Monday, April 07, 2003

The Adventure Begins
First thing I did was look at all the pieces. I had two things that looked similar, like halters only made of rope. I'd had four color choices—red, black, blue or green. I picked green because Cheerios is basically an orange horse. Blue and red would clash with his coloring, and black, well... too stark. He and I both look good in green. So I sat there looking at these two green halters... ok, one has ropes already tied to it. Oh. That must the the Hackamore. So the other one's the halter. OK.

And this nice fat rope with the leather snake tongue on one end—oh, I see, it's called a "popper"—that's the lead line. Kay, gotcha. Then what's this skinny... oh. That must be the Savvy String. Goes on the whip—er, Carrot Stick—like... this... ok. All set up. Got me a video... popped it in and watched as much as I could before my brain just shut off and screamed "IT'S TOO MUCH!!! I'LL NEVER FIGURE THIS OUT!!!" What else is in here? The book, already have a copy from the bookstore, wonder if they'll let me trade it in? A booklet... a cassette tape (now, how'm I gonna play THAT in my car?)... and these itty bitty manuals that fit in your back pocket.

Let's start reading these...

So the first pocket guide basically went over use of the equipment. Learning the proper way to tie the knot on the halter, what the four phases are, the Schweigermutter look... My neighbors must've thought me crazy, out front with my carrot stick (hereafter abbrevieated c.s.), practicing gently hooking it around the porch posts without whapping it, twirling it above my head, aiming for a mark until I could nail it dead on three times in a row. Then playing around with the lead rope,with my front porch acting as "horse". I couldn't wait to try it out on Cheerios.

Cheerios, however, was not impressed. It took several tries to remember how to hook up the halter and it was either too tight or too loose. I'm supposed to do this without his being restrained in any other way meaning no cross-ties! I'm thinking, the moment between my dropping the cross-ties and putting on this rope thing, he'll be out the barn door headed for parts unknown. I built up some pretty strong arm muscles those first few days from holding back my 1,000-pound horse with one arm while trying to slip a halter over his head with the other. Eventually I figured it out. Needless to say I realize my error was in not being assertive enough with my horse in the beginning to teach him that standing still was his best option. No, I let him walk all over me. But I had some minor victories.

Let's see... from my log book, I have 05.08.02 down as my observing Nicole trying the games on him before I got my stuff. "First experience with method—picked up quickly. Panicked during Circling Game—cantered and bucked, exhibits fear of making mistakes. Reaction: run, turn butt, rear and buck." 05.30.02, Participant (had my stuff by then). "Friendly, Yo-Yo, Driving. Panic response practically gone; very relaxed. On 5th try, yo-yo, he came to me with hardly any asking. Followed me on his own. Stayed with me after removing halter. Still need work on Porcupine—was trying to bite at the 'fly' on him (me). Complete join-up." On 05.31.02, I watched the video, and "Great yo-yo forward—still not sure on backing. Confused re: driving (I think I mean circling)—thinks he needs to hide his butt when I try to drive him forward. Oh, well, I need more work. Porcupine—got it. Friendly—no scary areas! Gave a foot w/o problem. He loves me!"

The log is blank for June because I'd foolishly registered for a college summer course in Experimental Animation and Audio Design for six weeks thinking it would be a nice, casual entertainment and a good way to use my vacation times from work. That was before being laid off. The course started the Monday after I got laid off and it turned out to be the month I didn't sleep. I spent 20 hours a day in the lab frantically trying to figure out how to do everything to meet the requirements and barely made it out alive. I remember the last day I went onto campus to return the video equipment. This is the university at which my father taught for 30 years. It was a fixture in my life. I'd been taking classes there off and on since 1981 (acquiring my BFA in Graphic Design in 1995) and it just seemed like I'd always take a class now and then for the rest of my life. But on that particular day, it felt different. I came out of the library after dropping off the camera. Then I just stopped for a moment. I looked around at all the buildings, buildings so familiar to me that they were like home. Buildings that I'd looked longingly at when I was a child, dreaming of the day I'd finally gain entry into those hallowed halls and unlock the mysteries of life they held within. The sorority houses and dorms that I had thought I'd be living in (when I rushed my freshman year, I soon found out I wasn't cut out for an "organized social life" and bailed; one semester in a dorm and I decided commuting wasn't so bad); the library; the art building... old friends. I listened to the sound of a quiet summer campus and I realized it felt like it was the last time I'd ever be standing here. Like I was bidding it farewell.

