The Perfect Pony

Coyote that is.

As we came through the yard the father-in-law waved us down. I thought I was going to be in trouble, but not this time. He wanted to know if I could bring a horse. The cattle are still in the feed lot, waiting for working and summer pasture. A calf had climbed through the feed bunks and was in the wrong pen. Of course he couldn’t find his way back so there they stood, on opposite sides of the fence, calling each other.

I was going to just throw a bridle on Coyote and go bareback, but decided to saddle him in case we had to do any real work. He stood in the yard munching on grass as I quickly threw my saddle up onto his back. The kids were on the four wheeler with the father-in-law and we all went after the cow. Halfway there they got called to go refill the planter with seed and Coyote and I continued on our own. Gates opened and closed, respectively, behind us we easily found the cow on the fence looking for her calf. It was easier to move her than to try to get the calf out. Ears back, teeth probably bared, it suits him but I couldn’t see, he dove in behind the cow. Neck stretched he maneuvered behind her, driving her towards the gate. She stopped and tried to turn back. Coyote dropped low meeting her nose to nose as he wove back and forth matching her in the dance. Recognizing her equal she turned and fled before him, fleeing out the gate.

With cow and calf reunited we turned our attentions to a new target. A calf lay dead just through a gate. Lost to sickness, quickly, unnoticed until too late. His mama stood watch, mourning her loss, unable to understand why he wouldn’t rise. It would be a simple job to bring her out the gate, to a new pen or a new calf. The rest of the crew had finished refilling the planter and were back to help. Leaving them watching from the lane I urged Coyote into the pen.

Of course no job that seems simple ever will be. The cow was unwilling to leave her lost calf and the pen. Near the gate recent rains had left deep, mucky footing, slick and treacherous. Easing up to her gentle and quiet I was caught off guard as she spun away. Coyote lunged after her. My saddle was loose and nearly slid off his side, I wrapped my fingers through his mane, clinging until balance could be found. Then he was back under me again, following the cow as she dove the other direction. Nothing more than a passenger I stuck with him, only trying to keep him out of the worst footing. I did offer an opinion as he gave up position in an attempt to eat the cow. Pulling hard on the reins I tried to prevent his teeth from closing on her back, tried to put him back in position, tried to keep him from loosing her as he took his revenge. I failed. We turned her back as she reached the far side of the pen.

Back and forth they fought, head to head, neither willing to give. Our arch grew smaller, passing the gate each time, until at last she turned and pretending that it was all her idea, ran out the gate with her tail over her back. Coyote was winded. I was beat. The job was done, my horse was awesome and I couldn’t stop grinning. Pausing to let Coyote breath as the cow ran through the open gate into her new home, the children began clamoring for a ride. Rested and ready to get home Coyote was pulling towards the final gate blocking him from his destination. I asked him to please wait a moment and instead step over to the four-wheeler? He acquiesced, if not willingly then without protest. One child after another stood on the back of the running four-wheeler, reached for a helping arm, and scrambled onto his back. Behind the cantle for the oldest, squeezed into the seat with me for the youngest. For this short ride, on a trusty mount, the usual helmets were forgotten. Coyote the hot, cow eating horse of a moment before lowered his head and plodded happily along. The youngest, nestled in front of me, took up the reins, guiding us home.


No Bit News

I got it. He is not happy about it.

I was working really hard to get him to like it. He learned to tolerate it, I gave up. Every time I let him out in the yard to graze I put it on him. He got to eat the nice green grass on the condition that he wore the bit, positive association right? Kind of?

The I forgot, got tired of it, was in too big of a hurry, and it fell by the wayside. I haven’t had a chance to ride him anyway. Well almost no chance, I took him far a very little ride quite by accident the other day. Other than that fun, tackless, adventure, I haven’t ridden him. He has been grazing and we have been working on painting. That’s about it.

The children, one of them in particular, have given up naps. That leaves me grouchy and in no shape to work with him anyway. And no time to write about what we aren’t doing anyway. Painting is coming along slowly. He has been painting large objects, like barns, for a long time. He happily touches the paper with his nose when no paintbrush is involved. As soon as he’s holding a paintbrush he starts flailing wildly, hitting anything insight, besides the paper. Aim is difficult, we will keep working.

