There are two reasons I am calling this past weekend semi-beautiful. One is the weather. The other is due to Buckshot, my horse. First, the weather. Although it was sunny, with few clouds, and no hurricanes or earthquakes, it was also quite warm, and the horses, including Buckshot, have a bit of their winter coats already. So working the horses very hard is dicey. You feel wonderful, like you’d like to do all kinds of exercise and practice, but the horses aren’t really prepared for work in warm weather; they are ready for cool temperatures. So I had to hold back on working on the canter much. It’s a fine line we walk sometimes, between what we want to do and whether the conditions will enable the horse to do it. So I stayed more in the direction of deferring to the hot weather-but-winter-coat on horse and did less, rather than more.
On Saturday, Buckshot seemed to be okay as we started our walking warm up. After the twenty minutes walking warm up, in which he occasionally thought standing still was just fine, he trotted okay. However, during one trot along the arena’s long side, I felt his energy, but I also felt something else, something hard to identify. Was he backwards, putting his feet in the wrong sequence? He didn’t feel out of balance, he had a rhythm to his gait, but it felt different. After the BO/instructor came into the arena and watched all of us riders warm up, she said to me, “Buckshot looks uncomfortable, like something in his hind legs is bothering him. Would you like to ride another horse, perhaps Smarty (a five year old reining horse owned by the BOHusband)?”
I didn’t know what to do. I was a bit worried about Buckshot, and didn’t want to just hop off of him and trade him in for a younger horse. I felt a bit guilty about that. But, then again, if something was wrong, I didn’t want to ride him and make it worse. So I dismounted and walked him around, trying to lead him and watch his hind legs at the same time. I saw some paddling, where he swings one leg out a bit far, which he has done from time to time. So I agreed to the change and took him to the barn to untack him and walk him back to his pasture, feeling a bit worried, and in my worried state, wondering if I should get on a non-school horse who is very young, but is doing very well being ridden by his owner.
I decided to do it; to put Buckshot’s condition totally out of my mind at least for as long as I rode a different horse. I have ridden Smarty before, but for just five minutes or so, a few times shortly after he arrived at the barn last year. This would be riding him in a class. We got him tacked up, and I got on him, knowing I was feeling less confident than when I ride Buckshot, but also calling up all of my knowledge and riding skills, remembering that this horse rides in a curb bit with shanks (while Buckshot uses a snaffle bit without shanks) and that this horse neck reins (which I have been doing quite a bit on Buckshot, although with a snaffle bit).
Once on Smarty, I immediately felt his youthful power and energy, not that he moved in any way that was too fast or bad, just a strength about him. It felt unfamiliar, as any new horse would feel. I began neck reining him and he responded fine. He turned beautifully, however going straight was not easy. As long as he moved in the general direction I wanted, I was fine. After about a minute, I tried out his stop, and stuck my legs out straight in front, saying whoa, and not moving the reins. He came to a perfect and quick stop. We walked on and I stopped him again. And again. Always, he stopped. Reliably. No questions asked. That is great, I thought, his stop is solid. If anything happens that I find I can’t steer him correctly, I can rely on his stop.
He and I proceeded through the rest of the class in the arena, doing a pattern involving trotting and some cantering. I felt about 25 percent capable, compared to feeling 99 percent capable on Buckshot. I got him to trot and it was so floaty and shallow (as opposed to Buckshot’s big, deep trot) I felt like I could sit the trot and didn’t need to post. I didn’t get him to canter but it was probably due to my miscues rather than the horse. We then went on the trail, and he did fine. He walked fast and wanted to stay too close to the horse in front of us, so I stopped him quite a few times to just let the horse in front of us move a few feet out. I found that sometimes all I did was move my toes out front two or three inches, and didn’t even say “whoa” and Smarty stopped. It was amazing, like he had eyes in the side of his head, always watching my toes! If my toes moved forward, he stopped.
In the back of my mind, I was so full of thoughts- have to ride this horse well, he doesn’t know me, don’t forget you must use neck reining with him, keep the reins loose as that is how he works, can always stop him well. But I didn’t know how he would spook, and that thought flitted through my mind. It’s funny, since a spook is by definition an unpredictable movement of the horse, but I kind of know what kinds of things will cause Buckshot to spook, and how he will spook. He’ll either stop with the flayed front feet, or jump six feet and stop. I feel confident in handling whatever he might do, and recovering quickly. But with an unfamiliar horse (and a very young one) I didn’t know what he might do if he spooked. I thought quickly through all of the trail and arena rides I had observed the BOH ride him and realized that I really hadn’t seen him spook much, if at all. So I calmed myself that he wasn’t a spooky horse and that needn’t worry me.
