The Brony is not an arena horse, and I am not an arena girl. We both crave the outdoors, open spaces. We had been circling around the arena for several weeks in late February of this year, and I almost felt like myself on him. I had healed a great deal, and had almost full use of my injured arm by then. We were walking, trotting and cantering on both leads calmly indoors. We were also, even with the challenge of working on our fears, both bored.
This past winter was an unusual one in Michigan, and most of February and March were absolutely balmy, with temperatures in the 60s and bright sunny skies. Although everyone waited for winter to come crashing back down on us, it never did. The ice-blue sky and spring –scented breezes held a siren song for me. I was terrified, but I wanted to ride outside again. Shawna and I discussed it. She felt as long as I kept him within his comfort zone, maintained a high rate of reinforcement, and worked in very small steps, we’d be fine. No problem. I could do that. I always under-estimate the irrational force of my own ambition.
At my neighbor’s farm where I keep the Brony, there are limited facilities for outdoor riding. I have my choice of the back pasture, or the barn drive, and beyond it, the open fields and woods that made up my neighbor’s 90 acres. The drive seemed full of peril, but the back pasture was unrideable. Warm days and nights below freezing meant that is was a muddy, rough, rutted mess that was hard to walk across. The horses had been avoiding it, picking their way carefully through the humps and ditches when they got too tired of the front pasture and needed a change. The drive was our only option, and I put off trying. Every time I thought about riding Brennir out there, I grew uncomfortably aware of the plate and screws just under the skin that held my collar bone together, and the stiffness where a few of my ribs were still broken. Still, one bright day when the sky was like an unblemished sapphire, my desire overcame my fear. It was time.
Even as I walked over to the barn, I could feel the anxiety crawling in my stomach. I tried to will myself to relax, but anyone who has tried to do that knows that it rarely works. Brennir did not help the situation. I had tied him up to the hitching post to brush him. Walking around behind him to move from his left side to his right, he spooked, as far as I could tell at me. “Okay” I told myself “Just reward what you want”. When he settled I clicked and treated for him. I started reinforcing him for standing calmly as I brushed and tacked him, and he relaxed, nickering softly. Before long, he was tacked up and ready to go.
I ride with only a suede bareback pad. Initially, I had trouble finding a saddle that fit Brennir. Once I got used to the pad, I no longer wanted one. It does make mounting from the ground much harder, though. I walked a relatively calm Brennir up to the bucket I usually used as a mounting block and set him up. He stood quietly for a moment. I should have remembered, at that moment, to reward small things, but like many humans, I had set my eye on a goal, and I intended to achieve it. I moved to mount, and my shadow on the ground sent him spinning, wide eyed and snorting. Calming him, I walked him back to the mounting block. “Small steps” I thought. I clicked and treated him for several minutes straight just for standing at the mounting block. Finally, when he was relaxed, I mounted him, my adrenaline pumping.
Anyone who has come back from a significant riding injury will understand what a victory it was to me just to be sitting on my horse under an open sky, and I felt a momentary flash of joy. Now, my human ego took over. I was back on my horse, outside. I needed to ride. Considering for a moment, I decided anything less than a ride all the way to the end of the barn drive would be a failure. I resolved not to fail.
Asking him to move forward, I let ambition override the caution in my gut. Forget small steps. Already in my mind I was heightening the criteria. I expected him to go at least part way down the barn drive to get a click. After all, before the accident, we had done that many times, I reasoned. Then the crow showed up, one of the birds that could still terrify him. At first, I grew stern, hard, telling him to ignore his fear, just as I told myself to ignore my own. More honest than me, the Brony could not do that. When pushed past his limits, Brennir would dissociate from everything. His eyes would glaze over and go distant, and nothing that I did, not calling his name, not using the reins, not thumping his neck with my hand, nothing could draw his attention back to me. Sometimes he would bolt, as if he was fleeing an unseen predator.
Now, I sat on his back, painfully aware of my still-healing body, and watched his eyes start to look somewhere far away. “Brennir!” He seemed to shake his head as if awakening from a day dream, and tilted his head toward me. Click and treat. He took a shuddering breath, and rolled his eye back toward the crow. A slight pull on the rein, and the moment he looked back at me, I clicked and treated him. My heart softened. He needed me to praise his smallest efforts. He was giving me everything he had to give. I could feel a turning of energy, as his focus shifted back to me. I asked him to take a step. Click, treat. The crow flapped its wings, and his body braced underneath me, ready to run. “Brennir!” He snorted, and turned his head toward me again. Click, treat. He sighed, and I did too. As he understood that his was all I would ask of him, his muscles loosened. He took a few steps forward on his own. I rewarded them, but he had done enough. He had faced his fear.
This then, would be our starting place. That first day, under that clear sky, we hardly moved a few feet. But every time some terrible beast caught his eye, I called him back to me, and he came. The whole world frightened him, full of a thousand enemies. I would love him as he was. I would stand beside him patiently while he faced his fears. I would give him my heart, and he, in turn, would give me his.