Reluctant Cowgirl

Week 3 of NFHC: Give him his Head

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This Anna Blake blog post followed by this Anna Blake blog post (god, she’s fantastic) came at the perfect time for me. The outdoor footing has continued to deteriorate and as expected by week 3 Henry and I were both extra reluctant about arena work. We’d pulled out obstacles, we’d gone bareback and used two different saddles, we’d used a hackamore, a snaffle, and a halter, we’d done ground work and been at liberty. He was feeling like his sticky old self and my motivation was failing. I see him cavorting in the pastures, some days running hard (with perfect self-carriage) for 30 minutes or more, covering ground, having a blast. But then I get him in the arena and think ‘more leg’! and get nothing but tired resistance. Henry is not lame or in pain.

The second thought, if a horse isn’t forward, has to be the rider. To use your own indelicate term, are you lazy? Is your energy low? Your body restrictive or uncommunicative? Does your energy tend toward frustration rather than enthusiasm? Are you the one who’s not forward?

Probably. (Definitely.) I adopted a very green horse as a very timid re-rider, and from the beginning what I did to him was say “NOOOOOO MY GOD WE ARE GOING TO DIE”  every time he went forward at all in a way that made me uncomfortable, which was basically any way other than a halt or easy walk or trot. I told him forward was bad. My hands and seat said “do that and you will be punished.” So here I am 2.5 years of education later, trying to fix it.

If the horse is quick, tense, and hollow, the rider must adjust her energy to embody quiet confidence and safety, soft sit bones and lots of exhaling to cue relaxation. Make simple, steady transitions that are easily rewarded, show him the way back to forward balance and rhythm.

If the horse is heavy and slow, the rider must adjust her energy again; check yourself first. Be honest about stiffness in your own body, and any judgment or restriction in your mind. Are you riding like someone who’s been made to feel wrong every day of her life? Are you looking for something to punish or something to cheer? Can you be Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire and then vice versa?

Start here: Put a smile on your face and crank up the music. Remind yourself that you love horses.

Oh, Anna. You are a goddess.


Off with his head -er, headgear.

I pulled off his bridle. I asked my partner to come up to the arena and “be a cow.” We chased him around barrels and over plywood bridges and across lodgepole pine cavaletti. He tossed his head and swished his tail and I did everything I could to make my body say YES, YES, YES. We go forward! You can even canter if you want! Put your head down – there’s no way for me to freak out and yank on it because my overly-active imagination thinks you are going to buck! (You never buck.)

We have so much to work on. Winter is long and mud season feels longer, and the arena for now is our only destination. So I’m glad for the far-off teachers who take the time to instruct us with their generous writing and unending kindness, giving us ideas and exercises and encouragement when those of us on lonely dirt roads are at the end of our ropes. For the foreseeable future I will be doing at least a portion of each ride with no bridle, focusing on my own lightness and gratitude and enthusiasm. I’ll crank terrible pop music that makes me want to dance and try to continue to communicate that I’m sorry for all the times he said yes and I said NO WAY, JOSÉ. I’ll find whatever cow equivalents (or maybe, god forbid, actual cows) help open us up and drive us forward.

And I’ll keep listening for more whispers from the greats, trickling through the internet tubes.

Author: jess

I love my dogs and equines and good food, drink and music. I believe that the world is a better place because of bad Sandra Bullock movies, Hank Williams, and honeybees. I used to think I would never live in the middle of nowhere eight hours from the ocean or own a horse as an adult, but now both are true, so I may be an unreliable narrator.

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