by Laura Crum
I haven’t been doing much riding lately. Make that ANY riding. Its been raining a lot and everything is wet. Mud in my corrals, a mucky spot at one end of my riding ring, the trails are too wet to ride. I’m not complaining. We have the occasional dry winter out here on the central coast of California and then I ride a lot, but most winters we go through a few multi-week periods of rain, and the horses and I take a break. It doesn’t do us any harm. I get my horses out to graze almost every day, and because I don’t want them tearing up the softer, damper places on the property, I handgraze them, keeping them on the dryer ground. This takes more time than turning them loose, but I like it because it keeps me interacting with the horses. Which is how I learned something new.
I have written a lot about how much I enjoy my two quiet, bombproof geldings, Henry and Sunny, when my son and I ride them on the trail. But here’s something else I found out—a quiet mind is good for other things. Its very relaxing to be around.
This seems self evident, but, in fact, I never thought about it before. A quiet minded horse is different from a gentle horse. My horse Plumber, who will be 22 this spring, is a gentle horse. I’ve owned him since he was three, I broke and trained him, and I rode with my son in front of me on Plumber when my little boy was 3-5 years old. I’ve ridden Plumber through the mountains and team roped on him. And Plumber has been living in his big corral on my property for nineteen years. That’s how well I know Plumber. I’ve never come off of Plumber and neither has anyone else. Plumber is a truly gentle horse… but he doesn’t have a quiet mind.
What do I mean by this? It’s a little hard for me to explain, so perhaps I’ll just tell you how I came to this conclusion. In the course of handgrazing Henry, Sunny, and Plumber these last couple of weeks, I made an odd discovery. Handgrazing Henry and Sunny is very relaxing. My two calm, bombproof horses come quietly out of their pens, even though it is a couple of weeks and more since they’ve been ridden, they march steadily alongside me to the spot where I’ve chosen to graze them, and, at my signal, they put their heads down and graze. I watch them crop grass happily and I daydream, or stroke their shoulders or watch the breeze in the leaves or the quail pecking in the brush. Very pleasant. I’m aware enough to cope easily if something came up that I had to deal with, but it almost never does. A branch falls, the dog comes rushing out of a bush, someone slams the door at the nearby house—these horses may look up and prick their ears in an alert, interested way—that’s it. We’re all relaxed.
Then I get Plumber out. Now I trust Plumber not to hurt me—step on me, kick me, whatever—much more than I trust Sunny, who likes to play dominance games. So this is not a matter of being gentle and trustworthy. But Plumber is not “quiet minded”. He never was. A playful, curious, interactive horse, Plumber tries hard to please, is always a little anxious, and is very sensitive and reactive. He was an easy horse to train, but even as an older horse, he spooks at little things and is just, well, not quiet.
So, I get Plumber out of his pen and he half prances alongside of me. He is totally under control, just full of energy. When I signal him to graze, he starts here, then moves over there, then wants to walk over here. If I touch his shoulder he starts. If the wind blows in the trees, he starts. If the dog comes charging through, he spooks. Not on top of me, mind you—he has better manners than that, but he spooks. And this goes on the whole time I graze him.
Plumber has always been like this. When I would handgraze him as a reward after a good workout as a four-year-old, he would act like this. For many years I was so used to it that it didn’t even register. But, suddenly, the other day, it struck me how much more relaxing it was for me to graze Henry and Sunny and how much I enjoy this trait of quiet-mindedness.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Plumber and I will take care of him until the day he dies. But I was able to acknowledge to myself that these days I prefer a quiet-minded horse. It is not that I’m afaid that Plumber will hurt me. It would take a pretty difficult horse to threaten me while I was leading/grazing him, and Plumber never threatened me in his whole life, during the many years I rode him. No, its more subtle than that. I can’t relax with Plumber in the same way I do Henry and Sunny. Its like sitting by someone who is restlessly tapping their fingers and toes and chewing their nails, constantly fidgeting, always looking around to see what’s going on. Its hard to relax in their prescence.
As I say, Plumber was always like this. He didn’t like to stand still while you were on him, and would fidget, chewing the bit. And yet he was an obedient, hard trying little horse, despite his spooking and fidgeting. During the years I rode him, I accepted his minor anxieties and just lived with them. We were good partners. So it almost suprises me that after three years of handling/riding mostly Henry and Sunny, how attuned I’ve become to these two horses calm, confident, relaxed way of being. Now Plumber’s reactive, anxious energy, however well intentioned, somewhat gets on my nerves, makes me feel jangled.
I’m not sure how Plumber got this way. It could be something in how I trained him. Yet I’ve known him since he was born, and he was always an inquisitive, active, sensitive colt. I’m inclined to think its his basic nature. On the other hand, I didn’t know Sunny and Henry as colts, nor did I watch their training, so I don’t know if it was something in their nature or in their training which disposed them to be such calm, self-confident horses. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.
Its been an interesting thing for me to learn. First to notice that Plumber’s energy is unsettling in comparison to Sunny and Henry, and second to notice how much I like these quiet-minded horses. Their confidence in themselves leaves me feeling free—I never noticed before how much of my own energy was always bound up in being attentive and reassuring to my horse—I guess this is a legacy from all those years when I trained young horses. To ride a solid minded horse (or handle him) is very freeing. You can trust him to take care of himself for the most part.
Sunny and Henry are not deadheads. They run and buck and play in their large corrals as much as Plumber does. But their underlying nature is different. They are essentially quiet, calm, little horses who know their way around and are not afraid of much. Both were performers at team roping, which demands a lot of a horse, so they know how to exert themselves when its asked of them. What they are is solid-minded, confident horses—and for me, these days, this is a trait to be prized. Not just because they keep me (and my son) safe, but because they give me, in turn, a quiet mind.
I don’t think this idea even existed on my radar when I was younger. I chose my horses because I thought they might do well at whatever event I was pursuing at the moment, and because I was drawn to them. I tried to choose willing individuals that I could work with. Sometimes I succeeded in picking a horse that really suited me, and sometimes I didn’t. But the concept of looking for a quiet-minded horse because such a horse was conducive to tranquility in one’s own mind—this concept didn’t exist for me. I would not, I think, have distinguished between a gentle horse and a truly quiet minded horse, nor between a quiet minded horse and one that was simply dull. I just never thought about it.
Today one of my greatest pleasures is hanging out with my horses, whether its hand grazing them, or sitting in my chair in the barnyard, watching them munch hay, or sitting on the porch as they ramble around my property, grazing in the sunshine. And this hanging out is most peaceful and rewarding to me when I’m in the company of a quiet minded horse. Not to mention that quiet mind is very helpful when we’re on a trail ride.
So today I’m curious if there are traits that you prize in horses now that you either didn’t care about or weren’t much aware of when you were newer to horses. For me, it’s a quiet mind; anything special that you value?
And Happy New Year to all—may 2011 bring you much joy.