Having an older horse comes with a lot of challenges that most younger horses do not have to deal with. My sweet Alfie is 26 years young. He will be 27 in a matter of weeks. Every ride I have with him is truly a blessing.
Over the years, our lessons have always been private. Group lessons have never worked for Alfie, he would get too bored waiting for his turn or would get frustrated with following the leader. We’ve always ridden in an arena with other riders. One lesson in particular, a person was lunging their horse and they dropped the long lead line and suddenly there was a loose horse running around the arena being “chased” by the lead line that was attached to the horses halter. It was a scary moment as the horse slammed into Alfie and I and proceeded to keep running around out of fear of the lead line that was still chasing it. I remember my instructor telling me to get off Alfie and walk to the center of the arena where I would be safe while she held onto Alfie. At this point there was another experienced horse person in the arena who was able to stop the runaway horse. The entire time this was happening, Alfie never took his eyes off of me. Not only did Alfie turn his body to absorb the impact of the other horse, but he protected my leg that would’ve no doubt been broken by the collision, but he kept his attention focused on me. He didn’t care that the other horse was running around scared, all he cared about was where I was. It was the first time that Alfie showed me his heart.
Alfie was diagnosed with cataracts in both of his eyes. His right eye is much worse than his left. So everything you do with Alfie must start on the left side, grooming, farrier services, massage therapy, etc. if you start on the right side of him, you get a very jumpy and scared horse.
Over the years, Alfie’s vision has gotten worse. Things that never bothered him before bother him now. One of those things – riding in the arena with other horses. Because his vision is fuzzy, he must know where all the other horses in the arena are at one time. Having horses trot or canter passed him, never an issue, but it’s an issue now. He can hear them but can’t see them clearly. In fact, even on sunny days, I put the arena lights on to make sure there aren’t too many shadows on the ground.
Today for our lesson, there were 2 other riders sharing the arena with us. Alfie’s anxiety began before I even got him lined up at the mounting block. He was startled by the passing horses cantering by the doorway to the arena, which led him to rear up slightly. I then hand walked him into the arena so he could see the horses that were in there.
With the assistance of my trainer keeping an eye out for where the other riders were, I was able to get on Alfie with no issue. Again, a few years ago, this wouldn’t have scared him. But today, it did.
These riders were cantering and trotting and even though they kept their distance from us, his body was tense, and he was on full alert. Remember how I mentioned I can feel Alfie’s feelings? Well, I felt him today. When he is nervous and tense, his body feels and moves differently, he’s more choppy and stiff.
During our warmup, I felt how nervous he was and for the first time EVER, I told my trainer this wasn’t working. I wasn’t going to be able to have my lesson with the other riders in there, not because I was scared, this was about Alfie.
My trainer then had us walk on the rail to try to get Alfie’s attention a bit more focused while the other 2 riders kept busy in the inner portion of the arena. The etiquette when there is a lesson in the arena – the lesson takes precedent. The other riders recognized this and after seeing how anxious Alfie was, they stopped cantering and slowed down to a walk. They then cooled down their horses and stood in the middle of the arena. It was at this point Alfie was able to relax, when he was able to clearly see both horses. He began to finally exhale all of the tension. Every time we passed the riders standing in the middle of the arena, Alfie glanced in their direction to make sure they were still there. With each passing lap we did, his body let out a sigh and a snort.
Once Alfie was relaxed, the lesson went very well. Alfie is feeling really good these days and again he wanted to trot, so we did.
Sometimes you have to make accommodations for a horse with some special needs. In today’s case, I not only was his extra set of eyes, but I was his voice. Like I’ve told Alfie a million times, I’ve always got his back. ❤️🐴