Horses can’t talk. This is probably one of the most obvious statements I’ve ever written, but it is true and presents me almost weekly with a deep psychological challenge and existential question. If only my horses could talk, they could tell me if I am doing right by them. If I am being entirely fair. Or if they just can’t do that right half pass because their hocks hurt, or if they are having a hard time bending left because they hit their head on the stall wall while trying to jaw wrestle with their neighbor an hour before I came to ride.
I’m an amateur, and while I see my horses as partners in a sporting effort, they’re also still my pets, family members, and good friends. I know how much it sucks to ride hard when my back hurts or I’m just stiff from sitting too long in the car, and I want the best for them. I try to be at least reasonably understanding when they have a hard time performing for some reason. At the same time, the percentage of their lives that they have to spend actually working is pretty small – maybe 4 hours or 2% of their week – so I expect them to try, even if the going is a little tough.
Even more, dressage is hard. It is hard for me, and it is hard for the horses. We take an animal whose natural tendency is to carry 60% of their weight on their front legs, and through training, teach it to carry that 60% of its weight on its hind legs. There will be aches and pains for horse and rider along the way to the FEI levels. That is normal, and it is normal to expect the horse to keep trying through a little bit of discomfort.
That said, knowing when to push through the training trouble, give a horse a few days off or call the chiropractor or acupuncturist, or even the vet, is one of the most difficult decisions I think I make as a horse person. These are the decisions that keep me up at night, and that I talk about incessantly – to myself, to Kevin, to my trainer, or to anyone who might be able to help. I try to keep my level of crazy to a minimum so I don’t drive away my friends, but these thoughts keep me up at night.
I’ve had some horses who were relatively easy to figure out. Ian, my grand old man of a Thoroughbred, was great at saying, “Hey mom! Something’s wrong!” by going off his feed dramatically or being 5 out of 5 lame with an abscess. Even when it was his time, at nearly 27 years old, he told me in no uncertain terms that he was ready to go.
Cardoon…not so much. Admittedly, I have Cardoon at a different point in his development as a show horse, but he doesn’t have nearly the same reaction to difficulty as Ian did. Cardoon internalizes, and then he shuts down, which makes finding a cause, and possible solution, rather hard.
After my show season was over last year, I gave Cardoon a few weeks of easy, fluffy work, but then started back in the more serious training in mid-November. Unfortunately, he started throwing in periodic bouts of shutting down while I was riding him. I was hurt, upset, perplexed and utterly obsessed with what was wrong and what to do. I tried working him though it, and I tried taking him to the vet. Both things made something of a difference, but he still, as of January was just quitting at the beginning of rides and telling me where I could take my “hard work” and shove it.
Knowing when to try different things is hard, and it can be demoralizing when something doesn’t work, especially when you’re spending hundreds of dollars to try something that might help. Vet visits are expensive, and when there’s no obvious glaring problem, diagnostics can really run up a bill and even then not point to anything specific. Seeing the saddle fitter, trying new tack, having the chiro come out to work on the horses – all of these things have a price tag and still may not produce results.
After four months of trying different things – training, testing, injections, treatment for ulcers – I had another talk with my vet and more talks with my trainer. Despite our best efforts, we can’t come up with a pinpoint reason for his behavior, so I’m saying enough is enough…for now.
It is absolutely heartbreaking for me to just stop training at this point in in our journey together, but the right decision for everyone’s sanity (and my wallet) is to give us both a big, long break and see where we are come summer. Maybe he’s just telling me that after almost 5 years of working hard for me and taking me places I never expected, he needs a sabbatical. So, I’ll focus on Healey, maybe teach Cardoon a few tricks, and hope that Dr. Green can cure whatever is ailing him – whether that’s between his ears or somewhere in his body.