Monday, March 23, 2015

The Berserker

Well, I suppose I was due to have a super bad drive at *some* point. 

After our great lesson on Tuesday, O had Wed-Friday off, due partly to the terrible weather and partly due to my schedule. I pulled her out Saturday afternoon to drive, hoping the rain would hold off. It did not - a few minutes into harnessing, it started raining solidly. We were already all set to go through, and I didn't want to put her back in the barn after all of the effort to lug all of my stuff out - what's the harm, she's gotta learn to cope with the rain, right?

In all honesty, she was very good about the rain, really and truly. She doesn't like rain much, but she put on a game face and got to it. We walked and trotted up and down the road, and everything was quite fine. She was being a very good girl, albeit a bit forward. Unfortunately, at some point my glasses inevitably became super wet, and the warm air rising up from my wet clothes fogged them clean over. I was completely blind, and needed to stop to wipe them. At the end of the road, I turned her around, and I halted her, taking off my glasses to wipe them.

And that's where everything totally fell to pieces. This is a spot where we usually start trotting, and O thought that it was time to do that, so she stood for a minute and then lunged forward into her breastcollar. I stopped her, and she did it again. And again. This is not abnormal behavior for her by any means - she'll stand rock solid immobile forever if you want her to.... unless she thinks it is time for going. Then she lunges into her breastcollar and bulldozes her way forward. I had no glasses on and was trying desperately to wipe them while still stopping her over, and over. She became frustrated with being stopped, and started to back up. I asked her to whoa, and she kept backing. I asked her to walk on, and she kept backing. We were steadily approaching the intersection (not a busy one thankfully), but going the wrong direction. We were also getting quite close to the ditch. I picked up my whip, and tapped her on the side, asking her to walk on.

And she LOST HER MIND. Absolutely lost her mind. She almost sat down, started throwing herself in every direction, and tried to go careering the other way. I tapped her again, because she still was going backwards, and she wound herself tighter and tighter. I could not get her to just GO forward. She tapdanced, she thrashed, and every time I tapped her with the whip, she went backwards into the pressure instead of away from it. This is also not new behavior... this is always her response when something isn't to her liking. She thrashed, and thrashed, and still I couldn't get her to go forward. She thrashed so very hard that she snapped the leather on the tug strap that holds the tug to the bellyband - the part that keeps the shafts close to the horse. (Thankfully not the girth or the tugs themselves.) I couldn't see that it had happened at the time, but you can imagine the violence of her thrashing in order to break that piece of thick leather. All I could do was keep saying "walk on... walk on... walk on." Finally she went forward, at a canter - basically throwing herself from going backwards right into the canter. I'm not keen on cantering in two wheel vehicles but hell, at least I was going forward. I let her canter most of the way down the road, then brought her back to a trot (and she listened), then turned her to make another pass up the road (not knowing I had a break in my harness). She was hot, and strong, and crashed forward again from the walk right into a zooming canter with a VERY strong hold on the reins. I had had quite enough of that, and asked her to slow down. She hit the brakes HARD, and threw herself into reverse. I almost flew off the box seat. Another serious of wild, violent flails, and she managed to break both holdback straps. BOTH. These straps are the brakes on a harness - they are what stop the cart from rolling into the horse's butt when it stops. I realized with some alarm that they were broken, and somehow managed to talk her down from her violent rage. Somehow, some way, I managed to get her turned around, and quiet enough to walk all the way home. There was literally nothing else that could be done.

My harness is very, very old - the people I bought it from had it for 20 years, and they bought it used off somebody else, so it is probably even older than I am. Stuff doesn't last forever, especially not stuff made of dead animals, and there's a possibility that it had some dry rot around the holes in the places that it broke, that were small enough to go unnoticed. But still, there's no denying that O flailed hard enough to break it, and break it in three different places. The harness is currently completely unusable until I can get replacement parts. The first show is less than three weeks away.

