The Scruffy Brown Pony
Author's note: "I always saw pictures of Audrey and her beloved Gizmo, but never did I think that Paso Fino's... Show full author's note »
Stepping StonesAt this point, you probably have failed to see anything special about Gizmo, aside from the fact that he was quite possibly the spookiest pony who has ever lived. I am sure you are disappointed by this memoir of an 'intelligent, kind pony beating the odds' when in reality all he has done for months is live defined by these odds. Regardless, I implore you to read on; to read between the lines; because I assure you that his true colors will begin to show themselves soon enough.
Gizmo had gradually become braver over the winter. His greatest inability was the inability to go within ten feet of the 'scary indoor corner'; the short side of the indoor, which he was deathly afraid of. It held a few standards, chairs, mounting blocks, poles, and anything else that had no place. Luckily, as the weather warmed up, we moved into the outside jumping ring for lessons and free rides, which deemed the indoor irrelevant for the time being.
I quickly learned how impossible it was to be upset around him. I had a few regretted times of frustration with him, but they were only during the first winter. Even if I was on the verge of tears, seeing him brought a warmth to me that I always knew was love. I could wrap my hands in his mane and breathe in his smell, and everything was better.
In March, we had a jumping lesson in the surprising seventy-degree day. Gizmo was thrilled to be outside, and had never been as forward and strong as he was that day. We lunged him, which simply resulting in him running and occasionally bucking around on the line for fifteen minutes. I got on nonetheless and trotted Gizmo in circles while the rest of the group warmed up. I had enough control over him that my trainer allowed me to jump when the time came. In consecutive order he refused every jump was pointed him at, but proceeded to jump them from a standstill. I was exhausted and mildly frustrated. My trainer put up the jumps. Back then, 2'3 seemed quite large, made larger by how small Gizmo was. The jumps now all went up to 2'3. Gizmo flew over each jump—and I mean flew, because I could hardly control him. It was a rush.
That April, one of my trainer's favorite show grounds was holding a two-phase, with cross-country schooling offered once the show had ended. It was a schooling show about and hour's drive away, but I was excited. We made the decision that Gizmo and I would enter the "starter" division, which was made of twelve inch cross-rails and a simple walk/trot dressage test. New to eventing, I didn't know much about what was supposed to happen. My trainer told me that the stadium was not judged on equitation or time; I only had to get over the jumps. I couldn't believe that was true—I was from the hunter world, where every stadium class is judged on either equitation or the horse's movement.
The morning of the show dawned cool, but clear. I got to the barn early to give Gizmo a very thorough grooming, having bathed him the night before. Within an hour of my arrival, he was sparkling while my coach's trailer pulled into the driveway. We loaded up my stuff and loaded Gizmo into the trailer, which he agreed to with little fuss.
I had always been a nervous shower, even when the pony I leased became push button at shows, and having a green pony at my first "event" wasn't helping. My stomach fluttered with butterflies for hours before the show. In reality, I had been nervous for weeks—and had been unable to sleep the night before.
When we arrived, it was clear Gizmo was also a nervous shower. He had never showed before, and he was anxious in the new environment. He turned in circles on the lead line instead of grazing and attempted to take off when I mounted him. I wasn't helping, on the verge of hyperventilating .
The other girl who was showing, Helen, was calm and collected. She was doing the eighteen-inch "Green" division on our trainer's pony, Fiona.
Nobody really knew for sure what breed Fiona was, but she was certainly different. Her head was huge and round, with ears the size of a donkey. Her neck was short, he back was long and round, and her legs were stubby. She was a mousy brown at about eleven hands, yet she could free jump up to three feet.
Helen helped to ease my nerves marginally.
Once we were riding, Gizmo spooked at even the string by the side and held his head to the outside with his eyes rolling out of fear. I was hardly better. Before I was called to my test, I was breathing much to rapidly and fearing that I was going to vomit.
I barely managed to remember my dressage test as Gizmo spooked around the tiny ring. It was a successful test, but only by the means that we had performed the movements without falling, yet I was pleased. We rushed afterward to walk my stadium jumps, which greatly disappointed me. It was clear that they were not, in fact, a foot high, but rather they were about six inch cross-rails. At the same time, I was relatively confident that Gizmo wouldn't refuse every jump since every jump looked exactly the same; plain and white with two rails.
