bullying your pony 101

Post AECs Speedy and I both took a bit of time off. Speedy had some training rides with TrJ while I was away at a a hazelnut conference (sponsored by Ferrero, so the swag bags were delicious) and then we had a light week while TrJ was away at another show. We did some TrJ-assigned homework (stretchy everything), went out on the trails, and generally took it easy.

so even and square and tight and *adorable*

We’ve got a long list of homework items that have been accumulating this season. Showing is training in its own right (and untraining, if you’re me, lawl) but there are some problems that you don’t want to dig into until you know you have a long time to figure out the causes and consequences. I decided that this was the time to start addressing some of those problems, since we have no shows on the horizon.

So I did it in the most Nicole way possible, which was to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others and aggressively attack it from all angles while somehow simultaneously avoiding any consistency in method of attack. Yes, it does take talent to assault your problems in just such a fashion and no I can’t share the techniques with you. You need a PhD to be this stupid (but sure, if you have a doctorate of some kind hit me up and I’ll give you the step by step run down).

I very really do not understand how we scored in the low 30s all season with this much clearly apparent tension

The problem I exerted my energy on was Speedy’s right nose-tilt. I’m not going to pretend I really understand the underlying causes of this issue or why it even cropped up. But it showed up in May, has stuck around with varying degrees of tipsiness, and bugs the ever loving shit out of me. At one point this summer I was riding Speedy around to the left and I felt like he was looking at me with his right eye and judging me. (Logic. I has it.)

So I bullied the ever-loving shit out of my very kind, very tolerant pony until he said nothankyou. TrJ watched me struggle with basic flatwork for half an hour before asking me wtf I had done to Speedy. After I explained my, uh, predilection for bullying, she suggested that I stop that and my homework that week was to be a kind and compassionate partner to my horse.

shorty on the podium

The ironic thing about all of this is that one of my other big goals was to work with Speedy on developing a sense of joy and fun when I ask him to solve problems on the flat. At the moment, Speedy doesn’t really think of problem solving on the flat as fun. He thinks of it as… well, I’m not entirely sure. But it’s not a fun puzzle for him. And while problem solving — especially in dressage — and learning are work, I think they can be fun work….. right?

obsessed with this photo

It has now been 18 days since I bullied my horse.

It’s going pretty well. I took five days and just did silly, fun clicker games with him in the arena to re-establish our relationship and remind Speedy that arena times can be fun. I kept it all low key, incorporated all the behaviors I know Speedy likes, and made sure my treat pouch was filled with all the best treats. We’re still not entirely on the same page again. But we’re able to work on things in the arena again, and have productive lessons, which is a start.

In the mean time, there are a lot of other things I can work on with Speedy. Lots of them will probably even help us eliminate that nose tilt as he gets stronger on both sides of his body.

pony says no thank you to cantering four abreast

So that’s how I came off my best week and best riding all year and bullied my horse into low key hating me. I do not recommend. Luckily for me, Speedy is as forgiving as he is cute, and he’s back to snuggling me delightedly when I get to the barn. Thank goodness for kind ponies.

best week all year

I absolutely have a half-drafted show recap from June awaiting completion, but at this point it seems foolish to dwell that far in the past when just three five weeks ago I WAS AT THE AECs.


I put qualifying for the AECs on my “stretch goal” list this year, with no real expectation that we would get there. But if we got there, I was absolutely going to go to the AECs since they would be at Rebecca Farm — practically in my back yard compared to Kentucky. And then we qualified right out of the gate by coming in 2nd at our first show. I stressed a little bit getting my completion requirements when I had a stop in stadium at Inavale Farm (that stop ended up being a timely lesson that I needed), but we made it happen.

we have plenty of tension to work out of both our bodies

So we prepped for a big trip to Montana at the end of August. We had a six week break from showing after Inavale at the end of June (punctuated by an extra week of break for me while I had covid), took a trip out to Spokane to school cross country (very educational), and then hopped up to the Caber HT (super local for me, just barely two hours away) for one more prep pre-Rebecca. TrJ had a rider in the prelim and was in a Novice festival class herself, so Speedy and I got to spend the whole week up there and really soak in the atmosphere. USEA really goes out of their way to make this special for the BN riders and amateurs, and I appreciated it greatly.

when you can finally breathe after dressage

I’ve thought a lot about what to write about the AECs . I could write about our prep, I could write detailed recaps of each day and every ride, I could write about all the things I learned, about everything we took away — physical and metaphysical. But I think I just want to write about the smiling.

