Monday, July 14, 2008

Horse Stories/Sonita/Chapter6

Never Buy A Horse That Looks Up

Sonita was progressing as fast as she could with me as her rider. The idea of learning a sport as complex as Reined Cowhorse while training my first cowhorse was crazy.
I was competing in a sport where my fellow trainers and competitors had been working cattle as long as they had been riding.
I, on the other hand, spent my formative riding years goofing through suburban parks bareback with my girlfriends. I honed my horsemanship skills by tying my horse in front of Seven Eleven to buy a Slurpee and trying to score a pack of Marlboroughs.
They had kept busy apprenticing with cow horse trainers. Or reining or cutting trainers. Or growing up on ranches, working cows as part of their everyday life.
I had my work cut out for me.

And then there was Sonita.
Wild, raging, intense, hysterical. She was all of that and more before breakfast.
She was hyper sensitive to every scent on the breeze, every sound that didn't ring true. Every scrap of blowing anything within a two mile radius was enough to send her to the moon.
She was an absolute bug eyed freak, twenty four seven.
Trying to keep her attention was almost impossible. She was bored in an instant, always ready to move on. She felt no need to actually learn anything before she felt it was time to get on with the program.
Sonita had astounding strength and speed. She was perfectly willing to use it against me anytime, anywhere.

The key had to be keeping her interest.
I am a fan of trail riding as a training aid. I can work on maneuvers as easily in the trees as I can in an arena. When your horse can look ahead it will try harder than one that is eternally going around in circles.
The trick was, trying to get Sonita to look ahead. She was too busy blowing up at tree stumps, rocks, or the sun dappled patterns on the ground.
She wouldn't step over a fallen tree, no matter how small. Instead we would blast into the air, and clear whatever twig or tree limb in front of us, by at least three feet higher than called for.
There was a steep trail straight up the mountain behind our stable. Fairly technical, I hoped it would keep her busy little brain engaged. Sonita and I headed up it, with a good friend, on a pretty fall morning.
As usual, my friend Chris was ahead on her good horse James. Sonita was boogering along in the back, soaked in sweat, slinging foam from her snaffle. She was terrified of taking the lead on a trail ride. The world was too much for her as it was, she couldn't be in front and freak at the same time. Chris took James down a steep gully, a sit on your butt and slide kind of gully. It was only about five feet deep, then leveled out for a stride or two before it continued back up the mountainside.
I stayed back on Sonita, giving Chris plenty of room to negotiate the trail. Besides, it was a chance for Sonita and I to practice standing quiet on a loose rein.
I took my legs off her, deepened my seat, dropped my reins, and said "Whoaaa."
She hesitated for a nanosecond and tried to dive into the gully.
I caught her up, backed her several steps with a lot of kicking and cussing, took off my legs, dropped my reins, "Whoaaa....
Dammit, get back here.
Whoaa...
Sonita!"
"Snort." Stamp, paw, head shake, said Sonita.
When James clambered up the other side Chris kept up her easy, steady pace and turned around the bend.
I kept my reins loose, my legs relaxed, and my seat deep. I leaned back over her haunches, and got ready to ease her down the gully.
Sonita threw her head high, staring at the spot she had last seen James.
From a complete standstill she jumped the entire stinking gully.
"Auk." I said.
We landed about a foot behind James' tail. I was still on, kind of, when James spooked. Chris squeaked, and Sonita spooked and spun towards home. I had just enough time to gather up my reins and stop her from jumping back across.
We rode back up later with a carpenter's measure, and measured across the gully. From hoof print to hoof print, Sonita had jumped a little over 12 feet. I am not petite. She was packing me and a western saddle. Good Grief.
Sonita was terrified of being left alone anywhere, not just on the trail. Every time I hauled her somewhere she would become hysterical. She would systematically begin tearing apart whatever portion of the trailer she could get at. Tying her alone was a guaranteed nightmare.
I finally tackled this by leading her to the trailer parking area at our stable. It was over a hill and out of sight of the barn and other horses. There I tied her to a very large, stout tree and left her.
For three days she spent my entire work day tied to the tree.
The first day she hollered and shrieked all day long. When I went to get her that evening she had skinned up both her knees, and her nose, whacking at the bark of the tree.
The second day there was a little less noise. When I went to get her I realized it was because she couldn't whinny around a mouthful of tree. The lower branches were shredded and pounded into the dirt. Long, raw scrapes from her teeth wrapped around the trunk of the poor beleaguered tree. She pinned her ears and shook her head at me. I brushed the chewed bark off my shirt, and led her back for dinner.
She spent the third day peacefully dozing in the shade. Not a peep out of her. My guess is, she was finally tired. A soft, friendly nicker greeted me as I came down the hill. The tree and I heaved a sigh of relief.
Sonita never fussed about being tied again.
That was her saving grace. She could, and would learn. If she was interested, or if I could make her.
"Big K, check this out."
Sonita was staring up into the sky. A flock of geese, in a perfect vee, was flying overhead. She stood, head flung as high as she could, fascinated. Her ears swiveled to their honks, and she watched, enraptured, until they disappeared over the horizon.
"She does that all the time. Airplanes, hawks, herons, anything bigger than a duck will catch her eye."
"Do they ever spook her?" The Big K asked.
"Not if it makes sense to her. She just likes to watch."
"If it don't make sense?"
"You mean like a roofing crew?" I laughed a little. "Then God help me."
"Look at my horse." The Big K waved at the neck of his mare.
"Now I would qualify this mare as pretty hot."
Having just watched him spend twenty minutes wrestling her into some kind of mood to cooperate, I had to agree.
"She didn't so much as flick an ear at those geese."
"Maybe she didn't see them."
"She knew they were there. She just didn't need to see them.
You're mare needs to process way more information than other horses. For some reason she's got to look at everything. I'd say that has to be hard on a horse."
"Why is it?"
"'Cause you know how to pick 'em." The Big K liked to think he was funny.
"Any thoughts on how I should handle this?"
"Let her look if it doesn't change what you need to do, and make her listen if she's pulling you off track."
"Easy for you to say."
"That's correct."

