Thursday, January 17, 2013

The psychology of the chestnut TB mare

It's interesting discussing Fiona with a new trainer, particularly one that's been around long enough to see her for more than an hour.  He's also heard enough stories about her that I'm sure he formed some opinions even before meeting her or seeing her jump.

Of course I gave him my version of her history.  A mare that showed great potential in her first year, hit a road bump while in Aiken, then recovered for another solid season before completely shutting down on us.  The jumping problem wasn't sudden or even totally unexpected if you go through her history.  A stop here, a problem there, slowly building up to her getting sick and deciding that she'd had enough.  Once she started stopping, the confidence was gone for both sides of the equation and the whole house of cards fell down.

He has a theory. 

The first year was just Fiona and the fact that she's a smart, athletically talented mare.  It was so easy for her and she didn't need to worry about me too much. I was just the passenger and she allowed me to pick the fences.  At Beginner Novice, she could get away with that.  When things got more difficult, she quit.  Watching her on the flat and watching her jumping, his analysis is that she's a worrier that never learned to actually accept my aids.  It's her way or she panics.  This goes for both the flat and the jumping, it's just more obvious when she's jumping.  On the flat, it's her going above the bit and fighting a difficult request.  When jumping, she cuts out and refuses to go near a fence.

Fair enough.  That actually holds with the overall patterns when I go back through my previous entries.  If I push her for a more difficult lateral movement, she resists by rushing and avoiding the bit.  When I was having trouble containing her, she would jump anything.  When we pushed the matter of her taking the jumps in a controlled manner (meaning controlled by the rider), she quit. 

Everyone is very cautious now when it comes to Fiona's future.  The winter trainer likes her, even mentioned that he'd like her as a ride for himself, but as he said, 'no guarantees'.  She may jump again in our next lesson, or she may quit again.  He thinks she can recover enough to event again at the low levels.  Eventually.  In his eyes, she seemed to enjoy her jumping exercises so long as she felt free and like I was on the same page as her.  Hold her and she panics, thinking she can't do it.  Let her go, give her some confidence and trust, and she's ready to go.

In some ways it's a validation.  In other ways, it's a wake up call.  It's hard to look back at her first year and dismiss it as just Fiona being talented enough to do it on her own.  It's hard to not take it as a slight against my work, even though I know that's not what anyone means.  It's a validation in that he saw her jump, with my warning that she didn't enjoy it, and disagreed with me.  He saw a mare that enjoyed the variety so long as she felt that she was free to do her job.  With a few repetitions, she gained more confidence.  Knowing that she would be allowed to jump as she felt she needed to and the fact that she was being ridden forward seemed to be enough.

But at the same time, he cautioned me that she needs a serious ride.  This is her job, not a game.  That was a hard pill to swallow, but it was proven to me right there in the ring.  When I was firm and crisp with my expectations, she settled more.  Lavish praise, yes, but she had to complete the exercise when it was put in front of her.  No skittering allowed, no stepping to the side, none of that.  I thought I was firm, but I can see now that I've been babying her a bit.  As he put it, she's not an amateur ride, so I need to approach her in a professional manner.  She's my friend on the ground, but not when I'm riding her.  When I'm riding her, she is my teammate but I'm the team captain.

That's a hard, hard view for me to take.  It could take months for me to shift to that professional view point that I was once capable of, but with the evidence shoved in front of my face, I can't ignore it.

He said that you need a horse smart enough to take care of herself, but dumb enough to do something as inherently silly as stadium jumping.  It's possible that she's not dumb enough for this.  I guess there's only one way to find out.


  1. If it makes you feel any better (probably not, unfortunately), the psychology of my bay TB gelding is similar, except in his case it's showing in dressage and results in random bucking sprees and leaps through the air.

    He and I are both in boot camp so he can learn not to tune out the rider and I can learn how to RIDE.

  2. I loved every single word of this post because it felt like someone was writing everything that's been going on between my own horse and I. I hope you and Fiona can can get back on the same page soon. This was really inspiring for me to read!

  3. Really interesting post. I feel that with most of us riding we need to take the partnership in the ring Professionally with our horses. If we can exude the confidence to do the tasks on hand, why should they listen to us? Calm, Quiet Focus is my mantra. I know from my own experience, when I quit, my horse knows it and he says, well I quit too.