Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Trustworthy--Or Not?

                                                by Laura Crum

            I’ve written a lot on this blog about going trail riding with my son on our supremely trustworthy trail horses, Henry and Sunny. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to call these horses “bombproof.” And by my standards, they are. They pretty much don’t spook at much of anything, let alone buck or bolt…etc. They have consistently been good, steady, confident trail horses—for hundreds of rides in many different places, for over four years. It’s wonderful to own such horses. But there is another sort of trustworthy horse.
            This other sort of horse is much harder to describe/define, and only other horsemen are likely to recognize what I am saying. To a non-horseman, what I’m about to say will sound simply silly. But its still true. Some very flighty horses, with more than a few behavioral issues, can also be trustworthy. Take Twister, for instance.
            Twister is a middle-aged (15 years) gray QH gelding who belongs to my friend, Wally. Wally boards Twister with me, so I take care of this horse. I was also the one who convinced Wally to buy Twister, back when the horse was six. Wally uses Twister for team roping and trail riding, and Twister is light years away from what most folks would call a bombproof horse. I wouldn’t call him a bombproof horse, either. Twister is spooky, touchy, prone to pulling back, and cinchy. He’s also ampy in the box, where he does a lot of dancing around and mini-rears. He’s hyper sensitive and requires a very light hand or he freaks out. No spurs. You can’t hit him—ever. You can’t even yell at him. And this can be very aggravating when Twister is doing something you wish he wouldn’t do, like grabbing for grass, or refusing to approach the chute at the roping arena, because its “skeery.” And lots and lots of things strike Twister as scary. In short, not a bombproof horse. But, as he proved the other day, a horse worthy of our trust.
            In order to understand this story, you need to understand that most of the other ropers think Twister is a flake. They don’t ride him, so they don’t know what he “feels” like, and he does look like a flake. He humps his back when saddled and acts very “high” in the heeler’s box; he isn’t terribly well-broke (Ok, not at all well-broke), and frequently has his head right up against the tie-down. Lots of the ropers think Wally (who is 79 this summer) is crazy to ride such a horse. I know differently, but that’s because I’ve ridden him. Despite what he appears to be, Twister gives you a really good “feel” when you are on his back. You feel safe on him. And in nine years of riding/roping on Twister, Wally has never once hit the ground from Twister’s back. Or been hurt in any way. That’s a pretty good track record. And last week, Twister made it even better.
            The first I heard of it was when Wally pulled his truck and trailer into my barnyard, home from the local roping. He unloaded Twister, gave him a pat, and said to me, “This horse saved my life today.”
            Well. There’s a story here, I figured. And yep, Wally was eager to tell it.
            Apparently it had been an ordinary sort of day at the roping, when all of a sudden the unexpected happened. (I think all you horse people are familiar with this type of scenario). Wally had heeled a steer by two feet and the ropes came tight. In the same instant the tether that attaches the back cinch to the front cinch broke. And the back cinch immediately swung back and “flanked” Twister.
            For those who don’t know, flanking is how bucking horses are encouraged to buck. The flank cinch is pulled tight right around the horse’s (you guessed it) flanks. MOST horses will buck if this is done, even truly gentle horses. A good many horses will buck really, really hard. And now Twister, the goofy, ultra-sensitive, cinchy horse, had just been flanked. Wally thought his life was over. Actually the specific thought he had was “This horse is going to buck me off and my roping career will be over.” Wally knows good and well that he wouldn’t likely come back from hitting the ground hard at his age. Never mind that I would have been worried about my life being over. We’ve all got our priorities. Wally lives to rope.
            So there he was, sitting on what felt like a time bomb. Twister was shaking like a leaf in the wind, every muscle tensed and quivering, but he still hadn’t actually exploded. Wally was scared to dismount, as that action might trigger the explosion, and the moment of swinging a leg over the horse makes the rider most vulnerable. But Wally found that the trembling Twister was actually willing to take a couple of steps at his urging, and he was able to guide him with the bridle.
            Wally encouraged the horse up to another rider, who very gently steadied Twister’s head—and Wally was able to get off and loosen the back cinch, with a huge sigh of relief and a heartfelt “Thank you” to the horse. And all the other ropers grinned with him.
            It doesn’t sound like much, written down. But you horse people will understand how overwhelming the impulse would have been to buck, especially for a sensitive horse like Twister. Why didn’t he buck? How did he manage to hold it together despite being flanked, and continue to obey his rider? I think I know, but it’s obviously just a guess.
            Despite all his goofy behaviors, Twister is, at heart, a horse who means well. He wants to do what is right. This is what struck me about him when I first saw him as a six-year-old. The horse was green as grass. He had had thirty days as a four-year-old with not-very-handy ranch cowboy who didn’t care for him. As a five year old, a rope horse trainer had made a ninety-day-wonder out of him (this means teaching a horse to be a rope horse in three months—trust me, this is VERY stressful on the horse). In his whole entire life, nobody had ever thought much of him. His current owner just wanted out of him and had him priced cheap so he would sell. But I watched the horse make run after run with a tough young cowboy and I thought that green as he was, Twister was trying hard. And I turned to Wally, who was looking for a horse, and said, “Buy that gray horse.” And Wally, who liked the horse, too, made the deal that day.
            Yes, Twister was ill-broke. He had no idea how to give his head. He couldn’t lope a circle. He didn’t even know how to hold a gait. And he was high-headed, flighty, and prone to pulling back. And yet, oddly enough, both Wally and I felt safe on his back. It’s a hard thing to describe, cause its just a feeling, but if you’ve ridden enough horses, you’ll know what I mean. Twister gave you a good “feel.”
            Anyway, over the years, Wally grew to trust Twister, and Twister grew to trust Wally. Twister likes to be rubbed on, and we rub on him a lot. We don’t scare him—we tolerate his little pulling back incidents, we walk him until the hump is out of his back after we saddle him. And Twister has never once dumped, or even come close to dumping, his rider, despite covering hundreds of miles on the trail and competing every week at the rather exciting and unpredictable sport of team roping.
            What I think happened that day Twister was flanked is the horse’s deep trust in his rider caused him to resist the overwhelming urge to buck. Despite the fact that he was shaking with strain, Twister honored the partnership with Wally that he trusted in. What’s certainly true is that this very touchy, cinchy horse DID resist the urge to buck and let Wally climb off and uncinch him. I think Twister knew that it was “wrong” to buck Wally off and put all his effort into NOT bucking and tried to trust that his rider would work this very scary situation out. He continued to listen to Wally and did as he was asked to do.
            Twister honored the horse human partnership, even when he was put in a pretty much intolerable position. What more can a horse do than that? No, he’s not bombproof, and most of the other ropers are afraid to ride him, but Twister IS trustworthy. And Wally and I will honor our half of that bargain.
            Wally has told me (and he’s a man of his word) that he will retire Twister when the horse is ready for that, and keep him until he dies. And if Wally dies first his will states that Twister is mine, and I will honor that promise. Because Twister has put his trust in the right people. Just as he has come through for us, we will come through for him. And you can call me naïve if you want, but I think that horses really do sort of understand this bottom line, and a flighty little horse like Twister, who never knew a human that cared about him before Wally, has recognized at some deep level that this is a partnership worth throwing in with. And he has truly thrown in. And I honestly feel that it is partly our honorable commitment to being trustworthy for a horse that makes a horse choose to be trustworthy for us. Or am I simply daydreaming, having read “Black Beauty” once too many times? Feel free to give your own take on it.
            Wally and Twister in February of this year.


