Thursday, May 01, 2003

04.30.03 Fear? What Fear?
Yesterday, I had every intention of spending the day at the barn playing with Wildflower some more. But somehow life sidetracked me again, and I was still sitting in front of my computer at 4:30 pm when the phone rang. It was Nora, the girl interested in part-leasing Cheerios. She was at the barn hanging with Beth and Erika and was ready for her test-drive.

So I wound up at the barn after all.

The geldings have been relocated to the far back pasture to give the front pasture a breather. It's a LOOOOOOOONG walk. It's even longer when you realize that you have to lead a horse you're not entirely sure you trust all the way back. I like Nora; but observing her behavior around horses, I have to wonder just how much experience she's really had with them. Then again, lots of riding lessons doesn't equal savvy. One of the good things about PNH is that it's designed to fill in all the gaps in one's equine education.

I have to remember, also, that it wasn't that long ago that I myself wasn't very savvy and did dumb or naive things around horses. I'm by no means an expert in savvy, but I'm growing. It's tough when you realize how far you've come and have to watch so many horsepeople just stumbling through it like I used to. I wonder how we all survived?

We met up with Cheerios, who came trotting up to me. I rubbed him all over. Then I let him sniff the halter. He turned and walked away to eat grass. I took the tail end of my rope and swung it at his butt to disengage his hindquarters. He flinched, shifted slightly, then realized I wasn't stopping and I was coming perilously close to actually touching him with the popper end of the rope, and decided it might be best to scootch out of the way. Head came up, at attention.

Let's try this again, my boy. Right arm around neck, light pressure at poll to drop the head, ask it to tip toward me, slide the halter on, voila. A small twirl of the rope and we're off. Walking nicely. Then Cheerios' ears go back. Uh-oh... is he in one of those moods? wait, Weapon's coming up behind him. Whew! Weapon was shoving his nose rudely up Cheerios' butt and Cheerios was not happy. Nora was amused by this but apparently unaware of the potential danger or what to do or that anything needed doing. I turned around and waved my carrot stick towards Weapon's front feet in a floor-sweeping motion until he decided to back up. Then I directed him to move away (driving the ForeQuarters or FQ) and he did.

Cheerios was impressed by my leadership. Ears returned forward. We continued on. Nora was taken aback that I'd chased Weapon away. I'm not sure she realized what was happening. She thought it was "cute" that Weapon wanted to follow along.

I, however, did not. Weapon is a very obnoxious horse and sizes people up right away (as all horses do) and gleefully takes full advantage of the less-savvy. He is VERY VERY pushy. He is also a cookie-hound and will rudely frisk someone for treats. It's quite entertaining... until 1,200 pounds of horse decides to shove you or walk all over you when you run out of goodies. Or when he initiates dominance Games with the horse you're trying to lead and makes your horse yank your arm off, rear, kick out or bolt. It can turn dangerous very quickly if you aren't savvy enough to see the potential outcomes.

Someone told me a story about a horse who had the great misfortune of being born to a mare owned by extremely unsavvy people who thought it was adorable to have the little baby horse follow them around and behave like a dog. Literally. Begging for treats, doing tricks such as putting its little wobbly front hooves on the person's shoulders for a hug and kiss. It was just darling!

Then the horse grew up.

And the horse was still trying to put its front hooves and all of its 1,200 pounds on people's shoulders for a hug and a kiss.

Cute, eh?

Part of being savvy is knowing when and where to draw the line between cute and dangerous, as well as how to draw it.

We had a relatively uneventful walk back to the barn. Cheerios did try his "spook myself by stepping on my lead rope" trick again, but I just ignored him and took up a little more slack so he wouldn't get tangled. He gave up that game. My carrot stick was in my hand, trailing behind me in complete neutral position the whole way. When I used it to communicate with him to speed up or slow down, I was very careful to use just barely any phase and he seemed fine with it and paid attention. I was very pleased. This was the first time he didn't flinch, jump back, or pull a stunt.

I tacked him up. Of course, I did it the natural way but on the Cowboy side. Too soon to explain why you'd want to do it on the Indian side. In between cinch tightenings, I walked him around a bit. The last time before we went out to the arena, I asked for a little bit of Circling. Very carefully. He went a quarter turn and I stopped him. Quarter turn the other way and stopped him. Nice.

