We had a little horse show at Harrogate this weekend and despite the relentless rain, it went quite well.
Unfortunately, our dressage ring was only set up the night before (painting issues) and so the school horses were not really expecting to see it there. Now as anyone who knows horses knows, unexpected things can be quite upsetting for horses. And for some of them it was.
Sadie, in particular, found the whole situation to be a bit too much. There was the ring, there was the judge’s car parked in the ring, there was the rain, and on the road adjacent to the ring there was a cyclist race accompanied by a police car with lights flashing. Adding to the excitement there was a young, very brave rider who was competing in only his second show and he had never ridden his test outside. So his nerves were a little tattered as he tried to guide her around the ring. Things were tense but when the horses in the big field decided it was time to go for a bit of a gallop Sadie panicked. She seemed to decide that it was best to try to save herself and her partner by bolting out of the ring and trying to catch up to her galloping colleagues in the far field.
The young man on Sadie did everything in his power to stop her but her mind was made up. Luckily, she is the kind of horse that has no desire to maintain that kind of effort and so she stopped long enough for us to grab her.
It was hard not to want to be a little angry with her because this young rider had prepared so carefully for this moment and to have it all fall apart in such a dramatic way was heartbreaking. But looking at Sadie it was easy to tell that her state of agitation was pretty high and that in her mind she had probably thought she was going to save them both by leaving the ring in a hurry.
The only solution seemed to be to get someone with more experience on the horse at this point. So one of our advanced students was ‘volunteered’ and he climbed on and went back out to the scary ring. Because Eric has been riding for quite a while he was able to get Sadie to step under her centre of gravity with her hind legs and lift her back up and stretch her head and neck down. It is not easy to explain how to do this so suffice to say that it was done without coercion or punishment.
As Sadie was convinced to allow her body to adopt the posture of relaxation (imagine a horse grazing in a field or standing quietly under a shady tree) her mind caught up. You could see it in her eyes as they went from glassy and wide to soft and relaxed; her ears started to droop a little and the muscles in her back started to relax. It was lovely to watch her transform from some raging Bucephalus back to a calm, steady school horse.
But the most amazing and inspirational part of the entire day for me was when the young, less experienced rider got back on Sadie again. I’m sure he had wanted to do well and Sadie’s behaviour in the first test had made that impossible. His second test was much better but still, the disappointment must have stung a little. And yet as this young competitor left the ring, his first impulse was to lean forward and give Sadie a gentle, reassuring pat.
Frankly, I was more proud than if he had won the entire division. Here’s to empathetic horsemanship and understanding priorities.