If you can read that and not get “Mambo No. 5” stuck in your head, I envy you.
When I left off, Tris and I were in a tough spot. He had utterly and completely refused to show up on a show day, and I took it much harder than usual. It’s not that I don’t know how to manage a relationship with this very difficult horse that I adore; it’s just that sometimes I can cope with it better than others.
We took about two weeks off, and then I eased back in very slowly. I went mostly just for long grooming sessions. I got on for short wanders up and down the road. I did not really school a whole lot. After a few weeks of that, I cleared a semi-permanent space in my work calendar and committed fully to immovable weekly lessons. Previously, I lessoned as much as possible, but it was hard to make the barn manager’s schedule match my schedule for more than a few weeks in a row.
There were new ground rules for Tristan in the lessons. First, he no longer got to ease into his rides the way I’d often ridden him in the warmup, 20 minutes or so of long rein convincing him to loosen up and get on board. Nope: now he would start the warmup in contact. Not full on-the-bit contact by any means, but I would own the bit from the start. Second, we would get march in the walk from step one, not once he’d deigned to listen. Last but not least, he really, truly, 100% had lost benefit of the doubt in response to forward aids. He was to respond instantly, with fervor, or escalation would be swift and firm.
A few weeks of that, and I traveled to Massachusetts to help my mother clean out her house. Per Vermont’s travel rules at that time, that meant I had to stay home for about two weeks total for quarantine. I put Tristan in full training those two weeks and we laid out a plan before, and then I got my negative COVID result just in time to watch his last training ride, in which it helped to see someone else (who is a really superb rider) have the same difficulty with him that I had.
That brings us to the last three weeks of lesson rides. In that list, week 1 was quite good, with some truly lovely moments of soft, supple, on the bit, elastic trot with a tiny bit of suspension. We were able to dig in to his canter and work on it instead of just shape it from the outside. I did not ride at all between that week and my next lesson. Week 2 Tristan came out of his stall like his tail was actually on fire. When I picked up the reins after putting on my gloves and settling in to the saddle, he leaped forward like a deer and threw a small, snotty bucking fit. I moved him out of that immediately into work and he gave us the most ridiculous, forward, floating, soft, 10/10 trot, with zero warmup. It was unreal to ride, like something out of a dream. I sat a little deeper into the saddle in my post and he said “okay, here, have some baby half-steps.” It was mind-blowing. A few laps of that and then we eased him back into a warmup, having burned off his sillies, and the rest of the lesson was incredible as well.
Which brings me to week 3, having suitably buried the lede. This time, I went out a few times after my previous lesson; once to do a long groom, and once to sit on him bareback, on our first really cold day, for about 25 minutes of walk work – just asking him to yield and supple and step into the reins. He was great!
Last Friday’s lesson started well, with a horse in between weeks 1 & 2. Fiery, overconfident, but manageable. Responsive. A touch deliberately spooky, one small snitfit that I turned into a lovely trot. In order to manage the snottiness, we worked hard on gaining access to the base of his neck, counterflexing on the straight long sides and then quick transition to a deep true bend in the corners, never quite letting him get his head down again. Similarly, we worked on keeping him coming up through the base of his neck in transitions.
We had a really nice trot series, and had started to work on the canter with some very good moments, and I took him out of a canter circle in the middle of the ring back to the trot to bring him around again to work on transitions. I counterflexed, bent through the corner, and came out of the corner feeling just a touch funny about his trot. It was just a tiny bit fragile, just a whisper of feeling like all that trot power wasn’t an engine but a firecracker, and BOOM. He went up and sideways as hard and fast as he’s ever done in his life, twice in quick succession. The first got me out of the saddle, and the second sent me over his neck, flying.
I can sit an awful lot, and I have been riding this horse for 15 years, and he has never tossed me so hard, so fast, and so far. There was not even a hint of saving it. Maybe if I’d taken instant action when I felt that fizzy trot, but I had maybe three strides to feel and remember, this is a horse who is the very definition of kick ride. I was trying to ride the edge – that’s what a lot of these rides have been about! Rev up that energy, and recycle it into quality gaits, stay on that line between too much and not enough to teach him new definitions of forward.
So I was gone. Up and over his right shoulder, hit the ground on my ass, rolled backwards and smacked my head hard. Completely knocked the air out of my lungs and had one of those crystal-clear moments of realization of wow, I’d hit my head really quite hard. Then I rolled over and back up to my feet and sort of half-heartedly participated in catching Tristan, who was now galloping around the indoor like a lunatic. It took a minute or two to catch him, and then the barn manager immediately put him on the longe line to teach him a lesson.
I felt remarkably fine until then, if stunned, and when the longeing started I had enough presence of mind to remind the BM that Tristan does have a nasty rear in him if provoked, and then I sat down on the mounting block. There followed about 15 minutes of some real nastiness; whole-body cold sweats and nausea, and a sense not of dizziness but more like nothing about the world quite lined up right. Apparently I was also white as a sheet. I kept my helmet on out of an utter conviction that if I took it off my head would sort of fall apart. It was about as bad as I’ve ever felt after a fall, honestly.
Thankfully, it did pass, and I was able to walk over to sit on another mounting block outside and get a bit of a breeze, then take my helmet off, and the BM – having longed Tristan into a lather – put him away. She confirmed that his little stunt had been incredibly dirty, which made me feel better a bit. Someone brought me some water, and that helped, and gradually over about 30 minutes I started feeling much closer to normal. I checked in on Tristan, rubbed away some of his sweat, noted his utter lack of apology, gave him some treats anyway, and drove home. I took a whole fistful of pain meds and a three hour nap, and then took it easy for the rest of the night.
The weekend was mostly fine; on Saturday, I laid back down again for a few hours after some wooziness, but on Sunday I took it easy but felt pretty close to normal. Sore all over, of course, with a really whopping deep bruise all over my backside, and an occasional headache, but honestly – much better than it could have gone. Drinking tons and tons of water, taking ibuprofen like clockwork, and resting frequently.
So that’s the story of my fifth concussion, which officially puts horses in first place, where before they had been tied with skiing. Had I not been wearing a helmet, it would have really been very bad. I am very sad and a little pissed that I’ve only had this new helmet for a few months, after my summer fall, but at least OneK has a replacement policy, so it won’t be $$$ to fix it, and that I also picked up a backup crappy schooling helmet in a recent sale for precisely this situation.
I’m honestly not that upset by the whole thing. I’ll take this over the grinding, miserable frustration of endless pony-kicking my uncooperative, head-tossing horse any day. Obviously, I’d like not to come off again, but I’d much rather work on riding a hot and spicy Tristan than the alternative. Overall, I’m really happy with our direction right now. We’ll see how fizzy he is inclined to be this week, and I’ll be careful only to ride with other people around for a little while.