Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Last night at my lesson I was to ride Champ, whom I’ve ridden a couple of times before and liked. He’s a little bigger than Galahad, with a long, rangy canter that took some getting used to.

Like most of the lesson horses, Champ is a bit crabby at times. I don’t blame them—that’s not my idea of an ideal life for a horse. But in general, he’s fine. His worst habit is making a funny face by sticking his tongue out the side of his mouth and wagging it when he’s annoyed.

Last night when I groomed him I noticed that he flinched a little when I got close to his “elbows,” and he tried to kick with his hind foot when I brushed his flanks. I was paying attention, and I thought he was objecting to the stiff brush that was in his tack bag, so I promised him I wouldn’t brush those sensitive parts.

I got the saddle on him, and he did get more agitated when I went to tighten the cinch. They all do that, even Midnight and Galahad. Then I ducked under his neck (he was cross-tied, which is the rule when students saddle the horses) to snug up the other side, and as I passed his head, he grabbed my shoulder and bit. Hard. Very hard. I yelled, then stood there and looked at him, wondering what the heck he did that for?

The instructors, who had seen it happen, came running. My favorite “Dances With Hooves” t-shirt was full of drool and blood. It did hurt like the very dickens, but mainly I wanted to find out what was wrong with the horse that would make him behave that way.

After some searching, they discovered a big and obviously painful scab on his belly, right where the cinch crosses it. It’s not a place that you can see without getting under the horse, and I had failed to even run my hand under there. I’m not excusing biting behavior, but poor Champ had no other way to communicate his pain under the circumstances.

So what did I learn? First, never to assume anything, lesson horse or no. I should have checked more closely when he acted up, since I did have some previous experience with this particular horse. I needed to pay more attention to the signals he was giving me, especially because these horses, who are deliberately tied from both sides of their heads so that they’re easier to saddle, have limited ways of telling us they’re not feeling well.

I’m just glad it was me and not some little child who had the experience. A bite this severe on a tiny body could have had lasting effects. As for me, thanks to “Chomp,” I won’t be wearing any off-the-shoulder dresses for a couple of months, but I’m not badly injured.

(The photo, BTW, is Midnight.)

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