Sunday, April 28, 2013

Jasper the Cart Pony: Part 2

I lead Jasper to the hitching post in front to the farmhouse. He walked beside me, but not calmly. He still associates any trip out of the paddock as a chance to run through the green grass and while he wasn't bucking and fussing, he was straining. If he was a Belgian I'd have lost an arm, but since he's a 450 pound POA, it was mostly just grunt work holding onto him. I got him to the post, tied off his lead rope in what Trainer Dave calls a "robbers knot" and he stood there, staring at me like I dragged him into the Bon Ton and he only came because I promised him a toy later.

This is Jasper's vice. He is rowdy unless bribed and that's my fault. He's rowdy because he spends all his time cooped up in a paddock or fooling around the pasture and gets little mental or physical stimulation besides that. Horses need exercise as much as people do. A vet told me that horses out in a pasture are not being exercised any more than your average person being sat in the middle of an empty football field. The freedom to move around doesn't mean you have the will to do pushups. Merlin, that guy gets plenty of exercise being ridden and driven on a regular basis. But Jasper maybe leaves his little kingdom once a month.

He's in this situation because I got him with the intention to do all the things Merlin and I do, but realized he wasn't a practical riding horse and I didn't have the confidence, equipment, or understanding to train him to drive or feel safe behind a horse cart. So he ended up being a guard animal for the sheep flock, running with them, and when Merlin came into my life he became a pasture pal, a companion for the big guy. Now, this isn't a bad life for a horse. The animal gets all the attention it needs by vets and farriers, plays and eats, and pretty much runs around like a kid at recess. But there's no manners or discipline in this kind of horse keeping, and any manners that may have been laid as a foundation have been ignored through lack of reinforcement.

Jasper, basically, has turned into a spoiled brat.

That all ends now. I know what to do with a harness, a horse, and a cart now. I have been through a full year with Merlin and his antics and after that little Jasper seems a lot, well, littler. He isn't the intimidation he used to be. More of an obstinate teenager I have to put up with until he learns to fly right and stay the course. But to turn a pasture-sour, cranky, spilled horse into a pleasant and useful animal I need to do my part and that means a dedicated training schedule with a foundation in groundwork followed by sessions in harness.

We (I have had help of several friends) have been working with Jasper this whole week. It's tricky because neither the tack or the cart fits him perfectly. Adjustments were made to make it as comfortable as possible but the truth of the matter is I am not spending hundreds of dollars on a custom harness and new cart. We would be using the small work harness and collar, bought used by a friend and bartered to me, and the same little red cart I use for Merlin. The plan was simple:

1. Work Jasper on the ground until he is calm and attentive.
2. Take him to the post and ask him to stand for grooming, hoof picking, and harnessing up.
3. Attach the cart and halter lead him to the road.
4. Start training (retraining?) him to drive with all the distractions of a public (alight secluded) road.

Oh Boy!

The first time I ever hitched up Jasper to train him with the cart, Tom was there. Tom's a good friend and used to livestock, but cautious around horses. He is used to cattle, not equines, and feels horses are more flighty which makes them unpredictable. I'd say in most cases he is right, and certainly with this wily little 11.2 pony walking circles around the hitching post until he had tangled himself around it like a Maypole. Most horses stand calmly when tied up, but not Jasper. He wanted out of there. Perhaps Tom did, too?

Once he was untangled, he stood well for grooming. He let me take off some shedding hair, get combed and brushed out. He let me pick up all his feet and pick them (with some protest) and check his mouth and ears. I have to give him an A+ for the grooming aspect. I decided to wait until after groundwork to put on the heavy harness.

I kept hearing Trainer Dave's voice in my head. "As long as you are getting out of their way, they are in charge. Once a horse has to get out of YOUR way, you are in charge." Getting a pony calm and manageable doesn't take yelling or a club, it takes showing him through their own language you are in charge. With horses, even little guys like Jasper, this means body language. So armed with nothing but a flag on the end of a long carriage whip and his lead rope and halter I took Jasper out into the front lawn to move him out of my way.

At first I just asked him to walk in circles around me, guiding him with the whip. You don't hit the horse, just shake the flag at their back flanks and they move away from it. This in itself is forcing the horse to move out of your way, but it isn't the end game. What I wanted was for Jasper to be totally tuned into me. I wanted him to watch me, calmly, curiously, and anticipate what I asked next. I wanted him to turn and look at me, facing me nose to nose (but at a comfortable distance away from each other) when I asked him to stop. The reason I wanted him to face me was because a horses' threatening end is the rear end. That is where those powerful back legs can crush skulls and fend off predators. If a horse stops and shows you its butt, it's like showing you the middle finger in defiance or because it is scared and defending itself. This is not the kind of attitude you want on an animal you are going to strap a vehicle too and ride down a road with. Here's an example of what I am talking about. Listen to Buck, and watch what he's doing!

It took about fifteen minutes to turn the kicking and fussing pony into an attentive animal, acting respectful and paying attention to me. This is something I needed to know to work with horses, and something I had to be taught. I cringe to think of what would have happened to me if I bought a cart and hitched him to it knowing nothing about groundwork or horse's minds and body language. I may have been fine but more likely I would have had a horse bolt on me, get hurt, and possibly scare me off driving in general. Part of me is glad I waited a bit to work this horse, and maybe another part of me thinks its wiser to wait even longer. Conditions aren't ideal yet. But like Joel said: if anything is worth doing it's worth doing wrong first. I can adjust harnesses and get a new pony cart ready to role (this is in the works, just wait and see!) but today I wanted to see what this little guy was made of. Would he trot down the road? Would he spaz out? Would he know what to do or bolt for the homeland soon as a car came near us? I guess I would just have to find out....