Today was a Zen day. It didn’t start out to be, and I would have given you long odds that things were going to go at all well. I had lost faith in the process. Well, more in my ability to perform the process. The weight of past failures have been hanging heavy on my shoulders as they tend to do, this daylight shortening dreary inducing time of year.
So. It had the potential to be a rough day. One of the prettiest November days I ever recollect, sky a color blue can only happen around now, pulling out the golds, oranges, purples and striking reds in the remaining leaves. Warm enough I barely need a heavy pullover, and I want to be depressed. I don’t want to be, but I am.
I want to go the the ranch, throw my horse in a trailer, haul to some place I have not seen much of and chase horizons.
I want to laugh with friends, chatter girl talk and maybe kick up a horse race along the way.
I DON’T want to wrestle with demons. Not mine, not his. But that is what is on the calendar if I am ever going to get through to the other side, and have those above sort of days where we go out and both of us have fun and enjoy what we are doing.
Arriving at the ranch, there are Thoroughbreds turned out in every conceivable space and arena. They like the sunshine too and my boss makes sure they don’t spend their off season trapped in a dreary dark stall. All very well, but where shall I work my horse?
The other night we just stayed in the yard and worked by the yard light. Too busy a spot during the day, plus the exercises I had in mind for us demanded Royal have space to move, to get away, so he could learn to come back . . .
We decide his pen is a fine place for what I want to do as I outline my plan for my boss. He has mares in foal not far from where I will be working and the last thing I would want to do would be too upset one of those ladies into losing a baby . . .
I halter up my boy, he is mildly okay with seeing me. Doesn’t come to meet me at the gate, but doesn’t sullenly ears folded back slink off into a corner either. I eye him . . . thinking. I want to build his confidence, make him feel safe . . . I want him conscious and focused.
Back in Sioux City, I used to take my horses in training out for walks under saddle. Send them up and down banks, let them get the feeling of going where they are pointed, following a feel on the line and getting used to the idea of being partners.
Out we go, north of his pen is a steep rise, a road and a sharp bank into a small pond. Royal used to hate that pond, the frogs jumping sent him leaping as well more than twice. We will start there.
We work circles on the road, me standing where a sudden motion of his won’t mow me over and send me either tumbling or soaking. He makes no sudden motion. In fact, what is sudden is his head dropping to the short green grass under his feet and . . . he’s eating. I stare in disbelief. You did not . . . yeah, you did. A sharp thwack of the end of the lead on his rump tells him he needs to be in forward motion. NOBODY rang the lunch bell, dude.
That gets pretty good and we move to the pond. He’s been in water tons, doesn’t mean he is excited to get in this. He shrinks toward me, cutting the circle. Another sharp thwack on his shoulder says that’s a bad idea, kid. You better stay out there where you belong and not be running over the peoples. It only takes that once and he stays where he belongs. I need to remember my horse likes knowing his boundaries. Maybe they all do, part of that feeling safe thing is knowing what to expect.
He is hesitant about the water, but a few steps, he s in and it’s play time. He sinks his muzzle over the nostrils, blows and tosses the water about. I let him. I want him to enjoy this too.
There are tarps folded in the barn alley, and the wind rustles one as I am knocking the mud off my pony getting ready to saddle. He skitters, almost bumping carelessly into me, far more concerned about the tapping corner of the tarp. I thump him with the curry. “Get the heck off me, you idiot!” I say sharply, unhappy that I am that invisible to him at this late date. Stay in your box, Royal. Stay where you belong and all is well.
I like the idea of a tarp and borrow one of the offenders. Off we go to Royal’s pen and we spend the afternoon there. It has nothing to do with him crossing a tarp, wearing, dragging or playing tug of war with his buddy, Petri with one. It has everything in the world with gaining his respect, his trust, getting his mind settled and quiet.
At first they both hide in the furthest corner. Fine I think, we’ll just move around a little and see what happens.
