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?