I’ve never been one of those people who smiles while they ride (lookin’ at you Olivia). When I’m riding I’m thinking, I’m focusing, I’m trying to make the ride better and give my horse what he needs. And when I’m thinking and focusing, I look… pissed.

the moment right before I get left — and I don’t even know why. the ground line is right there! why did I think Speedy would get tighter to that?

And — completely honestly — showing isn’t always straight-up fun for me. There’s always been pressure. Pressure not to let my horse explode, to give him a good ride, to show that he could be more than he looked like. That was Murray. And then with Speedy, pressure not to make mistakes, to give him a good ride, to do a good job so I wasn’t abusing the talents of this fun, talented, amazing (expensive, gulp) horse at beginner novice.

this screen grab is definitely the pinnacle of my riding skills — I MEAN COME ON

By the time we got the Rebecca though, I had somehow let all of that go. I was riding at Rebecca. I was awestruck and delighted to be there. I was happy for every hack we went on, every time I took Speedy out to hand graze; I grinned through our early morning lunges (okay yes, I cried with excitement a bit too) and smiled through every flat school. This horse is so easy to love, and the more I smiled the happier Speedy became.

our second fence — Speedy marched right up here

I made a mistake in my dressage test (which means I have had more tests with mistakes than without this season, oops) that took me out of 3rd place. Didn’t care. I gave my horse an awesome ride at the AECs.

he was perfect in the half coffin — I asked him to wait to the log in, then we settled for two strides and rode forward for two strides and he jumped the ditch like a champion hunter

I felt nervous for a few minutes before cross country. That anxiety that rises up from your stomach, sneaks up into your shoulders, and gets stuck as a buzzing in your ears. TrJ told me to warm Speedy up at the canter around the warmup and stretch him out and it all just melted away. And when I got out on course I rode my plan and Speedy was with me for every single step.

big pats for a genius coming out of the coffin

Those nerves came back for a minute right before stadium. I was a couple of minutes off my schedule walking down to the ring (always hard when they are running reverse order of go), and Speedy was a bit antsy so we trotted past a trainer friend of mine. She was like “don’t rush, you’ve got time!!” since her student would go in before me and she wasn’t even down there yet! But I’ve been late to warmup way too many times. I let the horse trot.

I was so excited to jump this corner and it jumped soooo well!!!

Once I got into the warmup I cantered around again and felt those nerves melt away just like they had before cross country. So there I was, cantering around the warmup with this humongous grin on my face, passing plenty of riders white-knuckled and tense. I wasn’t tense. I was riding at the AECs!!!!!

look out for his pony finals debut in ~10 years

My stadium course also rode right to plan. Do you know how good that feels? When everything rides exactly to your plan and you leave all the sticks up? IT FEELS FUCKING AMAZING DUDES.

looks familiar. i did not get left this time.

Finishing on my dressage score was all I wanted to do at the AECs and I did it. Everything else was gravy. At the end of the day two riders ahead of me dropped rails moving me up into fifth. I won some kind of pony award for the first placed pony in my division. My Adult Rider team finished second. I came away with sooooo many ribbons.

my face when they brought out the perpetual trophy at awards

If you get a chance to go to the AECs, do it. Even “just” at the Beginner Novice level, which I qualified my presence with all weekend. It was amazing. It was a week full of smiles and happiness and delight and good rides and joy. It was a week full of progress and learning in the best way. And in between there were quiet moments with my pony, sunrises alone together on the grass, afternoons sitting together on cross country, and meditative stall picking and butt scratching.

we got in a skosh tight to this one

It was worth every dollar I paid to get there, that week and along the way. Worth long hours in the orchard to make sure things were taken care of before shows. Absolutely worth all the hours in the tack wondering if I would ever figure out how to ride this horse.

look at that doll arm I’m using to slap my horse lol

Thank you, Speedy, for making my dreams come true.