Thursday, December 5, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: The Sour Horse, Part III

Here it is:  the anatomy of a wreck.

If you have read my first two installments on this subject, you've already seen it coming:  you know I was headed for a fall.  A launch, specifically -- as in launched from the back of a spoiled, sour horse.  I guess I can now consider myself one of those "ladies who launch" -- or was that supposed to be lunch?

I'd spent a few weeks retraining Whiskey, that adorable buckskin gelding with the sweet face, in the round-pen and on the property.  He'd shown distinct resistance as described in my previous posts (and as seen in the videos I attached.  I'd given him the benefit of bitting him up and teaching him how to  useful himself better so that he wouldn't get sore when ridden; I'd legged him up a bit, and begun working on a proper foundation that he hadn't gotten before. We worked on head-set, backing, collection, impulsion, straight lines and round circles, and the beginning of lateral motion.

I was well aware that Whiskey had been ridden on several very long and challenging trail rides, and he performed very well for his riders -- he had a reputation as a good, solid horse.  I've done the long rides he has done, but not at the same time, and I know what he had to have been capable of to complete them.  Whiskey is, therefore, a very experienced horse.  There was no reason to suspect that he was going to be a dangerous horse when I took him out on our first trail ride together; in fact, I wondered if I was being too cautious.  I had worked him in the round pen the day before, and ridden him briefly around the property afterwards.  He'd been more distracted and unwilling to pay attention to me than the previous few sessions, so I worked him (bitted up) until he did so.  He worked hard and should have been tired the next day.

That next day, I skipped the round pen.  I relied on the fact he had so many wet saddle blankets in his past and had done so very much on the trail.  My husband would be accompanying me on his calm, seasoned gelding. I wore my usual riding gear -- jeans, boots, gloves, thick long-sleeve shirt, and hat.  I rarely go out on the trail without that outfit (although in the summer my long-sleeve shirts are thinner) as they offer some protection against trail hazards from sun to cactus to being tossed.  I felt I was being as safe as practical on this first-time trail ride with a new horse.  It was even a quiet day in the Tonto, the only shooters quite a distance away.

Whiskey and me, still enjoying a lovely fall ride.
Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller

I led Whiskey on the small patch of blacktop we had to cross to get to the trail head, paying attention to his attitude; he was alert but pleasant.  When I got to a safe spot to mount, I hopped on.  Not far along, I asked him to leave the main, well-used trail and take a narrower trail.  There, he showed his first sign of resistance:  he spun away slowly, half-rearing, in avoidance.  I got after him verbally and pushed him with my legs (I wasn't wearing spurs) and he proceeded.

We rode for several miles in perfect bliss.  He was a perfect gentleman, albeit moving along ploddingly.  Russ commented to me on how pleasant he was being, and with some sort of vague presentiment I said, "Yes, he is -- but the true test will be on the way home, when he wants to get back to the barn."  Whiskey definitely put it into second-gear on the way back, walking much faster than before.  I asked Russ to go in front.  We started to go down a rocky patch, and Whiskey squealed and began to buck.  They weren't serious bucks, but they were definite bucks and not just crow-hops. Puzzled, I hopped off and checked him for any possible explanation:  was it pain?  Was it cactus?  A bee sting?  I could find nothing that might be aggravating him.  I walked him a bit further and hopped on again.

It wasn't too long before he started to buck again, yet again on a rocky patch.  I dismounted and slapped him twice with the reins.  I do not want a horse thinking he is going to get out of work every time he acts up, but it was too rocky to have it out with him where we were.  I didn't want it to be pleasant for him that he was able to talk me into getting off.  Go ahead.  Call PETA.

I walked him again until we were at another safe area to mount,  talking to him and rubbing his face, striving for rapport.  On I climbed again.  He was clearly unhappy that we weren't racing back to the barn, and began to toss his head and swish his tail in agitation when I'd ask him for slow or whoa.  He wasn't jigging, just displaying annoyance.  I asked Russ (still in front) to walk ten steps, then halt (at which time we'd both ask our horses to lower their heads, breathe and settle) and then proceed -- and repeat until we got to the forest road.  That tactic served its intended purpose:  it forced Whiskey to calm down and settle, and it kept him from picking up dangerous speed or building in agitation.