Maybe I was. Maybe it was finally time to move on. Maybe the time for preparation was over, and the time for implementing the knowledge was upon me. I was a little sad and wistful that day. Whether I was saying goodbye, resolving never to take another college course as long as I lived, or whether it was the combination of sheer relief of being freed from that hellish class and the overwhelming exhaustion... eh, maybe it was all of it.

But now I was free to concentrate on my horse. 07.10.02—"hadn't been out due to class!!! Started in stall, see steno notes—I need to go over yo-yo, driving, and new games." The log book PNH provides with the kit is a cute idea, but there isn't enough room for an overly-effusive commentator such as myself to jot down my notes. So I dedicated a steno pad to the details. The rest of that day's entry covers the front and back of one steno sheet. The gist of it is that Cheerios nickered at me for the first time; tied the halter right the first time; worked out some dredlocks in his mane in his stall and used porcupine to keep him from leaning on the stall guard as I worked; began to be able to anticipate when he was about to pull something like knock me with his head before he did it and use a block to gently keep him out of my space; used my knowledge to move other horses out of our way in the arena; he comes to me w/o being on the lead line but won't yo-yo back yet; picks up his feet willingly; confusing driving with circling (me) because I'm being lax in reading my books; has an aversion to having my hand on his nose; got him to trot beside me at liberty and stop when I stopped and he stood stock still after I removed the halter.

Then it began disintegrating. I finally figured out that I was missing the Driving game completely, and mistaking it for Circling. The first time I put the c.s. up alongside his neck to drive him from Zone 2 away from me, he about had a heart attack. Mind you, I was being very gentle!!! I am by nature not very aggressive, more timid, and my miniscule action should not have caused him to flare his nostrils, bug out his eyes, and flail his head away from me like he did. I tried a couple of times to ease him into it, but he became agitated. So I gave up (wrong thing to do, I now know) and tried the Circling Game. This shows what a novice I was. Why I'd try to move on to Step 5 when Step 4 wasn't working, I dunno. For some reason I thought it'd be ok. It wasn't. I yo-yo'd him backwards. LIFT: I lifted the c.s.—Cheerios' head went up, eyes full of suspicion. LEAD: I raised the lead line and pointed in the direction I wanted him to go. SWING: I gently swiveled the c.s. toward Zone 2. Didn't even have to go to Touch it because he shot off like he'd been in a cannon, all the way to the end of the lead line, nearly dislocating my arm in the process, and tore around the round pen bucking and snorting at a full gallop. I think I gasped. I thought, Oh Dear God, what have I done?!? I hope he doesn't kill me!!!

He kept going and I got scared because I'd never longed a horse before, let alone experienced one going off like that. My reaction was to run toward him saying WHOA, WHOA, EEEEAAAASSSYYYYY. Sounds logical, right? If it was a scared kid, that's what you'd do: run to them, grab them, and comfort them until they calmed down. Took me months to figure out that that's the WRONG thing to do with a horse. I did not realize that by moving toward him, looking intensely at him, was in fact putting pressure on him and telling him in horse language that he needs to move away and keep moving FASTER!!! Which confused me, because he ran away from me, and I went after him with more determination that mommy was going to make it ok. When he reared up, I backed away quickly. Immediately, he slowed down a bit. So I just stood still and said "Eeeeeasy, easy". Eventually he slowed down and stopped. THEN, I didn't understand it. NOW, I do. NOW, I know that the right reaction on my part when he snorted off would have been to ignore him. Let him snort off. Let him run around a couple times, then disengage his hindquarters. He probably wouldn't have disengaged right away, and it might have taken a crack on his butt to get the point across, but had I taken that approach, rubbed him, then sent him out again, chances are in a few times he'd figure out all I wanted was for him to walk in a circle and he'd be ok. And he'd understand when I say disengage your butt, I mean NOW, thank you.

But I screwed up. And I kept repeating the same mistake, and he learned that he could scare me into letting him off the hook, and that running away from me makes me run after him but running INTO me makes me back off the pressure (because I'm afraid he'll run me down). He also learned that I think he's afraid of the c.s., and takes advantage of that. So we hit a plateau, and I became very frustrated, and very scared again, because he was running TO me with wild eyes and flaring nostrils and I couldn't figure out how to get him out of my space quickly enough or how to communicate to stay over there and because he was quicker than I was, going Phase 1, 2, 3, then 4 was taking too long and he'd already be on top of me, which was dangerous. So I'd finally resort in panic and frustration to giving him a good Phase 4 on the chest when he came into me fast. He'd back off, but he'd sense my fear and HE would get scared and rear or snort off. It became a terrible cycle.

