Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cow Pony

Halo had a big day last Sunday, and so did I . It's taken me a few days to write about it because I've been mulling a lot over in my head. I can't say that I have everything sorted out, but perhaps sharing some of my thoughts here will bring clarity.

Sunday afternoon we arranged to go on a "cattle drive" with the barn owner and some other random people. We hauled 8 horses out to a neighbor's ranch, including Halo. It was Halo's first haul away from the property since she arrived in November. I'm proud to say that she was a very good sport about the whole thing. She loaded easily, and though she was a little bit nervous once everyone was loaded up (six horses in a trailer is a LOT), she was very well-behaved.

When we arrived at the ranch it turned out that we had an extra horse. Someone may have canceled their ride because the sky was looking stormy. It was good luck for me, though, because it meant I got to ride! I rode Choctaw, a big, rather cranky sorrel gelding I'd ridden back at the barn once before. He is best buddies with Rafter, who is the barn owner's personal horse. Halo got ponied off Rafter while I rode on his other side, and we headed for the cows.

The cattle drive was simple - we were just moving the cows from one pasture to another. They were eager to go because the ranch owners took off ahead of us with their vehicles to open the gate, and the cows probably thought they were getting fed. Either way, it was great fun chasing the cows! I worked on a cattle ranch the summer after my freshman year of college, and while I have chased cows on a four-wheeler, I've never done so on horseback.

Halo ponied very well off Rafter, and gave the barn owner almost no trouble at all. She was even out there cutting cows next to Rafter! It was funny watching them move in sync - she remained perfectly parallel to him at all times. I was amazed by her lack of spookiness, and how quickly she relaxed into the ride. It was a big contrast to one of the other horses under saddle, whose owner could not get him to walk for anything. He was so wound up that he jigged for the first hour of the ride. I hope Halo's calm demeanor translates to her under saddle work someday.

After we got back to the barn from our ride, we took the horses up to a small paddock in the front for a drink. The grass was waist-high or taller in some places, and the horses were in heaven! I got off and gave Casi a chance to ride for a few minutes while I minded Halo. Standing by the water trough while everyone's mounts got a drink, the barn owner encouraged me to hop up on Halo. This is where things got interesting.

I had a mental debate with myself about it for several minutes. I'd mounted her maybe 3 or 4 times total so far, and 3 of those times had been simply getting on, and dismounting a moment later. The fourth time we did actually walk about five steps. But it was only five steps! Who knew what she was bound to do if asked for more? And, most importantly, how ready was she mentally and physically for me to jump on her back in a strange place?

I can't even say what made me decide what I did, but in a moment of stupidity, I decided to go ahead and get on.

It took me a couple of tries, but I was able to jump up onto Halo from the ground. I rested my belly over her back for a few moments and then swung my leg over. I could feel my heart hammering in my head and my nerves come alive - all those physical symptoms I get when I'm doing something stupid or dangerous and I know it. The barn owner kept Halo by Rafter's side, and I grabbed a handful of mane. To add to my many bad decisions, Casi had my helmet on, so I wasn't wearing one. All I needed were a couple of toddlers to plop on in front and back of me and I'd have the perfect moron Craigslist ad.

While some part of me felt that I was surely attempting to win a Darwin Award, I couldn't help but have my chest swell with pride for Halo. She was so, so good. She ponied alongside Rafter the short distance back to the area where the trailers were parked, and we took some pictures. Then the group of horses headed across a small field to the ranch house and we were completely free. I thanked the gods for their benevolence and myself for the steering I'd already installed on Halo from the ground. We stayed by Rafter's side.

Up at the house, everyone stopped to let their horses eat some grass while we talked over the fence to the people up at the house. They were having a small gathering, and there were quite a few people there. Five dogs were in and out of the pool, running around like idiots. Halo whinnied a few times to who knows what, but stood calmly with the least until Choctaw backed up several steps and kicked her square in the chest! I could see it coming, but Halo didn't. She teleported sideways, leaving me behind to land on my hands and knees in the dirt. She stopped and looked at me with a quizzical expression as if to say, "what are you doing down there, mom?"

I was a little bruised, but completely unscathed overall. Mostly I thought, a) that's what I get for getting on her out here, and b) I hope she didn't just learn how to dump me. I reassured Halo that everything was okay, and got back on her up at the fence. I didn't consider the accident at all her fault - she reacted in a completely normal submissive horse way to being kicked by Choctaw. Fortunately, when I got back on she was just as placid as she'd been before the kick, and once I was reassured that she was going to stay calm and not feel the need to dump me again, I dismounted and led her back to the trailers.

Here are the things I've taken away from the experience:

1. Next time I do anything on her back, I WILL be wearing a helmet.
2. Falling off really isn't so bad when you're that close to the ground!
3. It's actually good to fall off as a reminder that it isn't the end of the world. It had been a long time since I'd fallen off, and it was inevitable at some point anyway.

