Amateurs Like Us: Is It The Right Match?

Mar 15, 2016 - 5:37 PM
My relationship with Jitter hasn't been one of effortless progress and seamless communication, but it's been all the more rewarding because of it. Photo by Joe Nevills

Halfway through a dressage lesson a few weeks back, I was struggling. My legs were killing me, I was huffing and puffing, and I could already tell that my right triceps were going to be useless until at least Tuesday.

This, in itself, is not that remarkable—I spend a lot of time struggling in dressage lessons, and I’m not sure my horse feels much better about them.

“Lengthen your lower leg! Wrap your legs around her!” my trainer said, for what had to feel like the 50th time.

The mare was sucking back and even at their longest, I was sure my legs were barely reaching a third of the way down her ribcage.

“That’s as long as they go! I can’t feel them anymore!” I responded in a (I hope) rare moment of defiance.

“Well, you bought a draft cross,” my trainer chuckled.

I spend a lot of time thinking that I am physically mismatched with Jitterbug. I’ve been 5’4” with stubby calves for half my life, but this is the first horse who has convinced me I also have disproportionately short arms. Combine this with a 16.1- hand mare who I estimate is 1,200 to 1,300 pounds (all of them somehow in her head), and I spend a lot of time red-faced and stocking up on ibuprofen on the way home from dressage lessons.

She’s no Totilas under my trainer, but there’s no denying that she’s lighter, fluffier, fancier than she has ever been with me. I’d expect this, of course—my trainer is more skilled, more experienced, and has much longer legs than I do. But I sometimes wonder whether the degree of our struggles mean that Jitter and I really aren’t the best match for each other.

I didn’t buy Jitter with a lot of long-term plans. She was a green-broke 5-year-old with attitude problems when I purchased her, and I was a broke college student.

I bought her because I’d fallen in love with her spirit over the months she and I had worked together. I planned to keep her for the rest of her natural life, but I didn’t know yet whether she’d choose spend that time as a show horse, a trail horse, or a pasture pet. It was a little like stopping to look at engagement rings on the way home from a relationship counseling session—I knew her well enough to know we’d have “some challenges,” but probably had a naïve understanding of just how much work it would take to get us on the same page.

Most people who have watched Jitter under tack agree that she is a unique combination of ability, laziness, and an amazingly deep stubborn streak. When she got out of her own way, she had potential, especially as a jumper, but in our earliest days, she would waste a lot of effort and a lot of time resisting simple exercises for the sake of winning arguments.

“Squirm, minion, squirm!” was probably her catchphrase for our first three years, with our poor trainer as the relationship counselor, coaching us together and separately with the patience of a saint. After all, she must have realized, we’d tied the knot, and may as well make a go of it.

I was used to horses with personality quirks that smoothed out as they got to know you. Jitter used every ride as intel to refine her evasion techniques.

In the early days, she learned how to bully me and how to bait me. We spent a year trotting because when I asked for a canter, she bucked or bolted, and it rocked my confidence to its core. But we worked through each new challenge, and after nearly seven years learning each others’ nuances, we’re preparing to open our fourth show season at a local beginner novice combined test. I’m aware that with different partners, we could each be competing at a much higher level, but we have more good days than bad ones now, and I’m not sure I want to climb too much higher than novice, anyway.

Not too long ago, I was lunging Jitterbug to give her some playtime after a week off due to weather. She came into the evening grumpy and ignoring my vocal cues, having come down a peg or two in her field’s pecking order a few days before. I could understand her feelings and thought she needed to try something different.

In our early days, I tried free-lunging her in roundpens and arenas, hoping to establish some kind of rapport, but she just turned the situation into a game that seemed to combine the basic principles of Tag and Chicken.

It had been years since I’d last huddled behind a jump standard chanting, “Eeeeeeasy,” so I thought I’d give it another try. I unclipped the line and shooed her away.

For the first time in possibly her entire life, she took a loop of the arena, stopped, and dropped her head. She softened her eye. She slowly walked over to me, ears alert, and blew a small puff of air through her nostrils at me.

“What are we doing next, friend?”

If I wanted an event horse, I don’t think Jitter was the best fit for me. If I wanted a pleasure horse who would reliably provide an easy escape from the stresses of life, she wasn’t the best choice.

But what I wanted was a puzzle, and I certainly got one. What I hoped for was a horse who would teach me, learn from me, and ultimately choose to be my partner. It’s nice to be reminded once in a while that we really do have something to show for all this time spent “in session.”

You’ve gotten to know Jitterbug, the Chronicle’s Quadraped Correspondent, over her years of posting hilarious columns from a cantankerous draft-cross mare’s point of view. And now her “Human,” Natalie Voss, has joined our roster of bloggers to share her adventures as a hunter-rider-turned-eventer mounted on the ever-opinionated Jitterbug


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