Horse, not Force
I heard on the radio that experts are predicting another dry winter. This is bad in a lot of ways — Idaho could use some precipitation — but purely from a riding perspective, I’m delighted. Since I missed out on most of the summer riding season, a winter in the saddle sounds pretty good. I’m sure I’ll pay for the privilege in hay prices.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to ride enough to have Jammer and Maji ready to ramp up quickly for 50’s come spring. With a full-time work schedule, a long commute, and Daylight Wasting time approaching, reality dictates that each horse will be lucky to get three rides per week. Two is more likely. One and none are bound to happen occasionally.
That, and the fact that both horses (especially Maji) are green, means my conditioning plans are pretty flexible. The most important thing is that I just get them out and ride. Maji needs to experience the world, and both horses’ fitness will benefit from whatever miles I can put on them.
But you know me. I do have a bit more construct in mind than just “go ride.” In an ideal winter world, I’d ride each horse three times weekly: Once for LSD (that’s long, slow distance, for those who were wondering), once for a shorter, speedier ride, and once for arena work or a hack in the hills.
Yesterday was supposed to be Maji’s speed day. Speed is relative, of course, both for the horse and its level of fitness. Right now, Maji’s “speed work” would be about 8 mph for 4 miles on level ground. (Jammer’s is 9-10 mph for 6 miles on level ground.) Just enough to provide some challenge and build fitness, but not enough to beat up their untried legs.
Well. It was early afternoon and gusts of wind herded dark clouds across the sky. Maji didn’t seem bothered by the weather per say, but she was tense as a banjo string from the moment we crunched out of the drive. High-headed and jumpier than I’ve ever seen her, she behaved as though she’d never left the round corral before despite the fact that we were headed down to a canal bank she’s travelled several times in recent weeks. I even dismounted to walk her past the house with 5 hunting dogs in the yard, then a sugar beet field where a farmer’s roaring tractor pushed the giant, lumpy produce up in rows.
I mounted up again when we reached the canal — just in time for Maji to have a complete meltdown at the sight of a 4-wheeler ramp in the back of a farmer’s pickup. (Um, really, Maj?) She leaped sideways to the top of a crumbling bank and flailed around up there, trying to get her footing, turn around to run, and keep her popping eyes on the ramp all at the same time. It took me a minute to break through her mental static enough to help her edge past.
She continued to ogle everything that moved — which was plenty, given the wind. A heron rose from the canal. Cornstalks rattled. The last puddles of irrigation water flashed with minnows. Tree branches waved. Ravens swarmed the fields in billowing murders. Harvesters roared on distant roads. Our shadow slid over mounds of dirt. I rolled my eyes and prepared for a tough go.
The old reminder rhymed in my head: Light in the leg and soft in the hands, ride the horse and not your plans.
Yup. Forget the speed work. This ride needed to be about Maji’s mind.
First, I tried asking her to trot. I find that a tense, spooky horse often responds well to just being put to work. Get them in a rhythm, burn a little energy, and they let go of the mental bugaboos. Maji trotted…sort of…in that awkward, jolting way of very green horses. She raced ahead, responded to seat (sloooower, Horsie), stared sideways instead of watching her feet, trotted on.
She was just beginning to settle when we encountered the Weed. It was, to my eye, exactly like 500 other weeds we had already passed. But what do I know? I am only human. Maji saw a bloodthirsty killer.
She went straight from a brisk trot, right past a stop and into reverse, in half a heartbeat. This wasn’t your average “startle.” Oh no. It was the stiff-legged hit-the-brakes crouch followed by 20 paces of the fastest, lowest backing I’ve ever ridden.
Funniest. Thing. Ever.
Poor Maji. She saved both our lives and all I could do was laugh at her.
We cut a dicey path around the Weed and proceeded another mile before I took a look at the sky and decided to head home. I also decided to try another tactic on the way. Instead of trotting, as the get-to-work method wasn’t helping much, we would try to relax at a walk. Give her more time to absorb the sights. Chill out.
I thought I might have a fight on my hands, keeping her to a walk on the way home, but last week’s No Rushing lessons seemed to have sunk in. She hardly broke gait at all, and instead settled down (mostly) on a long-ish rein. And so, we salvaged a decent trail ride out of the whole mess and she learned that having a baby-brain day doesn’t mean she doesn’t have to pull herself together and behave.
As soon as we got home, I didn’t even pull her tack but snapped a lunge line to her halter and worked her at a brisk trot for 25 minutes. This was not punishment by any means — horses don’t understand that kind of consequence, and besides, she hadn’t done anything wrong — but simply a safer way to burn some of her abundant energy. Lunging isn’t my favorite method because I don’t think all those circles are great for their legs, but I’m not afraid to use it occasionally. This seemed an an appropriate occasion.
By the time we were done, she was sweaty but bright-eyed, happy, and ready for a snack inside the horse trailer.
All’s well that ends well, they say, but I must admit that I hope today’s ride is easier!