R.I.P. Mia

Last Sunday, Debbie put Mia, the bay mare in my avatar photo, down. Mia was somewhere around 40 years old and looked it. Debbie had been quibbling about putting Mia down for over a month, I said goodbye several times, then Debbie would tell me she just could not go through with putting her down. Mia might have been OLD, but turned out with the other really old horses she finally fulfilled a life long wish, she FINALLY had a boy-friend, Debbie kept feeding her well and doing the necessary farrier and veterinary work, and she was having the time of her life even though she was definitely hobbling around.

Mia was an Arabian mare, bay, in her mid-20s, crippled with arthritis when Debbie asked me to take her on. Why did Debbie choose me? She had no one else that would even consider taking her on, and she had seen my horsemanship for over 18 months by then, plus she knew that I absolutely worship Arabian mares. Since I am pretty severely disabled by my MS I have no lofty goals in my riding, I can't jump any more and I can happily go on for years without cantering or galloping. Before Mia froze into place too much to be used as a lesson horse any more she had been used as a lesson horse, wearing a standing martingale, jumping really low jumps and basically walk, trot, canter under elementary level riders.

When I started riding Mia it was obvious that nobody had ever tried to EXPLAIN to the mare what everything a rider does means. She knew the elementary rough aids fine, but her contact was unreliable and she pretty much trudged around the ring, as a school horse for elementary riders should act in a lesson. But Mia's lack of rational training showed up big time, I had to explain everything to her in exacting detail and praise her to the skies for ANY improvement, no matter how minute. At first Mia, like many horses, just did not know what praise meant. She gradually got to enjoy it, then she finally realized that praise was her rightful due for obeying her rider, then praise was more or less mandatory to keep her happy with being ridden.

My first ride I spent most of my time in 2-point, her back was very weak and I wanted to be able to vault off of her easily if she started to fall. Our first trot? Oh my. I was totally amazed that she did not trip over her own feet and fall or just collapse because of weakness. But Mia was an Arabian mare, descended from Arabian war mares who were called to cross waterless wastes no matter how starved and weak they might be. Mia never stumbled under me, and she never even started to collapse under me. She just put one foot in front of the other and carried me around the ring. We never got to “NO!” even though it hurt her legs to go around the ring.

We did the basic beginning Forward Seat training for many months. After a few weeks of lessons Debbie, encouraged by Mia's improvement, told me that Mia needed to be ridden more each week and asked me to start doing homework rides on her. I could not afford it back then and when I told Debbie that she shrugged, I got my homework rides on Mia for free until I could finally afford to pay for them. My oldest son was still living with us and he helped me, and for the first 6 weeks of my homework rides me and my son just led Mia around, at first with nothing on her back, and after a few weeks I put my saddle on her so there would be some weight on her back. I was having my regular 30 minute weekly riding lesson on her so I did get to ride, but for extra work I wanted to add extra effort gradually.

My son groomed Mia for me. He did most of the work leading her around the barn and the driveways for 30 minutes at a walk. My son preferred leading her in the Nurtural Bitless bridle over just a halter, because this 30 minutes was for exercise, not eating grass and it was easier to get her head back up with the bitless bridle. Besides, I told my son we had to train Mia so that 10 year old kids could ride her in a lesson (we still had some hope about that) and that if we let Mia get into the habit of being able to eat grass while having a bridle on it would be bad for the children. Discipline with a horse starts early and must be consistent for good results.

After 6 weeks Mia was stronger and I started riding her for my homework ride, nothing spectacular, just walks and trots, and establishing contact, light, responsive and willing contact. I taught and reinforced the “language of my aids” and as Mia understood what I was “saying” she became more and more cooperative. I found a supplement that helped her a good bit until she decided she did not want to eat it any more. She got interested in our work and became a willing participant in her training, and her response to my hand aids became lighter and quicker to the point that I could give a hand aid by twitching my finger maybe 1/8”, well timed to her stride of course.

Mia became a joy to ride. Mia got physically stronger, she got strong enough so Debbie could use her as an emergency horse when all her other horses were being ridden, and Mia also got to go out on a few trail rides to her great enjoyment.

After a few years Debbie got tired of just seeing me work Mia and put me on other lesson horses and I just rode Mia for my homework rides, and as my lesson horse when I had an MS attack. Mia was wonderful when I had an MS exacerbation, she chilled out, forgave me all my incoordination, forgave me if I accidentally hit her mouth with the bit or her nose in a bitless bridle, and gave me no more than I could deal with. Several times I got up on Mia after barely making it to the riding ring and barely able to mount, moving like a weak 90 year old woman, and after 30 minutes I was back to being able to walk my normal walk, striding forth confidently rather fast if need be, and without my canes if I had to carry something. It was those rides that made Debbie realize that I NEED to ride horses to keep on walking, and how riding horses is probably the very best physical therapy to keep people with MS able to walk on their own two feet (plus canes.)

I rode Mia for fourteen years, until I had my appendectomy and had to take 6 weeks off of riding. Near the end of my six weeks not riding Mia was in a stall, I went in to tell her I could ride again and Mia looked at me and “said” that she was just too old and tired. I told Debbie this and stopped riding her three or four years ago. I probably would have been able to ride her a few more years if I had been able to ride her those 6 weeks, but she just got out of condition and begged off. I was not going to argue about this with a good mare in her 30s.

These past few years I said hi to Mia when I saw her in the paddock, and occasionally I would go up to touch her nose. Mia did not seem to miss our rides, she finally had a boyfriend and she was mostly interested in him. So she wandered around the barnyard with the other geriatric horses enjoying her life. But the last few weeks she started needing help to get up from laying down. One morning they could not get her up, called the vet, and by the time the vet came Mia had gotten herself up and was grazing. On Sunday they could not get her up, Mia “told” Debbie it was time, and the vet let her cross the rainbow bridge to Trapalanda, the horse paradise, where she can now run free from pain like a proper Arabian mare.

If I was on Mia's back she never gave up. She ALWAYS tried to give me what I wanted. I could rely on that mare to take care of me if my MS got really bad, Mia would just put one foot in front of the other as slowly as needed for my safety and keep on walking. Several times I would be just walking Mia around the ring and stop, feeling so happy and wonderful that I was riding this wonderful mare, just basking in her presence under me as she viewed her empire calmly.

Both Debbie and I ended up really appreciating this mare who was a true war mare, never giving up while being ridden, striding forth as well as she could, facing all the challenges presented to her, and calmly keeping on going like a true Arabian mare.

Mia, I was honored to ride you.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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