Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to be a Horse Whisperer

Many people think that horse whispering is all about round pen work, and games you play with your horses, and non-verbal communication, and letting the horse decide when he is ready to do what you're asking of him.  In reality, that's just not it at all.  You can do all those things and turn out a great horse, but you're not a horse whisperer unless you do even more.  It's not all about the horse.

First, you have to have a good western name.  You'll never make it in the high-stakes horse whispering game unless you're named Cody or Montana or Dallas.  Myron, you don't stand a chance.  Mike and Bill, you'll have to work harder than the Shooter down the street.  Got a woman's name?  Give it up.  More on that later.

Next, you'd better have had a dad who walloped the ever-lovin' bejeezus out of you.  If your father wasn't a low-down, no good cuss who never showed you love so that your  life was an endless cycle of shallow and angry relationships until the day you realized you could whisper, you'll be limited in how far you can go.

You've got to look the part.  This means having your own signature hat:  whether it's an Aussie hat, or a Stetson, or a battered old Resistol with the front brim turned way down from getting face-planted on that "gentle" mare someone put you on, you'd best have a gnarly looking hat to show what a rugged individualist you are.  If you don't have an ample ring of ancient sweat expanding upward from the hat band, buy some fake sweat.  This is important.

Learn how to look your client in the eye and grow silent for a  moment before uttering a strikingly tender statement with a totally straight face:  "Yep, ma'am, you know horses are just big huge babies, and we have to look out for 'em."  Pepper your speech with down home truisms and meaningful pearls of wisdom -- and never, ever laugh at your own  jokes.  Try not to smile too much; you want to look perpetually wounded, but in recovery.

Buy yourself a half-dead stallion with the same troubled past you had (or that you've claimed you had).  Make sure you can stand on his back.  No horse whisperer is worth two bits if he doesn't routinely stand on his horse's back.  Heck, never buy a horse unless there's a photo of some cowboy standing on his back, for that matter!  Really, as long as you have that, you can count on it being a damned fine horse.

Hang your arm over that horse's neck, right behind his head, as if he's the one and only true friend you ever had -- and don't acknowledge him too much.  Make him out to be more of a body part of your own than a sole and separate horse.  Give him a down-to-earth,  unpretentious name -- Chuck, or Willie, or Merle.

Now, the important part:  get some testicles.  I don't mean, "Grow some balls."  I mean, if you aren't a lonesome cowboy -- not a lonesome cowgirl -- you'll only whisper to the occasional client; you'll never whisper to the masses.  It's not that you won't be downright great at what you do with the horses; it's all about the clientele.  No matter how great your battered old hat is, and no matter how many times you stand on your horse's back, you just can't compete.  Yes, Virginia, it IS a man's world.

You see, the  most important thing of all is that connection with your customers -- well, your fan base, actually.  Because it's not that you're going to be a great symphonic pianist:  no, a good horse whisperer is a rock star.  And rock stars depend on women.  Groupies.  Your groupies as a horse whisperer will be somewhat different than the groupies Justin Bieber has, but you'll need them just as Biebs does.

Your groupies will be the hordes of middle-aged women who've reached a wistful time of life.  They're reflecting on where they are now and where they used to want to be when they were twelve and where the heck their teenage figure went.  They're returning to the horses of their youth in hopes of regaining that youth right alongside them, and they're often afraid.  They've realized they're not immortal and they want wings once again, but they're afraid to fly.

That's where you come in.  It's not about the horse.  It's about giving horses back to your fans.  It's connecting with them through your connection with the horse.  It's about laughter and tears and disclosure and epiphany.  It's about rediscovery and personal journeys.  They may never get on a horse again -- but give them the hope that they will.

It's a wonderful thing, and it's important.   Next time you're out there standing tall on your old horse Waylon's back, look into those faces, cherish the opportunities they've given you, and give them back their wings.

(c) 2012 MJ Miller
All rights reserved

Friday, November 16, 2012

Oh, The Things They'll Get Into!

It's amazing, isn't it?  The tight spots that these huge, docile creatures can get themselves into.  Above is Smart Lil Sassypants, my yearling.  She looks pretty proud of herself, doesn't she?  She is, for the most part, a very pragmatic little girl, wise beyond her years.  In fact, while she was stuck in the position shown here, she decided she'd just nibble on the hay in front of her.  Hay, like grass, is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Yet, calm and smart as Sassy is, she still managed to get herself stuck.  That's the thing about horses:  they can find infinite ways to get into trouble.  Over the years, I've repeatedly heard the old horseman's adage about how you can put a horse in a rubber stall, and they'll still find a way to get hurt.  I can't argue.

I had one little mare who turned her head around in the old horse trailer I had, and managed to get the rail jammed underneath her jawbone so that she was wedged in that position.  I won't tell you how I got her free, because I know you won't believe me.  Another horse came out of the same trailer on a pothole-choked dirt road -- while it was moving.  The butt-bar and the door were both closed properly.  The vibration of the bumpy road managed to jar loose the friction-operated latch, and the horse leaned against the side of the trailer to support himself -- which caused the butt-bar to pop free on one end.  Somehow that darned Thoroughbred slipped through the 18-inch gap between the butt bar and the center post.   To my utter astonishment, he wasn't injured.  He had some missing hair on his hip and a scrape mark on one hoof.  Thankfully, he wasn't tied -- I went through a period of time when I didn't like tying my horses in the trailer.  It saved that one's life.  The trailer went up for sale immediately -- for landscaper use only.