At the forest road, I changed tactics.  I moved Whiskey in continuous serpentine motions back and forth across the road, bending, flexing, bending.  It helps a horse use up some of their excess energy to do diagonal work -- but the problem is, Whiskey's issue isn't excess energy, it's a pissed-off attitude.  Still, it got us safely to the little patch of blacktop near the house, at which point I again dismounted and led him to the driveway.

As Russ put his horse away, I rode Whiskey to the tack room and got my spurs.  He stood pleasantly, ground-tied, at the tack-room door -- no sign of agitation now.  He was happily home and couldn't be nicer.  I did not want him thinking that his day was over, though, just because he'd been a jerk on the trail, so I led him to the clear, unfenced area we used as an arena, and once more I mounted.

I don't believe in hopping on a horse and running them until they drop.  I want them to control themselves, not think that their reward for bad behavior is getting to run until they feel like behaving or stopping.  Instead, I want to work them at a trot -- a trot of varied degrees of collection and speed, so they must focus.  I trotted Whiskey out, first at a jog, then asking him for a faster, extended trot, and back to a jog.

Russ came out and settled into a chair at the end of the arena to watch.  He had barely done so when, at about our third time around, I could feel Whiskey prepare to act up.  We were going to the right, on the straightway just past the curve, when he dodged to the left.  I tightened up the reins and then he began to pitch.  These were not rough stock bucks by any means (he's no Steamboat!) but they were definitely a big enough running buck, the kind you'll often see a young horse do when they want to run back to the barn.

On buck number three, my hat blew off.  I reached up with one hand to grab it, as I'm always concerned that a flying hat will frighten the horse more, and I briefly lost my seat.  I regained it and hung on, scolding Whiskey at the same time.  At that point I thought I'd be able to ride out the rodeo and that he'd quit.  Just then, he began to buck in the direction of a large palo verde tree to my left.  I could see those spiny branches coming toward my face and I leaned to the right, thus losing my seat again.

That next buck -- buck number eight -- launched me as hard as I've ever been launched.  I'll admit it:  I'm not the scrawny youngster I once was.  I landed like a shot put or a kettle bell.  There was no rolling, no sliding, nothing graceful nor lithe.  I landed and stuck, striking my right side at the knees first, the impact then extending into my right shoulder and then my face.  The momentum then drove me onto my chest.

I've come off a lot of horses over the years in a lot of different ways.  I've been lawn-darted face-first, had horses fall beneath me in a variety of locations and manners, and had one tumble head-first.  The first time I ever came off was on a buckskin the same color as Whiskey, a beautiful horse named Buttermilk, who bucked me off.  I was seven.  I've collected a nice series of non-standard dismounts in the decades since.

None of them ever hurt like this one.

I consider myself fairly tolerant of pain, even having a root canal without anesthesia once, but I've never been in so much agony that I couldn't help but yell.  This landing changed all that.  I was aware of everything as it happened:  the way Russ left his chair, his hands outstretched as if to catch a football, as I was airborne.  The way I hit and smacked my chest so hard I briefly wondered if it would stop my heart with the traumatic force.  (It didn't.)  The way I rolled over and my face ground into the dirt and gravel … and the pain.

I bellowed like a water buffalo.  Or a whale, the way Russ put it.  I couldn't quit bellowing.  I was aware of my bellowing and the fact the neighbors might hear and I still couldn't quit bellowing.  I was in absolute agony.

At first, it was the pain in my chest.  Then, immediately, it was the absolutely excruciating pain in my knees and surrounding area.  I have never felt that sort of pain, a relentless, horrid, hair-curling pain that took over my whole body.  That pain was, of course, proof that I wasn't paralyzed -- great!  I wasn't growing cold -- I knew I wasn't dying.  I was just hurting.

Russ was quickly beside me and asking me questions, telling me to sit up, and all I could do was bellow and say, "I hurt too much, I hurt too much."  Humbling, that!  And soon I was well aware that I was going into shock:  I was getting shocky from the pain.  My field of vision started to constrict and I was quite literally seeing scintillating white stars, or maybe abstract flowers … everywhere.  I told Russ I was going into shock and that I needed water and that it was in the barn … and as he ran off for a bottle of water I talked myself out of shock.  I could feel what I can only describe as projectile sweating:  bullets of sweat shooting off my scalp, my face.  I focused on my breathing and telling myself that everything was all right, and soon Russ was back and checking my teeth.  Yes -- checking my teeth.  My bloodied face and chin meant nothing to me in the wake of my painful legs, but he was clearly focused on the streak of blood beneath my nose and the road-rash on my cheek and chin.

