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October 2011: Aftermath of an Explosion

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By Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy


Sherlock Holmes: [extremely irritated] Oh, hell! What does that matter?! So we go around the sun! If we went around the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear, it wouldn’t make any difference!
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Great Game” Sherlock [BBC 2010]. Courtesy of Wikiquote.


Rodney has added separation anxiety to his repertoire.

Monday: In the morning, as usual, he had a session with his heating pad to loosen a back scar from a foalhood injury. He stands. I do daily crossword puzzles. Fifty minutes is the longest either of us can go before terminal boredom.

For the afternoon groundwork session, I wanted to restart hillwork. To be as simple as possible, I chose a short, gentle slope within sight of the barn the entire way. He was nervous but in a different way than going towards the ring. Garden-variety separation anxiety. More than I cared to see, but nothing unusual.

Tuesday: Hubby goes out each morning before work to count noses and feed carrots. This morning, he used the daily treat to lead Rodney up the hill sans halter. They got 75% of the way before any stress occurred. During our heating pad session, I pondered how to play off this. Rodney is too much of a carrot mooch to use carrots regularly. Instead, I would put a hay pile at the top of the hill as goal and reward. To be even easier, I would put a second pile for the mare so that he would be walking toward company, thereby easing his separation anxiety.

That evening, we led both horses up and Rodney followed reasonably well. Hubby stayed at the top with Mathilda while Rodney and I turned around and came back down. He wasn’t relaxed but, again, did reasonably well. Then I turned to go back up the hill and


Hooves and horse everywhere. I let go of the leadrope. He tore up the hill (?!) bucking and kicking. Upon arriving, he didn’t stop (?!?!). Instead, he flew around the pasture (?!?!?!) finally fetching up in the barn/run-in shed where I caught him easily.

After one of these outbursts, he calms right down. If I may project, he looks as if even he doesn’t understand why he does this and is a little ashamed by his behavior. He comes over and puts his head down to my chest to be reassured and loved on. After that, he walked up the hill a few more times. Not serenely but obediently. Still, the cloud of despair had already engulfed me.

Perhaps it was time I faced facts? Perhaps, despite two wonderful rides when I tried him out, he would always be too unpredictable? Perhaps, I would never ride, much less show him? It was a dark night.

After mourning the death of my riding career (I don’t see going through this again) and lamenting the loss of the embarrassingly large number of blue ribbons we were going to win, I began to wonder, does it matter? If my darkest dread is realized, how will that change what I do tomorrow?

In 23 years, hubby and I have shared our household with 14 cats, 5 dogs, and 3 horses. The only animals we relocated were one overly-sensitive kitten who needed a quieter lifestyle and another kitten to a friend. One reason we took so long to find a horse was that we knew we would have him or her for the next 20 years.

So, Rodney is here for the duration.
Will I leave him in the field to rot? No.
Will I stop grooming and socializing him? No.
Will I stop working with him – to whatever extent he allows? No.
Many things matter in theory. In practical terms, not so much.
Blog frequency – monthly.
Links to past WordPress & USEA columns, plus weekly commentary, on Facebook at Rodney aka Perpetual Motion. Note, I occasionally forget to switch identities before posting there, so please select “Everyone (Most Recent)” under the photo strip to see all entries.

Written by Virtual Brush Box

October 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm

August 2011: SIT[uation]REP[ort] II – The Horse

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By Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy

“He’s not going to start thinking like a human being, not now, not next week, not ever.
It’s up to you to try and understand the way his mind works.”
Bombproof Your Horse
Sgt. Rick Pelicano with Lauren Tjaden [Trafalgar 2004]

Rodney gets his knickers in a twist about work. Whether he’s channelling his past lives or objecting to his current one, the fact remains that he tenses up as soon as we head toward the ring. If he is sufficiently wound up and sees an opening, he will fly back to the barn as fast as his long legs will carry him, bucking and kicking the entire way. This is an issue I prefer to address from the ground before I get back in the saddle.

The good news is that he doesn’t appear to mind work outside the ring. He’s more likely to hop quietly over a log in the field than a crossrail in the ring. If we are ever to go Eventing, better a horse happy on cross-country and nervous for dressage/stadium than vice versa. Plus, it’s hard to blame him. When you are on the losing end of the food chain, running away is never the wrong answer to a crisis. Granted he hasn’t encountered many pumas in his life, but that is only due to constant vigilance on his part.

