There is one sure way guaranteed to lift my spirits. I walk out to where my horses are hanging around- quietly grazing, snoozing or playing together and sit down to watch them from there on the ground.
I am from the North where Southerns often accuse us of being rude. I am one of those Southern Yankees. I was always in the mindset that I was wasting time – mine and theirs – if I didn’t just get down to business with someone. I thought it was unprofessional to chit chat before I told them why I called or why I was there. I would get so impatient when I had an agenda and they wanted to make small talk. It just seemed so inefficient. Finally, I realized the value of establishing a relationship with anyone I interacted with. I get better service, loyalty, favors granted, make better friends, help is offered willingly, etc. What was I thinking? This is a way better way to go through life. Take a little time to make someone feel special and let them know that you care enough to see how things are going with them before putting in a request. Okay, if that truth is so simple, why do we not do the same with our horses ? So many of us go get our horses with an agenda all planned out – our agenda, not the horses. We don’t stop to give them a few minutes of just saying hello and let them know you are glad to see them before we start taking over. We slap a halter on them, lead them to the ties, groom them, saddle them up, climb up and expect them to take good care of us without so much as a “How are you doing today?”
We are friends
Although I love to be near my horses and spend hours at the barn, it is rare that I am not there for some other reason than just hanging out for awhile without trying to get something done. It took somebody to actually teach me the importance of creating a personal bond with my horse for me to realize the difference it makes. We all go under the premise that a horse wants and needs the human to be the leader. That is true to an extent. A horse really wants to feel safe and will gladly submit to a leader he trusts. We cannot gain that trust by demanding it. We need to earn it by showing him that we are his friend first. Try spending some time alone with your horse with no distractions and no agenda. Take off all the ropes and halters. Make just for them. See how long it takes before they stop looking for other herd members and turn to you. It will give you a pretty good idea what your horse thinks of you.
They imagine and ponder just how great it must be, how romantic and thrilling to be around horses like me.
When someone dreams of having horses, I doubt if sheath cleaning comes to mind. In fact, most people don’t even know that it is part of caring for geldings. When the subject is broached, I get looks of disbelief and repulsion. Do I really do that? Of course I do. I care about my guys. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, sheath cleaning is when you remove all the gunk and goo that builds up on a neutered boy horse’s private parts.
A Relaxed Gelding
Sometimes, you can actually hear a squeaking noise when he trots. That is not the saddle (that is what I used to think for a long time.) It is a sure sign of build up “in there”. Wait, it gets even better. Some think that it is enough to flush it out by running water from a hose in there. Wrong! You have to find those little hidden pockets embedded in the end around the urethra where “beans” accumulate” and can cause serious complications if not removed regularly. They can become enlarged and block off the flow, ultimately causing infections, bladder problems, behavior problems or worse. You would think more horse owners would be diligent about this task. Most of the ones that are, have the vet handle (literally) the task with the aids of rubber gloves and sedation once or twice a year. When I am teaching young girls how to care for their horses, you would think I was crossing some unspeakable line of grossness. Even the men I know won’t touch it -no pun intended. They choose to ignore that part of horse ownership. I am telling you, it is not that bad. I even know a couple of expert horsewomen who enjoy the task- and not for any illicit reasons although it is a kind of thrill to remove a quarter sized bean and know you just did a very good thing. It has nothing to do with sexuality or obscene gestures. When you care about something, you want to do the best you can for it. Sometimes it isn’t the most pleasant job but the satisfaction that you get from putting them first and doing everything you can to make sure they are healthy and comfortable outweighs any unpleasantness. Much like changing a baby’s diaper. You want to do it for them if you love them. If you just can’t bring yourself to do it, make sure someone does. If it is so important, who does that for horses in the wild?, you might ask. The answer is that wild horses are not gelded. They have a sex life so there is no build up of crud there. You may be thinking that if that is part of the deal, you will just stick to mares. Well, you might as well know that the girls have their own hidden nooks and crannies. The area between their udders tends to gather “jug Jam” which can also be an irritant and attract insects and should be tended to regularly. the bottom line is that if you truly care for your horse you will learn how to take proper care of them even if there are certain things you would rather not do. It is just part of it.
If a tainted experience with horses has caused you to endure fear or pain – The best cure is a dose of this remedy, which means getting back with them again.