As far as my mental debate about "riding" her goes, it still continues. Here is what I believe, and in contrast, the questions I'm still working out.

1. 2 years old is too young to start a horse under saddle.
2. The definition of starting/riding is something I don't have 100% defined in my mind.
3. I know many trainers and riders break their horses at 2, but it is a proven veterinary fact that horses of ALL breeds are fully mature at approximately six years of age. Every person who works around young horses should read this article on skeletal maturation before deciding when to ride.

Here are the questions rolling around in my mind:

1. Is it harmful to Halo to sit on her for a few minutes or stand/walk around as we did on Sunday?
2. How can I best keep Halo's attitude about riding/sitting on her positive? I love her easygoing attitude now, and I want to maintain it.
3. What is the best way to stand up to or circumvent pressure to ride her early? People keep asking how she's doing and when I'm going to ride her. I haven't yet come up with a solid response, mostly because of these questions I haven't answered to myself. I want to have a scripted response about why I am choosing not to seriously ride her until she is older.
4. Where, precisely, do I draw the line between messing around on her back once in a while and actually riding?

The last question bothers me the most. I definitely do not believe that it harms Halo for me to practice mounting and dismounting. But I also believe that she is not physically or mentally ready for me to ask her to learn how to walk, trot, canter, and direct rein under saddle. Also, there are more fundamentals of her training I'd like to continue working on. We've done some long-lining, but our technique could use plenty of polish. It's something I would like to work on through the summer. On the other hand, how much can I truly do from the ground? Many people have the opinion that at some point, you just need to get on and ride. I can see some of the sense in that, but I don't think it means I need to ride her at age 2, even if she's at a point in her training where that might be just fine if she were 3.

I would love to hear the opinions of others on this controversial subject. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Both support and constructive criticism are always welcome here.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your very good post - it raises some interesting questions. First, I think it was a great idea to take your horse along on the cattle drive - the more things young horses are exposed to, the better. Second, I think you've done a great job with your horse and I also think she's just wonderful - the calm, relaxed expression she has in the photos tells the story. It's a real testament to what a great horse she is, and what a great job you've done, that you could get on her in a strange situation (no helmet :( though!).

I agree completely with you that young horses should not be ridden extensively before they are completely physically mature. I think a lot of people unfortunately believe that because they can ride a young horse, that they should. They also tend to do what everyone else around them does. A lot of horses end up with chronic soundness issues as a result of this.

You are the one that gets to decide how old your horse should be before you ride - not someone else. If people ask you about it, or try to pressure you to do more - it's probably better not to argue with them or try to change their minds. I find that when I get in situations like this, I just say that that is what I've decided to do, period. You're under no obligation to explain yourself, and don't let other people pressure you - it doesn't matter if they agree with you or not.

There are lots of things you can do beside riding. As you point out, ground driving is great for young horses - you can go lots of places and do lots of things. You can do obstacle courses, mazes, etc., in hand. You can do some tricks together - or even clicker training if you wish. It looks like you've got a wonderful horse - so the sky's the limit. Just be creative - your horse will love it. And then once in a while, refresh the mounted work you've already done.

taramariephotography said...

What good questions! I'm thankful that your involuntary dismount was not the result of Halo's attitude, but instead, due to a reaction from another horse. I would not expect that Halo would link the negative experience of being kicked, or of you coming off, with being ridden. She was forced to go into herd mode by the other horse, and it seems as though immediately afterward, her attention was back on you.

My opinions are as follows. I think that mounting and ponying from time to time will maintain the positive experience of you being on her back.

I think that the line between riding and just being on her back MAY be when you actually take some sort of reins in your hands and control the horse on your own.

I honestly think that you will know when it's time to cross that line. If you continue ground driving, longing, and all of your other ground work, I believe that you will reach a point that she will perform consistently in all of those activities. Then will be the time to mount up and begin them from her back. However, you can begin some short activities, such as flexing, from her back while you're sitting up there, if you'd like.

So, to sum it up, I think you will know when the time comes, as sort-of a mom instinct.

spazfilly said...

Thank you both for your detailed responses. I'm starting to feel a bit more resolution about where I am with Halo. I think maybe my sudden bout of worry may not have been totally warranted, but yet I'm glad I had it, because it reminds me that I am doing my best to be a conscientious horse owner/trainer.

I think this summer is the perfect time to get her out to see some stuff. Depending on how she is, maybe it will be okay to get on for a couple minutes, and maybe not. But I'm not going to necessarily set out with a concrete plan for those scenarios. I think a lot of what is done with her at this age relies on me playing it by ear and knowing what she's ready for. Tara, you're right that it's kind of a "mom" sense. Even though I was scared, I would not have chosen to get on Halo at the cattle drive had I felt it would be anything other than a positive experience.

That's been one of the most fun parts of training Halo - figuring out how to set her up to succeed, and knowing when to push her limits a little and when to step back. It will always be a work in progress.