Thursday, December 30, 2010

How much do they know?

My daughter, Olivia, is home from University for the holidays. She hadn’t seen Kwintus, our lovely old KWPN (ex)dressage-master, since early September, when he was suffering from terrible toothache and the dentist came to take a look at his mouth. That day, just before the dentist arrived, she took him for a short, gentle walk to the village and back. She didn’t know it was the last time she’d ever ride him. The following day, I drove her to England to start her new life.

I’ve written quite a few posts about the series of problems Kwintus developed after Olivia went off to University, problems which led to me having to retire him at the beginning of November. I’ve often wondered whether Kwintus somehow knew that Olivia had graduated from high school, was going off to University, and would no longer be a regular part of his life anymore. You see, fundamentally, Kwintus was her horse.

Sure, she and I shared riding him, but when, almost four years ago, we set off to Germany to find a horse, I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that the riding bug would get such a strong hold of me again. I’d had a serious riding accident, hadn’t ridden in many years, and wasn’t sure I’d ever want to do more than go for gentle outside rides. Kwintus changed all that.

But as much as Kwintus clearly loves both of us, I think he has a super soft spot
for Olivia. I think he knows he’s “her” horse. I think he’s always considered himself as her “teacher”. Kwintus and Olivia always looked perfect together: Kwintus is not a very big horse (he’s 16hh), and my daughter is quite a lot smaller than me (I’m 5’9, with big bones!), so their partnership always appeared far more esthetically harmonious. At least, that’s what it seemed like to me. And in those perfect moments when everything came together, Olivia and Kwint had a magical connection. There was something...well, something almost romantic about their partnership! And, seriously, when I took Olivia up to the stables to visit Kwintus when she came back from England for the Christmas holidays, you’ve never seen a happier horse!

So when Olivia went away to University, did Kwintus know it was the end of an era? Did he decide that his work was over, and that, at the respectable old age of 18, it was time for him to enjoy a well-earned retirement?

In your experience, do our horses “know” more than we think? I’d love to hear your personal stories.

And speaking of personal stories, seeing as tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and that 2010has been a very emotional year for Olivia, Kwintus and me, I’d like to share something special. I recently came across the following story in my hard-drive, and reading it made me all warm and fuzzy inside. Ok, so it made me a little tearful, too! It's Olivia's account of her very first competition with Kwintus, three years ago. The way I see it, it’s her “International Velvet” moment!

Happy New Year to everyone!

The Winnings, by Olivia Bossert

Kwintus climbed into the van. You never would have known that he didn’t like the dark. He was as good as gold. I yawned impatiently.

“What’s the time?” called out my mother.

“About 5:30am. We should probably get a move on,” I replied. The barking dogs could be heard from the canteen. All the other horses had woken up and were becoming restless. I moved to the front of the van, gave Kwintus a carrot, a kiss and closed the door. Two months of training and today was the day.

I glanced at the rising sun over the Neuchatel lake. The crimson sky was spectacular. I needed something to lift my spirits and calm my nerves. I felt the car shake as the two anxious horses complained. I was as restless as they were. The nerves came and went, and I went over my programs continuously. If I forgot something, a moment of panic would occur and I’d scream at the others in the car, asking them what came after the 10 metre volt. Before they could answer, I’d already remembered.

We drove for another 30 minutes before arriving at the competition in St Blaise. We were directed into a big green field where other vans were parked. Dozens of horses whinnied and snorted all around, breathing in the fresh morning air, puffs of smoke wafting from their nostrils. We climbed out of the car, and I rushed to the door of the van. I hoisted it open and Kwintus pocked his head out, looking enthusiastically at everything around him. His braided mane looked lovely against his thick strong neck, and the white heart on his forehead was striking. He nudged me softly, and began to paw at what he thought was the ground. He startled himself and looked at me. I gave him a carrot and patted his neck; he was going to need the energy.

Kwintus and I walked into the warm up arena, and I glanced at all the other riders. I was the youngest. Everyone around me was over 25, and I felt vulnerable. What on earth was I thinking? There was no way I’d ever be good enough to beat any of these people. But before I could panic, I heard Marie-Valentine, my trainer, tell me to pick up my reins and collect Kwintus. She was the only trainer there, and I was thankful to have her. She called out to me, wondering if I could shorten my left rein a bit, and make his right hind-leg more active. I began to trot, and I could instantly tell how proud Kwintus was. His vain attitude was showing more than ever. He pranced around the arena as though he was an Olympic champion. Somehow, I felt the same.

I looked around for my father and my boyfriend. I’d been looking forward to showing them how much I’d progressed in two months.

“Are they here yet?” I called out to my mother.

“They’re by the ring!” she replied.

I closed my eyes and prayed nothing would go wrong.

I broke into an elegant canter, and practiced a few simple transitions. I could feel the sweat dripping down my back and my reins slipped through my hands as my palms got sweaty. It was my turn next.

Marie-Valentine told me to stop working, and walk Kwintus for the next five minutes. I did as I was told. I went over the program in my head at least a million times, and before I knew it, I was trotting down the centre line and saluting. I looked up, forced a smile, took a deep breath, and pushed Kwintus on.