I washed the grit out of my mouth and sat for a few minutes.  With Russ' help, and plenty of bellowing, I got to my feet and made it to the barn, still fighting the last vestiges of shock.  I told Russ, "You sure know how to show a girl a good time," as we walked arm in arm to the barn, where I unashamedly tossed a horse blanket on the floor and tried to lie down -- but everything hurt too much.

I soon made it to the house and into the bathtub, where I dumped epsom salts into the hot water and soaked, keeping those knees above sea level, ice bags covering them.  I took inventory of injuries:  left hip, left wrist and thumb, both knees, face, rib cage, left breast, and some internal place just left of my right pelvic area.

It was a long and painful night.

In my next posting, I'll debrief a little bit of the aftermath -- and ponder my after-the-wreck assessment of the horse, the fall, and the future.

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  *All rights reserved.  *No part of this content may be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express permission of the author.  Links, however, may be freely shared.  *Thank you for liking, pinning, sharing, emailing, +1'ing, and otherwise helping me grow my audience.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: The Sour Horse, Part II

Although horses have a naturally defined personality, we shape it.  They are born with a personality that is like metal -- some are gold, some are tin, and they all have their own unique traits -- but we can shape that metal, mold it, melt it, form it into something good or great or really awful.  Some horses have naturally pleasing personalities; others are less honest, and they will perform beautifully if they know that there's something in it for them (just like humans).  How we decide to shape the metal of their personality -- the metal of their mettle, if you will -- is critical.

Whiskey, from what I can tell, was born as a level-headed and affectionate horse.  He was probably never the most motivated animal; that, like other components of personality, is something horses are born with or not.  Whiskey would have made a wonderful backyard horse, laid back and happy to hang around beside you, getting his head rubbed and sneaking a treat here and there from your pocket.  He's a lover, by nature.

I'm always telling my riding students that horses' life stories are written on them in the form of their behavior -- just like us.  What has happened to a horse can be read in them by a person who is attuned to that sort of thing.  Many of us do it intuitively, although we might not analyze it and put it into so many words.

Here's what I read from Whiskey's personality:  He'd been born calm and friendly, and that personality made him a perfect choice to tote green riders around on a guest ranch.  He is cute as can be -- a sweet eye, a gorgeous golden color, and his black points.  He is a nice all-around horse with a smooth trot that hints of something gaited far back in his pedigree, maybe back when the Quarter Horse was infused with plenty of its Narragansett Pacer foundation stock -- maybe there's some single-foot still in Whiskey.  Since I don't know his pedigree, I can't rule out that he has some Walker blood in there somewhere -- who knows?  I do know he's got an easy trot to sit.

What else I've read is that somewhere, Whiskey got spoiled and sour.  All the different riders with their different styles bred an inconsistent approach when he was ridden.  He likely never had a proper foundation -- meaning that he never learned fully the principles of collection, submission, and impulsion.  He was taught to steer and to stop and to move forward when asked -- and that's about all, but he did it well.  And then he learned that no matter how good he was, people would pull on his head and the bit would hurt him, so he began lifting his head and bracing his neck.  This gave him some measure of comfort, but it would cause him to hollow his back -- and that would cause him back pain.  Guess what?  That back pain would make those rides not so much fun for him.

That's the point where resistance comes in and becomes a habit.  An otherwise fine horse learns that the reward for good behavior is no reward at all:  it is more riders, more work, more discomfort, more pain. Whiskey soon figured out that as long as he behaved, the work would keep coming.  I do know he was overworked -- and then he was very, very fortunate, because a very loving couple acquired him.

Whiskey did a few more long rides, and then he came my way.  With him, he brought his natural affection -- and our man-made resistance.  If you've read my previous post, you'll know how that resistance showed in his motion and behavior.  If you haven't, read it here:  From Resistance to Wreck, Part I.  In my next post, I'll share more of the sequence of events that lead to the making of a "dirt angel" -- that distinctive imprint in the dirt of someone whom, moments earlier, was happily a-horseback, and then launched into the dirt to flail around for a few unhappy moments, unable to do anything other than writhe in pain (and bellow like a water buffalo).

Oh, the joys of horses!

