On minute three of trotting I heard my mom (and regular coach) say, “Isn’t this the horse you wish you had evented?”

Natty, now almost 23, was the horse that turned me into a competitive event rider. At age 13, lacking a proper unicorn that would help me bridge the gap between Novice and Preliminary, and, likewise, between pony and event horse, Natty stepped in.  He brought me to Training level in just two events, and all the way to Georgia for the American Eventing Championships in 2011.

Despite our qualification results and a trip to the AECs, Natty never made the dressage easy. There were plenty of events where I was reduced to a puddle of tears and firmly in last place. At times I wasn’t able to effectively communicate with the hot red-headed Morgan, and judges vehemently opposed his ringside manner (read: tension).

Actually, I had felt I started cracking his code at the AECs. We put in a top-15 dressage test–which felt akin to winning the entire thing–until a disappointing, uncharacteristic 20 penalties (the only in all our events together) kept us from a ribbon. Alas, after the AECs, I largely stopped riding Natty. When I was ready to move up on Roxy, Natty turned his focus to dressage with a serious part-time leaser learning shoulder-in, half-pass, and flying changes. She never competed Natty in dressage, but was committed to her weekly lessons and regular training.

Fast forward to six years later. Natty spent the summer with his owners’ granddaughter frequenting local schooling events. It was great to see him back out eventing and showing the ropes to the next generation. Mid-summer we found an uncharacteristic swelling on his right front, and although he never took an off step, we called our vet for an evaluation. Turns out he had a lesion in his check ligament. Immediately, Natty found himself in hospital paddock confinement, cold-hosing, wrapping and sweating, shock-waving, and regular revaluations. Because I have been around home, I have played a major role in bringing Natty back to full work.

So there I was, trotting around the ring, realizing just how amazing Natty felt. I think there were two components that brought him back so well. After an injury you have a clean slate to introduce a horse back to work. Even before we could trot, spending 10, 20, 40 minutes just at the walk taught me to be hyper aware, because after all, what else was there to do? I would feel where he bulged against my legs, whether he was balanced over all four feet, or whether he was hard on one side of the bit or another. These are all things I should focus on every ride with every horse, of course, but building him back from zero, while keeping these careful considerations in mind, has shown through. Secondly, I discovered how much the focused training done over the last few years by his leaser helped improve him. Even though lateral movements (leg yield, shoulder in, haunches in, half pass) and single flying changes aren’t demanded in lower-level eventing dressage, I believe every event horse can benefit. Adding these skills to Natty’s repertoire gave me more access to his body, which translated to higher quality work even in trot sets.

Whether you’re stuck in the indoor for the winter, or bringing your horse back from an injury, we all can focus on the basics and proper training to bring a horse back better than before. Don’t fool yourself – an old dog can still learn new tricks.