Even at 31 Years Old Mia Still Improves

Mia is old. Mia is ancient. Mia has arthritis problems in her hocks. Mia has the most sensitive mouth of any horse I've ridden in the past 47 years.

I have been riding Mia for 8 years, accepting the fact that she will never, ever become completely sound. All this time I have been creative, trying to find supplements, tack, and riding techniques that will make her more comfortable when I ride her. It has been a long road, and at her advanced age the possibility of her markedly improving her performance seemed well beyond both of our capabilities.

And Mia has proven me wrong, yet again.

Over these past eight years I have worked on Mia backing up. Back before we found a supplement that works at easing her arthritis pain Mia was SUPER reluctant to back up, so I just asked for a step or two. As Mia's joints became more comfortable I added on steps but she always felt sort of jerky and tense when she backed up, and she always veered off of the straight line. Beyond using my appropriate leg to suggest that she straighten up I did not get after her for the crookedness. She was hurting, she was trying her very best to give me what I wanted, and if she had to go crooked to back up I just accepted it. We gradually, very gradually, worked up to backing up six steps (three strides). I made the most dramatic progress when I got off her back when I asked her to back up, then after a while she consented to back up when I was in a half-seat with no weight on my seat bones. Then all progress stopped, and I just accepted that she might never be physically able to back up any better. So I worked on myself, making my hand and leg aids lighter, but there was no big difference in how she backed up.

However this year something seems to have loosened up in her body. She stopped resisting the bit when I asked her to back up though she still had to “sort herself out” to back up. Her steps first got a little more ragged and she veered off course a little worse but she felt a little looser. I just used my lower leg to suggest that she might straighten herself more but I did not make a big deal out of it. I only backed up once or twice during each weekly ride since she obviously had to make a big effort to give me what I wanted.

Then, during this past month, Mia has transformed her backing-up completely.

First I noticed that she brought her head and neck up more than usual when I got my weight forward or off her back. Then she started to respond to the lightest rein aid to back up, just twitching my little fingers. Next she started backing up straighter, not perfect but better. Of course I rewarded each improvement with lavish praise. Then, one magic day a few weeks ago, she backed up completely straight, without any effort or hitching, and I felt like we were backing up on greased rails. And ever since her backing up has been perfect, no resistances, absolutely straight, and completely and freely responsive to my aids.

There is nothing that I've added recently that would explain this directly. I did change from a single jointed Wellep bit to a double jointed Wellep bit and I did add a Fenwick mask with ears, but earlier when I used double jointed bits she did not improve her backing and she did not improve her backing when I got her a Back On Track poll cap. While the Fenwick mask with ears does seem to help with the trigeminal nerves on her head I have not noticed any other great improvements in her reactions to my contact with the bit. I've used my Pegasus Butterfly saddle for 14 months which probably helped her back some, but the main change I felt from changing to this saddle is that she is much freer with her shoulders. I've used the Back On Track saddle pad and exercise sheet for years without any improvement to backing up though they obviously made her back feel better. She has been on the same supplement for arthritis for six years or so, and her feed has not changed lately, and she has been on 24/7/365 turn-out for years, starting long before I ever got up on her back.

I also got the HandsOn grooming gloves and I've been massaging her back with them before putting the saddle on, and I massage her back with them after I take the saddle off, so that might be a key to her improvement. I also started doing much more turn on the forehand, one to two each ride in each direction.

Maybe using the Pegasus Butterfly saddle finally freed up her back enough so she could figure out how to align her back so she could back up comfortably. Maybe massaging her back with the HandsOn grooming gloves relieved a muscle spasm in her back. Maybe the turns on the forehand, which requires crossing the hind legs, “unlocked” something in her spine. Maybe the Fenwick mask with ears got more blood flowing to her brain so she could coordinate better.

In other words, I have no idea why Mia improved so much backing up!

And this is a GREAT improvement. None of the horses I've ridden have ever given me such a good back-up! Every horse, every time, acted like backing up was a laborious process, to be done with great reluctance. And now, Mia, of all horses, gives me perfect back-ups, not just once but reliably week after week. And she is so willing about it now, like she is telling me that she finally figured everything out and now it is easy.

At 31 years of age.

I am beginning to think that Mia, in spite of the arthritis crippling her, may be the best horse I have ever ridden. I so wish I had gotten to ride her when she was younger, much younger, because I think I could have gotten this mare to do anything. She tries her best to give me what I want, and she is the only horse I've ridden who has spontaneously given me advanced dressage movements—advanced as in she went to the airs above the ground, twice. The first time I was trying to canter her and she thought my contact was too hard so she gave me a terre-a-terre (looks like a rocking horse, I had to go to de la Gueriniere to figure out what she did that time), and a croupade another time when my hands were a little bit too hard for her desires (my son went “what did she just do—it looked like a buck but it was not a buck! She did not even shift my seat since her back was so soft.) Even though she is croup high and sort of swayed back she never lets that limit what she can do when she wants to do it. She always tries to give me what I want.

She is a grand old mare.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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