Mission: Impossible - First Steps

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...


  1. Wow - it sounds like you did the perfect thing by using a softer bit, and not doing any of the things he expected you to do!

    Can't wait to read more.

  2. EEK! Another "to be continued". I tell you what, I am absolutely FACINATED by this line of posts.

  3. No wonder the poor horse was so defensive after all the 'jerks' that rode him initially. I'm glad he found you to help him trust a rider again.

  4. billie - it's amazing what a difference seemingly small changes make with horses. and not playing into their expectations is always a help - i've learned not to give them excuses when they are looking for a reason...

    b+s4mel - thanks! i'm so glad you're enjoying the posts so far! i was worried they'd be pretty boring for most readers :-\

    GHM - if do find that 9 out of 10 badly behaved horses generally have legitimate reasons for acting the way they do - i think recognizing that is the first step...

  5. I want to know if this approach worked out for you! Minus the acting out, my new horse is in very much the same boat. Didn't know a whole lot. I've had a similar approach and it's worked well so far.

    Kind of like the reflections discussion we had on your last Mellon post, I think a lot of what makes horses act up is when they don't understand what we're asking. They don't understand so they try something to see if that's what you want, or do their defensive behavior, and then we punish them for it. Then we try again and they still don't get it and we punish them again. No wonder they get upset!

  6. jackie - congrats on your new horse! i'm glad you have found an approach that is working with him. it always amazes me just how little some horses know and still manage to get by. recently a friend of mine who has a sale barn asked me to sit on an upper level horse trained by a local dressage 'expert' in the rollkur club, and that horse hadn't been taught to do anything but evade the bit and react off the spur! the poor horse was a mess! it was shocking to me that someone could muscle a big warmblood through an upper level test, or that they would want to when all they'd have to do is take the time to teach it properly... but i'm beginning to think it's not such a rare problem these days...

  7. GOOD FOR YOU for not using your trainer's bit, at that 'impressionable' stage of learning to train! Flippin' awesome! I remember doing a lot of things I knew I shouldn't have because the trainer said. Sad face.

    When you mentioned how it was no wonder he acted so badly because he didn't KNOW anything, I thought to plenty of horses I've ridden that were the same. Poor babies. :(


  8. Oh! I am rendered at heart with your story and insightful compassion towards Mellon.
    I tripped over from FFF.

    Mellon sounds like someone I could be smitten with as well, and I find myself wishing I had a trainer just like you for my mare and I. She has issues simular; an outward/inward semblance of your Mellon.
    I try and try....she sometimes does. But she does like the outdoors and jumping.
    I will be back to

  9. DIJ - well, don't give me too much credit - i was only just learning to question my trainer at the time - i've done some things i shouldn't have because the trainer told me to, like jumping in draw reins (and even using draw reins in the first place - oh the shame!) but it didn't take me long to realize that wasn't where i wanted to go. luckily, that was the only trainer i had who didn't dictate, so i was able to say 'this isn't going to work for me - what other ideas do you have' and he'd work with me. every other trainer has been 'it's my way or the highway' types, which i why i'm currently trainerless... i've never been good at taking orders ;-)

  10. allhorsestuff - i popped over to you blog and your mare is adorable :-) she does remind me a bit of mellon just looking at her. the challenging horses do find a special place in your heart if you're willing to stick with them. as i finish up this little series, you'll see if you read on that we didn't get it perfect all the time either - there are always good and bad days, insights and mistakes... but it's always an amazing and rewarding journey - i'm glad she has you.

    (ps - mellon also loved to be out of the arena and to jump - hunter-pacing was is absolute favorite thing!)

  11. Wonderful story. It always pays to listen to the horse. Good job!

  12. Catching up on my favorite blogs today and can't wait for the continuation of Mellon's story. I have known horses that have similar stories to his and I'm enjoying reading your account of his history.

    I know what you mean by that "awakening" when you start to question some of the methods you either were taught with or saw other people use. I had quite a few arguments with one of my trainers when I was a teen and that happened. I begged my mom to let me ride with another trainer after one lesson when she was making me do one of the very things you described - jumping in draw reins. I could feel my mare's distress and no matter how I told this instructor that it was NOT working, she kept insisting I do it again. Madness!
    My mom finally relented and let me take lessons from the trainer who I have been with for over 30 years now. He took me back to basic dressage and helped me to develop my horses' balance and confidence. She was never an easy ride but the difference under his teaching was incredible.
    Can't wait to hear more!!!

    I <3 your blog!

  13. gail - i try :-| thanks for visiting!

    solitairemare - glad you stopped by! i've got a lot of catching up to do too! it's 3/4 busy and 1/4 laziness :-\

    good for you for standing up back then! it's certainly not easy to do, but if we don't advocate for our horses, who will? you are really lucky to have such a great trainer you trust and who will work with you. i'm still training myself, but everyone could use someone on the ground to help me from time to time... oh well, the search continues!

  14. Hello jme! I was on the Mugwump Chronicles recent post about "Rollkur" and found your comments and information to be a "Hallelujula" moment for me.
    Thanks for that and I look forward to reading the information that seems to be here.

    I am classically trained (real old school)if you will and have been appalled and saddened by much of what is going on in the horse world today in almost every discipline.

  15. LMTB - thanks for visiting! i too am saddened by the decline in horsemanship that has taken place over the years. there is more money than ever in horses today, and everyone wants a piece at whatever cost any by whatever means. it's nice to see how many of us 'old school'ers there are trying to counter that :-)

  16. Wow this sounds like a real Black Beauty story - can't wait to read the rest!

  17. im wondering if you have any basic horse keeping and horse training books you recommend? I think also, re wild horses, support Ms. Pickens in her work and also email Mr. President at the White House. Demand that these animals be restored to the BLM lands, screw the cattle, and let them off these dry lots. I think post Mr. Bush, there might be better response. People have to know to care, most people have no idea the cruelty and abuse these horses go through.

  18. amy - i agree that something needs to be done both for the wild horses and for abused/neglected horses in general. i saw the most horrific images of horses killed while being transported over the border for slaughter on 'fugly horse of the day' today. it made me so angry and i will be writing every politician i can (once i calm down so i don't say anything i'll regret :-\ now that bush and friends are out, maybe there is a chance to change some of it. i hope so...

    as for good books on basics, they are hard to come by. i usually recommend the pony club manuals d-a. they are created for kids, but they aren't childish or 'dumbed down' at all and give a good overview of both riding and horse care in a systematic, progressive way. in the same vein, british horse society books are also good, especially the stable management manual. they aren't perfect, but they are a good place to start.

  19. This is a great story!! Looking forward to the next installment.

  20. Just dropped back by to let you know there's an award for you at my blog. Stop by and check it out!

  21. Congratulations! Looks like you've got another award.

  22. so many awards! thanks guys :-)

  23. There's an award for you on my blog. You may have already received it but you're so nice now you got it twice!

  24. jme,
    Amazing story, again. I always find that the detailed training techniques are the most interesting provided you have a good trainer. Insightful, as always. I'm very impressed with your feel of the horse.

    I couldn't agree with you more that strong arming is always the wrong approach. If any training is going to be accomplished it has to be done in a snaffle while focusing on feel and the horse-rider interaction. A problem horse will never recover if you can't ride effectively in a snaffle.

    My blog has photos of my horse. I was told by three top trainers to put the horse down because he's a killer. Now, come on. Does that look like the face of killer to you? He turned out to be the kindest, gentlest, most affectionate horse you will ever meet.

    I'm glad to meet like-minded classical riders. It great to know that I'm in good company and not out numbered as usual.

  25. BHM - you're right, he's no killer - what a handsome, sweet boy! glad you were able to work out whatever the issue was - i'd hate to think where he and all the other 'difficult' horses would be now if never given a chance.

  26. bhm - i tried to leave a comment on your blog but there was a problem with the word verification thingy. sorry :-(

  27. jme,
    Thanks for the kind words. I've had that happen before were the word verification doesn't work and I have no explanation for it.


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