Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On the Beach

by Laura Crum

The above photos show my son riding down the beach on his horse, Henry, along with our friend/boarder, Wally, on his horse, Twister. I’m not exactly in the photos because I was taking pictures from Sunny’s back (see the tip of his ear in the lower left of the first photo). The photos were taken last Friday, when we hauled our horses to the beach. We had, all in all, a lovely ride. The weather was in the 60’s, it was low tide (so much firm sand to ride on), and we watched great “rafts” of sea lions floating out beyond the surf break. We even saw a sea lion surfing. We rode down the beach for half an hour, headed in the direction of Monterey, and saw maybe half a dozen people the whole time. The horses were quiet and relaxed, even though they’ve only been ridden two or three times in the last month, due to bad weather. We mostly walked, did a little trotting and loping. I did not want to stress the horses after so much time off, and I have known many horses that have injured tendons in the beach sand. Both our horses cracked a light sweat: neither was really tired. So far, so good.

Then we turned around to come home. Now I have written quite a bit about my little “bombproof” trail horse, Sunny. And, apart from his steady, calm confidence outside, the other thing I have discussed is his need to play little dominance games. This trait has improved over the three years I’ve owned him, and Sunny rarely “tries” me any more. But on this day, after almost a month off, feeling good, on the beach, Sunny decided to test me a little.

Sunny’s “testing”, when I am on his back, usually takes the form of a certain signature move. I have a hard time describing this move, perhaps some of you may be able to tell me what the horse is actually doing. I have never been sure. I would call it a crowhop, except that his head, which is normally carried very low, comes up when he makes his move. He jumps forward, as if he were attempting to bolt, but at the same time, he hops his back end up in the air. The end result is as if your horse had just turned into a pogo stick. He bounces. Normally Sunny does this once, and then perhaps skitters a little, expecting my reprimand.

On Friday, however, as we turned around to head back down the beach, I had my camera held up to my face, trying to get another photo of my son. So my ability to correct Sunny was about nil. Sunny’s “crowhop” caught me by surprise, and for a few seconds my focus was not on the horse, but rather on getting my camera stuffed back in my pocket so I didn’t drop it. During the time it took me to accomplish this, Sunny essayed a few more hops.

By my reaction, you can judge that Sunny’s hops are not particularly unsettling, and, indeed, when my camera was back in my pocket, I addressed my bouncing horse with more annoyance than concern. “Knock it off, you little jackass,” I told him.

Sunny skittered sideways, expecting a reprimand. He knows quite well that he’s not supposed to behave this way. I gave him a good solid one rein jerk and he stopped bouncing. But he bowed his neck up and jigged.

Sunny is not a jigger, in general, but lets face it, he was feeling pretty good. I would love to have sent him back down the beach at the lope until he was really tired, but I did not want to hurt him. Also, we were supposed to get back at a certain time. So, I simply made Sunny travel through the deep sand. It took all of one minute for him to quit jigging and return to the walk. Way too much work to jig in deep sand. Sunny is not a stupid horse. Nor was he remotely upset or anxious. And we proceeded the rest of the way back down the beach in a long walk on a loose rein (on the hard packed sand), both of us relaxed and enjoying the scenery.

Henry, by the way, behaved perfectly the whole trip. All horses should be like Henry.

Anyway, I was patting myself on the back, thinking I had handled Sunny’s minor tantrum quite adroitly, when, just as we struck the trail through the dunes back to the parking lot, he spooked suddenly at a man sitting on a log. Nothing scary about the guy, particularly.

Now, Sunny does not spook often. In the whole three years I’ve owned him, he has spooked maybe half a dozen times. But when he does spook, it’s a pretty sudden, hard move. I had no trouble staying with him, but to tell the truth, it made me mad. I had the pretty clear conviction that the horse was not scared, just testing me again. When he made as if to dash away from the scary man, I gave him another good solid one rein reprimand. And he immediately dropped the “scared” behavior and marched on by.

In retrospect, I wonder if I should have punished the horse for spooking. Its not something I would normally do. However Sunny has a history of throwing in a bit of “testing” behavior right at the end of a ride. He also has a history of needing me to reprimand him, and prove I’m the alpha every so often. In the three years I’ve owned him, his behavior has gotten better and better overall, and about the only thing I have done is get after him when he tries something.

I don’t pick on Sunny; I don’t train on him. I’m not trying to teach him anything. I treat him kindly, and the “work” I have for him is both not stressful, and mostly to his taste. He knows how to do his job, and usually does it very well. I accept the fact that for some reason he needs me to beat him up a little from time to time and prove I’m boss. And that seems to make him happy, oddly enough. He has gone from being standoffish and hard to catch when I first bought him to meeting me at the gate and sticking his head in the halter these days.

