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.