Respect for the horse….

(Shade says thanks to one of the ‘secret sweepers’)

I guess I am old fashioned…but I was always taught that the barn is the horse’s home and that it has to be kept clean. Further, I was always reminded that a neat, clean barn is a reflection of our respect for the horse and the sport.

Sometimes, of course, we all fall short of our goals. In particular, the condition of the barn especially on show days can be a little less than stellar.

We had a horse show here on Sunday and the very first division was the beginner division. These are the kids that are just starting out in their showing career.

Looking back (way back!) I remember how nervous I used to get going to horse shows when I was younger. I often didn’t sleep as well as I should have the night before and the nervous energy I had the day of the show left me pretty tired after the days’ events.

I am sure that is how the kids in the first division this past Sunday felt too. But they were magnificent in their preparation and concentration, and the display of good sportsmanship was an absolute pleasure to behold.

That in itself would have been enough to make all of us so proud of them.

But after all was said and done, after we were moving on to the next division, something was going on in the barn.

I returned briefly for something I forgot and there, in the aisle, were three young competitors, sweeping the barn with all manner of enthusiasm. I was quite taken aback and probably did not express my appreciation quite to the extent that I should have. Thankfully, this did not seem to dampen their enthusiasm at all. (I regret I didn’t snap a quick picture…)

When I returned later in the afternoon, after the youngest competitors had headed home, I found that it was not only the top aisle of the barn that had been beautifully swept. A mop had also been strategically dragged around in the lounge as well.

Respect for the horses and the sport?

Clearly!

In the process, not only did they make my day, they also more than earned my respect too.

Thanks very much to my ‘secret’ sweepers!

Equine societal norms…


(Paladin and Genna)

Sometimes it’s hard not to think badly of horses.

I remember years ago, we had a beautiful horse named Paladin. I purchased him when he was 3 years old and he spent all of his life being (for the most part) the benevolently dominant horse in any group he was involved with.

But as in all things, time begins to take its toll and around the time Paladin turned 25 his condition began to deteriorate and with that deterioration came a loss of dominance in the herd. I tried really hard not to anthropomorphize the situation but I did wonder if he missed his glory days when he was king of all he surveyed.

At any rate, one day a rather aggressive mare decided to show Paladin his place and she did it when she found him in the shed in the big field (We closed it in and put stalls in shortly after this event.)

She turned abruptly to threaten Paladin and he tried to move away. But he was blocked by the wall of the shed and her massive form and so he could only turn his back to her and stand still. To the aggressive mare, this seemed to be a show of defiance and she kicked out at him.

Despite his best intentions, poor Paladin had no where to go but his perseverance in holding his ground seemed to drive this mare insane with rage and she just started pounding on him. Luckily we heard the commotion and were able to rescue him by chasing her away but Paladin, who by that time was almost sitting down while her blows rained down on him, was cut up and bruised quite badly.

Paladin had always been a great favourite of mine and so it took all I had not to be really angry with this dominant mare. I had to stop and realize that in her mind, Paladin had displayed some sort of plucky resistance by standing his ground and it was beyond the scope of her understanding to realize that he couldn’t escape even though he desperately wanted to.

It was a fascinating display of behaviour that is hard wired in horses. She had threatened Paladin, and he should have moved away. Had he done that it would have been over but because his location made him ‘stand his ground’ she had gone all in on proving her dominance.

I was reminded of this on Monday when we tried to put the new horse, Bella, into the big field.

Ash has decided that she is going to be like ‘mean girls’ when it comes to letting the newcomer join her in the field.

Bella doesn’t appear to be aggressive at all and yet Ash seems to have taken a particular dislike to her. The weird thing is, probably at the end of all this, the two of them will be fast friends. That is often how it works out, strangely enough.

But right now she had decided it is her job to drive Bella away from the rest of the herd and Bella’s job is to run away as directed. When the proper amount of time has passed, (and Ash seems to be the one that will determine this) Bella will be allowed to meekly edge closer and request membership in the herd.

We tried to introduce Bella on Monday but unfortunately because of the poor design of the paddocks, nature was not allowed to take it’s course.

Bella got cornered near the door way and Ash, enraged that Bella wasn’t playing the game properly by running away, turned to kick her. I had flashbacks of poor Paladin but luckily we were all closer to the action this time and were able to rescue Bella before Ash landed a kick.

There is a reason that there should never be a corner in any paddock and Ash reminded us of the reason on Monday.

We will rope everything off for our next attempt so that Bella can play the game the way Ash expects her to play.

Horses.

Sigh.

Signals sent and received…

I remember years ago when I was working with the race horses and there was a particular stallion in the training barn that terrified me. I really enjoyed riding him but I always talked the assistant trainer into tacking him up for me while I got his horse ready. One day the trainer decided I should deal with the horse myself, assuring me he’d be right there if I needed him.

Terrific.

