Friday, August 11, 2017

On Not Riding Red

Red and I had another bolt two days ago.  We'd had a very nice ride a few days previously (by ourselves with no distractions) in the outdoor arena.  He was even happy to canter a bit in a relaxed manner - his feet are clearly feeling much better.  Then two days later, we were outside again while another boarder was having a jumping lesson.  He was working well, although a bit amped up - he's often this way when other horses are in the arena - I don't know for sure but it's almost as though he's showing off to the other horse.  He gets more forward than normal (that is, really forward), arches his neck and really shows off his gaits.  It's a lot of fun to ride and feels really good in a ego-gratifying way - "look at how beautiful my horse is!"  The trainer (who does mostly dressage) complimented him, saying how beautifully he was moving and how soft in the bridle he was - both true.

Then, as we were coming around the short side at the trot, he shied off to the side and bolted, throwing a few crow hops in at the end as we came to a halt.  What had caused the bolt was this - the trainer's assistant had come walking down the aisle leading from the stable along next to the indoor up to the outdoor arena, and Red had apparently been startled by this.  This is a typical bolting situation for him - something moves in his field of vision that he's not expecting, and bang!

The trainer said "you stuck that really well", which was true - my seat didn't leave the saddle and I didn't lose either stirrup.

But it's occurred to me, sticking with Red during a bolt isn't exactly something I want to be doing a lot of . . .

Red's always been a bolter.  There's not a shred of meanness in it - if he's startled by a sudden sight or a noise, he'll bolt, and often it's not just a scoot that I can redirect - it's often a full flight response.  He did it several times with me in lessons up in Wisconsin with Heather in 2012, and he did it twice during the three-day Mark Rashid clinic that year - including the one captured on video in my earlier post.  There's no herbal concoction or calming supplement that's made a shred of difference.  At that clinic, I asked Mark if I was a good enough rider to be riding and working with Red, and Mark said that I was.

But that was 5 years ago, and I'm 5 years older - I'm close to 65 years old.  I'm a pretty competent rider, and so far, I've always managed to stay with Red during a bolt, but as we know with horses, so far only takes you so far, particularly in the case of dangerous behavior.  I might stay on for every bolt from now into the future, or someday I might not . . .  It's worth pointing out that Red's bolts aren't even remotely like the spooks, scoots or other stuff every other horse I've ridden might do - there's not tension or preamble, no matter how actively you're riding you can't prepare for it and he just goes off like a rocket and the acceleration is quite dramatic, and he travels quite a distance very quickly. He can be calm and concentrating and working well one moment, and the next moment he's taking off.  When you stop, he goes right back to work like nothing ever happened.  Even though it's alarming behavior, it doesn't really scare me or upset me (in my body or my emotions), although from a thoughtful point of view it's not a great thing to have to deal with - and there's clearly some significant physical risk.

The question is, are his exceptional athleticism, beauty, quality of gaits and (yes, acknowledge it) my ability to show him off (and show off my riding ability) worth it?  There's a lot of pride and ego lurking in there on my part . . . everyone who sees him go (including some very well known dressage trainers who come to teach at our barn) comments on how beautifully he goes.  When I have a good ride on him, there's nothing that feels finer.  The problem is that there's always something that can set him off, at any moment.  He's 16 now, and his bolting really isn't a training issue (or really even a riding/direction issue of mine - I'm reasonably capable of giving him continuous active direction), it's a breeding/temperament/neurological issue that's just part of who he is.

Riding Pie and Missy feels like a relief by contrast.  Although any horse can spook or be alarmed by something, Pie and Missy have what I would call normal mature horse reactions - nothing out of the ordinary.  They might look at something or "give it the ear" or even, in Missy's case, snort or scoot a step or two, but that's all.  There are no parts of the arena that are out of bounds (like Red with the door in the indoor arena), and they don't care if a horse is being lunged or even acting up while I'm riding.  They also don't really care about the other horses that are in the arena at the same time.  Neither of them have the outstanding athleticism and pizzazz that Red has, but they're both great horses and a relaxing pleasure to ride.

My conclusion at this point is that I probably will stop riding Red for good.  I don't believe that horses need a (human-determined) job to be happy (unless they're locked in stalls for most of their lives), they just need to be horses.  Red's never going to be sold by me, and if something happens to me, I've made arrangements for his retirement, so it doesn't matter if he's in work or not.  At this point in my riding career, I don't need the ego gratification and the high of riding him, even though I confess I'll miss it.  Red would have been a fabulous horse for me when I was in my 30s or even my 40s - I'm a better rider now, but not as interested in having a really hot, fancy horse to show off.

So, for the rest of August, Red's on vacation.  We'll continue to have our daily interactions - most days I bring him in with Pie from turnout, and we'll do grooming, and some walks around the property, some rinsing off when it's hot and some hand grazing.

This will please my family - they're (rightfully) concerned about my safety and well-being.

We'll see how that goes . . . and in September I'll finalize a decision.

Any and all comments are welcome.