Micaylah is a busy college student and avid horseperson who took the time to share her story...thanks!Now hit the books young lady, it takes a good job to support a rampant horseaii addiction.
Dandy was a beautiful roan horse. I had seen him when he was just a few days old, and had watched him grow up. Now he was old enough to start working with. I was only 17, but had already started several horses and was overly confident in my ability. He was two years old. He taught me a lot. Turns out that pretty color on the outside rarely reflects their inside colors, and I’ll take those plain ol’ bay grade ranch horses that will work their heart out for you any day.
He had had very little handling since his owner, an elderly woman, had difficulty keeping up with a rambunctious colt. As a very young colt he learned to bite, and although he no longer did that, he was extremely head shy from the attempts to fix that problem. You lifted your hand and his head shot straight up in the air. He had been imprint trained, and therefore had absolutely no concept of personal space (he thought all the space was his).
We started with walks in hand. He knew the basics of pull=walk forward, but had had little exposure to anything else and everything in the world was so exciting that he would completely forget where I was and that he really did need to not run me over when he was staring excitedly at the neighbor’s horses for the first time. Those “walks” went a little like this: I walk forward, he trots forward, turns his head out and whinnies wildly or skitters to the side as he sees a rock move and tries to slam his shoulder into me. I elbow him back with all 110 lbs I have and yell at him, trying to make myself known. It didn’t work very well. But I think he caught on eventually; at least, he started paying more attention.
But we weren’t done yet. When he finally realized that I was not letting him walk into me, he would get very mad. If you think i’m making this up, you just wait - you will find a mad horse someday and will completely understand. He would pin his ears and try to bite me. Or swing around and kick me. He loved to kick. But more about that later. I would discipline for that and then the whole process would start all over again.
With time and continual exposure, walks outside his pen became less of an ordeal. He understood what I wanted and he acquiesced reluctantly and resentfully at times. It was time to introduce the saddle and bridle and lunging. It started out as well as it could (remember, ultra-confident teenager speaking here). But he still had that...something...that I had noticed when I first started working with him. He would get mad and he would just stop working for me. The first time I saddled and lunged him he didn’t want to canter. I finally got a few stiff, short and choppy strides of it before he dropped back into a trot, his ears slammed back on his head the entire time, angry wrinkles above his nostrils. Eventually as he was saddled and lunged more he worked out of it and cantered more willingly, but still not with that free flowing and comfortable canter that I was used to seeing in horses.
I’m rather dense at times, and this was one of those times. I still didn’t get it. He was good with the saddle and bridle (err, sidepull) and it was ready to hop on for the first ride.
He didn’t buck, I will give him that. He didn’t move either. He would swish his tail and pin his ears every time you cued with your legs. Eventually, he would break into a stiff walk, his neck tensed, his ears back and every ounce of his body saying that he did not like this. I could even get him to trot, but whatever he was like at the walk was much worse at the trot and forget about canter, he would just lock up and stop. By ride five, I was completely lost. Forget the teenager bravado, I was just confused. Kicking, smacking with the reins, nothing worked to get him to go forward. Even with someone in the middle of the round pen lunging him while I was just sitting there was getting the same tense and unhappy responses. He still wouldn’t canter. Halfway into ride five he totally locked up and reared. I got off. It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle rearing, it was that I didn’t know why he was doing it and I didn’t know how to fix it. I told his owner that I wanted to go back to working on the ground to see if I could find the hole in my training there.
So we went back to leading again. One day, we were going through a gate into his pasture and since there was nowhere for him to go, I threw the rope over his neck and expected him to continue walking in, after which I would close the gate on the other horses that were crowding in on me and come after him and take the rope and halter off. He walked through all right, but as his butt was going through, I brushed up against him as I closed the gate behind him. Wham. My whole body froze as my brain tried to understand that an extraordinary amount of force had just come into contact with my thigh. After the shock wore off, I was mad. Really mad. Sure, he had tried to kick me many times before but he had never actually gotten me. But I didn’t do anything to Dandy because he wouldn’t have understood. I simply walked up to him, took his halter off and told his owner that I would not touch that horse again and she needed to send him to an actual trainer, not just a teenager still figuring things out.
So off he went for two months. Reports that came back were not the best. He was bucking and refusing to canter. The trainer had to have a cowboy come out and work him through it. He was doing better. He was doing a lot better was wanting to work with the trainers now instead of fighting them. He came home. His owner is not the best rider, so she asked me to work with him and ride him until she sold him. I’m a sucker for trying to help horses, and I love getting inside their heads, so I answered yes, provided that he had actually changed.