The Big K is a genius when he's training a horse. Unfortunately he has the communication skills of a goat.
One Baaaa, and then all he has left is a head butt.
Which is what Sonita and I continued to do.
Until one day my sister told me about a book she thought I should read. It was called "The Highly Sensitive Person" by Elaine N. Aron PHD.
In it she discusses the different roles animals play in herd or pack behavior. Some animals are the sentinels, or watchers. Their role is to stay apart, and read the input that swirls around the group, so that the group itself can relax and get on with their lives.
The idea intrigued me. I researched feral horse herd behavior. This is what I found.
The lead mare runs the herd. She decides where they go, what they eat, when they drink. She maintains peace, and the hierarchy. She also decides if the stud du jour is acceptable as a herd sire.
She is the most valuable member of the herd. She lives in the safety of the middle of the herd, with the babies and the other dominant mares. The perimeters are filled with yearlings, two-year-olds that haven't been booted out yet, old and sick horses, and the stallion.
On the very outer rim of this nexus live the watchers. Nervous, wired, disposable. They hear every sound, watch the entire world around them, live on the verge of total panic all the time.
When the wind picks up or the grass rustles they bolt.
The lead mare raises her head, assesses the situation, and decides what to do. Which is usually going back to grazing.
The watcher circles the herd, snatches a bite of grass, and spins to focus on a distant howl.
The lead mare might pay attention this time. She may decide to move the herd away from the sound.
The watcher stays on the periphery, too reactive to function in the confines of the herd, vigilant enough to be a reliable alarm. They stay alone by choice, genetically wired to shun the safety of the herd. Their sole function is as an alarm.
Meet Sonita.
I told The Big K about my thoughts.
"It sounds a little like me and you. We're outsiders." He said.
"Maybe, but we can cope with it. How do I help my horse?"
"Be the lead mare I guess."
Baaaaaa.

