Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Finally, A Christmas Surprise Story

K lives on a neighboring property to where I keep my horses. As a result, she's essentially got horses in her backyard, though none of her own. A young (13) horse-lover with no outlet, she gave all of the horses names of her own since she didn't know their real names, and often fed them carrots and apples from the fence line that shared a property edge with her home.

Her parents began questing for her to receive lessons last year. They'd asked another of my friends, but her schedule was busier than my own. Their request died off with the onslaught of holidays and other activities that exist in life.

By the following summer though (August of this year), they were interested again in pursuing the option of getting lessons for K. K's mom, L, works with my neighbor who runs a Friesian sporthorse breeding program. My neighbor, J, had just received one of her sporthorse mares back from a former buyer who was going through a rough time. The mare had extensive training and would be great for a beginner to learn on. J asked me to come see what I thought of the mare and meet K and L to see if I would be a good match to teach K the beginnings of horseback riding.

Everything went swimmingly. K and L and I all got along well, I rode and assessed the mare and was very pleased with her. K would have the option to receive lessons on that mare at J's or on Q at my barn.

Things became very tricky with scheduling, however, and it was well over a month before we found a time in everyone's schedules to give a lesson. K is as busy or busier than I was at her age, her mom has a job that involves 12 and 24 hour shifts, I have my chaotic life that you're all familiar with.

The few days we did find to schedule in the beginning were rained out! We just couldn't catch a break!

Finally, frustrated about cancellations due to weather, the dwindling daylight that comes with autumn, and difficulties with scheduling, we opted to just do lessons on Q since it was so close to their house. (My apartment and J's are about 15 minutes away from where I keep my horses/where K and L live.)

Despite having never ridden a horse in a capacity beyond a pony ride in her life, it was obvious during the first lesson that K was a born natural rider. She has a beautifully balanced seat that immediately put my drills to test her balance in the saddle to shame.

The biggest things we've been focusing on through our sporadically scheduled lessons over the past few months have been keeping her hands quiet, her eyes up, and her heels down. As a dancer most of her life, pointing her toes up and heels down is very unnatural and uncomfortable for her right now! the other two points will improve with extended time in the saddle.

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K also has a great understanding of how to interact with horses on the ground. I have to instruct only a little before she's demonstrating concepts to me in a proper and safe way. Due to bouts with scratches the past two years, Q isn't always perfect about letting someone pick out her feet because she's associated so much bad with having them handled in a certain way. (I have very different cues with her to let her know I'm just wanting to pick her feet or trim them and not smother them with salves and cremes to treat the ouchy scratches.) As a result, I taught K the importance of picking out hooves with Griffin. She picked up what I remember to be a kind of tricky practice as a kid, very quickly. And Griffin was a doll about it.

K's asked me a few times in most recent lessons, "Will I ever be able to ride Griffin?" To which I smile because of her interest, and only respond, "I hope so, but it may be awhile! He's an unpredictable youngster right now and I'd hate to see you hit the ground because of his antics!"

Fortunately, she and Q have developed a quiet understanding. They had a rough beginning (unsteady, sloppy beginners hands with Q's sensitive mouth led to a very angry Q-mare), but once I swapped out a bit and bridle for the halter-bridle I tied, things have gone swimmingly. Walking, trotting, circles, reverse, backing. Really beautiful work between the two of them. A relaxed and attentive Q-mare, and a very happy, smiling 13 year old.

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It was with excitement that I received a text from K's mom, L, at the beginning of December which read: "SHHHH! BIG SURPRISE! We want to get K a horse for Christmas! Do you think you could help us find one? Call me later."

And with that, a flurry of searching began. The budget I was given to work with didn't allow for much wiggle room and concerned me greatly. L wanted to "get lucky" as I had with Q and Griffin, I cautioned that I'd only "gotten lucky" with them because I'd put hours and hours (and months and soon years(!)) of work into them). All of my immediate options I had in mind for a horse fell through. J's searching turned up nothing, as well.

Then, as a last ditch effort, I searched the WV Tack & Trade Facebook group for horses. NOT my first choice, obviously. People in this group routinely advertise in false and idiotic ways. While some of the animals are really flip-worthy for someone with training capabilities, finding a horse that would be patient and tolerant of a beginner isn't simple to do - especially with the budget I had to work with!

But there was one. "11 yo, registered APHA gelding. 15.3 hands, well broke. suitable to be finished in any area. Very soft and easy to ride."


While not a horse I'd chose for myself, he didn't appear to have any glaring faults from the few photos provided. So far, seemed like a potential option (and our only option!) for a horse for K.

I was going to be out of town for my primary job during the week and out of town every weekend with my second job, so I passed the contact info, ad, and photos along to J to pursue.

J's very accustomed to the wheeling and dealing associated with buying horses from her breeding facility. She's also got a good eye for obvious flaws both physically and behaviorally from having the facility she has. She and I have been a perfect team in this endeavor!