In desperation, I went to the PNH site for an answer. Maybe an instructor could help. I'd already asked for advice from Nicole, the only other PNH enthusiast in our barn except for Julie (and since Julie deferred to Nicole, I thought Nicole was upper level already but she was studying Level 1 like the rest of us, she'd just been at it longer) and Nicole took a stab at it and had a bit of success in getting him to circle, but her confidence level was higher than mine and she wasn't as afraid of his reactions. Still… I didn't find anything we discussed was really solving the problem. So I examined the list of instructors and found that one was having a clinic in Ohio in a month or so. Not only that, but Bruce Logan also handles the Difficult Horses. Well, I've certainly got a difficult horse, I thought, so I emailed him and described my problem.

Bruce advised that if his fear really was that great, then a clinic might not be the best place for him yet. He gave me a couple of suggestions but said it would be better for both of us if he could work with us in person. Trouble was, I had no trailer to haul him in, no job, and there weren't any openings in Level One anyway—there was a waiting list of 12 ahead of me. I said to go ahead and put me on the list anyway, knowing full well I'd never get in. After that, I tried the suggestions Bruce had given me, had Cheerios blow up a couple more times, got too frustrated, and just gave up on ever getting anywhere with Cheerios. I'd hit a dead end.

My parents had been urging me to sell him and buy another horse ever since the last January ride. But he was my baby! My first horse! The thought of abandoning him like that was unthinkable. It reduced me to tears just considering it. After one particularly bad episode with Cheerios, I burst into tears and just sobbed all over his neck. I was distraught. I told him everything; that I might have to sell him, that I couldn't stand it, that he needed to work with me not against me... he lowered his head and leaned into me. I was dying inside. I couldn't bear the thought of giving him up, nor could I bear the thought of mounting him again.

But it was apparent I wasn't getting anywhere with Cheerios and that a different horse might be the solution. So I started horse-shopping. I answered every possible ad and went to ride their wonderful, kid-safe trail horses. Ha, haha, ha ha. Truth in advertising? Not when it comes to equines. I drove way out to the boonies to look at a leopard appaloosa mare. Right age, kid-safe, right price. A mare! And an appy! I saw visions of spotted babies prancing around in the pasture. Then I watched the kid saddle her up. Tentatively. As if she was shaking in her boots scared. So I said how about YOU ride her around first so I can see how she moves. I wasn't watching the horse as much as I was watching the kid. She was terrified. She bravely put the horse through her paces, though, then it was my turn. OK. Deep breath. Mount her. She starts to move off. I stop her. Get seated. Stop her. Find the other stirrup. Stop her. Make her stand a moment. Then I turn her and she trots off like her feet are on fire. I ask for turns and she reluctantly complies. I ask her to slow her pace and she does for a moment then speeds back up. We trot round past a cornfield like the one in the movie Signs. I'm thinking as hard as she is to control at the trot, no way am I gonna canter her even as she's busting to break into a canter. We pass the family and come back around. As we pass the cornfield, the wind picks up and rattles the leaves with a hiss. The mare slides sideways and down and I think oh dear god i'm gonna fall off no I'm not oh jeezus h christ then I regain my seat but she's unnerved and ready to bolt at the next rustle so I pull her up by the family, dismount, say "thank you very much" and leave. Without looking back. I wonder what fool wound up with her?

I went through more than a few experiences with horses that sounded wonderful on paper and were practically sanctified by their owners, but turned out to be worse than Cheerios in person. Would I ever find a good solid friendly trustworthy trail buddy? I was beginning to wonder. Then I saw the ad in the Ohio Horseman's Council newsletter about three horses for sale. Oooh, a 10-year-old bay mare. I called right away. Why were they selling her if she was so wonderful? I wasn't prepared for the story.

The husband relayed the story to me. His wife, the real owner of the horses, had been driving home from work one morning and had fallen asleep at the wheel of her pickup. She lost control and rolled; I think a tree or phone pole may have been involved. She survived... but was in the hospital recovering—and was now paralyzed from the shoulders down. She had some use of her arms but... she wouldn't be riding anytime soon. I was devastated for them. It had only been a month since the accident. They didn't want to sell them but they had to because nobody else really rode them but her; and they were selling the trailer and a boat as well. I knew medical bills had to play a part in their decision and felt for them deeply.

The first time I saw Wildflower... well, we'll pick that up tomorrow.

No comments: