Marmalade is 12 year-old AQHA mare owned by the lady I board off of (who is now a good friend). The first year L owned Marm she did not ride much, besides walks around the field and arena and some ground work clinics with a local trainer as they were busy with a move and building a new house. Then, in the Fall of 2010 I moved in and all hell broke loose:) Okay, not really. But by early last year L, Marm, Ella and I were riding together on a consistent basis and had begun venturing further from home and in to more challenging environments. It was at this time that Marm and L's issues came to a head.
What were their issues? Well... it is kinda hard to explain...
It would be oversimplifying things too much to say that she was jiggy, high-headed, hard-mouthed and anxious. And the hardest part has been that she really didnt want to stop.
L is a good little rider. She has soft hands, (in spite of having a horse that wanted to bulldoze her way through everything), a solid seat, and (most importantly) an open mind, plenty of guts and the grit to follow through. The problem was that L was so frustrated with Marm that it had become a battle of wills... or maybe more like an epic war of wills and at that time L didnt have the strategy or ammo to take that bitch down. Whatever the reason or cause, whether it was Marm's baggage from previous owners or lack of riding before L purchased her, or from some physical issue, the end result was that Marm had this resistance that wasnt making for a very pleasant ride. One afternoon L and I were riding, or rather I was riding while Marm and L were on the cusp of waging world war three, when (through gritted teeth) L. asked, "How do I make her stop and slow down?"
At first blush it seemed the issue was as simple as it was common, Marm wanted to push forward with her shoulder and L was pulling her back to gain control which was creating a vicious circle of resistance and hardness in them both. I was all to happy to jump in with some advice. You can go ahead and picture my keen eyes and cocky grin as I puffed up my chest, spit on my palms, rubbed my hands together and jumped in fully expecting to get the problem fixed and finished in no time. Little did I know...
A year later... And the hard truth is that Marm still doesnt want to stop and still wants to plow forward with her shoulder. Now, if I were you I'd be reading this and be thinking, "That's a super simple fix! I can fix that in a few minutes!" No shit Sherlock. That's what I thought.
That first day I truly expected that, with just a little help, L would have Marm in hand in no time. Actually, to be perfectly honest I expected that within about ten minutes she'd be stopping on a dime. I wouldnt have blamed L one bit if she'd gone home that night feeling a little smug in thinking, "Not as easy as it looks, is it, hotshot?!"
It would take me approximately forever to write out every technique we tried and every new idea we've thrown at this problem over the past year but needless to say it was many, varied and not without a few small triumphs or a few epic failures.
Early on we looked for a physical reason. L enlisted the help of her vet, who found that Marm was tender on her front feet but otherwise sound in hips, hocks, back, shoulders, teeth, etc.. Her front feet have been treated and seem to be much better. Marm's saddle did not fit well but luckily we were able to find a good fitting saddle in short order. Marm was also taken to two chiropractors, both of whom found, shockingly, that she did not have any serious issues, tenderness or pain. Marm was started on Recovery EQ just to help her overall well being and her weight is, if anything, on the lean side (she is fed only local hay, no grain and shows no fatty deposits or other signs of IR) For the first six months or so I was dead set on trying to find a physical reason why Marm was so resistant to stopping and why she wanted to jig/mad trot. We found nothing.
To say that this situation has been frustrating is an understatement. Even though I wasnt alone in this, by any means, it still felt like a personal failure. This Fall L and I did a clinic with a really awesome trainer who I honestly thought was going to have Marm figured out in a minute flat. I welcomed the moment she said, "This is how to fix it." and I could slap myself on the forehead and move on. As expected, the trainer seemed to feel she had a simple and quick fix. She threw a highly effective technique at Marm and expected it to work. It did. A little itty bitty bit. I think that the trainer thought it was an issue of timing and that L wasnt getting it right. So this trainer got on Marm. Again I expected that she'd have no problem at all. But that "ah-ha" moment never came. While there is no doubt she made a big impact on gaining control over Marm's shoulder and mind, ultimately, we did not find the root of the problem. We had just found a more effective band-aid.
After that clinic I think L felt really frustrated. She had watched a talented trainer struggle to get through to Marm. I think we both felt like we didnt stand a chance. Obviously, in the perfect world, it would be great to send Marm up to the trainers and hope to get her back fixed but it is hard to justify that expense when Marm is...
...a pretty damn nice mare. She will stop... eventually. She stands well under saddle (she'll happily camp out while we shoot the shit for an hour). She is confident and good minded in new places. She is very respectful on the ground and overall just a GOOD mare who is an absolute pleasure to be around. If you want her to walk she might jog but she isnt going to take off on you. If you want her to jog she'll do a mad trot but you dont have to fight to keep her from loping. Other than the fact that she trots like a bat out of hell, has very little rate and you have to pull her face off to get her to stop once she gets going she's a pretty well broke mare who neck reins, side passes, can turn on her haunches, forehand, and will lope a nice circle (to the right). I never feel scared on her and I trust her. I love Marmy. So does L. In reality her behavior is not that bad... It is hard to describe just what Marm does, how totally locked up her body feels, how rigid in her poll and tight in the jaw she gets and how even though she hasnt galloped off, she is still running away in her mind. It isnt just that her rate within a gait is non- existent, it is how obstinate she is about giving an inch... it is that the overwhelming feeling of resistance within her.
A few months ago L. traded reins. I took over Marm and she took over Ella. Between Christmas and the big dump of snow we had in January I havent been able to ride Marm much. That is not to say we havent made progress. I finally had an "ah-ha" moment on Marm back in December. I always thought that in order to fix things we had to find what was at the core of this problem. I so wish that I could turn back time and start over from the beginning. Every tool we used, our very focus in trying to get Marm in hand did nothing but reinforce and cement the cause of her issue. I think. I hope. We'll see.
What is at the heart of the issue? I'll tell you my best guess, the principle I've focused my whole plan of attack around, next time. Till then, I welcome your guesses:)