Posted by: shannonc | March 10, 2009

The Girl Who Became a Lawn Dart

ANTM anyone? :)

A horse dumping you for the first time is underrated, I think.  It’s like that first scratch on a new car – you anticipate and dread it and when it finally happens, some sense of relief comingles with the pain.  Okay, so now it’s not perfect and we can all move on.

I swear to you I’m not making this up now just because the Pipsqueak left me in the dirt.  On the contrary.  I’ve been using this rationalization for ages!

So the day started pretty well.  Since horses like routine and OTTBs grow up with a lot of routine, I try to keep to one on the days I work with Pip:

  • I take a small treat out to the paddock.  Pip is almost always hanging out in the “four corners” area where paddocks meet so he can socialize.  I call him by his name and “come.”  When I first started doing this, he didn’t understand, so I took one step toward him and called again, name and command.  He just looked at me.  I kept taking one step at a time, rinse and repeat until I was only a few steps away.  He had to take the initiative to move then, and when he did he got praise and treat.  By the third day he was coming over when I called before I could get his gate open.  On Lawn Dart Day he actually trotted to me!  With the dazzling vision of retrospect, I now understand, of course, that this was all part of his master plan.  Make human all warm and fuzzy like.  Clever horse.
  • I walk him past the calves, through the indoor and to the barn.   We’ve had some good trust-building opportunities on this trip, especially when it was really icy.  He learned, hopefully, that I would allow him the freedom to balance himself and set a slow pace that felt safe to him.  I typically do a little ground work in the arena before going across to the barn.  Walk-halt, turn right and left, drop head, and stand.  Here he gets praise but no treats.  The quality of this work, especially the turning right and standing, improved a lot when I started leaving a dressage whip near the door that I could pick up on entering.  He respects it and the space around it, so when I show him the butt and move it towards him, he moves away.  This kept me from having to use my body more than I thought I should to make the long arcs to the right.
  • I put him in his stall and leave him alone for a few minutes, hoping that he’ll pee and giving him a mini-decompress.  I make the inevitable 400 trips to and from his stall for equipment and supplies because for whatever reason I can’t seem to be organized about it.
  • I bring him onto the cross ties to groom and tack up.
  • I go to the ring and longe with loose, low side reins for a few minutes in each direction if I’m planning to get on, and longer if I’m not.

On the particular day of the dumping, my routine fell apart on the last bullet.  The ring was busy and had beginner lessons going on in it.  When this happens, I try to either only work in-hand or wait until a better time, because every time I put Pip on the longe, he has done some kind of acrobatic that interferes with steering and causes me to get after him with voice,  body and whip movement so that he resumes forward motion.  When our steering was especially absent on the first couple of longe sessions, we got too close to a beginner or two who didn’t really know how to steer herself.  It was not a promising scene and I don’t want anyone to get hurt or have a bad experience…which is how I ended up in the arena hand walking and doing in hand work with Pip on Dart Day for probably longer than his powers of concentration could withstand.

When I got on he offered to be naughty by lowering his head, shaking it, and jigging.  He’s done this both times I’ve been on him and also used to do it on the longe and in free longe, though I haven’t seen it there lately.  If I don’t get his head up, bend and release quickly enough,  he will commence leaping.  So I rode through this and worked on steering at the walk for about 10 minutes, which went really well – at first he was clueless and just popped his shoulder, but after only a few minutes he was giving me smooth half-circle changes of direction from about a 50% reduced level of aid than what I started with.  I was about ready to get off and Dave walked by, so I grabbed him to share the banner news that “we have steering!”

Well, that was the kiss of death.  I really ought to know better:  never, ever run the risk of cursing yourself like that.  Save your exuberance for when you have both feet on the ground.  A few seconds later there was a noise, I felt a spook, and got unseated.  My situation was hopeless from the get-go and I knew it.  I hate that, since it then seems to take another hour or two to actually hit the ground.  My guess is that becoming unseated either worried or did not please the Pipsqueak (or both), who escalated the crowhoppiness until it was just me and the footing, catching up after a long, velocity-free separation.

I knew right away that I’d hurt my arm a bit but I also knew I absolutely had to remount, or I’d possibly never have the nerve to get on him again for being afraid of having taught him that putting your rider (or me specifically) on the ground = end of work.  He was standing in the spot where he’d lost me, looking at me with pricked ears.  He appeared to be somewhat confused.  It took a couple of tries to get him to stand at the mounting block and when I finally did swing my leg across I felt him ball up and just hoped I could get my right foot in the stirrup before he blew. 

My thought process about riding Pip involves a lot of conscious competence, that is, I actively think about what I should and shouldn’t do:  don’t box him in, relax your seat, etc.  I ask myself a lot of questions:  if he’s being silly and I kick him to go forward, will he understand that?  And so on.  But with one foot in a stirrup and an almost-erupting volcano underneath me, there was no time for thinking.  My job was to stay on, correct the horse, find some small thing for him to do well, and get the hell off.  Right or wrong, I was going to have to ride on instinct.  If I’d had the time I would have said a little prayer for a gift of unconscious competence, but…right.  No time.

I growled, I used my leg, I snapped him in one side of the mouth, I turned him this way and that.  Finally, he took a breath, we walked one circle, he gave me a very civilized halt, and we were done.

Gee, if I’d ridden like that from the beginning, maybe I wouldn’t have become a Lawn Dart in the first place…



  1. So what’s the next step? Will you get on him again in the really near future?

    I agree about the whole “first time falling off” thing. I dread it like the plague. REALLY DO NOT WANT TO FALL OFF….but when it happens, I’m sure I’ll sigh with relief and be glad it’s over with. Providing I’m still alive ;)

  2. I actually do have something approximating a plan for next steps and it’s in the next post…under development! :D

  3. Ironically, I became my OTTB’s lawn-dart only a couple of days later. Same spook-unseat-holycrap-thump thing. First time for me from Malibu too… and I’m sure not the last. :-)

  4. I have a couple of ideas for settling these spring-brained, hairy-going OTTBs to try on Sat :)

  5. oh yay ideas! i amd SO going to be there to watch!! =D

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