by Laura Veenstra
My horse, Tali, and I started out 2012 really strong (well, strong for us!) We were jumping Entry level courses inside the arena and planning to school a lot of cross country before we planned to go to a show later in the summer. We were jumping regularly and focusing on our fitness levels. Everything looked like we were going to continue improving and was right on track for our goals.
Sometime in the late spring, after some off property work and cross country schooling, everything fell apart. Tali started stopping at every single fence; little X’s, his favorite big log, in the middle of grids. It was so disheartening.
I began asking myself really tough questions. Questions like: “Maybe he is trying to tell me he wants to retire” and “maybe it’s time to get a new horse” (a scenario that brought tears to my eyes when I thought about it for longer than 3 seconds!) but what other options did I have? We had been doing so well! What else could be going on? We were completely disconnected. I don’t even think we liked each other anymore – honestly.
All the refusing destroyed my trust in him and therefore my confidence went right back down. I think he could sense how unhappy I was and how quickly riding became a chore instead of something I greatly enjoyed. He was miserable and I was miserable.
Come August 2012, I suffered a knee injury that didn’t allow me to ride with any real angulations’ in my knee. This meant no lessons and no real riding for a little while. Tali and I were forced to dramatically change our plans. Gone were the weekly lessons. Now, we hacked – a lot. My horse is well known for not being the world’s ideal hack horse. He can go from floppy ears to bolting before I’ve even had a moment to think: “Huh, that *insert spooky item* could be a problem….” Suddenly, we were going all over the countryside bareback in a halter and lead rope and he loved it – a fact that supported my suspicion that perhaps it was time to retire him and move on. However, since I couldn’t ride anymore until my knee got sorted out, I figured why worry about that? Why lose sleep over getting a new horse when my knee was the size of a cantaloupe?
So hacking we went. 8 weeks of hacking actually. This turned out to be 8 weeks of reconnecting. We did everything bareback out in the hay field or on the road and in that relaxed, childlike atmosphere I remembered why I love my horse, and how much I love my horse. When I could ride in a saddle again we both were ready to start over and came back with fresh new attitudes.
I learned a lot last summer. I learned that showing may not be in our future and that’s ok. I learned that there can be other goals that are just as rewarding to achieve as ribbons. We had to start over and build our trust up again. I learned how to ride him more effectively and quietly and he learned to trust me more. By the fall, we were jumping once a week again and back into regular lessons.
We have continued to improve in small steps which actually ended up making us stronger. I realized during our time off just how important hacking was to my horse and his health – not only mentally but physically as well. The hills and varied terrain help make him stronger and keep him sounder. We learned to gallop too! Like really gallop – ex-racehorse gallop – which has been so incredible to bond us! It forced me to trust him (we actually have brakes even though we are going really really fast) and he in turn was able to show that he was worthy of that trust. I dedicated 1 day a week all winter to hacking him in the snow and stuck to it. By spring 2013, Tali and I were in a very different place then last spring. We may not have been planning to show or go off property but we were a team.
I can feel it every time I ride him that we have grown in leaps in bounds! My super spooky Thoroughbred now hacks out alone, and each time he increases his personal “safety zone” a little bit while building his trust in me. I have learned how to be the alpha in our relationship without being overbearing – this may be one of my biggest accomplishments as a rider! I am notorious for being ‘too nice’ and letting my horses walk all over me. Not anymore! We have a very clear understanding now and because of that understanding, I am doing more with my horse then I ever have!
We went from hacking bareback to confidently jumping 3 foot courses in a year. I’ve never jumped any horse over a 3 foot course confidently. Our flat work receives compliments regularly and Tali hasn’t stopped at a fence yet this year. I have learned somewhere along the way this past year how to ride my horse with the confidence he was looking for and to make things fun for him.
I am so very proud of where Tali and I are at the moment. I imagine that this connected feeling that we share now is akin to what all those Olympic riders feel. Granted we aren’t achieving the same things they are, but I don’t feel that changes how incredible the feeling is. I have referred to Tali as a “partner” or “teammate” to non-horsey folks (trying to get them to understand the dynamics of riding) but it has never felt more real to me than it does now. I never knew that being a Better Horsewoman was on my goal list until I was able to scratch it off.
We continue to hack bareback once a week and do our fitness work out in the hay fields – even if it’s windy, or garbage day and have to face all those ‘Tali-eating-monsters’ he is so convinced lurk in the ditches – and it’s brought us closer together. We are jumping bigger, wider and more confidently then we ever have and, most importantly, we are happy to be teammates.