Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Wonderful Morning at the Barn, Part Two: Desensitization

After feeding Midnight his lunch yesterday, I put him back out in the pasture and went to see Galahad, who was indoors. It was getting close to time to leave by then, so I decided to do another Walk to Look at Scary Things.

It’s getting harder to find things that actually scare him. These days, he’s wary of some things, but for the most part his curiosity easily wins out.

We looked at the shavings pile and its fence and the pieces of rope hanging from it: no big deal. The newly graded driveway by the arena barn door, which was terrifying (for five minutes) while it was happening on Monday, wasn’t even interesting. So I took him around the back of Barn 8 where the farrier was working.

The noise and the odors of the old-style hot-shoeing methods usually make horses uneasy. Galahad was unfazed. But there was a full trash barrel, which has been scary before and might provide another lesson.

Nope. Not scary. Not even several big, empty plastic bags, which often terrify even seasoned horses. When I pulled one out to show it to him, he sniffed it, grabbed it in his teeth, and started shaking and flapping it all around. That bag, it seemed, was the best toy that little buckskin had ever had! He wouldn’t give it back to me. Instead, he chewed it and dropped it, picked it up and shook it all around, over his head, side to side, making a huge noise that I was really afraid would scare the farrier’s equine customers.

“Desensitization” doesn’t seem to be an issue for Galahad.

Eventually, he was willing to give the bag back to me, and we walked down to the creek to give him a drink of creek water and a little grass. I got cold, and was pleased that when I said to him, “Come on, Galahad. Let’s go,” he lifted his head and walked over to me. I expected an argument, since he hasn’t had grass in quite a while. But he was very good!

As we walked past the barn toward the pasture, I noticed that the rear barn door was still half-shut, and I remembered how nervous some of the horses had been going out earlier. Galahad and I walked over to the door, and he did get worried about it, especially once I pulled it down an inch and it made a loud noise.

Galahad and I worked with that door for probably ten minutes. He’s gotten so that he trusts me as he would his mother (now, don’t you all laugh at me!). I’ve convinced him, though lots of work, that if I say something won’t hurt him, then it probably won’t. It may take him a couple of tries, but at this point in our relationship, he’ll walk up and sniff pretty much anything I set out to show him, even a noisy sliding barn door. By the end of our “lesson,” Galahad was walking calmly under that door, ducking his head to go through, in both directions; and he stood quietly while I raised it and lowered it several inches. We’ll need to work on that a lot more, I suspect, but that was a very good start.

For me, the trust aspect is one of the most remarkable and rewarding parts of my relationship with Gahahad. It’s wonderful to watch his expression go from fright—head up and back, eyes rolling, jaw and lips tight—to curiosity—eyes wide but relaxed, nose and ears forward as he sniffs whatever it is—and then to playfulness—a quick nibble, maybe a lick. Or, in the case of the plastic bag, to full-on play. I sure love that horse.

(Top photo by S. Ryan)

A Wonderful Morning at the Barn, Part One

Yesterday’s horse morning was really fun. I decided to ride Midnight instead of Galahad, having realized that green horse + novice rider + great outdoors = accident in the making.

I had to go get Midnight from the field. The footing out there is horrific—even worse than fetlock-deep mud is fetlock-deep mud whose holes and clods are frozen rock-hard. He’s always happy to come out with me, but I had to go all the way out to get him, because the herd leaders won’t allow him near the gate at that time of day. I cleared them with a few flicks of the lead rope as we got close.

Midnight is such a good little trail horse. He loves it out there. He had to trot a lot to keep up with the two gaited horses, but did it with no urging from me. I always worry about his back, when what I probably should be worried about is my own back, as jarring as that trot of his is! You can’t really post to it, and can’t really sit it, so you just laugh, try a little of both, and pray he doesn’t keep it up for too long.

We all had a blast. It wasn’t a long ride, though the horses would gladly have gone on for hours. We humans had frozen toes and fingers in no time.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Midnight's a pretty smart horse

I rode Midnight bareback in the indoor arena this morning while Deb rode Galahad. Midnight and I worked on reining, and on stops.

As I got on, Galahad was right behind us, and I could feel Midnight tense up and think about doing ugly things, like kicking or biting, which is what the two of them always do when they’re in there together, unsaddled. But he didn’t do anything, just put his ears back. We moved away without incident.

Midnight is a delightful horse, despite his cantankerous and opinionated nature. He’s well trained and knows his business. The old fellow seems to actually enjoy doing turns and figure eights. Stopping and standing still, not so much; and walking in circles around the ring, not at all. He’s a really good horse for someone like me to learn on, because he’s forgiving of my errors and inconsistent cues.

The other day he and I went out on the trail for a while with some other people. Midnight and I came back early so I could meet up with our trainer and his daughter and ride with them and Galahad. I was riding bareback, and as we came through the gate from the trail and headed back toward the barn complex, I decided to ride over to the trailer and put the saddle on, because that’s still easier on Midnight’s back and my butt.

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than Midnight turned sharply left, unasked, and walked toward the trailer. I was surprised by this, and thought maybe he was planning on taking a shortcut through the other barn back to his stall. But no: He walked past the other barn and directly to the trailer, where he stood calmly for me to get off.

