Sunday, April 7, 2013

Life Lessons Courtesy of Bit the Horse

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I decided to spend the winter teaching lease horse Bit some ground manners. This was because when someone tries to climb into the saddle, Bit foils them by refusing to stand still. He'll walk this way and that, forward and back, in his attempts to keep you from getting on his back. This is not only annoying, but it's dangerous, too, and while I've never actually taught a horse anything before, I figured ground manners were worth a shot.

I wish I could say that I've been 100% successful with this endeavor, but Bit has a strong personality, so we tend to butt heads. Any number of times, during our training sessions, he's turned his head toward me, taken the loose end of the lead rope in his mouth, and repeatedly flailed his head about. It's his way of saying, "Enough already! I know how to do this!" To which I always reply, "You might know how to do it, but you don't know how to do it well!" Clearly, Bit and I disagree on how much more training he needs to have!

I tried working with Bit on a regular basis, but sometimes, the winter weather was just too much for my delicate constitution. Even inside the arena, the penetrating cold would numb my fingers to the point where I couldn't properly fasten the tack. So there were times when we went a number of days between teaching sessions, and Bit always liked to pretend that he'd forgotten what I taught him.

Repeatedly, I'd walk him up to the mounting block, bring him to a halt, and try to climb onto the saddle - only to watch him back away at the last moment. Around in a circle we'd walk, and I'd line him up with the mounting block again - and again - each time attempting a safe mount, and each time, watching him back away from the block. Ugh! Fortunately, toward the end of our sessions, he'd do things correctly a couple of times and I'd reward him with an apple slice. Suffice to say the learning has been slow-going.

It didn't help that ground work was all we could do. If it wasn't too cold to attempt a walk outside, then the ground was too muddy to walk in, all of which confounded my efforts to work with him outside the fence. As you may recall, I've also been trying to make Bit into a trail-riding horse. We spent a lot of quality time together last fall walking the track outside the pasture fence. Bit was - and still is - a huge fraidy cat about anything unfamiliar, so our walks consisted mainly of Bit eating grass, Bit startling at something imaginary, Bit prancing around in nervous circles, and me standing calmly by, reassuring him in a soothing tone of voice that all was well. By the time winter hit and we had to stop walking outside, Bit had calmed down considerably, and I had begun to feel somewhat optimistic about using him as a trail horse. I should have known that my optimism was misplaced!

When the first hint of spring weather arrived recently, and the muddy track had finally dried up, I decided to break up the monotony and take Bit out for a walk around the track. Unfortunately, he startled at so many things - real or imagined, that it was like taking him out for the first time all over again. Even so, he did pretty good for a fraidy cat, and we managed to make it all the way to the back end of the property. I made sure to let him stop and graze on what little grass there was at every opportunity because grazing always seems to calm him down. It was while he grazed that I decided to walk him a little farther than usual.

The trail-riding track runs along the back edge of several properties. On one side is a long row of evergreen shrubs that border the properties, and on the other side are large tracts of farm fields. The trail runs between all this, and Bit did very well walking the length of it. After giving him a chance to look and see and smell, I turned and headed back toward the barn. It was as we rounded the back corner of barn-owner Wendy's property that the thing I always feared finally happened: Bit spooked and shot off at a gallop.

All the previous times that Bit had startled at something, he never ran any farther than the lead rope would stretch. But this time was different, and in the split second after he took off, several thoughts crossed my mind in quick succession:

"If I don't let go of the lead rope, I could lose some fingers!"

"I'll never be able to catch him!"

"He's not going to come if I call!"

"God, I hope he doesn't run out into the road!"

"Call Ron!"

I let go of the lead rope almost immediately. If I'd hung onto it, it could have tightened around my hand and literally ripped my fingers off. Helplessly, I watched Bit tear across the field, drawing a momentary blank as to what to do next. Then it occurred to me: call Ron.

The only reason I had my phone with me was because Wendy had suggested it when I started leasing Bit. The idea made sense: co-owner Ron was almost always somewhere on the property, and he was universally recognized as the alpha horse. Unfortunately, my phone decided not to cooperate when I tried dialing Ron's number. I paused in despair, wondering what the hell to do now, and thinking about how, if something bad happened to Bit, it would be all my fault. In the midst of all that thought, I almost didn't notice that Bit had changed his trajectory and was now running directly toward the mud lot where his herd was. When he reached the mud lot fence, he stopped running. That was unexpected!

Fortunately for all concerned, I had the presence of mind to remember the advice I'd gotten from both Wendy and her daughter Connie - that in order to teach Bit to be calm, I must exude calm. Fighting my desire to run up the track to retrieve Bit, I walked instead. While every inch of my being wanted to race to where he was so that I could regain control, I knew that doing so would only confirm to him that there was, indeed, something to be afraid of, and that he would probably take off running again.

So I strolled at our usual walking pace, forcing myself to remain cool and collected. And, because prey animals have very good hearing, I began to talk to him, too, giving my usual running commentary about what a nice day it was to be a horse, and what a big, goofy meatball he was. To my everlasting surprise, it worked! When I was half-way up the track, Bit turned his head, saw me coming, and trotted a few paces in my direction. Then he stopped and stood stock still, facing me and waiting for me to come and get him. It was clear in that moment that he was thinking, "Everything's o.k. now! Kelly's here!"

It was one of those incredible moments that I don't get to see very often, the kind of moment in which Bit shows me that we have, indeed, been building a relationship, and that I've earned his trust. In all those teaching sessions where he'd get impatient and grab the lead rope, it sure didn't seem as though we were accomplishing much. And yet there he was, trotting eagerly toward me and then stopping to wait for me to catch up. Once I did, I took possession of the lead rope, gave him a couple of snacks, and heaped praise on him for being such a smart boy. Then, because I wanted things to end on a normal note, rather than a panicked one, I let him graze a little, and then took him in the barn and groomed him.

In my experiences with Bit, whether we're working on a new skill, or just hanging out, I'm learning that John Lennon's words - life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans - are true. While I'm focused on the tasks at hand, and assuming that Bit is, too, something intangible is happening: we're getting to know each other in subtle ways, ways that apparently reassure him that I'm safe, and that I'll keep him safe. That I'm reliable and that he can rely on me. Such important things, and such a shame that we never notice them unless we're tasked with a situation that brings them to the fore. I suspect that the same is true of human relationships, too.

So while the thing I feared most did indeed happen, I've come away from it feeling very reassured about my knowledge as a horsewoman (disaster did not befall us after all) and about my relationship with Bit (who, contrary to his usual behavior, has actually learned a few things). There's nothing better than realizing that you know a little more than you thought you did!

That's all for now, folks. Thanks again for stopping by! May you all have small moments of big revelations with your favorite animals! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

P.S. The thing that sent Bit galloping through the field? A white plastic grocery bag wafting on the breeze. Who knew something so inconsequential could be so terrifying?!

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