After accidentally riding Rusty without a bridle I’ve worked up the courage to ride Coyote without too. I tried once, a very long time ago, and he ran off into the barn where I jumped off as soon as possible. I’ve been to scared to try it again. I ride him all the time without using the reins but having them there as a backup is such a crutch, I couldn’t quite get over the need and try without anything on him. I didn’t die on Rusty.

The next time I went out to catch Coyote while he was out grazing the yard and put him away, I led him over to a step and hopped on. We went straight to the fence and I climbed off. Once again I didn’t die! Always like when that happens. The next day instead of a straight, terrified, line, we meandered, did a couple turns, and added a back. Now I’m hooked. I was so sad yesterday when he was standing so close to the gate that it didn’t make sense to get on. Not dyeing is great reinforcement for any behavior and seems to have trained me.

My two perfect horses.


The New Bit Is Here! But…

It’s awful. I have this great new toy but haven’t been able to play with it!
Ok, it only came yesterday (day before yesterday now). I want to play with it so bad! I snuck out while the children were outside playing with their cousins the first night. The bit was so pretty, shiny and new. I got Rusty out and forced it into his mouth. Maybe a slight exaggeration but I did push things a little faster than I ought to have. He’s only worn a bit once since the middle of last summer sometime. He was not interested in having it in his mouth. Although the bit is supposed to be able to be used without a head stall, on a horse who is use to it and to wearing a bit period, it became apparent to me that I should have put it on a headstall before trying it on Rusty. It was not going to stay without help.

I had picked out a headstall to use earlier, after ordering the new bit, so I went up and got it. Put the headstall on the rings of the bit. It was ready. I was ready. Time to try again. And here came the children, done playing, the cousins were leaving, at least one child was crying. Oh well, maybe tomorrow.

The next day dawned dreary and overcast. The children were exhausted and cranky. Rusty was mad at me for putting something in his mouth and only wanted to go eat grass. I put it on him and otherwise ignored it. I brushed him thoroughly, picked out his feet, and worked on other stuff. Then the bit came off and he went back to his pen.

The next day rinse wash repeat. He quit being quite so mad about it, but still wasn’t speaking to me. Usually I turn him out to eat grass before I work him. He is so obsessed with grass right now, it’s hard to get him to pay any attention. I thought maybe if he didn’t get grass ahead of time he would be more interested in treats. Didn’t work. He was only interested in picking at the few green weeds along the side of the pen. How can a few measly treats compare to the lush green grass. Then it finally dawned on me. Why fight it? Why not join in? If, when hopefully, I work him today I will pick a large bucket of grass to use as a reward. Duh. Sometimes I amaze myself with how long it takes me to figure things out.

Oh well, so much for getting to try riding in my new bit. There I go rushing things again.


A New Bit

I’ve been riding Rusty in a halter. It works well for us. I want to greatly emphasize that it is working well. He hasn’t run off with me, mostly he stops to a shift of weight and an exhale. He steers light and responsive. Any problems we have are green horse problems coming from lack of experience and lots of enthusiasm. I want to make that clear because few things drive me as crazy as the old “my horse wont stop anymore, I need a harsher bit” thing.

That said I want to start riding him in a bit.

I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to do for a bit though. I usually ride young horses in my much loved snaffle that my mom gave me way back in high school. It has seen many colts, many miles, it’s a great bit, simple and beautiful. When I first started Rusty we used it. He didn’t like it, Coyote doesn’t either. Some horses are just weird. That is how we came to be in a snaffle. He was at that age where baby teeth are coming out and mouths tend to be uncomfortable. He’s getting older and, maybe, past that now. I put the snaffle on him for a ride and let him carry it without attaching any reins. He was fine with it. But I still wanted to see what else was out there.

I want the bit so we can work on some finer points. We are starting work on side passes, yielding hind quarters and such. I want to be able to gently, slightly, pick up one rein and speak to one side of his mouth. In a halter I have to stretch my arm clear out to the side to give a directional aid. That is a lot of work, slow, and not graceful. And not efficient. I can’t hold steady pressure on one side while turning slightly to the other, it has been bothering me.

