Monday, September 27, 2010

A very scary morning

So. Yesterday. The morning was chilly—the first real fall day—and a little breezy. When I got to the barn, there were several horses out in the pasture racing around, enjoying themselves immensely. Galahad was his usual self, glad to see me, anxious to get out and have fun. My plan was to ride him bareback down to the arena barn, like I always do, and then saddle him up.

Before I even got him out of his stall, I flexed him with the halter rope. He gave with very little fuss—a good sign, I thought, even though I could tell he was a bit rowdy. Who wouldn’t be, on a day like that?

I led him out to the cement mounting block near the geldings’ pasture. Just as we got there, one of the other boarders called to her horse, who came running up to the gate right there, along with a buddy. She got her horse out and led him past us, and the other horse galloped off. I flexed Galahad again, and he gave, though not quite as willingly, and I hopped on.

He stepped away from the block just a little before I got completely settled, so I corrected him—and as I did so, I realized that something was different. He stopped, all right, but with a head toss that I’ve not experienced before. This was not his usual head-down, shake to the side, bad-boy head toss. This one was some kind of nose-up jerking motion that was obviously more serious and far less light-hearted. I flexed his nose around to the right and kept it there for a minute, until he relaxed his neck. As soon as I let up, though, he jerked again. I flexed him to the left. He stood, then, and I asked him to move forward. He jumped and twitched, then jerked his head, and I realized that I was in trouble.

When I got him to stand quietly again, I could feel his tension. I wanted off his back, and soon, but couldn’t just bail. He agreed to tuck his head for me, and I got him to back up a step, then side pass about two steps; then I got off.

Thinking that maybe it was proximity to the pasture that was causing the problem, I led him over to another mounting block behind one of the barns, and got on again. This time things were, if anything, even worse.

It felt like I was riding a powder keg: I could feel him ready to explode at any moment. When I so much as touched him with my lower legs, he twitched and started to jump. If I released the rein pressure at all, he got light in the forehand and danced. I could feel the fear rising in my gut, something I have never felt before when riding that horse, not even when he bucked or even when I got back on him, head aching, after he spun me off. I was way out of my element here, in physical danger. And of course, the more fear I felt, the more jumpy Galahad got.

Despite the obvious threat, he hadn’t actually bucked yet. And with a horse, once he “wins,” you “lose,” and I did not want that to happen if I could safely (more or less) prevent it. So what, I asked myself, was the smallest “win” I could imagine in this situation?

By this time we were standing with his head cranked around to my left foot. I didn’t dare let him straighten it out, because when he did, he started to dance and hop. I did manage, somehow, to remember to relax my legs and seat and sit up straight, even though my body and mind were both screaming, “Tick mode! Hang on with everything you’ve got!!” I grabbed a handful of mane with my right hand and kept pressure on the left rein. So we stood, for probably five minutes, until he not only quit pulling, but let out a sigh.

However, it was quickly obvious that we weren’t out of the woods. He was still twitching and quivering and tense as all get-out. I didn’t dare let go of the rein holding his head to the side, but I did, after several tries, get him to step his hindquarters around quietly, without spinning. Whew--a "win," however small. Once he yielded, I told him what a good boy he was and got off, without releasing the flexion. I was never so glad to feel solid ground under my feet as at that moment.

Our work wasn’t done. He was wild-eyed and high-headed, quivering with defiance. So I made him back up until he settled down a bit, then led him back to his stall and switched the bridle for the rope halter. For that, he stood quietly, probably assuming he was done for the day. Sorry, my friend, but you’re not getting off that easy.

Galahad was in no mood to obey, and certainly in no mood to back up—but back up he did, all the way down the lane between the barns, past the gate to the geldings’ pasture, past a couple of horses tied up, down the incline, and into the muddy swale from the shavings pile out to the arena.

Mud!!! Sir Galahad the Prissy hates mud above all else, and being asked to back into it and across it was just too much. He reared and squirmed and nearly jerked the lead rope away, but I went with him and hung on to the end of it. He turned, still backing up, and actually found himself backing along the swale—horrors!

Finally, when he figured out I wasn’t the one who was going to do any backing down, he stopped, put his head down, and heaved a big sigh. Thank goodness he never discovered how close I was to giving up on what seemed like an impossible task.

From there, we walked the short distance to the arena barn. He wasn’t perfect, but didn’t offer any more of a fight.

Needless to say, I did’t ride him yesterday. He did get to run in the jump arena, like a mad thing, and chat with a few horse friends over the fence. Then, once I got a buggy whip, he did some work for me in there—I didn’t have speed controls in place, but I did have directional control, though it was a near thing a couple of times. It's a pretty strange experience to stand, armed only with a whip and a helmet, in front of a galloping horse and know that he will turn in the direction you demand.

