This week, Brandy discusses moving out of comfort zones — both her horse’s and her own — in order to create a more well-rounded and confident mount.
For 616 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, has begun! Over the next eight months, four of those trainers will blog their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Horse Nation readers. Today, blogger Brandy Stevenson talks about building confidence in young and green horses.
Lost confidence is something every one of us has struggled with at some point, from the most accomplished professional to the rankest amateur. The time has come since we last talked to ride Fancy (JC Name: What’s My Doin), the wonder horse. We have been through downtime and lameness, but now that the time had come to ride my wonderful mare, I felt myself pumping the brakes. It is largely thanks to this publication that I had to face my anxiety and climb in the saddle.
I ride a lot of young horses — it is one of the passions that has shaped my life. I packed up in Alaska and moved to Texas to work and complete a four-year apprenticeship program with multiple Road to the Horse World Champion, Chris Cox.
So, I don’t say this lightly: Fancy has been a challenge. I have treated restarting Fancy as if she were a colt. When starting a young horse, you have to progress at its pace. For Fancy this means getting out of the arena and overcoming new challenges every day. For now, new challenges often present themselves as physical obstacles, such as walking over logs, chasing the chickens, or squeezing through the gap in the round bales.
Most of us are familiar with the terms feel, timing and rhythm as they apply to horses. What is not discussed is that progression can be rhythmic. When I used to think of rhythm, I thought of keeping the same steady beat to whatever I was doing, especially on the ground. This allowed my horses to be tolerant of many things, but it did not establish a pattern that young horses could use to successfully think through fearful situations. Now instead of thinking 1-2-3-4, repeat
I think about pushing my horse through peaks and valleys.
I focus on raising their energy until they look to me and bring themselves down and relax into my leadership. I have found this idea has served my horses and me better than keeping a steady beat with them. It teaches them to think through their anxiety and prepares them for the real world outside of the controlled arena environment. With horses as with music, it takes more than a steady beat to create a masterpiece.
All of which brings us back to Fancy. When raising her energy, she has two responses to avoid — shutting down and freaking out. She is not overly prone to shutting down; however, she does carry a lot of tension through her ribcage, especially bending left. I have to be careful to push Fancy out of her comfort zone, but not ask for so much flexion that she locks up and shuts down. Our solution so far has been to walk and trot around fixed obstacles. When her mind is engaged in going around a barrel or tree the lesson clicks; circles and squares without a physical, visual aid are a way in our future as of yet.
Horses having meltdowns and losing their minds is not the result of good training. Fancy is learning how to think through pressure both on the ground and under saddle. In order for her to be successful I have to know how much is too much before I start increasing her mental tolerance of pressure. That being said, when we started riding Fancy a stiff breeze was almost too much pressure. We have had many baby moments, and I am sure there will be more to come, but we have yet to lose our mind.
It is difficult to become the rider your horse needs. Even professionals struggle with their confidence. Trust me, I did not want to take a young Thoroughbred with a sticky rib cage out of the arena, but it is not up to me to limit my horse because of my fears. You know what? Getting Fancy out of the arena and letting her be a horse was the best decision I didn’t want to make. When you take up the reins of a young horse it is your responsibility to help them. They are dependent on your leadership to keep them confident and safe. Fancy has pushed me out of my comfortable rut of warmbloods and ranch horses. Though we both have moments of anxiety, there cannot be growth without discomfort.
Brandy Stevenson was raised 100 miles from nowhere in the rural community of Glacier View, Alaska. In her twenties, she traveled the country honing her colt starting skills and riding with top professionals. She now resides at her north Texas ranch where she trains a select number of horses and conducts horsemanship retreats throughout the country.