I happened to see a comment with a picture of a girl’s horse in a new type of bit I had never seen before. Like the war bridles I had admired for so long, she didn’t have a headstall on her horse. Unlike the war bridles her bit had rings on each side like a snaffle. The bit was leather with a chin strap that held it on when used without a headstall. I was intrigued. I researched a, very, little bit. Mostly asking her how she liked it. She and a friend of her both rode in them and both loved them. We found where they were sold and ordered one. I can’t wait for it to get here so I can try it! Hopefully it works and Rusty likes it. It’s a big expenditure for me, mostly I’ve been riding in the same tack since high school.


First Time On Cattle

I spent the night psyching myself out. After out last attempt to ride out of our comfort zone did I really want to try it? What if he spooked? What if he ran away with me? What if I undid all the careful training I’ve put into him? The what ifs were driving me crazy.

But it was too late to back out. Well maybe not too late but the arrangements had been made, Tanna was coming over and I had told my husband we would do it. That makes it nearly set in stone. The calves were nearly done calving, over the last week there had only been three calves born that needed to go out. I had originally thought we could put them out and then ride Rusty. Somewhere along the line I decided that I could ride Rusty to put them out. A simple easy little ride. Introduce him to cattle with trusty old Coyote to show the way.
What had I been thinking?

The day dawned sunny and still. Tanna arrived early and my husband took the kids. I girded my loins and saddled my horse. Tanna is very patient with me. She walked Coyote around in our little pen while I rode Rusty around with him, waiting for me to get comfortable. Then we went after the pairs.

I walked. There was one cow in the lane, her calf was sleeping in a little triangle of fence. I led Rusty in and he went after the calf like a dog after a piece of meat. I thought he should be spooking and cowering at it bouncing off the fences and his legs, he thought maybe he should eat it. I remembered then that the father-in-law said he had seen Rusty with a calf the other day. It had slipped through the fence and was laying in the feed bunk on the horses side of the pen. Rusty reached over and picked the calf up by the scruff of its neck. I guess the calf was alright if limping a little when he finally let it go.

I kept walking and letting Rusty check things out as we pushed the pair out the gate. He was very interested in the goings on. Then, finally, I got on. Rusty was overly energetic and excited about what we were up to. But he stayed controllable and calm, overall. Tanna sat back and offered support while she let us try to do the work. Rusty wanted to lunge and pursue them at a trot, I held him back attempting to convince him to walk. What ever the speed he happily followed the cow and calf out the gate. After he succeeded in clearing the corral of cows we headed for the cornstalks to check our heifer.

I stopped for a refill on cookies, then walked through the narrow twisting maze of fences that led to the corn field. This walking is not to be ashamed of. Preventing problems is  not the same as walking as a result of them. Once out in the open I remounted and he was off like a shot. Or maybe a trot. I let him go, Coyote plodding behind. Even at a walk he was zipping along in typical Morgan fashion. We made it clear out across the field, saw that the heifer was not in the process off calving yet and started back. We had been on the horses a long time. Large portions of that time were spent in abject fear, quite exhausting, and my helmet was hurting my forehead. I was ready to get off.

We still had to make it back to the house though. Rusty was starting to act up. Not bad, but he was getting tired too. He fell out to the side with his shoulder. He was scared of the cows in our path. Coyote plodded reassuringly along. I was going to try to ride back through the maze of fence into the corral but cows were coming out and while I could handle one or the other both combined were more than I could handle. I walked the rest of the way. It was good to be off and good to be home. It was a great ride and a great day.


Gate Work

Plus some other stuff. Mostly going back and fixing what I broke on our last ride.

I took him far beyond his comfort zone on our last ride, this time I went the opposite direction. There is a little pen behind our house, it a converging point of corrals and lanes, a holding place before the final push into the front corral where the loading chutes and head catch are. It is small, but big enough to ride in. An awkward shape, wide on one side narrow on the other. Sharp metal wind break and protruding chunks of cement further reduce its usability as a riding ring.

