I met Lily in my late thirties, when the carefree days of climbing on anything I could put a saddle on were coming to an end. Making unintended contact with the ground hurt more than it used to every time it happened. My long-term dream at the time was to ride upper-level dressage, and to retire from starting rambunctious youngsters. Because I thought it would help me get to FEI nirvana, I was boarding my clients’ horses at a reputable dressage barn. Still, I trained mostly green horses and horses with difficult reputations – partly because I couldn’t afford not to, and partly because I’m an equal opportunity trainer, convinced that every horse, regardless of breed, size, age, background, or perceived talent level deserves a good education. This includes rescued ponies with bossy dispositions, like Lily.
Lily is not the kind of horse most people think of when the picture a talented dressage prospect. She’s (mostly) a Norwegian Fjord, 14.2 hands tall and very stocky. Born in Canada to a PMU mare, she was the unwanted byproduct of an industry that uses the urine from pregnant mares to make a drug that eases menopause symptoms. Many of these foals end up as dog food, but Lily had escaped such a fate thanks to a group of kind-hearted volunteers who formed a rescue program, and to my friend Sherry, who adopted her because she had heard that Fjords are easy to get along with and make good trail horses for inexperienced riders. Lily was three and a half years old when I met her, strong and healthy, and also quite pushy. She seemed oblivious of the lucky circumstances she owed her life to, like an obnoxious teenager with a sense of entitlement. Her coat gleamed in a golden dun color, and her short, thick neck looked even thicker because of her unruly black-and-white mane. Most Fjords wear theirs roached. Lily wore hers as long as it would grow, which made her look a like a rebellious youth from the1980s with shaggy, teased hair and frosted highlights. In height, she was the smallest horse in the barn by several inches. In personality and confidence, she was a giant.
My job was to make her into a safe riding horse for Sherry, which seemed easy enough in the beginning. Lily breezed through round pen work, ground work, lungeing, her first saddle, mounting from both sides, and her first few rides. Fear was not in her vocabulary. Nothing phased or bothered her until we started riding in the big arena, where, because of her short neck and firm convictions about where she did and did not want to go, steering became a real problem. Lily knew she could override human suggestions by turning into a slow-moving freight train. Once she decided to go in a particular direction, it was difficult to convince her otherwise. As an alpha mare, and a very smart one, she did not see the point of doing something just because I asked her to. Obedience for obedience’s sake seemed idiotic to her. When she thought something I requested was a good idea, she’d do it. Otherwise, no way. It was a humbling experience, especially because many of the other boarders at the barn rode expensive, exquisitely trained warmbloods. “Ponies are stubborn!” I kept hearing. And: “Alpha mares are difficult.” But I refused to give up because I sensed so much more potential in this particular bossy pony.
Besides, the two of us had a lot in common. I, too can be stubborn, and for my entire life, I’ve had a similarly vexed relationship with direct authority. Being told what to do is not in and of itself a good way to get me to do anything, so I understood where Lily was coming from. On the other hand, a disobedient horse is bad advertising for a trainer, so I knew I needed to figure out how to get through to her, sooner rather than later. Fighting her would only have taught her how to fight back more effectively, so I didn’t try it. Intimidation would have been impossible anyway. She was too strong, too smart, too opinionated. Repeating exercises over and over made things worse instead of better. She knew what I wanted – she just didn’t always want the same thing.
I thought about situations that make me feel defiant or exasperated, like being asked security questions at the airport. I know it has to be done, for valid reasons, yet once I’ve been waiting in line for an hour, I want to answer that I hosted a public suitcase-packing party the night before and have therefore no idea what might be in my luggage. I realized that Lily resisted whenever she felt bored. She didn’t need constant reassurance. What she needed instead was a sense of purpose – a program with enough variation and challenge to keep her bright, inquisitive personality engaged. So I tried to keep her body busy, and her mind, too. We rode lots of everything, in many different combinations: lots of transitions,lots of turns, lots of leg yields, lots of short trail rides, lots of simple obstacles, like gates and poles. Her program became a progressive series of small challenges, followed by short periods of release and reward. She began to work with me. She began to communicate. Her steering improved, as did her attention span.
She seemed eager to learn more, so I started working her like any other dressage horse. Not everyone thought this was a good idea. One well-meaning warmblood owner took me to the side and told me, earnestly, that she was concerned about the pony: “She can’t go on the bit. She’ll choke!”
Lily proved her wrong. She not only learned to come on the bit. She became supple and focused. She learned shoulder-in, haunches-in, half-passes, lead changes. She learned to extend and collect her trot and canter, to a degree that surprised everyone who watched her, including her owner, and me. She looked immensely proud of herself. Once she wanted to do something, she put her little pony heart into her work and defied everyone’s expectations. It’s true that standard dressage movements look a little different on a horse that has a non-standard conformation. Lily’s version would never earn high scores at dressage shows, but these exercises are part of a system that helps every horse become a better all-around athlete, mentally and physically.
Working with Lily reminded me of why I work with horses: it’s not about ribbons, or moving up the levels. It’s about figuring out how to build a partnership – with any horse, not just the ones that make me look good in some type of competitive situation. My long-term dream is to keep doing that, and to keep learning to do it better. I may be older now, and I’m definitely more careful. But I’m still an equal opportunity trainer, convinced that every horse, regardless of breed, size, age, background, or perceived talent level deserves a good education.