We went out to the round pen. Oh, what fun, taking a nervous gelding through a sea of mares (still living in the arena) who were not thrilled to have a testosterone-filled interloper among them. I was wishing Nora had the savvy to help me get the crowd out of the way but it was pretty much all up to me. I felt like Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee with a carrot stick up against the Ninja Horses. You drive off one (when I say drive off I mean politely ask them to motor themselves in the direction you ask, not scare the crap out of them) and another is right behind you. Cheerios started to panic b/c they like to gang up. I told Nora to go open the round pen gate. Well, I guess eventually we all learn how to do it faster...

Safe in the pen, I explained that I was going to see where his mindset was and make sure that he is listening before she gets on, that it's always a good idea to do this before mounting. (I realize now I forgot to explain the difference between Circling and Longeing... oh well. Another day.) OK, here's my chance... carefully now, but mean it... either he's gonna do it or he's gonna blow...

I backed him up a little. He watched me for a moment, then took a step forward. I gave him a consequence and waited. He looked a little surprised. He considered another step forward and I raised my finger—and he reconsidered. He waited. I waited. No motion from either of us. I was completely relaxed in the center. He licked his lips. Oh, my God, he's THINKING!!! He stayed quiet. I lifted the lead rope and pointed, then swung lightly at Zone 2. His head came up. He considered moving and shifted his weight in the FQ, then shifted it back. I increased the energy of my swinging. His eyes widened. He gave the "I'm about to panic..." look. I ignored it and kept gently increasing the energy/pressure. He stepped off in the correct direction at a fast walk. I dropped the pressure. Three steps later he slowed to a friendly walk.

He tried his old trick of walk past me then stop too close. I backed him up with determination and repeated my Send. He didn't know what to make of that. What? You mean my invasion of her personal space isn't freaking her out? Huh. Of course, he tried that trick a couple more times with less and less enthusiasm before giving in and just walking in a circle. When he tried to stop before I was ready, I just calmly sent him back out. He performed a beautiful polite disengagement when asked. I smiled, went to him and petted him, then let him sit a moment.

He waited. I waited. We waited some more. Then he licked and chewed and I knew he'd learned something new about Mom. I sent him in the opposite direction for a lap and a half and brought him back with equal success. Let him sit, wait, think. Beautiful.

It was time for Nora to mount up so I bridled him. She mounted like a pro. She walked him around the outer boundary of the pen for a while, adjusting. One look and I could see the English riding posture, no mistaking that. Back ramrod straight, elbows tucked, heels down, head up, hands and forearms parallel to the ground. I sighed. She looked so stiff up there!

My only recourse was to gently point out the differences between Western and English riding. She's going to have to keep her hands down on his mane and off his mouth or she'll drive him nuts. She went round for awhile then clucked for a trot. And clucked again. And again. Then he finally trotted. His trot is like a jackhammer and she asked if she was bouncing around as much as she thought she was. (She was. On him it's hard not to.) She eventually cantered him and he did very well.

She was really wrapped up in sticking to the rail so I suggested she come down the middle and change directions, which she did. Walk. Trot. Canter. Stop. Back to walking the perimeter. I watched her struggling to get him to turn and suggested that she focus her gaze where she wants to go and see if he'll follow the feel. I don't mean this as criticism, but the concept of looking anywhere but straight ahead seemed foreign to her. Like, why would I want to do that? Proper position is straight ahead....

Was it her, or was it Cheerios? Was she not effecting it properly, or was Cheerios just not listening? The question began to bother me as I stood in the center observing this. Finally I could stand it no longer.

"Hey, Nora, do you think I could try something really quick?"

Nora dismounted. I did the step up three times, stand in the stirrup and ask permission, then swing leg over mounting technique. The minute my right foot hit the stirrup, Cheerios stepped forward. I whoa'd him and hurried up and did nothing. We sat there. I was totally relaxed. Each time he considered taking a step, I backed him up a step and relaxed until finally he just stood. I explained to Nora that walking off at mounting before you're ready is the same as escaping by bolting, except it's at a walk so most people don't realize it's an escape.

