Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Changing Relationship With my Horses, Part Two: Galahad

I’ve been spending a lot of time just hanging around with my big guy lately: stroking, walking, grazing, grooming, cleaning his feet. Putting Desitin on his undercarriage to discourage the flies, which have been terrible already this year. Riding him, bareback, just moseying along the road. Standing with him in the pasture, watching him interact with his buddies. I feel like I’m finally getting to know his real self.

The other day I walked out to the pasture on an unseasonably hot afternoon. Galahad left the rest of the herd standing in the shade and came over to me right away.

I stood there and just stroked him for a while. The big, blue-eyed Paint threatened to come running over and chase him, but I got between them and waved my rope; the Paint suddenly discovered a very tasty clump of grass. I kept walking toward him, though, casually swinging my rope until he decided to leave in a hurry. Galahad, as usual, was watching with big eyes. “Wow! Did you see that?!” My big, gentle guy is pretty close to the bottom in the herd’s social structure.

The flies were miserable, and Galahad was clearly grumpy because of it. He kept moving his hindquarters closer to me, which is unusual for him, and “pointing” at his belly with his nose. He was pretty clearly asking for help with the flies. I offered the halter and he stuck his nose in it.

He wasn’t keen on walking anyplace very fast, but we eventually made it to the barn. It’s not like I was in any kind of hurry. I tied him to the hitching post, cleaned his feet, and put lots of bug spray on him (though it was only the herbal one, which lasts approximately five minutes). Then I put Desitin on his underneath parts again. He likes the feel of that—I think it’s soothing, and really does keep the flies off for at least a day. There were a couple of ticks, too that I got rid of for him.

Then we went into the small arena, where I started teaching him to step sideways over a downed barrel. Some of our horses at the Rescue Ranch actually like doing that. Galahad? Not so much.

He did it once, after much coaxing. I instantly walked away as a reward, then raved over him, gave him a cookie, and everything. He looked quite pleased with himself. I decided to see if he’d do it again—his pouty face came on, and suddenly the flies became even more unbearable. I admit to pushing him harder the second time. Finally, he did it again, but not willingly. I ignored that, fussed over him again, and took his halter off.

He didn’t even want to roll. Instead, he started yawning, pointedly, non-stop. “This is SO boring.” I laughed, walked over toward him with the halter held out, and said, “Are you ready to go?” He stepped right over and stuck his head in it. My boy is a clear communicator; I’ll say that for him.

After that, we walked up the hill, past the new, scary ducklings in the little shed. Galahad wasn’t nearly as unnerved by them as Midnight had been earlier that day, but still, it was something to wake a guy up. Then we came back, had a treat, and I rode him back down to the pasture. Good boy!

Interesting: our relationship is changing and Galahad clearly notices it, so he keeps testing me to find the new limits. And I’m still figuring out what those limits are—it’s a moving target, and, like any relationship, will always exist in a state of dynamic balance. But I feel like I’m seeing him as a fellow being now, not just as a horse. It’s worth the effort.

A Lesson from Nevada

I made a serious error the other day: I embarrassed Nevada in front of her friends—I swear!—by making her work right there in the pasture.
Pasture 5 is a LONG way down the lane. I was tired, it was hot, but I felt I SHOULD work with her. Now, a “should” in that context ought to have tipped me off right away that my judgement was impaired. But it didn’t.

The mares were all at the bottom of the pasture, clearly enjoying the grass that had just been mowed. So fragrant, even to me!

I walked toward the herd at the bottom of the pasture. Nevada came willingly once I got close, and I put the halter on her. Then I did a short version of our normal workout: yielding front and hind, circling me at a walk and trot—but all of it right there next to the rest of the herd. And I’m certain that she saw absolutely NO point in it. There weren’t even any treats involved.

We didn’t work for long—maybe five minutes. But it was long enough, apparently, to offend a sensitive nearly-three-year-old.

The next day, when I went to get her, Nevada took off running as soon as I got anywhere close. She’s a smart little mare: She took the entire herd down to the creek, where I couldn’t get to her without wading in and making a big fuss. Clearly, she wanted no part of me and my stupid games! Only then did I stop to see things from her perspective, and I couldn’t blame her for being offended.

The mares stayed in the water a long time—I could hear them splashing. I deserved to be dissed, so I had to laugh—but I just waited her out. I had my camera with me, and went off and took some photos.

Eventually, they all came back out, running and rolling and bucking and farting. Nevada soon spotted me, and then the real games began. She’d chase and bite at one horse or another to make them run, the stinky little mustang, to provide her with cover so she could “hide” behind them.

No matter. I made sure she kept running, and that she knew that the running was my idea, not hers. She’s such a joy to watch—that natural self-carriage and collection of hers is something to see.

Eventually, after several trips around the pasture (interestingly, the rest of the mares didn’t move unless she made them move—obviously, they knew I wasn’t after them), Nevada slowed down and deigned to look at me, kind of sideways. I approached slowly, stopping and/or turning away to reward her every time she glanced in my direction. Once she quit running, she didn’t argue much, and didn’t try to move away as I approached.

When I got up to her, at first I just petted her until she relaxed a little, then walked away from her for a minute. Next time, I showed her the halter, then walked away when she relaxed. Then I put it around her neck and asked her to flex a little—no dice at first. She was still trying to ignore me. But eventually she gave just a bit, and I dropped the halter and walked away.

By this time, she’s looking at me like I’m crazy, right? But each time I walk back to her, she’s a little softer.

Eventually, I did put the halter on her, flex her, thank her, take it off, and walk away clear out of the pasture. She watched me but didn’t offer to follow. That’s OK. Next time.

It’s a lesson I won’t forget.

[This wonderful photo of Nevada and her friends is copyrighted by my good friend at AimingHigh Photography, used by permission.]

A changing relationship with my horses

I’m re-thinking how I relate to my horses the last few months. It started, really, back when I first got Galahad and realized that the accepted training methods—even those labeled “natural horsemanship”—didn’t sit well with me. They’re still based on the dominance/submission paradigm—“Me human, you horse: You obey or I will hurt you” kind of thinking.

It’s a moving target. I don’t have a problem with riding my horses, within reason; I do have a problem with bits and spurs. I don’t have a problem with them having opinions that get listened to, and I want them to have fun when we’re together; I do have a problem with them being pushy and disrespectful. On and on. Nothing is yet clear. They weigh nine or ten times as much as I do, and I need to be safe, too.

And because I’m working on this, it seems like I’m having more fun. I love the way my horses enjoy being with me. I love the way they come to me when I call them, sometimes at a trot.

Well, they come to me most of the time, at least.

[Note on the photo: Sharp eyes will see that the horse on the right is not Nevada, but one of Galahad's gelding buddies. Close enough in looks, though, and he didn't mind being in the shot.]