Kalin could no longer compete as an eventer, but he could still jump. Julia, whose heart had been set on eventing, decided to content herself with show jumping. I’d already been nerve-wracked for years watching my husband play professional polo. I didn’t think I could take watching my daughter hurtle around a cross country course – especially knowing her penchant for difficult horses. I won’t say I bought Kalin for her because I didn’t want her to event. I did give her a choice, and she, to my great relief, chose Kalin.
But there was a hitch. Cross country horses jump ‘flat’. They don’t jump ‘round’, it wastes too much time. Cross country horses are used to clipping their legs on the solid cross country jumps or crashing through cross country hedges. They don’t fold up their knees too much in order to be able to take off and land at any angle. They are sure-footed and brave, but that isn’t what a show jumper needs. A show jumper has to be compacted, that is, be able to wait for the jump, gather itself together, jump high over the jump, tuck in its feet so it doesn’t touch the bars. A single light touch – and the bar comes crashing down, and with it, any chances of winning.
Kalin was a run-and-jump sort of horse. In his first couple of shows, he hurtled around the ring breaking all speed records and leaving a wreckage of fallen bars behind him. He saw a jump and he just ran over it. The show jumping event had always been his weakness. He did gorgeous dressage. He was dark bay, nearly black, with a lovely expressive head and ears, and a long neck and back. He was a superb cross country horse – he never refused a jump, he was careful and yet fast, and he was brave. But he was an indifferent show jumper. He dangled his front legs, or let his back legs hang. Either way, he could be counted on to knock over half the course. My daughter had a tough job before her. In just six months, she wanted to qualify him for the French nationals at club level. She would have to enter him in at least twelve shows, and place in the top ten at least half the time to get the required number of points. We told her it was his first year since he was injured, that it was their first year together, and that she should prepare herself for disappointment.
“But you’ll see, next year, he’ll be fine and you’ll maybe qualify then”, we told her.
There is no one as stubborn as my daughter. She set herself two goals that year: qualifying for the French national finals, and turning Kalin into a trustworthy horse. It has to be said that his reputation was not brilliant. When I bought him, it was with the warnings of his ex-owner and Julia’s instructor echoing in my ears. Kalin is highstrung and very nervous. Be very careful with him. He’s unmanageable with the blacksmith, unruly in the horsebox, and spooks everywhere else.
All this was true. The blacksmith hated him. He had to be hogtied when shod. He kicked holes in the sides of the vans. You couldn’t tie him up, he would break his halter, the lead, or the post you tied him to. He spooked at anything, even objects he’d seen every day for years. You couldn’t lead him anywhere without him seeing something and jumping out of his skin with fright. He didn’t get along with other horses, because he’d always been in a stall, so in the pasture he was the lowest in the pecking order, always getting kicked, nipped, and beaten by the others. He dropped weight alarmingly, because he was never able to finish eating. Since the horses were all fed together, he, as the beta horse, was chased away from the food. But he loved being in the pasture. From day one, he was thrilled. He would roll over and over, then gallop from one side to the other, leaping and snorting in delight. He didn’t know any better, so when the other horses picked on him, he just thought it was normal; he never fought back, and he was, for the most part, happier than he’d been in a long time.
When my daughter first started riding him, she remarked to me that he didn’t like going to horse shows, and it was true. When it was time for a show, he’d act differently. He would turn sullen, sulky almost. We decided it was because he hadn’t learned to enjoy himself. When he was competing at high level, he was constantly being stressed. Although he loved competing, he was, at heart, a timid horse who needed a wide, open space to feel happy. He was, we discovered, claustrophobic, but he had lived his entire life cooped in a stall, trained hard, jumped hard, and taken on long trips to far away shows. He had become so skittish he was nearly unmanageable.
We thought that he had to re-learn to be a happy horse, and the best way would be to show him that travelling could be fun, that horse shows could be relaxed, and that the way he was treated wouldn’t hinge on his results. At first, when he knocked over a bar, he’d shy, as if he thought he’d be punished. But Julia refused to punish him for that. Instead, she concentrated on getting him to take his time and jump slowly, always praising him, no matter what he did. Then, because the fastest way to a horse’s heart is through his digestive system – especially if he’s as greedy as Kalin – we bought him bags of quality feed and fresh hay. He loved grazing, and we made it a point to take him out and simply let him graze every day, away from the other horses, away from the bustle of the club. We’d take him for walks in the woods, on the cross country course, and after a while, he started to trust us.
What is hardest is understanding a horse. Not because they are complicated creatures, but because you really can’t know one until he trusts you. Until then, he will be aloof. Horses don’t open up easily, and they don’t easily give their trust. You can pat a horse, and give it sugar cubes, and ride it for a whole year You’ll think it’s a nice horse.But he’ll hide personality from you. A horse you know is completely different. When a horse decides to trust you, it’s like a door that suddenly opens in your own head. You can understand him. You can feel him. You know when he’s frightened, when he’s out of sorts, or when he’s content. Horses have an uncanny ability to communicate with us, but they only do it when they want to – or when they trust us enough.
Julia had her hands full with Kalin, but she soon had him figured out. He would shy, sometimes violently, but he wasn’t a runaway, he startled easily, but didn’t bolt. We figured that when he started trusting us, we would be able to desensitize him, and that’s what we did. It started practically from day one. Since he would be in a pasture, for the first time in his life, he’d need a warm blanket. He’d never had to wear one, and when we first introduced him to it, he nearly jumped out of his skin. So, for an hour, we gently flapped the blanket around him, until we could ease it on and off his back. Of course, we couldn’t fling it over his back like a cape – the first time anyone tried that, he broke his lead and galloped to the other end of the field. But, after a few weeks, we got to the point where we could unfold it next to him, and slide it over him. After about three months we could toss it over his back, but it took longer to be able to leave it hanging over a stall door next to him. If a breeze moved it, he’d be off like a shot – his broken halter dangling behind him. Anything that flapped or moved scared him.
Then there was meeting and crossing other horse in the riding ring. Since now he was taking lessons with my daughter, and in her class there were other horses and riders, he was constantly coming in contact with them. At first he would spin around and bolt, and Julia had a couple spectacular falls. But soon he stopped – spinning and bolting were punishable with a swat with the whip – and he hated that.
But he was still skittish, and we thought we knew what to do about it. We let him loose in the riding ring, and we took turns doing crazy things. We’d jump, yell, open umbrellas, flap blankets – anything that scared him, we’d do over and over, until he got tired of spooking and running, and finally just look at us with interest. Soon I was throwing soccer balls at him, while Julia rode him around bareback. We decided it was time for stage two.
Now that Kalin knew us and had started trusting us, we wanted to make life fun for him again. He was like a professional athlete who had lost the ability to compete, and had decided that his life was finished. He did everything we asked him to – but he did it indifferently. We wanted to break through his apathy and give him a reason to live. We wanted to make him a happy horse.