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What Dee Taught Me, Part III

Published: 5/15/2014
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She teaches at Bay Harbor Equestrian Center in Michigan, riding English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and several others.

In this final installment of this three-part series, she moves forward and reflects on lessons learned with her horse, Dee.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner
Journals & Journeys

Read Part One
Read Part Two

After my mare, Dee, was diagnosed with a fused hock and extreme bone trauma, I thought all our dreams together were shattered. I cringed watching her gimp about in the pasture, and felt my heart break as she lost that wonderful top line we had worked so hard to develop. It was small, but it had been there.

Her back was now sunk, her neck thin and shapeless, and she had that horrible bump on her croup that proved there were absolutely no self-carriage muscles to be found on her body. Her hip and leg muscles had this strange stringy quality to them, almost as if they were sucked in. My vet said that was a side effect of an unstable hip joint.

I very much wanted to get her back into some sort of shape, but I had limited our rides to straight lines at the walk. She began dumping all her weight on her inside shoulder, and without groundwork, she became more braced, weak, and carried herself in a way that I thought must surely be contributing to her lameness, or at the very least, it sure didn't help!

And yet, in the process of getting good at groundwork and other exercises that teach self-carriage, her search for the “sweet spot” involved trying many different ways of carrying herself that were not good for her. Her favorite, as you have read previously, is to dump her weight on her shoulder and “wheelbarrow” around. I couldn't hold her up and keep her in place, and if I could, it wouldn't do her any good.

The fear of ruining her caused me to leave her to her gimpy life alone, without my interference.

Alicia Byberg-Landman, a former trainer and manager at the Bay Harbor Equestrian Center and now independent trainer and clinician, recently came up to our barn to give a clinic. I took a few lessons and watched many others where the focus was always on self-carriage and lightness, two things my horse and I had definitely not achieved.
[Photo at right, Alicia Byberg-Landman]

I mentioned my horse's lameness to her at one point, and her reply got my thinker spinning...She said if you couldn't bend a horse around and untrack its hindquarters, it wouldn't really be safe to ride. Besides that, she had said, many times if it isn't too lame to walk about in the pasture, groundwork and correct riding can only improve its lameness by teaching the horse to use his body correctly.

I felt a new hope suddenly, and decided I was all in, this time with a little better idea of how to help her stay balanced. And Byberg-Landman was right, Dee's predisposition to get upset caused her to be very reactive, and potentially unsafe.

I went back to my groundwork and determined that we would get really, really good at it. Then I climbed back in the saddle and instantly I remembered why it is I love this horse so much. She even helped me teach a colt to pony today, and did a fantastic job. She was cool, calm, and collected, and seemed to relish being back in the game and having a job to do. I was grateful for her demeanor too, because I knew not long ago what I was asking would have sent her through the roof.

Within a few weeks, I already see signs of improvement. Her coat looks healthier, and her back and neck have the first signs of healthy muscle. She is much more relaxed and her eye is much softer. While she is still lame at the trot and canter, there is plenty we can work on at the walk for now, or maybe forever.

The least I can do is help teach her how to carry herself properly, and who knows, maybe we will be trotting through the field again someday, only better than ever. I am not getting my hopes up, but I am so grateful for the lessons along the way.

Nothing worth doing is easy, and it's really more about the lessons along the way than the end product. Dee has given me the gift of better feel, timing, and balance, that I know have benefited many other horses.

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5/16/2014 Julie
Wonderful three-part series, taking us through your obvious long-term journey in just three quick reads! I think, in the end, everyone can take from this a way to see that their imperfect horse (in whatever way), can live a happy and productive life to the best of its ability. I have a couple of senior horses, where aging has drawn attention to past injuries. Getting them out for rides at whatever pace is good for them, brings a sense of peace and purpose to their lives. They still have so much to teach their riders. Enjoy your continued journey with Dee!

"It is the hardest pill for all of us would-be horsemen to swallow, but it is absolutely true - if the horse is not responding properly, we are doing something wrong" - Mary Twelveponies