Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Day I Cried After My Lesson

If you've followed my blog for a long time, you may remember me writing more than once about how instrumental conditioning for an endurance ride has been to helping Nimo be more confident outside the arena.  From the very beginning of Nimo's training under saddle, I wanted to work on riding outside the arena because that is my true love.  I grew up riding around the countryside in North Dakota, whether it was on my grandma's farm or around the boarding stable where we kept our horses (we had 3 at one point!).  Because I had an Arabian for most of that time, a lot of the time riding was spent at a canter or even a gallop.  I loved it and never felt like a whole person unless I was riding.

When I started Nimo under saddle, though, it was a different story.  The place I boarded did have access to trails but the equestrian communities that were in the area and were supposed to have easements for trails became increasingly difficult about allowing access for people who only boarded in the area instead of lived there.  I was told it was for liability reasons, but I suspect it was more than that.  Living in that area was very expensive (so was boarding!) and people who live in expensive communities seem to prefer to exclude others rather than include them.  So my ability to ride off the farm was limited, although there were a couple of boarders who also lived in the community.  If you could convince one of them to take you, you could ride the trails, but I started discovering then and am still discovering that most people at boarding stables are terrified to take their horses outside the arena.

But with Nimo being so young and the trails involving crossing winding roads with no shoulders and blind curves as well as hills, trees, creeks, etc., I wasn't sure I wanted Nimo to start his trail journey that way.  He was quite spooky under saddle and could be really reactive, so it honestly didn't feel safe.  I did ride him down the long driveway a few times, but for the most part, we stayed inside the arena.

By the time he was four, though, I had moved him to a new barn that was located on a huge property that included 11 different boarding facilities.  They were all connected by roads through the property and if you boarded at any of the facilities, you could ride through the whole property.  (Finding something like that at a reasonable distance from where we lived was amazing.  Regrettably, development has now taken the entire property and it no longer exists.)  I also had access to a pretty good sized field (maybe 10-15 acres) that I could ride in.  And, more importantly, a good friend also boarded there and had a nice safe horse that I could ride with.

So we went out around the property many times.  It was not without its adventures.  There was the time we were riding alongside the polo field and something spooked Nimo sideways.  I was posting at the trot and posted myself right over his shoulder and on to the ground.  I dislocated my shoulder doing that (it is the shoulder that is prone to dislocation, though, so it wasn't a huge surprise).  Then there was the time a herd of polo ponies galloped toward us as we rode past their field.  I got a levade out of Nimo at that point (but I stayed on!).  And then there was the time a tractor turned down the road toward us, giving Nimo a heart attack and provoking him into a 180 spin and headlong gallop for about a half mile before I got him stopped.  But we survived and I kept at it, either riding with my friend or by myself as I desperately tried to turn Nimo into the solid trail horse that I craved.

I ended up moving him to a new barn after about a year at this barn.  But the new place had some areas to ride around as well as some hay fields, so I still had places to ride outside the arena.  My trainer at the time strongly discouraged it, however, and I'm embarrassed to say that I did listen to him for awhile.  I think part of the reason was because riding Nimo outside the arena was scary.  He was spooky and his spooks often involved spinning and bolting, sometimes with bucking thrown in for good measure.  So instead of working on it every day, which is what I should have been doing, I stopped for awhile and only did it occasionally when I restarted.

It was a very dark time in my life.  I actually thought about selling Nimo at one point because I hated riding.  I hated all the schooling in the arena, which wasn't doing us much good.  I couldn't canter Nimo at all.  My trainer refused to work on it with me, saying that Nimo wasn't ready to canter because he still couldn't trot perfectly.  It was beyond frustrating for both Nimo and I, and when I reached my breaking point, it wasn't pretty.  It's possible that I yelled at my trainer and possibly brandished my whip at him after he made us trot a circle for what felt like the millionth time and chastised us once again for not riding it perfectly.

I started shopping for a new trainer, and moved Nimo once again.  The new trainer helped for awhile and the new barn also had a field that I could ride in plus it was located in a small community with homes and two other boarding barns, so I could ride the roads through the community too.  I also had access to trails, but to get to them required riding down the side of a busy highway for about a half mile.  I had work to do with Nimo if I wanted to be able to ride the trails.

