Monday, September 29, 2008


I started this post about something entirely different the other day, but reading about Pony Girl's struggles with My Boy's acquired evading-the-halter habits got me thinking about a horse I encountered briefly a few years back.

Sometime in the third month of Sunny's training, D, the trainer, asked me would I want to go with him riding for the weekend down on the Missouri. He was taking a bunch of horses he'd been working with - sort of a graduation ride for them. We'd meet his sister & father there and camp.

Now I've ridden with D on this type of ride before. He doesn't race, but he doesn't tackle easy country. The horses work hard, and so do you.

And they get breaks after a couple of hours of riding - you just get on a different horse.

It's an exhausting weekend, but it's also a blast.

So we loaded the horses at his place and then headed over to a nearby operation were he'd been working with a couple of horses. Arriving, we discovered that one of the mares he'd planned to take the owner had decided to send for breeding instead.

But rather than see us go with an open space in the trailer, she wanted to send a big bay mare she'd just gotten.

"She's a finished head & heel horse. Ten years old...". She talked a lot about the mare as we walked into the barn to collect her. Bred to the hilt, money-winning, etc. And when we got to the stall the mare was indeed, a looker. But as soon as the stall door slid open and D moved into the doorway with the halter & lead, she spun to plant her nose in the corner, ears flat, and heels ready to fire at the door. Yikes!

After some maneuvering, D managed to get her haltered and out of the stall safely. She was leery when tied, but loaded nicely in the trailer along with the other two from there - a 7 year-old palamino former barrel horse mare (about 3 rides - balking issues) and a recently gelded 5-year-old former breeding stallion (30 days riding).

On the way, D and talked a bit about the horses we were taking. The bay he speculated, could be trouble. At ten, and built like the provervial brick house, if she wanted to plant him, there was not doubt she had the power to do it, and she certainly seemed to have an attitude.

We didn't ride the two mares until Saturday afternoon. Ultimately, the bay mare was sweet to tack, lowering her head for the bridle and standing politely. After a test go by D, D's sister ended up riding her and loved every minute. She was definitley a well-trained, easy-going horse to be around. Unfortunately, she was wind-broken - probably why her cow career had ended. We watched her for signs of the nastiness she'd displayed in her stall, but she seemed calm and composed - not a sulk or laid-back ear to be seen.

She was game even blowing hard, ears forward and flicking to listen to her rider, moving out smoothly on a loose rein and answering the slightest cue promptly. It was, we all agreed, a real shame about her breathing.

The 8 horses were turned out overnight in ones and twos in the grassy cattle lots we camped near. The next morning I went out to catch the bay, leadrope & halter in hand. She whickered at me coming in the gate, but took one look at the dangling leadrope and made a beeline direct for the corner of the lot. Stuck her nose in the corner and dared me to approach her. Ears flat, tail tucked, muscles tense & stiff.

Well, I wasn't getting in kicking distance, that's for sure. I talked to her quietly from about fifteen feet back and to the side. Gradually, her position relaxed and her eye softened. If I stepped forward she'd stiffen. Occasionally she'd turn her head slightly, gaze fixed on the rope in my hand. Hmmm.

I dropped the rope and halter. She relaxed a bit more. This time when I took a step toward her, hands empty, she didn't freeze. I kissed to her, and she eased a shoulder toward me. I kept talking to her, and gradually she shifted out of the corner and angled herself down the fence facing me. When I could safely approach her shoulder, she let me lead her with a handful of mane over to where I'd left the halter & lead.

After I petted her a bit, I was able to slide the halter on, and clip on the lead. She followed me quietly on her way to the trailer and her breakfast.

Discussing it, we could only speculate that at some point in her past that mare had been beaten. Her first response to seeing someone carry a rope was fear. In turning her rear toward whoever had that rope, she was protecting herself the only way she knew how.

Amazingly, she didn't really see people as the threat - just the rope, and apparently just in situations where she was loose and about to be caught. Otherwise she showed no anxiety at all about being handled. Ropes thrown over her and off of her were not a problem.

She wasn't headshy.

She wasn't touchy or sulky or cranky.

Had you only encountered her already caught or undersaddle, there was nothing to indicate she had issues. She was lovely to handle and trained to a fare-thee-well; an almost push-button ride.

And if you were sent to catch her in the pasture or halter her in her stall, and couldn't or didn't read her? She'd nail you. Both feet, no questions.

After that weekend I never saw the bay mare again. She went back to her new owner's place, presumably to be bred. Hopefully she'll pass on her quiet disposition, good conformation and winning ways in the arena to her offspring.

But the juxtaposition of the bay mare's good nature and her dangerous habit stuck with me. Horses certainly come with baggage. I expect it was only the fact that mainly along the way she'd also been treated kindly that made her willing to continue to trust people in most situations.

No telling where or from whom she'd learned to protect herself. But whoever owned her was always going to have to realize that she could, and would feel threatened under certain conditions. And she'd act on it.


BrownEyed Cowgirls said...

Truer words were never spoken than what you said...they all come with baggage. Good horse people just learn to work with the horse as best as they can. Sometimes bad or odd habits go away and sometimes they never do.
We have some with some very odd habits about being caught too. There are 6 head that are all full brother/sisters-you might think that one or two of them might be difficult, but 5 of the 6 you had better be paying attention. They will "pretend" to face up and the second you go to slip the leadrope over their neck, they will just spin away as neat as you please. The only reason the 6th one doesn't do it is because she is too damn fat to move.
My barrel horse is a real stinker and I contribute that to his mother 100%-she was always really good at avoiding eye contact, so as to avoid being caught.
None of these horses have ever been abused, it is just the way they are. Genetics manifest themselves in some pretty interesting ways-LOL.

fssunnysd said...

My first pony used to have to be walked to ground after the first couple of rides in the spring. He could smell work coming. And he was a dodger and a ducker. Sunny will hang to the back of the pack until he decides if he's going to be ridden or not. Sort of like kids at room cleaning time - or ostriches - you can't make me if you can't see me/catch me! lol