I don’t watch much TV – Total Vegetation – but occasionally something grabs my attention. Recently, I got involved in a series called Unbelievable, basically about a young woman who was raped, and because of her circumstances – grew up in foster care, previously abused, etc., – the police decided that she was unbelievable. It’s a pretty heavy subject, but well worth watching for its own sake. At the end, one of the characters asks for an apology, and says – just do better next time. It was that line that got me thinking…
We often say that a rider’s first horse is a bit of a sacrificial lamb… He’s the experiment who teaches his human all that could go right, and wrong. Certainly, when I think back to my own first horse – a hooligan called Golden Marble, who was a terror in most people’s eyes, I wish I could go back and do it all again, better. But actually, the first horse I met with stomach ulcers, the first with eye issues, the first epileptic, the first laminitic, they all taught me valuable lessons, and I wish I could go back and do it better for them.
But, how many horses are not believed? When I look back at the thousands of horses who I have ridden, taught alongside, owned, trained, I can list all the lines who I think, I could have done better. It’s not the easy ones who taught me, it’s the tricky ones, the ones who, initially, I didn’t believe. And they’re the ones who I remember and the ones who keep pushing me to learn.
A colleague of mine was saying how depressing it is that more and more horses are comprised – they suffer from C6 / C7 malformation, or EMS or PSSM, and, and, and. But so many horses are quietly fighting their own battles, and we’re not believing them.
A friend’s young horse is having tongue issues. She’s working through ideas – is it ulcers, is it a mouth / tooth issue, is it the type of bridle or bit, is it gelding scars, is it any form of physical pain. And the one thing she isn’t doing, is strapping his mouth shut with a flash noseband, because she does believe him. She knows that there is some discomfort in his body, and she needs to understand, to help him get stronger. When she finds it, his tongue issues will stop.
Another client’s horse sometimes flings his head in the air. She was advised to put him in draw reins, to stop this from happening. So, what is she doing? She had his back scanned for kissing spines, his teeth thoroughly checked, his feet and legs x-rayed, and now the horse is having hock injections and working on long lines to improve his core strength. And guess what? The head tossing has gone away. He was complaining about sore hocks and a weak back, but because the usual coach didn’t believe him, he almost got dragged along in draw reins.
Another coach is rehabbing a pony because she was getting nasty when tacked up or ridden, and it turned out that she had awful ulcers in her gut, and it’s a miracle that she was sweet and tolerated being ridden as long as she did. For a long time, no one believed her, so she had to shout louder.
Sometimes, we miss things. I was given a pony years ago because he was unpredictable, nasty and often violent. He came from a big, reputable yard, no lack of experience or knowledge. It took me far too long to realise that he had terrible eyesight issues, and we eventually removed the offending eye. How do I apologise to that pony? I do better every time, as soon as I’m met with a nasty, unpredictable pony, I check his eyes, I do believe him when he says something is wrong.
Horses don’t lie. They don’t spend hours lying down at night, thinking about how they can pretend to cough to get out of work, or how to bite when the girth is tightened to scare their child. They don’t scheme about how to annoy their trainers, or when they’re going to buck their rider’s off. When they say something, like get off, or I don’t like my girth, they’re being honest about an issue that is happening, or remembering pain from something that happened in the past. They need to be believed.
When someone asks me what horses I remember the best, it’s the ones who I failed that I remember first, or clearest. It’s the ones who I wish I could go back and do over. But, as she says in the series – Just do better next time. It’s the only thing that we can do, right?