Well, it’s been a while. Honestly, I haven’t had the heart.
When I left off, Tris and I were prepping for a season-ending dressage show that was going to be our first swing at First Level. It did not go well. It in fact went spectacularly, soul-crushingly badly. Let’s be clear: I have had bad shows before. I have had many many bad shows before. I am no stranger to not having the show go at all the way you planned.
This schooling show was…a step beyond all that. I followed the warmup that had gone so well for our two ride-a-test days earlier in the summer. I had a careful plan for tuning him up the week before. I studied the tests relentlessly. When I asked for the trot that morning…I had no horse. Not “uh oh, something’s wrong” but when I put my leg on I got a loud, roaring, FUCK YOU in response, and that was it. Everything after that was me trying to grapple with, negotiate, beg, innovate, and yes, occasionally outright bully him into cooperating for more than two seconds (literally: two seconds) at a time. I never actually achieved that.
Forget any hope of suppleness, bending, relaxation, forward into the bit, any of the things we’d actually been getting to over the summer. He refused. Straight up refused. 110% employed every single tactic in his singularly broad arsenal to absolutely and utterly refuse to play ball. When we did get those two or sometimes three second stretches of halfway decent whatever I could tell that he physically felt fine. It was mental. It was a complete refusal to even assume a tiny fraction of the partnership that needs to happen for a moderately successful ride.
I came very, very close to scratching in the warmup. I have never even had a hint of that thought before, even when he was actively bolting or bucking in warmup. I felt sick, like crying, like giving up and never getting on a horse ever again – in the warmup. But I gritted my teeth and pushed through for a singularly awful First 1 that was awarded a well-deserved 57%. The only sliver of saving grace is that we were first for the day and a fewer number than otherwise saw us.
I put him back in his stall and thought “well, this is why I wanted to run the Training test first, to get this over with, oh well, we’ll take a break from each other and come out with a different warmup next time.” So I ate a pastry as big as my face, I groomed him thoroughly, I petted him and hand-grazed him and left him alone for a nap and then tacked up for Training 3, a test we’ve ridden many times before and – same horse. Nothing. Nada. Giant FUCK YOU of jigging, flailing, half-rearing, snake-face, sideways scooting, kicking out, slow-as-molasses or attempting-to-bolt every.single.step. I was praising him to the skies for just fucking trotting for three strides without quitting or jigging or trying to scrape me off or…you name it. I was soft and following. I let him canter for as long as he wanted to canter when he kept jigging. I let him stand quietly and watch the warmup for a while. Literally nothing got any sort of cooperative response.
So, the Training test was bad. 59% bad. At Training. A level we’ve ridden for years. It was very well deserved. I actually thought we’d had a few teensy better moments – his canter, out of pure frustration on my part, was forward to the point of hand-gallop – but nope.
“Discouraging” isn’t the right word for having your partner so completely abandon you like that. And yeah I can see you reading along and saying “it’s always the rider! it’s never the horse!” Don’t think I haven’t been struggling with that too, because if he was so spectacularly awful, every single goddamn fucking step, how badly must I have been riding? And I have to tell you: I was not riding brilliantly, and perhaps a better rider could have salvaged something, but I was not riding that badly. I had been carefully building toward this all summer, and was replicating work and patterns and reactions that had seen success before. There is only so much you can do when the other half of the horse-and-rider team refuses to show up so spectacularly. But of course, in the horse world, it’s always 100% the rider, every tiny bit of it, so the ingrained conclusion I also have to fall back on is: yeah, I suck that much. (Yes, I see the inconsistencies in my own logic.)
Anyway: it was bad. I took the next day entirely away from the barn, because I was as discouraged as I’ve ever been. The only comparable feeling was when we were first starting him and I would spend two hours with him rearing and slamming me into walls over and over. Then on Monday, I got back on for a very light, very short trail hack – just a walk around the big hay field. It went fine! It was a beautiful day, and then 100 yards from home he lost all his marbles and tried to dump me in a rearing, attempted-bolt snitfit. He went from loose rein lazy walk, barn is right there, to needing a one-rein stop and me yelling four leter words at him in just seconds.
Then on Tuesday, he rubbed his right eye so hard and so much that it swelled to the size of a baseball and the vet the following day was actually speechless at the amount of pus from one of the largest conjunctivitis infections he’d ever seen. Therein followed two weeks of near-constant medication and compressing and an eyesaver mask when he would not stop rubbing and on and on and on.
That brings us up to the present day. I got on him once two days ago at the walk, in the bareback pad, and he felt like his normal, pre-show self. I haven’t had the heart to put the work in just yet, though, so he’s been getting lots of grooming, hand-grazing, and some more lazy walking. I am heartsick from how bad the show was, how horrible everything felt, and also from watching the news and feeling a constant buzz of miserable anxiety at how quickly America is sliding into insanity.
As things stand right now, I’m headed out of town and will have about 10 days of quarantine when I return because Vermont is still taking this global pandemic seriously. Tris will get training rides while I’m gone and…then we’ll see what happens next. I really don’t know what that will be.