I started my poor, mental case, horse's therapy by trying to respect her reactions.
Normally I ignore my horses when they spook. I'll just ride them through the scary spot without any fanfare. They learn that if I ignore it, then they can too.
I started to look at everything Sonita jumped at. When she was spraddle legged blowing at some bag stuck in a bush, I'd give it a good look too.
I'd take a deep breath, and then look to where we should be headed.
No petting, careful not to encourage her behavior, just a brief glance where she wanted me to look.
"I see it you nincompoop." I'd say in my sweetest, lowest,calmest voice.
"Now let's try that slide stop again."
It worked. Not completely, but pretty much. The poor thing had been screaming for my attention since the first time I stepped up in the stirrup. She had finally gotten it.
I paid attention to her need for space. When I took her to shows I tied her alone on one side of the trailer. I made sure she could watch the comings and goings of the show. In the barn, I blocked off the view of the horses stalled next to her. She finally could eat in peace. It seemed to satisfy her need to be separate, but together.
I changed her water buckets from dark to light colors. She drank deeply for the first time in her life with me, once she could see the bottom of her bucket.
I fed her hay spread loose on the ground, so she wouldn't have to stick her nose in the bars of the feeder. I talked the barn owner into giving her lunch to occupy her mind, and ease her nervous stomach.
The world began to change for me and the freckly red filly. She started to feel better. I felt safer now that I had an idea why she was such a wack job. I was learning to analyze instead of trying to ram my point home. Sonita was calming enough to pay attention to me for longer and longer spurts. I was getting a handle on the girl.
Beware! I feel a rant coming.

33 comments:

SOSHorses said...

More More!

cdncowgirl said...

The light vs. dark bucket thing... I'll have to mention it to my friend.
Her gelding NEVER drinks much away from home, even if we haul our own water. Her buckets are all black. It'll be worth a try to buy some light buckets and see if he'll drink. Worst comes to worst she's got a couple extra buckets.

mugwump said...

I learned the bucket thing by lucky accident. I've had it work for several horses since Sonita.

leah said...

I love the horse stories! I agree with soshorses, keep 'em coming.

I've never noticed a horse looking into the sky before. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled from now on - that would be neat to see.

Micha said...

So interesting. I never thought about the bucket thing either. So much more to learn. Keep the stories coming :-)

Jackie said...

Oh my! That's my mare...only not quite so bad (maybe not being herd-raised, which I assume yours was, and in more "surburan", helps). Some days she's so bad my husband laughs and tells me I'll never get her out on the trails (once she finally gets all the way in the trailer easily). I always told him she'd probably survive in the wild because she is *so* aware of her surroundings...now this puts an explaination to it all!

Scamp said...

I have been loving your blog ever since I first heard of it (on rec.equestrian). I've turned quite a few people on to it, including my trainer - who really loves it too.

But the Sonita stories are just too wonderful for words.

I have a cowhorse-bred, always opinionated (he has an extremely flexible tail and whacks me with it - when I'm sitting on him - if he disagrees with something I'm asking him to do), occasionally silly (llamas are his arch-nemesisisisis) gray QH who I swear has ADD it's so hard keeping his attention. He's not anywhere as complicated as Sonita (thank god :-)). I understand some of the "what the heck is her problem and what the heck can I do?" though not on the same scale.

Your solutions - and your honesty in the way you kind of stumbled upon them - ring so true-to-life, compared to the "gurus" out there who whisper and miraculously KNOW exactly what Every Horse is About.

Oh - I used to own a mare named Bonnie Scamp who used to stand and watch the birds flying too.

Thank you for this blog, and for the wonderful Sonita tales.

Sydney said...

The only two times my mare has looked up when I was on her back was
1. We were in a christmas parade and sitting behind a float waiting for it to start and the tree came alive and started wobbling all over the place. She watched intently until it stopped and then resumed sleeping.
2. Airplane flew WAAAYYY too low. It scared the hell out of both of us and blew up all sorts of dust. She did the four leg sprawl and backed up faster than I have ever had a horse back before lol.

Oh, she looks up if I am in the hayloft and call her name from the window. She runs over right beneath it and stares at me as if to say "how did you get up there and how come you aren't down here?" Shes a real attention suck.

Smurfette said...

WOW...that was some thinking going on. My gelding (he was a stallion until he was 11) is EXACTLY the opposite. NOTHING is worth his attention, unless it is in his face. He is VERY humanized, and fully expects me to watch out for and protect him from EVERYTHING. I have seem him spook, or even turn to look at something exactly 2times in the 8 years I have had him. Once was when a highpower water sprinker hit a tin sided building, and the other time was yesterday, when I was trying to put a war bridle on him for showmanship practice. He was scared of that stiff rope, and actually snorted and backed away (slowly)!!

