RNC the OTTB: Lessons in Immaturity

Time really flies! This is our eighth month together, and somehow it seems like our first ride was yesterday. Earlier this month, Ren turned five. When I adopted Ren, I remember dreaming about how mature another year older sounded (mostly because he acted like such an infant). Everywhere was scary, everything was a toy, and it was ALWAYS playtime.

I often told myself, “He’s only four, just wait until he gets older! It’ll get easier.” Now we’re here, and I’m realizing that not only do horses NOT gain maturity based on a number but that I’m likely always going to have a baby no matter how many years pass. Rency kindly reminded me of this on the day after his birthday by bucking every three seconds because he was feeling playful. Sure, age is going to make a difference when it comes to some things; as Rency gets older he will (hopefully) have less energy, his attention span will increase, and he’ll learn the ins and outs of his job. But I’ve learned that having an immature or green horse doesn’t mean that I have to limit myself, I just have to work on his timeline.

Photo by Sage Brown

The key for us is allowing my baby horse to be, well… a baby. The second I stopped expecting anything different was the second I started appreciating our rides so much more. I expect an invisible line, which Rency is unable to cross, to be drawn in certain parts of our arena. That’s why I started walking a lap both ways before starting to work so that he can show me where the line is, and I can work to gradually push that boundary further until it no longer affects us.

I can also expect a short attention span and lots of distractions when we’re working. That’s why I now do my best to keep things interesting, and never drill him on one certain skill for too long without another activity in-between. If I didn’t expect these quirks, I would find myself constantly frustrated. Because NEWSFLASH; they don’t just disappear. These weird little habits will be there every ride until they are trained out, and the only way to train a horse out of a behavior is to experience and correct that behavior about a million times.

I used to avoid cues and places that would set him off. Now? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given Rency the cue to canter knowing that he would throw a buck, just so that I could ride it out and correct him. I used to dream about teaching certain skills “when he gets older.” Things like dressage and self-carriage are pretty complicated, and I figured that he wouldn’t be able to get it quite yet. But I’m starting to learn that I can, and should, introduce those skills right now. Technical movements that require concentration and coordination can be taught to baby brains, you just have to work on their terms. That’s why another new habit of mine has been setting a clear and REACHABLE goal each day. Basically; don’t expect much.

Photo by Sage Brown

It almost sounds mean when you think about it, but it’s honestly kinder than expecting too much and making work unpleasant. I’ve found that those “bad rides” have become few and far between when I don’t expect more than my horse can give me. The thing is, and I know most of you can relate, I never know what horse I’m going to get when I arrive at the barn. Sometimes I have a fancy Warmblood, and sometimes I have a crippled moose. Sometimes I have a 30-year-old school horse, sometimes I have… well, a four-year-old green thoroughbred.

I like to get on, do a few laps trotting each way, and then decide what he is able to give me that day. On days where I’m dealing with a very spicy boy, I’ll settle for a calm trot and be happy with that. On days where he feels really good, I can push for a little more or introduce something new. The important thing for us has been to make sure we’re taking baby steps even on the good days. Yeah, it’s tempting to keep pushing Rency higher when he has a phenomenal jump school, but that just creates an opportunity for a roadblock to appear, and at that point, he’s already given me a lot. I like to stop while I’m ahead and leave a starting point for next time.

Lately, we’ve had really awesome rides, so I’ve been able to move along the training ladder relatively quickly. For a while, we were seriously stuck. The roadblock appeared when we introduced the canter, and I quickly found out that poor Ren was not familiar with that term. I kept telling myself that he must have done it at the track, even a little, but it felt like my horse only knew (or only wanted to know) how to gallop. This is something we’ve only just overcome, and it’s still a work-in-progress. At one point, I left the barn in tears because I legitimately thought I would never be able to get this horse down to an acceptable pace. The progress only started when I stopped looking for a canter, and just started accepting a slower gallop. I would literally get on and pray to the horse Gods that I could get two steps of a kinda-okay-ish pace, and I would make a HUGE deal out of every step in the right direction.

Don’t get me wrong, he still has days where he wants to be a racehorse again, like our latest lesson (the one I mentioned earlier where Rency was trying to take flight). He was galloping around, crow-hopping every few steps and throwing bucks everywhere. I figured that I may have been asking a lot by expecting him to be calm after being stuck indoors for three days. Truthfully, there’s no point in asking for a horse to be calm if you know he’s about to explode. I got off, feeling VERY frustrated, put him on the lunge line, and said: “go nuts.” After about ten minutes I got back in the saddle, and he felt so much better. He was far from perfect and still had quite a bit of energy, but we finished the lesson with no major hiccups. A lot of people will say that lunging a horse just to wear them out is a bad idea, and I agree. But I’m not trying to wear him out for my sake, I’m trying to give him some time to let loose. It’s like therapy. He has a great time spazzing out, and I’ve found that sacrificing a little time for zoomies makes work so much more enjoyable.

Photo by Sage Brown

Ren’s weird quirks used to freak me out, and his “bad” days used to literally keep me up at night. I can’t be the only one who’s been faced with the crippling fear that I’ve made a mistake and that this horse can’t be trained to do what I’m asking for in so little time. Ten months is not that long when you really think about it, and that ticking clock can make little trip-ups feel like huge disasters. A lot of people will tell you to “be the boss” and “set the pace,” but when you’re working with young horses, you have to know how to set them up for success, no matter what that looks like. Personally, I’ve had to completely change the way that I ride and rethink my entire timeline to better serve my teammate, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s turned me into quite the optimist. Training horses will teach you to expect the worst but hope for the best, and then find the bright side of wherever you fall in-between. If you can’t do that, there is a 99% chance you’ll go crazy in no time. Adapt or die, kids.

So, as we celebrate Rency’s fifth birthday, I’m going to try to remember that his immaturity and inexperience is not a burden. I’m going to try to make each day fun for him and make sure that I encourage his playfulness, not punish him for it. Hopefully, all my Makeover friends will be able to see that goofy side of him in a few months, but until then I’ll keep ya’ll updated on the weirdness.