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In Loving Memory...
~ Gogo Fatale ~

6/2/01 - 10/11/11
~ Forever the Marest of Them All ~

Friday, March 20, 2009

Humility and Riding the Alpha Mare

Humility, n. The quality or condition of being humble.

Riding a mare like Gogo is a constant lesson in humility. I need to listen to her, really listen, and figure out exactly what she wants me to know about whatever we're doing. On the ground, I am the alpha in this herd of two. She respects me, she submits to me, she understands her place and she allows me to lead the way. Under saddle, it's a different story. We are complete equals. I am not allowed to dictate, I am only allowed to suggest and direct, and it is up to her to take up the slack and follow through on her end. She expects me to hold up my end of the bargain too. If I am ever unfair or too demanding (in her mind, especially), she acts as though she feels slighted, and the ride quickly deteriorates. She constantly reminds me that we both have parameters and rules we need to follow at all times, and when I'm not correct or let my emotions get too into the ride, she shuts down and the work becomes very poor. This situation can be very volatile - sometimes when she starts to lose it, so do I, and the fight can escalate rapidly from there. But if I relax, quiet myself, and let her reorganize underneath me, she comes back around, always. I am never allowed to tell her what to do. I always must ask, and with a 'please.' And I always have to give a 'thank you' too.

Gogo is a difficult ride. She's always been stubborn since the day I've had her, not in a naughty, cranky, misbehaving kind of way, but in the subtle way she uses her body - 'I will stay tight in my neck unless you do X,' 'I will fall apart when you try to bend me right unless I am completely straight and through.' Sometimes, she overreacts to my corrections. Sometimes, if she's not completely accepting of the contact and getting frazzled, and I give too hard of a rein aid, she leaves. She rears, she plunges, she throws her head in the air and she just mentally and physically leaves. Hard corrections never work with her. They need to be subtle, quiet suggestions when she is acting against me, and I always have to wait her out. I think this is why we've had two weeks of not-so-good dressage work. I've been too demanding, I've not been fair enough.... I've been trying to run the show. I've been telling her what to do and not asking, and her message has been loud and clear right back at me - 'You can't make me'. And who am I kidding? Of course I can't. She is an 1100lb, opinionated mass of muscle and ego, and I am a 130lb, 5'7" scrap of a 24 year-old kid who just wants to do right by her.

Some horses you can get on and muscle around until they're good. Rena, the other mare I regularly ride, is just like this. You really do need to get on and manipulate her head and neck to get her to release at the withers, and nail her once or twice with your spurs before she is actually forward. She is Gogo's size and height - a hair bigger, but not much - but she is a brick house and will putz around all day unless you get after her right off the bat. I love riding the mare for how much she knows, but I very much so hate the kick-and-pull feel of it. It's not nearly as dramatic as that, of course, but I do punch her once or twice with my spurs, and I do bend her pretty dramatically throughout the ride, or else she just locks her head and neck, and hangs on you with all her weight. NOT classical dressage. Rena dressage.