I love this mare dearly. I believe in her, I want her to do well. I want her to succeed because nobody else believes in her. I have tried for two years to find a sport that is suitable to her peculiar mental needs, and I really thought this one out of all of them was the best for her brain. But just as always happens with her - everything goes well in the preliminary learning stage of a new sport, when everything is super simple and easy and straightforward. But when things get more difficult, or more complicated, or aren't going exactly the way she expects them to go - she checks OUT. She just says NO, every time.

I've always described her as Jekyll and Hyde, ever since I first met her - when she is good she is SO very good, and when she is bad, oh god look out. When the marble rolls the wrong way, it's all over. She's a berserker - when something isn't going the way she expects, her eyes get misted over with the bloodwrath, and she flies into a rage, irrational and violently agitated, unable to control her own actions. "YOU WANT ME TO GO FORWARD? I'LL SHOW YOU FORWARD," she says. And every little bit that you fight against it, she comes right back at you tenfold.

I've written about this before. Written about it a lot, actually... because it's my everyday reality. None of this behavior is new, none of it is surprising. It's just... dissapointing. Frustrating, and disappointing. I really finally thought that maybe I had a sport that she would truly be able to handle without having a nuclear meltdown every time the going gets a little tough. But it's still there... her inability to deal with things beyond being sweet talked into them. Her fury and rage. Her violent overreactions over little things that offend her. Her total failure to cope with things and respond sensibly. I just wanted her to stand still for a minute so I could wipe my glasses off... that's what started the entire thing. That's all I wanted her to do, and she couldn't handle it.

It sounds like I am getting myself worked up over one single bad drive, I know. I know it sounds silly. But it's not just one drive, it's every drive. It's every workout this mare has ever done in the past two years. Every single lunge, long line, drive, or ride, it's a race to see if you can get her done before the powder keg blows. If you can, you win! But most times she blows up mid-work, and it's always in response to being asked to do just a *little* more, or a *little* different. Go forward please... slow down please... stand please. It's never a "yes" with her, it's a "no" with a giant battle ensuing. Always. Every time. Every single one. The task then becomes soothsaying, trying to put her head on straight again and ending on a good note. It's a fun challenge, and it's enjoyable on some days, but on others when I just wish she'd be good and easy just for once... she never is.

I'm not giving up on her. I'm not ready to throw the towel in. But on days like this I find myself what I'm really doing here. I haven't ridden since I can't remember when. I haven't been to a recognized show, eventing or dressage, in five years. And it's because I love this horse and I am more invested in her success than in my chosen sports. I find myself wondering, what am I really doing here?
Anyone who loved this horse less would have passed her down the line ages ago. Anyone wanting to be involved with their beloved sports would have found a more suitable beast. O has a forever home with me, she'll never go anywhere... but perhaps it is time to consider catching a ride or drive on something that is saner. Maybe not though... I don't know.

Sigh. Sorry about the woe-is-me post. You've been reading them for two years... I was due for another one I suppose.


  1. It is really a difficult thing to have to tip-toe around such a large animal because you don't know when the next explosion is. :( Especially when the good moments are SO good.

    I dealt with this type of instability a little bit when Promise was younger, although not nearly to this extent. I know she was severely beaten as a yearling and 2 year old, and my educated guess is that it was by a large man, but I don't really know. It's so sad. And you have to wonder what really happened to O in her past.

  2. It's okay to have a woe is me post (or two.. or five). O is probably the hardest horse I've ever heard about. I would have given up on her long ago, but that doesn't mean you need to. Just take some time and think about what is FUN to you regarding her.

    I mean, obviously the answer is just to switch to the hunters. Duh. ;)

  3. Oh boy, nothing useful to contribute, just wanted to say I'm there with you with one of mine, and I understand the feeling. I'm lucky mine is less dramatic about it all, but I know how exhausting mentally it is to try to get good work out of a horse that shuts down on you any time things are a bit tougher or not as fun/interesting or simply not what they'd like to be doing that particular day.Mares! If you can swing it, a second horse to ride is what keeps me sane on the days where I'm feeling frustrated or disappointed.

  4. Oh mare. Sometimes you are just at a loss after a bad ride/drive/whatever your goal was that day. It can zap everything out of you. You always make her look so wonderful on here though. She looks like such a lovely beast in the photos and you get her there. So make sure to give yourself a pat on the back for that. And for sticking with her.