But for now it was perfect. I wasn’t worried about Rusty bucking me off on the hard cement. I was happy to have fences to confine him while leaving room to trot a circle. He wanted to go away. That same way away that caused so many problems last time. He knew where the grass was and was determined to reach it. There was a fence in the way. He hunched his back and dropped his head, mad that I wouldn’t comply. I sat deep, holding tight to my saddles broad pommel. We made another circle. He wanted his way. I was feeling comfortable in not having died yet. My seat improves drastically once I stop cowering in fear. We worked out the kinks. Not in one clean moment but in a series of questions and deep discussion.

Can you stop when I ask like this I say? I can but only when we are going away from where I want he replies. Will you yield when I squeeze my leg on this side I ask? Whoa, you mean move my shoulder way over here like this he responds? Until we discovered that we did speak the same language. We could find a middle ground where each of us are able to supply input, one persons desires are not law. Yet. And yet. If I ask surely it doesn’t hurt to think about answering politely.

Then we introduced a new question. This is a gate. Can you stand next to it? Will you let me bounce it from your back? Look how fun it can be. All we have to do is stand here, next to the gate, and eat treats. That was easy. Now can you take one step sideways while I hold the gate? One step I said. No, he said, one step is not possible, I must take many. Oh I see, I replied, I am asking too much. Have we worked on side passing at all? Please forgive me, you are so light and responsive, I forget sometimes that you don’t always know what I am asking. And so it goes until I force myself to climb down, scratch his forehead and unsaddle. Relations are repaired and I can’t wait for next time.

There is a video to go with this but it is too long for the blog. It will be up on his facebook page Monday, I hope, when I get into town where there is internet. Check >here< to find it!


Walk Of Shame

It’s not my first time. Years ago when Coyote was still a green youngster I was riding him at a branding. The cows calved down on the river bottom. The branding corrals were up on the bluffs above. We had to push the pairs up narrow trails snaking straight up the steep hill face. They moved as mama and baby calves do, trying to go the opposite direction and pushing back making every step forward a struggle. Coyote couldn’t handle it. He started getting light on the front end. I hopped off. Being a girl surrounded by guys, riding a Morgan in a sea of quarter horses I already stood out like a sore thumb. I felt judged constantly and needed, for my own piece of mind, to do an excellent job at everything I did, yet, here I was, having to get off and walk my horse. If I only had the sense to get a quarter horse like a normal person I wouldn’t have these problems.

It may have been embarrassing but I lived and he turned out, eventually, to be a truly great horse.

Yesterday I took Rusty out into the corn field. In the corrals he can sull up and refuse to move. When we’ve gone out before he frees up and moves out beautifully. Those times we rode out into the corner of the pivot, right behind the yard. Now there are oats planted there. The corn field under the pivot isn’t planted yet, we could ride there, as long as we stayed out of the oats. I walked alongside Rusty down the long driveway until we passed the oats. Then, still on the gravel drive, I climbed on. He didn’t immediately dump me and run home, we were off to a good start.

As I pointed his nose to the distant horizon he pricked his ears forward and started off. he broke into a trot, I asked for a walk. With many repeats we kept that up and all was well until we nearly reached the pivot. Then things changed. His other swirl kicked in, one for each personality of course. He wanted to go home. He was trembling, ducking out with his left shoulder as he threw his nose in the air and fell sideways. I was happy to have a one rein stop. Twice I pulled his head around to hold him long enough for me to jump off.

The first time I did some ground work to calm him and get his attention back to me then I climbed back on. I must admit that the soft dirt of the plowed field was all that gave me the courage to get on. I hoped to have room enough to regain control before we got to the oats, no holes to trip him if he ran off, and soft footing to wear him out enough to help me bring him to a stop if he ran away, and to cushion my fall. Fortunately none of those things happened or were needed. I jumped off again first.

It was a long walk home.

Once we reached the house I got on again in our usual arena. It went a little better, but not good. I pondered training methods and bits. I wondered if clicker training really worked. Maybe I needed to go back to training the “regular” way. Then I was honest with myself. The training methods weren’t the problem, the trainer was the problem. I had done everything the stupid girls in the Disney horse movies I hate so much do. Maybe not everything, I didn’t sneak out at night to ride him. Other than that though I think we had it covered.

