“Naughty Pony” is one of the nicer things I’ve called Albert. One that’s actually OK to say out loud in front of my students. Under my breath, Albert has been called far worse.

Albert is a Haflinger pony with quite a bit of success in the show ring in his past. One of the reasons he ended up at Brook Hill Farm (the horse rescue where I’m privileged to teach), is that he has a bit of an attitude. Yup, I’m being nice again. Albert loves to jump, but finds flat work boring beyond belief, so he likes to spice things up by running his rider into the fence (it’s hard to use your outside leg when it’s being mashed into the rail), thrusting his head (which is located at the end of a very strong neck) toward the ground and removing the reins from his rider’s hands and proceeding to jump whatever he can get to, oh yes, and bucking. Fortunately, Albert’s rider (whom I’ve nicknamed Velcro Butt) can sit pretty much whatever Albert dishes out, and Albert is never malicious, just fresh and, well, naughty.

I have seen Albert be an amazingly nice pony often enough to know that he’s not rotten through and through, but it’s sometimes easy to forget the nice pony when the behavior issues are so boldly presented. At the 4H State Championship Horse Show last weekend, Albert did a good job of reminding me that he really is a pretty nice guy under all the bluster, but it took me a little while to get the message.

He was in the Pleasure Pony division (not as much of an oxymoron as it may seem – when he’s good he’s very, very good…). During the first class of the division, Albert decided he had center stage and showed a bit of his flair for the dramatic. He and his rider were excused.

Lesson #1 – True team mates are there for you.

When Albert and his rider came out of the ring, she barely had time to dismount before she was surrounded by her team mates from Brook Hill. It was a group hug to end all group hugs. Tears were shed, kudos offered, bravery admired and tighter bonds formed. The Brook Hill girls, already working like a well oiled machine, were now working like a family.

I took Albert back to the stabling area and wondered how we’d handle the warm-up and class the next day. Work the devil out of the pony or go with less warm up because he gets bored (and creative) so quickly. I wanted to avoid the issues we’d just encountered, but wanted to maintain safety above all. I even considered suggesting we scratch the pair from the next day’s class, but that was my last option.

Lesson #2 – Get your info straight from the horse’s mouth, or at least the horse’s rider.

I was still leaning toward a long warm up, hoping we could work a little of the freshness (in both senses of the word) out of the pony. After conferring with the owner of Brook Hill, who thought Albert would be better with less warm up, we decided to consult with the rider and let her make the final choice. She thought through her options very carefully, and decided to go with a very abbreviated warm up. So, after a bit of walk and trot, (during which Albert was wonderful), into the ring they went. The Brook Hill family hanging on the fence like a bunch of nervous mothers, breathing a sigh of relief as team Albert successfully performed at the walk, trot and canter in both directions of the arena. Tears of joy (and relief) were seen in a few eyes when Albert and his rider left the ring with the 10th place ribbon. Hugs all around again (see lesson 1). Life was good, but the weekend wasn’t over.

That evening, as we returned to the barn after dinner, most of our team was already doing night chores, and as I drove up to the barn, who should I see but Albert, unaccompanied, go trotting out of his stall and down the lane. He had unceremoniously pushed past his rider as she entered the stall. Joy. Loose horse (and one with an attitude at that). He was captured with little fanfare and returned to his stall. As my daughter and I were putting his sheet on for the night, he  was very tense and somewhat fractious. As Sarah bent to get a surcingle (belly strap for the uninitiated), I noticed that Albert was shaking.

Lesson #3 – Dislike the behavior, but love the pony (and realize they are not one and the same).

This was one of the most important life lessons I humbly learned from Albert this weekend. As I saw Albert start to shake, I saw an overwhelmed child, and I went from being irritated with him to feeling sympathy and a desire to make him comfortable. Now Albert doesn’t exactly live a stressful life at Brook Hill, he has tons of turnout and excellent care, and his antics weren’t limited to the show grounds, but right then and there, he was an over stressed pony who needed out of that stall. All of the horses at Brook Hill live out, and I think Albert had finally had it after 3 days of being in a stall with only hand grazing and riding to break up the periods of captivity. He just needed out. As turnout wasn’t an option, I took him out for a walk. We meandered wherever he wanted to go (except to investigate one of the motor homes parked in a lower lot – I think he smelled food…), he grazed, wandered, looked around, and began to just breathe and be a pony. When we took him back to his stall 45 minutes later, he walked in calmly and happily, had a drink and went right over to his hay and started eating. No stress and no trying to escape. Was the walk the reason for the change in behavior? Perhaps, although a 45 minute walk doesn’t equal a day of turnout, and he’d been out of his stall for 45 minute periods of grazing and riding during the preceding few days. I think the real difference was the sea change in my attitude toward Albert that evening. I interacted with him as a good pony (who at times displayed bad behavior). I looked past the acting out at a time when it would have been easy simply to say he needed better ground manners. I led with my heart. Now I’m not proud of being in need of this lesson – I usually try to see the best in everyone, especially horses, and I had to apologize to Albert for seeing the behavior instead of the pony at times.

There are many lessons to be learned in this life, and I’m a firm believer in the saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. Well, this student was certainly ready, and I’m glad Albert was there to be my teacher.