  5. I had a mare I used to drive who had the same problem once. It was't even her fault, some punk kid in a car thought it would be funny to spook her, threw gravel all over as he squealed past us. The breeching straps on my harness broke, I couldn't stop her for 1/4 mile, she bloodied her ankles and scared us both to death. After she healed up I started her over, had a helper lead her whIle I drove, and didn't drive alone for a long time. Always be safe. Driving wrecks can be worse than riding wrecks.

  6. I had a mare I used to drive who had the same problem once. It was't even her fault, some punk kid in a car thought it would be funny to spook her, threw gravel all over as he squealed past us. The breeching straps on my harness broke, I couldn't stop her for 1/4 mile, she bloodied her ankles and scared us both to death. After she healed up I started her over, had a helper lead her whIle I drove, and didn't drive alone for a long time. Always be safe. Driving wrecks can be worse than riding wrecks.

  7. Red mares have a reputation for a reason. You're doing a great job with her, but that doesn't change who she is. Hugs.

  8. Well. Shit. That sounds scary and frustrating as hell.

    My gelding is of a very similar temperament to O, I think I've mentioned this before. She's more extreme than him, but still the similarities are startling. Too much push, and you just can. not. get. him. back. Too much push could be asking to do more than 2 simple changes in the same lap of the arena. He's schooling 3rd level, for god's sake. That shouldn't blow up his brain, but it does. It's impossible to predict which horse I'll be throwing a leg over on any given day. Some days he's an angel with gorgeous movement and is a true delight to work with. The same number of other days he's a nightmare, and we spend more time going up and backwards and THROUGH ARENA FENCES than anything else. Nothing can predict which horse I get.

    I finally stopped fighting with him. When he drops his brains on the floor and stops playing the game, I stick with it long enough to get some forward steps and quit. I've tried to come to terms with the fact that I can't and won't get him back, and that it's better for us both if I just walk away. That doesn't mean I don't walk away screaming and crying about the whole damn situation, because I often do. Sometimes the next day he's better, sometimes the same, and sometimes worse.

    I stick with him because he's all that I have, and he's so good and fun in other ways. He's just a hot potato with a brain that needs to be handled like a Faberge egg. Oddly enough, my time in Florida this summer showed me that this sort of brain isn't totally unique. In fact, some top level dressage horses are the same level of hot and stubborn and obnoxious. Watching my trainer's trainer work with his hot potato made me feel better, just knowing I'm not the only one struggling to work with a horse like that.

    Anyway. Nothing to add, and no advice (not that you need any!), I just wanted to kind of commiserate. Hope you guys have a good day soon, and that your harness repairs don't break the bank.

  9. Hugs. That just sucks - no advice other than it just sucks.

  10. Hugs to you. So glad you and she came through that scary incident in 1 piece - could have ended a lot worse! You're an amazing patient horsewoman, and there's nothing wrong with wanting a ride or drive on a sane, relaxed, maybe even competitive horse. O has many great qualities, but she certainly has her challenges. You handle them so much better than most people ever could.

  11. Oh Andrea. :( I had seen your post on FB and had been waiting for the whole story. What a frightening incident; I can't even begin to imagine. You handled it so well and I'm so glad you're both okay.

    I admire you so, so much and your love for this mare is evident in every post and photo, here and on FB. I don't think anyone could ever doubt that. She is not an easy horse but you have done sooo much with her. *Hugs*

  12. that sounds so frustrating - so sorry to hear it. good luck!

