Bear with me. It’ll make sense eventually.
This Saturday I was at a biomechanics lecture given by a well-known biomechanics specialist and horsewoman from the USA, which was so interesting that I knew I had to squeeze my way into the riding clinic she held today. It was a bit of a mad scramble and my poor parents just about stood on their heads to get me there, but somehow we turned up at the Friesian stud where it was being held, Arwen in tow.
The first challenge was getting her into a stable to wait for our turn. The second challenge was keeping her in it. Luckily, the very kind stud owners allowed us to use a box usually belonging to a formidable stallion; it had a bunch of different bolts and a weaving grille across the top door, so she theoretically couldn’t jump out. I slammed the grille on her and gave her a bit of alfalfa courtesy of the owners, which she found so fascinating that she licked the floor for the last scraps and forgot to jump out.
She was still a bit fussy when I went to saddle her up, but the moment she had a bit in her mouth, it was like flicking a switch. Calm, focused dressage Arwen returned. She stood like a stone while I saddled her up and walked patiently beside me to the arena, chewing her bit and flicking her ears nice and calmly.
I got on and we started to walk around to warm up while the instructor finished her previous lesson. At first, Arwen was her usual self; head down, mind on the job, relaxed and forward. I walked some circles, some shoulder-ins, leg-yields, a bit of free walk, the usual stuff to get her brain working. But after a while she started to get tense for no reason I could find. She’d drift out on one corner and feel like bolting down one side; I tried a trot and instantly got a very panicky, rushed gait. Something was spooking her, but for the life of me I didn’t know what.
The instructor called us over and I rode up to find her smiling all over her face and exclaiming, “Wow! What a cutie!” Apart from not being able to pronounce Arwen’s breed name (sorry Americans, but “Nooitgedachter” apparently was not designed for your tongues), she was super friendly and helpful. We talked briefly about Arwen’s musculature and she felt my ideas were pretty accurate; she has an okay back and is generally fine, but the bottom muscle of her neck is too big and she needs more side muscles. Since we’re only just sorting out her frame, it makes sense.
We started to walk around the arena and Arwen was a raving lunatic. She leapt, she bolted, she reared, she bucked, she plunged and she did not give one brain cell to the job. I was frankly shocked. She’s never been like this away from home, ever. It’s just not her. I explained that this was totally new and the instructor suggested I do what I usually do to calm her down, and I tried; trotting figure eights, serpentines, lateral work, all the mind-on-the-job stuff. Nothing worked. Something was obviously bugging her.
The instructor got to work on helping us get calm without having to pull her around so much, mostly by a useful exercise I’ll definitely use in future – disengaging the haunches, by doing pretty much a bunch of turns on the forehand, making her cross her hindlegs. A horse with crossed hindlegs can’t buck or bolt or rear or do anything stupid. “It’s like putting her in neutral,” the instructor explained.
Several minutes of this later, Arwen started to yield and relax, but was still pretty freaked out. She was staring into the distance when we finally got it: baboons. I hadn’t noticed them, but there was a whole troop of them running around next to the arena. Frankly I don’t much like baboons either and I can only imagine what the smell, sound and sight of them was doing to my poor horse.
Unfortunately, this meant that we spent the entire lesson just getting Arwen to switch her brain on and stop freaking out. It was kind of a let down for both of us since I was really hoping to get some help with Arwen’s on-the-forehand habit, and even the instructor seemed a bit disappointed that we couldn’t do anything more complicated than trot in a circle, but it was definitely a good experience. In the end we were doing walk serpentines on a loose rein all the way down to the end nearest the baboons and all the way back without breaking into a trot, so she calmed down eventually.
If the instructor comes back to South Africa I’ll definitely be going to a lesson, this time minus baboons. She was really good and gave me a bunch of awesome groundwork exercises I’m going to try with the horses. I asked her about the on-the-forehand problem and she suggested lots and lots and lots of transitions, so next time we hit the arena Arwie will have a lot to think about.