It was funny to ride a different horse for a change. After over five years of riding a variety of school horses, I got my own horse three and a half years ago, and one thing I love, love, love about having Buckshot is getting to ride him exclusively. I have loved the relationship you build and the familiarity and comfort of riding one horse a lot. Until I got onto Smarty, I had forgotten how wonderful it is to really know the horse you are riding, to feel that sense of familiarity and hours in the saddle together and witnessing one horse’s personality over a long time. I had forgotten, but Smarty reminded me. It was fun, and it was a good experience to ride a different horse for a change. But the benefits don’t compare to the cozy, trusted familiarity of Buckshot.
After the ride, the BO complimented me on riding Smarty. It was one of those moments that I felt I hadn’t done very well at all, my mind was so filled with all the details to remember of how to ride this horse and to manage the sense of unfamiliarity, and to not forget he had a shanked bit on so that I wouldn’t accidently pull it thinking it was a snaffle (I didn’t), and a slight, back of the mind worry about Buckshot, that I had never really truly relaxed on the ride (the way I can relax on Buckshot). Maybe another day, I’ll ride Smarty and enjoy it more.
I thanked Smarty’s owner profusely for lending him to me and complimented him on Smarty’s talents, for I did feel very grateful to be offered such a high-caliber horse. His owner said I could ride him again, which I internally took as a great compliment, thinking that if he hadn’t liked my riding, he (understandably) wouldn’t want me to ride him again. It all reminded me of a friend loaning you their car, but theirs is a Mercedes (and mine is a Hyandai, really) and I am so nervous about driving such an expensive car that I am very, very careful with it.
Back to Buckshot. I wondered why he was uncomfortable. At his age (appx 25 years) I know that he could have arthritis at any time. He worked hard as a track pony for many years. I think my riding him is typically not very hard work, but I do ask work of him occasionally, and when we go to the reining clinics, he does what I would call moderate work. But overall, I would say he does fairly light work with me. Still, I want to watch for any physical problems given his age.
Now, here is something curious. When I went up to his pasture to feed him later, I saw him do a half-hearted double barrel kick with his hind legs to his pasturemate. I have never seen him kick or attempt to kick another horse ever. Which isn’t to say it couldn’t happen. But I saw this one. Lucky, his pasturemate, got out of the way. No contact was made. I wondered later if one of the horses could be uncomfortable or hurting in some way, and thus causing more aggression in the pasture, thus the kicking I saw Buckshot do. I’ll keep it in mind and watch both horses more closely to see if anything else seems different about their relationship. Just a thought.
On Sunday, I went back to the barn and found Buckshot to be in a good mood. I planned to ride him, hoping he was better. Because it was supposed to hit the low 80’s in temperature, I planned to stay at the walk and trot. The warm up walk was quite good; Buckshot was very responsive. At the trot he did very well also. At his request to go on an adventure outside the arena, we walked and trotted in various grassy areas, and then, on a whim, I started us down the farm road. We got just a few yards down the road when I saw the BO and BOH (on Smarty) enter the arena so I headed Buckshot over to the arena and we rode with them. After a few minutes we all headed down the trail, and came to the reining arena.
The footing looked a little soft to me, so while the other two riders entered the arena and started working on their respective exercises, I kept Buckshot on the outside perimeter of the arena, in the grass. I started trotting and he communicated a feeling of enthusiasm to me – he was enjoying himself! That made me feel wonderful! After going around the perimeter once, I stopped and turned him around to go back in the other direction. He again started off with an easy, and dare I say, joyful energy. After rounding a corner, he picked up the canter on his own! I glanced at the BO who was watching us and I said, He did that on his own. How does he look? She said he looked fine. So I let him canter for several more strides and then resumed the trot. Although I hadn’t planned to canter, I was so glad he felt like doing it! It meant he felt good. What a relief to me. We walked and trotted some more, and then I asked him to canter. He did pretty well at it, although at one point, one of his feet slipped a bit on the dirt/mud. I brought him to the walk and we didn’t do any more trotting or cantering. But I was so glad that he was doing much better than Saturday.
We continued on another trail for a time and then walked down the farm road to the main arena. I told Buckshot that we were almost done, and that I’d dismount in the arena. He walked right into the arena, walked to the center, and stopped decisively, ready for my dismount. I know he knows English, especially the word “dismount!” Other than “treat,” “dismount” is probably his favorite word! LOL!
Of course, I dismounted and praised him for his very good work, also telling him I was glad he felt much better than Saturday. I untacked him, gave him his post-ride treats, rubbed him well with a curry comb (he was a little sweaty) and walked my wonderful horse back to his pasture.
Between the weather and the unidentified issue with Buckshot on Saturday, it was a semi-beautiful weekend – but overall quite good!