Breaking the rules

bitless bridle (2)I ran into a couple of riding friends at the barn this morning—my instructor and her mentor. They had a meeting with the barn owners about a project. My instructor had never actually met Galahad, and I was anxious to show him at his best.

While they were in their meeting, I got Galahad cleaned up, as best I could clean up a horse who’d been rolling in mud. He smelled like a fish tank, I swear. Then I put his boots on. He loves his boots, and lifts his feet voluntarily for me to put them on.

We did a little groundwork and some trotting in-hand, as a warmup. I noticed that he was doing more head-tossing than usual, even while we were just running together on the ground. The weather, in part—this is perfect horse weather. 40-some degrees, overcast, and very little wind. Yay! Let’s run!

Then I put his bitless bridle on. He hasn’t worn it in several months (I usually ride with the rope halter) and he does not like it. He just doesn’t, and I’m not making that up. He stands nicely for me to put it on, but carries on a running commentary with his lower lip the entire time. But he looks so good in it, and I’m supposed to use a bridle, right?

He did agree to come up to the mounting block, though not happily, and I got on.

That was my first “bending” of our rules. Normally, if he balks at coming to the mounting block, I don’t ride. Instead, we do something that he finds more fun, like groundwork or exploring the ranch. But today, I wanted to show off for my friends. And he was cranky! It’s not that he doesn’t understand the rein cues—in fact, he’s very light and follows his nose readily, when he feels like it. This morning, he didn’t feel like it.

Now, in reality, on a scale of 1 (super good horse) to 10 (crazy bronc), even I will tell you he only rates about a 3 at his worst, with me at least (he has bucked a few folks off). But I don’t feel safe when he’s doing that and I’m bareback. I’d need a saddle before I’d do any serious work with him when he’s in his “bad-boy” state of mind.

And of course, he does not like saddles, either. We’re working on that.

I got on and off him several times, each time having him move forward nicely and then back up. If he didn’t, he had to yield his hindquarters, and then we’d give it another go until he did what I asked. Then I’d get off and do some more groundwork.

He wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t feel confident, and of course, he took full advantage of that by tossing his head and “offering” to trot. We did a lot of figure-eights (small ones) and lots of backing up, and he did pretty well overall.

Our last “ride” was into the small arena, where he proceeded to tell me he was a spooky wild pony and was going to jump around and run away. Again, I made him yield his hind end and then back up—that was the best I felt I could do. Then I got off. How embarrassing, I thought.

So this was an interesting test of the strength of our agreement, which says that we ride only when he’s in the mood. He clearly wasn’t in the mood, but I made him do it anyway. Then once I was on his back, I felt like I had to require him to mind for my own safety in the moment and going forward, which meant that I did insist that he do what I asked. We always “finished on a good note,” though they were tiny “wins” on my part.

I suspect the argument wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been so anxious to make a good impression. I was listening to my own needs, not to his opinion or to the state of the relationship at that moment. My insistence on riding was because I had an “audience.”

Things got worse when my friends finished their meeting and came over to greet Galahad. They noticed his plumpness and suggested that he needed exercise. True. Then I told them that he was being stinky this morning and wanted to run. Their response (they are both excellent riders and trainers) was, “Well, run him then! Or lunge him first. Run the nonsense right out of him!”

I could certainly do that. I used to do it all the time when I was riding him regularly a couple of years ago. Blow the stink off, get him to mind, by round-penning him before I rode him. If I do that now, though, where is our agreement? It’s impossible to do things the way a traditional trainer and rider would do them and still be true to our agreement. At least that’s how I see it.

So I was left feeling inadequate and bummed out on two counts. First, I felt like I’d let my horse down by making him do something he really didn’t want to do just because I wanted to show off. Second, I looked foolish in my friends’ eyes, because by their standards, I’m spoiling my horse.

Hmmm…. How strong is my commitment to my contract with Galahad? How firmly do I want to have a relationship of mutual respect and mutual pleasure? How strong is that? Can it withstand the disapproval of my experienced friends?

When Galahad tried to blow me off in the small arena that last time, I got off, took off his bridle, and decided to round-pen him right in there. As punishment. I was angry with him for “misbehaving.” But as soon as I put the bridle on the fence and moved in his direction, he offered, on his own initiative, a beautiful sidepass toward me along the wall—just gorgeous. And whatever I asked him to do without tack, he was willing to do.

How can I be angry with him? He’s happy to do anything I ask on the ground. It’s the riding part, or actually not so much the riding, it’s the tack that he objects to. And if it’s uncomfortable for him, doesn’t he have a right, under the rules of our contract, to object?

How interesting! What a journey we’re on!