Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Warmblood Mare, Comes Complete With Issues."

"Warmblood mare, comes complete with issues."
Remember that line? That was O's sale ad from when I first bought her. And if you remember, she had some SERIOUS ones.
 Sometimes I forget exactly how far I have come with my wild redheaded beast mare. But sometimes, like these past few days, I am reminded of just how far we have yet to go.

And sometimes, you just gotta lay down a little law and have a come-to-Jesus meeting with your extremely stubborn redheaded beast mare. Redheads tend to have this tendency to, erm.... think they know better than you ALL the time. O is obviously no exception to this rule.

Following O's planned week off, I broke out my lunging equipment for her first day back on Saturday. She started off pretty quiet, trotting/cantering over some poles going to the right, and then she knocked one of the poles over and zoomed off into the canter. Several verbal "trot" commands from me were completely ignored, or met with one trot stride followed by an immediate pick back up into the canter. Well, fine then. Canter until you're done wanting to canter, and then you have to canter some more. I knew I wasn't going to wear her out per se, but given the chance to let her fizzle herself out a little, I knew I'd have a slightly more malleable horse on my hands.

45 minutes, she was still cantering, with no interest in trotting. I tested her a few times to see if she was ready for trotwork (she wasn't), and when she broke a few times, I asked her to keep cantering anyway. Finally, she responded to a trot command and stayed trotting quietly. 

I'd rather not have my horse stuck on an endless circle for a huge period of time, but sometimes you don't have much of a choice. Either get into a big fight, or let her fizzle herself out... I chose the fizzle route. 

We went through the same thing in the other direction, although it thankfully did not take as long. She went along in zoomy canter and zoomy trot, then of her own accord decided to smooth out the work. It's interesting to watch... she will be flying around in this unbalanced Standardbred-type trot, and then suddenly will shift down a gear and give you a nice, quiet, balanced trot. Shortly after she does this, she'll try to do a downward transition ("see look I did what you want, now I am going to stop.") If you ask her to quietly move onward, she will fly off again in her Standardbred trot or canter with a very pissy face. Anything to not do what you originally asked.

She is very interesting in that she never gets nervous or tense in the usual 'hot horse' sense.... she just chooses when she is going to use speed as her evasion of choice, and when she is going to be quiet. She is not an inherently hot and high energy character - around the barn and during hack rides, she is a completely chill cucumber, happy to stand immobile all day long, snoozing and eating her way through the day. I can hack her all day long at a walk in a halter and leadrope, no problem. But when she is asked to work, and she either a) doesn't understand, b) is unbalanced, or c) just doesn't feel like it, speed is her first and favorite evasion. Being a stubborn redhead, if she doesn't see why she should bother doing what you ask, then she is either going to fight you tooth and nail about it, or completely tune you out and ignore you. For being as strong-willed and forward as she is, deep down inside, I honestly think she is a seriously lazy critter at heart.

Sometimes, you just have to tell her "too bad, you have to do XYZ thing because I said so, and that's the final word on it."

On Sunday, all I wanted to do was get on and have a nice bareback hack around the barrels. Two of the hinges on my trailer tackroom door are broken, so until T can see about fixing it, I can't get into my tackroom without risking the door falling off. A nice bareback hack seemed like the way to go. We walked around the barrels once or twice, and then I asked her for a little sideways movement. She obliged, I stopped and patted her. We went the other way, she stalled out halfway through the exercise and sulled up against my leg. (Remember, this is the horse that when I got her would only walk, because any leg cues were met with a dead stop and an attitude of "nope won't do it," complete with kicking out, glaring at the rider's leg, and pinned ears. I don't take any regressions lightly.) I asked her to go forward, and move sideways again, and she stopped and threw her head around with an air of, "no, I'm done with this now." She refused to budge.

I got off her and started to move her around in hand. She had grown roots at this point, and when I touched her side to move her over, she didn't respond. I poked harder, no response. I poked HARD, no response. I openly slapped her in the belly, no response. NONE! She stood there stubbornly, looked at me out of the corner of her eye, while I poked and slapped away at her side. She knows FULL well how to move over and exactly how to do the exercise I was asking. Finally I poked her in the gut with my knee, and she begrudgingly obliged. We moved around for several minutes in this manner - her ignoring me, me insisting she do XYZ thing until the escalation got so high that she finally begrudgingly did it. But there was no improvement in her attitude, or the speed at which she did anything. She just said "no" to everything I asked, because she didn't see why she should say yes.