There were a number of things that helped at this barn.  For one thing, someone was always driving an ATV too fast around the farm or through the barn.  Everywhere else I boarded discouraged that kind of behavior and focused on keeping everything really quiet so as not to spook the horses.  This place was full of activity, though.  So eventually Nimo stopped spooking at the ATV (although not before taking out a section of fencing when one spooked him while he had his head through the fence trying to get grass - he was fine but the fence was not).  And his field was right next to a busy road, so eventually he stopped spooking at vehicles, which is one problem I'd had before.  Plus there was a gun range close by, so he got used to constant gun fire (something which is important in Virginia because not a day goes by without somebody shooting something pretty much everywhere).

I gradually worked up the courage to start riding him around the farm and the community and we did even make it out to the trails once with another rider.  Her horse, regrettably, was not particularly excited about trail riding, though, and spooked and bolted, so that was the first and only time she would go with me.

The most important thing I did was to start canter work in the field I had access to.  It was long and narrow - about 15 acres.  Along its length I could expect barking dogs and my ultimate favorite - two Weimaraners fenced in with invisible fence.  I strongly believe that invisible fence should be illegal, especially around horses (but also because it's not that great for a lot of dog breeds), but it gave us the chance for Nimo to be surprised and "chased" by two dogs multiple times a week.  There was a lot of spooking and bolting and bucking, but I stayed on and kept at it even though I was terrified.  (Some boarders were unseated by their spooking horses, but the dogs' owners never thought to provide some kind of barrier along that part of their property line.)

Eventually I got Nimo to the point where he could canter a couple of big circles in the field without blowing up and freaking out.  I even took him on a couple of trail rides off the property.  Then I got pregnant, and cantering in fields was not something I felt safe doing, although I did ride through my second trimester.  I probably would have continued to ride, but it was July and then August and we had a terrible heat wave and I just worked on surviving those last few weeks.  (Those who have been pregnant probably know what I'm talking about.  I enjoyed being pregnant for the most part, but there comes a time when you are ready for the baby to come out, but the baby is not ready to come out, and those are some long days.)

My blog started when my daughter was about 7 months old, so I've written about most of what happened from that point on already and won't repeat it here.  But I wanted to give you some history and context.  Nimo has always struggled with canter.  I spent a lot of time being discouraged from even working on it.  He has also been difficult to ride outside the arena but over the years, he has become quite reliable, which means a lot to me.

But cantering outside the arena is not something we've ever been able to do much of no matter how confident he is on a mountain.  I can only remember a handful of times when he has cantered on a trail.  One time was the first time we rode at the Foxcatcher endurance ride.  He did it on his own and was amazing and lovely, but never repeated in quite that way again.  In fact, I ended up getting bucked off while Nimo was cantering at one "fun" ride we did maybe three years ago, and I got a concussion as a result.  At the time, I wondered if it was the energy of being with a group of horses cantering or if there could be a saddle fit issue (I was riding in my Specialized at the time).

Now, I suspect it was simply because Nimo is terribly uncomfortable cantering outside the arena for probably two reasons.  One is that cantering is hard for him and he probably feels unbalanced.  The other is that he is a worrier about Bad Things on the trail.  It took a long time for him to feel comfortable trotting on the trail too, and I think the extra speed of the canter combined with his lack of balance and his uncertainty about dangers lurking on the trail makes it difficult for him to canter.

You'll remember that I wrote that one main reason I turned to Science of Motion was because Nimo started to have problems cantering in the arena after we had achieved a certain level of success in that area.  I felt that our trainer at the time was pushing us to go too fast and it was exacerbating Nimo's balance issues.  Despite our work using SOM, though, I was never able to get Nimo to do more than 3-4 strides of collected canter.  Even a 20-meter circle seemed out of reach.  I'm not sure how to explain how frustrating that was!  I still can't quite grasp what has gone wrong for this poor horse, although I suspect not working on canter much at a younger age may be part of it.  Also, many Friesians (particularly the Dutch registered ones) aren't bred for cantering (or at least they weren't at the time I bought Nimo).  Now you can find some nice lines of Friesians where the angles of their shoulders and croups are a little less steep and better suited to riding.

