Well last week was an easy one for Slider! We did not do much riding work as I had made it my goal to run a half marathon and did not want to wear out my legs right before a thirteen mile run. I lunged Slider a lot or walked him before the run the Sunday before last.
For those curious I finished the race in 1:57:49, which I am very excited about, because I never used to be a runner and am doing these now to stay in shape and have something to work toward when I am at the gym. It is kind of like training a horse: during the run and training of a horse, it seems impossible, and I have to keep telling myself to keep going even if I want to stop. But when you cross the finish line, it is such a feeling of personal accomplishment and achievement, that the few seconds of joy at the finish are suddenly worth all the months of training and hard work and fatigue.
For anyone who has run a half marathon, the recovery is almost worse than the race. Everyone is different, but it takes me about three days to recover. I struggle to bend my legs or go up or down stairs, and my muscles ache and groan from the lactic acid build up. I once made the mistake of riding a horse the day after a half marathon…I do not recommend it!
I did make it to work, however, I was not able to go out to the barn because I had trouble doing more than hobbling along due to the stiffness of my muscles. My mother decided to lunge Slider and introduce him to ground poles until I was able to come work him on Wednesday. She set up four ground poles, two on each side of the arena, both coming into the inside of the lunging circle. In this way Slider would have to go over them in order to lunge. She reported that the first time he tried to spin and run the other way, only to find the poles were on the other side. After many leaps and jumps, he began to settle down and understand the poles would not eat him. She eventually got him to the point that he would trot over the poles going both ways of the arena.
I came out on Wednesday to teach a lesson, and then lunged Slider after. (I am sorry for the blurry pictures!) Ground poles are great mental challenges for the horse, especially a nervous horse. He must first learn that he will be safe if he goes over the pole, and then must learn the spacing and placement of the poles so he can correct his stride and step over with both the front and back pair of legs. It is a simple exercise, but I couldn’t long line or walk much again, so lunging was the best I could do! The ground pole exercise, however, also teaches him to pick his feet up, learn to place them carefully, and also teaches him confidence in himself, as well as gives him something to think about.
When I lunged him, I had a lunge rope as well as a lash whip. I used the whip to push his hips away from me so he could go out into the circle and over the ground poles. I had to flip the lash onto his side to move him over at first, because he had forgotten about poles from the last two days and they were scary monsters again. He galloped around and did huge flying leaps over the poles. As he began to get tired, and settled down, he trotted and began stepping. He is not the most graceful horse when it comes to poles; he slipped quite a few times and stepped on the pole or tripped over it. But he kept going. I had him stop and turned him around.
Now, this is another word to the wise. Horses do not associate clockwise and counter clockwise as being solely different directions. They see off the sides of their body. For example, in the turn going counter clockwise (first direction), Slider’s right eye was mostly seeing the arena wall, and his left eye was focused on me and the ground poles. When he turns around, it is a brand new experience for him. His right eye has not seen me or the poles, and his left eye has not seen what is on the outside of the lunging circle. Whenever you turn a horse around, take into account that the reverse presents a whole new world for him. They do not process object placement or have depth perception like we do. I try to teach my riders this and have them walk their horse around objects going both ways and from every direction, to teach them to respect the difference in the horse’s perception of the world, as well as to keep them safe and let the horse have a chance to think and understand.
As expected, reversing and going clockwise was a whole new world for Slider. He started galloping and leaping over the poles again. He reminds me of a gangly teenager when he jumps; very leggy and all over the place. Again, he began to settle down and trot over the poles, now with his ears up as though he were enjoying himself. This may be a fun winter activity for him when it's too cold to ride but he still needs exercise.
I would like to share one other experience with you. Last week one of my good friends Brittany came to the barn. She has been riding in the therapy program since I was a teenager, and she happens to also be the reigning Miss Amazing USA, a competition for beautiful women with disabilities. She has not been able to ride for a while and wanted to come to the barn. The only horse that I had ready was Slider, and the other lesson horses were in a lesson. Against my better judgment I brought Slider out for her to pet.
Now, keep in mind, Brittany is in a wheelchair. Slider had not yet been around wheelchairs; he didn't even know what they were. She sat patiently in the hallway with a few treats as I lead him to her. He approached slowly and characteristically snorted. I wondered if this was a good idea, if he would even approach her, or if I should be safe and just put him back and wait for a therapy horse to come by. I imagined him twirling away and snorting, because wheelchairs can sometimes be challenging for horses to become accustomed to.
But that horse, who may have had a rough past, experienced neglect, or not felt love for a while, surprised me. After snorting, he stopped, stared, and quietly and slowly lowered his head toward her wheelchair. He kindly ate the treats she presented. And then the most amazing thing happened. She began to lift her hand toward his face. Sometimes she has difficulty opening her hand to fully pet horses.
And what did Slider do? He stood perfectly still, like a statue, while she struggled to open her hand. When she had, she stroked his stripe, and he calmly stood with his head down, being petted. It was the most amazing thing I have seen in a while, and brought tears to my eyes.
This horse had no reason to act so kindly and so calmly, especially when it is not in his nature. One thing that I will never understand, is how animals just know when to be gentle. He has been given love by me, and other lesson children, but is also starting to show love back, in small yet amazing ways. This was another of those “finish line moments.” We worked so hard to get here, came so far, and it was worth it all as we stood there, locked in a special moment.