Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Taking a step back

I had an interesting ride on Quest yesterday. It was somewhat unplanned because I usually give her a day off in between sessions but T wanted to ride and asked me to come along. I've been having a rough couple of days at home due to a family emergency this past weekend so going to the barn seemed like a better choice than staying home.  Since it was just the two of us, we planned to do a longer trail ride and get in more trotting. Quest’s halter was off when I went to go fetch her from her stall….big hint that she did NOT get turned out during the day. She stood nice in the cross-ties though so I went ahead with grooming and tacked up.

Mounted up, Quest moved out eagerly when I pointed her at the trail and took the lead though albeit she felt all over the place.  When I asked her to move out at the trot though, she settled into her groove though it was not as nice as I know it could be. We kept leaving T and her Icelandic pony Nickers behind with the big trot though so we kept mostly at a walk. Which Quest took to mean “stop completely” and balked at the most random things. 

I asked T if she would mind taking the lead for a bit while I gave Quest a mental break. When we trail ride with A and Smokey, she usually requests Quest and I to lead since she is less confident. Quest has risen to the occasion every single time and done so very well so far but bottom line, she is still VERY new to it all.  I had a gut feeling that all the leading on the trails the past couple of weeks was totally frying her brain. Once Nickers took the lead, the change in Quest’s demeanor was immediate. She relaxed and I could sense the high alert tension slowly ebb away. We then did lots of nice trot sets and confirmed that Quest can rate with quite well with another horse in front of her; no problems with transitions up or down either. We only had one nerve-wracking moment when Nickers suddenly shied sideways and back from something in the brush and nearly ran into Quest and me. Thankfully athletic mareface scooted away just in time so there was no collision and no one was hurt!  

Quest was much more eager to lead the way home so I let her move out a few stretches before requesting T to take the lead. We did some leapfrogging exercises, mostly for Quest's benefit to work on staying at the walk while Nickers trotted past and ahead. It was challenging for her but we ended on a very good note. We rode past the barn with no arguments about heading back and Quest trotted up compliantly when I asked so we could close up the gate for the night.

Looking cute in purple <3
Overall the ride wasn’t full of highlights but it brings up important things for me to think about. It did bother me at first that Quest balked at some things/places that never used to concern her much and we had more conversations on this ride compared to others. The trail we did was not new to her; in fact it was the same exact one we did during our 6-mile solo ride a week ago. However looking back on the miles we did over the past couple of weeks, it could be her way of telling me that she needed a break. And to be honest, I’m tired as well…being the lead rider on a trail ride isn’t easy either! 

We had a bunch of amazing rides lately so I’m not surprised that we’ve hit a low point. Yesterday was a good reminder that endurance riding is not just about training just to get the mileage and completion. It’s about training a horse to finish sound and fit to continue.  I personally believe “fit to continue” includes being mentally fit. 

Quest is so athletic that I think it is easy for me to overestimate and overlook her mental fitness at times. I see so much potential and am so excited to try new things with her that it puts me at risk of frying her brain out. Being a new horse owner, I am bound to make mistakes though I never want to make them at the cost of hurting my horse. And fortunately for me, Quest told me in her way that she wasn’t mentally ready for more and she did it without putting me or anyone else in danger. 

The safest and healthiest thing to do now is to take a step back and mix our rides up with arena rides to work on equitation, play with ground poles/obstacle training/barrels, bum around bareback, and continue desensitizing. Trail rides will still happen but approached in a different manner. One thing is for certain about horses, you really don't ever stop learning!


  1. my mare definitely needs a lot of variety in her work - but like you say keeping her mentally fresh is really the most important thing!

    1. It really is! I could be anthropomorphizing but I know I get bored if I do the same thing over and over again. There was a girl at the barn that was training her young dressage prospect and rode exclusively in the arena. Baby brain was becoming very sour to work so she ventured him out on a trail ride. The next session, completely changed attitude.

