Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When a Good Horse is "Bad"

                                                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!


Mindy said...

Wow, Laura, you sound so much like me! My horse, Lily, is almost 23 and has been with me for almost two years. She was raised around kids and used as a rodeo gaming horse, so she loves to go and is in no way lazy. Most of the time I think her age must be wrong on her papers. =) She has impeccable ground manners, but is constantly testing me when I ride her. When I first got her, she'd been turned out for the winter and not ridden in over a year (not good at all). When I'd try to ride her away from the barn, she'd spin and buck, trying to get back to the barn. As a former barrel horse, believe me when I say she could spin! It took awhile to work through this, as it scared me, but she's past that now and only tries it on occasion. Now her big thing is spooking at things only she can see. We can be riding along, and all of a sudden we're going a different direction, cantering in place. I've gotten used to her antics and they're not as scary as they used to be, but she's definitely a challenge for a 60-year-old. She doesn't tire easily and has tons of "go". I usually work her at a brisk trot in the outdoor arena before attempting to ride anywhere else. It takes a little of the edge off, but not much. She's very affectionate and I love her so much . . . but definitely a horse that needs an alert rider!

FJ Thomas said...

Great story! You guys have a wonderful place to ride and I'm sure the energy there can excite a lot of horses, especially if they've had time off! Glad you've got a horse with limits!

Pattie said...

Sunny reminds me of my oldest son. Ever willing to grab that mile when it is in sight, but always willing to be reminded of their place.

Sunny sounds like the perfect horse, one that responds as requested, but always keeps things interesting.

Camryn said...

Your description of Sunny reminds me very much of my Haflinger mare. Your actions/reactions very much of me!

Unknown said...

I do have a really good horse that sometimes is "bad". Killian is a 17 year old ranch horse, who has pretty much seen and done it all. There is very little that frightens him, and he is my go to horse when I have a visitor who wants to ride, because to me, he is the safest. With all of that being said, he is also very smart. He knows that with little kids he can just go so slow and easy. It appears as though he is taking care of them, but really he is just taking advantage of being able to be lazy. I'm totally cool with that! With adults, if he doesn't want to work, he will suddenly decide he is afraid of the saddle pad, terrified of the saddle, and refuses to get into the trailer. (this horse generally loads himself) It is all an act. I know it is an act. He knows I know too. I swear I can see the look in his eye. Usually when he starts his "Oh I'm so afraid" act, I move him sideways. I stand next to him and push him up the road laterally, then I turn him around and push him back. It is my way of saying to him, "I can and will move your feet. You can and will act like the gentleman you are." If I have done my job correctly he will be breathing pretty hard, but he will have that "Ok you win" look in his eye. Then I will throw the lead rope over his back and tell him to load up. He will load himself and the rest of the day will be fine. I on the other hand will spend the rest of the day chuckling to myself at just how smart he really is.

Laura Crum said...

Mindy--Lily sounds a little more challenging than Sunny--good for you!

FJ Thomas--Yes, Sunny has limits...and that's good for this older gal.

Pattie--I wouldn't call Sunny perfect, but he works really well for me. I'm happy with him.

Camryn--Good to know we're on the same page.

Cindy D--Killian sounds a lot like Sunny. Sunny is also, just as you say, a very smart horse.

Val said...

Sunny is a smart son of a gun! Fortunately, you are wise to him. I do remember your stories about reforming him when you got him.

Harley is a super good boy, but he does have his triggers. He would be a treat monster if I didn't set boundaries for when treats are given to him. He also can get pretty feisty when his energy is up. As long as his energy is directed in a productive way (work that makes him think and work hard enough to focus) he is fine, but he can actually get a little hot in some situations. I relived this recently on the trail. Like you, we haven't been riding much and he was so excited that he forgot himself at the end of the ride and tried to takeoff after the horse in front of him. He stopped when I corrected him, but he still danced in place shaking his head and neck like he was going to burst. I had to turn his backside to the horse that was leaving us to make it clear that his job was to listen to me not the horse in front of him. He was better after that, but I still had to long trot him in the arena when we got home, because apparently an hour-long trail ride is not enough to burn off the excess energy.

Laura Crum said...

Val--Isn't it funny when they misbehave near the end of a ride? You would think they'd be tired, but no... Sunny's bad behavior, when it occurs, is always near the end of a ride.

ORSunshine said...

Hmm... Sunny sounds like my Molly-Moo. I wonder if it's a blonde thing? Recently, Moo decided she didn't want to be caught, so we worked until she chose to stand still and be caught. She's as good as gold most times, but there has been a time or two she needed to be reminded of her manners, mainly when I was haltering one of the other horses and she caused A PROBLEM, in which she was double barrel kicked at, resulting in my big boy coming down on my foot, and breaking it. (He, otoh, was mortified. Her, not so apologetic).

Laura Crum said...

ORSunshine--Yep, my other horses would be AGHAST if, for instance, they mistakenly did something that even looked like aggression towards me. You know, kicked at another horse, not knowing I was there, or jumped away from a horse and stepped on me, like you say. Sunny is the only horse I have that tries this testing stuff--though I have known others like him. So he is the only one that gets the come-to-Jesus meetings (!) Hope your foot heals up quickly--ouch.

