I’m happy to report that after several cycles of injury/treatment/rehab and two months of stall rest and hand-walking, the Adventures of Pepperoni are back in full swing! Thankfully, we were able to start turning him out with the herd and riding again last week, because stall-rest and hand-walking was getting old for Pepper (and for those of us on the end of the lead trying to stay clear of his “airs above the ground”).

The good news is that he is now sound and healthy, and his under-saddle training is picking up right where we left off. Pepperoni is coming 4 years old now and his maturity is starting to kick in—less silliness, more coordination, more responsiveness. Time off doesn’t cause a horse to lose its training—it stays right where you left it. Poor handling and riding will un-train a horse fast (or train him something different) but leaving him alone does not. Sure, he may be a little fresh when you return to riding, but he knows exactly what he knew before the layoff.

Pepperoni is an unusual horse in many ways. He’s wicked smart and a lightning-fast learner. Be careful what you wish for. If you don’t make many mistakes, the smart horse excels in his training. But mistakes are often illuminated in a very smart horse. Pepper is exceptionally aware of his surroundings. Not in a distracted way—he’s very calm and focused and he’s always taking stock. He rarely displays fearful behavior; but he has an intense curiosity. These are traits bred into the cow horse, and while they may sound good when you read it on paper, do not be fooled. These are the very traits that cause some to say cow horses are “difficult” and “challenging.”

Pepper also has a very strong sense of right and wrong (some might call this bull-headed, but it is a trait I like). Most of the time we agree on what is right, but occasionally there is a dispute. At times, when he believes I am wrong and he is right, his red-headed temper flares. In those moments, I’ve learned to 1) check to see if I was wrong (it happens) and take responsibility, and 2) do not yield to a tantrum but do not throw gas on the flame.

Sometimes us riders find ourselves at odds with a horse and in those moments, it’s important that we prevail, lest the horse learn he can do whatever he wants. But it is never wise to start a fight with a horse, because it may be a fight you won’t win. At the end of the day, they are much larger, faster, more athletic and more lethal than humans.

Pepper is not argumentative, difficult or challenging to train. In fact, he is full of enthusiasm for the job—any job, eager to please and a joy to ride. But he is not a horse that will suffer fools and not a horse you want to fight with. Most of the time when he gets testy, there’s something I’ve done to contribute. I’ll admit that on occasion, I am the one that gets testy or impatient first, and his subsequent ire is justified. I can always count on Pepper to let me know when I’ve made a mistake. He makes me a better rider.

I’m super happy to be back on track with Pepperoni and I am hopeful that he will stay out of trouble for a while. He’s lost a lot of conditioning in the past few months, so we are in a rebuilding state now. We lose conditioning much faster than we gain it, so I expect that it will take 2-3 months to get him back into shape. Right now, our daily rides consist of a long walking warm-up, then 10 minutes of long-trot on a free-rein, followed by 5 minutes of collected trot in a “training frame,” followed by five minutes of canter on each lead. If he’s not completely gassed out by then, I’ll work on bending, shoulder-in and/or leg-yielding at the walk and trot.

By this time next month, I hope to be back to collection at the canter, departures and lead changes. But I am patient, and I have no deadlines looming. It’s all about the joy of training, about building a strong relationship and developing a high-level athletic partner. It doesn’t get any better than that!

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