J and L were able to get out to see the horse a few weekends ago. He's got a foundation of Clinton Anderson-based training. J said he had a really kind eye and was pretty well behaved the whole time. His only issue that she noted was shuffling back and forth as his rider mounted. I told her that issue would be fairly simple to resolve. I was still a bit nervous about the whole thing since I hadn't gone myself to see the horse and look for other potential problems he may pose for a beginner rider, but I put trust in J and L and their observations. I gave them my two cents on what they'd provided me to work with and left the ultimate decision with L.

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The gentleman selling the horse ended up dropping him off for free later the next week. This startled me and scared me a little (I have such little trust in people!), but I tried to just assume he really didn't want to feed another mouth through winter.

 It was another 2 days before I could get to the barn to assess the horse. When I arrived, I found a very sassy Q-mare chasing his painted ass around to keep him away from "her" friends. She's never been so adamantly against another boy before. I had to laugh.

The paint, "Gunner" for now, wouldn't let me near him. Great, I thought, issue number 1, doesn't want to be caught. Ugh. So I left him and took my two up to the barn to play with for a few hours with my friend Barbara who was visiting my horses for the first time. We played around for awhile, me showing her how I've trained them (methods new to her as she's been so disconnected from horses in recent years as she's traveled the world pursuing her passion for various ethnic music and dance).

Once Barbara left to attend to other errands, I tried again at catching Gunner. After a short 10 minutes of advance and retreat, pressure on pressure off, avoiding direct eye contact and talking softly, he and I came to an understanding and he finally let me approach and halter him. Perfect timing because L had showed up.

I began my silent assessment of Gunner immediately after haltering him. He led well, not up on top of me, nicely behind in his "box" as Mel would say ;-). If I stopped and asked him to back off me, he did. Going through the gate he yielded his hindquarters around so I could close it after him. He was a little snorty about the tractor and random equipment in odd places due to winter maintenance activities, but nothing that caused me alarm.

I tied him in the barn and L and I groomed him awhile. He was very polite about his space vs. our space the whole time. Gunner hardly flicked an ear when we put a step stool beside him to stand on to groom his back as K will have to do since he is so much taller than her (she's probably only 5' or 5'1"). Good boy! I was really pleased with this.

I had brought the electric clippers to re-clip and touch up Q's legs for scratches prevention, so I took the time to see how Gunner would respond to those, as well. He was VERY alarmed at first. Not a happy camper. With 5 minutes of patience and treats though, we had him accepting them. I was even able to clip a small bridle path on him. GOOD BOY.

Overall, I give him an A+ on his ground manners. Great disposition on the ground for a beginner to work around. I did forget to mess much with his feet other than noting that they're in pretty good condition, though will need a maintenance trim soon.

L left after the grooming session to go home and take care of a sick K. :-(

I took Gunner into the round pen after she left to see how much of this "Clinton Anderson" he knew. This is where things started to change with his behavior. I smacked the ground with the end of the lunge whip and gestured for him to move out in a counter clockwise direction. He balked violently in surprise and fear, and rushed to the gate where he considered trying to jump out. I backed off, redirected my body language, and with some effort got him to move out and in a clockwise direction.

His trot was strung out and frantic. The whites of his eyes showed as he watched me closely in fear of what I might do next. Other than gesturing to keep him moving past the gate he wanted to halt at, I softened all of my language to try to calm him.

It greatly saddened me to come across yet another (Q being the first) horse who's first cowboy trainer took what they'd "learned" from a natural horsemanship practitioner and used it in a manner to scare the horse into submission. I think Gunner will bounce back from this better than Q because his demeanor is different, but all the same, I don't like seeing this. Its exactly why training methods like that get a bad rap. I use pieces of that training, but my horses have NEVER been scared into things (obvious from videos). But I'll step away from my soapbox before I rant further...

At liberty/round pen work, I give him a B-. He tried; he never offered any rude behaviors in the slightest, just fear. And his issues are directly due to human error from what I can observe so far. With time, patience, dedication, and some love, he'll come right around, I'm sure of it!

My buddy from patrol who's been riding horses since before he could walk was in town and showed up shortly into me working Gunner in the round pen. I asked a little more of Gunner in order to end on a good note, and then unceremoniously tossed Mike onto this horse I'd barely known to test ride him on a short trail ride with Q and I. (Sorry, Mike. Haha. I wouldn't have done this if I hadn't been privy to a myriad of crazy horse stories from him earlier in the week.)

Under saddle Gunner was initially startled, but settled very quickly. He wasn't a huge fan of the ported bit I'd offered him, but he didn't do much more than chew and lip it a little bit. Mike was calm, has a phenomenal seat, and Gunner settled considerably under his guidance. He was still forward and a little prancy, but nothing crazy. He had just been uprooted a few days ago and thrust into a new life. So, all things considered, it was pretty good.

He crossed water with minimal issue, was vocal toward the other horses (who were also being spastic in the field and calling out to us the whole time), and he never broke higher than a trot - even when provided an opportunity to do so.

Mike kept him relatively calm, all things considered, and noted that Gunner didn't really have any glaring bad habits other than just being a little "up" because of the other horses. Not a perfect scenario, but definitely not bad! I'm pretty confident that with some time in this new home with his own person he's going to settle down just fine.

