Mission: Impossible - First Steps
Something you should know about Mellon is that his solution to anything a rider does that he doesn’t like or understand - from losing your balance, inadvertently goosing him with your heel, using the reins too restrictively to just about any other unforeseen offense - could result in a bout of bucking and flailing that often ends up with the rider doing a faceplant. I remember there was slightly older gentleman who came for lessons (and actually treated Mellon with some kindness and respect;) unfortunately, he was not an especially secure rider, and Mellon had his number. Each time he had a lesson, Mellon would dump him in exactly the same place in the arena, sometimes more than once in the same lesson. Week after week he tried unsuccessfully to ride him, dubbing him “Mission: Impossible,” a name which stuck and eventually became his show name.
To this day, Mellon is a kung fu master. He can twist and buck at the same time, sunfish, rear, do handstands, stop on a dime, drop a shoulder and spin, or throw himself to the ground if he’s really desperate to dislodge a rider. Even in his 20’s, he’s quite the equine athlete… or, should I say, acrobat. As if that wasn’t enough, it turns out Mellon is an equine genius. I know everyone thinks their horse is smart, but Mellon was and is still the smartest horse I’ve ever met. In the past he used his intelligence defensively, to think up new and cunning ways to get himself out of unpleasant situations. On more than one occasion over the last 15+ years I have accidentally pushed his “eject button” and paid the consequences....
So, in retrospect, a smart person would have started working with him on the longe first, especially since he hadn’t been ridden in weeks - or even months. In my experience, most people in the Hunter/Jumper world only longe horses to get the bucks out or to get them tired, and it isn’t considered a tool of training in the classical sense. At the very most they haphazardly slap a pair of tight side reins on to “teach the horse to go on the bit,” clearly not knowing any better. Of course now I know about the benefits of correct longeing in the training and conditioning of horses, but I've never needed to longe horses to wear them out. If they have extra energy or bucks to get out, I ride through it. So I jumped straight to riding him.
My trainer handed me his bridle. It instantly gave me a bad feeling. I had a strong aversion to pulling and to harsh bits, and this bridle had a mean-looking elevator bit with a twisted mouth. Mellon, apparently, was very strong in the bridle and difficult to control or stop. I was told, “When you pull, he pulls back harder... or he just runs away with you.” I didn’t know much about bits at the time, but it looked painful to me, and much too severe for the horse I was beginning to learn was extremely sensitive and easily panicked. I asked if I could use my horse’s bridle instead. “It’s your funeral,” I believe were my trainer’s exact words (he was not the most tactful person in the world, but he did have a knack for producing tough, independent riders, so I guess I should thank him for that.)
My horse Lifeguard had a feather-light mouth and I always rode him in a hollow-mouth eggbutt snaffle. Their heads were about the same size, so it was easy enough for them to share. I waited until the arena was empty for the night, tacked him up and took him into the indoor. I didn’t really have a plan at this point; it was more of a fact-finding mission. Up to this point, my only frame of reference for riding and training horses was my own horse, and he was nothing like the horse at the other end of the reins now. I lead him up to the mounting block tentatively, spoke to him, gave him a pat on the neck, and climbed aboard.
In typical nervous-horse fashion, he walked off as I was getting on, but I let him, and left the reins loose as I put my foot in the other stirrup and slowly sank down into the saddle, rubbing his mane with my free hand and speaking to him. He didn’t panic, though his head was up and his ears kept turning back toward me. For a moment, I just let him walk wherever he wanted and didn’t touch the reins.
He hurried around in random circles for a few moments and then threw his head up, inverted his topline and broke into a rushing little trot. I think he was expecting me to grab him in the mouth but,remembering my trainer’s warning about him freaking out when you pulled on his mouth, I was determined to keep the reins loose, so I just sat the trot as relaxed as I could and gently turned him in with a wide leading rein and he came back to walk quietly.
First crisis averted.
So we made some big circles at the walk while I tested all of his buttons. Did he respond to leg pressure? In a big way. Did he understand bending off the leg? No. What happened when I put pressure on the reins or tried to halt? He set his jaw, threw his head up and got quick. Did he steer? Just barely. Did he understand voice commands? Nope. We had a lot of work to do, but at least it was beginning to make sense to me why Mellon was such a difficult horse to ride: he didn’t know anything. He maybe knew “go” and “whoa,” “left” and “right,” but absolutely nothing in between. And they had been jumping him over 4’. All anyone had ever done with him was muscle him around and use strong equipment to force him into submission. No wonder he fought back.
Suddenly, I respected him more. Good for him for not putting up with that kind of treatment, I thought. I’d like to think if I was a horse I’d do the same. I quietly promised him then and there I’d never force him to do anything that scared him or he didn’t understand. I just hoped the damage was reversible.
That night we worked a little in walk and trot on a loose rein, just trying to stay relaxed. When his head would come up and he'd get tense, I'd just rub his mane, tell him it was okay and eventually he'd settle again. We finished on a good note, thinking it would be best to keep the first session short so he'd know I wasn't going to rush or hurt him.
I entered the barn where my trainer had been waiting for the verdict; "You survived! How’d it go?" he asked, though I knew he had peeked in the door a few times while we were in the indoor. "It went fine," I said, "he was a good boy." "Good," he said, "then keep riding him if you want." As I led him into his stall to untack him and put him to bed for the night, I wondered how I would proceed the next day.
I had no idea. I was a “seat of the pants” kind of rider anyway, relying more on instinct and feeling than technicalities, so I figured I’d make it up as I went along, and Mellon would be sure to let me know if it was working or not... I have always liked challenges and “impossible” missions, so I was determined to find a way to work with him if it killed me. Something was bound to work...
To be continued...