Your Turn: I Love You, But I Want a Divorce!
Not all human-equine relationships are matches made in heaven. And sometimes the hardest part is coming to terms with that fact. Lisa Sobering shares her story.
As with most horse owners, we search for a partner in whatever discipline we ride. Some will raise their partners; some search the internets. I had big dreams, wanting to do some low-level eventing. I’m in my late 40s and really just learned to ride in the past 10 years on an aged OTTB. He was the perfect beginner horse to instill confidence. He came up lame and I thought it was time to move on and let him retire at 23. So, I began my search. I was looking for something with a mellow temperament but had experience in jumping. I knew my jumping was limited, but I was working on 2’ to 2’3. I didn’t have a clue at this point.
I ended up purchasing a gorgeous 7-year-old Appendix bay gelding from a fellow boarder. I got on and tried him out. He was punchy and was definitely testing me. Of course, the barn owner was like, “He is all bark, don’t worry.” OK, no problem. So, I decided I needed to try him over a cross rail. Well, he got a bit pushy the first time so we went back and this time was better. I really thought I could learn from this horse and have some fun. Again, I didn’t have a clue.
I brought him home and started taking lessons. He had learned to hold a false frame and his rider wouldn’t ask too much. I was told to get him to move forward. He didn’t like what I was asking and decided he would spook and bolt. Yep, I came off… more than once. OK, I needed to work on my seat and learn to stay on. We took some jumping lessons and I found out that if I am just a bit too far forward and on his neck, he would drop his neck and shake his head, as if he was trying to shake me off.
Of course, everyone was saying to sit up, sit up. Have you ever tried to sit up when the horse drops his neck? Yeah, not helping. We tried to take a 2-foot barrel in the jump field at a trot and the bugger grabbed the bit two steps before take off, took off, landed and bolted. Yep, scared the beejeesus out of me. Let’s focus on flatwork for a while.
It didn’t matter where we worked. He took to spooking at anything and everything, then bolting. I needed to change something. Next thing in the tool box was ground work and establishing more of a partnership. Fortunately, there is an animal behaviorist at the barn. I learned positive reinforcement and applied the techniques. He loved to learn and was doing much better with ground manners. I had learned to sit his bolts, which, by the way had lessened in intensity and frequency. We were finally getting somewhere, or so I thought.
Let’s start working on jumping together. Cantering ground poles and cross rails. I was becoming more confident in him and me in my position and balance. Then we had “the lesson.” The trainer had eight canter poles in a line and asked me to gallop them. I had a hard time getting a good canter to the beginning of the poles correctly. The second time around, the “take off” spot was off and so were the next few. Enough that my boy bolted then bucked. Or did he buck, and then bolt? Yep, I came off, landed on my shoulder and actually fractured the shoulder blade, not an easy thing to do. Six weeks off to heal and then get back to flatwork.
I signed up for an eventing clinic nine months later. Lessons had gone well, we were progressing again. It was time. It was a good opportunity to get off the farm and get some riding done in a new arena. This shouldn’t be too bad. He did really well the first time we went to a new barn. First day, first lesson, halfway through, I get bucked off again. What? Where did this come from? The past seven months had gone really well. Yes, there was an initial hesitation from him, new place, etc. But, I kept him moving forward and circling, bending, etc. We were walking, trotting and getting some good work. I pick up the canter and get one circle completed when BOOM, head drop and butt up. Trainer got on him and said he tried the same thing with him. I got back on him and finished my lesson at the canter.
The next day, I asked a younger more experienced rider if she wanted to take him out on the cross-country course. I was sore. I had landed on my hip and got a hip pointer. He would not relax and really tried to buck her off before they even started jumping. Watching all of this and taking the previous day’s antics in mind, I had a decision to make. I started questioning my choice. I hurt. I realized I would constantly be wondering when he would try me again. He was 9 years old now. I had spent two years on trying to develop a relationship and felt betrayed. He seemed to have two personalities. If you were on the ground he was sweet and mellow. Once in the saddle, all bets were off. (OK, it wasn’t quite so bad.)
I realized I wanted a divorce. It wasn’t an easy decision. However, I knew I needed something I could feel safe on and ride with confidence. I needed to let him go to someone who would be a better fit.
Surprisingly, I got some push-back from some people, which really surprised me. However, those riders closer to my age were very supportive. They understood. We don’t heal as quickly and sometimes the injuries are more intense than if they happened to a younger rider. We have families to care for, jobs to tend and other responsibilities that can’t be put on hold.
He is at the trainer’s now for the next month to see if she can figure out what is going on in his mind. She made the comment at one point that she could see him with a bratty 13-year-old boy with the same opinionated attitude. If he got bucked off, he would get back on and go again all the while laughing. I can see it too. He needs to go to someone young enough to laugh at his antics and not get discouraged. I will look for a partner that fits me and I feel comfortable and safe. I will be more honest with myself and what I want. I will be patient and wait for the right horse to come along and not try to change the horse that I want into what I think I should have. (Does this sound at all familiar?) I still care; I just think he isn’t right for me. We can still be friends, right?
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