In all of my soul-searching I have been doing over the past month or two, I've come to realize that all of the non-eventing things I've been trying with her - barrels and endurance specifically - are all things I chose because they allowed me to avoid bringing out this bad attitude in her. They allowed her to run along in straight lines and sharp turns, but they did not address the real issue - the attitude she came with. She still doesn't even get her correct leads half the time. That is irresponsible and bad training on my part. That is me avoiding the real problem. Sure, she can canter along for an infinite amount of time, or run and turn, but does she *actually* listen when I put my leg on her? No, she doesn't. In a way, she is no better trained now than on the day that I first picked her up. That is irresponsible of me. If your horse can canter for 25 miles but can't put in even a mediocre and obedient Training level dressage test (not a winning test, just be able to w-t-c halt and do reasonably round circles)... does it even have the basics down? Nope. I've been using the excuse of, "oh, she just doesn't like to do dressage," which is code for "geez this mare is SO HARD to ride on the flat, she makes it a total nightmare sometimes." That is me being a lazy, bad trainer. And that has to end now if I ever want this horse to succeed.

Unfortunately that means I am going to have to roll up my sleeves and not take no for an answer from her. Her "no" is not just a "no" either. It is a big, resounding, "No, F-YOU and I WON'T and JUST TRY TO MAKE ME YOU'LL BE SORRY."

(Add-in: I'm under the impression she was born this way. There is still a copy of her original ad floating around online, when she was 3 and not yet under saddle, and it contains a few telling buzzwords and phrases such as: 
"Gabby can be strong willed, so she will need someone who is experienced and patient. She has also become very herd bound over the spring/summer. As long as she is around other horses she is very sweet and affectionate, but gets upset once she is by herself. This mare will make someone who has time and patience to work through her issues an amazing athlete."
Sound familiar?? She wasn't even broke back then!! And that was a SALE AD, imagine how much they actually glossed over her REAL attitude!)

And yes, we've combed over her back and forth with a fine-toothed comb on physical issues. The only thing we can come up with is that she tends to have really whacked out heat cycles - last time we checked her, she had two giant angry swollen ovaries, both of which were covered with huge 25-30mm follicles (like 15 on each ovary). My vet, who specialized in repro work, kind of said, "wow.... that's really weird." She had just finished her cycle and was already out of heat. Basically she's just a swirling vessel of hormones, or as I like to call it, adrift in the estrogen ocean. We did put her on Altrenogest for the rest of the season, and that did keep her from going into heat, but it didn't really change the behavioral stuff, and it's REALLY expensive (AKA just not worth it). Aside from breeding her or spaying her, well... what can you do.

In short, I bought this horse for so cheap because she had been so thoroughly screwed up by an idiot trail rider that she was unrideable. Hell, her sale ad read, "Warmblood mare, comes complete with issues." It's not like I didn't know this had deep roots. I bought her because I believed I could fix her, and I still do. She has come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go.

Anyway. Back to our work on the ground. 

After about 15 minutes of no progress in our groundwork, I took her up to my trailer and decided to tack up and get on. I did some more work in hand (backing up, switching directions, yielding), this time with the aid of my dressage whip. O was even stubbornly sulled up against that, and it took one or two solid whacks before she begrudgingly moved over. When I went to switch directions, she bolted forward directly into me, bodyslamming me and sending me spinning off to the side. She has come pretty darn close to doing the exact same thing before when working on the ground, so I wasn't completely surprised that she made full body contact with me, I was just... pissed.

That's enough. No more being nice. You do not come barging into my space. You especially do not run me over. Game over.

I spent 15 minutes absolutely handing her butt to her on the ground. Back, forth, sideways, forward, round and round. We were both covered in sweat by the time she started responding quickly. I hopped on when she was finally responsive and quiet, and still she fought me - I had a jigging, head-tossing, prancing hothead on my hands. I went about 20 feet before I turned around, hopped off, and went to go fetch the hackamore (I had picked her usual snaffle). I am also an idiot and fell into a cactus while climbing down from the fence with said hackamore in one hand... holy crap that is the worst sting you've ever experienced. With a butt-ful of cactus hairs embedded in my thigh and butt, I put the hackamore on overtop her snaffle, and climbed back on. 