I rushed to the barn where my friend was waiting for me so we could ride together. I saddled Detail in the alley between the two rows of stalls. Detail is a show horse and is normally a very high strung. Although I don’t run a show barn, I had been taking care of him for the past couple of years for my stepdaughter. We had been taking him on the trails a couple of days a week for a few months and was looking forward to a good ride with him. His manners were impeccable as I groom and saddled him. As I pulled the mounting block over to get on, I remembered that I wanted to take my shoofly. I left him totally tacked up and ground tied as I ran into the barn to get it. I was gone about a minute and a half. He was amazing. Surprisingly, he was standing calmly and hadn’t moved a muscle when I got back. I was silently noting how good he was and praising him in my mind. As I stepped up, I put one foot in the stirrup and swung my other leg over the saddle- holding my reins rather loosely as I started my mount. The moment my bottom touched the saddle, it was like he had a sudden electric charge. My other foot wasn’t even in the stirrup yet and my hands were not ready. He balled up and shot out as if from a cannon. It felt like we were going 80 miles and hour and headed straight for the pasture fence about 100 feet in front of us. It played out like it was in slow motion. I had enough time to foresee the crash. The two options I saw that Detail had were to try to jump the fence – which I knew he wouldn’t make due to stifle problems-or crash into it. Stopping him was not on his list. He chose number three which was to stop cold about a foot in front of the fence, throwing me headfirst into it. That was one of the last times I rode without a helmet. A shattered ankle and concussion later, I spent months reliving that life-changing event trying to figure out just what happened. I finally figured it out. I misread the signal, pure and simple. I thought he was just being patient and calm waiting for me, when in reality, he had tuned out. When he came to, something was climbing on his back- which for a prey animal is terrifying. I didn’t even realize that horses could do that to that extent but I know it now. I never get on a horse unless I am sure that he is awake, alert and knows exactly what I am doing.
I know these guys are sleeping.
It may be good advice to let sleeping dogs lie, but that is definitely not true with horses.
You see there is something we humans tend to forget – I find it to be true with most horses I’ve met.
When I first got Guilty, she had a three year old filly at her side who had never been handled much. I called her Shameless and her little hooves were poorly lacking in care. The guy I got her from told me that they did her feet once when she was a yearling and they had to wrestle her to the ground to get it done. It came as no surprise when the task became an act of terror as far as Shameless was concerned. Because I was newly back into horses after a 25 year break, I left the job to the “experts” thinking they would know what to do because they handled horses a lot more than I had. They approached it like it was some kind of contest they were going to win. Without any preparation or desensitizing, the plan of action was to put her up against a fence so she couldn’t move away. One person held her head while the farrier attempted to grab her back leg. When this didn’t work, they put her in the cross ties, restraining her even more so they could both strong arm her. Of course, she was on the defensive and began struggling. When they grabbed her leg this time, she struck out. She didn’t make contact and it was meant as a warning, but it infuriated them. I had been watching these “experts” during this time keeping my mouth shut and staying out of the way as things escalated. When one of them grabbed her head up and the other began kicking her in the belly as hard as she could with her boots, I finally could take it no longer. “Stop it!” I shouted. “She is obviously terrified”. The reply was that she was just being a brat and if she was going to try and kick them, they were going kick her and make it hurt. I stood my ground and told them: “You are going to have to find another way, because we are not going to do this in this way”. Once they realized I was serious, they started over and figured out a more humane and nonthreatening way to get it done – under my watchful eye, I might add.
The way a first farrier’s visit should be handled.
I think that was my first conscious step toward the path of looking for a better way with horses. It didn’t feel right to me and it certainly wasn’t feeling safe for the horse. Up until that time, I just took it for granted that the means that people who were “professionals” used were not to be questioned. After all, they did always get it done, one way or another. As I stood there watching that scene unfold, I was painfully aware of the feeling that “this isn’t right”. I get that feeling a lot when I observe many horse handlers. I certainly am not the expert, but I am trying to figure it out and the path I go down will be one that I can feel good about. I have learned the art of discernment and will never again just turn my horses over to the experts if I don’t agree with their methods. I won’t be shamed, belittled or bullied into doing something that I know in my gut is wrong. You will know too if you listen to your heart.
And that is the reason nothing is taken for granted. There is a lot on her plate and she needs to be sure. She doesn’t mean to be trying, stubborn or moody. She has to be careful – her reasons are pure.