After all of that, when it was time to go in, he walked with me clear across the arena to get his halter back on. And best of all, on the way there, I “sent” him across a scary couple of downed rails, and he went with no argument at all.

So all in all, I guess it was a good day. But I’m still pretty shaken up. We’ll see how he is today, and maybe I’ll get up the nerve to saddle him up for a bit.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


I spent yesterday afternoon out at the rescue ranch, working with “Jay,” the trainer there. We were chatting in the arena when one of his volunteers, an experienced dressage rider, saddled up a recently rescued filly. The volunteer had just finished working with another horse, an exceptionally nice mare with a pleasant and willing attitude.

The other little horse, Mia, was one that Jay had been showing to a potential adopter, a woman with two youngsters, when I arrived at the ranch.

I watched as the volunteer mounted the filly and rode her around the arena. It wasn’t long before she and Jay started talking about how wooden and unwilling this filly was. I could see that the woman was having trouble—the horse didn’t want to move, and did nothing at all without a fight of sorts. “Hard” was the description: to get her to back up or turn, the rider had to haul on her head as though it were a block of wood. The little horse didn’t try to buck, just didn’t seem to want to do much of anything.

“Well, you should have ridden her first, before you got on [the other horse]. Then this one wouldn’t have seemed so bad,” offered Jay.

“She has no heart,” said the woman. “She has the spirit of a wet noodle.” I protested at that description.

The woman got off. Jay took the reins. “Yeah, she’s not like [the other horse]. And she’s pushy. She pushed that other woman all over the arena while we were talking. Her size would make her a good kid’s horse, but with that pushiness, maybe not.” As they were talking, Jay handed me the reins and unsaddled the horse.

“What does that mean, she has no heart?” I asked them. To the filly, I suggested we needed to change her name to Noodle, and gave her a good head scratch. She just stood there, but she let me scratch her. When she blinked her eyes, I stopped scratching for a moment, to let her think about things.

“A good horse will do anything for you. This one doesn’t want to do anything at all—you have to make her.”

By now, something about the discussion had started to bother me. I started to lead Mia around. She didn’t really want to move, but with a “send,” and a not-too-gentle tap on her withers, she came with me.

Jay swapped the bridle for a rope halter, and the filly and I did some stopping and backing up. Again, she needed quite a bit of reinforcement to move, and she did seem pretty shut down. She didn’t really offer much of any response at all at first, but as we worked, she became more willing.

After I made her back nearly to the end of her lead rope and then had her come to me, she started to sniff me, and ended up with her nose buried in my shirt front. There she stood for quite some time, head down, just breathing, while I scratched her head and neck.

At one point, although I didn’t really see her move, I sensed that her attention had shifted and she was on the alert. Looking around, I saw that one of the other staff members was walking along the aisle. Interesting. I would have expected the filly’s head to go up, or the ears to flick, or something. Mia had made no detectable movement.

By this time, with no evidence but my gut, I was convinced that there was more to this filly than Jay and the woman rider were giving her credit for. This was no plug horse, no mean and pushy horse. Something was behind those beautiful eyes. What this little filly needed was relationship. She needed someone to believe in her and care for her. What she did NOT need was a person riding her who already believed she was worthless and hard and unwilling.

I led her around a little more, got her to yield her hindquarters, backed her up again. She did better this time. Then she started following me around, with no pressure at all on the lead rope. By the time Jay backed her out of the arena to return her to her stall, even he noticed how willingly and steadily she moved.

As we left her stall, Jay told me Mia’s story: She had been one of thirteen LIVE horses on the property she had been rescued from. The other thirteen were already dead.

This little filly haunted me all day and all night; her story needs to be told, it seems. Mia…MIA…missing in action. Mia’s heart is Missing In Action.

What horrors this little horse has seen in her short lifetime we will never know. Horses are intimately connected, psychically as well as physically, to their herd. Imagine the trauma of starvation and thirst, and the horror of feeling your friends and playmates die in front of your eyes, the terror of knowing there is no way out for you, either. Humans offer no hope, no succor.

How dare we judge this horse, or others like her? How dare we say, “She has no heart”? How dare we expect her to respond to us, to do our bidding with pleasure and willingness, when she is so shut down and traumatized by what we humans have done to her and her kind?

Please believe me when I say that I am not romanticizing this horse, nor downplaying the fact that she could be dangerously pushy, even at her small size. She is a survivor, and she will do what she needs to do to become dominant over anyone and anything in her environment, as a matter of survival.

However, in just those few minutes I spent with her, quietly asking nothing more from her than respect for my space while honoring hers, there was a difference. I know this, though the evidence for change was slight. I felt the difference, and so did she.

Mia’s heart will return, if she finds someone she can trust and respect, someone who believes in her and loves her. For that person, this filly will walk through fire. I pray that she finds such a friend. To that friend, she will give her whole, beautiful heart.