To put it short, Challenger put me in a lot of situations like that. To sum up the next three months that followed, the phrases, “No, sorry I can’t, not yet, give me a moment, Challenger!” would do well. jkl;jkl;jf;djkf;a
The easy start with Challenger was not to continue. I thought for sure he and I would get along famously once I figured out his quirks. Why else was he named Challenger?
Because he challenged.
It’d be easier if he was trusted me more, if he wasn’t so sensitive, if he didn’t remember so acutely... It’d be easier if he wasn’t Challenger. One hard hand, one unjustly given harsh word, and it all fell apart.
And you know what’s ironic? When it fell apart you were tempted, oh so tempted, to use the thing that made it fall apart to fix it. If it was the whip, use the whip again to get him to behave. If it was a harsh half halt, use it to get him to calm down, which of course never worked.
There was one day where I just wanted to give up. Wanted to throw in the towel and call it quits. Start searching for another horse.
It was really something silly. He had trouble cantering circles. What horse doesn’t at first? But his lasted longer. He was stubborn about it.
I tried my best, I really did, to be kind but firm. Guiding him around the circle, using my body as frame so that when he tried to fall in or out it was harder for him to do so than to canter it correctly.
But he fought me every step. I knew it was hard for him physically to do it, but I also knew he could. He’d done it before on good days
He was just starting to trust his mouth to my hands again after an accidental yank. We were both trying to figure out how to work together.
In frustration he bucked and bolted out a few steps, clearly letting me know he was sick of this. Instead of acknowledging I slapped him with the crop and roughly turned him around. Only a few steps into the circle I realized what I had done. He’d stopped trusting.
I don’t cry on horse back. I don’t believe you ever should. And I don’t believe in ending on bad note either.
I let him walk out, giving him a loose rein, while tears were streaming down my face and I was sniffling. Repeatedly I tried to get a hold on myself, wiping my face with a damp sleeve. But some new thought would hit me and I’d bawl again.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I whispered. “I’m not good enough for you Challenger. And I’m tired of this cycle of two steps forward, one step back.”
In a fit of disgust I stopped him and heaved myself off his back. “Every time I get on you I hurt you. It’s not fair. It’s not fair,” I blubbered.
I slid the reins over his head and looked in his eye. And suddenly I realized something. How many other people had said that to him? How many others had given up on him because he was him?
Maybe he wanted to trust but we never gave him the chance.
And I told myself that no matter how long it took, I would find a way, I would get better, so that he could have at least one person in his life he felt he could fully trust.
So I plunged into the Internet and books, determined to get better, to find different methods and ways.
And as I was researching, I came across an author called Sylvia Loch. I got one of her books, called The Classical Rider.
And that’s when a light bulb came on.
Those books opened doors that had previously been slammed shut with the key thrown in the abyss. Sure, it was thick, and technical, and easy to get lost in. But it still enamored me. And it was working with Challenger.
Little steps, little changes, mattered more to me than they ever had before. When he finally mastered his canter circles, or started to bring his back up for a few seconds longer, those were the victories I cherished.
Have you ever felt a horse’s back come up under you? Like really, come up under you? It feels like a bridge has been suspended between the horse’s forehand and hindquarters. And when you’ve worked so hard for that, you just savor it.
Slowly, he grew to where he could hold it for longer and longer, through circles and serpentines, in walk and trot, later canter. But it took so long. Day in and day out it was much of the same work.
Jumping was more his strong suit, less technical, and less boring. He wasn’t the bravest horse but trust in his rider certainly helped. Ditches were like canter circles. They took forever to get over.
I never let anyone else but me on his back. As the months went on, it became very clear that he couldn’t be an advanced lesson horse. He was too sensitive. It’d taken me months to fully figure him out, it’d be unfair to stick someone up there for 45 minutes and expect them to get along.
It was agreed he’d become a ‘highly advanced’ lesson horse. Meaning that only certain riders would be allowed to ride him for lessons. Of course, all of them would be ones that I would choose.
That was fine with me. I had no desire for others to ride him.
It all took a lot longer than I expected. A lot longer. And that’s why I’ve condensed it all into one chapter. Because really, to tell you all that happened in those months could literally fill books.
A taste of the payoff came one weekend in July.