In searching for groundwork exercises, I found that in-hand work falls into two categories: Austrian and Western. The first is dressage on your feet, typified by the work between the pillars of the Spanish Riding School. The latter is about mental agility, typified by Trail Classes, whether mounted for older horses or in-hand for youngsters. There is nothing physically difficult about picking up a crinkly raincoat or backing through an L. It’s all about confidence and awareness of one’s hooves. That’s us.

So far, Rodney has learned that a touch on the chest means reverse, that a tarp has acceptable footing and that a fly whisk is not a puma tail. He earned high marks for the tarp exercises but was deeply unsure about my hand-made fly-whisk of neon-orange plastic construction ribbon. Since I’m looking at his eyes rather than at the back of his head, I’m learning the difference between when he accepts an idea and when he’s about to take his brain off the hook.

Plus, I’m a much better alpha-mare on the ground than in the saddle. When I’m holding a leadrope, I believe in the justness of my cause. I can insist, gently but firmly, that we do it my way. Blacksmiths and barn managers love me because my horses have barn manners. However, when I’m holding the reins, I grow tentative and second-guess my next move. Instead of insisting, I waffle. Previous Horse loved this because he could use his enormous ego to bully me. Growing as an assertive rider will be an issue for the future.  For now, being grounded is playing to my strengths.

Over the last year, I have talked almost as much about Previous Horse as I have about Current Horse. This is not doing Rodney any justice. Time to look forward. Also, a kind comment from a reader has gifted me with reassurance that I am not alone in my angst. Time to look to the positive. From now on, Eyes Front, looking to what is and what could be rather than what was and what might have been.
Blog frequency – monthly.
Links to past WordPress & USEA columns, plus weekly commentary, on Facebook at Rodney aka Perpetual Motion.

Written by Virtual Brush Box

August 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Posted in English Riding, Eventing, Horses

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July 2011: SITREP

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Written by Katherine Walcott, Illustration by Jean Abernethy

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.” Anatole France (The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard 1881)

FORM: New Home, New Directions
The first nine installments appeared as a monthly commission for the US Eventing Association’s website. I wrote about my new horse and our goal of getting back into eventing. Then, a change in editorial emphasis left my column as a heap of electrons on the digital cutting room floor.

Meanwhile, I have grown intrigued by the challenges of documenting a process without a known endpoint. As an adventure in writing, I will continue by self, without benefit of market. In 22 years of equestrian journalism, writing has meant interviewing experts and arranging their opinions. It’s time to see if I have anything to say in my own right.

CONTENT: The Journey Continues
The story is simple. I have a fantastic horse. I can’t ride him. The reasons behind the story are myriad. Is this the slow beginning to a beautiful friendship or a classic amateur mistake of buying too much horse? My answer changes daily. Horse and Rider both have the physical skills required to show tomorrow. The problem lies between the collective ears. I’ll talk about his mindset at a later date, perhaps when I have a better handle on the subject. My issues form a layer cake of dysfunction.

My most obvious problem is simple nerves. Hyped up on a high-energy feed, Rodney shook me off a while back [see January column]. The feed problem has been corrected but the memory lingers. Counter to expectation, when he gets tense, I don’t have flashbacks to the fall. Instead, I channel the numerous near-misses when he would spook, jump, spin or perform an exciting mixture of all three. Even though I didn’t come off, the fits he pitched were mindbendingly irrational, athletic, and sudden. The sense I had of impending doom is what knots my stomach. By the time I was actually airborne, I was too busy bouncing and grunting to fret.

Before the rodeo act, I had what I’ll call the Ferrari Complex. I deliberately found a quality horse to step up to a new level. When I sit on his back, however, I wonder who I am kidding. My rides are accompanied by a litany of voices in my head telling me that I have no business driving a Ferrari.

Even if I were to become sane overnight, my body requires retraining. As I’ve said elsewhere, I had Previous Horse for 20 years. That’s the majority of my adult riding life on the same horse. All those tiny, automatic muscles that keep a rider centered above her horse are set to one pattern. Previous Horse was an ill-tempered, barely 16-hand Thoroughbred who moved like a collection of rusty sewing machine parts. Rodney is willing and 17+ hands, 15 of which are leg. He tacks like a stilt walker in a high wind. I get thrown back to front and side to side. While my mind knows that a lovely way of going = high dressage scores, my muscle-memory signals an ongoing state of imminent collapse.

The final layer lurks down where reason ends. I think that I am angry at Rodney for not being Previous Horse.

There’s no solution but work and time. So, I need patience. And I need it now.
P.S. Links to back columns on Facebook at Rodney aka Perpetual Motion.

Written by Virtual Brush Box

July 30, 2011 at 7:45 am