We all know the saying: Never judge a book by its cover. I generally try not to do that. However, we all slip up on occasion.
There's a school horse in the barn named Red. Red's a nice boy, popular with people that want a nice, quiet ride. Most of his rides are with beginners, learning how to canter or getting around their first jump courses. I know him mostly from seeing other people ride him and hanging out with him in the barn. He's very friendly and quirky. He has these tiny, foxy little ears that are just adorable and the habit of sticking his tongue out, hoping someone will scratch it for him. He was recently on stall rest after getting cast, so he was driving everyone up a wall with his boredom. He's a mouthy horse that will suck in anything he can reach, including my dressage whip for a game of tug-o-war.
This was my partner for my flat lesson last Thursday, as the princess is still in Aiken. I'll admit, my reaction was 'Dressage lesson on Red? Really? Who did I tick off for that one?'. I see Red in lessons all the time, plopping around and ignoring beginners learning how to canter. He looked rigid and slow, like a fabulous school horse but not one I wanted to try to do any kind of dressage on. But since I'm supposed to be working on my position and he would be good for that, I tacked him up and headed in to the ring.
We warmed up on the buckle, letting him get his joints loosened up and moving. It was while I was cantering on the buckle and asked him to move off of the rail to avoid someone that I got my first clue that not all was as it appeared. I changed the bend, not thinking too much about it, and he popped a perfect flying lead change. My instructor was just as surprised as me. And it wasn't just the one fluke. After I got him back on the correct lead, I accidentally changed his bend again and he swapped again. I had to laugh and ask if he used to be a hunter, since I was riding him like he was a show hunter (in a half seat with little contact) and he was popping lead changes like it was nothing.
I picked up a contact and, after a bit of protest to see if I was serious, Red got to work. He went into a cute little frame, and with a lot of encouraging, started to engage that back end. I gave him several stretch breaks because I'm quite sure he's not asked to do this very often. We were doing trot-halt-back up-trot transitions, and the old man was showing the other horses in the class how it was done. We did a shortened trot on the short ends and a lengthened trot on the long side and he gave it everything he had. With his conformation the lengthening wasn't huge, but I could feel him really trying to reach out with his shoulders and making a little grunting sound as he put everything into it. It was adorable.
I felt terrible afterward when I thought about how disdainful I was of riding him in a lesson. Red was an honest, hard working horse that I didn't have to kick or cajole or harass. He did the level best he could, those tiny ears flicking back every time I said something. I saw him in the mirror while I was doing a lengthening across the diagonal and I could barely recognize him. Gone was the plodding school horse. No, he's no dressage horse and he wouldn't win that phase, but he looked like a well schooled, pleasant little horse.
I'll consider it a privilege to ride him in the future. Once in awhile we need our egos brought down to size, and Red did that with grace and good nature.