For the record, I would never reprimand my sensitive, anxious horse, Plumber, the way I do Sunny. My responses to Sunny are geared to him and what he seems to need. I have written several blog posts on this subject, so won’t belabor it here.

In any case, we marched the rest of the way back to the trailer calmly, and both horses were their usual well-behaved selves for unsaddling and loading and hauling. I drove home grateful to have had one more pleasant, drama free ride with my son. My kid and I agreed that Henry was the best horse ever.

So here’s my question. I’m not particularly annoyed with my little yellow mule for his behavior, given he’d had a month off. It didn’t threaten me at all. I see it as testing behavior, and that he was looking for a reprimand, in order to feel that I was in charge. But I’m curious. Many of you are more accomplished horsemen than me. How would you have handled this behavior? More reprimands? No reprimands? Different reprimands? I’m curious. Do others of you have a good solid horse that likes to test you at times, and how do you handle this?


Anonymous said...

It certainly doesn't sound like you are doing him any harm, and you know him better than anyone else.

I generally don't reprimand - my only exceptions are when a horse is looking like it might be going to get out of control on the lead - and in that case a sharp snap on the halter isn't really a reprimand but rather a demand for the horse to put its attention back on me - and if a horse threatens to bite or kick.

Maybe his crow-hop thing when you were working on your camera was a demand for you to put your attention back on him - even if it meant a reprimand? I do do something when such things happen - but usually it's just to keep on riding, and perhaps to refocus the horse's attention by asking for something - like a circle, backing (again not as a punishment), serpentines in the case of jigging. Sounds like he may just have been fresh and feeling like some fun, in the case of both the spook and the pogo-stick stuff. Redirecting the energy and just keeping on riding usually work for me - by asking for something else you're communicating that you don't want that, you want this.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I agree with you that normally I wouldn't reprimand for spooking, for instance. Not even Sunny. I do reprimand Sunny for the "pogo stick" behavior, because its very defiant--you can feel it in his body. Since I ride Sunny in a mechanical hackamore, and the reins are on minimal contact at virtually all times, my occasional one rein jerk reprimands are much as if I've given the horse a sharp pop with the leadrope--and have run a stud chain under the chin. They are meant to be both a reprimand and an attention getter. As I've mentioned before, this horse requirers reprimands on the ground, too. He likes to test you. Interestingly, when I turned him in with Henry for awhile, he continued to test the obviously dominant Henry in just the same fashion--provoking Henry until Henry "beat him up". For some reason, Sunny needs to test and be dominated to feel happy. Sounds kind of weird, I know, and not a very healthy relationship (if you're a person, anyway).

Minus Pride said...

My horse sounds a lot like Sunny... that is she does little bad, but not malicious things like Sunny does, when I'm not giving her my complete attention.
I am not an accomplished or well versed horseperson but I deal with it the same way you describe.
Just wanted to let you know that you're not alone! lol
And if you find a way to get Sunny to knock it off, please share!!

Laura Crum said...

Minus Pride--Sunny has gotten much better about this over the three years I've owned him, but, as the post shows, he does revert to this testing behavior from time to time. My experience is that the more I reprimand him (as long as I'm fair) the better he is. But since I don't enjoy reprimanding him, I will sometimes let little things slide, and then he will test me in a quite obvious way--as if he's making sure I'm still in charge. I guess I think if I were stricter with him at all moments, he'd hardly ever show his testing behavior--but I haven't got it in me to be that strict. It would take a lot of the fun out of having horses, for me.

Funder said...

My first thought is that he knows what your usual level of response to the first hop would be - to lope him away from home and make him work. You didn't do that, for your inexplicable human reasons, so he wasn't quite satisfied til he'd tried one more stunt.

This is so hard to talk about without slipping into anthropomorphism, which I really try hard not to do. Horses aren't "acting bad" because they "want to get in trouble," but some of them (like Sunny) most definitely do things in the hopes that you'll remind them of their place in the herd.

To answer your question: I probably wouldn't have done anything differently, except to be on guard for a second hop or spook because Sunny might want more "you're the boss, lady" reassurance.

Is Sunny ever awful when you're out riding or playing with him because you're feeling blue? My Champ was so much like him, but when I had a rough day and just wanted to hug his neck and cry, he'd never push me. He was a rock when I was blue.

Laura Crum said...

Funder--Thanks for the comment. I always enjoy your insights. I totally agree with you that Sunny "misbehaved" a little more because I didn't respond much to his first hop (being too busy trying to save my camera--there is a very funny photo of my sweatshirt that I took inadvertently as Sunny was hopping around and I was trying to get the camera back in my pocket). I think Sunny just needed me to demonstrate my herd leader status a bit more, as you say.