In that book was the heard stallion defended by the heard, so that he did not have to look after himself?

ezra_pandora said...

I think I'm screwed with my mare after reading this then. lol. I always called it the quizicle dog look when she looks up at stuff. While we are riding in the indoor arena, she will look up and watch the birds fly around. She doesn't spook at anything that makes noise, just mystical things we can't see, the dark end of the arena and dark spots on the ground. So, are you suggesting with a horse like this, that I should get off when she spooks and go investigate, quietly call her a nincompoop, get back on continue with my ride? I too just keep riding figuring she'll eventually get over it? I really liked this post. I think Sonita and my Sassie are related somehow. My trainer said she's ADD and I will always have to work my butt off to get anything out of her. My husband wants me to give up, but I keep trying.

BritnieAnn said...

wow just wow, its just wonderful that you took the time to figure her out and make her a happier horse. Cant wait for more!

loneplainsman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Misadventures Of A Horse Crazed Mind said...

Mug-I love this post. Really well written! Oh the suspense! I could vividly see in my mind Sonita and you standing in front of that gully, letting your reins hang loose. I kept thinking...oh, no...she is going to jump it! she's going to GO!!....hold on!!! I also love that, in so many of your posts you seem to find a solution that treats the individual. It seems that every time I have a problem, the majority of advice I get could be summed up with "tune on'him!" They rarely look for the reason or where the misbehavior is coming from, (ie- bad backs, blindness, soundness issues, pain, etc.) Two of the "buckers" at the barn drag their hind feet and hold their tail a foot off to one side! Keep up the good work!

mugwump said...

smurfette- Studs are always on their own.Survival of the fittest and all that. The herd could care less.I have read that if a stallion is not available, but the mares feel safe, they will stay where they are, and never go looking for a stallion.
ezra_pandora-Goodness no!Don't ever get off and go look at something their spooking at. It can never be worth that much attention. All I did was look too. Never for more than 10 seconds or so, and then we went back to work. Sonita needed to know I had looked, and decided it wasn't worth my time.
misadventures-Thanks! I try to see the horse for what it is, but I often go to "tuning" before it sinks through my thick skull that maybe I should think outside the bucks. (sorry, I couldn't resist)

gillian said...

yay, justification for my looking briefly at the scary thing and then gently mocking my little arab mare "yes yes, I'm quite scared of that flower too."

The tying sonita to a tree thing (and I remember this from captain's story too) got me thinking though. We have a gelding that really doesnt understand the meaning of standing still, not in the cross ties, not anywhere. I suggested to my boss having him stand tied for a while. He said "thats a cowboy thing. ... Make sure you check up on him while he's tied." He's not opposed to anything that will work but he frequently likes to put a label on a particular technique.

I was musing about what makes it a cowboy thing and I wonder if it isnt the danger involved. I was taught to ride at a rather alarmist barn. They didn't tell you not to do something because a horse can hurt himself, they tell you he will hurt himself/maim himself/kill himself. So I grew up rather skittish about this sort of thing.

Dont get me wrong, I'm in no way critical of this technique, but how do you view the risk/benefit tradeoff associated with different ways of doing things?

One of our more dangerous practices at our barn is how we deal with certain forms of acting up. Sometimes we give them enough rope to hang themselves with, so to speak. For example: I watched one horse who was learning to long line pitch a fit. She faced her driver and started backing up furiously. When she was about to run out of room to back up she reared up and fell over sideways into a large laticework jumping standard. She broke one of the feet off it and punched a big hole in the latticework with her head on impact.

I watched this happen. I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen when she backed herself into the side of the arena where we keep the jumps. I didn't bat an eye when she crashed. She was fine, and behaved much better subsequently. It wouldn't have been that difficult to keep her away from the jumps, or at least force her to straighten out and face the jump standards, but she wouldn't have learned nearly as much.

I'm not really critical of that policy either, but its interesting to me, with all the hoops we jump through to keep these idiots from hurting themselves, what makes it worth the risk?

Also, gotta try the bucket thing. My little arab mare spooks at her feed bucket if she accidentally bumps it while she's eating.

mugwump said...