They called my number to go, and I rode Gizmo into the jumping ring, nerves screaming. We trotted up to the first tiny fence, and sure enough, he stopped and did his spider dance; legs splayed wide, bouncing from left side to right side. I kicked him, and he jumped it. I was focused on the rest of the round, but I still was impressed that my pony had refused a tiny, plain white jump. I would have been annoyed, except I was so used to it that I wasn't truly that surprised.
With one jump left in the course, Gizmo took off in little cow hops. He had only done that once before; when the snow was still melting, I'd been cantering bareback and he'd dropped his neck to crow hop. I fell in front of him and he stepped on my arm, giving me a nasty gash. Gizmo's head was at the ground now, and he'd pulled me forward; I had little balance. He crow-hopped past the fence and then stopped. When he stopped, I was thrown over his left shoulder in the suddenness of the movement. I managed to hang on and pull myself back into the saddle, to the applause of the crowd. I finished the course, and surprisingly received no faults for passing the jump.
When the two-phase was over, I had gotten third place—out of only five people. Cross country, unfortunately, was not the highlight of the day.
Gizmo stopped at the first log we tried, then launched over it. After the unexpected jump—at least three times the height of the fence—I was launched onto his neck. He immediately dropped his head as far down as he could, to pull me out of the tack, and took off in his mini bucks. I slid off him, right in front of him. The fall happened to fast that I only remember a blurry tangle of legs and dirt. Then I was lying on the ground, stunned, and everyone was running over.
"Are you Okay?" I sat up. I hadn't processed what had happened yet.
"I'm fine." I muttered, embarrassed yet again. I began to stand, and Gail stopped me.
"Stay sitting. The EMT is coming."
"Is your helmet broken?"
"Are you Okay?"
"I heard a really loud crack."
"Are you Okay?"
I was reasonably sure I'd just been trampled.
"He just....trampled you like that...I heard your helmet crack."
"I didn't hear it...but that wasn't pleasant, don't do that again, Audrey."
The EMT was rushing over.
"Stay sitting. What happened? I heard your helmet crack all the way over there. Did he step on it? Are you dizzy?"
"She fell right underneath him."
"I'm fine." I was annoyed now. They were going to let me back on, weren't they?
"Yeah, your helmet is cracked. You'll need a new one. Are you sure you're okay?"
I didn't remember a crack and I didn't remember feeling my head hit anything.
"Can I get back on?" The EMT helped me stand up. "I'm fine."
"I guess you can." I got back on, and the rest of the cross country schooling was uneventful, but fun.
Around late spring, we went cross country schooling at the field by our barn. By now, Gizmo and I had been cross country several times together. Each time, he had refused everything besides the steps at least once.
This particular time, Gizmo had just had his teeth done. He had been tranquilized that day. He refused his bit, which he'd never done before, and his saliva was flecked with rusty red, as though he'd bled earlier.
If I was faced with the same situation now, I would not have ridden him. At the time, two knowledgeable people told me it was perfectly fine to ride him, he wasn't in pain, and I accepted that. I might never know if he was in pain during this ride, but he did not act as though he was.
He did not seem any different than normal when we were warming up. I gave him a loose rein and used the minimal amount of rein possible, just to be safe.
When it was time to jump, I aimed him at a simple log he had refused when he first came cross country. Without the slightest hesitation, he jumped it, surprising me. The second time we rode over it, he cantered the entire line of logs without a glance. I was still simply shocked at his sudden indifference to the jumps, which continued throughout the lesson.
It was the lesson that changed everything. From then on—with a few exceptions, of course—Gizmo actually jumped. Finally, the successes greatly outnumbered refusals; we jumped the first time instead of the second. It was a great experience for me. I was so accustomed to constantly being thrown off at jumps that my nerves in jumping had suffered. I was willing to try anything, but my butterflies betrayed my determined face. To this day, jumping Gizmo over something for the first time always keeps a nerve in the back of my head prepared for him to stop. I do not have this fear with any other horse.
During late spring and early summer, I began to work on more groundwork with Gizmo. At some point, I found an old, dirty rope halter in the barn. The rope halter made me extremely happy; though it was a little too big for Gizmo, it sufficed, and I loved that halter greatly.
I taught Gizmo to back up with that halter. I learned that wiggling the halter was a method of asking a horse to back up; however, as time went on and I tested it out, I found that quite a few horses refuse to react to this in any way except to throw their heads. I've never met a horse as willing to back up as Gizmo, who would backup at a light wiggle of the line. Every other horse I've worked with has either taken a much harder swing or has needed a different method of backing up. Using that wiggling, I also taught Gizmo that if I placed my hand on his nose and tickled my fingers, he was supposed to back up. I loved having a pony that responded to my asking to move on the ground.