ORSunshine said...

My foot is better, thanks. She broke it not quite 2 years ago. For me, it was the year of accidents, horse and otherwise. Thankfully, that seems to be over!

AareneX said...

Oh, you know all about the Dragon...but you know, I swear sometimes she misbehaves just to be reassured that the rules haven't changed.

When I got her, she hadn't been subjected to consistent rules (like "thou shalt not kick at people"). Some people enforced the rule, some people didn't. The result: a very angry, very insecure Dragon.

I put the Dragon through the same "boot camp" I use on dogs and children: lots of work and lots of rules. The result: a tired Dragon who is comfortable knowing that the rules aren't suddenly going to change and sneak up behind her.

The Dragon (and my kids) don't mind being "good," but sometimes they get lazy...and sometimes they just want to test to see if I'm still going to enforce the rules. When I do, they are surprisingly happy to comply! >g<

CG said...

So true that its nice to have the kind of good horse that even on "bad" behavior, isn't really THAT bad:) My mare Dazzby is one like that for me, she is usually perfectly mannered andtrustworthy, but even she has had a few "incidents".

One time she was actually kickiing out and trying to buck at the start of a Distance ride (on single track trail). I finally had to get off her and lead her for about a mile uphill. I kept thinking "she's 18 years old for goodness sakes, wth????"

It was kind of embarrasing, especially when someone I don't know comes up to me at the next ride and says. "Oh your horse is doing so much better this time!" Eeek.

The other time she decided to throw a little fit because my friend's Tennesse Walkers had outdistanced her on a downhill.

She started that hopping- about to explode- carrying on and my friend turned around and said she had all four feet off the floor- and I was just laughing that time because I knew she wouldn't really DO anything!

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Interestingly enough, Mocha had her first new riders in *years* today. Perfect illustration, because she immediately tried to see how far she could push things! Her main defiance under saddle starts with pulling for a longer rein (which she prefers). Both times the other riders verbally checked in with me (I let her do it to take a break from a mentally taxing arena exercise and they've observed it, so they wanted to know if it was that time), then took up rein and pushed her on.

That's a lot of the "bad horse" behavior I deal with in her--and I figure it's my due in riding a smart, intense, inquisitive performance-bred horse. There's also been a real difference since she "grew up" and got solidly finished in midlevel stuff--more when she made the transition from young mature mare to aged mature mare...sometime around age 11.

Plus I now hear that she's getting real demanding with the beginners doing groundwork with her in the college classes....not uncooperative, just simply demanding that they do it right.

So on the ground I pretty much just plain insist that she respect my space. About every now and then we Have Discussions about moving away from pressure on the ground. Once in a while she tries to ooze around the boundary, usually to obtain treats, dilly-dally around in turnout, or sneak through an open gate. Then we have to revisit the Rules. Otherwise, I can park her and do what I need to do without tying her.

In the saddle, these days our Discussions have moved from her insisting that I don't know what I'm doing so We're Doing It Her Way to confused offering up of what she *thinks* I want. It's the difference between bulling ahead on her part because she thinks I'm wrong and her checking back in to let me know she's confused.

There are definitely rewards...tonight we went bridleless for the first time. A walk in the arena for five minutes, and someone else pulled the bridle. We both needed to figure things out. But...lovely turns, nice whoas, some sweet backups, and cool spins.

So yeah. I like a horse who pushes the boundaries...slightly, like Sunny. Once in a while, you have to revisit The Rules while for the most part maintaining a recognizable structure.

And no, no more Really Challenging Horses (like my old Sparkle mare) for me, either!

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Laura Crum said...

Aarene--I couldn't agree more. I think Sunny does exactly what you describe Fiddle as doing. He tests to be sure I'm still in charge--and is very reassured when I demonstrate that I am. That is such a good point--if you own a horse of this sort, you really need to understand this concept if you want to get along (!)

CG--one of the reasons I love Sunny is that I absolutely trust that his behavior won't escalate into dangerous. He is level-headed and sensible, even on his worst day. Just like your mare!

Joyce--I think smart horses are more prone to this sort of testing, don't you? Sunny is definitely the smartest of the five horses I keep here, and he is the only one who tests me like this.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Laura, I absolutely agree that smart horses are the ones who test you the most. And it's the sneaky sort of testing, too.

Gotta admit, Sunny's just the sort with that 'tude that I would like...

Grey Horse Matters said...

Sunny sounds like an interesting and sometimes challenging horse to ride. I think it's a good thing you've got his number and know how to handle him. If he was with anyone else he probably would have bullied them into his way of doing things by now.

Laura Crum said...

Grey Horse Matters--Sunny isn't really too much of a challenge as long as you don't mind demonstrating your dominance. What I love the most about him is how safe I feel when I'm riding him. Thanks for your comment.

The Equestrian Vagabond said...

Depends on how bad the 'bad' is. I was about to do a post on a non-outing that was a total failure, but i can't face up to it yet.
You've got his number but he won't ever let you get complacent. horses sure teach us a lot don't they!!
- The Equestrian Vagabond

Laura Crum said...

Merri--Horses do teach us all the time. One of the biggest things I've learned is that you can't treat them the same--they're as different from another as people are. So I'm dying to read your post. What happened?