Sunday, March 30, 2003

My first official summer of horse ownership...

All my dreams: of tranquil trots through the woods, of sitting quietly by a stream with my gentle steed grazing nearby, of galloping merrily past the pines with my laughing friends... all shot to hell. Instead, I spent the first half of the summer watching snails pass me when I chanced to walk, or lying on the couch in the one semi-comfortable position I could find, sweating from the heat and doped up on Darvocet. I decided it might be prudent to take the doctor's advice and sit out the horse thing for the prescribed six weeks.

When I was finally healed, I went back to the barn filled with trepidation. Will I be able to get back on him? Will he remember me, what will his reaction be? It was not good. He didn't want to be bridled and fought the bit. I had a helluva time trying to get his head down. That was just one problem, which I eventually "solved" with molasses on the bit. He wouldn't pay attention to my commands under saddle in the arena, he balked and threatened to buck, he whirled around, he zigged and zagged and tried his darndest to unseat me. He'd watch me peripherally while grazing, take a step forward but swing his front foot out towards me, nearly decapitating my toes. He'd snap his feet up so fast when I went to pick them out that I'd lose my balance, then he'd slam his foot down or continually try to yank it out of my hand while I desperately tried to hold on.

It was hell on my back and he knew it. I sware, I could see him smirking at me. He began to resemble a sorrel demon... those weren't ears on his head, they were furry horns.

The situation worsened. A few days later I was leading him back out to the pasture for turn out. We'd come through the arena gate and were standing in the lane to the trails that passes between the arena and the gelding pasture. I was latching the gate when something spooked him badly and he wheeled, sidewinded, snorted and reared up, striking me on the forearm with his front hoof. I immediately let go of his lead and he went tearing off down the lane toward the woods. I thought, my god, he'll get lost--killed--run into the road--damned beast, might have broken my arm, I'm just healing from the sprain!!! Is horsemanship all about getting hurt?

Thankfully, he stopped running a few yards down the lane and began grazing. I took a few steps toward him and he saw me and bolted. I was worried he'd tangle himself up in the lead rope; Julie (another boarder) saw I was in trouble and came to my rescue (seems I always need someone to rescue me from this horse lately). She calmly walked up to him and coaxed him back. She turned him out for me. I was too shaken to deal with him. My arm was only bruised, but my self-confidence and trust in Cheerios was completely and irrevocably shattered.

From then on, it was miserable. It got to where I couldn't even lead him myself--I had to have another boarder lead him and stay between me and Cheerios. I didn't trust him otherwise! I was angry, frustrated, despondent, questioning my abilities and my initial decision to buy a horse.

Then my riding buddy, Jenny, offered to help. She suggested we trade horses temporarily until I built my confidence back up. Her horse, Redbird, was at the time 17 years old and a former lesson horse. She was as compliant as they come. Jenny said to ride her whenever I wanted. Jenny would come out and give me riding pointers and did what Parelli calls Passenger Lessons with me (although we weren't aware of this at the time): while mounted, I'd shut my eyes, put my arms at my sides, and let her lead the horse around while I focused on moving with the horse. It developed my balance and my trust and I learned how to sit the saddle better.

After a couple of months, I had regained enough confidence to begin riding the trails again. I was better at controlling the horse and making her mind. Jenny was working with Cheerios (who had affectionately been nicknamed Butthead) so she would head out on Cheerios and I would ride Red. It went pretty well and I overcame the residual trail tremors. The big test was when I took Red on my first solo flight down the hour loop all by myself. I was a little nervous about it, but experienced no problems. I received my "diploma" and was pronounced "cured". It was time to reclaim my horse.

Our approach to trail rides shifted. We'd start out with Jenny on Cheerios and I on Red, then halfway out, we'd trade and I'd ride Cheerios for as long as I felt comfortable. If I started getting nervous, we'd trade back. Eventually I rode him from the halfway point home, then finally from beginning to end. The bridling problem had vanished and Cheerios was not the demonic threat on the ground anymore. It was fall of 2001. I had succeeded. I'd overcome my fears.

Or so I thought.

There were still days when we'd go out on a ride and I'd be uneasy the whole time, clenched feeling in my gut, and he'd be a challenge to ride. Some days he spooked at every little thing and it was a sigh of relief to dismount. I began to wonder, how do people enjoy this activity when it seems to be a lesson in perseverence and deep breathing--isn't this supposed to be relaxing? Fun, even? Well, if so, I wasn't having it. Maybe I wasn't cut out for this horse thing after all.

The winter of 2001-02 was unseasonably warm. We were still riding into January with little snow on the ground and spring-like temperatures at Christmas. I went for a short jaunt with Karen (horse: Mary) out to Harry Hughes (an outdoor show arena) shortly after the first of the year. The ride was going well until we got to Harry Hughes. Karen wanted to ride around in the arena a little bit. Cheerios and I had been over there plenty of times, for Poker Runs and other events when there were lots of trucks, trailers and horses around so I didn't think anything of it, especially since today it was deserted.