I’ve heard GaWaNi Ponyboy talk about horses reading their rider’s intentions, but had not experienced it before that. It was pretty amazing.

(Photo by DLK)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Trail Riding

I have been riding Galahad more lately. Midnight's little 14-inch saddle (necessary because of his small size and his swayed back) doesn't fit me or Galahad very well. Yesterday a friend lent me her endurance saddle, one that she doesn't use on her small-framed Paso Fino. It fits Galahad perfectly, and is extremely comfortable.

I rode him bareback out to graze back before it got so cold--and promptly fell off when I tried to get off his back. It was graceful, they said (wouldn't you know I'd have an audience of other riders), and some even thought that landing in a seated position near Galahad's head was intentional. It was just that the distance between his back and the ground and from Midnight's back to the ground is about a foot different.

Yesterday, with the "new" saddle, we went out with a group of friends on their gaited horses. Galahad was amazingly good. It was a chilly morning, just the way the horses like it, and all of them wanted to run. The other horses were all pitching fits, bouncing around, and just generally being baaaad boys. True to his quarter-horse breeding, Galahad walked calmly along, for the most part, though he was hyper-alert and interested in everything. I had to urge him into a trot several times to catch up to the others. Gaited horses move very quickly, and my guy tends to prefer a casual saunter to anything that takes much effort.

Halfway through the ride, we came to a short but steep downhill section of the trail. All four horses, including Galahad, broke into a canter. At the bottom of the hill we encountered another group of riders, and stopped to chat. The horses, predictably, got excited with the little bit of a run, and with seeing yet more of their buddies.

Things got a little dicey for me at that point.

We were OK until the others rode off to continue the ride. Galahad, picking up the energy of the other horses, wanted to canter, and I didn’t—I’m still not all that comfortable with that gait. When I asked him to walk, he refused and started to run; so I took firm hold of the right-hand rein and cranked his head to the side until his nose nearly touched my toe. This is called the “one-rein stop,” and it’s a lifesaver, sometimes literally. With his head in that position, all the horse can really do is spin.

And spin he did, let me tell you. At least three times clear around before he even thought about slowing down. I released the pressure just a little, and he was ready to run again. So I cranked (BTW, that doesn’t hurt their mouth, because the pressure is against the side of their face) and he spun. We kept that up for quite a while. Finally, he agreed to stand still.

A couple of my companions brought their horses back, and we cut the ride a little bit short. Galahad, to his credit, walked back very nicely.

When we got back to the barn, in spite of his little fit, the group voted him the best behaved of all the horses. Very good boy! And I learned that I can actually stay on him when he misbehaves.

I didn’t start shaking until I got off….

Groundwork, Part Two

January 5, 2010. It was terribly cold yesterday at the barn—temperatures in the low teens. Since my riding lesson was cancelled, Galahad and I did groundwork: sidestepping up to walls, hitching posts, wash stands, and other barriers; walking and backing over that scary, horse-eating pole on the barn floor (for the third day in a row); practicing tight turns on a lead without me getting run over. Then I fed him his lunch and let him romp in the arena.

I didn’t ride at all, but we had a very good session. I practiced keeping my energy level low, smooth, and kind, and did a lot of stroking and talking softly. He seemed to respond very well, and even came over to me when he got tired in the arena, which he hasn’t been doing up until now.

The last couple of days I’ve been working on a different energy, and a slightly different desired outcome, with Galahad. Many trainers want to dominate the horse—to be the unquestioned Leader. This is my father’s approach: to demand, expect, and receive instant obedience. The trainers at the stable are always telling me to be more assertive, even aggressive, with the horse. Yes, they get quicker results. But I’m after something different—I want to be the Lead Mare, but I want to be a “beloved leader,” not just an unquestioned leader. I think that is possible.

What I’m trying to do is insist on obedience, but use patience and a firm but comforting touch to get my results. I find myself saying, “Yes, you can!” to Galahad when he refuses something, and giving him a gentle tap or two on the shoulder as an encouragement. “I’ve got you,” is another one I find myself using. Not that he understands the words, obviously, but he understands the tone and the energy. I want him to know he’s safe, that I won’t ask him to do anything that will hurt or injure him, and also that I expect him to obey. The trainers would have me get in his face and shake the rope, or even use a stick to encourage him; I don’t find that necessary, most of the time.

January 6, 2010. I was SO proud of Galahad today. I led him over to the arena wall, climbed up on it, and brought him a couple of steps closer to me. Then I leaned out a little, pointed to his butt, and he sidled over right next to the rail. Took two tries and he had it, from both sides. Smart horse! Soon, I'll teach him to stand there while I hop on, but for now, this is huge! Today, the wall; tomorrow, out on the trail, a rock or a log….

Groundwork, Part One

I found some entries from right around the first of the year that I never got around to posting here, but which seem important to note, so in this and a couple of following notes I’ll sort of catch up to where Galahad and I are now.