One of Giz's big fears was a fear of all whips. He would shy away of you got within five feet of him holding a crop or a whip. I began asking him to sniff at a small crop. When he accepted that, I began rubbing it over his body and, when he stood still, I would take it away. I gradually increased the lengths of the whips until I could calmly approach him even with a lunge whip and touch him all over with it.
Slowly, I began the swing the lead rope over his shoulders as I'd done before with just a lead line. I would swing slowly, until he stopped flinching. By now, his fear of whips was gone. I would hold him by the rope halter and swing the whip everywhere; in circles above him and near his head, under his stomach and over his back until he stood rock-still for it.
I also started to play more with Gizmo's feet. I asked him to turn sharp circles, side-pass, and change direction frequently on the lunge; I asked him to pick up all feet from one side; I would pick up his leg, place it on different objects, and ask him to keep it in place. As he learned to move his feet more, he was forced to focus on his legs instead of the scary things around him.
His other, more prominent fear was water. He hated being hosed and would jostle around as I held him. He trick now was that as soon as he would hold still, I would take the hose away. He learned that standing still was what got rid of the hose, and because it made him stand still for the water, also realized it was not something to be afraid of. I would begin on his feet and move slowly over his body. It did not take him long to get over his fear of water. From then on, I could hose him—and our hose was in the side of an open parking lot, grass on all sides—without so much as a halter. Everyone was impressed with his willingness to stand for the hose.
One of my favorite things about Gizmo was his willingness to listen. A few months after 2010 had begun, I stopped using cross-ties. I taught him to stop and stand using the command 'ho' by shaking the lead line. Since he had learned it meant back-up, he would stop before backing. As soon as he stopped, I would cease to shake the lead. He picked it up quickly, so while I tacked him up, I could say "ho" and he would stand. If I needed him to wait for me to, say, pick up a crop, I would tell him "ho" and walk away. I loved tacking up without ties, and he would even stand for braiding and pulling without them. Nobody else at my barn could do that, and all the little girls were amazed that he didn't walk away.
In May, we went to our second show. This was a full three-phase, at the "Green" level; the eighteen inch jumps. Gizmo performed well enough to please me. We had one stadium refusal and three cross country refusals, but compared to what had happened the first time we had been there, he was braver and calmer. We got seventh place, but I don't remember how many people were in the class.
In June, I went to my first sleep away camp; three weeks at a camp in Connecticut. It meant saying goodbye to Gizmo for three weeks, a period I had not yet tried to go without him. I missed him the entire time, and when I got back, I had no way of getting to the barn as my mom had just donated a kidney, so she was unable to drive.
I had informed my trainer of my inability to get to the barn, and she volunteered to drive me. This was not a small feat; her house was over a half hour from mine, and my house was half hour from the barn. I was touched by her generosity. She picked me up and drove me to see Gizmo. I thanked her, and as soon as we pulled to a stop, raced out to see my pony. He was grazing with his "buddies" in a huge paddock. I called his name and he looked up eagerly.
He seemed almost pleased to see me, but my absence had clearly not made him miss me as I missed him. I raced up to him, beaming from ear to ear, and promptly exclaimed,
"Gizmo! You're so small!" It was a truth. In comparison to the horses I had ridden at camp, my skinny thirteen-hand pony looked like a miniature. I hugged him and lead him back up to the barn.
My trainer invited me to join a cross-country lesson, and I agreed without pause. I hadn't brought a vest, and Gail lent me hers, which scratched at my shoulder under a tank-top.
Gizmo warmed up nicely over low jumps, and Gail pointed to a big-looking log jump we'd never seen before.
"Want to try that with Gizmo?" I nodded so hard my head nearly rolled off. We approached the jump and I added leg, but my mind braced for a refusal. Gizmo floated over the jump; it was hard for him, yet he cleared it by inches and I felt as though we were soaring.
"Woohoo!" My trainer cheered. I patted Gizmo and slowed to a walk. The fence, as we later measured, was just barely under 2'9. 2'7 is the height of Beginner Novice eventing, so I was psyched with the Paso Fino's efforts. At that moment, I was filled with joy and pride. After having not ridden Gizmo for three weeks, we easily tackled a Beginner Novice cross-country fence. My pony was growing up.
