At a recent horse show, I arrived on warm-up afternoon with three horses to ride (lucky, I know). I had two horses longed pre-ride, but to save time I decided to just hop on my beloved mare Aria. I figured she would be feeling high, but I also trusted that she’s too well-behaved to be dangerous.
Shortly after we entered the busy jumper warm-up ring, I realized I’d made a mistake. She was bursting with energy and reacted every time one of her colleagues did something goofy, which was approximately every 2½ seconds. She wasn’t alone in her show excitement, but she was way too frisky to focus, so I decided to head back to the barn for a longe line. Unfortunately, the walk back became less of a walk than a sideways prance—my least favorite gait—so I jumped off to lead her back.
That’s when the real fireworks started. Freed from trying to maintain her under saddle manners, Aria escalated from sideways prance into an even fancier combination of prancing, rearing and fake bolting. She pushed me off the path into someone’s beautifully landscaped show setup. Palm fronds slammed into my face as I struggled to keep her at my side. By this point, people were staring. I was that girl who couldn’t keep her horse under control. Humiliating.
I made it back to our barn, embarrassed and annoyed but mostly unscathed, and handed her off for a longe. I mounted my second horse, who was now ready for me, and had a perfectly nice ride. When I came back for Aria a half hour later, our groom remarked that she had really needed that longe. I thanked him, took the reins, and began the march back to the ring, telling my now-calm horse, “You can apologize for earlier whenever you’re ready, Aria.”
I swear her reply was instant, audible and mocking: “You can apologize for earlier whenever you’re ready, Mom.”
I stopped in my tracks and looked at her. She was right.
She didn’t wake up that day and decide to make me look bad. She woke up that day in a tiny temporary stall under a circus tent on huge show grounds with a bunch of other horses who were probably all feeling first-day show nerves. And then instead of getting out on the longe line to release that energy with head held high and perhaps a good buck, I hopped on and asked her to collect the trot and give me a shoulder-in amidst all the excitement.
I know better. Aria has never bucked or bolted under saddle, but she will do so with great enthusiasm in the turnout or on a longe line (the latter being the only option at a horse show, unfortunately). I don’t think she enjoys the feeling of being high. I imagine it’s like having one too many shots of espresso: The first two feel good, but the jitters created by the third shot make you edgy and uncomfortable and make your stomach feel funny. I know better, yet with limited time that day, I took advantage of her good nature.
I’d like to be able to say that I learned my lesson, but apparently I’m a little dense. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago: I arrived at the barn when a storm was brewing in the air. Again, I had three horses to ride and some decisions to make. My gelding Kingston is sensitive to weather and has been known to employ dangerous acrobatic moves when he’s nervous, both on the ground and under saddle. So I deemed him “professional handler only” that day, a decision that was confirmed as the right one when he showed off some of his moves for our groom. There was zero chance of my riding him that day.
I decided that the safest bet would be my new mare Meiomi. She is green but quiet and sensible. She was born for the hunter ring as she doesn’t do anything in a hurry. The walk from her stall to the crossties takes twice as long as with any other horse. She very rarely spooks, but when she does, it’s a soft snort and a slow-motion step to the side that barely qualifies as a spook at all. So I assumed we’d be fine even with the impending bad weather.
Our ride was going well until a huge gust of wind came up suddenly. The wind didn’t seem to bother Meiomi until it blew my visor off my helmet. The visor didn’t just fall to the ground. It blew straight up into the air, then came down and hit Meiomi’s shoulder, then went back up again and came down again, hitting her on the other side of her neck. It was a full-on assault, and for once in her life she exhibited normal prey animal reactions. I can’t fully describe what she did because I was fighting to stay on, but it involved crow hopping then accidentally bumping into a jump standard—which must have seemed to her like a second attack—then more hopping around as I repeatedly banged my chin and jaw on her mane until I managed to get myself upright again.
It was over as quickly as it began, and Meiomi was back to her quiet ways. We finished the ride, sans visor, even as the wind continued to howl. Thunder boomed in the distance as I untacked her and led her back to her stall. Other horses in the barns and paddocks were in a tizzy, but Meiomi strolled back like the world’s most trusted leadline pony.
I don’t think it was a mistake to ride her that day, but the visor incident was a reminder to never take her temperament for granted. I vowed to make more of an effort to ensure that my quiet ones get the same consideration as the others. Demanding horses like Kingston keep us on our toes. Managing his enormous body, delicate emotions and hair-trigger flight response takes considerable thought, planning and creativity. My trainer and I spend a lot of time discussing how to keep him happy and his riders safe.
The quiet ones are worth their weight in gold precisely because it doesn’t take advanced calculus to be safe around them. Even on her wildest day, Aria made it clear that I’d made a mistake without hurting me. I’m ultimately grateful that she expressed what she needed. So many of the trustworthy, quiet ones don’t. With multiple horses and limited time, it’s easy to fall into the trap of forgoing the turnout or longe or warm-up class. It’s easy to forget to take the time to acclimate them to something new, like a visor or a jacket, a different type of jump fill, or a new ring.
At this moment, I have a big scrape across my chin to remind me to think about the needs of the quietest ones. But it will fade, and I’ll inevitably overlook something. I just hope to be a little better every day, and I hope that all of my horses, regardless of temperament, will continue to nudge me in the direction of better horsemanship.
Lindsey Long is an amateur rider living in Southern California. She nervously trotted her first cross-rail at age 32 and is now a full-fledged addict, attempting to balance her “real” job alongside her true loves: riding horses, writing about horses, and photographing horses. She shows in the hunter, jumper and equitation rings, and her goals include not launching from the long spot, becoming brave enough to take the inside turns, and galloping over the final fence without chipping. Read all of Lindsey’s blogs.