I took a horse without sufficient training out into the great wide open trusting that the bond between us would make him do what I wanted and keep him from killing me. Talk about stupid. Sure I didn’t think of it that way but it’s the way I acted. It was lumping at its worst. Taking huge leaps and bounds in his training without preparing him properly. Maybe his trainer will eventually figure out what she’s doing.

Better days


The Reasons We Rescue

I have so many other things I want to write about, mostly my really bad ride on Rusty yesterday, but my mom sent me a link and I have to share it.

I’ve told Coyote’s story so many times before but I will recap to explain the importance of the link my mom sent. She was at a little horse fair in northern Illinois watching the horse sale they put on. It was the usual run of quarter horses, nothing horribly interesting, not that she had the slightest intention of buying anything. She was only watching because she was there.

Then three young Morgans were run through the ring. The first sold for a good price. My former dressage instructor was there watching to and got excited, bidding on the first price offered. The other a beautiful chocolate with flaxen mane and tail, sold easily. The third was a scrawny ugly little sorrel colt. Not having any intention to buy a horse she watched him sell for a couple hundred dollars. When she realized who had bid on him she was horrified. It was a man we knew mostly by reputation, he would show up at the team pennings we went to and word would spread like wild fire, “that” guy was there lock your trailers and watch your horses. Nobody was ever glad to see him.

She couldn’t stand to see this poor, ugly little Morgan in such bad hands and sent my brother to make an offer. The guy made an immediate profit on his horse and my mom had to figure out what to do with the horse she had unintentionally bought. Fortunately the dressage instructor hauled him home along with the one she had bought. Coyote received a name change, to Coyote, and was sent out to me to start. He quickly outgrew the ugly duckling phase, becoming huge and beautiful, a joy to ride. I couldn’t live without him and never let my mom have him back. That was nearly twenty years ago, he has been well loved, treasured, ever since then.

Had my mom not been at that sale my Coyote could have ended up suffering the same fate as other horses owned by the guy, starved, miss treated and left to die. He was finally picked up for his abuses and is facing charges. There is never punishment enough for these people but something is better than nothing. Animal rescue doesn’t have to involve kill pens or animal shelters and seldom the humane society, instead, so often and so necessary, it is people doing the right thing when they see the need.


Communication

He’s a high double swirl. I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into. Complicated, intelligent, and sensitive, instead of being warned off I decided he was my kind of man.

This ride was a bad idea from the beginning. I hadn’t touched him in weeks, I had hardly seen him other than to say hi in passing. Why did I think I should even try? Still here we were. The clouds hung low overhead, not warm but not cold, the wind finally quiet. My sweatshirt left me feeling clammy but I hated to take it off. Next to me he was walking on eggshells already, not the attentive, responsive horse I had last ridden but one who wanted nothing to do with me his only interest in the lush green grass at our feet.

In my husbands beautifully worked garden plot we stopped. Surely as long as we stayed out of the part so meticulously marked  he wouldn’t be too mad. It makes such a nice arena and I would appreciate a soft place to land. After a brief, absentminded warm up I climbed on. It was a new place, a different mounting routine, I was doing everything out of order and  backwards.

Rusty was concerned. His tippy ears were flicked back, straining to catch my every move. His neck tight, jaw tense. Trying to remember to breath, deep long breaths, I thought calm into the back of his head. Trying to ignore my nerves I breathed out my fear and let my muscles relax. With a squeeze and a cluck and a firm “walk up” I urged him on. Remembering his lessons he moved forward. Immediately I clicked and fed him his cookie. He slammed on the brakes to take it. We fluttered about our makeshift arena like a butterfly or perhaps the unicorn his delicately tufted fetlocks proclaim him to be. No straight lines or clear circles, just a question and his flittery response so light and quick. Until it wasn’t.

