Horses are similar to humans in that they have their own feelings, moods, and opinions about, well, most everything. This statement is particularly true when negotiating with mares.
Notice my choice in words when I use “negotiating.”
That’s right. If you’re lucky enough to own a mare, you know that training sessions consist of constant conversation through aids, and sometimes, your voice. Or maybe that’s just me, because I find myself verbally communicating with Leah from the saddle quite often. You can never demand anything from a mare, unless you’re ready for a battle (warning: you will probably lose). I’ve found that the process of negotiation is the path of least resistance.
Leah would agree.
You see, I’ve quickly learned that Leah is the type of mare who prefers to be shown the way, thinking for herself and rationalizing what I’m asking of her in a methodical manner. The nanosecond I begin to demand, I can feel her brace against my hand. Thus, all softness has dissipated, and I’ve most likely insulted her intelligence.
But for the most part, Leah is fabulously levelheaded, sensitive yet sensible. She’s wickedly smart, catching onto new concepts with an astonishingly willing attitude… Like the three one-time tempi changes she nailed just the other day – proud mother moment. I love her rideability; one minute, she’s rising to the occasion in the ring, and the other minute, we’re hacking on the buckle around the ranch. It’s glorious.
Leah is a mare, and mares have their moments. Moments comparable to when us women only want to sprawl across the couch with our favorite pair of yoga pants on, hair in a messy bun, and a jar of Nutella grasped in our hands with a spoon nestled in the middle. What I’m trying to say is this: some days, they’re just not in the mood to work, which could equally be said for geldings, stallions, or ponies. Sass knows no gender.
Not in the mood to deal with her human.
This past weekend, Leah was far more concerned with the outside world than focusing on what I was asking of her. We spooked at a pigeon while making a walk-canter transition, we gawked fearfully at the mounting block, and we snorted as the wind rustled the trees adjacent to the arena. Uncharacteristic, until I witnessed her flirting with the neighboring mare in the cross ties.
Hello, heat cycle.
A Leah in heat translates to very, very distracted Leah, and the 40-degree morning temperatures probably didn’t help much, either. But like I said via Instagram, I welcome any form of added energy with open arms. It may not be the most pleasant ride in the world, but as her human, I have to understand her circumstance for its duration.
Now, what’s a lady to do when dealing with a moody mare under saddle? Allow me to explain.
Transitions are my go-to exercise for those days of distraction. I set the goal of gaining Leah’s full attention, and transitions are a key element in getting her to use that fantastic brain of hers. My transitions consist of walk to halt, halt to walk, halt to trot, walk to trot, trot to walk, trot to canter, canter to trot, walk to canter, and canter to walk. I like to execute them on a 20-meter circle or around the perimeter of the ring, using the wall as a guide for straightness. Given her age and level of experience, discombobulated transitions are really not acceptable. She needs to maintain the contact while staying soft and on the hindquarters – diving on the forehand is a big no-no. I’m picky with my transitions, because one bad transition can escalate into a reoccurring dilemma. I keep my transitions nice and quick; for example, I’ll move from a trot to a walk then back to the trot with maybe three or so steps of walk in between. The quicker I make the changes in and out of gaits, the sharper Leah becomes to my leg, thus, attentiveness.
We’ve all heard the expression “forward first,” right? It’s a very valuable piece of information to file in your brain. Leah is presented with far less opportunities to spook, stare, or gawk when she is moving forward in front of my leg. The second she “sucks back,” that’s how I like to refer to being behind the aids; she turns her concentration to imaginary dragons, or whatever mythical creature she fabricates. Leah needs to be active through her body and hind leg, meaning a marching walk, powerful trot and cantering with a jump (this rule also applies while transition training). However, forward should never be confused with fast.
Charles de Knuffy formulated a wonderful article for national publication, Dressage Today, on what the term “forward” really means to dressage. You can read his fantastic piece here.
When she's bad, she's bad, but when she's good, she's really good.
I like to incorporate quite a bit of directional changes, circles of various sizes, serpentines and basic leg yields; exercises that again, encourage Leah to mentally process the training session. Going around, and around, and around the arena can easily become boring for both horse and rider… Which only increases your probability for a moody mare, at least in my case. Strive to make your ride as interesting as possible! That’s my pro tip.
It is important to remember two things. One, every horse is different. What works for Leah may not necessarily work for your mare, but as I’ve stated before, dressage embraces the trial and error mentality. You have to seek what benefits your partnership with your horse the best. Hopefully, you can piece together the exercises I’ve explained, using them within your own training routine to alleviate any attitude you may encounter with your equine. Two, on the days when Leah is a bit more befuddled, I try not to work her too hard, because in all honesty, it’s just not worth it. She is so focused on her job 99.9999% of the time that I know the rough days shall pass and the good days outweigh the bad. Forcing her to work usually results in an argument, and well, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Mares can be moody, but when you’ve earned their trust, they’ll be your ride or die, your main girl, and inevitably, your best friend.