“Go to the left, go to the left. After that, extend the trot.” The whole time, orders from my subconscious went in and out. A moment of panic. I forgot what to do, but within seconds, I had remembered the 10 metre circle. I managed the circle quite well, and carried on to the diagonal. Everything had been going perfectly. Five more minutes, just me and my horse. My left leg moved back, and we cantered. I squeezed my legs, asked for an extension, pushed Kwintus faster and faster, then sat deeper into my saddle and closed my seat to ask him to slow down. Using my abdominals, I sat even deeper into Kwintus, asking him to stop.

“That must have been an 8 out of 10,” I thought, quickly. But I didn’t have very long to think about the extension, I already had to transition into walk. I halted for three seconds, and asked Kwintus to go backwards five strides, sighing when I felt his hind quarters move slightly to the right.

“You’re so silly, you could have done that perfectly straight Kwintus,” I thought, hoping he would hear me. Somehow, I think he did.

When it came to the final extension, my heart was beating faster than ever. I felt nauseous and tired. All I could think about was the extension, and the halt at the centre line. Right before we reached the corner, a surge of excitement exploded inside me, and I gave it my all. Kwintus flung his legs out as far as he could, and I felt his strength soaring across the arena. All of a sudden, it was over. I saluted and smiled, showing all my teeth (even the little gap in my mouth!). I heard cheering and clapping. I looked back, and realised that my whole family was there, cheering me on and congratulating me.

“You gave the best performance! It was beautiful. Swift and clean, so precise. Your mother was near tears!” called out Carine, my friend who was about to enter in the same program as me. “I’m so proud of you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Had we really done it? Two months of training, had it really paid off? Were all those strangers really clapping for me?

Surely not!

I walked back to the van, patting Kwintus and kissing his neck. I was sweaty and tired, and all I wanted to do crawl into the car and sleep. When I reached the van, I jumped off his back and took off the saddle. When I turned around, I saw my trainer and mother jogging up the field.

“Congratulations! Wow it was absolutely beautiful! We are all so proud of you,” exclaimed Marie-Valentine.

“Everyone is talking about you. They’re all wondering who you are, where you’re from, who trains you!” said my mother.

I handed the reins to Marie-Valentine, and she took him to the other side of the van to let him graze. I sat down and had a drink. There were too many thoughts bouncing around in my head.

“Olivia! You’re first! You’re first on the list! Can you believe it?” I turned around and saw my father smiling at me. “You’ve got a score of 69%!”

Suddenly I felt quite dizzy. 69%? I had to be dreaming.

“It’s true Olivia, all the other riders have scores of 65% or less!” insisted my boyfriend, Tim.

I blinked at him. Could it be possible? All those other riders! All those people who had been riding that program for years! Had I really beaten them?

“But what about that man that went before me? He’s been riding for years! I used to watch him when I was only seven years old, sitting on top of fat ponies! Surely he must have beaten me.”

“He hasn’t.” Marie-Valentine explained calmly. “You’ve beaten everyone!”

It felt too good to be true.

And yet, a few hours later, Kwintus and I had beaten everyone! Yes, we had won our very first competition!


wilsonc said...

What a lovely thing for you to find! I know you will treasure it always as you will Kwintus.

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--I loved Olivia's story. And as for retiring Kwint, I had a sort of similar experience with my horse, Plumber. We used Plumber until he was nineteen. My friend Wally was winning team ropings on the horse at 17/18 yrs--at a pretty high level. I rode him all the time. He seemed 100%. But in his ninettenth year Wally felt Plumber was "slowing down" and wasn't really competitive any more. And I started to feel "not comfortable" on him. I can't say exactly why. He stumbled more and I was a little afraid he'd fall. He seemed reluctant. And he'd always been a fidgety, anxious horse, and this trait grew more pronounced. He mouthed the bit incessantly, didn't like to stand still...etc. Still, when I bought Henry for my son to trail ride, I figured I'd use Plumber to ride myself. He was sound at the trot, and I thought light trail riding my be just his job description.

But Plumber gave every indication he didn't care for this. He tossed his head constantly, spooked and fidgeted, was reluctant to walk downhill. The last time we hauled him (he was twenty), he kicked the side of the trailer the whole way--and this horse had been hauled a million miles in his life, and he never did that. I simply did not feel comfortable riding him. My instinct was that he didn't want to go any more. So I bought Sunny and quit riding Plumber.

Plumber seems happy just puttering around. He is still sound, and if I ever needed to ride him (which I did when I had to lay Henry up for awhile) I would feel that there was no problem in tacking him up and seeing how he went. Certainly I took him on a few trail/beach rides a year or so ago, during Henry's rehab, and he did fine. I guess he just doesn't want to work hard on a regular basis any more. And that's fine. He's paid his dues. I broke him as a three year old and trained him to be a rope horse. From eight years until nineteen, he competed regularly. He won numerous saddles and plenty of money. He went on many trail rides and packed me and my little boy around for several years. What more can you ask?

Alison said...

Thanks for sharing such personal memories and insights, Francesca! And thank you for the books, too. After I read "Mucho Caliente!" I'll have to put up a review.
A wonderful 2011 to your family--human and horse.

Jami Davenport said...

Cesca, I love this. Your posts keep making me cry but in a good way. ;)

Happy New Year to everyone out there. I hope New Year's will be good year for all of us.

Susan said...

I think they know far more than we give them credit for. Just because animals can't talk we consider them inferior in some way. Animals don't need to talk to communicate. And that might make them superior. Good story.

HorseOfCourse said...

What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing!
I do believe that they understand quite a lot, but we are not always perceptive enough to give them credit for it.