It's not always the horse who risks injury with their strange ability to get into mischief.  I had just finished riding and rinsing one beloved gelding, Oscar, one summer afternoon.  I picked up his front foot to check for rocks, and just about jumped out of my skin.  There, neatly hanging out in the groove of his frog, was a perfectly intact, uninjured scorpion.  He wasn't smashed into the hoof -- he was just hanging on.  I nearly got stung by a scorpion that was in my horse's hoof.  Now, could anyone have predicted that one?

I can't count the times I've had to cut a horse out of a fence, or flip them back over when they got hung up against a stall wall.  The way to do that, if you haven't had that opportunity yet, is to loop a fat rope lead around the back legs, stand back toward the shoulder, and flip them.  Get out of the way fast once they start coming over, and let go of the rope when they do.  I've nearly had to cut one's halter off, when she rubbed her nose on the hitching post after I'd dismounted and caught her nose piece on the horseshoes welded onto the hitching post to make it easy to tie to.  I've never seen a horse get hung up quite like that before.  The hitching post will soon be modified to have those foolish horseshoes removed.  I'll never understand why someone made a hitching post that way.  Anything that protrudes from a fence or rail is just waiting for a tied horse to get hung up on it.

Then there's Ziggy -- MJ Royal Smartypants.  Ziggy, a stud colt, had the advantage for several months of being turned out with a very gentle gelding, Frosty.  I eventually had to separate them, as Ziggy was discovering his stallion-hood and continually trying to take advantage of sweet, defenseless Frosty (who couldn't kick due to instability in the hindquarters.)  Although I quit putting them in the turnout together, I kept them in adjacent stalls when they were in the mare motel.  Darned if I didn't come out one morning to find Ziggy in Frosty's stall, happy and quiet.  He'd managed to slip beneath the rails -- and there wasn't much room to squeeze through, but Ziggy did it.  He must have flattened himself like a hamster to slip through that narrow gap.

Guess what?  Ziggy is the proud father of Sassy, the little filly above.  Like father, like daughter.  Sassy's mother?  Well, she's the mare who got caught on the hitching post.  It's no wonder Sassy has a big chunk of missing skin from her forehead this week -- she's genetically prone to get herself snagged. There's not a sharp object anywhere near her stall; I can't even figure out what she happened to do to herself.  She's having more than her share of filly-hood bumps and bruises of indeterminate origin.  She's following in her father's hoof-steps already.

Thankfully, across all the years, none of my horses have had a really significant, life-ending injury from their solo antics.  Not for lack of trying, of course -- they find new ways regularly, despite my constant efforts to create a safe environment for them. They still manage to get hurt, despite the effort and planning -- horses just have a knack for that.  You just never know what they're going to find to get into trouble with.  

Here, though, are just a few common hazards:

  • Wire.  Wire fences, loose wire, wire that's exposed to them in any way.  Horses love to paw at wire and wedge it between their hooves and their shoes; they can find myriad ways to get stuck in it -- or stabbed by it.  If you've got wire fences, fasten it tightly to the rail at close intervals.  Nip off any protruding segments.  Consider anchoring it at ground level so a hoof can't slip underneath.
  • Gaps between fence posts.  Heads and legs easily become stuck.
  • Odd-shaped spaces in fencing, especially those that are narrower at top than at bottom.  Horses will pull their heads up as they're pulling back, so a keyhole shape is especially dangerous -- there may be plenty of room at bottom to free their heads, but as their heads rise, they become desperately stuck.  This can quickly become lethal, especially in younger horses.
  • Gaps in feeders, especially those with narrow rails, that a lower jaw can get caught in.  I've known at least two horses who shattered their jaws by getting hung up on rail-type hay feeders.  
  • Spaces beneath barn doors or partitions.  Horses can rip their hooves off when a foot gets stuck beneath a fixed object.
  • Halters left on the horse.  Here, again, I've known horses who died as a result of having their halters left on.  Under NO circumstances should a standard web halter EVER be left on a youngster unsupervised.  This is the equine equivalent of leaving a child alone in a pool.  Disaster is imminent.  Even adult horses get hung up -- but they aren't as likely to break their necks.  
  • Tying your horse to any object that is not fixed, solid, and heavy duty.  One of the ugliest set of injuries I've seen was to a beautiful mare who'd been tied to a wheelbarrow.  A wheelbarrow, folks!  That wheelbarrow chased that mare for miles through the desert when she took off running, and it still amazes me that she lived through her injuries.
  • Tying your horse to a gate.  Please, just don't.
Remember, always have your camera at hand.  Someday, I'll embarrass Sassy by showing these photos to her high-school prom date.