Thursday, July 23, 2009


Chance with his other herd boss.

Mom, how do I look?


Are you sure--this shirt's not too baggy?

Looks great.

Are you just saying that....did you even look?

Life with a teenager is never dull. Besides amusing and frustrating, parenting a teen can be quite enlightening. It's given me opportunity to reflect on my own teenage years (much of which I've tried to forget, actually). In my son I remember my own battle with insecurity and self-esteem at a time when my body seemed to betray me (I would learn this was only the first time; more betrayal was to come). While I have grown out of much of the youthful angst and drama the deep need to be accepted, to be thought well of, follows me into adulthood--"Herd dynamics."
As I've mentioned before, horses are never apathetic about The Herd. They live and die obsessed with this social structure. It's really more necessary to their health than food and water. In the wild the safety of a horse hinges on his place in a herd situation. This makes perfect sense. An attacking cougar, say, is best fended off with the help of a few friends. Especially when one is lower on the food chain. But domestic horses have a different reality, right? It is the faithful Master who feeds, waters, blankets in cold, fly sprays in heat, tends to tender tootsies, trains, loves, and otherwise is obsessed, exhausted, or bankrupt on any given day. But enough about me. This fact should have some relevance for even the most dim-witted equid, right? Wrong. Herd dynamics are no less critical for a backyard pony then they are for a Mustang surviving on the plains. At least from the horse's point of view.
I have found the greatest satisfaction as a trainer when I can affect this equine trait on a deep level; change the horses natural tendency. When the horse and I reach a place where we are first, last, and always our own herd of two. Regardless of whether I ride past a field of attractive horses nickering for attention, ask my horse to leave his best buddy for a few hours, or even trailer to a strange location. The horse remains okay--ixnay on the whinnying hysterically. My horse Tango is this way. He seems to understand, at some level, that I "have his back." This is quite literally true--how could I forget about him when I'm sitting on him! Eli is also coming along nicely in this respect. We aren't totally there yet but he looks to me more and more for direction. In time I feel his trust in me will be complete. Chance is another story. Life with human beings has taken its toll on him. For all the progress we have made this horse's trust remains fragile. And that's on a good day. On a bad day forget about it. His bond to the rider disappears like dust in the wind. In short, the herd--what "they" think and are doing at any particular moment--is a near constant obsession for this horse. When Chance is in this place mentally he can be dangerous. An example of this last occurred last weekend when I took him on a trail ride in the hills near my home. I knew the ride might be interesting but decided it would be good for him.
I was pleased that after some initial whinnying and postering amidst the 30 or so other horses milling around, Chance settled down--Look at me; I'm the man; You like me?; Check this out; Hey, nobody cares.....We left with the first large group and I put Chance in the back, behind a big Tennessee Walker. He was a tad nervous--I wonder what that horse thinks of me; Am I dominant here?--but willing to walk. Then he began hearing the sounds of the other group, just out of sight in the trees behind us. He began to get jiggy, pulling on the bit, jumping in the bushes and mostly ignoring the fact that there was a rider on his back. I waited until the single track trail opened onto a wider road and pulled him out of the ride. At that moment I believe I saw his small brain sprout wings and fly off into the blazing sun overhead. We entered full meltdown as he watched his new "best friends" disappear into the trees again. I wondered how it was that so quickly he could forget entirely about me--his rider and faithful buyer of premium hay, veterinary care and horse treats. Did he recall the hours I spent working on his trailer loading so he could become confidant and not utterly terrified? Did he remember how I quite literally plucked him out of a field neglected and starving? Not a chance, for this Chance.
Summoning what was left of my last nerve, I focused on regaining his attention. Eventually (with much sweat on both our parts) I got obedience and a bit of his brain back. We were able to rejoin a party of riders and finish the ride without further tantrums.
Being herd bound, or herd "sour," is not just annoying it potentially life-threatening for the horse and/or rider. A good friend found this out recently when her herd bound gelding tore out of the trailer she was attempting to load him into, nearly running over her. On his mad dash to get back to his "friends" he ran down a busy highway. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
A person can live their entire life a slave to herd dynamics--hoping to gain favor, respect, acceptance, self-esteem and purpose solely from other human beings. Personally, I'd like to find all that with the Master. A herd of two is security enough for me.
A note to followers and lurkers (I appreciate each and every one of you that bother to read my random ramblings): I am leaving for Maui and will happily neglect this blog for the next two weeks. After which I'll be back, fresh with Aloha and(hopefully) tales of horse culture in Hawaii.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I am an honest person; I like to tell the truth. As a writer this isn't simply a good idea, it's absolutely necessary. Oh sure, I am guilty of social lying--who isn't? By social lying I mean something like this:

Friend at church: Hi, how are you?
Me: I'm fine.
Translation: My latte just spilled on my sweater, I have a headache and just yelled at my husband and kids. I am in no mood to see or talk to anybody, much less worship the Lord--why am I here?!