C.E. Wolfe said...

Cool story. Horses definitely have that capacity to trust their rider over their instincts, if the bond is strong. I recall a minor incident with my favorite horse of all time. He was known as a "hot" horse. We had a strong bond. I was riding him at a walk alongside an indoor arena, and then from around the corner a HUGE dump truck came speeding towards us. My horse felt as you described Twister - every muscle tensed, about to explode, can feel his heartbeat through the saddle...I thought I was about to get a flying lesson... I gave him a pat on the neck and said "It's OK" and he went "OH! PHEW!" and completely relaxed, let out his breath and stopped tensing as the dump truck went whizzing by. Paid it no further attention. It astounded me that he could go from terrified one second to relaxed the next, all because I said "it's all right" and he 100% believed me.

Anonymous said...

Oh, my gosh I have goosebumps & tears in my eyes! What a wonderful story! Good boy, Twister!

Wally, you are a stand up guy. :)


Funder said...

What a wonderful story. Isn't it breathtaking when a flighty skeery horse throws in all his trust with the humans?

AareneX said...

Through the whole description about Twister I was nodding my head and saying, "yup, yup, I know that feeling, yup."

My own Fiddle is one of those horses that people think I'm crazy to ride. When I got her, she had a very nasty attitude to people, horses, dogs, and work. 6 years later she still doesn't like dogs much ;-) But I've never felt SAFER on a horse.

Yay Twister, and yay for all the people lined up to keep him safe!

Mona Sterling said...

I love this story! And though I'm fighting the good fight on if my horse and I are right for reach other, I have a gut feeling that she is one of those horses. Sure, she's a spooky, silly Arab, but when my trainer went to get on her the other day, she flicked her long tail up at the same time as my trainer was swinging a leg over. My pony's tail got tangled up in my trainer's spur. Seeing as she's young, green broke and spooky there was a moment where my trainer thought "Uh Oh". However, my pony just held still and looked at her and waited for her to untangle the spur from her tail and get on. Bombproof? Not hardly. But trustworthy....I'm thinking she might be.

horsegenes said...

