Liam and Remy are as different as two similar horses could be. Liam raced through the end of his 8 year old year. He was very successful as a racehorse, and still LOVES to run. It is clearly an activity that he finds natural and enjoyable. Liam, now approaching 16 years old (I can’t hardly believe that!) has been my horse for 7 1/2 years, and we’ve trail ridden, jumped, and started the long journey on the dressage path. He is 15.3 and built level with a low set neck. He’s an average mover at the trot, and his natural canter is lateral and 4 beats. He also has plenty of jewelery from his race track days. Somehow, all of that is balanced out by his huge heart, work ethic, and desire to please. He’s a very hard worker, and he thinks about whatever it is we are doing. He is frustrated when he can’t get something right, and will go and go and go until I convince him to take a break. And with all our years together, we know eachother inside and out, we have learned a lot together and taught eachother many things, and we continue learning together and slowly but surely making progress.
Remy, on the other hand, was not much of a racehorse. He only ran a handful of times, never in big races, and was mostly not in the money. He’s 17 hands, and almost 5 years old. He retired sound from the track and easily adjusted to his new job. He’s a big goofy horse that’s just as happy to stop and stand as he is to go. Actually, he may prefer to stop and stand. But that could also be his current lack of fitness. His trot is not spectacular, but I think with strength and training it will be nice (probably a 7, compared to Liam’s 6), but his walk and canter are great. His walk is a very clear 4 beats with clear overtrack, naturally relaxed and swingy. He maintains the perfect rhythm whether he’s walking slow or fast. His canter is a rolling 3 beats with a moment of suspension. He is built uphill, and it’s easily felt when he moves. He carries me in a way that Liam doesn’t, and this is while he’s not even very strong or staying consistantly on the bit. So far the work has seemed to come easily for him and he is super willing, earning the “Honor Roll Student” designation in the barn, but as the work gets more difficult we will see if he has the heart and mind to figure it out… if he is really as willing as he seems, or just lazy.
It’s hard not to compare the two horses, and in all honesty, get a little discouraged by how hard the work is with Liam compared to how effortless Remy seems to find it. I know it’s totally unfair to compare them, but after months and months of struggling to get a canter-walk transition with Liam, when Remy unexpectedly offered the transition without any effort at all, it makes it hard not to think about how different the two horses are. But then, Liam is doing more difficult work, and every time I start to think maybe it’s too hard for him, he digs deep and discovers a new way of using his body, and I’m again blown away by his huge try. Despite it all, this horse is getting it figured out, it’s just taking a little longer than with a horse that found the work more natural.
Last week, Remy came in with a small bump on his tendon. I had the vet out and she confirmed that it’s a minor bow. Remy is sound on it, and it’s not warm or swollen, but the vet wants him to have a few weeks of stall rest so that it will heal completely. She said it is small enough that it will disappear entirely like it never happened, but he needs to take it easy so it can heal and he doesn’t do anything that could make it worse.
I was totally bummed that just when Remy and I were starting to have so much fun together he has to take some time off. But the hidden benefit was that it made me really focus on my rides on Liam, and I stopped mentally comparing the horses as I hopped off one and onto the other. Riding only Liam has made me really think about how to build him up and help him to do the things I’m asking of him. He was finding collection very difficult, but it was the missing piece to get really good lateral work from him. It’s the next step in his training, and I had to figure out how to show him what I wanted and then allow him to figure it out. He is not a horse that can be made to do something, as he is hotter and more sensitive, but if I work with him and show him what I want from him then let him figure out how to do it comfortably while I stay out of the way, he will think about it and try until the light bulb goes off. For him though, a longer lower frame was very comfortable and natural, and with his lower set neck, he was reluctant to want to carry himself up a little more. He would stay over his back beautifully stretched down or ridden out in a training level frame, but as he started to engage and collect, he would lift himself up, up, up… then come above the bit and drop his back, disengaging his hind legs, and then getting upset when he couldn’t hold the shoulder-in or whatever together. I felt like I needed to ride him more up and open, but that I couldn’t because he found it too easy to drop his back just when he was starting to really collect.
Well, after much careful thought, I decided to put him in a double bridle. I wanted to be able to do less with my hands and position him with my body, then let him figure out how to position his body so that he could build the strength to develop collection. It worked perfectly. As soon as I put it on him, I knew he was ready. He goes beautifully in it, and I could ride so much more quietly, using just my seat to move him around. He stays over his back with beautiful consistency, and for the first time I had access to gaits I never thought he had in him. He felt connected in a way I have never felt on him before, and my half halts go through in a way they didn’t before. Lengthening was always something he struggled with, as it didn’t come naturally to him, but running on the forehand was not only natural, but also trained into him from his years at the track. All of the sudden, I could feel his front end lighten and his back end engage, and we had lift off as he pranced across the arena in a medium trot. It was the most amazing feeling, and it was especially amazing because I had real doubts if Liam would ever produce this movement. As I wondered to myself if this was really happening, I heard jaws dropping all around me. Spectators confirmed that, yes, little Liam was moving in big, beautiful strides…. UPHILL!
Each ride has been better than the previous one, and I have found myself silently thanking Remy for giving me this time to figure out just what Liam needed to take the next step. Maybe having two very different horses is actually a blessing, as they complement each other and make me a more well-rounded rider. I will be very glad when Remy’s tendon is fully healed and I can be back to riding BOTH my honor roll students every day!