Merlin is not scared of trailers. He has ridden them all over the country. He happily walked into that same trailer before, on several occasions. But this past Sunday Patty and I went to load him up for a trail ride at her farm and not only did he balk, he broke his own halter in protest backing up and ran away. (I have the rope burn scars on my arm to prove it.) He ran off any my heart stopped. I was absolutely terrified he'd run out across the fields of Washington County. Luckily, he ran right back into the barn and the people tacking up and helped by blocking all exits and escape paths. I walked up to him, tied the lead rope around his neck, and got him back into his stall. Patty and I found a loaner halter shortly after, and tried loading him again. I decided I wasn't above bribing the freaked-out horse, and got a small bucket of sweet feed from the grain room. It worked, and an hour of chaos, sore arms, and a cup of grain later...we were on the road.
At Patty's he was a jerk and I was a wuss. He didn't want to listen to a thing I said and started backing up every single time I got on him, crow hopping and throwing his head. I'm sure it felt scarier than it looked, but I am still new at this. Scared, I jumped off. Patty eyed me like a hawk. She wasn't mean, but she was firm. She told me the horse could not win, and I'd get back up on him. This was not something I wanted to do. There was no bravery in my heart. I started making excuses, balking, hell I wanted to cry. I was scared and frustrated. Never before has Merlin been so obstinate. I worried it was a mistake, taking him out after his freak out and running off. I worried I would get hurt. I just worried. It's what I do.
I ended up getting back in the saddle. The plan was not to let the horse decide what it was doing.
Today Merlin was going to:
1. Get in the trailer.
2. Get tacked up and I would ride him.
3. Get back in the trailer.
I got back on and off that horse at least four times. Each time I got more worked up, which of course made him wound up. I didn't understand what was going on in his head? Finally, when I was about to break into tears Patty got out a lunge line and attached it to his bit. Without controlling anything, she just held the emergency breaks while I rode him around her. We started in circles and then up and down the driveway. Eventually we took off the extra line Patty was holding and I walked him around. It wasn't the heroic trail ride, but he did as I asked and I didn't give up. Patty exclaimed it was a day for the books, a success. I just felt like a rookie.
Getting him back on the trailer was another big production, taking over an hour in the rain. Nothing seemed to work. He was just being stubborn. Finally I made a trail of apples and carrots between grains and he crawled in, practically on his belly. I took him back to his stall at Riding Right feeling conflicted.
Monday I wrote my trainers at the barn about the weekend, and both decided that the "pony had my number." Meaning he simply was acting out, testing me, seeing what I was made of. He knew damn well how to trailer and walk on a trail. But he also knows I'm new at this, and don't have the confidence to put my foot down and MAKE him do the things I ask.
Tonight I rode him, and he was the same. Fussy, stubborn, and unwilling to do some basic things I asked. I decided he would not win this time. IF he didn't want to walk past a gate, I turned him around in a circle and we walked somewhere else I wanted to go. If he refused to move forward, I turned him and walked around things. We weaved around the jumps, walking over ones on the ground like logs on the trail. We went through tight corners, from walks into trots. And we walked from the indoor to outdoor arena like I asked. It wasn't always pretty, but I stuck to my guns. I think Merlin learned that the girl on his back tonight wasn't the pansy on his back Sunday. I was gaining on him.
What it all comes down to is confidence. Merlin is demanding more assertion from me, more self possession and certainty. He is forcing me to step up my game, claim my authority, and do it in a way that isn't unkind. I already know whips and spurs aren't the tools he reacts too. This isn't about beating him into place. What it is about is out-stubborning him. He has no idea who he is dealing with. I have the gold, silver, and bronze metals in stubborn smelted together into a balking donkey trophy in my soul.
So we'll get there. We have trainers, friends, and resources on our side. This is just forcing me to be a stronger person. I accept the challenge, and am grateful for the opportunity to grow.
photo by jon katz