Thursday, August 24, 2017

Earning Her Honesty

A few days ago Mabel bit me. Not a full attack by a charging ginger, hoofs a blazing— but a bite. I was tightening her girth (something I have done two dozen times this summer) and she turned her head back and nipped her teeth at my arm. If I had a shirt on I would have felt nothing. But I was in a tank top and the edges of her teeth clicked and pinched my upper arm. She didn’t break the skin, but a solid bruise rests there now from a beast with a skull the size of my coffee table. Not good.

I knew what that bite was. It was a mare saying “Hey, you, stop it. You’re annoying me and you are in my way.” She snapped at me the same way a mare snaps at a colt who has been nursing too long, or a pesky fly at her flank. It was a quick slap. Still, that kind of behavior is unacceptable. It hurt and it made me nervous. Once you are nervous around the horse the color of the world changes for them. Things get a little sharper, darker. They can tell something is wrong the same way a boss walking into your office with a sour look her face would make you raise your eyebrows. Also, not good.

I took a deep breath and got out the training flag. We did half an hour of ground work. The kind of natural horsemanship I have learned from Dave, my farrier and horsemanship trainer. The point was to keep her moving and responding to my gentle suggestions. If she doesn’t respond, a wave of the flag at the end of a 5 foot whip gets her attention. The flag is never used to hit her, just direct her like an air traffic controller. After a while just lifting the flag gets her moving. After that, asking with one hand on the lead rope. When she seemed calm I finished tacking her up and went for a ride. But I was still nervous.

The bugs were bad. The kind of high summer flies and gnats that all the ear salve and sprays can’t deter. She was stubborn and stopped moving all together a few times. The ride wasn’t dangerous but it wasn’t fun. It was petulant and fussy, the equine equivalent of “I donnnnntttwannnnnnnaaaa” But we rode and we got home, untacked, and I set her back with Merlin in the pasture. On paper the ride was a success. I rode my horse and no one got hurt on the trail: check. My goal was to ride my horse and I didn’t waiver. But it wasn’t fun.

That was a few days ago. In the interim I rode Merlin. Merlin isn’t as young, flashy, or fast but he is solid and dependable. Riding him is like sitting back and pouring a few fingers of whiskey with an old friend. I know his every twitch and ear signal. He knows the trails so well I am certain I could do it blindfolded and he would make the big loop around the trails and back home himself. Tuesday I took him and a book and a snack up the mountain. I rode and then got off to let him graze while I read. We took in the view from the mountain before a thunderstorm. This is something we have done hundreds of times. It’s a pure joy owning and living with that stubborn pony that taught me how to ride. I want that with Mabel. And you don’t get that unless you put in the work…

This morning I was nervous again. Mostly, of having another rough tacking up and then that stuttering struggle type of trail ride. I didn’t want to get bit. I didn’t want to feel nervous. But I owe it Mabel and to myself to train and train smart. To give that horse a job and not let her turn into some pasture-bound stranger I pet once a day and throw hay to. I don’t envy horses (or people, for that matter) that do nothing all day but eat.

I was also extra edgy because I was recently reminded how dangerous horses can be. Yesterday morning a friend was sent to the hospital because of their horse. It spooked beside a road and knocked them unconscious. Horses are huge animals, and even Merlin the fell pony is a thousand pounds. I’m 5’2” and while I am built as thick as a jaguar with a jiggle - that’s not a fair fight.

So today I did what my old riding instructor Holly says: Always have a plan. Don’t get on a horse you are training without a plan. And so this was my plan. Do groundwork first. Then, once calm and following my leads, groom and saddle. Do so with her head free so she can bite if she wants to, but discourage any attempts by making the horse move her back feet away from me in a tight circle. If she wants me out of her way then I will show her she is in mine. Remain calm, consistent, and in charge. Then, saddle up and do a short loop on the mountain. The same ride as before in reverse. That was the plan.

And that is what I did and it was lovely. Mabel didn’t bite or buck or act up. She was calm and happy to oblige. The ride was smooth and FUN! We cantered and trotted and took in the mountain as if we had done it a million times. She rode alone for the first time as if she was with Merlin. On rides with friends, she is perfect. Patty and Tyler have ridden her with zero issues but she is so different with another horse on the trail than when she is alone. I want both of my horses to be comfortable riding solo and today I got that. We have come a long way in a short time and Mabel is becoming a true blessing of a mare. It feels good to earn her honesty.