Overcoming Creative Differences

It’s been a challenging month or so with Drifter. I haven’t wanted to write much because I felt I needed to work through things before writing about what I now call our “creative differences.” Also, I didn’t really realize that I’d actually kept it bottled up until I got a little teary in a lesson and Trainer pretty much told me that I should probably let myself cry about it at some point so I could release all that tension. And boy, did I. Thank goodness for wonderful, supportive team mates. (And emotional songs on the highway. And a loving, understanding boyfriend.)

Ever been there? Yeah, it sucks.

Our first lesson with Kirsten Nelsen
Screenshot from our first lesson with Kirsten Nelsen

The problem was elevating and softening. These were things we had worked on and started getting good at when we worked with Kirsten Nelsen a couple of times this summer. And then, in a lesson one day, it felt like Drifter decided he just wasn’t going to do that anymore. He got locked up in the poll, would not soften to the bit and would either hang on my hands by pulling down or just stick his nose out and leave it there. Period. For weeks. So I’d shorten my reins and add leg and nothing would change so I’d shorten more and add more leg and he wouldn’t listen to my leg anymore so I’d add a little whip and then he’d lunge forward and I’d grab with my hands and then he’d brace more and I’d pull more and he’d brace and I’d pull and then – BOOM. Tears.

Have you ever been really, actually mad at your horse? I don’t think I ever was until this past month or so. And that made my frustration so much worse because I felt like I was failing him by being angry. I did not understand why it had been such an abrupt change from working softly at the walk and halt, getting good at the trot and starting to work on the elevation at the canter – to suddenly not even softening at the walk.

I took it all the way back to square one: Softening at the halt. Then added walk, and…nope, he wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t in pain, I hadn’t changed our tack. Literally the only difference was that a whole bunch of rain forced us to ride in the indoor for a couple of weeks, and we were on a 2 1/2 week hiatus from lessons.

So rainy even the 24/7 outdoor horses came in for the night
It was so rainy even the 24/7 outdoor horses came in for the night. Drifter’s thoughts: Why are you disturbing my dinner?

I felt like we weren’t a team anymore. Everything was a fight. I started to worry that our relationship would suffer and it might carry over into jumping (which had been going pretty much flawlessly until the break in lessons).

So I decided to abandon the softening work for awhile. It obviously wasn’t working. Instead, I set up lots of different ground pole exercises. It would work on both of our fitness, and I set up the poles in ways that would still encourage Drifter to elevate and lift his back, but I could stop actively thinking about “making” him do that.

I also talked with my teammates who had worked with Kirsten Nelsen, too. At the end of one ground pole session, two teammates were able to share what exercises and visualizations they had learned from Kirsten. It was extremely helpful and Drifter started softening ever so slightly. It felt like a breakthrough.

After that, we were able to escape our negative feedback loop and get into a positive one. I lowered my expectations a bit. Drifter would soften to the bit, so I could soften my hands, elbows and shoulders. This encouraged him to soften more. And so on.

Teams who snack together, stay together.
Teams who snack together, stay together.

It wasn’t an instant fix. But over a period of several rides, we made big improvements and I could feel our relationship getting back on track, too.

Prior to the lesson break, and just before the softening issue, I had given Drifter a new nickname: The Leaping Porpoise. In walk-canter transitions, he would heave his front end up, then dive his head down and throw his hind up. Not a buck. But I felt like I was riding a dolphin as it leapt over a wave. It’s a miracle I didn’t sprain my lower back.

Now, on the other side of our “Creative Differences Period,” the Leaping Porpoise is gone (mostly). Our canter transitions are much smoother, and the power comes from behind. We even worked on lead changes the other day and got four or five beautiful ones (all from left to right lead…gotta figure out that right to left change). So that was exciting.

Why the long face?
Why the long face?

Other positive changes: Soft, elevated walk. About 50% of upward trot transitions are soft and elevated, and that proportion is improving every ride. I’m riding more effectively with more awareness about my shortfalls. We are happy.

We finally got to jump in the outdoor arena last night after lots of rainy days and it was awesome! Drifter was very steady but forward, and it felt like he was really attacking the jumps without charging them. Lead changes were still spotty but he tries so hard to give them.

Old photo of a smaller jump. Still one of my faves.
Older photo of a 2’9″ jump out of a 1-stride combination. Still one of my faves.

At the end of the ride, it was getting dark but we squeaked in one more course. I did not know until afterward, but Trainer had bumped up a vertical to about 3′ (we’ve mostly been doing 2’6″ with some 2’9″ sprinkled in) and put an oxer up to about 3’3″ (which is the highest I’ve jumped, and certainly the highest Drifter has jumped). He knocked over the vertical (I blame the poor lighting), but just flew over the oxer. It. Felt. So. Cool. And I wish I had pictures!

I think we’re really and truly past the Creative Differences Period. We made it out on the other side and I think we’re both better for it. That’s the good thing about bad times, right? It reminds us how good the good times really are.

Have you ever had creative differences or a rough period with your horse? How did you handle it?

5 thoughts on “Overcoming Creative Differences

  1. Yes! Breen there. I’ve had my horse Biasini for two years now. Part way through the first year we hit a wall. He was tough in the contact and asking for bend in a half pass? Forget it! It was like riding a 2 by 4. I checked his teeth, had chiropractic, saddle fit all checked. No source of the problem. So in my lessons we went to some pole work and on the ground I did some Tellington exercises. We worked through it. Now we are in unison and he never says no. One thing I learned; I have to keep my wrists loose almost floppy loose. If I get tight then he starts to pull like a freight train. As a dressage rider I must aks for him to have contact and flexion etc but my wrists must be soft. I enjoyed your post!


  2. Yes! The loose wrists (and for me, elbows and shoulders/neck – I carry a lot of tension there) need to be super soft and relaxed. No matter the situation! Yesterday we went on a group trot set in a field and Drifter was ready to race. Of course I naturally tightened up the reins, which gave him something to pull on. As soon as I softened my hands and used my seat and legs to half-halt (like a proper rider!), he relaxed, slowed down and stretched out. So much better for both of us. Thanks for sharing your story – I’m glad to know I’m not alone!


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