Guilty loves to take kids on trail rides. First of all, she knows that she is in control of that ride and secondly, there are all kinds of grass, leaves and foliage every step of the way. To her, it is like she is at the drive-thru window at MacDonald’s and there are french fries everywhere just waiting for her to snatch. We have had an unusual amount of rain lately and the trail was muddy. I was walking slightly behind her as she traversed through the woods carrying a six year-old boy while following another horse. When we came up on a patch of fresh young ferns growing just off the path, she knew she could get a mouthful or two in before I could catch up and move her along and her rider was busy “squirrel hunting”, so she stepped off the path to reach them. To her surprise, her left back leg sank in the mud way up over her hock. This immediately put her completely off balance and her only choices were to sit down like a dog, roll over or to start scrambling. I watched as it played out as in slow motion. I saw her go down in the back end. My first thought was to get the little boy off the horse and out of danger, hoping that she didn’t panic and start trying to hop up or lose her uprightedness (is that a word?). At the same time, I was aware that she may break her leg if she went completely over on it.
Guilty looking out for everyone.
Not to worry, Guilty behaved in the most noble manner as she always does when push comes to shove. After all, she is my alpha mare and it is her responsibility to take care of her herd – and that includes any horse or person in her charge. While one leg was buried in the mud past her knee, she folded the other hind leg under her so that her belly was flat on her ground. Then she did the most amazing thing – nothing. Absolutely nothing. She stayed perfectly still until I pulled the child from the saddle and out of danger before she began her labored struggle to get out of the mud. She made it with some effort and her leg had a few gashes in it, but overall, she was fine. Everybody was fine. That is what she does. We walked back to the barn where I hosed her off, doctored her cuts and gave her an entire watermelon for being so calm in a crisis. Okay, I realize that Guilty brought this all on us when she strayed off the path in the first place. She is guilty of that, true to her name. Even so, I was thanking my lucky stars that she took full responsibility for that and strategically got us out of that mess safely. That’s my girl.
We didn’t take lessons – our parents didn’t insist. We rode bareback with halters and helmets didn’t exist.
Today I watched as a professional photographer took amazing pictures of three young beautiful teenage girls riding a gorgeous big black Friesian mare and our very handsome dark bay gelding. The combined beauty was breathtaking. The girls were all slim, attractive and youthful with long flowing hair. They wore sheer long skirts and bare feet or filmy short dresses with boots. The horses were gleaming, healthy looking and decked out in garlands for reins. They rode bareback and bitless in halters adorned with turquoise, quills and antler conchos or black onyx rhinestones. The horses wore a rhythm necklace made of turquoise, silver and Guinea feathers. Stunning!!! As beautiful as the girls and horses were, the most striking element was the way they rode. One girl in particular rode easily as she cantered, jumped, trotted and guided her horse with the barest of aids. The harmony she showed and rode with was nothing short of the stuff most of us dream of. She is the luckiest girl on this planet today. She got to experience the magic of connecting with horses in the much sought after way that eludes all but a very few enlightened souls. There were no harsh bits, spurs, crops or saddles. She rode with a soft loose hand on the rope of the halter or with no head gear at all to restrain or force movement. She rode helmetless and her long blond hair danced around her shoulders as she appeared to float effortlessly. The sight pulled at old memories of a long ago time when I was that girl. How had I let that part of my life slip away for so many years that I will never experience it on that level again? Heck, I don’t think I ever rode as good as she rides at age 14. I had the connection but not the skills. When I was her age, we didn’t take horseback riding lessons. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I just learned to ride by sheer will and guts. We called it “By the seat of our pants”. Somehow, it always worked out and I had a natural feel that kept me in the saddle. It wasn’t until I took up horses again in my 50’s that I became aware of my ignorance. Ironically, it was this awareness to better my riding skills to ride properly that caused me to lose that feeling.
Watching that girl ride today made me painfully aware of what I could have had. I constantly struggle now to find the best methods for me and my horses. I am seeking that knowledge from somewhere else instead of holding it within myself as she appears to do. I have to work at it now. If I could go back and relive my life, I would never have strayed from the path of the horse. All I could think as I watched her today was that I wanted to have the opportunity to do it all again. I wanted to be young, fearless, easy, connected and to appreciate every moment I spent on a horse while in that mindset. It really doesn’t get any better than that.