After seeing the movie, The Italian Job, I now think of Fine as an acronym: Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. Turns out alot of people are F.I.N.E.

But other than that very typical scenario, I like to think of myself as an honest gal. Transparent even. It took two of my horses this week to show me that, in fact, I am a dirty little liar (even a Big, Fat Liar).

On Monday I loaded up Eli and took him to a local arena all by himself. I love this horse. He continues to prove his incredible intelligence and trainability, even under the added stress of being a young stallion with no shortage of hormones. Every stud should be as kind and level headed as this one. But I'm getting ahead of myself.......

I proceeded to warm Eli up and put him through his paces as two friends and their horses rode around, sharing the space. We rode for about 30 minutes with no incidence. I thought it an opportune time to brag about my outstanding equine when my friend made the mistake of asking,"So, how's he doing Catherine?" This was sort of like asking a new grandparent to tell you about their precious grandchild.

"This horse is the finest horse I've ever had," I gushed without shame. "I have never had to discipline him. Seriously. He has such a trainable mind."

I went on and on (the exact details escape me right now). Eli indeed proved his very trainable mind. Able to train his human to be very, very careful about the words that come out of her mouth. It wasn't fifteen minutes later that I moved Eli into a trot, then a canter. He took about two strides before all hell broke loose. Bolting across the arena Eli decided to show off his complete and utter "obedience." He jumped and pitched and while no words came out of his mouth I knew what he was thinking: This is a good time for you to bail off. Remember, pride comes before a fall.

I'm happy to report that I didn't fall off. Instead, I was able to get back the control and change Eli's attitude using a highly effective four letter word--WORK. We ended things on a good note and I, the big fat liar, went home a more humble individual.

I was still assembling my pride that week when, once again, I was proved dishonest in front of an audience. This time Chance decided to teach me a lesson. I can't prove it but I think Eli discussed this with him one night in the barn.

Chance has been struggling with respiratory problems for the better part of two months. I held out as long as I could but finally gave in and signed him up for what I knew would be an expensive veterinary exam. Just to be sure he was really sick, I worked Chance three days before the exam. Yep, he coughed and showed some distress during canter work. Something was definately wrong. I patted myself on the back for being a responsible horse owner and put all other plans on hold the day of his scheduled visit.

We arrived bright and early at the veterinary hospital, a large, clean facility with a charming collection of antique carriages on display out front. My horse would be in good hands. I explained the past couple of months, how Chance was hardly being worked and our worry he had a blockage of sorts in his airways. I was anxious to see his symptoms and how the vet would diagnose it.

"Let's free lunge him in the round pen," the vet said. "See whats going on."

An assistant got a whip and moved Chance around at the trot, then the canter. The day had dawned warm and it didn't take Chance long to break into a sweat as the air thickened with humidity. Additionally, deep sand in the round pen made his going that much more work. I knew it was simply a matter of time before he began coughing.

Twenty minutes later, the only sight to behold was the near perfect form of Chance, easily cantering the circumference of the round pen. Over and over again.

"He's in beautiful condition; what a mover," remarked the vet.

Mover my eye! This horse can hardly keep his leads straight some days. My mood darkened.

"Well, I'm not seeing anything. Let's put a bag over his nose and see what we hear."

We stopped Chance, put a bag over his nose and let him breath out the oxygen. Then the bag was removed and the vet carefully listened to his lungs while he inhaled deeply. Nothing but a tiny wheeze or two showed anything out of order.

"He tolerates exercise very well," said the vet.

"Listen, I know there is something wrong with this horse. I guarantee if I ride him he will show some distress." I fought frustration as I led Chance to the trailer and swung a saddle over his back. Time for a little horsey chat.

"Listen Pal," I pulled Chance's head around to make sure he was listening. "I just think you should know that if you prove me a liar today your work load is going to explode. No more lounging in my paddock over a pile of alfalfa. Got it?"

Chance chewed thoughtfully. Let's see, less work or enjoy making a fool of my owner? No contest.

Sure enough, we lope in beautiful circles in the sandy round pen. Over and over. Chance is a dressage horse, his frame round and athletic, his endurance supreme.

"If this was a prepurchase exam I'd tell you to buy this horse," the vet offers.

Gee, thanks. I'm going to kill this horse when I get home.....

Five hundred dollars later, I am sure of one thing: Horses were created to keep human beings humble (not to mention drive them crazy).

Yet, all is not lost. A new training method has come out of my recent experiences. It is actually not new but one I've used often and with success on my children. It is especially effective on toddlers and teenagers--reverse psycology.

This week I'll chant a new mantra to my beasts: Chance, you are sick ALL the time; Eli, my man, you are the worst horse to work with!

I'll let you know how it works for me.