Season of Learning
While it objectively sucks that my own horse has sustained a career-ending injury, the past two months have provided such a special opportunity for me to learn by riding lots of different horses, and with different trainers. I've gathered information about myself as a rider, and the experience has enabled me to start really understanding what I want in my next equine partner. Some things I've learned have just been confirmations of what I already thought I knew, and other things have surprised me! All of it has certainly expanded my education and understanding.
I still really, really love horses and riding.
I know some folks who, after losing their very special heart horse, stopped riding all together and left horses behind for good. For a while, I wondered if I'd be that kind of person. If not being able to ride and train Dino would mean I didn't want to ride and train anything else. Safe to say, that isn't the case! I love horses, I love riding, and while I love riding MY horse the most, I am still completely passionate about these animals.
What I've learned over the years, the way I ride, and how I've trained my own pony in dressage is mostly correct.
The times I've gotten the chance to sit on well-schooled, professionally-trained horses, 9 times out of 10 I have a delightful ride. My aids work, the horse understands them, and we can all go on our merry way and enjoy working together, because everyone is speaking the same language. One of my biggest anxieties after retiring Dino was the fear that I wouldn't be able to ride other horses as well as I rode him because I'd trained him in some unusual way that other horses wouldn't understand. This is, thankfully, not at all true.
I don't miss jumping.
Like, at all. When I signed up to have a lesson with my friend's hunter trainer, I thought perhaps I'd feel some nostalgia for jumping and a desire to get back into it. But once I popped over a few small fences, my dominant thoughts were, "Wow I'm glad I didn't have to jump any bigger than that," and, "I don't really want to do this anymore." Even on a saintly school horse over teeny, tiny jumps, it was still a little bit scary and anxiety-inducing. Dressage, on the other hand, is always fun. While I'm glad I pushed myself to conquer my jumping fears in the past, it's not something I feel the need to do again.
Big horses aren't always uncomfortable and scary to ride.
When you ride a pony for 10 years, anything 16 hands or bigger feels BIG. In the past I'd felt very, very uncomfortable and anxious on big horses - I felt I couldn't get my leg down and around them, like I was just perched up on their back and could be launched through the air at any moment. Their large bodies felt so difficult to manage, and quite honestly being that far from the ground was unnerving to me. While some of the bigger horses I've ridden lately were definitely way outside my comfort zone size wise (I'm looking at you, Nicky), once I got used to riding bigger horses, most of them were completely manageable and I didn't have the feeling that I was a flea perched on an elephant's back. It turns out that if the dressage training is there, it doesn't matter how big the horse is - a horse I'd consider "huge" can still be extremely light, rideable, and adjustable. Scout is way bigger than what I'd choose for myself, but I still REALLY enjoyed riding him because of his wonderful demeanor and training. My own dressage training has also given me the tools to talk to lots of different types of horses, and helped make me a lot more confident when it comes to swinging my leg over unfamiliar backs.
Hot horses are still quite not my jam.
While I do prefer a more forward-thinking creature, a horse whose go-to is to get quick and harried is just not for me. While I adored Pella and was able to figure out how to manage her hotter energy in a lesson, the fact that she is very well trained made all the difference - when I adjusted my riding to her preferences, she went absolutely beautifully. Frenchie, even though on paper she's "my type", was a combination of too green and too hot, and my style of riding was just not a great fit for her. I have a seat that tends towards very energizing, and sometimes on a hot, tense horse it just ramps up the situation and makes it worse. I am great at amping up a horse that's behind the leg and tuning them to be more responsive. I am not great at settling and slowing a hot horse!
Dressage has taught me how to have a conversation.
The more different horses I've ridden lately, the more I've come to understand that I have developed a much, much better feel and understanding of what horses are saying to their riders. The past few years of dressage work with Dino have taught me to hear horses so much better, and to understand when they are asking a question, or feeling over-confident, or defiant, or anxious, or uncomfortable, or confused, or relaxed, or happy. I have more tools to meet them in conversation where they are, to ask them with my body to work with me, and to reward them when they respond. It's a really, really cool feeling that has helped my confidence skyrocket.
I'm getting a solid idea of what I want in my next horse.
While there are still so many more horses out there to meet and ride, my catch riding whirlwind has taught me so much about what I like and dislike in a horse, and what my needs and wants are for whatever creature will eventually be Dino's successor. Pony #2 is still a long way away financially, but it's been good to start thinking about what that creature will look like.
- While I've discovered that "big" isn't all that scary, "smaller" is still my preference when it comes to size. I really like being able to groom the top of my horse's rump and back easily, smaller horses tend to be sounder and put less wear and tear on their bodies, and I just like the feeling of sitting on a compact "pocket rocket". My ideal next horse is somewhere between a stout 14 hands and 15.3.
- A good brain and work ethic are so, so important to me. The horses I've enjoyed riding the most are the ones that enjoy their jobs and are tuned in to their rider, waiting for the next instruction. Even if the horse is green, if they are willing and eager to learn and work with a human, that's something I value! A horse that is defiant, sour, dislikes people, or always looking for an "out" is not high on my list.
- The horse has to be built well for dressage! There is definitely a difference in riding horses that have conformation and balance suited to the discipline, and those that do not. While I will never be able to afford a fancy, purpose-bred warmblood, I'd prefer not to be fighting conformational flaws all the way up the levels.
- I don't need anything that's too sensitive or over-emotional. How a horse responds to pressure, confusion, or difficult work is really important to me. As an amateur that does this for fun, I want a horse that will tell me it's having a hard time without completely blowing up, losing its mind, shutting down, or getting so frazzled and emotional that it physically explodes. I will, undoubtedly, make a ton of mistakes, and a horse that can roll with the punches is something I need. An attitude like Basil's or Peterson's - "I don't really get it, but I'll try!" - is high on my list.
- Obviously, it has to be sound for the job, and have good feet. (I am so, so over this whole crumbly foot debacle!) I'd prefer a horse that can go barefoot, but am not opposed to something that needs shoes. Fancy corrective shoeing is not something I prefer to get into, and that would really cut into my training and showing budget. Thankfully I have an awesome team of vets to help me out with this part!
- The horse has to be able to live out 24/7. I want to stay at my current barn if at all possible, and to make that feasible horse #2 must live outside. Plus, I have strong feelings about the benefits of keeping horses outside vs. stalled most of the time. So no wimpy horses that whine at the gate in turnout!
- Because of financial constraints, I'm probably looking at something between the ages of 3-7 that's green broke if I want to buy the best quality horse I can afford. While, yes, I would love a horse that's working 2nd-3rd Level already, I cannot afford that much training. I need to put it on myself.
- But despite that last bullet... I need to be able to ride the thing before I buy it, so it's got to at least be walk/trot/canter/kind of steering. The past two months have shown me that I cannot predict how a horse will feel under saddle just by watching it go or looking at pictures or videos. And since this theoretical horse will be the only thing I'll be riding and showing for the forseeable future, it MUST be something I like sitting on that gives me a good feeling.
- Thoroughbreds are not my favorite. Sorry, all you rabid OTTB fans. I've known and ridden some great ones, but I don't really want to own one, for various reasons. Arabians are also really cool, but see above "emotional stability" requirement. Probably don't need one of those, either.
- It's got to be cute. I really like buckskin, palomino, and liver chestnut. I do not want a grey. (no thank you, melanoma) Plain bay is not really my jam. Spots can be kinda fun, but NO white faces or blue eyes. Blech. I KNOW "a good horse is never a bad color", but I gotta enjoy looking at the thing on a daily basis.
- And it needs to fit in my Frank Baines saddle and look good in brown tack.