Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When a Bombproof Horse Has a Meltdown

                                    by Laura Crum

            You all know how I am always bragging about my son’s bombproof horse, Henry? Well, the other day Henry had a meltdown, and it was very instructive. So today I’m going to tell you a few things I learned from this. I can’t say that I didn’t know them already, but I got, shall we say, reminded of them.
            First off, there’s never been a time when I talked about our bombproof trail horses that somebody didn’t chime in about how no horse is bombproof. This is, of course, true. Any horse can get stung by a bee and pitch a fit. Realistically, most any horse is going to react if, say, an actual bomb went off nearby. So that’s a given.
            What I mean by bombproof is a horse that is reliably steady and solid-minded, a horse that faces the unexpected scary thing with a minimum of fuss. A safe horse. And Henry is that. He has carried my son for five years on hundreds of trail rides and gathers and has never hurt or scared my kid. But the other day Henry kind of had a meltdown.
            Ok, a mini-meltdown. Here’s how it went.
            We’d gone out to gather the cattle on a cool, foggy morning. There were four of us. Myself and my son, our young cowboy/ horse trainer friend, Mark, and Bert, an 80 year old cowboy. Bert brought his cow dogs along. The cattle were in the lower field and we had to ride down a steep hill to get there. Just as Henry was on the steepest part of the hill, one of Bert’s dogs burst out of the brush behind the horse and literally ran underneath him. It startled Henry and he jumped forward, at which point his feet slipped in the loose oak leaves that are deep on the ground here and he scrambled a little. I heard my son yell (I was in front) and turned around to see Henry just regaining his balance. Henry didn’t fall, didn’t really come close to it, but both he and my son were obviously a bit rattled. Still, Henry walked off as normal, and we set about gathering the cattle out of the lower field.
            There were some fresh cattle that had been recently added to the herd and the whole group was pretty skittery. Bert’s cowdogs were enthusiastic. Those of you who have done this sort of work will know where this is going. We ended loping here and there to get the cattle boxed in the end of the field, and, eventually, through the gate to the upper field. I wasn’t watching my son, as I was trying to herd skittery cattle and I knew my kid knew where to be. Imagine my surprise as I turned to look back after the last flighty steer ran through the gate. My son was struggling with Henry, who was prancing and dancing sideways against the bridle. Mark looked, too. “Somebody feels good,” he said.
            My kid wasn’t scared; he looked more puzzled. “What is going on with him?” he asked me. “He won’t behave.”
            I was puzzled as well. This was unlike Henry. He appeared jacked up, as if he really wanted to go crashing through the gate after the cattle. He was dancing and prancing sideways with his head in the air and his tail up. My son couldn’t ride him through the very narrow (four foot) gate because of all the sideways prancing.
I told Mark to go ahead with the cattle and parked the fortunately quite calm Sunny next to Henry. “Let’s just sit here a moment and see if Henry calms down,” I said.
But Henry was agitated, bowing up his neck and pawing the ground with impatience. Sunny stood quietly. I tried to exude calm. My son still wasn’t scared, but he WAS anxious.
“What do I do?” he asked. “This isn’t like him.”
“No, its not. Let’s just sit another moment and see if he quiets.”
My son sat quietly on his horse, on as loose a rein as he could, only picking up the reins to correct Henry’s inclination to dance off. Despite his worry about the horse, my kid’s body posture was relaxed, the result of many, many hours in the saddle—hours that have virtually all been happy, confident and enjoyable. His body doesn’t have the pattern of tensing up, even in a bind.
After a minute Henry quit pawing the ground and we were able to walk through the narrow gate successfully, but Henry’s head was high and his eyes were big. He was still prancing a little. I know my son and I were both wondering if this meltdown was going to escalate. Henry is 24 and as solid a citizen as ever lived, but he’s not really a deadhead. There’s still a lot of horse there. (Henry's breeding is all "running" QH--if you looked at his papers you'd think he'd be a pretty hot horse.) I gave some thought to telling my kid to get off and then ponying Henry myself, but decided that as long as we were doing OK, we’d keep working through it. And Henry was listening. He was “up”, but not out of control.
“Ride him up the hill,” I said. “See if he’ll line out.”
My son sent Henry up the hill, and almost immediately the horse’s arched neck relaxed and he lined out in a steady long trot. My son looked back over his shoulder and smiled, and then trotted Henry to catch up to Bert and Mark, who were putting the cattle in the holding pen. I followed, keeping an eye on Henry, but his demeanor seemed to have gone back to normal. He was willing to relax into a flat-footed walk. The meltdown was over.