Cheerios, on the other hand, had other ideas. The minute we entered the arena, his demeanor changed. His ears went back and he started dodging and zigzagging. I began to lose control of him. Karen and I changed plans and decided to head for home instead of working in the arena there. I was relieved to get past the chute and head back to the woods. Then Cheerios bucked. Not a big one, but his head went down and his rear moved.

I froze in the saddle. Ice poured through my veins. He ducked again like he was gonna rodeo... I melted into my saddle and took deeeeeep slooooow breaths and forced myself to relax. He relaxed. I waited a minute. I carefully... with just the suggestion of a nudge... asked him to waaaalk ooonn... he took three steps and the ears went back and his back arched. Breathe... relax... wait... two steps ears back arched... I wondered if I should dismount and walk him back then had a vision of pulling my right leg out of the stirrup, getting my leg over the saddle and having him bolt--or worse! I knew if I tried to dismount I'd be dead. Why did I ever decide to mount this horse today? How the heck am I gonna get off of him without dying?

All I could do was try to get home--and it was only fifteen minutes walking from HH to our barn. It was like riding on a beach ball rolling on waves during an earthquake. He threw mini-bucking fits six times on that ride home. It was a credit to my newfound riding ability and Jenny's patient Passenger Lessons that I managed to move with Cheerios and maintain my seat. In disbelief, my mind got wrapped around the idea that Cheerios was actually frustrated by my ability to stay seated and it made him try even harder to knock me off balance or take control. When I finally dismounted, I practically kissed the solid ground in thanks and realized that I wasn't interested in riding Cheerios--or anything equine--for a very long time. My muscles were as sore as if I'd been on a four-hour ride, and we'd only been out for 45 minutes.

So Cheerios began his sabbatical from the human world. Oh, I still visited with him and kept him socialized; but I didn't ride him. In fact, I stopped riding altogether. He languished for months while I tried to come to grips with the idea of selling him, riding him, getting a different horse or quitting horses completely. I was so depressed about it that sometimes I couldn't sleep. Meanwhile, I was still coughing up board every month and paying farrier bills and for vaccines. {flu$$$$h...}

Now, the entire time this drama was going on, I'd been observing a couple of the other boarders, Julie and Nicole, who were always in the round pen doing the goofiest things with their horses. They had these orange sticks that looked a lot like whips (but they were most certainly not whips, they admonished me), and these flimsy-looking halters made out of rope (like THAT'S gonna hold a horse like Cheerios when he acts up, {snort laugh}), and they'd wiggle their fingers at their horses, who would (to my surprise) back up. Then they'd point in a direction, sort of stir the air with that orange stick, and the horse, who wasn't even on a lead line, would trot off nice as you please in a circle around the human. The human would look down at her feet and not pay any attention to the horse, just stand there... and the horse would keep trotting round and round without changing gait, without stopping, until the human looked up and stirred the air with the stick at the horse. On that command, the horse would immediately stop and turn 90 degrees to face the human and just stand there stock still. No way I could ever get Cheerios to do that... those must be trick horses.

OK, my curiosity was peaked. The first time I witnessed this, I asked Nicole how she got her horse to do that. She told me about Parelli Natural Horsemanship. She told me what a nutcase Makona had been when she first got him. She and Julie were both PNH students and were progressing nicely with their horses. Of course, I was skeptical. Sounded like a scam. After all, this was the same chick who got dumped off at a dead run into a tree not two weeks after I first bought Cheerios and had screws holding her disintegrated knee together; she was fool enough to be back in the round pen with her horse no less than a week after getting out of the hospital--propped up on crutches, in the snow, working with her horse. I thought she was completely crazy and obsessed. I mean, even I had enough sense to stay away from horses when I was recovering and I only had a sprain.

Well, I'd had Cheerios for almost a year, he'd seriously injured me, I'd been working through some profound fear issues and decided my sweet baby horse had turned into a murderous monster that no one would ever be able to ride except a rodeo cowboy; meanwhile, Nicole had kept with her PNH program the whole time despite the obstacle of her own injuries and her horse had morphed from a nervous nutcase into a calm puppy dog that followed her around and obeyed her every command. On top of that, Nicole never ever looked scared or worried about what her horse might do and she never yelled or raised her voice with him, yet he was perfectly behaved. I was jealous.

It was April 2002 when I was finally convinced, "OK, maybe there IS some validity to this Parelli stuff..." It was quite an investment, but I had a good job and summer was coming--I didn't want to sell Cheerios because I was really attached (monster or not) and the thought broke my heart; I vowed to do everything in my power to fix our relationship and only sell him after exhausting every avenue. The Level One kit contained a halter, lead rope, carrot stick, savvy string, natural hackamore, book, video, and pocket guides. After debating it for a few weeks, I committed to the program and ordered the kit online, pausing only briefly before hitting Send.

A couple of weeks later, 20% of my company was laid off. I was one of them. I arrived home that day, May 24th, to find all of my PNH Level One materials and equipment waiting on my front porch, courtesy of FedEx.

Do you suppose it was a sign?