My barn started allowing the girls to stay Saturdays if we mucked paddocks. We would show up at the barn around eight thirty. If we were part of the nine o'clock lesson, we would tack up and ride before starting paddocks; otherwise, we would immediately begin bringing horses in or out and mucking paddocks. One of the other trainers at the barn had been my instructor at a previous barn. I'd had no idea that she was at this new barn until I'd gone there. She loved Gizmo and was always very kind to me. I think she was proud of me, because she'd taught me as a young girl and I'd grown up to become an avid equestrian. She taught a lot of little kids, and I always helped them tack up and get ready. I loved the way kids would look up to me, as though I were the coolest person ever—just the way I had looked up to older riders when I was young.
Our groundwork continued at a steady rate. Gizmo learned to lunge around me without a line, though only at a walk and a little bit of trot. I didn't do it often, but I loved to when I did. The only exception was one session, when one of my friends was coming to hang out while I rode and worked with Gizmo. It started out fine—Gizmo lunged easily around me for several minutes. And then out of nowhere, he spooked and took off across the ring. A girl was having a lesson—she had stopped to talk to her instructor, and we caught Gizmo quickly, but I was beyond mortified. It was clear that the instructor must have thought I was careless and idiotic. Gizmo had never done that before, so I'd had no way of predicting it, and he never did it again. I was, however, always more careful about who was in the ring when I did it. Which meant that I only ever attempted it in empty rings.
That summer was definitely a changing point for us. Gizmo began to show his true potential. We jumped 2'3 more often and worked more on dressage. I learned groundwork as we did it—I read books, watched tutorials and experimented with ground work. I decided that I disliked Parelli, because to me it was too structured—why did you need levels and specific sets of things to improve? You don't. I think Parelli is better than 'regular' riding methods to an extent, but I slowly created my own ground work structure. I simply got Gizmo to listen to me and trust me the ways that I saw fit.
However, late that summer, Gizmo developed the habit of bucking—mostly when I was bareback. In fact, aside from his first two events, he never once tried to buck me off under saddle.
I started teaching Gizmo to copy my leg. The first step was to teach him to pick up his leg with either a signal or a touch, and I chose touch. Without learning anything about teaching a horse to paw, I taught Gizmo that when I tapped his leg with a crop, he was to lift it. He learned it at a satisfying speed, within a few sessions, showing off his intelligence once more. When Gizmo confidently knew that a tap on the leg meant he must lift it, I would lift my leg as I tapped Gizmo's. He soon picked up that my lifting of my leg meant his lifting oh his leg.
During this period I also taught Gizmo to bow. He liked this trick because it always resulted in a treat. He was quite willing to follow the treat, so teaching it was easy. Quickly, he established how to bring his head between his knees for the treat. As time went on, I asked him to go farther and farther downward—until his legs were extended in front of him, his entire head touching the ground between them.
Late that summer, Gizmo developed the habit of bucking—mostly bareback. In fact, aside from at his first two shows, he'd never tried to buck under saddle.
Once, we went out on the trails with my friend coming on foot. At one point I decided to have a canter with him. I was bareback, with only a bridle for a grip. He cantered fine, until I sat up and asked him to slow. Suddenly, his shoulders came up and...well, they bounced. It wasn't really bucking at that point, just sort of rolling underneath me. But it was unpleasant, because as you may remember, he was so tiny that there was nothing to hang on to. As I rolled forward, my legs went into an iron grip. Without the time to react properly, my legs stayed clamped—even my upper body flew completely over his shoulder. It resulted in my swinging around his neck before my brain caught up with me and I released my legs. He bounced to a stop a fraction of a second before I hit the ground directly in front of him. I landed on my feet, and my legs buckled, so I was fine. I stood up, laughing hysterically.
Again, down a different trail, I asked Gizmo for a collected canter. It was going well until he spooked, and I tried to slow him. Again, he began bouncing and this time, I flew almost straight upward and then forward, before flying towards the ground, still clutching the reins. My knees slammed into the grass first, followed by my entire body. Once I hit the ground, one hand released the reins and the other hand held tight. I laughed.
Then, anytime he got excited, he would buck. I don't think he did it to be naughty, but I think he got over-excited and lost in the moment. On the down side, I fell off a lot. On the bright side, it certainly taught me to stay on.