by Laura Crum
I brag all the time here about my steady little trail horse, Sunny, and how reliable he is. And this is quite true. But Sunny is only human-- uhmm, I guess that would be equine. He has good days and bad days, as we all do. I think you horse people will understand that a chilly mid-winter day after two weeks off is likely to result in a bad day, yes?
Last week Sunny had a couple of “bad” days. I couldn’t really blame him. And his bad is quite manageable. But I thought it might be interesting to discuss how various folks deal with this sort of thing. So here’s the story.
My oldest horse, Gunner, got cast a week before Xmas, and needed a lot of attention. And all the next week it stormed like crazy. So no horses got ridden for almost two weeks. Right around New Year’s we started riding again, mostly little rides in our riding ring, as it was muddy and slick almost everywhere. Quite slick. As I was leading Sunny up to the riding ring one day, I slipped and fell down right in front of him. Predictably Sunny threw up his head and trotted off to the nearest clump of grass. But…as I sat there on the ground, unharmed, but a bit chagrined, watching him leave, Sunny (once he was a good twenty feet away) kicked both hind feet out in my general direction.
Sunny had no intention of kicking me. There must have been at least twelve-fifteen feet between his hooves and my body. It was a gesture of defiance, a thumbing of his nose at me. I can read Sunny perfectly, and I knew what he was saying.
You see, I handle Sunny a bit differently than my other horses, and there is a reason for this. Sunny is a horse who is always wondering if he can dominate his human. I’m not sure how he got like this—I do know he showed this behavior with his previous owners. Unlike every other horse on my place, Sunny will offer to kick, bite, step on my foot, push through me on the leadrope…etc. Or at least he would do these things when I first got him. None of my other horses would ever consider, under any circumstances, making an aggressive gesture at a human. But Sunny will. Thus, I handle him differently.
Sunny is not a dangerous horse. I do not believe he has any intention of hurting anyone. He just wants to see if he can be the boss. And if his human does not firmly reprimand him and let him know that he will NOT be the boss, his behavior escalates.
When I bought Sunny, the first time I went out to catch him he turned his butt to me and made a (quite token) kicking gesture in my direction. I stepped to one side, walloped him as hard as I could with the leadrope, and drove him around his pen until he faced me and stood still to be caught. It took a couple of repeats, but after that Sunny politely faced me to be caught. For many years now, in fact, he meets me at the gate. But there were many other areas in which Sunny needed a similar correction.
I’ve blogged about this before, so won’t go on about it further. Suffice it to say that though Sunny’s behavior is polite and respectful these days, and he often nuzzles me quite fondly, I know perfectly well that he’s always aware of whether I am assuming the correct dominant role. And I am careful to do so. And we do fine.
Now I could have fallen down while leading any of my other horses, and though they might have spooked and run away, NONE of them would have kicked in my general direction. This was Sunny saying to me, “Ha. You just put yourself in a one-down, vulnerable position. Now I can dominate.”
And sure enough, when I went to catch him he kept swinging his butt toward me, which he hasn’t done in years. Sunny doesn’t miss a trick.
So I caught him and walloped him a little, and he made mouthing motions and OK then. I climbed aboard and we had a nice ride. And the next day I decided to go ride on the beach.
It was a gray, unsettled day and a storm was blowing in, but we had a favorable low tide at the right time, and it was a day that I COULD do it schedule-wise, and my son wanted to go, so off we went. (I’ll bet you can guess where this is going.) When we got there the horses were very alert and looky (for them), but they are reliable horses and we headed out confidently. Here’s what it looked like on the beach. Pretty stormy.
We were bundled up and the horses were just plain up.
My son and Henry and a big, empty beach. Ours were the only footprints.
My son’s horse has a very smooth trot (you can sit his long trot with ease) and a rough lope, so my kid likes to trot. He’ll trot for miles. Henry can trot as fast as most horses lope and Henry infinitely prefers to trot rather than lope. So my kid and his horse love to long trot down the beach. Sunny has an equally rough trot and lope—though neither are really terrible, just a little rough. So I don’t much care whether we trot or lope. Anyway, we let our fresh horses trot along. They blew and snorted and looked at stuff, but overall they behaved themselves. We rode for an hour or so, alternating walking and trotting and a little loping. Then we turned around to ride back.
Sunny has always had an issue with this. I don’t know if his previous owners walked him down the beach and then turned him around and galloped back or what. But on every beach ride, when we turn around to go back, I can feel Sunny get “up”. On a good day, its just a feeling in his body, which resolves in a long swinging walk, what my son and I call his “power walk.” But on a less than good day, it tends to result in a bunch of little hoppy bucks, as Sunny indicates he’d like to bolt now.
I’ve dealt with this in various ways. Mostly I ignore it and just bump lightly him with the bit to remind him he’s under control. Sometimes, once he’s under control, I let him trot or lope until he’s happy to walk. Occasionally I make him march through the deep sand (this is very effective). Once in awhile, when he’s particularly obnoxious, I reprimand him a little. This day Sunny was very persistent with his hopping and scooting. But hey, it was cold, he hadn’t been ridden much lately, and we’d had a little argument the day before.
My son thought it was hilarious. He kept his distance, aware of wanting to be away from Sunny’s feet as the horse kicked up, but he was laughing the whole time. “Let’s trot, and see if he bucks,” he suggested with a grin.
“Ok,” I said, “but let’s hope he doesn’t buck me off.”
In truth, I don’t think Sunny can/will buck hard enough to buck me off. And the long trot is a good gait for a horse that wants to buck. So off we went down the beach, with Sunny mostly trotting, but throwing in a little hop/skip every once in awhile. My son was having blast. Me, well, it was annoying but not threatening. I just put up with it.
To tell you the truth, my main emotion was gratitude. I am so grateful to own/ride a horse whose bad days are so easy for me to deal with. I seriously don’t want to get hurt at this point in my life—it’s my number one priority when I interact with the horses. I don’t want to ride any horse that might freak out and panic, or genuinely try to get me off. Not interested in that at all. But Sunny’s little shenanigans are pretty benign. He remains level-headed and responsive to my cues even while he farts around.
Eventually Sunny got tired enough to line out, and both horses were willing/happy to walk. We finished the ride relaxed, the horses having had just the right amount of exercise—people, too. So even though my horse was “bad,” we had a good day.
And this is my question. How do you other horse people deal with a good horse who is being “bad?” I’d love to get your insights.
Also, a big thank you to all of you who made our “free” promotion of my mystery novel, Slickrock, last week such a huge success. If any of you have time to post a review of the book on Amazon or Goodreads, I’d be very grateful. Thank you!