My son finished getting the cattle in the alley, and Mark gave him a high five for being a good cowboy. My kid’s grin was now a mile wide, and I was glad I hadn’t told him to get off the horse. It’s always a judgment call, but even under the circumstances I trusted Henry.
And this folks, this is what a bombproof horse really is. It’s a horse that, even when he has a meltdown, is still safe. Your eleven year old kid can control him through a temper tantrum. Yes, Henry pranced and danced, and threw his head and skittered sideways. He even pawed the ground. But he held it together (with a little quiet encouragement), and was able to go on and finish the job. I call that a bombproof horse.
I still don’t know what got into Henry. It was a cool morning after a lot of hot days and Henry is fit and sleek—in very good shape. Maybe he just felt good. Or maybe slipping on the hillside rattled him more than I would have guessed. Maybe he was remembering the days when he was a cowboy’s horse and just seriously wanted to take off after the running cattle (though we’ve gathered this field many times and he’s never reacted like this before). Maybe a wasp stung him—it’s the right time of year for that and his sudden jump on the hill and subsequent jacked up behavior is consistent with something like that. The truth is I’ll never know. What I do know is that despite the fact that something lit his fire, he remained controllable enough that my son could ride him.
Of course, Henry’s meltdown could have been aggravated into more of a problem if my son had not reacted so well. There are riders who would have jerked the horse in the face and gotten after him for his “bad” behavior, and this would just have made the problem worse. And there are people whose fear would have caused them to take a death grip on the reins and cling hard with their legs—a recipe for disaster. There are also those who would have been very quick to get off, and this would not have helped things. Though I agree that a rider should get off if he/she feels seriously threatened, in general you shouldn’t be riding a given horse if you feel the need to get off if that horse has a bad day. Getting off solves nothing and only reinforces the negative behavior.
I’m very protective of my son, and if I had seen any sign that he and Henry were not going to be able to work through the meltdown, I would have had him get off, yes. But then I would have got on the horse and made darn sure that the meltdown did not equate in Henry’s mind with getting out of the job at hand. You don’t punish a horse for such behavior—as much as you can you ignore it—and you get on with the job at hand.
In the case of a young horse or a problem horse, where you feel that this isn’t possible, given the horse’s degree of upset, my course of action would have been to tie the horse to the arena fence and let him “soak” while we roped. When the horse had got over his upset enough to think clearly, I’d go back to riding him. That’s how you get them broke to being reliable horses.
In Henry’s case, as he IS a reliable horse, a few moments of standing with a quiet companion in order to collect himself, and then the offer to line out in the long trot was enough to get him back on his steady track. And as a sidelight, do not neglect the power of the long trot as a training tool. In the days when I rode young horses, if I had to tie one up to think things over cause it was having a meltdown, when I felt that horse was calm enough to ride, I would have lined it out in the long trot. Either for a good many laps around the arena, or better yet, up a good long hill. The long trot, if you keep plenty of forward momentum, is the gait of choice for the jacked up horse. It allows him to get his energy out in a positive way, and its harder for a horse to spook, buck or bolt from that gait than either the walk, slow trot or lope. Not that they CAN’T spook, buck and bolt from the long trot—cause they darn sure can. But they are less likely to. Walking feels safer to beginners, but it isn’t. Not on a horse that has a ball of energy he needs to find a release for. And the lope does lend itself to bucking and bolting—as I think we all know.
In any case, Henry proved to me once again that he is a truly bombproof horse—in the sense that any horse can ever be a bombproof horse. Even his meltdown was quite dealable with for my son. And, in fact, it was actually helpful. One more brick in the wall of becoming a good horseman. If our horses never misbehave at all, we never learn the skills for dealing with a misbehaving horse. So thank you Henry, once again. You’ve been a wonderful teacher and guide for my kid—you have a forever home with us. We love you. 


KarenTX said...

Nice job, guys! And kudos to you for giving your son the experience to handle the situation and be calm about it.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Karen. I appreciate the comment.

Anonymous said...

Glad it all worked out - making it through something like that with a good horse like him should be a great confidence builder for your son.

whitehorsepilgrim said...

Your son did well, and it was great that you made it into a learning experience that reinforced his confidence.

Cows can be scary. I had a ride lately when a whole herd of several dozen cows came jogging down the hill at us. Probably the farmer came that time most days to feed them. There was a fence between them and us, however that means little to a horse. So I faced a spot of that eyes wide, head up prancing behaviour when assertive leadership was needed at once. To begin with, the mare wanted to gallop off, from which I needed to distract her. I could have ridden that gallop, but I didn't want her to learn that running was the appropriate behaviour. Then we slipped back to the point - just like you describe - where that long trot was the right thing, working off surplus energy. All that was on a mare who isn't what people call 'bombproof' but is steady and good natured. It would have been a lot more interesting on a flighty horse!

