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.


  1. That's a tough one. I totally get the suddenness of the bolt. Carmen will do the same thing. Although now it's often more of a scoot when something startles her. I do know that the bolt is in there though. And like Red, it's never malicious.

    Only you can decide if you want to ride him and your safety is important. I would urge, that if you do ride him you wear a helmet and safety vest (perhaps you already do). What helped Carmen was to have Royce come out last year and set up situations so that she could learn an alternative response to the bolt. It helped a lot but, like I said, it's not gone completely. I am 53 and I don't know if I would ride a horse like Carmen used to be in my 60's. It wouldn't seem worth it.

    Either way Red will be fine. Like you said, horses don't need a job.

    1. You seem to be making really good progress with Carmen. She's a lot younger than Red - he's 16 - so I think she can still learn different responses. I think, although he's made enormous progress in everything since I got him, that the bolting is pretty well baked in at this point. The question is whether I'm willing to tolerate it as part of the total package or not. I do always wear a helmet, although not a vest - my last one got eaten by mice . . .

  2. I have a lot of respect for this decision. While I'm sure this is not an easy decision to make, I'm glad you have Pie and Miss to enjoy!

    Tell The Mare I said "hi!"

  3. You know your horse best and you have his best interests at heart. I wouldn't second-guess your decision one bit!

  4. Also have a lot of respect for this decision!

  5. I understand your thought process very well. I have issues in my spine that cause it to be injured pretty easily. Its happened twice now with Lucy. She's not being bad or mean; she's just exuberant at times. Like you with Red, its fun to ride her and I love how she turns heads. I also get an ego boost from people who admire that I can ride her -- she's very hot and sensitive. But, now I wonder if its worth the threat of an injury (I'm 57) and being laid up for months to recover. She still gets a ton of attention from me -- I just am not sure I still want to ride her. Like you, I haven't made a complete decision. We need to take care of our bodies -- years of riding takes its toll and our balance isn't the same now as it was at 20.

  6. Annette - it's not an easy decision to make; as I said, it's a matter of whether the fund and flash is worth the risk. At some point the balance tips, and I think I'm pretty much there. I'm also in a good position that I still have Pie and Missy to ride, so it's not as if I'll have to give up riding completely. Missy is a a peach, and very calm and level-headed. Pie can get worked up and overly forward, but he pretty much always listens and will work with you. Red just goes off like a bomb - big difference. I've also got some physical issues and just plain hurt if I get jerked around by a horse's antics - but I'd hurt a lot worse if I got dumped.

  7. Fun (not fund!) and flash . . .

  8. Kate, you and I are the same age. I totally get your possible decision to retire Red from riding. I think at our age, we have to respect what health we have left and not let our egos get in the way of making sound decisions. You have Pie and Missy, I have Beamer. I would rather have a safe dependable horse to ride than one that I think may end up slam dunking me for whatever reason; it's why I don't ride my black mare Coulee; I just sold her to a competent 20 something lady who has a job for her. Getting on Beamer for a ride, even though it has to be a short ride because of his arthritis, is like sitting in your favourite easy chair; a place to relax and enjoy life.

    1. Shirley - thanks for your thoughtful comment - it's nice to know that there are other serious horse people out there who are thinking about these issues.

  9. Definitely a tough one, and I totally understand your thoughts/concerns about whether it's worth it.

    Promise, until the day I let her go, was "cold-backed" and required a warm-up on the lunge, even if it was a circle in each direction, to not feel like she would take off crow-hopping when I swung my leg over. I learned to work with it, deal with it, and I knew the signs and could prevent the bucking. But that extra step for every ride was always frustrating to me, and many people offered their advice over the years, but nothing I tried ever worked as well as just throwing her on the lunge line for a couple of minutes.

    The last time I got on her, she was not sound, and I didn't feel right lunging her. I knew her time was near and I just wanted to sit on her and walk around 1 more time. Even then, she still really wanted to buck when I got on her!

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment and giving us your perspective based on your experience.

  10. I think you're making a wise decision. And an honest one, for the best of reasons. I'm at that same point with Eagle. I think I still need to ride him more to be fair to him, and not give in to my fears yet. He's the same way as you describe Red. Very quick, very big and oh, so fast. I've only witnessed it from the ground, but honestly don't know if my seat is good enough to stick. I'm soon to be 58 and don't ride often enough to maintain my seat, which is decent, but could be better. I just want to ride and enjoy myself, on a horse who can enjoy him/herself. I have nothing left to prove. Good post Kate.

    1. Thanks for commenting - it's all a matter of personal decisions and balancing of benefits/risks.

  11. I am not 65 and I made the decision to not keep the last horse I got due to similar issues. After I had to euthanize Sky and then Bonnie had stifle surgery/retirement, I had purchased another mare. I had her less than four months. But during that four months she showed me she had the out-of-nowhere-with-no-warning spin and bolt move several times. I probably could have worked through much of it, but I decided I didn't want to take the risks. I'm a wife, mother to a young child, and have a farm to run, and I decided riding horses comes with enough risks that I wasn't going to get on every day with a known risk. I found her a new home with full disclosure and also a lot of guilt on my end because I decided not to try and work through it myself. The new home, over a couple of years, has made progress, but admitted the issue never fully went away and would always be lurking in the background. It was hard because I really enjoyed the mare, she had the "fancy" factor, I felt guilty about not trying to work through it longer, etc. But the day she left the relief I felt as the trailer drove away told me I had made the right decision. Just thought I would offer my perspective as someone who made the decision not to ride the horse.

    I think this is a very personal decision to be made between you and Red, and there is more than one right answer.

    1. Melissa - thanks so much for your comment. Your insights are very similar to my thought process, so far.

  12. I'm late in this discussion, but I think your instincts are right. There are also things you can do with Red from the ground that could be just as rewarding as a riding relationship, even more rewarding. Maybe there is a new chapter there, waiting to be opened.

  13. This just came up on my Facebook feed. The poet lives and teaches in our area. The poem can be found on poetry I thought you might like it. Kissing a horse is even better than riding one.

    Kissing a Horse
    Of the two spoiled, barn-sour geldings
    we owned that year, it was Red—
    skittish and prone to explode
    even at fourteen years—who’d let me
    hold to my face his own: the massive labyrinthine
    caverns of the nostrils, the broad plain
    up the head to the eyes. He’d let me stroke
    his coarse chin whiskers and take
    his soft meaty underlip
    in my hands, press my man’s carnivorous
    kiss to his grass-nipping upper half of one, just
    so that I could smell
    the long way his breath had come from the rain
    and the sun, the lungs and the heart,
    from a world that meant no harm.

  14. You're blog is great. Im a bit on the back hand of it but I really appreciate you put work in to getting content on it. I dream of having a horse but now its immpossible for me so I stick to blogs so at least i can feel like i got one ! Thank you again for all the content and i hope you will carry on :) All best


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