When he came back, we set up a time and I came out there. I pulled him out with a stud chain because that was how he had been handled at the trainers. He jigged around me, earning my near constant reprimands. I tied him up (sans the stud chain) and he fidgeted constantly back and forth, back and forth. I grew some intelligence and carried a whip and stood a long ways off to move his hindquarters over. It was not a good beginning. I saddled him up and took him into the round pen and lunged him. It was better than it had been before, I will give him that. So I decided it was time to suck it up and actually get on him.
The butterflies in my stomach were flapping around furiously. Shut up, I told them. They didn’t, but I got on anyway. Cuing for a walk, he moved out quickly. Well, that’s a good sign - he must have learned something at the trainers. Pulling one rein, I asked him to walk in a tight circle. Instant resistance through his head and neck when turning sideways. As I was riding, his head was tucked down in a stiff arc making a false representation of collection. I asked for a trot. He hopped into it quickly, but I could hear and feel his tail wringing and the stiffness throughout his body revealed a palpable aura. My butterflies were still going. Halfway through his first circle of trot in the round pen, he began to slow down. I asked him to speed up with my legs. He pinned his ears and slowed down even more. Uh-oh. I thought. He stopped, I tried to pull his head around. He braced his neck and reared up twice, staggering dangerously backwards the second time. As his feet landed down on the sand that second time, I was able to pin his head to my knee and did a most spectacular emergency dismount, if I do say so myself. I told the owner that I really wasn’t going to work with him anymore (do you get the idea that I like to give horses second chances? Yes. Well. It shall probably kill me someday.)
Several months passed. He sat in a pasture by himself and lost all his muscle put on 100 lbs of fat. I felt really bad for him. I know, I’m stupid because I tried again. But I had some different ideas this time. I had had several months to mull this problem over, after all. We started walking in hand with a stud chain in one hand and a whip in the other. He still tried to run me over half the time but I stopped putting up with any crap. He would stay at or behind my shoulder. Period, end of sentence. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I would if he got any closer. Before I was never sure whether he was mad or scared. I decided that he was mad and he would just have to deal with it if he was scared. It began to work. He began to soften and listen...at least most of the time. He started running to the fence every time I came because he was in a pasture by himself and I took him out of that pasture and paid attention to him. I stopped carrying a whip because he started listening to my voice when I asked him to back off. Soon I didn’t need a stud chain either.
It was time to ride him again. I saddled him up and lunged him in the round pen. He was calm, head down, ears forward. I put one foot in the stirrup. Head went up, ears back, tail clamped. I stepped down. Head went down, ears relaxed. This continued, but I quit listening to my fear and got on anyway. He walked around the round pen once very stiffly, and I got off and called it a day.
I had an idea. The next day, I hopped on him, walked around the round pen once, then headed outside on the trail. The difference was immediate. His ears perked forward and he began looking around excitedly. We walked a little ways down the road and he was forward, even jigging sometimes, and happy. It was a breakthrough. I could finally ride him longer than five minutes so I could figure out his buttons and what made him tick. Turns out, he had learned some things at the trainers. He responded to leg pressure, and although he tried to buck when you pushed for a canter if you smacked him he would hop right into it. He’d been cowboyed all right, nothing else could give him such an appreciation for the end of the reins. His movement became less stiff and he learned to carry his head in a relaxed manner.
He still tried to rear, but I had his number now and I stopped being scared and kicked his butt if he tried it. It worked. I think it also helped that I instilled a very good disengage the hindquarters so that when things happened it was an automatic response.
I could now get him to move out consistently and in a fairly relaxed and forward manner on the trail. It was still very different in any arena. He hated it. His nasty attitude would come back immediately and he would try to buck, run sideways, or just stop moving. So I tricked him. We started just walking once around the arena before going out on the trail. Then it was twice. Then it was walking and trotting. Then it was all three gaits. Slowly but surely, all surliness began to disappear and I made sure we did lots of interesting things on our rides.
Soon it will be almost a year since that first breakthrough trail ride. Just last week a lady came out to look at him to possibly buy him. I went to get him in the pasture, and I tied the lead rope to both sides of his halter and hopped on bareback and walked calmly to the gate. We went to the round pen where I put him through his paces in both directions and all he wanted to do was please me with everything I said. When the lady who was interested in him got on, he got a little bit worried. He has, after all, been primarily handled by only two people in his entire life: me and the trainer. But instead of going back to his old habits, he still did his best to do what she asked him. His trot was faster than the jog he usually gave me, but it was a nervous trot not an angry and stilted one. He moved forward fluidly and quickly sped up into a canter when she accidentally squeezed too hard with his legs. He slowed down immediately when she asked. He kept looking to me where I was sitting on the fence watching as if he was asking for advice. I had become his comfort zone and he wanted to stop whenever he passed me, but went forward at her request. In the end, he did just like he was supposed to do. She wants to buy him, and it would be wonderful.