A Horse With One Speed
September 16, 2013 by Jec Ballou
Every once in a while a horse comes along that reminds me about something important: a few steeds, despite the best training attempts, are best suited to a certain discipline. While most horses are capable in my opinion of dabbling in all kinds of skills, there are a few proverbial square pegs in the herd for whom any job outside the one they were meant for causes them annoyance. And it always seems like I rediscover this tiny percentage of equine athletes during moments of humility, during that oh-yeah-that’s-right moment of recalling that not every creature feels the same fondness for dressage tedium as I do. Indeed, for some horses, the methodical and alleged harmonious benefits of dressage have resulted in bug-eyed head tossing. Or nervous jitters. These were the ones who made me concede they might be better suited for something else. But who knew what that something else might be? Thus begins the journey of emptying bank accounts on new equipment and trainers while surfing through other sports hunting for the elusive fit.
Then there are horses like Serafina. From the moment I laid eyes on this wiry chestnut Arabian mare tied to the trailer last week, I suspected that she was a firecracker. She was not the doe-eyed calm spirit typically seen snoozing in the aisle of a dressage barn. Or the low-headed Western mount with eyelids at half-mast. Or even the kids’ spunky gymkhana horse with excess energy. No, Serafina came across in those initial moments as wise, charged up, and set in her ways. What exactly her ways were we had yet to find out. But I had a hunch that she couldn’t be bothered to care about my dressage language of half-halts and flexion and so on.
Let me clarify that I had borrowed Serafina from one of my competitive trail riding students for the purpose of competing in the Ride and Tie championships, which is a race involving teams of two runners plus one horse leap-frogging down the trail (www.rideandtie.org). In a nutshell, it’s a little nutty. I told my student I needed a horse with stamina, a little bit of speed, and a whole lot of sanity. She sent Serafina to the event for me, giving me no special instructions beyond the vague disclosure that Serafina did not like to ride behind other horses. With nothing else to go on, we saddled up the little mare for a practice ride.
After five minutes of being throttled around in the saddle atop a bouncing gait that more resembled a dolphin in high excitement than a horse being ridden, I thought my student’s descriptions of Serafina might have lacked substantial detail. We were at that moment nowhere near another horse, much less behind one and yet the mare was high-headed and turbo-charged as I was asking her to settle in to a calm walk. It rattled me to consider that this might actually be her good behavior and that we had not yet seen her in the amped up state she was capable of behind other horses.
I tried a few dressage-like attempts to quiet her down. My spine resembled a reed in stiff wind as she jigged and pranced and twisted her neck sideways, then up in front of us like a serpent. I rode a few circles. I gave several exaggerated half-halts. Then I gave stronger ones. Then I administered a Hail Mary yank on the reins that in no manner resembled dressage. Regardless of which aids I gave, Serafina didn’t seem to notice or care much about that nice calm walk I was after. Meanwhile, I tried everything I knew to determine if, in the presence of other high-strung horses flying down the trail, we would survive to see the end of the ride. My answer at that point was probably not. Having gained this clarity, I asked Serafina for a high-speed trot across a wide meadow in order to assume a two-point position and relieve my joints from the jarring they were enduring.
Adopting a raggedy flopping posture of standing in the stirrups with the reins choked up good and short and my back hunched over like an invalid, I scanned our surroundings for any wildlife that might leap from the pampas grass and startle my high-speed mount. In that instant I realized all the scanning and rein-tension was entirely unnecessary. I noticed that Serafina—bizarrely—felt like an orb of Zen-like calmness under me. Her ribcage felt relaxed and swinging, her neck was softly arched. Since launching to high speed at my request, her temperament had puddled in to a state of total focus and peace. Her mood was palpable, and joyous. She charged down the trail bending left and right as narrow trees necessitated, adjusted her balance for the down hills (her balance, mind you, not her speed), and startled at absolutely nothing. Aside from our raw speed, she was a pleasure to ride. An absolute delight of willingness, confidence, and sure-footedness.
Just to make sure none of this was a fluke and that I was calling a few more shots than the horse, I asked Serafina to stop. Right on cue, she halted and stood still at the edge of the meadow near some trees. Then I asked her to fly again, which she did without hesitation. Again, I asked her to stop a little further on. Once more she stood quietly until I gave her the nod to run with abandon. This was how the little firecracker mare and I found common language. It’s also how she won my heart. Without knowing it initially, we had borrowed this hot mare to do exactly the sport she was born to do! We would unleash all of the strengths that had most likely annoyed and pummeled previous riders trying to use her for disciplines requiring measures of moderation and grace.
She was a horse with a single speed and that speed happened to be a bit excessive. Sometimes with horses like her, riders get frustrated and sour. Luckily, we had borrowed Serafina to do an event that capitalized on her natural preferences. For the Ride and Tie championships, we needed one speed—fast. We also needed an obedient horse that would stop and stand tied to a tree when swapping runners, which Serafina obliged easily. Over a competitive field of teams, little Serafina—a total rookie horse to this sport—took 10th place at least week’s Ride and Tie championships. Her expression at the end of 35 hard miles: bliss. As I massaged her hamstrings and praised her, I let her know how impressed I was by her performance. I also whispered in her ear how grateful I was that I had not borrowed her for a stuffy dressage event.