she did in November and December every time Lauren put the leg on or gave a little bit of contact, but still she was spooky, tripping, looking for some little reason to scoot or jump. But still, it was all we could do to have a nice, contained, relaxed walk without someone holding her or walking alongside.

The idea was (and this is echoed in everything you read about bringing Thoroughbreds off the track): Let her walk and relax. Let her realize we’re not going to ask for a single other thing. Let her do this in the worst months for horses – the months when their backs are cold (hence all the bucking and broncing on the lunge, kicking out and stretching out that back), the months when some horses are nervy anyway.

The idea was for me to know all I was going to do was walk. And her to know all she was going to do was walk. And then, through that, learn to accept a little bit of pressure on her mouth, a little bit of leg now and then.

Along with lots and lots of scratches on the neck and praise, telling her she was a good, good girl.

Second year, stronger horse

Since November, 2017, we’ve been in our second year — which has turned out to be a year of a brand new horse. The true Bizzy is beginning to emerge. Though last year at this time Lauren was jumping her – and I was trotting to crossrails and cantering away — we’re back to flat work for the moment. We went through a period of lameness over the summer and into the fall, and got that sorted out. (A slightly clubby foot – managed with injections and an excellent farrier and she’s back in (just) business.)

When she came back from that she was stronger. She’d built muscle over the summer. Her foot didn’t hurt. She’d been eating and enjoying her paddock and the other horses for months. And now — last November — she was ready to get going with that new body!

She expressed it through broncing on the lunge line, just jumping up and down while staying on a circle – which is a perfect expression of her youth and strength combined with her desire to be a good girl and do what we are asking. Then she expressed it with Lauren on her back, sailing four feet up and all four hooves off the ground when asked to canter to the right.

Was she lame again? Did something hurt? That was all I could think of. But Lauren thought about it and thought about it and sorted it out. It was the contact when being asked to canter. We know that contact on a thoroughbred means go; the jockeys keep a tight contact to ask for a gallop. Bizzy didn’t like going to the right (again like many OTTBs) because she wasn’t as balanced that way. And, she doesn’t know her aids yet.

To test her theory, Lauren took her back to the lunge line and practiced giving her “contact” with the line, drawing it down from where she stood and then verbally asking for a transition to trot or canter. Lauren treated it like a half halt – not a hanging down on her mouth. At first, Bizzy replicated what she did with a rider on her back – she exploded into the next gait. But eventually she accepted what it meant and made the transition without fuss. In both directions.

She wasn’t in pain. There was nothing wrong. She just didn’t get it. Lauren’s a smart cookie. And so is B.