Monday, December 10, 2007
Yankin' My Chain...
In any new relationship, there’s an adjustment period. It’s no different with a new horse. I knew going in that Phoenix is gentle and friendly, but also that he’s extremely clever and quite stubborn.
What gets me through is that I know we are going to be great partners. He’s a good horse who came from a family of good horsepeople who treated him with respect and demanded good manners. I can work with this package.
But man, there are times when I wonder what the heck I’m doing here. I’ve got two young, green horses, and not enough time to work with them. Stupid. How have I gotten myself into this position? Pride? That I can still turn out a good horse on such little time? Refusing to admit that I’m a townie now? Stubborn optimism that it won’t be long now before we’re back in the country and living with our hooved friends?
I carved out three hours of horse time yesterday afternoon. It was a perfect day for working with horses: cold, but not too far below freezing, no wind, grey sky. Excellent.
However, these two characters hadn’t had anything done with them for many long weeks other than being groomed and having their hooves picked clean.
And, underneath the snow in some places lurked a nasty sneaky layer of ice. My perfect conditions didn’t look so perfect anymore.
I took Phoenix out to the pasture where the wind had blown the snow into a tight hard thin layer across the grass. I had the chain of the lunge line padded with vet-rap tape, I had my buggy whip, and I figured I’d just do a nice vigorous little lunging lesson with him.
I need to stop the story for two points of clarification.
One, Lunging for Those Who Don’t Know: This is a technique for exercising and training a horse that doesn’t require riding. I stand in the centre as my horse circles me on the end of a rope. Picture us forming a triangle; he is the side, I’m the point, with my rope arm one angle, the buggy whip arm the other angle. I need to keep my hip pointing in his direction of travel or he won’t keep moving. It is much much trickier than it sounds. When done right it’s great for getting the sillies out of a horse before you get on his back, and it’s good for working with him when there’s no time to saddle up. Plus, with a solid lunge trained horse, you can give a beginning rider more confidence in a lesson. However, if done wrong, you can get dragged, rope burned, and possibly run over. I’m not especially good at lunging, but since I intend to teach riding for a living, I need to get good at it.
Other point of clarification: Phoenix knows how to lunge, and he’s good at it. His previous owners lunged him before every ride. He knows what he’s doing.
I always avoided it in the past. I’d rather just ride. Champ hated it, probably, now that I look back, because I was doing everything wrong. I didn’t lunge the Little Mare because of her leg injury. Going in circles can put a lot of stress on a young horse’s bones and joints, and I won’t take a chance on laming her. Most of my lunging attempts with Phoenix haven’t gone as well as I’d like. His skills are more advanced than mine and he knows it. Horses have a way of dumbing themselves down in the most unflattering way. He won’t give you anything unless you figure out how to ask the right way. Champ did it to me when I got him. As soon as he was home with me he promptly forgot everything he knew. We got past it. I know Phoenix and I will too. But in the meantime...
I was standing in the middle of the white featureless field, facing this handsome spirited animal, who stared back with a face full of question marks. I blanked out. What do I do with him? I had a tangle of rope in one hand, buggy whip in the other, and a brain full of hum. I had a disorienting feeling of Jack Sparrow craziness surrounded by acres of whiteness and conflicting voices in my head. What am I going to do with this horse?
Everything wrong, of course. Once I got him into position and got him moving, he promptly swung his hip away from me and faced me with his ears up, looking at me like, “Now what???” Every time I got him going in the direction of the barn, his little girlfriend started up with her whinnying and pawing and he had another excuse to swing around and get distracted.
He was not happy with me.
In my frustration and usual lack of co-ordination, I accidentally waved the whip around in the air while trying to get my coil of rope straightened out, and my horse flipped his head up and took off at a fast trot. I dropped the whip and leaned back on the rope to keep him from dragging me across the snow. The chain rattled in the halter rings. He reared up and struck a hoof in the air. I was smart enough to not be underneath that. I’d reprimand his recklessness and try to get him back on track. The whole time, I eyeballed the hard snow and worried about the possibility of ice hiding underneath. I had to stop this futility. I gathered up my rope and led him across the snow, talking to him and making him walk beside me politely and respectfully.
I felt like a total failure. Here I had this perfectly good horse and I was systematically ruining him.
But I had to stop. Think. When something isn’t working, you have to take it back a step. Take it down to a more basic step. Start over from there. He was too fired up to lunge? Walk. Take him out of the big pasture. I took him back to the corral, where I found the only spot with no ice under the snow and let him out on a ten foot circle. Right back to a small and secure place. He tried to swing his hip away from me but I was on his case before he had a chance. I asked for one consistent circle at a walk, with no fussing at the horse tied to the barn, no cutting into the circle, no trying to get away. He did it. I asked for a whoa. He did it. I rubbed his forehead and between his ears. He blew out a big puff of a breath.
I sent him out on the line the other way. Even better.
We stood there for a few more minutes, rubbing his neck and face, breathing in his nostrils, hugging his neck. He is an affectionate creature, unabashedly enjoying the attention, and I gave it to him. I wanted him to know that even if it was just a few slow rounds, it was better that way than that awful experiment before. I don’t have to ask much of him but I want it done right.
He is testing me and I know it. That is the way it works. Somebody has to be in charge. He has to be able to trust me that I am in charge, that I won’t hurt him, but that if he gets out of line I’m going to smarten him up. That’s the only way he’ll respect me.
The little mare, on the other hand, has rarely tested me. She has no need. She’s been the bottom of the pecking order her whole life and she’s okay with it. She trusts me because she’s known me since she was a baby, and I’ve never given her a reason to not trust me. I took her out on the lunge line, for maybe the fifth time ever. She just walked along with no protests and hardly any fuss. She got her fair share of affection too, just like she always does.
Years ago, this whole session would have been a disaster. When I was younger I lost my temper more easily. I was frustrated to the point of tears yesterday, but experience has taught me that I have to back up, slow down, and think it out. Back to step one, if that’s what I have to do. I felt pretty good when I left the horses. It may not have been the lesson I thought I’d be teaching them, but it’s okay. Every time I prove to this horse that we can work together, no matter how seemingly insignificant the lesson is, I’ve succeeded. It looks like painfully small increments of success, but this is where the real work is. If I can handle him on the ground, I can handle him in the saddle.
And, there’s nothing in the world like a horse’s warm breath on your cheek. Nothing.