Greetings from Wellington. Things are going well. That’s a scary sentence to write, because a) things can go Extremely Not Well at the drop of a hat on a myriad of fronts, but also b) deadly virus killing people and careers and livelihoods makes me sound like I’m fiddling while Rome burns, talking about how nicely my ponies are going. I acknowledge how lucky I am to be able to work out of doors. I am wildly grateful for my head being able to stay above water—only just, at times in the last year, but still above—during a time that has been so phenomenally difficult for so many.
The rough times of my own life in 2017 and 2018 certainly helped instill in me a substantial crust, one I’ve called upon for the last 12 months more than once. One thing I learned in my own hard years was to find the joy in the little things and in the good times, and fortunately, in my own stable, those small things aren’t hard to find.
First is Elvis, that magnificent animal. For those who don’t know, Elvis entered my life at the end of his 7-year-old year, with a whole lot of life skills and a whole lot of education that mostly worked for me. One of the things that did not was his very significant misunderstanding about being closed up, particularly towards the idea of piaffing. He’d gone down a path that certainly didn’t make sense to me, and from the amount of leaping about and real, unadulterated fear (from a horse who is not fearful about much!) about the whip, it didn’t make sense to him either. For the first few months of our time together, I had to be very careful changing my whip hand overhead, because he’d duck out to the side. And he’s just not that kind of horse; if anything, he’s a cocky little twerp.
So I had some homework to do, and it took time. Piaffe is also not my strongest suit, so we got a ton of help. Finally, about a year ago, it felt like I could actually start to influence Elvis about piaffe without him losing his mind from the get-go, but we then had to translate what I wanted into a language he understood, and that fear reaction would make an appearance. Over time, less and less, and later and later, but still there.
For the last few weeks, that reaction is just gone. It’s dead. Elvis makes mistakes, or I make mistakes, or we both just flounder around like ninnies, but at no point does his brain seize up. And I’m getting somewhere. The strength that proper piaffe takes is truly phenomenal—a famous American rider just did an article recently where she said that she starts introducing the concept when the horse is still fairly young because she expects it to be a four-year-long process, and while my brain knew that, it was so reassuring to see it written down. Realistically, Elvis has been at it for about 18 months, in some way, shape or form. I am so close to having 8-10 steps that cover a small amount of ground (which is the requirement for the Intermediaire II, my target for the year), but it’s not yet consistent, and it fatigues the heck out of him. So we do some, and then we play, and then we get on the next day and do some more, and then we play, and then we get on the next day, and he’s exhausted, so we flop around in the snaffle and stretch, and we build, brick by brick, step by step. It is so freaking cool.
My next blessing right now is Puck, who has been on a right proper roll for the last 18 months as well. Piaffe is like breathing to him, super easy, and I’ve had to shelve it for a minute because somebody is going to do his first real Prix St. Georges soon, and he thinks that piaffing is more fun than walk pirouettes, and I need that to not be the case for just a second, please, Sir. But he is getting super, super cool. He has this absolutely roaring hind leg that, combined with the fact that he’s 17.3 and has the enthusiasm level of a Jack Russell Terrier on PCP, is a heck of a lot of work to balance at the trot. I treated myself to an Apple Watch a few months ago, and it tells me, amongst other things, my heart rate; sitting Puck’s trot for a few minutes gets my heart rate up to You Should Probably Consult A Cardiologist levels. Whee!
And it’s not because he’s strong in the hand; he’s actually my lightest mouthed ride, to the point where I had to get creative and ride him in mega-light Titanium bits for a few months because he just couldn’t figure out how to carry himself with all that juice from his caboose. And that’s where the struggle remains, although it is staggeringly better now than it was just a few months ago. I had a lesson with my coach extraordinaire, Ali Brock, the other day where she said hey, just for grins, sit this thing down and make a pirouette like he’s going to the Olympics instead of going to do his first Prix St. Georges. And he freaking did it! Both directions! Tiny and balanced and organized, and then able to be ridden out like a gentleman instead of like a gorilla. Amazing.
Third on my list of joys is Helio, my mom’s incredible Barbie Dream Horse. Helio did his first season at Prix St. Georges last year, but the difference in his condition and strength now is fantastic. Helio also has a fantastic hind leg but a bit of a normal front leg from nature, and so developing him to be able to do the FEI work with expression has taken time and creativity. I’ve had other horses like him, notably Midge, a Dutch Harness Horse that I brought up to the Grand Prix level, for whom passage did not come naturally, and so they learned it through Spanish Walk. It’s taken time, but now Helio can not only execute the Spanish Walk as a gait all by itself, but he’s starting to connect the upward mobility of the shoulder and knee to the trot. He can take one to two steps of passage-ish at a time, when all the stars are perfectly aligned. (By the time this goes to print, it might be more like three or four; he’s learning that fast.)
From here, it’s about strength, about making sure he doesn’t drop his low back out. (That’s the obstacle this week; in the beginning, he’d get confused and defer to piaffe, but lately it’s actually been better to pursue that expressive, passage-like gait out of piaffe than it has been out of trot. By next week, it’ll probably be something else.) This work fatigues him tremendously, way more than it does Elvis. (Puck, it should go without saying, is never tired.) So I have to be respectful of that; he also gets vacation days in the snaffle where we just putz around.
And there are so many more things to be grateful for, big and small. My clients are riding beautifully, heading to their first shows of the year. My family is healthy. I have a sample of bridesmaid dress fabric sitting on my desk. I have a shiny new pony arriving this week. Vaccinations are rolling out. And here in Florida, where the weather is temperate, I’m able to pick up carryout from one of Wellington’s restaurants and sit 10 feet away from my friends. I am recording all these good days and good moments for my mental Rolodex because I know they are not forever. But they will be a talisman in dark times, and I’ll enjoy them while they last!
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.