Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just When You Think You Know It All!

Hi Folks!

Gosh, it's been a while since my last post, hasn't it? I hope you all had a great holiday season, and I really hope that spring gets here soon!

I was out at the barn volunteering in December. Volunteering doesn't stop because the weather gets wintry, it just means you wear more layers! My favorite nemesis, Mandy, has been away at college since late August. It's been that long since she's been to the barn, and the barn's a lot quieter without her. While I enjoy the company of the other volunteers, I don't have the same rapport with them that I do with Mandy.

Mandy's like the squirrely little sister I always wanted, and while she's got a couple of siblings at home, it's clear that there aren't many people in her life willing to suffer her abuse! So we have a special relationship, one based on a mutual fondness for insulting each other. It's terrific fun when she's at the barn, and a little lonely when she's not.

She managed to turn up one Saturday just before Christmas. After our usual round of teasing and poop-scooping, Nancy asked if we wanted to ride. We rarely turn down that opportunity, so we finished up the chores and grabbed a couple of lead ropes. Only problem was that Ruckus - my usual riding horse - was being used by the gang of children who were also volunteering.

Because he's such a steady, reliable horse, Ruckus is the one that children ride - especially those who have no idea how to ride. Ruckus will walk them safely around the arena without balking or getting out of hand. But with Ruckus in use, who was I to ride?

You might've guessed that, sooner or later, I'd be stuck with Mandy's favorite horse, Charlie. You remember - the one that's always trying to knee-cap Mandy?! I don't mind telling you that I felt a fair amount of trepidation when Mandy climbed off (after a ride in which Charlie behaved perfectly, I might add), and I took hold of the reins and climbed on. I had no idea what I was in for, but I was fairly certain that it wouldn't be good!

I don't trust Charlie. After watching all the times he tried to kick Mandy, I've had no reason to trust him. I remember Nancy saying more than once that she never turns her back on him. This from the woman who owns the barn, and loves each and every horse that comes through the door! Not exactly a ringing endorsement. So I gingerly climbed into the saddle, and tsked the command for him to walk. He obeyed, walked me once around the arena, then stopped.

I recalled from lessons I once took on an incredibly stubbon Appaloosa that if the horse refuses to move, you must make a rib-digging irritant of yourself. I tried this tactic with Charlie, and it worked. Once. He took a few steps, then stopped again. After that, he was on to me: the trick wasn't going to work twice!

I sat there on his back, digging my heels into him, feeling like a complete amatuer, and getting nowhere. Nancy and Mandy both called out suggestions - none of which moved Charlie sufficiently to obey, as I sat wondering why my four-odd years of riding lessons were failing me completely. Just when you think you know what the hell you're doing, someone comes along to remind you that you don't!

Nancy finally came over, took Charlie by the bridle, and lead us around like she does with the children. After some discussion, it was agreed that taking a few lessons on Charlie might not be a bad idea. Between you and I, though, the thought of spending thirty dollars for the opportunity to be kicked by a nasty horse doesn't appeal to me at all! Realizing that the lessons are inevitable, though, got me thinking about how to approach this horse who knows I don't like him.

In the first place, it's no good going through life riding no one but safe, reliable old Ruckus. I'm only going to learn so much from a horse that doesn't challenge me, and clearly, my knowledge has fallen short if I can't even get a horse to walk when I want him to! So if I want to broaden my skills, I have to ride different horses. Since Charlie presented such a problem, it seems prudent to learn how to handle him. It can only make me a better horsewoman.

In the second place - and I'm going to regret saying this because Mandy's going to use it against me later - it's entirely possible that I haven't given Charlie a fair shake. If Mandy likes him, he can't be all bad, and it's not his fault that his owner is a schmuck (for more about Charlie's schmucky owner, see my previous post, "Saturdays at the Barn"). So I hatched a "getting to know you" idea, ran it by Nancy, who approved, and have already set the plan in motion.

It goes like this: every Saturday that time allows, after I've finished scooping poop, I'm going to bring Charlie in from the paddock, place him in the cross-ties, and give him a grooming he won't forget. I'm told that Charlie loves being groomed, and it seemed as good a starting point as any. During our first session, I even sang a few verses of the theme from the Scooby Doo cartoons, for no other reason than that Temple Grandin, in her great book, "Animals in Translation," believes that animals communicate through their own version of music.

When I sought advice from Nancy on how to handle Charlie during grooming, she told me to keep an eye on his ears. Ears are one of the ways horses communicate. If the ears are up and alert, he's listening to you; you have his attention. If his ears are laid back flat, he's angry and you want to be very careful: there could be a bite or kick coming your way. I lost count of how many times I checked Charlie's ears during that grooming session, but I'm pleased to report that he never once flattened them. It was a good start.

There's still a long way to go before I'm willing to get on his back again. There's the matter of hoof-picking, which is when he always tried to kick Mandy. While I managed to pick the front hooves all right during that first session, there was no way I was getting near his hind end! I had Nancy do it, and watched as he flailed his legs at her, instead. Sooner or later, I'll have to take the plunge and try it for myself, but I'm going to stick to grooming his coat for a while, first. It's time I got to know Charlie, and let him get to know me, and that's a process that can't be rushed.

It's worth noting that my very first lesson horse, Crazy, put me through this exact same sort of misery. Crazy made me work for every single step she took. In spite of the fact that she was an experienced horse, she delighted in pretending that she had no idea what I wanted - or simply didn't care. I would spend entire circuits around the arena giving her the command to trot, while Crazy did her best to thwart me. Our conversations went something like this:

"Trot, Crazy!"


"Yes, Crazy, trot now!"

"You mean right now?"

"Yes, Crazy, right now!"

"You want me to trot right now?"


"Maybe I could do that for you later."

And all the while we were engaged in this power struggle, Crazy's circles would get smaller and smaller, until we were basically walking around the middle of the arena, instead of out by the wall where we belonged. It was all very vexing indeed.

After a time, I shelled out for a pair of ball spurs. They helped emphasize my commands, but it took me years to realize that it's not how hard you nudge their ribs, it's how much horsemanship you possess. At that time, I possessed very little; Crazy knew far more than I did. While it's good that someone in the equation knows what they're doing, I would prefer that it be me! And although I spent most of those lessons feeling completely humiliated by my lack of ability, it was in overcoming the obstacles that I learned the most.

It's worth noting all this because on January 3rd, Crazy passed away. She'd been retired from lessons for some time, and had spent her days relaxing and browsing hay. On the Saturdays when children were at the barn, Crazy was brought in for them to groom. She would stand patiently as they brushed her coat, and braided her mane. It was a nice way to live out her days.

Though she caused me no end of grief during our lessons, I've always had a certain affection for her, and I'll miss her presence at the barn. Curiously, some devilish part of her seems to live on in Charlie. Perhaps she's whispering in his ear, telling him all the tricks she employed with me.

So yet again, I'm humbled by the fact that a thousand-pound animal has reminded me of my limitations. After Crazy, I spent four-odd years learning how to ride Rebel, and maybe that's the problem: that of all the horses in the world, I've only experienced two. Evidently, it's time to expand my horizons. I don't mind admitting that I'm very nervous about this, if for no other reason than that Charlie is an unknown element, one that takes me out of my comfort zone. And I do like my comfort zone! Don't we all?!

That's all for now, folks. Until next time, keep warm and please be kind to all the critters!