May 27, 2018
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Relationship with ‘spooky’ horse growing

By Cassie Elia, Special to the BDN

My “new” horse is Dundee, an 11-year-old chestnut Irish Sport Horse gelding. He’s new in that I’ve only had him for about a year and a half and I am still getting to know him.

Dundee was diagnosed with Lyme disease this spring which was almost a relief, knowing that there was a cause for the struggles I have had with him. He was “spooky,” meaning he became spooked by things, but not things you’d suspect. He would become terrified of the gate into his paddock, or a striped jump pole on the ground near the fence.

Noises would set him off, and not noises that might give you or I a start, but the noise of a leaf crunching as he stepped on it or the sound of my jacket sleeve rustling. If I touched him during these moments of fear, he would shudder like I had touched him after scuffing my feet in the carpet. Not only would he spook, but his heart would pound, he would tremble and it would take him days to recover.

It was increasingly frustrating to try to ride him as I sought to avoid riding him near things that terrified him only to find my riding area shrinking like a polar ice cap.

As he received treatment for the Lyme disease, I felt moments of relaxation, his energy went from frantic to a calm energy that he could put into his trot and canter instead of into bolting away from rustling leaves. He would still spook at things, but it was a spook he would recover from and be able to carry on. It took 60 days of treatment and many more days of adjustment but he is better now. He is still a horse that will change direction in mid-air because there was a line in the dirt he hadn’t noticed before, but the spookiness is toned down tremendously.

Discovering a horse that I could finally work with, I decided to enter him in a dressage competition to see how he handled a new situation. He handled it like a seasoned professional. Encouraged by that performance, I entered him in a more challenging event. The Foxcroft Pony Club was hosting a three-phase event (dressage, cross-country jumping and stadium jumping all in one day) at Rusty Knees Farm in Dover-Foxcroft and I signed up.

On competition day, our dressage test could have gone better. I was rattled and rushing and made an error in the pattern. Cross-country went better than I thought it would. Dundee jumped everything, he galloped at a good pace so we didn’t incur time penalties and even went through the water, although he did point out that there was plenty of room to go around if I’d rather go that route.

Dundee was jumping like a superhero — clearing everything in single bound. The practice jumps before the final round of stadium jumping went great. We were one unit. We were ready.

We were ready until we entered the ring. Dundee took one look at the field full of brightly colored striped poles and I felt all his energy swirling down the drain like dirty bathwater. Trying to get him to the first jump was like driving with the emergency brake on. I really thought he would get in gear, that he would go even though he was unsure, just like on the cross-country course. But Dundee got cold feet and at the last second, scooted out around the first jump.

Quickly, I brought him back around and he jumped on the second try. Apparently, he thought this would be a good way to deal with the second jump as well. And the third. And then it was over. Two refusals are allowed, although penalty points are given, but after a third, the competitor is eliminated. We were dismissed from the ring, me with furrowed brow and Dundee with an air of “Well, that went pretty well don’t you think?” and a jauntiness to his step.

Not wanting to let him think that a refusal was a good note to end on, we went back to the practice ring and I presented him to one more jump. Which he jumped. On the first try. With no hesitation. So with a pat on the neck and a “Good boy,” we headed back to the horse trailer.

No prizes for us that day, but a lesson learned. We will try again, maybe next season to see if we can get through the stadium round without making it a multiple choice test. In the meantime, I will continue to build on my relationship with Dundee hoping to increase his boldness and my confidence. No one should try to dodge life’s hurdles, but rather approach them head on, clear them and not look back.


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