Friday, May 25, 2012

Something Fun To Do!

Hi Folks!

While you're waiting for me to post another blog entry, why not check out McGuffy's Reader blog site? There's a fun critter-themed interview, and also a review of my book, Crazy Critter Lady. Here's the link, just copy and paste it to your search engine:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Little Bit Of Beau

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by!

I want to apologize for taking so long to post a new blog entry. Those of you who are regular readers will recall that the last few months of 2011 were heart-wrenching for me, what with the loss of both my lesson horse, Ruckus, and everyone's favorite cranky donkey, Cricket. That double whammy of deaths really took its toll on me, and I just didn't have the mental energy to write until now.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I had been itching for new challenges out at the barn for some time. Although I loved Ruckus dearly, I felt like I'd gotten pretty much all I was ever going to get out of our lessons. He was great for trail riding, but it became clear that if I wanted to take myself to the next level, it would need to be on a different horse. To mix things up, I started riding Charlie.

Charlie Horse is a challenge because you have to stay out of his mouth and steer him primarily with your legs. My understanding is that Charlie had been treated very roughly before he came to the Harmony Barn, rendering his mouth very sensitive. While it may sound like an easy enough thing to do, steering with your legs, I can tell you that there's definitely an art to it, and it takes time to learn to finesse it. As an example, I've seen a couple of barn urchins give him what they thought was a command to step sideways, while Charlie thought it was the command to lope off. Two inexperienced young 'uns got quite an unexpected ride that day!

Even though there are definite challenges in learning how to ride Charlie Horse properly, I still felt like something significant was missing. In hindsight, I know that that missing element was having a relationship with the horse: Charlie's willing enough to tolerate beginners on his back, but he makes it very clear that he's not interested in bonding with us. My riding instructor will take exception to that comment, but she spends a lot more time around Charlie than we volunteers do. Riding him infrequently doesn't give us enough time to build a friendship.

In the aftermath of Ruckus's death, we all realized that we had lost our go-to horse. A young child stops by who's never ridden a horse? Put her on Ruckus. Take a trail ride out where unpredictable things happen? Ride Ruckus. Reward the urchins for all their hard work on Saturday mornings? Let them get on Ruckus. With Ruckus gone, there was no one to turn to except Charlie, and by the time two or three irritating children had trotted him around the arena numerous times, he'd had enough. It was hard for me to get much out of him at that point.

So barn owner Wendy began casting about for options. There were plenty of horses in residence, but very few actual candidates: rescue Buddy has horrible issues stemming from a yearling halter that was left on too long, so he's never going to let anyone put a bridle on him. Jem has conformation issues that render him unusable as anything other than a pasture pal. Newman's too old, and Magic, too young. Wendy does have an older rescue horse that needs to be ridden regularly, but Angel tends to be shy and skittish, which, as it happens, are the two main reasons I prefer not to ride her! That just leaves Bit.

Little Bit of Beau is an EPM horse. EPM is a disease that affects the central nervous system. Symptoms can include tripping, and loss of coordination - huge problems when you're trying to show or compete on a horse! I'm told that Bit displayed those symptoms before he came to the Harmony Barn, and has been treated for it since coming to the barn. But I don't think that EPM is the reason why he'd never been considered an option for us to ride. I think the reason had more to do with his personality.

I'll be honest here and say that I spent several years not liking Bit. He was much too in-your-face for my tastes. If you stood next to him, he'd push his head against you and knock you off balance. While old Newman ruled the herd with quiet authority, his protege Bit rules with an iron hoof! Where old Newman would only have to walk into the arena for the horses to settle down, Bit feels the need to run around pinning his ears at everyone! He was way too much horse for me, so I didn't give him a second thought until Ruckus died.

I ran the idea by Wendy, asking what she thought about riding instructor Connie giving me lessons on Bit. Much to my considerable surprise, Wendy thought the idea had possibilities. The next thing I knew, Connie and I had scheduled a lesson.

