“What do we need?”
These are the words that echo in my mind each time I ride Nixon when he’s in one of his “moods”.
I own a very forward horse. Some would even say the most forward horse. A horse that by all other means should now be standing in a chandelier draped breeding shed in Kentucky covering 200 Zenyattas a year.
Regardless of his speed, and more due to his opinions and therefore the removal of his—em, cowbells— he is not. Instead, he’s living with me, in pursuit of $3 ribbons and XC schools that do not end with abrasions and a blown air canister.
Every time I ride him and feel those gorgeous thoroughbred muscles clench, and that engine start to hum, I know it is time to do the one thing the neurons in my brain can’t seem to fire; the one thing that my body is screaming “no!” although my brain is saying “yes”…
I need to add leg. Or, as I often think, cowbell.
We have all seen the classic skit on Saturday Night Live where Will Ferrell thrusts his beer gut around in a belly shirt while hammering a cowbell as hard as possible. It is unnecessary, annoying and the last thing the song needs. But each time the producer (Christopher Walken) halts the song and demands a fix…but the only thing he can come up with to solve the problem is to add MORE cowbell.
It is the opposite of what the band thinks. It is opposite of the obvious. It is, simply, more cowbell.
And that is what goes through my mind each time I feel that hotness and tensing of his core. When your body is saying pull, when you should be hearing push. When you want to go into the fetal position but you should actually sit up and ride. When every fiber in your being is telling you to grab his mouth and pull, even though the truth is that you should be sinking your weight down, lifting your hands up, and adding leg. Your leg is your cowbell.
Yet, it is so hard to convince yourself to do the exact opposite of what you have been programmed—horse goes fast, you pull on their mouth, horse slows down. Horse goes slow, you kick with your legs, horse goes faster. In this case, with this horse, it is the opposite.
It’s not as simple as horse goes fast, as Nixon knows “whoa”. He has the training and the tricks up his sleeve to behave when he wants to, hence the accolades adorning my mantle. And it’s not as easy as pull back and whoa. For every time you touch this horses mouth, he accelerates harder. Faster. It has come down to realizing what triggers the speed, and what acts as the brake.
Balance, or the lack thereof appears to be the trigger. He is such an innately balanced horse that he appears to float over the ground, and in fact did for many years as a stakes winning runner. But when he feels unbalanced, his immediate reaction is to find balance yet again. As a 1,400 pound, 17.1h thoroughbred who ran long and hard, the gallop is his sweet spot. He knows that if I would just let him run, he would feel comfort. It is easier than shoulder in, or haunches out. It is simpler than a canter/trot transition or a halt.
Nixon didn’t leave the track because of interest or performance, rather, his owners wanted to retire him sound. So in his mind the racetrack is home, and the gallop is comfortable.
So I have learned that instead of searching for or demanding an E-brake, I had to find a new comfort zone—a down shift. That comfort zone is my legs—my cowbell.
My friend Alexa jokingly referred to them as his Thunder Blanket, which couldn’t be any closer to the truth. When I wrap my legs around his core I am supporting him. More importantly, I am able to use that training and those tricks to rebalance him and reassess which part of his body isn’t in comfort. I can use the haunches in to slow, or the shoulder fore to flex. For a horse who demands happiness, and more importantly, balance, this relaxes him. It is not an argument with my hands. It is not a punishment with my spurs. It is simply a support; a comfort; a Thunder Blanket.
And it is my cowbell.
Yet, it is still hard to convince myself to do something that goes against every fiber of my being. My body is aching to pull back on the bit and my shoulders are tipping down towards his neck. His gallop intrinsically demands that I lean forward into two-point, but my brain knows that it is time for the down shift—the cowbell.
It is time for the thing that might seem so counter productive and so counter intuitive, and bang away with force and without hesitation.
I hope to be the best cowbell player out there for Nixon, and put on my best Will Farrell game face to play that cowbell with reckless abandon. All in the name of supporting my horse. More leg. More cowbell. Rock on.
About the Author
Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.