Stubborn, scared, brave, spooky, and willing. These are five words that shouldn’t describe one horse, but my accidentally-poetic trainer hit the nail on the head when she used them to describe Ephraim.
Eph’s training is progressing well with Kate Hicks and me sharing riding duties. Kate riding him has been a godsend. She is a skilled and sympathetic rider yet never lets the horse dictate the schedule. She hits that gossamer balance between firmness and empathy that is really hard to find. I’m a rusty adult amateur and am teaching him how to take a joke…a necessary attribute for all of my horses.
On the trust front, Eph is now perfectly happy having others tack him and Kate ride him. We scaled back the treats as he was getting anticipatory and I don’t want him to turn into a mouthy monster. We use them judiciously but there no longer is a need for the constant cookie infusion. I’m grateful to the treats for accomplishing what I needed them to; they established our connection. I had something that he wanted and this introduced a willingness on his part to interact that trumped his overwhelming fear. He is a radically different horse than he was when he arrived almost two months ago, almost unrecognizable both physically and behaviorally!
Today’s lesson started out with a very fresh Ephraim. He was silly and spooky, darting away from a door that’s been open for a week, and spooking at the pigeons. Surprisingly, the bad behavior kept escalating; normally the longer we work, the more he relaxes. He tends to tire quickly and then settles into the work.
I went back to the walk to get his mind back on task. He is not a horse that you can physically push through bad behavior; redirection is the key with him. Once we refocused our brains on some trot poles and later some cross rails, he stopped spooking at the door and relaxed. Using this redirection technique is common sense to anyone used to riding green horses, but it prompted me and Kate to discuss the idea of winning as it pertains to training.
Some horses need to never lose a discussion. If you stop trotting when they’re being naughty at the trot, they will remember it the next time and try even harder to get you to quit. Most of my horses over the years have shared this trait so I tend to approach the ride with this in mind. But that is not how Eph operates.
While we were chatting, Kate inadvertently hit the nail on the head—he’s like a mare. As soon as she said it, I groaned because she is completely right.
You can’t dictate anything to him. His flight response is still his strongest motivator but, in day-to-day work, he will push you a bit to get his way. You can’t let a discussion escalate to the point of him getting scared, because his fear is real, and then he checks out.
You know what’s ironic? I don’t generally do mares. My second horse was a super mareish mare and since then, the only females in my barn were broodmares. I’ve really enjoyed riding some great mares over the years but the emotional ones and I do not get along. I’m a cold, dopey gelding kind of girl—I can push them through their issues and have a willing partnership at the end of the day.
I also really enjoy stallions and have owned one and ridden several. They’re so thinking and intense…I get along with them as well.
But an emotional, sensitive mare...frankly, I just don’t have the tact for that. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and I know mine well. I guess it’s yet another of my issues that I’ll be working on with this complicated horse!
Today’s lesson ended on a great note. Kate has fixed his canter transitions in the span of two rides simply by carrying a dressage whip (which we both do now), and the canter is really coming along. It is a very powerful and balanced gait, and he has a huge step. He is even cantering small jumps! He is unflappable about what he is jumping and doesn’t look at anything, which may be good or bad in the ‘careful’ department.
I think we could use a live alligator as a ground line and he’d come right down and jump it. I can’t wait until spring when we can work outside. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I am really excited that he seems to like jumping. Only time will tell if he has any talent for it!
Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. She also enjoys rescuing elderly shelter dogs and just added Byron, an elderly blind poodle, to her household. Byron joins Virgil, Cybil, Gladys, and Maude (and Liz) in Coatesville, Pa. She grew up riding hunters and breaking babies, rode IHSA in college, and got her start in show jumping before vet school when she took a job riding with and managing Kevin Babington's team. She is currently riding with 4-star event rider, Kate Hicks in Cochranville, Pa.