We're On A Learning Curve

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I often get annoyed when someone insists that a horse will always have a certain characteristic or problem. They'll say things like, ?He's just crazy? or ?He's a stopper? or ?He can't do dressage.? While it certainly can be true that a horse isn?t cut out to be a jumper or a dressage horse, and it's certainly very true that some horses are more sensitive or excitable than others, I don't believe that most horses just ?are??meaning they're unchangeable. They are living, thinking animals, and just like us, they can?and do?change and evolve, depending upon their training and their environment (and sometimes their health too). I believe that, almost all of the time, if you and your horse are having a problem in training or competition, you can fix it with thought, effort and time. Sure, you may very well have a weakness in a specific area, something you have to make allowances for whenever you compete, but most things can be overcome, if you take the time and make the effort. My appendix Quarter Horse mare Alba is a case in point. I've been competing Alba, who's now 9, in eventing for three years now, and this is her second season at preliminary, the fourth of the sport?s six levels. Her previous owner brought her to us to sell (helpfully proclaiming she was ?a crazy mare?) and then never paid us a dime after that first month. We became her owner 90 days later by court decree. I never thought she was crazy, although We've decided he thought she was because sHe's desperately afraid of cows, despite her Quarter Horse heritage. They?d been barrel racing her, and what do they usually have at shows with barrel racing' Cows. She wouldn?t have liked that at all. Alba is also an over-achiever. She desperately wants to do things right, so sHe's always anticipating what sHe's going to do next, guessing what my next aids will be. And she gets rather frantic (and angry too) if she guesses wrong or doesn't understand. Alba looks more like a small Thoroughbred (she stands 15.2 hands) than a Quarter Horse, and sHe's blessed with considerably scopier movement and jump than stock-bred or cow-bred Quarter Horses. (Please don't take offense, Quarter Horse people; those horses aren?t bred or built for dressage or jumping. they're bred for a specific job they do fantastically.) And sHe's as physically quick as she is mentally quick. At her first event, at beginner novice level, Alba was extremely bold and strong on the cross-county course, and at her next event, at novice level, she ran away with me on cross-country and in show jumping. So I moved her up unusually quickly to training level, hoping the 3?3? jumps would make her slow down and look. They did?for four events. So considerably quicker than I usually do, I moved her up to preliminary, where the jumps are 3?7?, figuring this would be her ?training? level. And it has been. Dressage and show jumping have continued to be her most difficult phases, because she gets so ring-anxious. Well, on Memorial Day weekend, at The Event At Woodside (Calif.), we sort of experienced all the ups and downs in her education and evolution. I experienced the parts of her progress that are going well and the parts that still need a lot more work. We got to Woodside early enough on Thursday that I was able to school her in the dressage ring where we'd be competing. Working in the actual competition ring was an opportunity to help her feel more comfortable in it, and I rode her through the dressage test, repeating several movements we didn't do well. My goal was to show her that she could relax and listen as well in the competition ring as she does at home and, now, in the warm-up. It worked. We placed fourth in dressage with a very good score or 32.7, equivalent to 67.3 percent in straight dressage. It was by far our best test ever, and I was tremendously proud of her. In our previous event, in April, she?d been blessedly calm and rideable on the cross-country course, right from the beginning. But this time she pulled hard to the first two fences, and then I could feel her ?take a breath? on the gallop to fence 3. Heather had reminded me to ride her hard to fence 6, a rail-to-ditch-to-rail combination, because she?d been surprised by a similar combination (at fence 3) at Galway Downs in late March. Well, I didn't ride her well enough, and she stopped in half a stride when she suddenly saw the ditch. That was disappointing, but she jumped fabulously the rest of the way, especially at the two quite difficult water complexes. The second water complex (three fences from the finish) had a lot of experienced riders worried, because it was four demanding efforts in a sort of serpentine shape. The complex began with large spread fence (probably 3?6? high by 3?6? wide), then an almost 90-dgree left turn of eight to 10 strides to a log drop into the water, then a right bend of another eight to 10 strides to a wooden canoe-shaped jump in the water, and then a left bend of five or six strides to a big corner jump just out of the water. Alba picked up on each of the jumps and just sailed through. What our early refusal showed is that the phase sHe's in now is that sHe's actually looking at where her feet are going, no longer just leaping kamikaze-like. that's good news and bad news?it's a problem early in the course, when sHe's still over-eager and strong, and she suddenly notices a bank drop or a ditch. Keeping her calm and attentive while galloping is our next big challenge, and I suspect the classic-format preliminary three-day event at Galway Downs in November will be the next big climb on her learning curve. In the three-day event, we'll have done two phases of roads and tracks (trotting for about 40 minutes) and a three-minute steeplechase phase before we reach the cross-country course. I expect the first three phases will deliver Alba to the start of cross-country in a relaxed attitude, ready to gallop and to listen. I'm really looking forward to the three-day event and to that ride around the cross-country course.