  2. I love how perceptive, observant and careful you are of Quest and her development as a performance horse!

    I have another angle for you to consider based on something *very* similar that happened just this past weekend. I'd been really upset and worried about a personal situation and the stress I was feeling got translocated to the horses. I gave Gracie her hormone shot to induce her heat cycle (post-stallion treatment) and was tacking up Lily for a ride while keeping an eye on Gracie. G-Mare had had joint injections (steroid) on Friday and her side effects from the hormone shot were greatly diminished: she had the contractions but barely any sweating (the steroid does have systemic anti-inflammatory effects, which my vet confirmed later and would explain why Gracie was more comfortable this time around.)

    Anyway, I was stressed out on this day and I kept looking over at Gracie and walked out to the field twice to check on her, all while Lily was in the cross ties. Lily was being super extra duper sweet and was sleepy while tacking up.

    The second I got on, she was "up." Super nervous, super worried. She kept looking over at Gracie. I took her over to the field that connects to the trails and Lily did NOT want to go. We had been through there at least 5 times already with no issue. She balked hard; kept looking over her shoulder at Gracie. So we took a shortcut and we walked over to the arena. You can see the mare field from the arena and initially Lily was looking in that direction but I was able to get her 100% focused on me. She started out all horrible and inverted but I ignored the giraffing and just worked on transitions while focusing on my posture and we ended up having a truly lovely dressage session, especially considering we hadn't practiced in a proper arena in over 6 months. I took her around the property at a walk to cool down after. I was pony-kicking the ENTIRE way because Lily had to look at EVERYTHING. It was incredibly frustrating; I had not had her be like that on trail in a really long time. I praised every effort and made a point of thanking her for trying. But I was *so* frustrated.

    Later I got to thinking about what had happened and why, and then it dawned on me: Lily had picked up on the fact that I was worried about *Gracie*. Her worry about Gracie was not her being herd-bound, it's because she was freaking out over the fact that *I* was freaking out over her buddy. So she wanted to be able to keep her in sight to make sure that she was okay. I got to test the theory out the next day: I was calm after talking to the vet. I tacked up Lily and she went down that same field to the trailhead like every other time in the past: no balking whatsoever. She didn't look over her shoulder once and we had a spectacularly fun ride!

    Mares especially have an uncanny ability for mirroring our state of mind/emotions. Of course you know Quest better than any of us, but if you were worried because of your family emergency (I hope everything is okay now!) I can see how Quest would have picked up on that and it would have made her worried too. This time Lily was able to pinpoint what I was worried about, but when I've been in turmoil over other life things, she has been known to become very jumpy about anything and everything because she doesn't understand *what* I'm worried about and she's trying to figure it out so she can take us to safety.

    The love of a mare is truly an incredible thing. ;)

    1. Quest had been getting progressively more balky on rides pre-family emergency, which is what made me feel like I was pushing her too far mentally before she was ready. I think that is always my fear that I will sour her to trails before we ever get to actually doing endurance...But what you described about Lily was EXACTLY Quest this last ride though. With my mental/emotional state, no wonder Quest worried so much. It makes a TON of sense since my family was definitely on my mind and only when I began to chat and banter with T, Quest relaxed as well.

      I have a bad habit of telling/convincing myself something doesn't bother me when it really does....which is why my emotional/mental influence was not even something I considered. Now that I look back on it, it may have had a bigger impact than I originally thought. Thank you so much for providing that insight!

    2. Anytime. :) And cross-training is always a good thing regardless!

  3. I am a firm believer that our horses are often trying to tell us a myriad of different things if only we will listen. I think you are most likely right that Quest may want a bit more variety in her schedule. Also completely agree with Saiph re: how mares pick up on the emotions of their riders. I have stay very focused on B - as soon as my mind drifts she gets on high alert and will spook at everything because she has determined I am not leading the charge in our herd of two. As you said, they sure keep us learning all the time!

    1. I completely agree with you on both points and yes, I've been experimenting with changes in our recent routine- it's doing good things for the marebrain (: