Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Month O' Mouthies

Sophiebelle sent us another great story-

After we bought our young gelding Zephyr, Mum and I needed a second horse. I found an ad for a go-anywhere do-anything Welsh mare, and one Saturday we got up before dawn to drive to the stud. I was in charge of the navigating. Big mistake. I got us incredibly lost. We ended up driving nearly an hour past our turn-off into this little hick town in the middle of a valley called Araluen. It was a strange place like a land lost in time, with heavily bearded locals and chickens on the roads. At the top of each hill I’d call for more directions, but at every turn we ended up pointing back to Araluen. We did make it to see the mare, a little cream puff of a thing called Whinney, a.k.a. the Princess Pony. I soon as I got on I knew this was the horse for us.

A vet check was arranged, she passed with flying colours. That night we got a call from Zephyr’s breeder. “I know you’ve just vet-checked a horse, but I’ve just been charged with a horse to sell and I think she’d be perfect for you. Her name is Araluen.”

We bought Whinney and took her home. Mum was convinced to travel to Victoria to meet Araluen – but mostly to visit Zephyr, she told herself. Araluen was fat and chestnut – Mum’s least favourite horse colour. She was part-Morgan but also part-Thoroughbred, a breed I admired but never wanted to own. She had been placed in a dubious environment for the past year (through no fault of her owner). Her feet were bad, she had been called dangerous, even Zephyr’s breeder – a horse guru – had difficulty catching her. But we were told she was a good jumper, and a good mare – and perfect for us.

Mum spent 4 days in the paddock with Zephyr and Araluen, studiously ignoring the mare and telling herself that we did not need another horse. She had a short ride on her but that was it. The breeder eventually chucked Araluen on the float herself and took her into town for x-rays.

Curiously, Mum had no problems catching Araluen, who would come right up to her in the paddock.

On her last day Mum was saying goodbye to Zephyr when Araluen came up to her and laid her head on her chest. Mum felt like she were saying ‘Take me home’.

Victoria was flooding when Mum drove back South. She was pulled over after driving through a particularly dangerous stretch of water when the vet called with the results of the x-rays: all clear. Mum says she will never forgot that moment – was it when she first realised that she was in love?

Araluen travelled up to Sydney with Zephyr. When she came off the float she looked just like her photos – big and chestnut. Our trimmer, who’d bought them up, praised both horses’ good natures.

The first time we rode the mares out, Lou and I were swerving all other the place. “Stop riding over people’s flower beds!” Mum berated me. And yes, I broke the cardinal rule – “It’s not me, it’s the horse!”

But this horse had no steering. And no brakes. And didn’t understand my leg aids. “She’s going to need to be completely re-trained,” was my opinion. Then she started getting worse. There was always a warning, 20 mins into every ride – a head shake, a mini rear, a spook. Then jumps, and bunny hops, and driving into the ground, speeding up, running through the shoulder. “What have we done?” I thought quietly to myself during one ride. I was despairing a little.

After one particularly nasty incident I got off trembling. Araluen was not sore, her teeth had been checked, her tack fitted and I wasn’t asking the world of her. She was just incredibly resistant and felt ready to take off. I rang Zephyr’s breeder for advice.

“She’s used to bossing around foals and kids, not being bossed around herself. If she wants to go, take advantage of it, canter her in circles, make her work.”

I did this religiously, not exactly scared, but not happily either. I knew I wasn’t going to come off, her movement glued you to the saddle, but she was so hard that it was like riding a plank of wood. She was tense all through her body.

Yet, perversely, Araluen enjoyed being ridden. Mum rode her bareback at a walk while I worked with the Princess Pony and they were a picture of contentment together. Lou loved getting out and about, she was happiest riding the neighbourhood with the Princess Pony at her side.

One fateful day Mum bought Lou down to the ridding paddock whilst all the other agitstees were riding. I was on Whinney and Lou had only ever been ridden with her before. I was concentrating on what I was doing and Lou was always perfectly behaved with Mum, so I made a stupid, stupid decision and left them to their own devices. Mum says that she felt Lou trip, all I know is that the mares were separated by all the other horses and Lou began to buck, and didn’t stop until Mum came off.

We didn’t ride her again until we got the saddles checked. They fitted fine, a few minor adjustments and they were as perfect as they could be. Lou and I started making small progress on our rides, very small. Her ground manners were improving and after a lot of work she was not so difficult to catch. We took Lou out to riding club one day to see how she would go just tied to the float with some hay. Anxious about separation from her paddock mates at best, she swung around and pawed and called out for Whinney constantly. I was embarrassed because of her. After riding in my group session I saddled Lou and took her away to ride. She did everything I asked her but she was miserable.

