The World of Living with Horses

Training: Putting the Ariana Puzzle Together by Stephanie von Bidder

Ariana in the field waiting for her buddies

The purpose of the first training ride is to listen and learn. I bought Ariana last May. Summer was approaching and days were getting longer. It was breeding season. My knowledge of her past was limited, so I had to watch for clues to who she is.

When I approached her she pricked her ears and was very friendly. The next moment she was aloof. With horses, she was a busybody. During turn out, she watched intently as I brought the others from the barn. She nickered and fretted until she had each one on her radar, then she settled and mulled over her mouthfuls of grass. I figured she was the farm manager, the queen bee, the alpha mare.

When Ariana and I started the session, there was another quiet horse in the arena. Ariana whinnied a few times and mouthed the bit anxiously. I gently asked her to trot. She struck off with intensity and speed. Her head disappeared between her front legs – tense, over-flexed, pulling me down. My questions were soft and empathetic; her answers, impatient and robotic as if she considered me her drill sergeant.

Her canter was similar:  strides 16 feet long with the balance of a javelin. In the last few minutes I decided to jump a few fences. She approached every strange-looking obstacle directly and with self-confidence. While Ariana headed to the last jump (one she had cleared earlier without complaint), her companion headed out of the arena. I was in the zone, zipping along, when Ariana abruptly executed a 180-degree aerial maneuver so we could follow that other horse.

I reacted aggressively; no way would she disregard me. Yanking her around, growling, kicking, shaking the reins at her, I made her jump against her will. I patted her and ended by dismounting in the ring and leading her firmly back to the barn.

Ariana was miserable. Her natural instincts were in overdrive. She was unfit and physically incapable of carrying her massive body in a tight frame. She guessed this is what I expected, when instead I would have been pleased with a relaxed head and neck, eyes looking where she was going.

Somewhere along the line, she had learned that humans were dictators and riding was unpleasant. It was time to start helping her. I needed to manage her hormones so she could focus on training, not on breeding. I needed to develop her fitness and strength so she could carry herself in a natural and comfortable way.

Training challenge: Spend down time with Ariana, so she would see me as interesting as one of her own. Establish myself as a benevolent leader, so she could happily follow me and express joy in her work. Then we could build a partnership.

Next: Setting achievable expectations.


Stephanie von Bidder

Stephanie von Bidder grew up in New York’s Westchester County, where she had the opportunity to learn from Patricia Neff, Jerry Carollo, Joe Fargis and Darren Graziano. She now lives in Aiken, South Carolina at her own Daybreak Farm, a full-service hunter and equitation show stable. She trains riders of all ages and abilities in addition to their four-legged counterparts. Von Bidder holds her SCHJA judge’s card and is applying for her USEF license. In 2010, she completed her USHJA Trainer’s Certification.

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