By Wiola Grabowska
Edited 27th March to add images bought from Ultimate Images who was the official photographer during the ride.
Leo is surprised to see me at his door at 6am. The clock’s have changed overnight, it’s dark and quiet. I planned to give him a bit of a wash, you know – mane and tail kind of wash 🙂 – but it’s so eerie on the yard that I settle for a quick groom and come back later to finish the preparations for travel.
He loads without a problem and we arrive at the RAF grounds greeted by very helpful organisers and sunny weather.
The minute Leo comes off the lorry, he is overwhelmed and has zero attention on me. That is both surprising and isn’t as although he can be very attentive at home I have never taken him anywhere before. It’s a test ride for us. I’d like to do more sponsored rides and raise money for various Cancer Research charities with him but I want to find out what suits him mentally and physically.
This ride does not. It’s a busy one with many other stressed horses and whether Leo is picking up on that or whether it’s some old memories, he is not happy. Looking around it seems some riders treat this kind of rides as a challenge of staying on board stressed animals and jumping as many jumps as possible in whatever fashion but it’s not something I am looking for for Leo. Having said that, there are many horses we see around who look like they are having a ball. Stroll in walking parts, have a great blast in open parts of the ride and are being given best chances to jump well. There is a grey horse alongside us at some point who looks so happy and content hopping over the line of bigger jumps with ears pricked but always listening to its rider, then waiting for others of his group calmly. Pleasure to watch.
Leo feels fresh throughout the entire ride showing no signs of fatigue even though in about 1h45 min we calmly walk maybe 10 minutes top. The rest is a combination of jogging, passaging, trotting and cantering on the spot. At the end of the ride he feels like he could go again! I think he will feel his core muscles tomorrow!
My favourite moments from the ride were the open canter on the air fields and the cool down walk after. Leo’s canter is a really lovely experience, big lofty strides that make you feel as if you are on a 17hh horse rather than a 14.3hh one and I could tell he was enjoying it too. No erratic behaviour but a steady, flowing stride at a tempo of my choice. Then a long rein walk just calmly looking around for a couple of minutes.
I learn a few important things about Leo today. He is insecure and weak under pressure – more so than I gathered from our solo hacking. I am not a very stressy rider and his antics don’t affect me much but I do worry about their impact on other riders and their safety.
He is also much fitter than I thought. I’d been doing many hacks at home with him – 45min to 1h – in the lead up to the ride but they were 70% walking hacks with some trot work. I counted on the hills we have here, pretty much everywhere is a little up or a little down, to do the muscle work for me and polework sessions in the arena to work his core but would not have thought that was all doing such a good job!
His “at home” hacking behaviours like bulking, fear of certain object like bicycles and runners, escalates significantly when in a busy, unknown environment. Some horses deal with distraction in a similar way home and away being spooky in a similar manner, and some, like Leo, become much more affected.
He can be clingy to his chosen horse. This surprised me as normally I can pass any number of horses out hacking or stay way at the back of the ride without any problems but it seems that a change of environment wakes up separation anxiety in Leo. On the ride, he was incredibly fixated on Robyn, who travelled next to him and who is also his stable neighbour, which led to good few hairy situations.
All in all, I am glad I went. It certainly was an insight into this little horse’s way of coping with stress and I will make sure to plan better for his future outing to make sure I can build stressful situations slowly rather than over expose him in such a way again. We live we learn 🙂
I would definitely recommend this ride for anyone with a level headed horse and one that would benefit from a challenge of varied terrain as you go in woodlands, open spaces, roads, bridges, water, drops etc If I crack Leo’s insecurity and coping mechanisms under pressure I would enter again but I won’t expose him to anything like this anytime soon.
How do you chose the rides to go to? Do you think it’s important to consider your horse’s mental state/health when making those choices or do you go for an “ultimate challenge” kind of experience? How do you deal with building up stress resistance in your horse? I’d love to know your views – do comment below 🙂