Tristan has always been mildly barn sour. In the outdoor, he bulges his circles toward the barn, and speeds up when approaching it. The first bit of a trail ride involves a lot of kicking and keeping him straight so he doesn’t swerve back. It’s far better than it has been in the past, mostly due to my better riding, but I think he’ll always have some of it. There is food in the barn, after all, and he can nap there and not work hard. It’s just the way he’s wired.
Yesterday, we headed up the hill to the fields. We ended up doing about three miles in an hour, which is a deceptively slow pace: 75% of it was on a pretty good incline, whether up or down. He was his usual self for a while, but then he settled in beautifully and was striding out and forward on a loose rein, interested in everything. He did have one little tantrum up in the fields, but to be fair, a flock of 50-75 birds took off from the brush and rattled it quite a lot in addition to the flapping noise of their wings. They were only about 15 feet away from us and startled rather suddenly. He danced around a few steps and swung himself toward home. I made him stand and calm and praised him for that, and we kept going.
At a certain point out, though, snowballs were building up in his feet and I could hear both gunshots and snowmobiles in the distance. The land we were on wasn’t posted against hunting, and though there were no snowmobile lanes on it, the VAST trails, a series of networked trails for snowmobiling, are a Big Deal in more rural parts of Vermont. I knew there was a loop of it about a mile and half from where we were but hadn’t seen any signs on this land – still, it was impossible to say with accuracy where the noises were coming from, but I could definitely tell they were getting louder. I did not want to encounter a snowmobile or series of them with Tris more up than he typically was.
So after I judged that we’d gone a fair distance, I turned around, and that’s when the fun started. Remember, most of the first half of our ride was going uphill; going home meant lots of downhill. And he was a jigging, snorting, recalcitrant asshole for every.single.step. I sat deep. I talked to him constantly, reminding him to waaaaaalk and stay eeeeeeasy. I gave hard half-halts every few strides. I halted him entirely when he was being especially punky. Nothing worked. I got five strides of walk, once, and that was it. I made sure to reward and praise him every time he relaxed for even a split second and he still went back to jigging and dancing around within seconds. I got frustrated, he got cranky, and with the snowballs in his feet, once we got back to more hard packed road he jigged, slipped, snorted, slipped, kicked out…you name it. I was hating how hard I was making my half-halts, even though he was going in a big fat French link loose ring snaffle – as forgiving a bit as it gets.
Eventually, when we got to the steepest part, I got off. It wasn’t worth having him fall to prove my point. We walked in hand about 150 yards through the worst and steepest part of it, and thankfully his ground manners are better than his under saddle manners. He was up and striding out and a little pushy, but not jigging or spooking. When it got flat again, I got back on, and when he was piggish about getting close to the barn I turned his ass around and trotted back up the hill about 50 yards. Then we walked calmly back, and we walked back and forth up and down the road past the entrance to the barn until he stayed on my aids and was listening to where I told him to go.
I led him into the indoor and walked around with him for about 10 minutes – he had gotten himself so worked up he was blowing out, though thankfully just warm and not sweaty.
I still feel wretched about using the bit that way. He didn’t much seem to care or notice, but that’s not how I want to ride my horse. If we’d been on flat ground, with a straightaway, away from the barn? I would’ve pushed him forward to burn some of the energy. But on a slippery downhill going toward the barn – no way was I going to let him trot or canter it out.
I love, love, love the roads we have around the barn and the near-endless road hacking we could do, but it is somewhat frustrating that there isn’t a flat road for miles. Everything is hills, up and down. It’s great for walking and building strength but only at the end of my ride yesterday, after a mile and a half uphill, did I hit a flat(ish) straightaway.
Lesson today, and we’ll see if he’s tired or sore from yesterday. Tuesday off, Wednesday longeing, Thursday riding, Friday longeing, and Saturday is still up in the air.