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What Dee Taught Me

Published: 5/1/2014
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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 Part I of a three-part series, she considers trials and tribulations with her first horse, Dee.

Read more about her here.

Read additional articles by her here.

By Amy Skinner
Journals & Journeys

I bought my first horse just two years ago, when I was just beginning my journey into working with feel. She is a 9 year old breeding stock paint mare, and had been used in rodeo events, mainly breakaway roping.
I fell in love with her spirit (totally upset, resentful, freaked-out and mind-blown) and her forwardness (as in out of control, unbalanced galloping all the time, everywhere).

While I knew she would need a little help and and there were some things that were definitely not OK with how she was working, I was excited about her potential and eager for a challenge. I had been learning about the importance of good groundwork and working through understanding to carry over into the saddle. This mare had no clue of what she was being asked to do and was just running out of blind fear and escape.

I was prepared to put in time and lots of work to help her out. I wasn't prepared for how MUCH of a challenge she would be, and how learning with her would force me to break all the rules and think outside the box.
I was prepared to put in time and lots of work to help her out. I wasn't prepared for how MUCH of a challenge she would be, and how learning with her would force me to break all the rules and think outside the box.

I've worked with many horses, but have never encountered a more challenging one. She would run from me for hours in the pasture. It took hours to saddle without her feet moving, hours to keep her still while I mounted, and as soon as my butt touched the saddle she was off in a mad gallop.

Bending her head around made her stiff, upset and defensive. Her body would stiffen up like a plank and she would just spin like a bottle at top speed. I had been riding her in clinics with several talented horsemen and we had been working on getting her to bend, give, and soften.

[Photo at right shows Dee's enormous neck, built up by bracing against martingale, used by former owner.]

Her body was unyielding: She was terribly on the forehand and unbalanced, with a giant overdeveloped underneck, massive shoulder muscles, a slab side and a tight back held up by two stiff legs that couldn't reach but rather took pogo-stick type steps: straight up and down rather than forward and through.

Needless to say she could hardly bend her head around, couldn't yield her hindquarters without stepping on her feet, and her neck and shoulders were totally blocked. She often cross-cantered, and many times she was so off balance I could reach out and grab a handful of sand with my inside hand in the round pen.

Her muscle had been developed from many many repetitions of incorrect ways of going, and as a result, she was not physically able to move correctly. I liken it to the functionality of muscle that a body builder has: massive, overdeveloped biceps and pectoral muscles that may look flashy, but ask him to cross his arms across his chest or lay his arms flat and he has a serious problem.

Over the years, her underneck began fading, her massive shoulders became a bit more free and her back was much less tight, therefore her hind legs reached under her a little further. She was still very on the forehand and stiff in her hind legs, but it was better.

At the beginning of last fall, we could trot on a loose rein FINALLY without her taking off or racing in the trot. We were cantering simple changes of lead, and while the canter wasn't great, it was much more balanced than it was when we started out together.

I was beginning to be able to take her wild energy and put it to use without upsetting her, and she could go forward and still come back to me. She still seemed to really want to dump her weight on the forehand, but I felt like it was getting better in many other aspects.

Then, as she relaxed and began to let up a bit, something very disturbing showed up: lameness.

She was relaxed, happy, and LAME.

Coming next:

Part II: Vet weighs in with diagnosis…What the future holds

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5/2/2014 Joan Muller
I'm waiting for your next installment with eagerness and just a bit of dread lest it be news of a downturn in your arc of triumph. Your story is very nearly my own with a re-hab mare who not only had many lessons for me, but has re-written my understanding of how magnificently horses will adjust to adversity to survive, even at the expense of their mobility, mental and emotional ease, and metabolic stability. My mare was a tightly tangled snarl of those aspects and just when we got (so, so many hours later as you well noted!!!) to where we came loose at a Lee Smith clinic she got Lyme disease. We were blind-sided with complications, she foundered and I focus on a friend's sage advice to "keep the faith" and not merely "cling to hope." Perhaps a universal question is begged here, both metaphorically and in reality: "has the ride been worth the fall?" My answer to the question is "there is gravity; there is ground." There was dance for us for a splendid while and I see that the gains will always pay forward if shared, to someone else working along their own trajectory or to the next horse carrying a brace.
5/2/2014 Amy
Oh no, Joan Muller...what happened to your mare after lyme's and foundering?? I hope she is ok! You will have to stay tuned to find out more about Dee... I think these troubled horses are so good for us if we can untangle ourselves enough to help them. I know for sure they are wonderful teachers, even if they aren't wonderfully "useful" in the sense of getting a job done all the time. They sure bring out what's inside of you into the open!

"A canter is the cure for every evil" - Benjamin Disraeli, The Young Duke