Thanks Laura. This story is just one of the reasons that I love horses so much. Just proves that they can be truly compassionate creatures with deep understanding, huge hearts, tons of try and unlimited amount of forgiveness.

Hopefully my boy Bob turns out as well as Twister.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it.

Closest moment I've had to that one was when a young TB bucked me off fair and square and I got hung up in the stirrup. I was lying there flat on my back with one foot straight up in the air, just waiting to be dragged, when I noticed all was quiet. That mare stood perfectly still until I could reach up and untie the boot to free my foot. She taught me to trust her from then on--at least on the big things :)

Horses are very cool, aren't they?


Laura Crum said...

C E Wolfe--Great story--thanks for the comment.

Anon--Yeah, its good that Wally will stand behind Twister. It would be great if EVERY good horse had an owner that would do as much.

Funder--I did think of Dixie when I mentioned skeery things.

Aarene--I definitely thought of Fiddle when I wrote this post. Based on what you've said and photos and videos you've shared, Fiddle has a few issues. But its clear you feel very safe and confident with/on her and you two have achieved a lot. A story very like Wally and Twister.

Mona--That's a great story. Hope your horse does work out for you.

kel--I thought of you and Bob, too. Maybe it will work out sort of like this for him. He seems to be showing that he wants to do right.

stilllearning. I loved your story. And I know what you mean about trusting on the big things. Twister will still drive you nuts spooking at the stripping chute--which he has approached hundreds and hundreds of times in his life (!)

And yeah, horses are very cool. I sometimes think that everybody who isn't obsessed with them is just blind.

I love the stories of others whose horses have come through for them!

Val said...

This story was so wonderful, I could scarcely hold back the tears. I do wish that every horse had someone worth trusting and I am happy for Wally and Twister and you.

My horse makes me feel safe, like he doesn't want to lose me in the tack, even for a sudden stop or movement.

I completely agree with your last sentiment. They are blind.

Laura Crum said...

Val--We horse people are the only sane ones in a crazy world. Right? (My only question would be, how come so many of "us" seem slightly, uhmm, off base? Can anybody answer that one?)

Francesca Prescott said...

That's a great story, Laura. Wally is very fortunate to have such a special horse...and of course Twister is fortunate to have such a caring owner. I love the photo of them by the sea.

I'm reading your first book and I'm really enjoying it. I particularly like it as it reminds me of the time I spent in the Bay Area, especially Santa Cruz. Great memories! I wonder if our paths ever crossed while I was there...

Laura Crum said...

They surely could have, Cesca. Though I don't recall meeting a beautiful blond European gal. I'm glad you are enjoying Cutter.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Um, Twister is bombproof in the way that it counts. My bronc Sparkle mare (teenager horse) was one such.

Yeah. Rider and horse trust is a huge issue. When you read about some of the folks who've achieved big stuff with their horses, especially in jumping events, trust is always a factor.

jenj said...

What a great story! It's so wonderful when horses and humans have that bond, even if it seems to occur between somewhat unlikely partners.

My horse Cash I trust with my life. Yeah, he was a maniac over fences, and yeah, he gets worked up (still, at 24), but he's a total gentleman, tries his heart out, and has never stopped at a fence. I know what makes him tick and I trust that if I keep him from having his brain fall out, he'll keep me safe no matter what. Those are just the best partnerships EVER, even if everyone around you thinks you're riding a nutcase.

And OK, maybe we are ALL riding nutcases, but they're OUR nutcases, and somehow it all works out.

Laura Crum said...

Joyce and jenj--It does seem really obvious in jumping events. I know nothing about eventing, but Neville Bardos seems to be a huge example of an unlikely horse who learned to trust (and be trusted) by his human--and it has really paid off for both of them.

And jenj--I couldn't agree more. My horse Gunner was like that--kind of a nutcase, but I trusted him and he trusted me. MY nutcase, as you say.

Susan said...

Because "things happen", I believe a true bomb-proof horse is not necessarily the one with the most experience or relaxed personality. It's the horse that knows it can trust its rider. In my opinion, Twister knew Wally would fix the problem.

Laura Crum said...

I agree, Susan. I think Twister trusted Wally to fix the situation--and its pretty amazing that this spooky ranch-broke (and not in the good sense) horse would be able to do that. Horses are so endlessly interesting and rewarding.

Anonymous said...

Good Twister. I agree with what Susan said. It requires building that relationship in the first place.

Laura Crum said...

redhorse--I'm pretty sure that Twister would have come seriously unglued if this had happened, say a year or two after Wally bought him. But over time this horse HAS learned to trust both me and Wally, He's very touchy/apprehensive around strangers, though.