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I think it will be a confidence builder in the end. In the short term, however, my kid no longer likes to gather the lower field, where Henry had his "incident." I understand the feeling, so, for the moment, we just gather the upper field and leave others to gather the lower field. It will work out fine, I think, as time passes.

whp--Henry is a cow horse, so is not really afraid of cows. But I think the charging about we all did to gather those flighty cows on that cool morning might have just triggered his adrenaline. Hard to say.

spotz58 said...

Great job all-around on defusing the situation.

My guess would be Henry got a big jolt of adrenaline from the dog and slipping, then added more with the darting around gathering, then just had too much and needed some quiet time to simmer down.

Is it possible he's losing his hearing? Replay that scenario on mute, so to speak, and it could cause a horse to get wired up more than normal.

Laura Crum said...

spotz58--I think Henry still hears pretty well, based on his reactions to things going on around him. My 32 year old horse, Gunner, is definitely losing both hearing and vision, as did my previous horse, Burt, who lived to be 35. But Henry seems as if his senses are pretty acute. We have ridden him several times since the "meltdown" and gathered the cattle a couple of times (though we avoided the lower field) and he behaved absolutely normally.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Your son is awesome! I remember a long while back when you wrote about your son's horse...was it Henry? spooking in the arena and your son fell off and you were feeling so guilty about it. And afterwards your son wasn't so sure he even wanted to get back on again...but he did. And he just keeps improving his skills and confidence as better horseman.

Nice job!


Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Yep. Mocha has her meltdowns, but they're much of the same ilk as Henry.

And Gregg is also a big advocate of the long trot for a horse that's up on the muscle--when I was riding some of his horses in training, we used that tool a lot to get the wired up horses to settle. After a while they really get to like it as a secure and familiar "let's burn some energy off" moment so they can relax. Mocha and I have spent a lot of time in long trot...

Laura Crum said...

Lisa--Wow--I can't believe you remembered that! You've been reading this blog awhile. And yep, it was Henry. He was actually in rehab from colic surgery, and I had to keep hi in a stall and handwalk him. After two months of that, I had permission to walk him with my son riding him bareback. The only trouble was that Henry was pretty full of it. He was through the worst of the rehab process, he felt good, and he was living in a stall. Anyway, one windy March day he spooked at the wind in the trees and my kid came off (I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have come off if the horse had been wearing a saddle). Anyway, he landed on his side, had the wind knocked out of him, and demanded to be taken to the emergency room. I checked him out and told him he was OK, but he was miffed and went to his room, saying, "If you won't take me to the emergency room, I'm going to my own room, anyway." And I did feel bad. But yeah, he got over it. Now he's kind of proud of it--referring to the time that Henry bucked him off (though Henry did not buck). So these little incidents do fade and become positive experiences over time.

Joyce--Yes I'm a huge fan of long trotting an "up" horse. In the end, you do have to boot them up to the lope--or else you're "stealing a ride" and the horses know it. But there's no harm in long trotting them for awhile first. I use it the same as some folks would use round penning, or lunging, which I'm not a huge fan of. Just a way to let the horse release his energy so he can relax and think.

Shanster said...

Good post! Way to go all of you!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Shanster!

Unknown said...

Hi Karen.

You have fantastic judgement, I've always thought that horses are far more loyal and instinctive than canines. A lot of people think that equine is a byword for unpredictability.
But you showed that this isn't true, if you know how to handle them.

Alison said...

Loved your story and the fact that you and your son kept a cool head. Maybe your son will defy the odds and keep on riding . . . (and not get car crazy as my son!)

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Beverly. I appreciate the comment.

Alison--I have no expectations that my son will keep riding--he might and he might not. I don't think horses are his passion as they were mine--he's just grown up riding with me and enjoys it. Its part of his life. But yeah, he could easily end up obsessed with cars or something else. Who knows?

Val said...

Great story. I like how you demonstrated for your son how to handle his horse. You gave him confidence, which helped him handle the situation. Henry really did teach him a valuable lesson by getting upset, but remaining safe and rideable.

Interesting point about the long trot. Harley is a energetic QH and often has to trot short behind other horses on the trail. When it is our turn to lead, sometimes he feels so pent up that he would like to run, which would not be polite of me to allow unless the rest of the group was up to it (not usually the case). I have used the "long trot" as you call it to let him blow off steam safely with a group in tow. It really does help, but I did not know that it was a training tool!

Laura Crum said...

Val--The long trot is the gait of choice for cowboys who need to cover a lot of country, and I learned from almost the first horse trainer I ever took lessons from how to use this gait to good effect on an "up" colt. Its especially handy if you can long trot up a big hill (!)

Harley sounds like a great horse-- it can be difficult to pair up horses with different "speeds" for trail rides. We are very fortunate in that Henry and Sunny have similar gaits. It is frustrating for a horse to have to constantly walk, or trot, faster or slower than his inclination down miles of trail.