Thursday, September 17, 2015

Difficult Horses

They say you "tell a gelding, ask a stallion and discuss it with a mare." If it's Spider, you file a motion, present peer reviewed evidence, form a committee, and then defend yourself. 

I've always known this about him, he is very sensitive and far too smart for his own good. One barn owner, who didn't like him very much, described him as "needy and co-dependant". Another, who liked him better, would say "Everything has to be all about Spider". My trainer says, "You have to make him think it was his idea."

Spider does not trust easily. There are certain people he (randomly) decides he doesn't like and he's an absolute terror for them. I've had to stop using perfectly good farriers, saddlers, vets and barn help because Spider wouldn't let them near him. I've had to have the Technical Delegate follow me back to the trailer at shows because Spider wouldn't let the bit checker near him.  I've had him come completely unglued at shows and clinics because something on the property didn't meet his stringent expectations.

Spider requires a level of tact and sensitivity from his riders and handlers that would probably make Podhajsky himself swear. Anything less results in a fight, and a fight is not something you want to get into with Spider. He fights to win, and will try to win no matter the cost.

Some might call this a "difficult" personality, and I suppose it is. He doesn't feel difficult to me, partly because I know him and all his odd little quirks, and partly because he does trust me and puts up with more from me than he does from others. Plus, I'm a little difficult myself, so my perception might be a bit skewed.

In my last lesson, and in many other lessons, my trainer has made a point to say, "He is not a Schoolmaster!" He means that I have to ride every step, train every step, treat every movement like it's the first time Spider has ever done it. Spider is not a Schoolmaster who will do every movement on a shift of seat and a wish, and he never will be. That is not in his makeup, not in his personality. Spider has to be convinced of every step, but when he is convinced he is brilliant.

His moments of brilliance usually cause me to think that it's all my fault that he isn't always brilliant. I see the potential in him, and blame myself for not realizing his potential. "If I were a better rider, he would be a better horse." "My seat must be bad, my hands must be wrong."  "I'm too stiff, not stiff enough, too fat, too skinny, too out of shape." "If I just rode better, he would be better."

I think that's something a lot of dressage riders do, we blame ourselves for the horse's training problems without ever stopping to think about the horse underneath us. Maybe, just maybe, the problem isn't just with us. Maybe, just maybe, you are riding a difficult horse, a horse with a problem that transcends the best Classical Horsemanship Dogma. That is what I have in Spider.

That doesn't mean that I should abandon the Classical Horsemanship Dogma. I keep right at it, making sure that my riding is correct at all times. But now, when Spider resists, I don't automatically think, "I'm wrong". Instead, I think, "I'm riding a difficult horse" and I persevere. Spider will never be a Schoolmaster, but he will teach me tact, sensitivity, and confidence if I let him.


  1. That is a really cool perspective. I admire those that can work with difficult horses. I myself don't really have the emotional makeup to be successful with it. But that makes me appreciate the hell out of my easy-going guy.

  2. i'm starting to think that so much of 'correct' riding is all in attitude and perspective. the idea that 'well he's a difficult horse and i just have to keep trying' might protect you from getting demoralized when you don't get the 'brilliance' despite working so hard to be correct. i aim for a similar attitude - tho it's more along the lines of 'my mare is green to this level of training so i just have to be persistent and clear' bc otherwise i will get suuuuper frustrated...

  3. Oh god. Courage is never allowed to meet Spider. He has flavors of difficult, but isn't quite there. I think if he learned it's possible to be more of a DIVA, he'd be all over it.

  4. The easy ones might be fun, but the difficult ones make us better riders, better people and better able to truly appreciate an accomplishment

  5. Ah, yes. Been there, done that. It wasn't until I had my professional and very talented trainer show my difficult horses for me that I realized it wasn't entirely my doing. It's sometimes the body, but mostly the brain that causes the problems. Horse thinks too much. So all the supposedly trained reactions are not always habit. Spider is a gem. You just need a fine cloth to polish him. And, of course, the right day, mood, and weather conditions to all line up with the planets,

  6. Glad you have him and he has you. Dawn is very sensitive and opinionated, but not actually difficult, really. Red is a prima donna - demands attention, sulks and has strong opinions about everything - "I'm going over there now and I don't care what you think. . ." He expresses displeasure (particularly if you use what he considers "too much" aid) or uncertainly by bracing or sometimes bolting. But he's a star and I wouldn't trade him for anything - he's athletic and smart and once we get settled in (takes some time every ride), works beautifully for me.

  7. What a great post!! I am glad that you can see he is difficult and that it isn't all you - it's easy to blame all ourselves or all the horse but rarely is that really the answer.

    Spider is lucky to have a mom who is willing to work through his stuff and see him to his potential and success!!

  8. Terrific post. I can relate in some ways. I also agree that this idea that if we're perfect then the horse will be perfect is misleading in many ways. I can't decide if it's self-centred or self-defeating. Maybe both.


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