I came across a situation the other day which I thought would be quite fun to share. First, a little background information is in order for those not familiar with my situation.
I am a middle aged adult amateur with a teenage off the track Thoroughbred. When I got him in 2000 at 5 years of age he was probably one of the most human hating horses I've ever met as evidenced by the permanent scarring on my upper arm. You see, shortly after getting him, he attempted to rip my (apparently) evil arm from its socket during what I can only describe as a flashback during saddling. I know he was abused due to pictures from the past which showed him starved and in poor condition. His journey even brought him through an auction kill pen at one point.
However, since that time and with patience, love and understanding we've developed a solid and real partnership and he no longer tries to hurt me. That being said he is still a TB and prone to react as the quintessential TB in certain situations.
Well this day we had that certain situation.
Now I should add that I've been nursing a bad back (sciatica). I also have developed a newly discovered middle aged distaste for cold weather and as such I didn’t ride often during the winter. I rode here and there at best.
With spring finally here and a nice warm weather day off from work I figured I'd give ole Thunderfart a ride around the arena. Nothing fancy, nothing intense, just a relaxing reintroduction into our routine.
I saddled him up and led him into the arena. I hadn’t ridden for about two months. Since my horse is out all day in a huge pasture with an opportunity to be all perky n chit I didn't feel the need to lunge first. He seemed quiet during the grooming and saddling and I always use his behavior during these processes as a barometer of his sanity on a given day.
I led him into the indoor and slid my perky-butt all lady like into the saddle. We walked off, my horse's ears happily pricked, his expression in the mirror's reflection alert and attentive yet relaxed and quiet.
We began our slow methodical warm up with a long reined, long necked forward walk - the norm for us as taught by my beloved teacher Walter Zettl. One of my girlfriends came in and settled her bum on the mounting block to watch. We chatted up a bit and I eventually began the long reined trot work which went very well. My horse felt awesome underneath me.
A rather lovely breeze wafted through the large garage door sized opening of the indoor. It's located on the long side and leads to an outdoor jumping field. Although this door was open, the rail board gate was closed but my horse and I could look out, viewing the jump field and beyond.
As I came across the ring doing a circle I saw something from the corner of my eye. My horse saw it too, and in a nanno second I found myself on the opposite side of the arena from a spook. No big deal, I calmed him and we continued our work.
After softly chiding my horse calling him a putz I said to my girlfriend "What the hell was that about?". She answered, "Oh, that's just Delores. She decided to teach her horse to pull a cart. You both passed the open door at the same time".
I rolled my eyes muttering about stupid amateurs and the silly things they do without any preparation - like warning someone. At the time I didn’t know my horse hadn't really gotten a GOOD look at Delores, the cart and her horse.
Our ride continued and my girlfriend eventually left. I figured the freak with the cart had also made her way to somewhere else on the farm, but I was wrong….. so very, very wrong. I was about to start some canter work when my horse circled around and got a REALLY good look at Delores and the car trotting around in the distance.
It was that exact moment I learned my horse was unfamiliar with carts. Little hints gave it away; my horse suddenly becoming airborne, tail flagging, eyes and veins were bulging and his head became 40 feet high in the air, all to the musical sounds of freaked out snorting and blowing. Thunderfart’s meltdown continued and I could swear I saw smoke emerging from his ears. (If there was a "tilt" emoticon it would be applicable here)
Another moment passed and he suddenly froze, solid, like stone. I tried to turn him but his neck was steel girder rigid. Hooves concreted to the ground. I heard myself say, "Oh HELL no!". And with that I discovered my inner gymnast and leaped off as fast as middle aged bones would allow.
Standing beside him I tried to get the reins over his head but he was holding it just too damn high. Now I'm 5'7" and my horse is 16'2 but he might as well have been 10 feet tall. There was no way I could reach high enough not even on booted tippy toes. So my gloved hands grabbed the reins by the bit under his chin and when he became unstuck I proceeded to lead him from the indoor as he boinged and danced around me, tail flagging, nostrils blowing. Every vein on his body bulged and he looked all buff. This was not just acting up and I had no doubt he was legitimately scared shitless.
I got pissed. Here all I wanted to do is have a nice relaxing light ride which didn't stress my back or my horse and it didn't get to happen! Instead here I was semi-attached (and not in a good way) to Leaping Larry Losing It.
I made my way down the barn aisle, my horse dancing beside me like it was the post parade on Derby day. I found my arm tiring quickly. As I approached the stall I started flinging tack off of him: first the saddle followed shortly after by the pad. I manage to settle him long enough to take off the bridle and toss on his halter with a chain lead. I had no choice but to leave my helmet and gloves on. I wouldn’t lead him without the gloves, and I didn’t it think it possible given the situation to fumble the helmet off.
I cursed Delores, cursed her mother and her father as well as the evil day she was born. Unceremoniously I began to march my not so happy ass out to the field where she was circling with the Cart Of Doom.
As we approached them my horse continued his antics. I figured I could kill her right now or I could do what I normally would do when insane emotions weren't coursing through my blood and that was to acclimate him to the situation. I felt like a weenie for having stopped my ride and this too angered me.
Delores saw me coming and halted her cart and if body language could be understood by her she would know why I was marching with such purpose towards her. She smiled to me and said "Hi!" and at that moment I realized she was just too amateur clueless to have any idea of what was going on. So my brain settled on acclimation. I felt the hatred ooze away.
I explained to her what had happened calmly adding "I came out here thinking I could either kill you or I could use this as an opportunity to acclimate my horse so that in the future his reaction isn't like this. I decided on the latter."
Now keep in mind my horse was still leaping, snorting, flaring nostrils and such. Ignoring it best I could I began to walk him up to the cart, little by little, inching our way towards it. As he became braver we went alongside the cart on the left and the right of the cart. We crossed in front of it and we crossed behind it. We followed it for a number of circles. We sniffed it for a good ten minutes. Then, after about 40 minutes, my horse decided to graze.
I knew then my job was done. I also knew that at some point soon I needed to continue this lesson. But we were done for today. I figured I’d have to trailer my horse to a carriage show at the nearby equestrian park and walk him around to really get the message through. Yes, that was my plan.
We returned to the barn and on the long drive home I pondered what had happened and my actions in response. One thing I’d learned from Walter Zettl is that no good training can be done with a tense or frightened horse until that horse is relaxed. I could have chosen to ride it out, or crank him in with the bit or lunge the shit out of him until he stopped and then I could have jumped back on to ride again. Instead, I did this.
Part of me felt weenie, the other part felt wise. So I ask you, was I weenie or wise?