The outdoor arena at our barn is kind of a joke. It’s not really an area at all, just a fenced off area that doubles as an isolation pen for sick/injured/special-needs horses. It’s rarely available. Today it was empty, and while the footing on one half is jagged dried mud too rough to ride on, the other half was actually in a usable state.
It was Brian’s day to ride Zoey, and we were hoping to do this outside. Yesterday the indoor arena was overheated and crowded, but we’re not so settled in with Zoey yet that we want to test her in the wide open spaces where we usually ride. So we started the day in the outdoor arena.
We brought Zoey, Laredo and Steen up to the barn, (Bear seems to have started wondering why he’s not invited anymore. He hurried up to me in the pasture today and stood there looking hurt when I didn’t put a halter on him.) groomed them all, then left Laredo and Steen in the side pen while Brian took Zoey to the arena. I went inside and stepped into the stall of a young horse named Dallas.
Dallas is two years old, and he belongs to our barn owner’s daughter. He has an unfortunate need to chew off other horses’ tails. Coming out to find their horses with an unplanned, ragged bob-cut doesn’t sit well with most horse owners, so Dallas spends a lot of time in isolation. His owner has also been extra busy lately. The combination of being alone and being handled only around meal times has started to give young Dallas some notions that are making life difficult for the barn staff. A week or two ago our barn owner asked me to work with him a little, before the new habits could get too out of hand.
I worked with Dallas once before, a few days before we got Zoey, but we didn’t do a whole lot. Since then our barn trips have been full, and he keeps getting bumped off my to-do list. Today, though, I needed to start fulfilling my promise in earnest. I haltered Dallas and our lessons began.
Dallas is young and inexperienced, so my intention was to be patient and gentle with him. Then he charged over me trying to hurry out a gate that was in front of us, and I had to firm up a good bit to avoid being trampled. Dallas did not appreciate my firming up, and let me know with some pops up onto his hind end and some more attempts to charge into my space. I was glad I had both the flag and a popper on the end of my lead rope. I had to use them both to get him to back off.
We spent the next 20 minutes or so defining the boundaries of my personal bubble. Dallas is a Quarter Horse, and quiet by nature. In his case this seems to mean he doesn’t pick up on the subtler warnings I give him if he’s starting to transgress. Then when I up the pressure because I’ve run out of space and time to let him find the answer, he has a total meltdown. When he’s having a meltdown, he’s borderline aggressive. Once he even attempted to line his haunch up with me and kicked out.
Fortunately for me, I have a lot more practice handling difficult horses than Dallas has bulldogging over people. Other than the initial surprising moment, he never got the upper hand. More than anything, I wanted to be fair to him. When I have to be hard on a horse, I work hard to keep my emotions neutral Particularly when you feel like your safety has been threatened, this can be a challenge. I am always trying to remind myself to search for the moment I can stop being hard. With Dallas, I had to send him back and forth on the rope a lot, whacking his inside shoulder with the flag to keep him from diving into me, and stopping him with a pull on the rope if he tried to take his nose away and put me in line with his haunches. It took probably five minutes of high-energy driving and blocking for me to establish my authority. From there things went a lot better. He was still prone to trying to crowd, but I was able to keep him much further away from me and correct him with less drama before he was anywhere near my actual bubble. He started to understand that the raised flag and a step forward from me meant he needed to back off pronto.
After about twenty minutes, he was a different horse. He’d back off one finger’s worth of light pressure on the halter, he’d step the front one way or the other when I pointed. He would walk in a quiet, bent circle around me when I asked him to, and stand with his head down and let me pet his face.
You can tell he’s young, and his pseudo-aggressive habits are also young. He has these huge reactions and opinions, but when things go south on him he’s quite willing to cede authority. Hopefully some of what we learned today will stick, and next time we can start in a place that feels better for both of us. I do feel bad for horses who don’t have the chance to learn about respect and hierarchy in a natural herd environment. I think it makes their lives a lot more difficult and stressful in the long run.
It was a relief to go get Steen. By the time I got to the outdoor arena, Brian was done with groundwork and about to get on Zoey. I sat around on Steen, working on small foot-control exercises while they had their ride. Things went pretty well for them. Then Brian swapped Zoey for Laredo and we went out into the tree pasture.
We hadn’t ridden in the trees since last fall, and it was good to be back out there. Steen was quiet and happy, and just amazing, really. We walked, trotted, and loped all around, and Steen never got upset, never got antsy, never spooked or shied or even looked askance at anything. He didn’t care where Brian and Laredo were, didn’t care where the barn was. He didn’t care about the fertilizer-spraying quad that was zooming around the pasture while he rode. He was rock solid, and our ride was a total blast. I’ve always wanted to lope patterns through the trees out there, but we’ve never quite gotten to that level of control before. Today, we did tons of it. I worked both on switching leads to go around different trees and holding Steen in a shallow counter-canter. This isn’t that easy for him, but he was game to try, and did well. We walked figure-eights around trees with the reins looped over the saddle horn and my arms crossed on my chest, worked on collected movement at the walk and the trot, and practiced canter departures from a standstill.
We stayed out for quite a while, enjoying the sun and the breeze and the big shadows of the trees.
Ride Time: 2:05
Horseback Hours YTD: 62:05