Have We Turned A Corner'

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It was just more than three years ago that we purchased my horse Sisko for $1. His former owner (a trainer who's a good friend of ours) had had enough of Sisko, a 17.2-hand Thoroughbred who was then 7, and she was disinclined to sell him because of his highly strung and difficult personality, and she asked us if we'd like to take him. We made it a legal sale with the $1, which we paid with four quarters scraped up from the car floor. Our time together since then has been a series of peaks and valleys?some competitive highlights (ninth in the training level three-day event at Galway Downs in November 2009 and clear on cross-country in his first preliminary start last May) interrupted by recurring training issues and some annoying but not serious health issues. Sisko?s biggest problem, though, has always been the winter, and this is the fourth winter season We've endured with him. He's always been much, much more tense and on edge in the winter than in the summer, sometimes even acting like he had snakes or spiders crawling all over him, making him almost impossible to do things like groom or blanket, let alone ride, him. Last January, in one of those moments, I withdrew him from the unrecognized combined test at Twin Rivers (Calif.) after a completely resistant dressage test, because I saw no point in trying to show jump a horse who was absolutely beside himself. The one constant We've seen in Sisko?s most recalcitrant (and even violent) behavior has been winter. Now, here in Northern California, the temperature rarely falls below freezing and we don't get snow (except for a few flakes the last weekend!). Our winter is 40 degrees and rain. Think England, but maybe a few degrees colder. I think the dampness somehow affects his system, and his worst days have always been days when it was raining. There were two days this past December when I had to tranquilize him with Acepromazine because he?d become so absolutely manic. I felt sorry for him, and I had to do something to calm him. Fortunately, it worked. Heather suggested that perhaps the fluorescent lights in the old part of our barn (which buzz and hum) and his stall?s proximity to the hot-water heater might somehow be irritating him in the damp climate. So we moved him to the new part of the barn, which seemed to calm him in the barn, although it made no difference on his back. Then, at Christmas time, our farm manager, Kate, looked at the label on his feed, Bar Ale Mature Horse Lite, as she was pouring it into the storage container. It warned that if the horse ate more than 5 pounds q day, it could cause ?excessive mineral and vitamin intake.? He was getting 9 quarts a day, as He's a hard keeper. So we reworked his feed, to cut the Low Carb in half by using beet pulp and rice bran pellets?and He's been like a different horse. Since then Sisko has actually been fun to ride, not the often frustrating challenge that He's almost always been for the last three years. Two weeks ago, in his first competition since August, he had his best dressage test and best score ever and show jumped well, although I withdrew him before cross-country because two nights of rain had made the footing deep and slippery and not at all to his liking. And this week I've had a very good jump school and several excellent dressage sessions, during which he was calmly and willingly obedient. These training sessions have left me with a feeling of joy and enjoyment, feelings that I've all too rarely felt with Sisko. And it's made me wonder if it's just the feed?that seems awfully simplistic?or more. Perhaps it is the feed, plus the regular chiropractic care He's had for three years now, plus the accumulation of the work I've been doing with him' We always believed that he was a horse in search of a rewarding and challenging job, and I've tried to remind myself of that in frustrating moments. Maybe the changed feed is finally allowing him to see the relevance of the work we do and he is, at long last, finding fulfillment in the feeling it gives him' This is one of those things that, if horses could only talk, we could know. But they can't, so we have to surmise and learn from their body language, attitude and performance. I'm hoping too that we can continue to improve from here, that we can build upon Sisko?s improved attitude. I've worked hard to adjust to his new demeanor and willingness, and I've been trying to ride him with softer, quieter aids. I often tell riders to ?stop shouting? at their horses with their aids, reminding them that their horses are really quite sensitive and willing, so they don't need to use an aid with the severity of, say, an 8, when a 4 or a 5 is all that's necessary. I tell people to have a conversation with their horse, not a shouting match. Well, in the last few weeks I've been reminding myself of my own advice when I ride Sisko. For most of our time together, I've felt I had to ?shout? at him (and sometimes I literally did shout!) because he was either ignoring or disobeying me. Now I'm wondering if, like a dysfunctional couple, we'd reached a point that we just pushed each other?s buttons. He would think of spinning or kicking out or sticking his head straight up and getting board-stiff in his jaw, and I'd feel it coming and get strong, and so he?d get mad because I was ?shouting? at him. Now that He's not offering his usual evasions and resistances and is, instead, listening to me, I'm working hard to, in turn, ?talk? to him with my aids. I feel like someone who's been through marriage counseling and is looking at their partner in a new way, with a new appreciation, with the feeling that was attractive in the first place. I went through marriage counseling 20 years ago with my first wife, to no avail, so I hope it works better this time.