It hasn’t been the greatest stretch as far as me getting to the barn goes. Last Wednesday Jesse and I went out again, but it was pouring down rain, Steen was really wet and really muddy, and the (new and scary) sound of the downpour on the aluminum roof of the indoor arena had him a little worked up – so all we did was groundwork.
After that we got more rain, and then went to Chicago for the weekend, then I caught a cold and so didn’t manage to return to the barn until yesterday.
Immediately upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by three things. First, the outdoor arena was dry enough to ride in. Second, once I reached the mud-lot (the horses are now confined away from the nice pastures for the winter so we can have good grass again in the spring), I saw that Steen had a place around one of the big round-bale feeders, and was calmly eating among eight or so other horses. This made me happy because Steen is a bit of a lone wolf in the herd, often off to the side or down a slope from everybody else. While I have never seen any evidence indicating this is due to anything other than personal choice on his part, I have worried a little that he will be moved off the food in the winter, when he doesn’t have a whole pasture to graze. Yesterday, however, when I saw him eating among Shadow, Lightfoot and Star (the three heavy hitters in the herd), I knew I don’t have to worry anymore.
Finally, the third pleasant surprise – as Steen left the food and turned to come to me I saw his face was clean and his eye has stopped draining goobers. This was also a relief, as I had suffered some bad horse-owner pangs, envisioning on my drive out the entire left side of his face crusted in goo because I hadn’t been there to clean it, or pursue a treatment. But I needn’t have worried. He looked great.
Oh, except he was completely covered in mud.
Due to the mud, I decided to alter my routine a bit. I knew it was going to take me a long time to groom my filthy steed, and I also knew he hadn’t gotten any fresh grass in quite a while. So, I took Steen to the outdoor arena and let him graze while I curried the caked mud out of his coat. This went quite well. He made no attempt to move off from me, and in fact was often eating the grass practically out from under my boots. I found this rather endearing. Add all this to the lovely fall day (in the high 60’s!) and the general sense of well-being I always get hanging out with my horse, I quickly felt more relaxed than I had in quite some time.
But the wonders didn’t stop there. I finally got Steen clean and took him inside to tack him up. I worried briefly that he would not want to stand nicely, since I’d already been kind of lenient in letting him graze before working. He wasn’t restless at all though, and even stood quietly when Teri passed in the aisle, twice, on the tractor pulling the manure spreader. I only had Steen clipped to one cross-tie, (I always clip him to only one so that he learns to stand politely even when he’s not forced to do so by a rope to either side of the head) and the tractor went by less than two feet from his face. He did arch his neck and snort, but I didn’t have to hold him still and he even stretched his head forward as the noisy contraption passed to get a better look at it. Teri stopped and petted him as she went by, and all in all Steen seemed more curious than nervous. Unbelievable!
After that, I tacked Steen up, took him outside, and started the groundwork. But he was so good he’d executed everything we know, perfectly, in about five minutes (including better flexion of the neck than he’s ever given me before). So, I hopped on for a ride.
And what a ride. He’s still not all that great about staying on the rail, but responded to my corrections without getting huffy about it. He stood nicely whenever I asked him to. His trot was immediately slow and smooth and he even went around carrying his head nice and low for long periods of time, instead of his usual intermittent relax and droop, see something interesting and come back up, habit. He also stopped better than I ever recall him doing before. He’d halt immediately on his hindquarters either in response to a verbal command or a light touch on the rein. Usually, he’s good at dropping the trot, but not so good at actually holding still until I am a little more explicit.
So, all in all, it was an incredible ride. I kept wondering if the heat was making him lethargic, but I don’t think that was it because he was still very alert, and paying attention to his surroundings – just not reacting to them like he usually does. Perhaps it is true, as my current favorite expert on horse behavior suggests, that equines are masters of latent learning, and a solid week off helped Steen make noticeable progress. Or maybe he was just made docile by the grass he ate before I rode. Time will tell, I suppose.