Harry Payne Whitney: Like Father, Like Son
September is always my favorite month of the year. It helps that it’s my birth month, but I always find something magical about the leaves changing and a cool breeze finally making its way to the Bluegrass to stay. This year has been no different, and with it, I have found myself more hopeful and excited about the Thoroughbred Makeover than I previously had been.
Before my last blog, I’d had a ride on Finnick the Fierce that had me thinking, “Maybe I can’t do this by myself.” So, I stopped riding. We worked on lunging, ground work, getting his body right, and walking hills with the yearlings in sales prep for October.
On a particularly good day, I decided I was done thinking I am incapable of effectively riding this horse. I realized so many of my hurdles with him are psychological: not on his side, but mine. I have psyched myself out of success and if I was able to do that, then I could psyche myself back in.
With the help of my friends and some excellent professionals, Finn and I tackled the issues I was most worried about. Through the advice and incredible work of our onsite farrier, Finn got a new set of shoes. With the help of our dentist and chiropractor he got adjusted, which left him more comfortable playing in the field than I’ve seen in some time. The emotional support I received from my closest team truly helped and when everyone started telling me Finn was looking really good, I thought I needed to try riding again.
The first time I got back on him, my heart was racing as I stood on our mounting block. Every time I put my foot in the stirrup, I would take it back out again. I was shaking and on the verge of a panic attack so I just sat down and waited. Finn put his head in my lap and I spent a couple of minutes just playing with his forelock, his favorite pastime. That’s when I realized it was all me. He wasn’t nervous about this. He wasn’t amped up at the idea of having a saddle on his back. I was. So, inside of our barn, one where there is a dirt track around the outside of the stalls, four walls on each side of us, I got on him. It was uneventful. He continued to stand still after I was settled into the tack. Immediately, that was progress. We walked up and down the lanes for about 15 minutes and I decided that was enough.
The battle was myself. Get on him. Don’t freak out, and we had succeeded. The ride turned into another ride the next day … and another. Within the confines of the barn, I felt comfortable asking him to accept contact again. I felt that contact connect his entire body and we began slowly putting pieces together again. We started traversing makeshift ground poles made out of fence posts and I finally found the courage to exit the barn and get back to riding around the farm, no walls or fences to protect us.
On one occasion we were accompanied on foot by our friend Kate and her babysitter gelding, Oliver, who has become one of Finn’s favorite pasture pals. Even though Oliver is the steadiest of the bunch, I found it interesting how Finn placed his attention on him. He was the lowest in the pecking order in the gelding field, just below Finn. When we reached the top of the hill where we have the largest flat area on the farm, Kate and Oliver camped out in the middle of the circle. My goal was just to have a successful walk and work on accepting contact and moving off of my leg. That worked while we walked to the left, when Finn’s one eye faced the middle of the circle where our friends stood.
Changing direction, Finn fought me hard. He did not want to turn his blind side toward Oliver. As you may recall, this is a reaction we often had when I was lunging Finn. I had assumed it had to do with the fact that he did not have much in the way of guidance if he couldn’t see me in the middle of the circle with a classic lunge. I was surprised this continued when I was in the tack with two hands on the reins. However, we still worked through it. Instead of being afraid when he stopped and turned, I convinced him to continue on. It was a mini-battle, but one in the end I felt I could handle.
All in all, I feel as though I know what I need to do. We have established a trust between us on the ground. In the saddle, I’ve grown to trust him, a hurdle I wasn’t sure I would be able to overcome by October. But now I need to establish his trust in me in the tack. I have thus far allowed him to be the leader. Now that I trust him — I know how he spooks, I know what he finds difficult — I am the one who needs to establish his trust in my leadership. He needs to know that I’m not going to let something sneak up on him on his blind side, that I have control of any situation I put us in and I won’t lead him astray.
I recognize this feels a lot like a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode, where the emergency patient has a problem that just happens to coincide exactly with the personal turmoil happening within the community of doctors we watch on that show. I will learn how to become an effective leader in my personal life because my horse needs me to be when I ride him. Fingers crossed I can grasp that personal growth before we ship into the Kentucky Horse Park in one month! I figure I have about 20 more rides on him before we make a public debut, and suddenly that feels like so much after months of stagnation. I can now truthfully and without hesitation say I’m thrilled to be heading to the Thoroughbred Makeover with Finnick the Fierce. Good luck and have fun everyone! See you there!