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.


Anita said...

" It is much much trickier than it sounds."
No, it sounds just as tricky as it probably is...

I'm very impressed... Sounds like a lot of very rewarding work...

CindyDianne said...

the line, the whip... those are the reasons I like a round pen. No lunge line. But, you still have to have the triangle. JJ and I have difficulty with turns. He should turn as soon as I step forward, but he doesn't.

You turned it around though! Proud of you.

Last line line is pure brilliance.

Balloon Pirate said...

Wow. Great piece of writing. I've only recently discovered that when you can't get a step right, it's because you're not done learning the previous one. Looks like you've learned it, too.

Soghi Effendi came up with something called the Dynamics of Prayer for Solving Problems. I think I sent you a copy of it once. In your worries about your life, I think you should refer to step five:

Act as though it had all been answered. Then act with tireless, ceaseless energy. And as you act, you yourself will become a magnet, which will attract more power to your being, until you become an unobstructed channel for the Divine power to flow through you.

In other words: act as if what you want--a house in the country, with time and room for your horses--has already happened (remembering to do steps 1-4 first, of course--see the beginning of this post), and soon enough it will.

I'm so glad I know you.

Keep the faith, baby.


Heidi the Hick said...

Anita, you know, now that you mention it...yeah!

It is very rewarding work, but frustrating. Isn't it always that way?

Cindy, we are seriously talking about investing in a round pen. It just seems so much safer than fiddling with all those ropes and things. But I still have to have my horses trained to work on a lunge line for lessons purposes. Just have to keep working on it. And working and working...

I knew you'd like that last line. I knew it.

Pirate, Isn't it true?! I keep teaching myself over and over again and I hope some day I'll KNOW it.

Keep the faith for sure! I think what you're talking about, and what that prayer is about, is faith. Faith is strong but like other invisible things, hard to believe in! I've been thinking about this so much-- that I have it, and act on that. It is sometimes so hard though. Well, isn't everything? Taking small steps. Small steps add up.


CindyDianne said...

line line? Last line! I like that you knew what I was talking about. Lunging in the round pen is probably safer...so, if you can, invest in one.

Heidi the Hick said...

It's ok, I speak Cindy.

I speak Biddie too.

I'm multilingual.

coffeypot said...

I think the initial problem was you didn’t have his totally undivided attention. I’ve heard that a two-by-four between the eyes does wonders to alleviate that. And if he is testing you, and has the same notion I just gave your, then I suggest you don’t turn your back on him.

Does blowing your breath into Jethro’s nose calm him down, too? I mean, since he’s such a stud and all. It might work.

Olly said...

I envy you for your ease with horses. They are so smart and know full well when someone is scared of them. Oh well...I will have to settle for admiring them from afar.

dilling said...

I don't know a damn thing about riding, lunging or whatever...but I was greathing the breathe of my very good friend today...and when I tried to leave he grabbed my scarf in his mouth to keep me there...he seems so lonely. If I steal him, can I bring him to you?

dilling said...


Heidi the Hick said...

Coffeypot, seriously, people have told me that a 2x4 between the ears is a really good training tool! I remember looking at one guy and then very slowly asking..."How do I get on the horse, with the 2x4, and hang onto it until he rears up, and then clock him, without dropping it or falling off???"

The response? "Well, I did it. Worked for me."

Yeah, like you said...best to not turn your back!!!

(And yep, Jethro calms right down when I breathe in his nose. Works every time. I'm sort of a Husband Whisperer.)

Olly, you can admire them here anytime! I have an ease around horses because I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't have one. I was blessed. I think it can be developed. Or you can watch them over the fence! My mom loves that!

Dilling, I still say you should put a note in a ziploc bag and ask if he's for sale.

Or track down the house that's attached to that field. It never hurts to ask, you know. Dad could have sold each of our horses ten times over. People asked if Champ was for sale at least three times each summer for a few years there.

As for bringing him to me, in a perfect world, YES!

Marni said...

that was wonderful. you are wonderful. pheonix is wonderful.

I'm gushing... sorry.


Watched this sort of thing loads of times when Jax was younger - and a good rider too. Always fascinated me.

I once conned a horse into letting me sit on it.

Lynn Sinclair said...

I'm so glad you were able to get out with your horses. Perhaps a bit frustrating at times, but what a wonderful way to spend the day.

coffeypot said...

No! You don't understand! You use the 2x4 BEFORE you get on. After you get on you use those old fashion ice grips in the ears. At least that’s what Sweet Tea use on me when I get cranky.

Husband Whisperer! Hah, that was great.

Mikey said...

Just been lurking, but had to put my 2 cents in on the 2x4/rearing issue. My 8 yr old self-trained gelding started that nonsense last year, on roundup. He gets excited and can't contain himself. I bopped him w/my hand between the ears to no avail (and the amusement of other cowboys). Finally he reared straight up in a bad place, we nearly went over and I got mad. Cause he was gonna kill me.
I waited till he started to pop up, then I leaned forward, grabbed an ear , twisted and said "You SOB, I will tear your ear off if it gets in my face again"
Lo and behold, it worked. He still gets excited and tries to pop up once in a while, all it takes is a hand toward the ear to stop it. And he's not head shy, I ONLY do it when he rears while I'm on him.
Love your blog, I come in every few days to lurk, and wish I could make myself write a book. Thanks for Nathan Bransford's link too, I've been reading how to write a proper query letter. Good stuff!
Keep going girl, you ROCK!!
PS, I'm an AZ farrier and mom, and I blog here

Heidi the Hick said...

Welcome, Mikey!

One of my most serious beliefs in horse training is that you must not get hurt. Don't let the horse hurt you.

Far cry from whacking him with a 2x4!

Thanks for unlurking! Farriers are some of my favourite people!

Marla said...

Beautiful horse. I would love to ride.