Gogo dressage? Polar opposite. If I did this with her, I'd probably find myself trampled on the ground somewhere, and it would serve me right. Gogo is exceedingly sensitive, but not in a hot way. She just has a very, very strong sense of self-preservation, and isn't going to put up with any aggressive-type riding. Yesterday, I hopped on and went into the indoor, because it was raining and, well, who wants to get soaked and cold? I think the problem started with this - she had been so bad in the indoor recently, and so great in the outdoor, that I probably was anticipating poor behavior and was feeling stressed about it. Lesson in humility #1: Read my emotions BEFORE and DURING my ride, always, and SHUT OUT the negative ones. I obviously wasn't paying enough attention to this, but it was clear that right off the bat, Gogo was resistant, with her head in the air and completely overly sensitive to any rein aid I tried to give, in a really bad kind of way. And you know what? I'll admit it, it pissed me off. Why did I let it do that? Because, somewhere in my head, I really want to say, 'Gogo, you're 7 and you've been in training here for four months now. You were SO GOOD a few weeks ago, so WHY can't you warm up that way now? WHY does it feel like it did when we first got here? WHY does it feel like we're going backwards to the way we used to warm-up? WHY can't you just get over it already?' And, you guessed it, the ride spiralled out of control from there. It didn't help that I had immediately gotten off Rena, the knock-around horse, and gotten right onto Gogo, the ask-nicely horse. I feel like I was riding her more like I ride Rena, and everything imploded out from under me. It culminated in a frantic bolt down the long side, her eyes rolling and mouth agape, and when I managed to haul her to a stop at the end, she did two 360 degree spins on her hind legs in a row, and almost smashed me into the wall. This was 30 minutes into the ride. 30 minutes, and we were erasing everything good we had done for the past four days. Completely at a loss and unable, for whatever reason, to let go of my emotions inside, I trotted her back to the entrance of the arena and got off. I then dragged her right out the door, hopped right back on outside, and into the outdoor arena we went, rain and all. After she got done spooking to death at all of the letters in the ring (she hadn't been in there since we had set up the dressage arena), she quieted, and I was quiet too. I gave her a set amount of rein to work with, and sometimes she popped above it, but I didn't move where my hands where at all. If that meant she spent part of the time on a slack rein with her head in the air, it did. And soon, she settled, reached out for my rein and took her herself, on her complete own, and was quiet. Suddenly, we were transformed. Instead of me trying to bring her in to my contact, she took me out to her contact. Her back swung, her topline rippled, we moved together and all was right. We leg yielded, we did transitions within all gaits and between gaits, we were supple and fluid. We weren't completely perfect - coming across the diagonal at the canter, right before I asked her to trot, she took a leaping step forward as though about to do a flying change and got caught in my half-halt. She switched in front but not behind, but neither of us was frazzled. She continued in cross-canter for a minute, just as connected as you possibly could be while cross-cantering, and after it became clear that she was balanced and not about to switch on her own, I quietly brought her back down and she continued on in a quiet way. If that had happened in the indoor only minutes before, all hell would have broken loose. Something about being outside made me quieter and more relaxed, and in turn she responded with, 'Well it's about time lady.' We did another 30 minutes of amazing, quiet, powerful and supple work, to add to our 30 of disaster, and called it a day.

Today, it was freezing and so I therefore rode in the indoor. To say that my brain was just as frazzled at the start doesn't begin to cut it anymore. I did everything I could to just let her have her way, giving her her set length of rein and waiting her out, but 45 minutes into the ride, we were still doing nothing but trotting a figure-8 around the arena with a completely inconsistent contact. I was getting frustrated, fighting myself to stay calm, and of course, she picked up on my internal struggle. While she wasn't naughty, she was clearly letting me know that while I had tension in my body and brain, she was going to, too. What finally worked was that I took an inch or two shorter on my reins, relaxed my upper arms, and instead of giving her a place where she could sometimes not feel any contact at all if she so chose, she was feeling contact at all times, no matter if her head was in the rafters or quietly where it belonged. And then, I forgot that I was riding. I took my focus away from what I was doing and thought about something else. I think I was musing about what exactly I was going to do for the rest of my afternoon when I realized suddenly that my horse was being completely perfect. She was quiet, accepting the contact and reaching out for it, drooling all over the place with a nice, quiet mouth (no chomping or slurping!) and listening intently to whatever I had to say. I just had to completely take my brain out of the picture and stop thinking about what I was doing.

It is hard to accept the fact that, for the most part, what works best is just to let her run the show a little bit. I really do wonder why she just can't get over herself and get to work sometimes, but it just NEVER works to have that in my brain. Eventually, someday, maybe years down the road even, we'll be able to get right on, pick up a long and low contact, be able to come right up when we're ready, and blast into that show ring with only a 20-minute, completely productive warmup. But that's just not now. It's not going to be anytime soon either, I don't think. She'll never get over what the bad trainer who started her did to her face - ripped it off to get her head down, literally, even if that was for only two months - and she'll never get over what the REALLY bad trainer did to her face while I was in NZ - ripped it off so hard that it taught her to rear and flip herself over. And I can't blame her for getting stressed and claustrophobic about the contact when I try to take her in as opposed to her taking me out. She is sensitive and completely focused on her own safety, comfort and well-being, like any good alpha mare would do. And as long as I am quiet, forgiving and full of humility, we can work together in harmony.

She makes me a better rider and a better person. She tells on me when I am wrong, and she lets me know when I am right. She is so hard to work with, but it's so completely rewarding when it all comes together just right.

1 comment:

manymisadventures said...

I loved this post.

I have gone through so many of these struggles myself. Mostly with Bailey, but a lot with the horses I ride now. It's comforting to know that I am not the only person who gets frustrated, who feels guilty about not doing things right, who sometimes forgets to ask instead of tell.

I'm getting better at listening. I pay very, very close attention to Pandora as I'm riding - more than I ever have with another horse. It's really paid off, because I'm a lot closer to telling the difference between 'I can't' and 'I don't want to.'

I'm glad you were able to get to a good place in those rides with Gogo again. Hope your next few rides go smoothly.