Spring Ahead, Fall Back – Part One

Here’s the thing. You have got to listen to your horse. Stella had been telling me for two weeks that something wasn’t right. I just wasn’t listening.

As those of you who are following this blog know, once I finally found a saddle that worked for Stella, it was full steam ahead with her training. She was now going very nicely, trotting round quietly, reaching for the bit, using her hind quarters, turning and going straight like nobody’s business.

She was quiet and correct at the mounting block (and if she did have a “moment” and get out of line, with a couple gentle reminders she would step back over to me and stand waiting for me to get on). She almost always stood quietly afterward, waiting for me to tell her when it was time to walk on.

Her lunging was coming along nicely, although she had reached the point where I didn’t really need to lunge her before every ride. When we did lunge, we did fun stuff, like poles and low cavaletti, which she really seems to enjoy.

Even her spookiness seemed to be improving. I was doing a lot of just leading her around the property in her rope halter, introducing her to new things and spending quiet time together. She had a new paddock mate, a lovely horse named Dee, who is also six. They get along swimmingly, and the move to a new turnout area also allowed Stella to make friends with a couple of geldings in the adjoining paddocks. So she had a nice new group of buddies, and really started enjoying her turn out time.

Everything seemed to be going exactly as planned… up until about two weeks ago.

It was a Friday afternoon. I was grooming Stella on the cross ties, and she happened to catch sight, out the window, of a horse coming down the driveway. I guess she hadn’t really seen a horse from that view before and it startled her so much she spun around in the aisleway and was, in a split second, facing the wrong way. She had one crosstie over the top of her head and had pulled it so tight that she started to panic. I spoke to her softly, rubbed her forehead (her favourite thing), and got her to calm down enough that she relaxed her head and neck and I was able to undo the crossties and turn her around. I made a nice fuss over her and continued grooming. She never quite settled that day, and even during our ride she was very much on edge. I blamed it on the crosstie incident and put it out of my head.

One evening the following week (Monday, I think), I had ridden and was now untacking and grooming Stella in her stall. She was munching on her hay and I was softly currying her left side when she suddenly reached back and bit me! Now first of all let me say that this is very odd behaviour for Stella. She is, quite literally, one of the sweetest ponies I know. But I also know that a lot of people at the barn like to feed treats to the horses (and as much as I gently scold them when they feed treats to my horse, well, it’s hard to get them to stop). So I assumed that this was the result of a pony getting stuffed with too many tidbits, so I put up a nice little “NO TREATS PLEASE” sign on Stella’s stall door, and didn’t think twice about it.

When I tacked up on Tuesday, Stella seemed much quieter, although she did get a little fussy when I threw the saddle pad over her back (I used to move very slowly and methodically when I tacked her up, because I remember when I first got her that she was always very antsy getting her saddle put on. So I chalked it up to me just being a little too devil-may-care with the tacking up, and made a mental note to go back to moving a little slower).  She was very, very good that night. I remember thinking that I wished someone was videoing her, because she was being such a lovely girl.

On Wednesday, I was more careful tacking up. I didn’t want her reverting to her old ways. The saddle pad & sheepskin half pad were fine, but when I put her saddle on, she literally jumped sideways (into me). For a moment, my heart sank. She was behaving like a pony who didn’t like her saddle (and trust me, I know exactly how a pony who doesn’t like her saddle behaves). But because she had been going so much happier in this saddle than she ever had in any other, I really felt in my heart that this wasn’t the problem. But I nonetheless took the saddle off, and felt all along her back, along her withers, spine, loins, everywhere. Not a flinch, not an ear back, nothing. I gently sat the saddle back on her (this time, she didn’t seem to mind), and loosely did up the girth. I remember her swinging her head around at that point. It was almost like she was going to nip me, but then changed her mind. I thought at the time that the no-treats rule must be working, since she was going to nip but then thought better of it…

That night, I had what I would say was my best ride yet on her. Great at the mounting block (Wylie was teaching a lesson in the arena while I was riding, and she even commented on how nicely Stella stood during mounting), and then a super quiet, nicely forward ride, no head tossing, no turning issues, just a happy pony and a very happy rider (and yes, I even have a little of it on video!).