 That's a lot of hardware. The hackamore was actually overtop the front of snaffle for the ride, acting kind of like a kineton.

She took only two jiggy steps. Only two. The second that hackamore activated, she came to a screeching halt and stood immobile. I watched the wheels in her head turn. I smiled. I dropped the hackamore reins completely. I knew I wouldn't need them again.

She moved off quietly. She trotted on a steady contact in a steady rhythm. She stayed on a 20 meter circle with no speeding up. I was able to put my leg on her, and she lightly arced around it. 

I asked for a canter. She picked it up easily, on the correct lead, with no head tossing or bolting. She stayed on the 20 meter circle, on a steady contact, with no galloping/bolting/falling in/disaster. I put my leg on, and again, she bent nicely and stayed balanced. I think that is the first time ever that I put my leg on in the canter and had that response.

I slowed back down to walk. I trotted again, with the same results. I cantered again, with the same results. She was absolutely excellent.

I didn't even bother to go the other way, so great was my desire to end on a positive note. I just praised her heartily, patted her, and walked off on a long rein.

She had a very deserving two days off after all of that. 

I am no professional, but I'm not a half-bad jock. I have ridden a lot of hot, hard-headed, difficult horses over the span of my riding career. I can safely say that this is far and away the most challenging horse I've ever sat on. And this is coming from the girl who had Gogo The Rearing Wonderhorse.

At least O doesn't buck, rear, bite, strike, kick, or do anything mean. She just, you know.... makes me work really REALLY hard for every good moment. I will come out of this a better rider and a better horseperson, I guarantee you that.


  1. Kick ass and take names! In the battle of A vs O, A wins! :D

  2. Oh my god. What a showdown! You are totally right, redheads are hardheaded dickfaces sometimes. Mine sure is. Ignoring my leg cues after about 20 minutes of warm up is pretty normal. So is freaking out if I don't ride EXACTLY PERFECT. It's so frustrating. He's actually a very lazy horse at heart, too. Wtf redhead?

  3. What a pill. I would have erupted, too, if she'd plowed me over like that! My blood boiled a little just reading it! I guess this head mare just needs a bigger head mare figure in her life that she can respect and follow. It doesn't sound easy at all, but you've got the know-how to to win the mental battle of wills and respect with this lady horse! I bow down to your epiphany on her issues and your resolute to resolve them the best way you can.

  4. Sounds like a breakthrough, hopefully it sticks! It is nice that she doesn't rear, buck, etc. at least!

  5. Wow. I think I would have started crying at the cactus in my butt.
    Way to stay rock solid and work through her illusions. I love that you sat back and thought about how the things you are doing with her are because she's comfortable with them/finds them to her liking - and that your riding isn't determined by what she prefers, what she wants - redheads are SO bossy and always think they know best. You are an inspiration lady!

  6. Why is it that we always end up with a horse that makes our own issues so perfectly transparent? I guess it says something about how tough you are when the horse is O, lol.

  7. What a battle, way to stick with it and come out victorious! I hope O remembers who is in charge now.

  8. For the longe day, I agree that sometimes you just gotta let them run. Hemie has those days every so often...especially after time off.

    While its certainly good that you're re-focusing on issues that have been lingering, I don't think that it was bad training to do other things (barrels, etc) because that built her confidence, deepened your relationship, gave her more adjustability, helped her and you enjoy life more, etc etc. But it sounds like you are drawing your line in the sand and she's figuring out that line!

  9. I feel like this is a good epiphany all around!

  10. I had to laugh at the first line- the sale ad. Reminded me of an ad I considered writing for my paint. "For sale, gorgeous Paint gelding, occasionally acts like the broke horse that he is."

  11. Your O reminds me so much of my own redheaded mare that I leased for the last four years. Every description you write of her is just like my mare, except that mine was a touch hotter and tended to bolt easily. I wish you the best of luck with her! I ended up letting my lease go earlier this year when I realized it just wasn't fun any longer - even on the good days I still spent too much time waiting for the other shoe to drop. You've got much bigger balls than I do! :)

  12. I do not tolerate being run over either!!! I try not to get rough with horses, but that's one situation where I will come unglued on them!! It sounds like a few hard lessons in leadership is what she needs because she's spent her whole life calling the shots. Or that's how it comes across reading this. I'm glad you spent the last year bonding, getting to know each other and trying new things, but it does sound like it's time to knock her down a peg or ten! Good job!