January 1, 2010. Everyone keeps asking me if I’m riding Galahad yet, or when I’m going to ride him, or why I’m not riding him more. A big part of it is that I don’t like fighting with him. When I ride him, because he’s not used to me on his back, he gets confused about what I want and we both get tense. That is not fun for either of us, and it’s not the kind of relationship I want with him.

When we work on the ground, with him on the halter, things are very different. We are both calm; he trusts me to tell him what to do, to let him know what’s safe and what isn’t. He is learning what’s OK to do and what isn’t. Our understanding of each other is growing. Eventually, I’m sure, that will translate to mounted work. But for now, groundwork feels right, and riding him does not.

I’ve done a lot of reading, and have talked with people who actually know a lot about horses—not just those who know about riding. All agree that at this stage of Galahad’s training, groundwork is way more important than riding, and I should go with my gut to decide when the right time to ride him is.

So today I just relaxed, and we worked with getting him to scoot sideways up to the wall, and to stand there quietly while I got up on the wall and moved around. I also got him from being spooked by a rail propped on two buckets in the arena to trotting—and later, trotting freely—over that same scary rail on the ground. So it felt really good—I’m working on trust and calmness. A good way to begin the year.

It’s another lesson he’s teaching me: patience, following my own instincts.

(photo by K. Silloway)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The táltos horse

These last few months, my life has been so transformed by my little horse Galahad that I have wondered what his significance is to me, and to my life’s work.

His appearance coincides with a time when I am casting about for the next steps on my path in life, which a year ago seemed so clear to me. These days, the way is pretty well hidden. Why this horse, at this moment? That he is special in some important way is clear, and not just to me; but in what way? What does he have to teach me?

Doing some reading at Costco yesterday, to pass the time while waiting on new tires for my car, I came across a fascinating article by scholar and Jungian psychologist Eleonóra Babejová called “And the River Swelled with Horses” (Spring Journal, Vol. 82, pp. 131-151) on the symbolic role of the horse. She talks about the ancient nomadic peoples of Eurasia, about centaurs and shamans, and about horses in Hungarian mythology. In these myths, the táltos, or the One Who Travels Across Borders, can take either human or equine form.

Horses in the myths and legends of many cultures appear as bearers of messages between worlds. It is often said that horses, extraordinarily sensitive creatures, can even perceive the spirits of the dead. For me this was a striking image, because this same idea showed up in a television program I had watched the night before. Coincidence? Or synchronicity?

Babejová speaks of the táltos horse in Hungarian myths and folk tales as being

an ugly, thin, or neglected animal, seeming more dead than alive as it lies on a garbage pile or heap of dung. Not unlike as in alchemy, the gold is found in the dung or dross, but only by the wise who know where to look. So the real nature of the horse can only be recognized by a táltos [in human form]…. Then the horse changes to a golden, silver, or diamond horse.... (p. 136)

That paragraph really caught my eye! My Galahad is certainly a táltos, by that definition (though I don't mean that in a literal sense). He was rescued, nearly dead, and brought back to life by those of us who saw his value. He clearly has something special to impart to me—I have often felt this. And I often refer to him as “my golden and silver horse.”

So: I've been given another clue. I’m going to read deeply into this article and see what other hints may lie among its words.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Riding Galahad

I had a chance to ride Galahad out on the trail Sunday afternoon, something I’ve never done before. The weather was still cold but warmer than it had been the week before, and the ground was snow-covered. We followed Romeo, an experienced trail horse, so that Galahad would know where he was supposed to go. Galahad is still learning about steering.

He actually performed quite well. He spent a lot of time looking around and leaning this way and that, so it was obvious that he would have loved to just take off and run, but he didn’t. He was wearing his bridle and snaffle bit, but I had the reins looped over the saddle horn and was guiding him with the rope halter. All it took was light pressure on the rope reins to get him back on track. When he started tossing his head, I just spoke sternly to him, and he quit.

The problem, if there was one, was me: I was on the alert, not quite nervous but getting there, the entire time. Understandable, since I’m an inexperienced rider and he’s only been ridden 20 times or so—not much for a trail horse! But Galahad is exceptionally willing and calm for his age, and I’m a dancer with good balance, a good feel for my “partner’s” signals, and quick reflexes. It’s unlikely that I’ll get dumped. Still, I worry.

I did hop off when we encountered a young couple being dragged along the trail by their pit bull mix who seemed very interested in Galahad. I didn’t want to take the chance. Galahad, predictably, made no fuss at all. Later on I led him to a bench along the trail, where our groundwork on sidestepping up to walls, benches, and mounting blocks paid dividends. I was able to mount without any difficulty. However, when I went to bend his head toward the bench, he spooked and hopped backward several steps. Instinctively, I just rode it out, turned him, and got him stopped. No fuss, no problem, no nerves, in that moment. So, what’s my problem? I do just fine when the chips are down!

This seems to typify my biggest obstacle to riding, and maybe to success in life in general. In my mind I rehearse all the possible bad outcomes of everything I undertake. Why don’t I rehearse the optimal ones? It would certainly be more helpful than what I’m doing now. No answers, at the moment.

Think I’ll try that. Visualize positive outcomes. Yup. Just as soon as I’m sure Galahad won’t dump me off….