Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Learning to be an adult college attending amateur horse trainer

In my last post I talked about how much things have changed over the last four years, and I mentioned that I transferred to UC Davis this fall.  I didn't elaborate further at the time, but now that I'm in the middle of dead week with finals looming on the horizon I've been thinking about it.  Sure, living away from home is a big deal, but less so when you are so close and go home every weekend.  The drive is worth it for the home cooked meals alone.  Sure, my classes aren't easy, but I'm finding that at least this quarter I've had no problems being on track for an A in each class with plenty of free time left over.  Of course now that I've said that I'll drown in work next quarter, got to enjoy it while it lasts right?  And sure, bringing my hyper sensitive, overly dramatic, occasional complete basket case of a horse to school with me without an easy way to transport him home for lessons is a piece of cake... sure.

My trainer, Lauren LoPiccolo, has been amazing at helping me produce Liam and teaching me the skills I need to handle his emotional meltdowns, but up until I moved him to Davis--even after I had him home for the summer--I have taken a lesson a week with her.  That's not to say I can't make progress on my own, but I've always been able to take homework from a lesson, apply it for a week, and then come back and sort out new problems and get new homework.  Being away from that for who knows how long, I was going to have to learn how to be truly on my own and be my own trainer.  Anybody can do that right?

Well, if you know Liam, you probably know that he is the best (and worst) way to test if you are a patient, calm, stress-free, and rational rider with a tight lid on your emotions.  Or you know, you could be all of those things, but that horse in the arena on the opposite side of the cross country field is looking particularly cannibalistic today so you're about to spend forty minutes attempting to convince him to please pay attention and stop spooking at the sand hitting the boards.  Really, this was one of my rides during the first few weeks at Davis.  But I love him, honest.  There were more than a few tear-filled phone calls to my mom because I felt like a complete failure of a rider.  I needed a new plan, because this wasn't working.  My mom said lunge him a few times a week instead of a ride, let him settle in.

First lesson of being Liam's full time trainer?  If you are not 100% able to deal with whatever Liam can throw at you in a good constructive way today because of time, stress, or emotional baggage from your last terrible ride, pull out the surcingle and lunge.  Liam still gets worked, he learns to stretch in my favorite rigging, and I don't get so frustrated that I want to tear my hair out. Win, win, win.
By eliminating bad rides that escalated because of my own inability to deal that day and giving Liam some more time to settle in, I actually had a couple of really good and promising workouts.  People even called him cute (if only they knew).  I found myself thinking "what would Lauren do" or "what would Lauren say" to try and figure out how to handle problems.  She may not have been there, but I like to think that I was able to problem solve that way.  That's not to say I was perfect at handling him during his blow ups all the time, but there were more smiling phone calls in between the tearful ones.  I put him on a magnesium supplement and let myself think that it had magical mind altering powers.  Alas, it couldn't last, because not much later he started getting worse.  I couldn't have a ride without him flinching at his own shadow every 10 seconds.  And then it rained, and I wanted to lunge him because I knew the weather would make him crazy but it wasn't an option, but I rode anyway.  BIG MISTAKE.

Second lesson of being Liam's full time trainer?  Free lunge, turn out, do something before you get on his back everyday because being stuck in a stall all day before climbing on a hot horse is not conducive to a good ride.  And if you can't do it, you don't ride, period.  Being stuck in the stall for a few days and just getting to graze or frolic in a muddy turnout is better than a terrible ride where you accomplish absolutely nothing.
After that incident I decided I needed a new plan.  Clearly what I was doing wasn't working because Liam was wound so tight every workout that nothing remotely constructive was happening.  I noted that my best rides were in the derby field, outside of the arena.  New plan? Go back to square one and spend a week doing nothing but hack around the property.  So that's what we did.  Day one was awful, he was spooking at everything and I was so tempted to make him go work in an arena, but I stuck with my plan and made him walk around and around the property without jigging and without going sideways.  Day two was better.  Day three he was a different horse.  The next week I risked a simple workout on the flat in my jump tack.  Hallelujah he was amazing.

Third lesson of being Liam's full time trainer?  You can't drill him every day and expect him to have a good calm attitude towards work in the arena.  The poor guy needs to go for hacks around the property and be ridden different places and be allowed to unwind.
Not long after that, over Veteran's Day weekend, I got to have a lesson for the first time in over six weeks.  It felt like a life time.  Lauren remarked on how good he looked and how calm he seemed (until the jumping started of course).  I had an amazing lesson on him, all of the little things I had been telling myself to work on my jumping position while at Davis had paid off.  Not only that, but my problem solving skills on Liam are so much better than they were because I had been forced to figure it out on my own for weeks.

I'm still no professional horse trainer, but I think that this experience with Liam has done a lot for my riding and for our partnership.  We still have a long way to go and his living situation will be changing next quarter for the better, but I won't forget the valuable things I learned.  Want some semi-serious advice from an adult college attending amateur horse trainer?  If something isn't working, try something else. And if all else fails go for a hack and remind yourself about your love for this crazy animal.

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