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  No part of this content may be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express written permission of the author.  Links to this page may, however, be freely shared.  Thank you for sharing, liking, linking, +1ing, pinning, emailing and otherwise helping me grow my audience!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: the Sour Horse, Part I

Oh, what a transition.  For the past two weeks I have intended to sit down and proclaim first the joy of "that new horse smell," followed by a few updates on retraining what is clearly a resistant horse with some bad manners.  I had looked forward to sharing progress reports on an absolutely adorable buckskin gelding who had plenty of experience under saddle but a poor foundation.  I was eagerly anticipating writing, one day, about the pleasure of this now-reliable horse, and about many trail miles we were sharing.

Whiskey, an absolutely adorable buckskin gelding!
Copyright (2013) by MJ Miller

Whiskey came to me from a much-loved friend who needed to place him due to a move.  I was honored and flattered and excited.  I let him settle in for a couple of days and then carefully saddled him and led him to the flat, less-rocky unfenced area we consider our arena.  I was cautious but was well aware that he had been ridden on several long, demanding, multi-day group trail rides and was highly spoken of by all the people I know who had seen him.   As such, I climbed right on him to assess him.

Wow.  Suddenly there was resistance.  He wouldn't turn to the right; he started tossing his head in agitation, trying to avoid the bit; and his tail was switching constantly.  He was … pissy.  I asked him to move forward in a walk and he started moving sideways and acting as if he was about to buck.  I hopped off, took him to the round pen, and watched him move.

Even in the round pen he was an annoyed little man.  He bucked a few rodeo bucks with the saddle on -- nothing that concerns me, really, as I don't mind a horse that bucks with the saddle as long as that saddle is empty.  He ignored me, for the most part, and turned away to watch whatever was going on in the neighborhood beyond.  He was lazy and he didn't want to complete the circle without continually turning of his own accord. I could see that he didn't really know how to carry himself; he held his head too high, wouldn't give to the bit, and moved awkwardly.  I bitted him up, very gently and slowly, and worked him for a few minutes.  He quickly started to grasp the concept but his neck was ewe-shaped from carrying his head high to escape the bit for the past couple of years, so I figured I'd bit him on a regular basis (but not too long at one time) to help him develop those necessary upper-neck muscles without getting sore.

And so I did.  I bitted him using an elastic bitting connector I made, so he'd learn to give to the bit.  He began to set his head nicely.  His loins began to develop and his neck got prettier.  He became less eager to challenge me by turning in the direction I did not want him to go.  I could see great signs of progress.

Here he is on his first day of bitting.  You can see how resistant he is in the movement of his tail, the general body language, his obvious irritation at being asked to work -- and what am I asking him for?  Nothing more than to give to the bit, drop his head, and trot, unburdened by a rider or a hard day's work.  Just that:  trot out, submitting politely to the bit.  Whiskey, Day I. 

On day two, I saw distinct signs of improvement, and by day three, he was clearly getting the concept and just beginning to give to the bit without having to think about it first.  Whiskey, Day II.  Whiskey, Day III.  (Please note that these are brief excerpts from those day's lessons.)  After day three of bitting him, I quit videotaping it because he was going so nicely there really wasn't much to show -- just a nice, steady, polite gelding trotting around with a happy expression.

I rode him a few times around the property, using the arena area and the perimeter training trail we put in.  On several of those occasions, my husband climbed on and did the same exercises I was doing:  teaching Whiskey how to walk forward with motivation and collection; how to stop and back nicely and fluidly; how to respond to leg commands (of which he knew next to nothing).  We both agreed that he was a nice horse who needed to learn all the basics that he'd either forgotten or never knew to begin with.  He'd started out as a guest ranch horse, and suffered from that guest-ranch-horse syndrome:  a series of riders who weren't all necessarily good ones, a need to escape harsh hands by tossing his head to avoid the bit, and an overall attitude of annoyance from long and likely uncomfortable or even painful days of being over-worked.  (This happened before my friend bought him -- she was a loving and competent owner.)  It was understandable that this horse displayed the traits that he did.

As I write this, I sit with ice bags on various body parts.  I'm wondering how I'm going to pay for the parts of the urgent care visit that insurance won't cover, much less the $120 in pain remedies, muscle rubs, knee and wrist braces, and related drugstore items.  On my next update, I'll share Whiskey's progress -- and how his resistance translated to wreckage:  mine!

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.   No part of this content, including photographs, may be copied in whole or in part without the express permission of the author.  However, a link to this page may be freely shared.  Thank you for pinning, sharing, liking, forwarding and otherwise helping me grow my audience!