It’s been just over a year since Connie died; my first horse, the horse of my dreams, my childhood horse. I felt like shunning horses away forever; something inside of me died. That was until this last July.
My family helps temporarily house abused and starved horse cases in the town where I live. This year saw an influx of horses seized. The starved creatures come off the horse trailer barely able to stand, unable to put up any sort of fight as they are led into the corrals with fresh water, and not long after, fresh hay. At my parent’s place they are fed small handfuls of hay throughout the day until they are able to handle regular feeding schedules again, they are eventually bathed and slowly brought back to life.
Some of them are easy to build back up again; they are tossed small portions of grass hay throughout the day to avoid over-indulging and eventually worked back up to normal feedings. Some horses require extra special attention and are near death when they show up. I didn’t have the heart or stomach to handle helping any of them since my horse died. Their heads drooped low to the ground and they look up at us as without so much as a gleam of hope in their eyes that somebody might actually feed them, that somebody might care. As weeks go by their heads raise up, ever so slightly. Another week goes by and their eyes open just a little bit wider. Oftentimes their hooves are curled over out of neglect and they have developed further leg issues because of it. We can see each bone in their skeletal bodies. Over time that begins to change, their hair glistens a little, some of them begin to snort and toss their heads when dinner times roll around. Some of them, are just grateful to see food. Still not convinced that food and kindness is a regular occurrence yet, that they stand patiently, ears forward, beholden of such a simple, kind gesture.
A fiery, spotted mare showed up one day, plopped on the property along with a black gelding who was a mere rib-cage on legs.
“We want that paint mare,” my parents decided. The mare with the attitude and flippant prance out of the horse trailer. Apparently she was a job to get IN the trailer. She had stayed at another foster facility before my parent’s place, another family who thought she might be a good fit in their home quickly changed their minds. I’m guessing this is after she grabbed the bit and tried to run them into next week.
“I don’t know what he’ll do with that one …” I overheard them say as the mare pranced around the pen, tossing her head. Mind you, my parent’s don’t ride. I was still in my selfish ineptitude of helping the horses, afraid to let my heart care about another horse. All my horse-love went to my one horse during my childhood.
And then that fiery paint showed up, staring off into the distance as if challenging the fences that held her to dare try and keep her in. The feeling I felt must have been similar to that of Tom Smith (Seabiscuit’s trainer) when he saw Seabiscuit fighting his way around the racetrack, a 2-yr old beaten up racehorse with a flame that couldn’t be extinguished.
Who knows what she has seen in her 12 some previous years. We’re not really sure how old she is, she has no history or paperwork to go along with her, and we have no idea where she came from. I saw an attitude and an undaunted flame that reminded me of my childhood horse, a horse that dared me to ride her, or dared me to join along for the ride. And you bet I did.
I wasn’t expecting much out of the first ride. A free horse to ride after a year of not riding, a horse that needed help, was probably just what I needed. Riding her for the first time was a trip. I moved slowly through the usual paces to see what she’d done before. As a horse showing up with no history, I didn’t know if she’d been ridden before or seen a bit, but she stood stock-still while tied, and let me pick up all four hooves with only a small kick of the rear feet out in protest. Something she still does each time her hind feet are picked up. I cautiously set the saddle on her back and tightened it. She opened her mouth for the bit I hand-walked her around the property to see how she did with the feel of the saddle upon her back, and then I stepped up. There was no giant lurch forward as I expected. She seemed happy to have something to do, and someplace to go. I only gently encouraged her forward and toward the places I wanted to go, a soft squeeze with my calves. As soon as she disobeyed and the pressure became stronger, she felt the hard bit against her mouth, and then her fight began. I walked her around in circles until she calmed down, and then got off to reconvene with the problem another day.
What this pretty spotted horse didn’t expect though, was a lack of fight on my end. Instead of yelling, hitting, spurring etc. when she protested at what I asked (something she seemed very used to doing) I quietly walked her through doing what I asked. I remained persistent and slow at what I was asking, until she caved. Always getting what I wanted in the end. She expected a fight to breakout at each wrong-doing she started, KNOWING that she was rebelling against my asking and just waiting for the outlash. No fight ever came.
With each day we did small lessons, each day ending on a positive note, retraining her brain that I am not going to fight with her, but rather work with her to help her to understand what I am asking her to do. She learns new commands almost instantly and particularly grasps on to tricks, like fancy sidepasses and shaking hands. She is bored!
But whether or not her brain is going to kick into rebel mode at the moment of asking, or do what I asked, is a different story.I’m sure it also has something to with how appealing the command goes along with her own plans for the day. It’s still also seems directly determined by the severity of how I ask. If I am prepared, drop my hip and heel first into the stirrup before ever so slightly and almost simultaneously put a slight pressure on the bit, while also encouraging with my opposite calf, she will listen. If that order is broken, distracted or slowed, or ever too severe or unplanned, she fights. She grabs the bit and nearly runs sideways in the opposite direction. Mind you, I am using a very soft snaffle bit on her. Yes, she keeps me on my toes!
We still have adventures in bucking. If anything is uncomfortable to her, she’ll throw a fit. I miss the wide spaces of Colorado where we could just go straight for miles and fix the problem, not coming home until we did. This horse has little patience. And in that, I must remember that she does want to please, she dares me to work with her and if I go about it the right way, she will happily do so. I have to constantly force myself to remember to look at the scenario in a different light if it isn’t working. She is just a horse, and she is trying. She’s just been beat up a little somewhere, and I have to go in and show her a different way. Just as my friend Kaylin (who trains and re-trains horses often) said the other day;
“Isn’t it amazing that we can take these animals whose basic instinct it is to stay alive, and teach them that everything they’ve ever known isn’t right behavior.”
They have an amazing ability to learn, to adapt, and to survive in whatever situation they find themselves in. It’s a partnership, we are harnessing the strength and great power of these wonderful animals.
If your horse says no, you either asked the wrong question, or asked the question wrong. ~ Pat Parelli