I tried to calm my nerves and focus. I wasn’t usually a nervous rider, which made me good with nervous horses. But this time an strong sense of anxiety seemed to grip me.
“How’s he feel?” asked Mother. “Big,” I replied. Challenger wasn’t the tallest horse, but the way he acted made you think he was 18 hands tall, instead of 16.2. Slowly I gathered up the reins to the proper length and asked him to walk on with only the tiniest squeeze of my calves.
I guess, in the back of my mind, I thought of him as Jigsaw, so I rode him like Jigsaw. Jigsaw had always been easy-going, willing to try new things, and submissive. Challenger was not easy-going, he was cautious, and, as I soon found out, he was not very submissive.
For the start of the ride we just walked around outer perimeter of the arena, feeling each other out. Challenger seemed reasonably calm. I sat confidently and held mild contact on the reins.
“What do you think of him?” called out mother. I thought for a moment. “It’s really too early to tell,” I said.
“Try stopping him every three fence posts, see how he stops,” said mother. I nodded and counted until I reached the third fence post.
In just a few milliseconds I sat down deep, resisted his motion and no longer moved my hands with his head. In essence, I told him I wanted to stay parked right here.
Instantly he stopped, but he did toss his head and pull against the reins. Making a mental note of it, I waited a few seconds and then gently squeezed him. He moved forward quite willingly.
I counted until I reached another third fence post. Again I sat deep and resisted his motion, but this time I didn’t resist as much with my hands. Again he stopped, but this time he didn’t toss his head as much.
Deducing that he was a sensitive horse, and somewhat soft in his mouth, I endeavored to be extra gentle when giving him aids. I tried to see just how little it would take to get him to do something. I tried just barely squeezing my leg, and he moved off very fast.
So far I was quite pleased with him. He was sensitive and responsive. He also seemed to have his wits about him. A good upper level school horse.
But I spoke too soon. Just as I was about to ask him to stop at another fence post a dead branch from a nearby tree issued a small crack and fell to the ground. It was so small I barely noticed it.
But to Challenger it was as if a bomb went off right beside him. His hindquarters tensed and he shot to the side. Thankfully he didn’t bolt, but it did surprise me and I had to readjust my balance.
“Whoa boy, it was just a branch,” I soothed. Challenger was not convinced and danced in place, very alert. Through the saddle I felt his skittishness.
Mother chuckled. “He’s keen, isn’t he?”
“Oh yes he is,” I said. Challenger had calmed down somewhat so I asked him to walk on. This time I tried to be more alert as I rode him. He’d demonstrated that he was not a brave horse.
After a few more laps of the arena I decided to try trotting him. Very gently I squeezed him, and he shot off into a very fast trot. I resisted the urge to lean forward and pull on the reins. Instead I drew myself up and tried to post slower than what he was trotting.
He tossed his head a little but after a few moments he slowed down to match my posting. We trotted along for a couple more minutes. He wanted to go faster, but I wouldn’t let him. This clearly annoyed him.
To help him slow down and focus I started turning him on a circle. He balked and threw his head up in the air. I sat tall and urged him onward with my leg. The very sensitive horse I’d had earlier just seemed to disappear.
Finally, a bit exasperated I gave him a firm kick. He didn’t like that, he kicked out at it. This was not what I had expected.
But I wasn’t about to give up just like that. Once again I kicked him and once again he kicked out at it. He clearly hated harsh aids.
I kicked him multiple times, each time he kicked out at it. Finally mother suggested, “Why don’t you try giving him a softer aid.”
I sighed. “Alright.”
I stopped my whamming kicks and instead just sat still. He calmed down and waited. I gave him a small nudge and he immediately started forward. I turned him on the circle, he seemed alright with it.
After a few circles I again asked him to trot. He did, but he seemed very reluctant to do so on a circle. He was stiff and keeping on the circle was hard.
I wondered if it was because he didn’t have enough muscling going that direction. So I started going counter-clockwise instead of clockwise. Yet it was the same thing. He was stiff and reluctant.
Finally I stopped him and talked to mother. “He doesn’t want to bend at all.”
Mother rubbed her forehead. “I don’t remember him being that way, maybe it’s just the weather. But if it persists, than it’s probably muscling. Why don’t you try cantering him?”
I nodded and started him along the track. I nudged him into a brisk trot and waited until we got to the next corner. Then I sat down and asked him to canter with my left leg.
He sprung into canter. His strides were long and huge. I flowed with him. It was strung out and somewhat unbalanced but we could change that with time.
That was my first ride on Challenger. I was to have many more.
I hopped off of Challenger a bit too suddenly, he skittered to the side and eyed me nervously. “Sorry boy,” I apologized. “Shouldn’t have done that so quick.”
He snorted and let me stroke his gray coat. He really was a beautiful horse, even though he hadn’t been clipped and looked a bit like a fluffy polar bear.
As I lead him back to the barn I thought about the ride I’d just had on him. He was a horse of lovely quality, but he needed a lot of work. I furrowed my brow. Somehow I didn’t think mom would have bought a horse like that to teach kids, albeit highly advanced.
But I did like him. Really liked him.