And even after the ride, she had some stellar moments. For example, since day one she’s been very silly about having her bridle taken off. She shakes her head like she thinks that’ll make the bridle come off faster. It’s something we always work on, and this night, she stood quietly and let the bit softly drop out of her mouth. She had finally figured it out, and I was so very proud of her.

That was the last good ride I had.

On Thursday, she was a little antsy coming in from her paddock. I remember thinking that she must be in heat (especially considering she peed twice while being groomed). She was even making sour-puss faces at her best friend, Emmy, who lives in the stall next to her. I know that some mares’ heats manifest themselves in unfocused, unsettled behaviour, so I assumed that was the issue, and carried on.

She never really settled as I groomed and tacked up, and then, the weirdest thing happened. I took her to the mounting block, she stood quietly, but then once I’d mounted, she wouldn’t move. Like she was… stuck, or something. She seemed to literally be holding her breath. I clucked and gave her a little nudge, and finally she moved off. Everything seemed fine then, but I do recall that she was pretty tightly wound the whole ride. She was spooky and seemed to have a hard time focusing. Wylie also commented that she looked a little F-A-T (don’t tell Stella!), so we decided to decrease her grain a little. Not that she gets much to start with, but she does get plenty of nice, good quality hay, so I figured could probably have her pellets reduced.

On Friday, she once again felt frisky and scattered. Grooming and tacking up was a chore. She was literally all over the place.  Because she was being so silly and unfocused, I decided to lunge her for a few minutes first. She pulled a couple of really big spook-and-runs on the lunge line, but finally she calmed down and seemed like she was settled enough to do some work.

Now, I’ve always been very careful not to tighten the girth up all at once. Not just with Stella, but with any horse. So I start out just tight enough to keep the saddle on. I’ll tighten another hole when I get to the ring, then another hole just before I get on. Then I’ll do the rest of the tightening from the saddle, in a couple of goes.

And I remember thinking how much easier it was to tighten my girth while mounted when I got my current saddle, because it has short billets, so I can just reach down to tighten it, rather than leaning over so far. Stella’s always been very good about standing while I tighten the girth, but on this night, she would not stand still. It took me three tries to tighten my girth one hole because little miss Fussy Pants was shaking her head and trying to trot off every time I reached down. I finally got it done, and carried on with the ride.

On Saturday, I gave her the day off. We did some ground work in the ring instead. She was quiet, happy, and focused. Then on Sunday, we did some more of the same. She started off a little less focused than she was the day before, but we worked through it and she ended up being fairly quiet so I decided to go get her tacked up for a quick ride. When I brought her back into the ring in her saddle and bridle, it was like we hadn’t even done any ground work. She was spooky, unsettled and even a little bit naughty.

I gave the girth a tighten, and took her to the mounting block, where she behaved very oddly, getting really close to the block, making it very difficult for me to get on. We worked on it for a bit, and then she seemed okay. But the moment I put my foot in the stirrup, she was obviously very much not okay. She reared, pretty much straight up. Three times. With lunges and spins in between. Total rodeo horse. Totally out of character for my sweet little mare. Totally frightening.

I was surprised, and immediately very worried. What had happened to my sweet pony? My pony who had been steadily improving every day? Obviously something was very, very wrong. I was devastated.

Wylie was away teaching a clinic, but I texted her first thing in the morning to tell her what had happened. She agreed that this was extremely out of character for Stella, and we made the decision to call our vet (who, as luck would have it, was going to be at our barn that evening to float another horse’s teeth). I spent the day making a mental list of all the signs Stella had given me that something was wrong. Something had to have happened to bring this on. I refused to believe that this was Stella being naughty. This was Stella in pain, and I had to find out what was causing it before I could get back on my pony.

To be continued…

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