Horses Understand Apologies

horse and riding landing from a jump while the rider smiles and waves

Camie and the wonderful Carolyn Mare. Photo courtesy Derith Vogt

A friend asked me to ride her wonderful mare on a cross country school this Mother’s Day.  The weather was glorious, calm winds and sunshine, with a delightful absence of bugs.  My friend tacked the mare, handed her to me, and got in her pickup truck to meet me at the start box.

I had about a half-mile hack between me and the start box, and during the first quarter mile walk warm up, I marveled at my friend’s trust in handing me this magnificent animal.  There were no special words of direction from my friend, just an affectionate pat to the mare and handing over the reins to me in complete trust.  I was humbled at that, and the mare, and amazed at my friend’s apparent inner calm while I rode off with her fabulous partner.

Then into trot on the hack to the start box and I got to thinking about my recent struggle to Push Back the Walls and I was extremely grateful for the time I spent contemplating larger jumps, since today would definitely include them with this mare who was schooling Prelim.  Then on to canter work and the pre-flight checking of the craft:  right turn? check; left turn? check; canter to trot?  Check;  trot to canter? Check;  rebalance canter?  Check;  Gallop and come back?  Check.  Satisfied with the communication system and quite warmed up, we were ready to do some jumping.

We started out over some smaller jumps and the mare was a rock star.  She was keen, smart and in the moment.  The rider was having an acclimation period to the mare’s particular scopey jumping style, however, and found a few new definitions of “in the back seat.”  After about three jumps, we were dialed in.  Then we went on to some training and prelim level jumps that went well.  Cross the stream with a little hesitation, and on to the coffin complex, piece of cake.  The mare was starting to get self-congratulatory—a spring in her step and a cheeky arch to her neck.  Lovely to have a fine fit mare who shares her joy in the green grass of spring.

Then we went on to the steeple chase jump, pure fun.  Then the step combination.  This is a two bank combination with one stride between them.  The first time through it went quite acceptably, but not smoothly.  I gave her a rub, told her what a good girl she was, did a large circle back and re-presented.  I cleverly chose to compress her too much, ride too far into the base, miss the distance, scramble up the bank, put in two strides on the first level, and asked her to stop so we could work it out, rather than go up the second.  Brave mare on a mission that she is, she jumped the second bank from a halt, whereupon I unintentionally hit her in the mouth.  Ugh.  I felt terrible.  We had missed the first distance because I over-rode and killed the engine and buried her, and the rest fell apart through entropy.  I mourned powerfully inwardly for a few seconds.  I then told her I was sorry in words and gestures.  I let her walk on a loose rein, while I pulled up the Lucinda Greene “How to ride a bank” recipe card in my brain rolodex, picked up a canter, re-presented and had an acceptable ride up the steps.

That mare never missed a beat the rest of the day.  She accepted my apology entirely.  She never questioned, she never held a grudge.  We dropped off banks into water and left a vapor-trail of pure yee-ha over the tiger trap.  And I was reminded of two lessons from her:  Most of riding happens between your ears–pull up the brain rolodex card for each jump before you jump it; and when you mess up, fess up, own it and carry on.  The best apology is doing better next time.   Huzzah Carolyn Mare.