My Secretariat Son - my greatest teacher
In January of 1983, only 3 months after my father had passed away, I was 23 years old and filled with grief and sorrow. That month also I had just gone through an armed home invasion in my home in Jamaica, and everything seemed to be upside down and chaotic in my life. Just when I thought things couldn't possibly get worse, something else did. It was a time of great turmoil in my life and nothing seemed to be working.
Then I got offered this horse. Apparently he had thrown anyone who tried to ride him and he came with a reputation. I figured why not, I'll give anything a try, and I had never met a horse that I could not build some kind of a relationship with. So he arrived on a truck, and he was so beautiful - that incredible copper penny red, shining in the sunshine and full of fire. I was in love. He had been on 9 months of stall rest due to a small fracture in the left sesamoid bone, but with time off it had healed. Ironbird was only just turning 3 when I got him, still a young horse and very frustrated because of having to suffer the confinement of a stall for so long. All he wanted to do was run, and he was very fast like his famous father. He also had a big body for a 3 year old, his barrel was big and thank God the lady who bred him - Mrs. Cliggott, had the good sense not to ruin a good horse. She retired him after he had the fracture to be a riding horse, and the polo crowd had him for a while, but he hated polo and he threw the riders. I was somewhat of an eccentric in the horse world, and still am, but people did not really take me seriously back then. I was this crazy girl who did everything the complete opposite of the rest of the horse crowd, but what I did worked, and they couldn't understand why.
Ironbird was a challenge, he loved to rear if I didn't let him run fast, but I was worried about his legs so I tried to get him to slow down. I would ride for a while and then he would start to limp, so I would get off and put him back in the pasture. Then one day I saw him running and bucking out there totally sound, so I figured he had my number and I just rode, then he gave up the act of pretending to be lame. I finally had his number! One day it took me 3 hours in the boiling heat to get him to cross a river that he had been in a hundred times before. He would rear, spin to the left and try to bolt home. I just sat there and told him that I had all the time in the world, and if it took until next Tuesday, I was not getting off. Finally he walked across the river like a lamb, we went up a steep hill for 2 miles, then all the way back home, the ride was 5 hours long. After that day I had no more problems with him, as he was testing me to see if I was worthy of riding such a great horse.
We built a wonderful relationship over time, and he taught me to sit very quiet and just breathe, with feathers for rein aids and leg pressure. He was extremely sensitive both emotionally and physically, and also very smart, and he taught me in spades that "less is more".
After about a year I had the opportunity to ride with one of the greatest Classical trainers of the modern era, a man called Major Hector Carmona. He was the first man to train and ride a pure Arab in the Olympics for dressage. I was thrilled to ride with him, but I was worried about what kind of antics my "big Red Horse" was going to pull with this 70 plus man. OMG!! of course the peanut gallery had gathered to watch the spectacle, as everyone knew this horse's reputation for throwing riders, and no one could understand how I rode him. So Major Carmona gets on and he asks me if I have any issues with the horse. I explained that he was very hot and liked to rear sometimes. and that he had very definite ideas about how things should be done. So the Major gets on and he was such a beautiful rider! My horse was putty in his hands and no word of a lie, within 20 minutes he had this 4 year old doing flying changes, canter pirouettes, half pass and piaffe. The Major got off and handed me the reins, and he said; "if a horse can feel the legs of a fly, then what are we doing"? That day my life changed. I realized that my instincts were right, and never again would I resort to harsh bits or devices to train any horse. Ironbird broke the sidereins I attempted to use on him once, by rearing up and putting his front legs through the reins and doing the splits, breaking the reins. He would not tolerate restriction of any kind. Major Carmona changed my life that day, and the red horse with all that fire became my greatest teacher. I had to learn to be soft or die, simple!
As the years passed, we became fast friends, and no one rode the Bird but me. He was great with kids on the lunge, but free it had to be me. He was a wonderful horse, powerful, athletic, smart and very sensitive. You had to sit just right, use your leg and hand like a feather or you got told - this is not working for me! I spent many nights lying in bed re- evaluating my ride and deciding on how I could improve the next day. The lessons I learned from Bird served me well with horses to this day, as I am able to read them and become the rider/trainer that they need to succeed, and not just adopt a cookie cutter attitude to training. This is why I am so against devices and harsh bits, because if I had tried any of those things on that horse he would have killed me. I tried a few things, but after he broke the sidereins, I gave up and rode in a snaffle, with no tie downs or spurs. That horse took me to short list for the Pan Am Games in 1990 for dressage, it was a wonderful experience, and I have "the big Red horse" to thank for the most valuable lessons any horsewoman could ever hope to learn. One day I will write a book about him - stay tuned!