Gillian-I may be a cowboy, or cowchick, whatever, but I would have probably not longed a horse by the jumps.
Cowboys tie their horses.We need them to stand quietly when we do so. It teaches patience. It teaches them they aren't the most important critters in the world.
It keeps them where we leave them.
Our horses are work animals. They have to tie so we can fix fence, doctor a calf, go into seven eleven to buy a slurpee. It's just a matter of teaching our horses to fit our needs.
Personally, cross ties seem incredibly dangerous,and claustraphobic to me.

Sydney said...

gillian: Have you ever had your horse checked for blindness. The little mare I rescued, although you would never know it is going a little blind. Shes the calmest thing in the world. She used to have a dark black rubber feed tub. If something was new in it no matter what she would snort at it for 10 minutes upon arriving in her stall. Now that she has a blue pail she doesn't bat an eyelash at it. Once I found out she was going blind I did change her buckets (and because they were old) Her water bucket is hot pink in her dark stall lol.

The thing that cheeses me off more than anything with horse people around my area is the lack of teaching young horses how to tie before they can bust halters, walls, people ETC. For instance this nutcase I was training last year. 5 years old only knew how to lead and not very well. First time she was tied she pitched a huge fit, broke three halters before I put a rope around her belly and learn that pulling back made the rope tighten around her barrel (you heard a distinct "UFF" noise when she first pulled back). She hasn't pulled back since.
The riders around here who have superb horses for riding lack groundwork such as this. Their horses pull back once and they avoid tieing all together rather than addressing the issue and preventing future fits in an emergency.
A horse that can't stand tied is a danger to not only itself (think emergency such as a fire where you have to tie horses or your trailer tire pops on a freeway with 4 horses in it and only you to fix the problem) but every living being around it.

A horse always needs to know how to tie before it can be cross tied and the cross ties I have ever seen but my own I have made have been too short. My mare when cross tied will stand for hours. She can put her head down low enough to scratch just above her hoof but they aren't long enough to her a hoof over. I have my mares in an old dairy barn only for grooming (they are outside year round, horse came before the barn did). We can tie them or cross tie them in the isle where they stand because there is an old rail just above their heads which is very convenient for teaching horses to stand on the cross ties. It's kind of like a solid high line.

Sydney said...

tie line

Heres a picture, you can see long cross ties and just above Indigos raised head the bar I was talking about. They usually only whack their heads on it once when they are being idiots. I have had horses haul back on it and it didn't budge. They can't get feet over it or demolish walls. Wonderful tool.

gillian said...

Mmmm, I thought you were a horse trainer. ::shrug::

I meant to take out the cowboy-dangerous question because as I was writing the comment it stopped making any sense.

You make an interesting point about the necessity of standing still, particularly for a working horse. (Or a teenager's horse, lol) The one occasion where I've had the chance to leave a horse tied for a considerable period it worked marvels. The barn where I was at as a kid I think people there would have had a heart attack though.

Your post "Go ahead, make my day" got me thinking about labels in general, cowboy is a very common and very ill defined one, as is NH. "Gadgets" can stir up some pretty good controversy, I've observed. So there are these concepts of various boxes we could all fit into, but I have yet to find two horsemen (horse people?) who's ideas regarding horses, their care, and training match up exactly.

I like to try and figure out what drives that. Your comment has me thinking along the lines of necessity. I, for example, cant imagine life without cross ties. We do our best to mitigate the risks but none of us have come up with a good way to get around it. Especially with the carts cross ties are really convenient.

Side reins are a good and juicy point of contention too. Some people swear its the way to go. Many swear they're dangerous and ineffective. Martingales (absolutely any kind) its the same story. Every now and again you get someone railing against bits.

Just idle, tangential (but not combative :) ) thoughts.

sydney-I havent checked her for blindness but I was just reading an article that suggested this also and I think I'll try to look into it. (har)

There is just this one mare at the barn who still believes that if she sits there leaning against it long enough she'll be able to pull the hay barn down. Fortunately she isn't often in a mood to try. Everyone else gets the picture, just like you said.

mugwump said...

gillian- I wonder at least 100 times a week whether I'm a horse trainer or not. The stinking ponies are too good at pointing out my failings on a daily basis:)

ORSunshine said...