As for when I'm in a down mood--you know, I can't really say I've noticed anything around this. Sunny is never "awful" by my lights. Awful for me would be if Sunny got truly upset or panicky or defiantly wanted to dump me. He has never done anything worse than this little testing behavior--he is always calm, and he actually wants me to stay in charge. On our last trail ride, faced with a bridge he thought looked scary, he balked and backed up, but he did not panic and dance around and threaten to end up off the bank. He stayed perfectly calm. The bridge was slippery and I did not want to force him and risk a scramble and a slip (and a possible fall), so I let my friend give us a lead over it. No big deal. And I remember thinking, thank God that even when this horse is misbehaving, he stays calm and keeps us both safe.

I guess I feel Sunny is a rock for me because of this. He never "misbehaves" in a way I find threatening, though I can certainly find it annoying. Perhaps we deserve each other. In any case, I'm very fond of him.

kel said...

Up until recently I have never owned a horse that needed to be constantly reminded of their place in the pecking order. My paint horse is always looking to please, he never tests his boundaries and is happiest when you are happy with him. He is a pleaser. If he spooks it is because something has genuinely freightened him. I would never reprimand him for spooking. My little mare Lily on the other hand is a tester. Daily. At first when I started riding her, she would try things and I would let them go thinking that she had worked hard during the ride and that one little exception should be ignored or forgiven. Then the one little exception became bigger and more often. It would range from not wanting to lead, to spooking repeatedly at a shadow on the ground. I came to the conclusion that she needed to have boundaries set for her. She feels more secure knowing that I am the boss and that it is my job to take care of her. Kind of like some children needs boundaries. It isn't necessarily a reprimand as much as them asking "do you care enough about me to set limits for me, are you focused on me, are you going to be there for me". Maybe I am reaching here. With this little mare, I quit making excuses for her and I fix whatever it is that she is testing immediately. I don't just go to beating on her, I try to make it uncomfortable for her to test me. Just like you did and do with Sunny. If she spooks at a shadow on the ground once, fine. If she spooks at a shadow twice, we stop and do roll backs on top of the shadow. It isn't a reprimand it is "calling her bluff". She isn't genuinely freightened, she is just testing me, I make her test more work for her. It is all part of being a horsemen. Knowing each horse is different and riding the one you are on.

Susan said...

One of my horses has physical issues. When he was in pain and I asked for a lope, instead of the nice departure he was capable of, he would hollow his back, throw his throw in the air and kick out. His ears would be pinned and I finally realized he was in pain and not misbehaving. He would literally bounce me out of the saddle. I never went off, but I know there was air between me and the saddle as I struggled to stay on.

I guess the first thing I would do is rule out pain if a reliable horse acts uncharacteristically (what a word).

Laura Crum said...

kel, Yes, Sunny is a very different personality from my other horses. I never had one that demanded continual reprimands or boundary setting before. However, he seems to thrive on this.

Susan, Yes, I did consider whether something was hurting Sunny, but I see no signs of this. He tests in numerous ways, not just under a certain specific circumstance and it truly appears to be testing for dominance. I can find no signs of pain. And this testing behavior is, it turns out, is very characteristic of Sunny. He is a steady horse that likes to test you ocasionally to be sure you're still the boss. I think it makes him feel safe, as kel says. Every time I think he's given up on the testing behavior, he proves me wrong.

C in WI said...

Perhaps Sunny was acting differently because it wasn't the normal trail ride in the mountains, and he was paying more attention to his newer surroundings and listening less to you?

My husband's horse TWH Casey does that pogo stick hop with me every now and then. Especially if a group of horses I'm riding with are ahead of him and start to canter. I call it his "barrell racing" move, like when barrell racers are about to start their run and their horses are pogo sticking in place. I think the horse is impatient and ready to get going (and somewhat wanting to be in charge). I just pull Casey in and make him canter normally, and we're usually okay. That's my experience with it, anyway. Good luck.

Laura Crum said...

C in WI--Thanks for your comment. Sunny throws his pogo stick hop in on trail rides through the hills, too--very occasionally. Usually near the end of the ride. I agree with you that it signals impatience and a wish to be in charge. That's why I regard it as part of his testing for dominance behaviors. He is requiring that I demonstrate my boss mare status. However, its never really a problem, as I pointed out in the post and comments that follow. Its more of a nuisance thing.

Alison said...

Laura--you got plenty of discussion on Sunny so I just wanted to cry Wah Wah that I don't have a beach to ride on! Too assume.

Laura Crum said...

Alison--I posted the photos cause I just can never really believe how lucky I am to have such a place to ride. Its so lovely on a sunny winter day--thought I'd try to share it a little bit. Wish you all could ride there, too.