In the beginning of April I was cantering Lou happily around the dam when she suddenly dropped her head. “Oh shit” I said to myself out loud when I realised there was no longer a horse between me and the ground. Thankfully I hit the ground rolling and nothing was hurt. I jumped back on and spent 15 minutes trotting circles, curves, serpentines – not letting her go straight for more than a few strides so that she was forced to bring her weight back onto her hindquarters, stop leaning on my hands and listen to my aids. Her forehand became lighter and her rhythm more relaxed. I asked for a canter and lo and behold – the best canter we had ever had. Soft, light, uphill. I slowed her down after only a few strides and ended the lesson there, and gave her a hug, and told her that she was a good girl.

I didn’t want to put it into words but I had a feeling this was a breakthrough – I went home grinning from ear to ear. A few older, more experienced horse people warned me to be very cautious when I told them, saying that fifteen minutes was not enough and that she was being rewarded for getting me off. But fifteen minutes of that is hard work for an unfit horse and I knew that Lou responded better to positive than to negative reinforcement – I was only doing what Tom Roberts expounded after all.

Lou got 3 days off. I wanted her to mull it over.

The next ride – perfect. From the beginning she was light and responsive, sensitive to my seat aids, relaxed and obliging. Mum watched and afterwards said that the only things I said was a constant “good girl, good girl”. Apparently I had a particularly goofy grin on too.

Lou chucked me off two months ago. Every ride we have gets better and better. We took her back to riding club and she was considerably better behaved without the Princess Pony. I tacked up again after lunch again and found a basic dressage lesson with only one other person in it. “I don’t know how she’s going to cope around all these other horses,” I said to the instructor, “if we’re too annoying, send us out.” “You’re not very ambitious,” was all she said, and got us working on our laterals, which Lou was now very good at. She was calm throughout the whole lesson, and – dare I say it – even enjoyed herself.

Last weekend some friends organised a trail ride through the local State Forest – a common routine. I had been dying to take Lou to the forest but Mum was working and there was no-one to help me float her. I had also never taken her out on her own before, but her separation anxiety had completely disappeared at home. It would take us at least an hour to ride to the park, let alone through it and home again, and I didn’t know if she was up to it. I decided to just give it a go up the road, she had to be taken out alone someday. We would go for as far as I felt comfortable with and turn home before she got nappy.

We set out at a smart walk. She called out a few times and swung her head around as she peered in paddocks and around sheds. A couple of times we stopped as she stared into the distance, until someone would appear out of a stand of trees and, satisfied, she would walk on again. There were a million cyclists ridding in a charity event, trucks, horrible dogs, property sale signs, a herd of alpacas, neighbourhood stallions parading along their fence lines and heaps of other horses who galloped up to check us out. Nothing worried her. I let her set her pace and could half-halt her with a softening of my seat. We made it to the park after trotting the last stretch on a loose rein and slotted in with half a dozen strange horses. Once we got into the bush she found her second wind and soon the others were finding it hard to keep up with her powerful, swinging walk. Lou was fine at the front of the ride, at the back, in the middle. She didn’t so much as flatten an ear at the other horses. She raced up Galop Hill with the group. She stood tied to a tree while we got our lunch at the pub and grazed quietly while we ate. She loaded into an un-known float with another horse when we were offered a lift home, and accepted being washed before she was put back in her paddock to rejoin her mates.

It has been five months since Zephyr and Araluen arrived in Sydney. When Mum and I let the horses back into their paddock the other night, Zephyr and Whinney wandered off to graze. Araluen stayed by us and lowered her head. We stroked her all over and praised her as night fell.

Araluen was never a problem horse. She was not dangerous. She did not need re-training. She was unhappy.

Araluen is still chestnut, and still half-thoroughbred. But she is happy now. And she is the perfect horse for us.


  1. Wow, what a wonderful story of commitment and knowing your horse and standing by her. What a pleasure to read and good for you!!! Lou is a lucky lucky mare!!!

  2. Aww, I love a happy horse story! Your detailed writing is lovely, and the King's English expressions are fun. Nappy? I had a vision of mane and forelock in tight curls. Or a horse slowly falling asleep being ridden down the road. You and your horses and your mom, lucky all.

  3. I really enjoyed this story, and I'm so glad it worked out for all of you. Not many people would have the patience to stick this out.

  4. I particularly liked the desciption of your break thru serpentines after the rolling dismount (hehe). The picture of Lou getting soft and calm and responsive sings in my heart. good on ya!

  5. ooo wow I got published on Mugs again :) Thanks for your kind words everyone :) For the record, Lou is going strong as ever and completed her first full rally day at riding club a couple of weeks ago. She's also lost a hundred kilos and her feet are looking great. She's the best :D
    xxx Sophiebelle

  6. I wish there was a book with stories just like this in it. They wouldn't all have to have happy endings, although well written like this would be perfect. I have been pulled in by the last 2 posts. Between reading your stories Mugs and now this person's last 2 posts, I get the same feeling I get when I read something by Sterling North.

  7. And Jack London.

  8. Wonderful, wonderful story. Thank you for sharing that with us!

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