Mugs, I wish I had found you and this post a year ago. Sonita sounds so very much like my Very Tall Arab. Unfortunately, I sold him because I felt he was too much horse for me to handle. In reality, I just didn't understand him. I've worked with horses for years in one aspect or another, but I don't consider myself a horse trainer. Rather, I'm a dog trainer. I actually compare and rely on some horse behavior and training techniques to help me with shy, scaredy dogs. I will be getting the book you mentioned.

autumnblaze said...

I love it. I've defintely met that horse... I'd never heard it explained quite that way. It makes so very much sense! I'm going to have to find that book.

The story's absolutely facinating - keep 'em coming!

Smurfette said...

Thanks for your reply Mugs, that sort of kills my idea, and I apologize for my mispelling of herd. I was horrified when I re-read my post just now. I guess my old guy just doesn't give a darm, huh? He can carry lazy to an extreme.

mugwump said...

Remember guys, the book is about people, I got my initial idea from it, and then did internet research on herd behavior...it explains me better than Sonita.

gillian said...

smurfette- if you ever find an explanation of how herd psychology applies to geldings you have got to let me know! Or stallions for that matter. I just dont understand those boy horses at all. (Dont get me started on the humans)

mugwump said...

gillian- I just read a bit that says that a herd run by geldings is not as secure and relaxed as one run by mares. Go figure.

verylargecolt said...

>>The Big K is a genius when he's training a horse. Unfortunately he has the communication skills of a goat.<<

Isn't that most men?

Loved the post. This made me laugh out loud!

Sonita reminds me a lot of Harmony when she was young. If I could only keep her busy, she was fine. I think a lot of these type of horses suffer because they will never, never, never work for the weekend rider. They need to have the pants ridden off them on a daily basis to be productive members of equine society.

mugwump said...

VLC- these kinds of horses are also exhausting, usually smarter than me, and always a step ahead.

manymisadventures said...

She really does sound like the kind of horse that throws everything you thought you knew in your face and says, "Hey. You're wrong about damn near everything!"

I kinda like horses that have a little of that in them. They keep me thinking.

JustMyStyle said...

I love reading about Sonita, she sounds like a western trained version of my mare, hot and sensitive but super athletic! The way you write about your experiences with her is wonderful.

Gillian- I had this whole gelding, mare, stallion thing explained to me once, and it made sense so I'll try and pass it along: a gelding has nothing to lose except food if he is not the dominate one. He cannot breed, and knows there is enough food for everyone, so he is fairly content; which is why you "tell a gelding" when you are training

now a mare, she's the same way except for when she's in heat, but she knows that even if she's not the alpha mare, the stud will get to her eventually. She may not like it, but it's not the end of the world. Hence why you "ask a mare"

but a stallion has everything to lose. In a herd, a colt is allowed to stay until about two, then he is kicked out, on his own. Hence, why there are bachelor bands in the wild. If he can collect his own mares or challenge another stud and become dominate, then he can breed, eat, life is good. When training a stallion you need to be the dominate one in the relationship, to him, this means no home, no mares, nothing. So when you are training a stallion, it is said you must "discuss it" with him.

that was a bit of a rant, but it really helped me understand how to approach the reaction of the different genders. Hope it made sense to someone else too.

Peachy Screamer said...

Just checked out your blog. I love your stories!

Esquared said...

I love the Sonita stories, just more and more insight to training and herd dynamics. I can really relate to the learning a disipline while trying to train a horse in it too. I've always been a hunter/jumper girl but with no jumpers to ride and nowhere to jump I'm trying to learn reining while trying to train my 2 and 3 y/o in it. It's been 'fun' but your step by step training posts have really helped clarify some maneuvers so keep it up :)

cathy said...

This story struck me right in the heart and made me cry. My little gelding is EXACTLY the male version of Sonita. The difference is that I've become so paranoid about riding him, that I make excuses not to ride him at all. I'm not a young rider anymore and the fear of flying head first into a tree does make me think twice. However, I after reading this story, I'm more determined to get back on this horse, whom I love with all my heart, and give him the attention he needs to work through his own issues while I work through mine.

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