I haul (2 minutes, really long drive) to a thoroughbred stable to use their indoor arena all winter. Last week the owner approached my coach about working with his youngest retiree, a coming 8 year old gelding named Prairie, who he may have found a new home for.
One of the measures I use to gauge how much progress I’ve made in my skills is being comfortable with a new horse. Seventy percent of the time I ride Bubba, and I do well with him, but I want to push myself out of my comfort zone more.
I’ve spent a lot of time building trust with Bubba, but that underlying security blanket isn’t there when you first start working with a new horse.
Wanting to test myself, I volunteered to be the crash dummy.
Of the two thoroughbreds at the stable, Prairie has always been much more intimidating to me. Deemer, the other retiree, has always been a handful but, he had already been on pasture rest and he’d settled in to his, gregarious, oral self by the time I meet and started working with him.
Prairie I had met fresh off the track. I’d even gone down to Arlington to see one of his last races.
He’s been at home for over a year, first recovering from a fracture and then spending time in the pasture, so I have had contact with him, but nothing that could be considered substantive.
While he was still stall bound, I’d sneak into the barn and slip him treats and a handful of his favorite sweet grain mix while I refilled his water and checked his hay net.
He was still rambunctious and spending much time in the stall with him wasn’t a great idea for either of our peace of mind.
As he got more comfortable with me he did start to put his head out, but I wasn’t sure if it was to get a whiff or take a nip at my coat.
Over the summer he watched me pull his buddy out of the pasture for rides and he became marginally less suspicious of my intentions. I had hoped that by seeing me working with Deemer he’d realize that I wasn’t going to be putting him back on the track and that his work load would be feather light.
He didn’t believe me and had long conversations with Deemer after I left about how the humans weren’t to be trusted when it came to halters.
At least that’s what I imagined would happen after they’d led me on a merry chase around the pasture whenever I tried to catch Deemer.
Eventually Prairie figured out that I had an endless pocketful of treats and a camera.
He really likes getting his picture taken.
The camera became our true icebreaker since the stinker would always butt in front of Deemer when I was trying to get a picture of him.
After chasing him out of shots more than once, I did try to catch him once during August. Realizing that I intended to put a halter on him this time, Prairie decided pictures weren’t important and the grass in the far far corner of the pasture looked mighty green.
Feeling skeptical of my ability to even get a hand on him, let alone a halter on his head, I asked his owner if he might just put him in his stall on Saturday morning before we came over?
After assurances that he’d be in his stall with all of his tack out, I put my mind at ease and began to think about what would need to happen to make Prairie’s first riding experience with me a positive one.
One of my biggest faults is my lack of trust in my own skills. (You’re probably sick of hearing me whine about this but, it’s a more common problem than you’d think.)
I knew this couldn’t happen with Prairie. He was used to having stronger, more experienced riders work with him, either while conditioning or racing.
I was going to have to be THE leader and I was going to have to trust myself.
When I got home that night I found this great article on Horse Channel about building a relationship with a new horse. I was both surprised and pleased that my small, treat and camera fueled advances may have laid a light path of connection between Prairie and I.
Erica Franz at Writing of Riding also has a good article about restoring trust between horse and rider, something that I think can also be applied to the rider and their own head.
I built a plan.
I wanted to bring Deemer in with Prairie, since Deemer is a bit of an in your pocket horse (really that’s putting it lightly), Prairie would be able to see that things in the indoor were pretty fun and cookies appeared regularly with generous neck scratches.
I wasn’t sure that Prairie had ever been on a line before either so I wanted Deemer to work with him too, at least to start. I knew he wouldn’t be much trouble under saddle because he has an excellent work ethic, when you get the saddle on him. His ground manners, a little less established shall we say.
I had also built my trust up with Bubba through frequent ground work lessons and that seemed to work pretty well, so why should Prairie be any different.
In this case that turned out to be true, but I think those might have been the famous last words of more than a few horsemen.
And you know what? Aside from not finding him in his stall and none of his tack being out, things went pretty well.
PS: Many thanks to Blissfully Blind for the beautiful cover photo!