A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending four hours in the saddle on a horse that some years back I would have called a knothead. Other people were calling him that now.
Parking cars for a big event is hard on a horse, more strenuous mentally than people give credit. It's go, stop, turn, back here, no not there! All the while the rider is mostly focused on getting people in a spot and not being run over in the process.
My mount was a flunked hack horse. He'd learned he could stick his nose in the air, flip the bit upside down and not only could the dude aboard no longer punish his tender mouth, pony could go where he would whether. And, whether he would.
I don't park cars anymore or work on the ranch. I got a call from my friend who owns it. Big night, overwhelmed, a million hayracks going out, would I please come help. Checked my calendar. No real good reason to not.
"He rode the very best, at one time." I'm told this while I survey the placid looking mid size spotted gelding saddled and waiting. "Then, he went to the camp, and well, you know about that."
I do. Summer camps lease horses. They don't always have the most experienced people running them. They use the snot out of the good ones who return home thin and sometimes sour. This one came home both.
There's a thing that happens when you step up on a really good horse, if you've rode enough of both kinds to know the difference. I've had the grace and fortune of spending my life getting on horses and that's a gift I got that I didn't even know about, for a really long time.
I don't know if it's instinct or what but the good ones kind of steady up under you, It's a . . . click.
This horse did that. Right before he decided to leave without me. I registered the click and also the leaning into what was going to become steps here in a moment. Let's don't, I said. He fussed. A little.
The best part of parking cars, for me, is the time I get to play horsemanship. I pick up a rein,see if there's a foot attached and I play games with the horse. I set up opportunities for them to do a hundred things right and release to the best of my ability as they start to understand the game and seek out the reward.
The knot headed Paint (a super good horse in Halloween disguise) didn't trust my games. When he would respond without thinking about it, he would soften up and sync his feet with my brain so sweet it was like we'd rode together for years.
I'd take him on the corner, finessing the tricky broken mouthpiece bit with the long shanks so it didn't leverage against his face and left front foot, now right, now left.
Then, he would remember he was a knot head and . . . people had betrayed his softness with yanking hands, kicking feet, crude butts weighing heavy, awkward in the saddle hurting his spine.
I'm going to throw a fit, he'd tell me.
Okay I said. I could feel the low grade tension in his muscles, see the set of his ears. He thought there might be a fight coming and he was ready to the best of his good natured ability.
That was it, he'd say. Did you see it?
Yes, I said. Good job, now let's park this guy, ok?
Once in awhile he'd flip his head up and attempt a coup. The Paint knew quite a few people would pull back helplessly with both reins on the sky high bit as he carried them back to the barn. He might get a whupping but he'd also get to stand at the rail, go back to his dreams and pretend he was somewhere far away, knee deep in tall grass.
Paint? I hate to interrupt your fantasy but we're still working here.
One rein, gently bringing his face around. When the hip turned loose, we were facing the direction we needed to be, his neck had relaxed and lowered in the course of the turn. I released the reins.
The sour laid back ears flickered. What?
I rubbed his neck. (Peter says to surprise the horse. Anybody can beat on them, get harsh with them. Do something unexpected.) The ears came up, relaxed. Then, a foot came lifted to take a step, unbidden. Leaving was a habit.
I caught the foot in mid air with my rein, asked him to set it down where I wanted instead of off in the direction Paint had chosen. (Peter: Always give the feet a place to go.) Before there was any kind of argument, I asked another foot to move, put it here. Released. Let the games resume.
That Paint horse lined up and worked with me. He's one of the good ones who'd done what he felt he needed to to protect himself in situations he had no tools. He'd soften his jaw, round up, and move pretty under me.
We loped in the pitch black across the big pasture. Chief Paint (I didn't name him, it was printed on his bridle) never missed a step. He was brave, bold and fun.
So, cured then? Four hours with me and him all better? No. That's not how it works. We had a great time and I did insult him by giggling at what he thought was full flown rebellion. Not out of disrespect for the unhappiness inside his guts that told him he needed to protect himself. I giggled because the inherent sweetness of his nature meant the rebellion was a few steps in the wrong direction. Don't get me wrong, A different rider, different experience than mine might have also found a different horse. A knot head.
I sure enjoyed the horse I rode. I'd own him if there was space in the budget to board another beside my equine soul mate and sweet Sam who is earning his hay bales with every ride. There isn't. I don't know what that horse's future holds. I do know that we had four hours of good times. Him learning that even though my hands are not the best out there, a human can still release to him. Can still provide softness, trust, respect and guidance.
I hope his next rider does the same. Best of luck, Chief Paint.
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