A wise old horseman once told me that geldings settled at seven years of age, and mares at eleven (stallions were not mentioned). I always accepted this as just a general comment that geldings settled sooner than mares, not really thinking those actual ages were serious. However, after the events of this week, perhaps it’s more accurate than I thought.
The past week marked Tally’s eleventh birthday. I dreaded this milestone. Three years after sending Tally to be started under saddle, and she’s still not rideable. Eleven and not broke. All the hopes I once had, any images of us performing in partnership, have long ago melted away. I’m not one to strive for a set timeline, having long ago learned that horses don’t follow such things. But in recent months I’ve struggled to see where the progress was being made. Certainly, an outside observer looking on two years ago, in the early days of her recovery, then returning in recent months would be hard pressed to point to clear signs of progress.
In a training session, very recently, I was struggling, once again to get and keep Tally’s attention. It felt as though two years of work had yielded no results at all. I began to catalog all of the issues from two years ago, trying desperately to find signs of progress. There certainly are small ways that I can mark as progress:
- where she once whirled around each time we tried to spray fly repellent, she now stands quietly
- where she once fidgeted and fussed through grooming and tacking up, she now stands quietly, even reaching down to take the bit herself
- where she once went on high alert at anything new or moved on our property, muscles tense and ready for flight, she now quietly takes note of changes – even willingly walking right up to the new hay trailer, complete with flapping tarp on top
I listed a few more things in my head. I am truly proud of the areas of improvement – but all of them were rather immaterial to making her a sold riding partner. Our groundwork sessions were still wrought with challenges, including lack of attention, inability to maintain any consistent tempo, and even heels aimed in my direction any time she was unhappy with what I asked. I’ll be honest, I’d recently come to the conclusion that our partnership would never be. I no longer have the desire or time to create a great partner from a difficult horse. I had my turn at it with Dani, and I wouldn’t trade that time and all that it taught me. However, quite selfishly, I now just want to enjoy my time with my horses. I have no high ambition that justifies the time spent to mold an unwilling partner. Then, something happened …
I will never know the cause – such is the mysterious nature of training horses – but Tally seems to have turned a corner in this past week, or so. I have hesitated in writing this, because I have reported of progress in the past, only to have it revert shortly thereafter. But something seems different this time. She walks more calmly to the arena. She enters and immediately is looking to me, not at the neighborhood or toward some sound emanating from miles away. The walk is now calm and flat footed at nearly all times. Even the boys galloping up from the pasture to observe our session only cause an alert halt, rather than a bolt. Working with her on the longe has become like dancing – her responding to each light touch, or moving away softly as I step toward her.
Her entire demeanor, through each session, feels focused and questioning – no longer acting as though I am the annoying distraction that keeps her from gazing at the neighbors or listening to a chain saw. Our biggest challenge, a safe and sane canter, is now soft, balanced (even at times collected), and awaiting the next cue. In our last session, the canter was so tuned in that she was able to softly step down into a complete halt from it – quietly turning to check with me once she had. She even collects the walk from a light touch on the line, rather than dragging me along with her huge strides. I feel like a welcomed partner, and not the mean old schoolmarm.
Perhaps the wise old horseman was right, and eleven will be Tally’s age to settle. Or perhaps it’s just Spring that has brought about this change, and it will disappear as quickly as the seasons. It remains to be seen what the future will be, for Tally and me. But, for now, I will enjoy this feeling. I will take it as a sign that the past few years have not been in vane. I will enjoy this soft new mare, for as long as she lasts.
Be good to your horses!