  13. Oh, I TOTALLY get it. I sympathize with you 100%, having gone through the same range of emotions with my mare. Mine isn't a berserker, mind you, but I have abandoned my dreams to find a discipline that suits her due to her athletic.....challenges. It really sits you back. Makes you think. Sometimes too much, but you need to think. You know O, very well. Such tantrums can be dangerous in harness, but I'm sure you know this too. I once had an advisor in college tell me that if a horse can't take me where I want to go, I should sell it. (of course, I didn't listen to her advice, lol) My mare has a home for life with me, but it's depressing to think about riding in hilltop field, not being able to event, even BN, because she refuses to leave the start box, getting "ok" dressage scores because she can't handle the summer heat and her work ethic sucks, the only avenue I haven't pursued fully is driving and we're going to do that this summer. I want to be galloping 30mph in the front of first flight, jumping all the big jumps. I want to be able to event, compete in hunter trials, ride in the summer heat without worrying about my horse overheating......I understand your feelings and am sorry you're in this situation, but commend you for giving this horse your all, your best effort. I'm sure you will come out on top in the end. Deep breath, tomorrow is another day.

  14. I don't think you are being dramatic at all. You've invested so much time and energy in to her and it's totally understandable to be disappointed. On a good day her antics are okay but on a bad day it sounds like it can be quite dangerous. There's nothing wrong with deciding it's not worth the risk.

  15. Oh O-ren...

    I am sorry you had a bad drive. I know how hard you've worked to make it work... <3 Hugs.

  16. I also respect you so much for giving O such an amazing chance but don't forget to think about all the others who depend on you. It sounds like she can be downright dangerous and it's not fair to your pups, other horses, or significant other to put yourself at risk doing something with a mare that, it sounds like, sometimes doesn't give a crap about hurting you or herself. I'm not suggesting you give up or sell her, necessarily, but if neither of you are really doing what you want to be doing it certainly wouldn't be good for you to risk yourself or her. I know what decision I would make. I'm not suggesting you make the same decision and it might be the cowards way out but ultimately when I'm responsible for providing for myself and others I'm just not willing to risk myself to work with any animal that doesn't want to willingly participate in what we are doing.

    I wish I could help but I'll be here, sending positive vibes and hope.

  17. Give it time. It's taken me 5 years with both my horse's to really forge a great partnership. This time last year, I was afraid of Eragon's meltdowns and despaired over our future. Since then, we've evented, improved in dressage, and I feel I know how to handle his occasional rearing-leaping-bouncing tantrums.

    John Lyon's book (Basic cues or something) was so helpful. It really helped me notice the small things Eragon did that were the beginnings of disrespect. Very precise groundwork of that type helped us get over the hump. Now I have an awesome horse! If I had given up when he was at his worst, I'd really be missing out. Good luck and hang in there. She has made vast improvements, but sometimes horses regress a bit or hit a platuea (lyons talks about that, too, in his book). It doesn't mean that the overall trend with her isn't still upward.

  18. Sorry to hear about this.

    But I have to ask, what is it about you and damaged creatures?

    You seem to have an inbuilt need to try and 'save' these creatures, to see the value and talent in each animal and that it is your role to help show that these creatures are somehow 'worthy'.

    I recall you purchased this horse as a $500 craigslist turnaround project and here you are years later stuck with an animal that doesn't do what you want to do and which is putting your safety at risk.

    I can relate to this. I had a absolute nutjob of a horse when I was a teenager. I still carry the scars of what he did to me, and I mean real physical ones.... looking back I don't know how I am still alive.

    In the end the only thing I could do with that animal was euthanse it as I could not in good faith sell him to another person nor did I have the finances to provide a retirement for him.

    Whilst O may not be in that league... and you may love her. Love doesn't have to be unconditional. You don't have to 'save' this horse. You didn't damage her, you didn't breed her and you can't fix that sort of mental issue with a horse.

    Just imagine what a horse person of your talent could achieve with a horse with a good attitude.

    Stop for a minute and think what is it you really want to achieve with your horsemanship/riding and why are you letting a horse which was never intended to be a forever horse stop you.

    Apologies for the brutal nature of this comment. But I've been in your position... and I too was blinded by the very same 'issues' i.e. my own need to feel like I was worth saving regardless of what damage there may have give up on that animal.

    It was a decision that has had life long consequences for me and stopped me riding for nearly a decade.