I rapidly discover Royal does not believe I can control his direction or his speed as he tears off, spinning back and forth along the fence to avoid the area where the nasty thing lay.
Cool, that’s a great place to start. I have to hustle a little myself now to keep up with my athlete. Off comes the pullover and I am ready for business. He blows by me a couple of times, receiving a spank on the ass as he flies by. Then, he attempts to out dodge me, weaving back and forth like a cutter but not turning his butt. His ploys avail him nothing.
I am not malicious about it (a Brannaman word). I calmly stay engaged, insist he go the direction I point, that he stay on a circle and not hide in corners. As he grows increasingly easy and compliant, neither one of us have to work as hard.
We get some good forward and all of a sudden I am aware his ear is on me. He tilts his face inquiringly my way, just for a split instance and he is gone again. I will catch that next time, sorry Royal.
I do, and I step back and to the side, inviting him to step his hip over, bring his front around and face me. He does. Ears and eyes brightly upon me. Well. Now this is something we have needed for awhile and here we are.
Nobody cares about the tarp right now. We are working circles at liberty, he asks occasionally to come in to me, sometimes I say yes, he faces up, but won’t step over, off you go then. Sometimes I say no, and indicate he should continue with his forward.
Then, he is stepping over prettily behind, both ways. I send him off, asking him to stay in a smallish circle around me, he tracks exactly as I think he should. Royal knows where the tarp is but his form does not change as he goes by. I ask for him to disengage, face up, he does readily. I step back, and he walks to me straight as string. We are done with this.
We play with the tarp now, take our time, and I allow my horse to get right with the decisions he makes to approach the enemy. I will tell you it didn’t go quite like the photos may indicate. There were times he was plenty worried and those times, I was keeping my body where I needed to be to support my horse and not worried about the photo op. (I did try once, and there is empty ground in the photo where the horse used to be . . . gave it up)
Petri, who has wanted none of much of any of this, and ran until his fat little body sweated and heaved, joins in. My horse has finally, bravely, taken willing steps onto the windblown heap of tarp and here is Petri, pawing at it, reaching down grabbing a chunk in his mouth and shaking it like a dog. I expected Royal to be in the next county.
Didn’t happen. My horse looks at his friend like “really? You have to just noodle with everything, don’t you!” and they play on the tarp together. It’s good stuff.
Royal, who wasn’t happy dragging a mostly empty hay net the other night, drags the tarp. I tuck it up under the breast collar where it can easily come loose if things get too wild. They don’t, he wears it a million different ways. His mind is good, he is ready and he could care less.
Time to carry me. I do it with the halter and single line. A colt ride. Step him over behind before we toddle off around the pen. One rein stop, relax into it, get good with it.
All the while, all the day, I have been asking for deep soft reaches from that inside hind leg. Not making a big deal of it, ever, but it is the deal. It’s the point of the entire day.
It feels good. He backs up from that single line, nose tucked, straight back.
I flip it over his head (we practiced that on the ground too) and go the other way. It feels damn good to be on my horse in this right way. We both of us had to get ready. A person might think it odd I do a first ride on a horse that has hundreds of saddle miles, but it is where we are at and it worked out nice. We finished a little fancy, sidepassing off that single rein, turns on the forehand and such. I am grinning.
As we go to get put up, I notice a big puddle beside our hitching rail. Hmm, a tarp, a puddle and a SQUEEZE. We’d found a little claustrophobia coming out of the little gate with Royal wearing his tarp, had worked back and forth til coming and going out were a non issue. How would this be?
Another non issue.
Royal waits, tied in the alley while I talk to my boss a little in the sweet afternoon sun. We chat about this, that, the phone rings a couple of times and suddenly I am aware of something we don’t hear. There is no pawing on the concrete floor, no restless head tossing, no crazy 8’s. Charlie smiles “your horse is pretty content today.” Yep, he sure is. And that is just the way I want to keep him.