He was done and he was leaving. No running, just a simple refusal. He was going and there was no turning him so there we sat, him unwilling to go back as I sat and tried to think what I could give him so we could both win. I want him to have opinions, a mind of his own. I hope he will be like Coyote, a thinker, strong willed, a partner instead of a servant. Then I think of all the trouble that causes and wonder why.

So we went. He wants to go, out and about, a big country horse who can’t stand fences closing him in. I knew what he wanted but his small leaps of enthusiasm discourage me from giving the freedom he craves. I had meant to go out through the corn field today, hurry and make use of it before they plant. We should have gone, my caution gets in the way. I fear what the excess of enthusiasm could lead to, not that there is a mean bone in his body. Rusty would never purposely hurt anyone.

Instead we wandered around the yard, a delicate balance of wills. Holding tight while he demanded his direction then asking diplomatically for a concession. We circle to the right, always hard for him, his nose tips in as his shoulder drifts off in a different direction completely. But we are moving and to the right.Should I ask for more? What aids do I give without a bit? I hesitate only briefly wondering about technicalities, then tighten the outside rein and tighten my calf. A light aid on a green horse but he straightens and gives a step on the circle. For a moment in time we think as one connected by through my seat, his back. I click and the moment is gone as he stops to receive his treat.

Finding a good spot I exhale, breathing out a soft whoa. With a flick of an ear he stops. Feeding one last cookie I slide off. Against all odds and good sense we rode. Searching through the differences of opinion and our fears we found a place in the middle where we could both agree. A place where we could communicate.


Ode To A Horse That’s Good On Gates

Not like gates in a trail class but real life, nearly impossible to open gates.

My good gelding waits patiently beneath me. Each breath an exhaled judgment. He lets me know exactly how he feels about me, about my riding skill, about this task I’m asking him to undertake. Yet still he stands, waiting. Not patiently, impatiently but still and quiet. I lean down, stretching and balancing carefully to reach the gate on level with my foot. The chain is wrapped down and around, as I uncoil it my attention is split between it and my seat out of my saddle. The cinch is loose, like usual, and keeping the saddle from sliding under his belly while reaching down below his belly is an interesting trick.

Chain undone I sit back up, it’s time for the real work to start. The hinges sag, the heavy gate sits on the ground sinking into the mud. The balancing trick comes into play again. I shift my weight into the far stirrup and heft up on the gate. Once cleared of the mud I tighten my left calf muscle. Beneath me he sighs as his hoof slurps free of the sucking mud and he takes one step to the side. And one step only. I set the gate down, re-balance, re-position , and regather my strength for another lug on the gate. At what point I wonder would it simply be easier to get off and just open the dang gate? I’ve already mounted and dismounted so many times, covering my boots and stirrups in mud, straining his back stepping up from the ground and run out of cookies to offer as a token of my thanks for sticking with me to do this job. I can hardly stand to do it one more time. Surely this gate will open with one more try.

And it does, not after one more try but a few. A few more single steps to the side, a few more light touches of my calf before it reaches a point where it swings easily along with his seamless side pass. If he had thumbs he could open the gates himself, he’s done this enough times. Given the right latch he can and has opened many gates by himself. Freeing his pasture mates to find the greener grass beckoning out there. For now I rub his neck apologizing for the lack of cookies when he turns to look, demanding and expectant. His disdain is visible for all to see as he turns back to his job, our job. I would think he hates me, cattle, everything about this life if I were to judge by the glint in his eye and the disdainful wrinkle of his nostril, he lets me know that I am beneath him.

Then we spot the cow and her calf. We are a team, flowing smoothly together, thoughts spoken through each shift of weight in the saddle. Ears back he sweeps in behind the pair, unerringly working them towards the gate. This is why he lets me catch him, why he tolerates my lowly presence, why I put his big cow eating bit on instead of our usual halter when we are working. Teeth bared, nose pushing, front legs shoving, he moves the calf along behind its mother. I offer occasional suggestions, a light squeeze with a calf, picking up the reins when he gets too… enthusiastic in his encouragement. Placing my hand at the base of his neck I pick up the reins and pull him off as the pair goes through the gate. We’re done now I whisper, easy there, we’re done, and I turn him back away to look for his next target.