These horses weren’t crossed tied. They were just standing in a big box stall with a little piece of string attaching them to the wall. Every time I raised the brush to begin grooming, the stallion would pin his ears and swing his head around, teeth bared. And every time he did it I took a half step away to get out of his range. Then I would hit him as hard as I could on the neck and with as much authority as I could muster, I would say “NO!”

The trainer watched and laughed. When I demanded to know what he found so funny he kept chuckling and said the problem was that I stepped back. Given that this was all that I could see that was stopping the horse from reaching me with his teeth, I didn’t really grasp how this could be the problem. But the trainer insisted and sent me back in the stall to try to brush him again. This time, he said cheerfully, when he goes for you, step towards him when you whack him on the neck.

I have to be honest. I doubted how successful this was going to be but didn’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t seem to take advice. So I raised the brush, the stallion pinned his ears and swung his head towards me and I stepped towards him, mumbled ‘no’, and with a certain confidence that the trainer would rescue me if required, I whacked him on the neck.  The stallion stopped, his ears perked up and he studied me for a moment. Then he nuzzled my hand.

I was quite shocked. ‘Sunny’, as we called him, continued to be a joy to ride and he never threatened me again.

It might have been the first time I ever concretely realized how easy it was for horses to read body language. I had thought I was being assertive but that stallion had read my reluctance in a heartbeat. He wasn’t vicious by any stretch and in hindsight, given everything else about that horse that was so wonderful, I think he might have just been having a bit of sport at my expense. But still, by stepping towards him rather than backing away, I had changed the dynamic between us.

I got thinking about ‘Sunny’ the other day as I watched a bit of a kerfuffle in the field.

One of the horses was a bit upset with one of the other horses and chose to show this by lunging to bite and then wheeling to kick out with both hind legs. It was fascinating to watch. There was dust flying, grunts and squeals, amazing amounts of action, and yet both parties emerged from the scuffle completely unscathed. A lot of bluffing and grandstanding but there was no intent to injure.

It made me reflect on how the horse has evolved over time. He is so massively quick and powerful but if every disagreement really came to blows, horses would injure themselves all of the time. And so over the millennium the horse has learned to enact threatening behaviour without actually following through. Pulled punches so to speak. In the process he has evolved as a master at reading body language.

But as I learned years ago with ‘Sunny”, this skill horses have, finely tuned and refined as it is, is almost as effective at reading humans as it is at reading other horses.

And so we rely on the generous, good nature of the school horse to help us learn to ride.

Trust me, they spotted the beginner 100 feet away but fortunately for us, most of them choose to do the right thing anyway.

 

Horsemanship

We had a little horse show at Harrogate this weekend and despite the relentless rain, it went quite well.

Unfortunately, our dressage ring was only set up the night before (painting issues) and so the school horses were not really expecting to see it there. Now as anyone who knows horses knows, unexpected things can be quite upsetting for horses. And for some of them it was.

Sadie, in particular, found the whole situation to be a bit too much. There was the ring, there was the judge’s car parked in the ring, there was the rain, and on the road adjacent to the ring there was a cyclist race accompanied by a police car with lights flashing. Adding to the excitement there was a young, very brave rider who was competing in only his second show and he had never ridden his test outside. So his nerves were a little tattered as he tried to guide her around the ring. Things were tense but when the horses in the big field decided it was time to go for a bit of a gallop Sadie panicked. She seemed to decide that it was best to try to save herself and her partner by bolting out of the ring and trying to catch up to her galloping colleagues in the far field.

The young man on Sadie did everything in his power to stop her but her mind was made up. Luckily, she is the kind of horse that has no desire to maintain that kind of effort and so she stopped long enough for us to grab her.

It was hard not to want to be a little angry with her because this young rider had prepared so carefully for this moment and to have it all fall apart in such a dramatic way was heartbreaking. But looking at Sadie it was easy to tell that her state of agitation was pretty high and that in her mind she had probably thought she was going to save them both by leaving the ring in a hurry.

The only solution seemed to be to get someone with more experience on the horse at this point. So one of our advanced students was ‘volunteered’ and he climbed on and went back out to the scary ring. Because Eric has been riding for quite a while he was able to get Sadie to step under her centre of gravity with her hind legs and lift her back up and stretch her head and neck down. It is not easy to explain how to do this so suffice to say that it was done without coercion or punishment.

As Sadie was convinced to allow her body to adopt the posture of relaxation (imagine a horse grazing in a field or standing quietly under a shady tree) her mind caught up. You could see it in her eyes as they went from glassy and wide to soft and relaxed; her ears started to droop a little and the muscles in her back started to relax.  It was lovely to watch her transform from some raging Bucephalus back to a calm, steady school horse.

But the most amazing and inspirational part of the entire day for me was when the young, less experienced rider got back on Sadie again. I’m sure he had wanted to do well and Sadie’s behaviour in the first test had made that impossible. His second test was much better but still, the disappointment must have stung a little. And yet as this young competitor left the ring, his first impulse was to lean forward and give Sadie a gentle, reassuring pat.

Frankly, I was more proud than if he had won the entire division. Here’s to empathetic horsemanship and understanding priorities.