Over the years of being a non-horse owner, I have come to know so many different horses through riding lessons and the occasional lease. I see this as one benefit of being a non-horse owner. Through my various experiences keeping active in the horse industry by essentially borrowing the horses of others, I have seen it all. There's the perfect unicorn, the one that always needs more leg, the sensitive soul, the one with an overflow of personality and much more.
A lot like human relationships, because each horse is unique and each rider is unique, some partnerships work out better than others. That’s why you occasionally hear of a horse with a bad rap. They’re moody, opinionated, mare-ish (let’s face it, it’s usually a mare), stubborn and sometimes considered “mean”. I have come across a few examples of this particular horse, one of which was my last hunter/jumper partner.
Mia was a small thoroughbred mare with some big 'tude. When she first arrived at her current home she would squeal at those attempting to enter her stall. With some time and good training, she eventually turned into an excellent lesson horse for beginners learning to ride or jump, but her attitude remained.
Around the barn it was known by all that Mia needed a large bubble. If she was cross-tied in the barn aisles you couldn't walk other horses by her, but instead needed to walk around to another entrance to get where you wanted to go. The same went for riding in the ring with other horses. She could be cantering up to a jump, see a pony out of the corner of her eye, and mid-stride still cast a dirty mare stare their direction with a snap of her teeth. When being tacked up, she’d try to nip as you groomed her, or reach her hind leg towards you to shove you away. As a lesson horse she was the unmotivated kind. She was valuable in that she would jump literally anything for you, never had a refusal, never spooked, and if you botched the line she'd make it work. But, if you needed her to be more forward, it'd cost you your legs.
Needless to say, everyone would get frustrated with Mia.
When I was first introduced to her I too received all of the above mannerisms. I was warned of her attitude and told to keep a crop in hand while tacking up because just holding it would usually prevent her from biting. I had seen others get nipped before. It was not until I advanced in my lessons that something changed in me that would later show a change in her.
As an experienced rider who was new to the jumping realm, it did not take me as long to move up in the discipline. I am absolutely no expert and still have a lot to work on, but I was soon able to progress into more advanced training in my lessons. I chose to stick with riding Mia, because I appreciated her smaller size and her confidence to the jump (it helped me build my own). This meant that Mia needed to advance with me. Mia and I would warm up much longer than before running with the big kids as they say. We incorporated bending exercises along with extended and collected movements to improve athleticism and suppleness.
At first came resistance. Understanding that this was new to her, I rode her not expecting perfection, but simply offering her the chance to succeed. In time, she became a star pupil! Watching her make progress was so rewarding to me. As I felt her improve throughout our lessons, I would simply praise her with a pat on the neck and a soft “good girl”. I believe that this made all the difference. I could feel the pride in Mia when I acknowledged her success. This was a horse who loved a challenge. This was a horse who wanted to be a part of a team.
Due to the increase in bending and collection, I would also massage her neck after each ride to release any new tension. Boy did Mia love and appreciate this! After a few weeks of this she began to let her guard down with me when it came to grooming and tacking. Gone were the days of dodging threats in the cross-ties. I would still get the occasional side glance when I tightened the girth, but she would then simply nudge me with her nose and look away as if to say “…fine…”. Mia would not be Mia without a little attitude here and there. Does she still threaten other horses? You bet she does! But it is easily redirected.
I stopped using a crop while riding Mia. In fact, it became more of a chore to get her to slow down. Turning towards a jump would light a fire in her. When this would happen sometimes I'd even get too excited to stop her (whoops)! Others around the barn found our relationship strange. They'd say things like “Wow, Mia never goes that fast for me.” or “She must really like you!”. I think it all boils down to respect.
Through riding Mia I learned about trust, partnership and respect for the horse. I have learned to further try to understand a horse’s actions before assuming the worst. All Mia needed was some praise, a little forgiveness and respect in her abilities. As riders we can sometimes put ourselves first and blame the horse. Put yourself in their shoes. If someone were frustrated with you at work, assumed you couldn’t do much and never thanked you for anything, would you do a good job? Would you be very happy? Would you strive to be the best that you could be? No.