    1. I don't think the nature of the comment is brutal at all, I think it is blunt observation and it is all true. There is an equally blunt reason for it though on my end: money. I don't have the money to be able to afford a nice enough horse to do the things I want to do, at the level I want to do them at. There are a million $500 horses around here that would happily plod around compliantly with me but I think I would be equally if not moreso frustrated with that situation because they *want* to do well and they can't because their bodies hold them back. So I have to go with the $500 horse that is a fancy mover and a flashy little sportscar, but has the mental garbage to deal with - because that's the only way I can afford a horse of the quality that I like.

      Which is partly why I bred P - I can afford something of quality if I breed it or find it with some things I need to fix. It's a longer term investment, and it surely will cost about the same over a length of time, but who can go out and buy a $75k horse outright? I can't, and I don't think I would if I could. It's true, the sob stories of "wow I turned this horrible beast into this amazing creature!" appeal to me WAY more than "yes, I spent $100k of my daddy's money and now I win all these ribbons." :)

    2. I don't think a sound, nice moving and sensible horse HAS to cost 75K.

      My last one cost me less than 4k and he is an absolute gem.

      Totally green, barely even broken in and only 4 years old.

      I know the appeal.. but as I am a bit older than you these days I value my limbs and safety far too much to play chicken with a beserker. And I enjoy my time so much more.

      But... this was one of the reasons I was, and am, a big supporter of you breeding P.

      I really hope you get a super nice baby out of it and something you can really work with. Alas even then it's going to be years before you can really work it.

    3. oh... and for the record that little 4k green broke boy.. I took him to his first show in Jan this year... we came 3rd in Smartest on Parade, 1st in our Riding Class, 2nd in the Hunter Hack 16 -16.2 class and won Reserve Champion Rider.

      So even 4K can get you something pretty nice and he was the most sensible chilled out animal at the show. Despite it being his very first day out.

      Compared to my last hot head who I would have to get to the grounds at least 3 hours before to work and work and work and work some more till he calmed down enough to actually ride... it was a true unmitigated pleasure to have something just so relaxed.

    4. See but, O isn't like your hothead. I get on her in a halter and go bareback alone through the fields and she's completely fine. She starts off every workout in a slow plodding walk. She's never gotten jiggy or wild or uncontrollably hot. She's not like that. I also have not ever felt that we've ever been in real danger - even when she broke some straps on my harness and the cart rolled right into her butt, instead of spooking or panicking or freaking out she stopped dead and thought about the situation. I've felt less safe on P than I ever have on O, which people don't believe.
      It's the crux of the problem - she's not stupid or crazy or hot or dangerous... she's just severely, severely opinionated and she had a highly inflated sense of injustice. Take her new places, try new things - she always steps off the trailer the same. The first driving show we went to was the first time she had ever seen minis, and first time she had ever seen other horses hooked to vehicles. She was completely fine, after she stood and looked for a minute.
      Her difficulty is not in her dangerousness, it's in her annoying inability to what she is told without a power struggle.
      I don't think in this area I'd be able to find something winning for $4k. Something quiet, sure. Something that would win locally, sure. Not something of national level caliber though. Weanlings alone are no less than $8k, for a halfway decent one.
      I am not one to hang onto something truly dangerous - in the history of my blogging I've moved 3 horses on to new homes and situations, two of them were dangerous and one I just didn't like very much. Out of the 7 horses I've had, 3 is nearly half - so I do pass them on if they really and truly aren't suitable.

  19. This is the exact reason I hate driving. I had two bad accidents as a passenger in a cart as a kid and it scared the hell out of me.

    I don't think she is untrainable. Maybe there is something going on with her, maybe there isn't. I can relate because my horse William is similar, except he is an ass at the start of every ride and amazing at the end. I have no advice, I can barely figure out what I want to do with my guy. But I will offer you a hug, because I know how effin hard you are working with this girl. It is really admirable. You have tried every sport, every thing. I don't know whats right or if there is a right, but I hope something shows you the way for you both to be happy.

  20. How much is spay surgery? My new mare is spayed (ovarian tumor) and she is an absolute delight.

  21. Aww I'm so sorry she had a berserker moment. I'm glad you're not giving up on her though. Maybe it just wasn't her day. Also there is no reason to apologize for this post!