In June 2014 I wrote:
“Last weekend I took him into the warm-up at a big recognized show. My next post will cover our success there. :)”
I apologize for taking so long to fulfill my promise to give you the details.
Each day I gave him two tubes of Total Calm & Focus paste three hours before I got on him. I was anxious to see if it would work.
The show I took him to is an annual two-day competition, only twenty minutes away. The venue is huge, with five rings, three warm-up areas, and many barns for visiting horses.
There is a great deal going on all the time and it all starts on the Friday at noon. Competitors arrive early to settle their horses in, lead the hot ones around and ride in the arenas they will compete in the next day.
I was not competing this year. I didn’t need that pressure on top of worrying about how Cruz would behave in the warm-up.
For the past four years I had competed him successfully, but only because there were plenty of grass areas away from the madding crowd where I could warm him up alone. This year I had one goal only: take him into the warm-up with the other horses.
All the way to the venue I was playing my special music in the truck. It’s a track from Johannes Linstead’s album (insert details). It calmed me down on the way there, and I looked forward to its becoming my victory music if all went well that day.
As I swung into the saddle I repeated my mantra to myself, and rode Cruz purposefully into each of the three warm up arenas.
This was a good day to start our rehab: there were fewer horses in each ring, not the full complement I would meet on the real show days – Saturday and Sunday.
I chose a ring with no horses in it to start with. My heart was pounding as we were then joined by one horse, then a second then a third and then a fourth. I relaxed as best I could in the saddle, and told myself that all would be well.
There was plenty of room for each horse, and I was thrilled at how Cruz paid no attention to the others in there with him.
Flushed with success, I then rode him in the other arenas, where horses were already working. Again, there was plenty of room for us, but even when a horse came close, Cruz paid no attention.
A Bad Moment
I was thrilled, and rode briefly in the third and last warm-up, also with success.
My work for the day was done. Tomorrow would be a big test, with many more horses to contend with, and I quit while I was ahead.
I was walking him back to the trailer, when a tractor with loud grading chains behind it came roaring straight at us. Cruz became scared and I frantically waved at the driver to stop.
He ignored me and kept bearing down on us.
Of all the things to go wrong!
I quickly leapt off while others, who had seen what was going on, ran into the man’s path and made him turn off his engine.
But the damage was done. Cruz was terrified. The tractor was on our right, so I had to lead my horse from that side to ‘protect’ him from the monster machine while I gave the driver the evil eye.
Cruz calmed down and I continued on foot to the trailer.
But he had been relaxed with the other horses in the arena. On the way home I listened to my music over and over again, feeling elated. We were in the middle of another big breakthrough!
The Training Level tests were going to begin, so I knew the horses warming up in here would mostly be doing innocuous walk, trot and canter, with no ‘twiddly’ bits like half-pass and canter pirouettes.
There was as yet no horse in the ring when I took Cruz into it. This calmed me down as I began to walk him around. Then he suddenly became agitated, and at first I couldn’t figure out why.
Then I heard it, too. The tractor from the day before was grading an arena close by. He hadn’t forgotten.
This was something I couldn’t do much about, except put him into shoulder-in to make him concentrate on me.
The irony of the situation is that he calmed down as soon as another rider came into the ring! Her horse wasn’t afraid of the noise, so Cruz settled down.
More horses gradually joined us, until the arena was full of riders going in all directions.
I rode Cruz in walk on a soft contact to get used to the others working around him, just as I had done at home.
The Defining Moment
Suddenly he started throwing his front end up. I was unaware of any particular reason for it, but possibly he realized that he was in among a ton of horses, and felt claustrophobic. He was thinking about rearing.
An awful panic rose in me: that same paralyzing sensation I’d experienced the moment before Cruz reared on me seven years earlier.
My friends later said that they wondered if they should rush in and help me. But there is little they could have done. I was the only one who could handle the situation, and the moment had come for me to prove whether I could.
At the same time as nauseous fear gripped me, I became angry at the thought of all the hard work I had done on myself over the last six months.
Was it all for nothing? Was I going to cave in now that I was being put to the test?
The whole reason everything had gone belly-up on that horrible day in 2008 was because I didn’t take charge when my horse most needed it from me.
This was my second chance to show that I was in control.
“Oh, no you don’t!” I said between gritted teeth. “Shoulder-in, buddy!”
I used all my strength to place him in that position. It took a couple of steps before I got a true shoulder-in, but get it I did. The awful moment had passed.
Pressing my advantage, I urged him into trot, and we rode around the arena on the inside track where he feels more comfortable.
He behaved beautifully.
I then trotted him around the outside track, with horses coming towards him on the inside, which used to scare him witless.
Again, cool as a cucumber.
Time to canter. I began with the inside track, his less uncomfortable zone, and he behaved like a normal horse.
My final act was to canter him round the outside track. He behaved like a perfect gentleman.
I patted him on the neck and exited, exhausted – but elated.
Cruz was a good boy the next day and I now knew that I could take him into the warm-up arena just like a normal horse.
It has been a long, long journey, which I should have begun six years ago. But what matters is that I finally did it.
A rider who needed his First Level scores took Cruz this year to the same show. Cruz was fine in all the warm-up situations except on day one, when he heard a noise that scared him. He began his bouncing up and down while his trainer and I shouted “Shoulder-in!” at him. He stayed calm and executed the movement, which worked beautifully.
Cruz simply needs to know that his rider is the boss, and then he relaxes.
These days we have fun together. With his new field companion, an 18 hand Clydesdale/Thoroughbred cross called Gabe, we go on trail rides every month.
We splash into the Chesapeake Bay at high tide, and Cruz arches his neck and smashes the water with his left foreleg.
Last time I watched his brushing boot come off and float away. This week his boot was on more securely, although he crashed the water with such force that the boot split.
But who cares? He’s having fun.
Even though the waves were lapping noisily against the shoreline, he still followed Gabe in quietly. The rolls of rough water bopped him on the nose while he was drinking: he raised his muzzle briefly in surprise, then lowered it into the surging Bay again.
We’ve trained over cross country jumps, participated in quadrille practice, and even jousted – on a windy day with loose horses in the neighboring field running down towards us! He doesn’t care when a horse finishes his run and canters back towards him.
And, of course, we continue to compete at dressage shows. He is doing well, and we hope to move up to Third Level sometime next year if we ever get those pesky canter lead changes!!!
It’s been a tough journey because I’m not a particularly courageous rider.
But I’ve learned that all my horse asks of me is that I stay calm and lead him firmly, with fairness. Then he’ll try his hardest for me.
It’s a wonderful feeling to be back in love with one’s horse!
Horses are my big obsession, and I'm constantly striving to get better, smarter and more in harmony with my equine buddy, Cruz Bay.
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