School is back in session, and the leaves are starting to turn. It’s fall, which means it’s officially been a year since both Puck and Swagger entered their working lives with me. I’ve always believed it takes a year to get to really know any new horse, trained or prospect; then add in to the mix the fact that young horses are constantly evolving, and really knowing them as individuals is an ongoing proposition.
But I’m very confident in my lay of Puck’s land now. In the beginning, he was a pretty colossal jerk, with a teenage anger management issue combined with 17.2 hands of enthusiasm that moved and accepted the aids (or not) like a bull in a china shop. Puck’s approach to life was to just power through everything, usually by grabbing the bit and bearing down on it with all his might, and if I was successful in getting a word in edgewise, he’d get mad and hit the brakes.
It made for an exciting first few months. And with any new horse, you don’t really know how far they’ll take their disruptive behavior until you’ve lived with it a while. I had a horse screw up my confidence pretty badly a while back, and I’m not a kid anymore either, so I didn’t totally trust him for a while.
Over the winter, he started to let me in. And then we went to a few shows this spring as a non-compete, where he really reverted to his bad boy ways off property, and I started to worry. But in late May, something changed; all of a sudden he wasn’t so angry. He’d let me apply and remove pressure. He became willing to try life just outside of his comfort zone, and more than that he became able to make a mistake and not get pissed as a result.
Mid summer, he started volunteering a few steps of passage-y trot. Someone else might have taken that power and turned it into a big, floaty, wide-open trot that would win EVERYTHING at the small tour, but I’m no fool, and so instead I channeled it into a really lovely little half-halt, one that has, over the last few months, become a relatively reliable means to a snappy, knees-and-hocks trot. In the last two weeks, he’s started letting me blend in some half steps, coiling the trot back and allowing it out again, without drama or rhythm calamities. And for the last two rides in a row, I’ve gotten clean changes, both directions, in my warm-up, with no special preparation, and without fearing that I’d be bucked off in the one from left to right.
All of these things are cool from a dressage perspective. But something about him in the barn has changed too. He’s still him—he kicks while eating or while on the trailer, and he’s my farrier’s least favorite—but he’s personable. He wants to snuggle. He looks out the window for my car in the mornings, and he’ll lick you to death if you let him. The look in his eye has changed. While I know better than to say we’re through all the drama, we’re through the worst of it; I think. He’s accepting his lot in life, and it’s making our partnership a lot of fun.
Swagger has been the opposite. Endlessly willing and cheerful, like a Labrador Retriever puppy, if Swagger could wag his tail, he would. Every day is a new, shiny and exciting day for Swagger. He loves my leg! He loves the bit! He loves going forward! He loves the trailer, and horse showing, and hacking, and every new adventure we bring to him!
It was scaring the hell out of me.
I’ve never had a really good 4-year-old. Johnny would grab the bit and RUN. Fender would lock every muscle in his back and twist his neck around and open his mouth and threaten to blow up backwards or walk around on his hind legs. Midge, ironically, was the best behaved 4-year-old I’d ever had until Swagger, but he was such a hot little weirdo that I couldn’t really do anything with him from a dressage perspective. Other than being 17 hands and a little keen the first day of the first few horse shows, resulting in a few minutes on a longe line mostly for my mental health, Swagger has been a treat.
But he’s starting to change too. I gave him six weeks almost completely off this summer—he’d hack when we had time and do one day a week of arena work for about 10 minutes just to remind him he was broke—because I’d run out of things to teach him that I felt were age appropriate. When he came back to work, he was perfectly obedient but just a little quicker in his thought processes. I had worried that Swagger was maybe a little bit of a dumb, pretty boy, but I think the wheel is turning faster now. He’d lost a little muscle, a virtually negligible amount, but it came back fast, and it came back better. I could make walk-canter transitions pretty early on in his return to work.
And then the last few rides. Balking at the out gate. Hitting the brakes about a sun spot. And once, even a small bucking episode. My perfect baby boy is thinking about becoming naughty… and I’m delighted.
Not that I’m looking forward to going to war with 17 hands of 5-year-old. I hope it doesn’t get THAT far. But the little transgressions, the little tests of my authority, are what I expect from a horse of his age bracket and talent. Nothing that piaffes 15 steps with no whip at 13 is an angel baby at 5. I was starting to worry that he was too laid back, too happy with life, and didn’t have enough drive to dig in and fight for the upper-level work.
Obviously we don’t make judgment calls about future talent at 4 or 5 or even 7 or 8, but Swagger is making some strides towards fitting the loose mold I’ve found that creates future upper-level horses—cheeky kid becomes clever adult. The thing that tells them to argue with me about leg or contact or forward as a kid is the thing that lets them fight for the 15th one-tempi in 100-degree weather when they’re grown.
For the moment, my rides are fun to ride. We’ll see how long that lasts!