I am a very goal-oriented person, as are most competitive riders, I suspect. Even as a child I rode a lot of green horses and ponies (the first horse I owned, when I was 12, was a three year old!) and you can’t go into the ring without a plan on a baby horse. This has stuck with me my entire life. So, whether I am on a green horse or not, I always have homework and I love the structure this forces one to create. On my way to the barn I think about what I want to work on with my horse that day and how this fits within our longer-term goals. When I get on I start down the path I’ve planned and then evaluate and reevaluate as we go on, making adjustments to suit whatever I’m feeling from my horse, and on the drive home I review the ride and plan for the next one.
I do this every ride, and even when the plan is just to have a nice hack out, there is a reason behind it. Steve isn’t a huge fan of nature walks, but they are good for him and I use them as a way of getting him to stretch down and into the bridle as he is staring at everything (a favorite occupation). I also use our walks to try to get him more aware of where he is placing his feet, but Steve is a pretty determined urbanite who prefers groomed footing, so we only ever get so far with this goal!
Nature walks with your dog are ok, according to Steve, but NOT IN THE WOODS.
Back in the ring, sometimes the goal is outwardly very simple: work on walk-trot transitions, for example. But the thing is that with horses simple goals are often actually very complex. Walk-trot transitions can be just that: an upward or downward movement into a different gait. Or, they can be a long-term training project that produces a seamless transition, with nearly-invisible aids and a horse that is connected, stepping under itself, and up into the new gait. That outcome is gained only after weeks, months, even years of training, and it is only achievable as part of a sound training program for both horse and rider. I love this aspect of riding (mainly because I’m a big nerd), and I love that it is all part of making Steve and me more competitive in the jumper ring.
So what do you do when your goals keep getting derailed? What do you do when injury or circumstance keeps slapping you and your plans down to the ground? Like so many of us I have a lot of experience with this, unfortunately! Sometimes it’s a big deal (several months off for random leg wound), and sometimes it’s quite minor (two weeks off to blow an abscess), but after a while all of this can wear down even the most sunny-natured person.
I am not particularly sunny-natured, I have to admit (no one who knows me will be surprised by this), but I am stubborn as hell. Maybe that is our motto? “Horsepople: Stubborn as Hell.” Why does this come into the story, you ask? Well, since November of 2019 my horse has been off more than I have been on his back. I’ve needed to be stubborn to keep myself from throwing in the towel and taking up golf. Actually, I am terrible at golf; is competitive reading a thing?
Back when we were still being competitive. Photo credit Jaime Loichinger.
Right now we are dealing with a minor, temporary, but frustrating setback. A couple of years ago Steve’s feet fell apart and he ended up needing glue-on shoes up front. We changed a few things with his turnout and his feed and now he’s growing out good hoof again. The first cycle with regular shoes he bruised his sole and then abscessed on his right front. I got that to pop and he was great. This time around he abscessed on his left front. The consensus is that he is still growing out less-than-perfect foot and it’s prone to abscessing. We could put the glue-ons back on but I feel like that would be just delaying things. Steve really does have good feet and I think we are nearing the end of The Era of the Abscess.
I can think about this logically all day long, and feel happy that at least this is a temporary issue but dang…I AM TIRED OF MY HORSE BEING OFF. <– Picture someone screaming this into the void and you have an idea of my mental state right now. How do you have goals when your horse is out of work intermittently? How can you set up for a productive winter or plan out the next year’s showing schedule? WHY IS MY HORSE OFF ALL THE TIME??!? <– More void screaming.
Deep breath. Ok, so here is what I do: First, take a deep breath. Then, step back and try to see the picture at least somewhat objectively. When I do this, it helps clear out the emotional noise and I can refocus on the reality, not what I wish was happening. I’ve certainly been in a worse place before, with Steve and with other horses. This IS temporary, it IS going to get better with each trimming cycle, and I have a really good team (vet, farrier, trainer), who are helping.
By thinking more clearly I can also admit that normally an abscess or two wouldn’t derail me, since that’s just a part of horse-ownership. I’m reacting particularly strongly to this right now because it’s at the tail end of two years of much more serious injuries and issues (namely: a bone bruise and hock surgery).
So, where does all of this rational cognition leave me? In a better place, mentally, at least, because on the whole this isn’t a big deal. I can remind myself that Steve is going better than ever on the flat, and our dressage work is really paying off. I can think about how well we are easing back into jumping, and how much fun we are having with that in between our fancy flatwork. And, I can still do my mildly-obsessive planning, both short- and long-term.
Steve: Ugh, stop kissing my face.
While I’m doing things like soaking Steve’s hoof and pursuing retail therapy by buying horse stuff I don’t need, I can still dream. I know our best days are ahead of us, and that’s what helps me re-center myself, breathe, and keep looking ahead to those better days.