So, in the past few days since our amazing showing at Vermont Dressage Days... I'm pretty sure aliens have landed on Black Brook Farm. Or at least, that's what Ringo thinks!
After a day off on Monday and a nice easy hack on Tuesday, I pulled Ringo out on Wednesday for an easy evening ride. We hadn't gotten more than a few steps into the arena when Ringo's head shot straight up, eyes on stalks. The source of his sudden fear? The gazebo on the side of the arena... which has been there for as long as I've had Ringo. I gave him a quick pat and edged him past it, thinking our drama for the day was over.
But then, he spooked at the flowers beside the ring. Then, the jumps in the ring. Then poles piled in the grass on the other long side. Then the other horse we were riding with.
The spooks got progressively worse and worse, until Ringo was running sideways/backwards across the arena, alternatively threatening to rear, then buck, then spin, then rear again. What the heck?? Ringo had literally not done more than briefly bat an eye at our farm's llama, Diamond, since arriving home over two weeks ago.
Seeing that we were going nowhere fast, I hopped off, grabbed a lunge line, and took him over to the round pen. He trotted and cantered totally calmly on the lunge, licking and chewing as he went. Hmm...
I led him back to the ring (which was now devoid of jumps, as my dad wanted to drag the ring as soon as I finished). I didn't even have enough time to get both feet in the stirrups before he started running backwards again, humping his back and threatening to rear. Again, WHAT THE HELL??! I popped off again, put him back on the lunge line, and brought him over to the corners of the arena that he was finding so terrifying.
We spent about a half hour walking, and then trotting, back and forth in hand, until he could at least walk beside the offending poles and gazebo without trying to jump in my lap or have his eyes explode out of his head. I tried to keep everything very calm and progressive, though I did have to get after him very hard whenever it looked like he might harm me in his own stupidity (which happened a few times, unfortunately).
I got back on and repeated the same walking and trotting process under saddle. It was just so mystifying. What was he spooking at?? Why were these things that he had gone by dozens of times this summer alone suddenly death-defyingly terrifying? I have no idea. He didn't even come close to returning to normal, but there was some improvement at the end. I was definitely a bit... perturbed... but was happy that I had managed to keep my cool throughout the ride.
The next day I took him for a hack in the park to clear the air a bit from the frustration of the day. Out in the park, which is legitimately wayyyy spookier than our ring, he was almost perfect. We did a full flat school, and though he was a little looky at some hedges, it was nothing like the day before. Ok, maybe crisis averted?
I walked back to the house on a long rein, then decided to make him walk up to the sheep pasture at the top of our riding field just to make sure we could do that. Ringo got about 30 feet away from the sheep (who he has walked up to many times), snorted, slammed on the breaks, spun backwards, and threatened to rear. NOT. ACCEPTABLE. BEHAVIOR.
The only way I've been able to successfully deal with Ringo's rearing habit (which was quite bad at times when I first started riding him) is from the ground--any sort of mounted reprimand just leads to more rearing. So I jumped off and gave him the biggest smack on the belly I could muster. That definitely woke him up! After getting his go button reinstalled on the ground, and then letting him watch and graze beside the sheep until he was sufficiently calmed down, I hopped back on, and was happy to discover that he walked on a long rein all the way around the pasture, and then all the way around the perimeter of the ring before quitting.
Today, I headed back to the arena with a mind for business. The first time he balked at the poles at the side of the ring, I hopped off and smacked him on the belly again. Then, I got back on and rode as if nothing had happened. This approach seemed to work pretty well: Ringo gets really wound up when I get after him when I ride him (his feelings get hurt very easily), so I have to be very zen when I'm on his back, but he does occasionally require a sterner reprimand for TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE AND DANGEROUS BEHAVIOR.
For the rest of the ride he continued to give the gazebo and poles on the ground the hairy eyeball, but there was no more dangerous behavior. I still sort of wanted to tear my hair out at the end, as we still failed to complete a single circuit of the arena without some sort of episode, but in the grand scheme of things it was a huge improvement. Oh, Ringo... Always keeping me humble.
The more I think about it, I think the spooking comes as a result of him falling behind my leg. It's a different response than the nappy behavior he'd done at Stanford, but it comes from the same problem. I feel bad for being so hard on him these past few days, but this truly is absolutely unacceptable behavior that could easily become dangerous.
I'm bummed, because in a week I'm leaving for a job in California for a few weeks and so won't be able to ride. I'd rather not have to spend my last week with my horse kicking his a**. But I'd rather face it head on now than wait for it to be a big, big problem later. We'll see...