Before dismounting, Mike made Gunner settle and stand still for 15 seconds or so without moving an inch. Gunner was focused on the horses galloping around the field (maniacs, I tell you!), but he did stand. Good boy.

I give Gunner a B under saddle. He had a lot of try, but he was very distracted and I don't think it would have been a positive experience for an inexperienced rider. I do, however, firmly believe that with time in his new home, time with his new owner, dedication on her part, guidance from mine, and patience on the part of everyone, that he's going to be just fine for her. Mike did do a couple silly things for me while riding to see Gunner's response (primarily flopping around with his hands as if he were a beginner since this will be one of K's major issues), and he didn't care at all about those things.

Gunner isn't the absolute perfect scenario right out of the gate, but all things considered, I'm pretty pleased with the kind of horse we ended up with through this rapid process of finding something suitable.

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On Christmas Eve, I was released from work 3 hours early. This gave me time to head out to the barn to bring in my guys and feed them and blanket them (Hello 12 degrees with 15-20mph winds! Also, my two have bib clips through the winter because of the work I have them in and lack of time to help them cool out after dark...) AND to bring Gunner in to prep him for K.

Griffin saw me drive up and took no time to leave the round bale across the field and come to the gate to be let in for his food. Q and Gunner I had to fetch for myself.

Mud puppy. OMG. Gunner's a mud puppy. In the worst way! I feared the worst as I fetched him from the field.

Despite his dirty appearance though, I was impressed that he let me catch him with no chase. Good boy. And then, despite being led in alongside a mare who was having NONE of him, he was sweet as could be. Q was doing her best bitchy mare face, and that gelding, bless his heart, just plodded along behind her keeping what distance he could. Good man, good man.

Once in the barn with grain in front of all three horses, I brushed and brushed and brushed. And choked on the dust. And then I said screw it, and I gave Gunner a very brief bath of sorts with some cold-ass water to get off the awful wet mud he'd recently rolled in. It was a huge improvement, but still not awesome.

I'd planned to braid his tail with ribbons and do his mane in hunter braids. He would have none of the mane braiding. He wasn't rude at all about it though. He let me stand on the step stool (tall ass horse!) and braid, but if I pulled tight in any way on the braid he'd lower his head slowly, steadily, to sneak away from me. If I stepped back from him to grab more bands, he'd take that time to rub, rub, rub on those already in. I decided it probably wasn't a good idea to take the time to put them in at that point and just opted for the tail braid with ribbon.

My horses had been inside this whole time, they ate their grain and then patiently watched and waited as I fussed with Gunner. I did this on purpose because 1.) its good for them to have to stand in this manner and 2.) it allowed them to dry off from the snow that had melted on them enough that I could put their blankets on for the night. I tossed their blankets on, secured them, and turned them out.

Cue Gunner spazzing. He was super unhappy to be all alone! L messaged me then, to say she was leaving work to head to get her hubby and K to bring her over for the big surprise. I messaged back to say I'd stick around as long as I could (I had a previous commitment to be at my folks' house) to keep Gunner calm.

I ran out to the field to fetch Griffin again and bring him in to help keep Gunner calm while we waited. It seemed that I would indeed be able to be present for the surprise after all! With Griffin's presence, Gunner settled down immediately.

I began the waiting game.

I knew J was coming, too, and I saw her car pull up as I was sweeping the tack room (because cleaning is good for when you're nervous!) and went out to greet her only to find L and her hubby and K were all there, too! Oh!!

I called a quick greeting and muttered something about the weather. J called out that she was here to check on Eli (the Friesian sporthorse...rude horse from previous post...) for his owner (J bred Eli years and years ago). She also said that she was going to watch K's "lesson", the ruse her parents had put in place to surprise her with Gunner.

I headed back into the barn and then....well, here, I'll just let you see for yourselves.

And the view from J's phone:

K was so in shock. And so happy. So blissfully happy.

I hung around for a bit to watch her with him, to take photos with my phone, and to help her a little as she played with him as her dad directed. He was following her happily around the ring and stopping when she stopped, going when she was going, but he was stopping a bit too close to her. Almost running into her.

I really had to book it to my folks' place, but I took a moment to demonstrate that she needed to be more firm with her request, loud with her body language, and if he didn't listen needed to back him up.

Its hard to be "mean" to an animal you want to love you - it took me a month to crack down on Griffin when I got him - but good glory is it beyond worth it! You gain more trust and built a FAR better relationship with them for it! SO worth it. And, aside from that trust and that relationship we all strive for, you gain a very respectful horse who is less likely to bowl you over in a bad situation (absolutely KEY when you're around an animal so much bigger than yourself)!

This surprise made my Christmas. It was amazing to be a part of it. I'm thankful, I'm happy for K, and I'm excited for what the future will bring for her.

I hope you've all enjoyed following along with this little Christmas surprise as much as I have enjoyed being a part of it.

Merry Christmas to each of you and your animals. I hope your holidays are bright and wish you the best of all the winter wishes!

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