So I mentioned some of our canter issues to my current instructor during one of our early ride out lessons.  I explained how it was bothering me and how someday, I would really love to just be able to canter in a field like normal horses and riders do.  She said, "Why don't you just do it today?"  I looked at her like she was a crazy person, and I'm sure I said something along those lines too.  I mean, you can't erase 12 years of defectiveness in one lesson.

Still, I figured avoiding the issue wasn't going to make it go away.  So I agreed that we could work on canter in this random field.  I mentally wished I was wearing bubble wrap to protect me from the fall I was sure would happen, but I sucked it up and told the hysterical, panicked part of my brain to shut up and asked my instructor for her guidance.

We started off by collecting the walk and putting Nimo into a shoulder-in on a circle.  That is much easier to do in an arena, by the way, but we did it.  And then, she worked with me on the timing of my request, and I think I may have used my whip a bit to tap when Nimo's inside hind leg was on the ground.  (I always ride with a whip on the trail, not so much for communicating with Nimo, but for moving tree branches out of the way and as a potential weapon against Bad Things.)

Anyway, it didn't take too many tries before Nimo happily cantered in a completely straight line down the length of the field.  He was nicely forward and balanced, but not too fast.  He was not spooky or wobbly.  There was no crow-hopping or bucking.  He just cantered like it was totally normal and not for 3-4 strides, but probably closer to 100.  We stopped only because a fence was in the way.

That probably doesn't sound like a big deal to you, and before I started riding Nimo, it wouldn't have been for me either.  But nothing like that has ever happened with Nimo.  When he cantered at the Foxcatcher ride, it was because he felt like doing it.  Which was fine.  I've always been happy to let him set his own pace on trails as long as it isn't too fast (or really slow...) for the footing or other conditions.  But this time, I asked him for it.  And he did it.  And it was a significant number of strides.  And it wasn't in an arena.  And it was beautiful.  And I wasn't scared.  I'm not sure it's possible to explain how it felt to achieve that canter after years and years and years and years of trying without success.  Of years and years and years and years of being anxious or even outright scared because of Nimo's constant spooking and bolting and bucking and general unpredictable nature.

I was able to contain my emotion about the canter for the rest of my lesson while still conveying my happiness about achieving it to my instructor.  But on the way home from the lesson, I cried.  Like most of the hour and 15 minute drive back to the barn.  Because all this emotion kept leaking through.  I had really resigned myself to the idea that Nimo was never going to canter outside the arena and that if by some miracle he did, it would never be for very long, just a few strides, and it might result in me getting a concussion.  But that ride gave me hope that maybe someday we can be normal, and canter down the trail without anxiety and simply enjoy being together.


  1. That is so awesome! Congrats on a great canter!

  2. If it had been me, I would not have cried. I would have bawled my eyes put with such utter joy and such a rush of success, accomplishment, and overcoming. The tears I have right now are because I empathize so much. Way to go Gail and Nimo!

    1. I know you understand, Jo:) And thanks for all of your support through the years!

  3. This is so, so, SO wonderful!!!!! And I can say I was witness to that canter at Foxcatcher! ;) I still wish I'd had my phone in hand to at least get a photo for you. Your joy during that moment was unforgettable. <3 I'm so happy this is on the way to becoming a consistent thing with Nimo!

    1. Thanks, Nicole! It feels good to be on the right path again - I hope:)

  4. My horse had a very difficult canter when I bought him. It took years of work before we could canter like normal people, as you say. The round pen was suggested to help him but he could not move in there without leaning like a motorcycle. Something similar happened in the arena. If I let him canter on the trail we would leave everyone else far, far behind. I think I can relate to your level of joy in achieving that canter. How cool that it happened so completely in that lesson.

    1. While I don't wish dealing with a difficult canter on anyone, it is nice to know that others have had similar issues! Thanks for sharing, Val, and I'm so glad you found a solution too!:)