Contrary to his name, there's nothing little about Bit! He's one big horse! Tall, muscular, assertive - he can be quite intimidating. I did my best to act nonchalant as I groomed him that first time, but inwardly, I was thinking about how far down the ground was going to be, should I end up getting tossed out of the saddle. I'd seen a more experienced girl ride him, and there had been a lot of prancing on his part. What chance did I have as a novice who lacked confidence? Connie tried to reassure me, but I was skeptical. For his part, Bit gave me plenty to think about during - and after - that first lesson.

For one thing, if he didn't want to do what I told him to, he'd do something else instead. The "something else" generally involved low-level shenanigans like prancing about (which, for the uninitiated, feels like the horse is about to take off at a gallop and leave you behind), and throwing in the odd buck and rear. These weren't full blown bucks and rears, but rather, just enough to emphasize his point. I lost track of how many times I frantically asked Connie, "What's he doing? What's he doing?" To her credit, Connie managed to stifle whatever chuckling she surely wanted to do. "You're o.k.," she kept saying, "he's not going to hurt you!" And in this, she turned out to be right.

In spite of my trepidation, I was intrigued enough to schedule another lesson on Bit - and another, and another! We've had four lessons together, now, and after every one, Connie expresses her belief that Bit and I are coming together as a team quite nicely. I'm inclined to agree: while he continues to throw his own brand of challenges into every lesson, we are finding ways to communicate together that tell me we're on the right track. Indeed, the most telling communication of all didn't even happen during a lesson. It happened today after we volunteers had finished mucking out stalls.

Being the Critter Lady, I take a lot of pictures at the barn. I take pictures of all the urchins with their favorite horses, and I have them take pictures of me with mine. Anyone who follows me on Facebook already knows that Bit does not stand still for pictures. Don't get me wrong, he stands still just fine - until you aim a camera at him! Then, he's all about swinging his ginormous head around, and trying to use my leg as a scratching post. But not today. Today, he stood still for a number of pictures with me, and even some with the kids, as well. When we were done, I unhooked the lead rope and told him he was free to go boss the herd around. But here's the thing: he didn't leave.

While I took pictures of Lydia and Buddy, and Michaela and Angel, there was Bit, lurking about. While I took pictures of fiance John with old Newman, there was Bit, lurking about. He stood here for a time, then moved a few feet away and stood there for a time, all the while looking over at me to see whether I had a snack for him, or possibly a command or two. The striking thing was that he was looking to me - for direction, for companionship - rather than looking at me, and this was the first time he'd done that on his own, without me on his back. It was a pretty cool moment for me when I figured that out!

There can be a world of difference between what goes on on a horse's back, and what goes on in the mud lot, when he's free to do as he pleases. When Charlie Horse is under saddle, he behaves very well. When he's in the mud lot, he'd just as soon stand off by himself and crib, rather than interact with me or the urchins. And, generally speaking, Bit's usually too busy moving the herd from one side of the poop pile to the other and back again to stop and take notice of what the volunteers are up to. Ordinarily, he would give us all a cursory glance, make sure we weren't doing anything that required his attention, and then go on about his business. To hang around with me for twenty-odd minutes of his own volition was extraordinary. It's something I won't soon forget!

There's definitely a relationship forming between Bit and I, and there's so much more to it than just getting on his back and riding. The time I spend with him on the ground is also an investment in the bond that's developing, and it's just what I've been needing, after suffering the loss of Ruckus. There will never be a replacement horse - there was, and ever will be, only one Ruckus - but as I've said before, eventually, it is necessary to move forward, to form new relationships with other critters, to let yourself love again, even though you know that one day, your heart will be broken by yet another critter death. These wonderful relationships are vital to the well-being of our souls. And, quite possibly, theirs, too.

That's all for now, folks! Thanks so much for hanging in there while I took time to grieve. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!