Then I walked into the barn and right into a PowerPoint presentation with horses walking through fire and orange smoke, under tarps, over bridges and through pool noodles. There was a barking police dog, a squad car with lights flashing, even a freaking helicopter. Wut? I did not sign up for this.
This was day one of my three day desensitization and equine confidence clinic. Three days of practice to get my precious dressage pony ready to face down the terrors of the sandbox. It's nice to get three days in a row with the pony. I figured it would be a great three day weekend of bonding and picking up new skills. I did not figure on fire.
I felt better when I realized many of the people in the pictures were wearing uniforms. And clearly we weren't going to be managing any drunken crowds like the ones in some of the photos. Those pictures were clearly just for show and not anything I would need to do. Surely. I sat down and started listening while we discussed what the plan was. Our instructor was a man in his sixties, gruff, with an accent from Mobile, Alabama. He was an actual mounted police officer and had been training mounted police for decades.
The instructor and PD the dog posing with the local police that came on the last day to check on all the noise. PD is 15 and still giving horses hell.
First up would be drilling in formation. Not because we were becoming a drill team but instead to get us used to the idea that we said 'go here' and our horses said 'yes'. It makes you look up and focus on things outside of your horse. You can't say 'close enough'. This also gave me my favorite line from the clinic. 'Dressage is all about death and destruction'. When you do it the way we do it? Yeah, it is. After spending an hour or two drilling we were scheduled for lunch, then we were working on some movements and our first obstacle.
Wut? Five hours in the saddle on day one? No in hand work? No introductions or discussion or bios on the riders? And drilling with horses my horse has never seen and will probably want to kill on sight? What about my concerns? Didn't he want to know about my problem pony's issues first? I didn't know if I was really up for this. And when we mentioned how cold and windy it was and asked if we were starting in the indoor, he replied no. It was perfect conditions. It was at about this point that I realized we were not going to be gently desensitizing anyone, human or equine.
Winds were whipping about and the instructor was setting up his speakers when I got out there with Theo. My pony was very up so I put him to work. I figured 15 minutes of real work would take the edge off while we waited for the rest of the riders (I can tack fast when motivated). He felt really good, bouncing along on a contact. I picked him up some and did transitions to get him listening to me. Thinking it would help, I brought his frame up and did some difficult transitions to make sure the brakes were fully installed. We did a nice, long canter to get him to blow his nose and chill. He didn't care about the voice on the loudspeakers, he'd done enough shows. And then I went and lined up with the other horses. Yeaaaah, if you're trying to get your horse to accept wind and static over the speakers and strange horses in his space, DO NOT COLLECT HIM AND ENGAGE HIS ASS.
My horse in the green saddle pad contemplating the death of the buckskin Gyspy mare on his left, he really really disliked her. QH mare on his right, barrel racer and national treasure RB in front, and my friend with her pinto draft cross eventer in the back.
It was a super eclectic group. A Saddlebred mare with her teenage girl in western tack, a Gypsy mare that was 4 years old, a QH barrel racer, a 17h RID jumper, a young ranch bred QH mare, an Arab of unknown discipline, and a draft cross eventer. Oh, and papi, the dressage horse complete with blingy browband.
The speakers went to static, the rest of the horses jumped, and my POS horse jumped a couple feet up and tried to teleport. I already had him on the bit and sitting on his butt so he was ready to go. He was expecting to move, to work, to be a bit electric. Whoops. So we start walking around in pairs in a line and he got ticked super quick. It was my worst nightmare brought to life, everything I'd avoided doing with mi papi. This horse is looking at him, that horse is in his space, everyone was walking too slow, they all needed killing. He started curling and popping his butt. The instructor said 'I know behind the vertical is all the rage in the dressage ring, but quit pullin' on his mouth'. And I was thinking 'better curling than killing the Arab next to us'. Several horses could not get over the speakers at the end of the ring combined with so much wind, blowing blankets, and the . A lot of our formations turned into clusters of spooking, spinning horses. This did not help me when trying to keep my horse's hooves and teeth to himself.
After drilling for over an hour with no injuries and only a couple of attempts to savage the other horses, it was time for lunch. Theo started plunging and spinning in his stall. I threw him in a round pen and let him buck and fart and gallop for twenty minutes during the lunch break. I brought him back in for the second session and did not pick him up. At all. I put him in trail horse mode with loops in my reins. Like magic, he totally chilled. The instructor asked if I'd drugged him over lunch. I said nope, just made him sweaty. Another great line: 'Sweat is the brain's lubricant'. The group worked on stopping, walking, turning without hands, and turn on the forehand. Theo was obsessed with stepping over the cavaletti that were being used as guides, so he did not impress anyone. But once out of the guide poles, he demonstrated his perfect turn on the forehand in a full circle. We also showed off our sidepass. The idea was to sidepass up to the instructor, bonus points if you ran him over. Apparently there are horses out there that respect a person's space. If there's one thing Theo can do, it's use his massive body against someone. He didn't even hesitate, just plowed right into the guy. Good boy, papi.
We did one obstacle on day one. It was a little bridge from a trail class. No big deal, but the first horse to go was out Arab and he was having none of it. Wouldn't go near it. We had to wait 30 minutes while that horse was brought around and around and around. No force, no rush, just around and around until he started to step on it almost by accident. Then two feet. Then suddenly just walked over it like it was nothing. It was a serious reminder that patience is everything with horses. He could have roughed the Arab up or rushed him, but then the bridge would be a thing. Instead, the Arab gave the next horse a lead over it and in no time, the whole group was chill with this obstacle.
I was cold and so, so sore from sitting so many spins, bolts, and bucks. Theo doesn't spook a lot with me, those stabilizing muscles don't get a lot of work. He spooked more on day one than he has in the past year. I also don't ride five hours in a day. I crawled out of the saddle and limped back to his stall to tuck him in for the night.
I did not want to go back. I was frustrated and rather overwhelmed. Theo spooked so much just being in the ring that I didn't think there was any chance of surviving what was coming next. I felt picked on since he made so many disparaging comments about the sport of dressage. I didn't expect things to be so rough and ready. I've gotten used to a certain level of support. When Mary Howard kicked my butt from one end of the ring to the other, I didn't feel like I was in the wrong discipline or incompetent, just incorrect. I was also cold and very hungry, so a bit over sensitive. That is what I get for not researching a clinic before I attend. I've done bombproofing, but usually in a format to avoid chaos and spinning. This format was a shock to my system. In hindsight, that was the point. We all stay inside our little bubbles and lay out our boundaries that we don't dare cross with our horses.
I got punted right over those boundaries with extreme vigor. But that's for the next installment.