Horses I Have Known: Part 9
PJ was a riddle. After stepping out of the open arena gate in his first dressage test ever, he went on to win his second class and a few others afterwards. But his performances both at shows and a home were inconsistent. On the days he was brilliant, he was beautifully so, but on the bad days, he was miserable to ride.
Part of it was his anxiety. Part of it was simply a physical block with being able to perform in a soft, round, responsive way.
I was not lacking in good trainers to help me. I still had Pru for a while, a German dressage master who came to the barn, and a host of excellent clinics I could attend. I rode with International trainers from Holland, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Canada, the US, and of course, Lockie Richards, my beloved trainer from New Zealand. When PJ was good, everyone loved him. When he was bad, no one was really able to break through. More than once one of the trainers would get on, and frankly, their success at getting him to work correctly through his back on a bad day was no better than mine. At least it would make me feel less incompentent in my own skills.
We competed well through second level with mixed results. PJ's name is on a perpetual trophy from my local eventing/dressage organization as winner of the second level award, and we competed as a member of the dressage team, but even those days had their ups and downs. I did discover that PJ was horrible on the grass. He had a wide, flat foot without much "cup" to it and unless the grass footing was soft, he would slip. As soon as he did, he'd shut down and that would be the end of any good test. I solved that problem by using screw in caulks in his shoes, but it wasn't the answer to all our problems.
Then, one day, a veterinarian came to the barn who specialized in sport horses and was experimenting with acupuncture. When I spoke her about PJ's erratic performances, she took a look at him for me. She quickly pronounced him "muscle sore" and suggested a cours of acupuncture treatments.
Equine acupuncture was in its infancy back then (1989 or so???), as was chiropratic. In fact a chiropractor who came to the barn was ordered off the property by the barn owner--a small animal vet--and had to adjust a horse in a nearby field. At that time, alternative therapies were strongly opposed by conventional medical vets and there was a battle raging between the two groups of practitioners. But because my acupuncture vet was both, she was allowed to work on PJ in his stall.
He needed a tranquilizer before she could do a thing. He was dancing and prancing as the needles went in, but eventually settled down.
The results were nothing short of miraculous. PJ's entire demeanor under saddle changed. I knew he had always wanted to please, but had been too caught up in his "inner demons" to offer his best work every ride, but those days were over. At home, and in unstressed situations, he suddenly blossomed. We continued regular acupuncture sessions for a while, and by the third time, PJ no longer needed to be tranquilized, and actually seemed to be looking forward to my vet's arrival.
The change in him was so obvious that as the new show season started, one of the women I had been competing against the previous seasons congratulated me on getting a new horse. When I insisted it was the same horse, she refused to believe me. "He can't be. He's completely different."
And indeed he was. I won't say we won every class from then on. The competition had stiffened and I will admit I am not the best "show ring dressage rider" in the world. But suddenly, we were in the thick of things doing well enough to be happy, even though PJ's own show ring anxieties never quite disappeared.
Frankly, I think PJ's experiences at the race track had scarred his psyche more than I ever realized. When I "spoke" to him through an animal communicator (Don't scoff if you are a skeptic, this was incredible stuff.) he "told" her of his time at the track, "It was never enough." He had been pushed beyond his limits and part of his heart had been broken. Once, while he was stabled at the US Equestrian Team headquarters, he refused to eat, later, telling the communicator, "That place reminds me of the track."
I do know that training him was at times unsettling because he always tried so hard and would get upset if he couldn't master a new exercise right away. If I were training him today, I would use an entirely different approach, offering constant rewards for small successes and demanding far less each step along the way. But that was then, and this is now. I have learned a great deal since then and understand far better how my horses think.
Still, we were on our way. With regular acupuncture to keep him physically comfortable, I had a wonderful horse to ride nearly every day.
I was definitely in love again.