Then I "smiled with all four cheeks" and silently, we were walking. Nope, it wasn't Nora, it was definitely Cheerios. He was not responding in the least to my body's turning in response to my focus. (What's supposed to happen is a sequence of events: first the eyes turn, then the head follows, then the shoulders, pelvis, and outside leg. The horse feels the shift and leans in that direction and turns. IF he knows how to follow a feel, which nobody ever taught Cheerios.) I experimented with "smiling broader" to see if he'd pick up the pace. He did, and we were trotting around the ring.

Same old jackhammer, but it felt different to me. Probably because my upper thighs were locked in like a jockey's, my butt was lifted just slightly out of the saddle, the rest of my body was relaxed and my feet were mimicking the motion of his own (Riding with Fluidity as taught by Linda Parelli). Same way I ride bareback. Perfectly balanced, completely relaxed. Cheerios trotted along happily.

Then it hit me.


Not Wildflower.

Where is it? Where's the panic that should be welling up in the pit of my stomach right about now?... Nothing. Not even a twitch. Trottrottrot. Relax into my seat. Slows to a nice walk. No tension?

And the thought passed through my utterly surprised mind, "He's just like riding any other horse. It's no different." Suddenly the horns I'd been envisioning on his head morphed back into soft chestnut ears and the Killer Look in his demonic eyes softened and disappeared.

Fifteen months since the Bronco Experience. Days since I vowed I wouldn't play with him until I passed my Level One. Here I was, riding him, calm as can be, as if nothing ever happened between us. And everything was all right.

The fear was gone. Whether it will stay gone or rise up again remains to be seen, but at that moment, as I walked, trotted, and walked Cheerios around and across the pen, it was gone. Two days earlier, if you'd suggested I go saddle up Cheerios and ride him around, I'd have panicked and said NO THANK YOU, too scared. The thought would have turned me into quivering mush. And there I was.

I think I've figured out the source of the problem (besides green on green equals black and blue). Cheerios doesn't know anything about leg, or lead change requests, or transitions. All he knows is what little he was taught. He was trained to be a roping horse. It all made perfect sense. Roping horses are not riding horses. Both have to know basic ground skills and manners like standing still for grooming and saddling. But riding horses have to know all the gaits, how to transition, how to move off of human's cues, how to neck rein, etc. Hopefully the rider also knows these so they can communicate and have a happy ride.

Roping horses, on the other hand, do all the work in the team. The cowboy only has to be able to stay put regardless of how the horse moves (which is easy if you are relaxed). Cowboys do not ask the horse to move over there when chasing a cow. The HORSE does it automatically.

Roping horses are auto-pilot mounts. The cowboy grabs ahold, the chute opens, the horse bolts out of the chute at full speed, locks onto the bovine, and if he has "cow sense" he lines up just right on the cow so the cowboy can swing the rope or jump off (depending on the sport). Once the cow is roped, the horse slams to an immediate stop and keeps the slack out of the rope so the cowboy can do his job. Then the cowboy mounts up, and leaves the arena. The horse is tied up somewhere to sit and pant until the next go-round.

So Cheerios, who was probably only taught no, that's wrong! and was never shown what was right, and who is very insecure when he doesn't know what to do, is stressing heavily b/c all the people riding him are asking him to do things he hasn't learned yet, and are getting mad when he doesn't do it, and he's chewing his nails trying to figure out how to keep from getting punished (not by me, by the less sensitive riders) or freaked out or make mistakes. So he figured out if he misbehaves, escapes or bucks, he won't be bothered and he won't have to struggle with failing to understand what is asked of him.

Poor baby! Now that I've had this insight, I know what he needs to learn. Obviously, he needs to be put through the Level One program starting right away, because he'll learn the building blocks of everything he needs to know to be able to communicate better with us. He felt better with me just knowing I've been picking up his language. I could almost feel the relief rolling off of him.

It's funny how I almost instinctively grasp these concepts, especially in training differences, when I've never trained a horse in my life.

Today I caught part of an old National Geographic program on Irish Horses, and got chills when they spoke of the birthright of the Irish as natural horsemen. Between the horses and the leaning toward paganism, I'd say the Irish blood runs pretty thick through my veins.

I feel like I've jumped mountains this week.

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