Before Sunshine, it never occurred to me that horses might have IQ’s that vary as wildly as they do in people. Some horses use their free time to paw out the theory of relativity in their shavings and exchange beta wave conversations with Steven Hawking about string theory. Others are, well, a bit…challenged. Who knew?
Right. Thanks. You can all put your hands down now.
I love Sunshine the way you love your own kid. In a kind of illogical throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-train sort of way. He doesn’t look real. Sunshine is elegant, tall, a bright white ‘gray’; he looks like he stepped out of a sappy kids movie about Unicorns. He moves like a ballet dancer. He’s kind, sweet, forgiving, honest. As straightforward as they come. Trained to 4th level. All buttons installed and all wires live.
So why wasn’t he being ridden? Granted, Katherine had 8 horses in training, and 3 of her own (including Sunshine) to ride, plus lessons to give. Not a lot of free time. Occasionally I wondered why she didn’t use him as an upper level lesson horse. She must have seen me looking at him.
Hesitantly, she suggested I try Sunshine for one supervised ride. I assumed the hesitation was: “Is Jane going to ruin my horse?”.
Then I rode him.
The first 15 minutes on a new horse is always tricky, with horse and rider trying to figure each other out. On Sunshine, for me, it was the equivalent of working out algorithms…alone. He was…blindly happy. Willing. Listening. Processing. Yup, processing. Processing….processing.
There was the glitch. He had an unusually long lag time in processing the aids. Fine. We can work with that. Ask him for a transition 3 strides before you need it, and don’t repeat the cues.
The fact that I noticed this, and figured out Sunshine wasn’t reluctant or disobedient, but had a processing glitch, surprised and pleased Katherine.
(Why do I constantly surprise my trainers? This does not strike me as a good thing. They totally don’t expect me to get stuff.)
Ride him, she said. You’ll learn a lot. I’m booked, he needs it, you’d be doing me a favor. Uh, not hardly.
But I jumped at the chance. I rode him for 6 or 7 years, 5 days a week, along with whoever else I picked up. Sunshine: heart of gold, completely incapable of being dishonest, wants you to go with him if he gets scared (he doesn’t like to be alone when he spooks), throws himself into whatever you ask and tries to give you exactly what you ask for. You’d think he’d be an easy ride.
He was the most difficult ride I’ve ever had.
He gave me exactly what I asked for.
This was the You will learn a lot part.
One day (I feel really bad about this) we were cooling out after a very successful workout and I got into a conversation with a friend on the ground. I twisted slightly in the saddle so she could hear me, inadvertently giving Sunshine the aids to walk head-on into the rail. He never questioned me. Any other horse would have said to himself “white noise” and totally ignored me.
As I gently sponged the blood off his nose, Sunshine looked at me with shock and disbelief: why did you hurt me? Why did you ask me to walk into the rail? I don’t understand. You like me. I’m confused.
That was the moment I understood, really understood, who Sunshine was. He carried out his duties cheerfully and willingly, to the letter. He was incapable of making distinctions based on anticipation. I couldn’t assume he would recognize the start of an aid sequence and complete it himself…everything had to be orderly and in perfect sequence. You want a round canter with a jump, you can’t ask for it once and assume he’s got it. Flatter than a pancake next stride out.
I gained a deeper understanding of the maxim “ride every stride”. I also realized how bad my focus was. I was constantly dropping some little thing here or there. I was used to communicating in a kind of shorthand with other horses. The concept of shorthand was unfathomable to Sunshine. It was the rider’s job to hold him together. Every second.
He’s retired now. I cherish the very humbling and sometimes physically painful lessons I learned from him. He was one of my finest teachers, and I still adore him.
Sunshine was at the extreme end of the spectrum for me. What is your experience with special needs horses? Have you run into any?