Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Life With Horses--Part Ten

                                                by Laura Crum

            I have told the story of how I came to acquire Henry rather recently on this blog (see My Son’s Horse). So, in the interests of not being too repetitive, I’ll just say that Henry opened a brand new chapter in my life with horses. And you could call this chapter “The Trails Along the Ridge.”

            As you may remember, my seven year old son had begun asking me to go out on trail rides. And as it happens, there was a network of trails on the ridge across the road from our house. Many years ago, when we were first together, my husband and I had explored these trails on Flanigan and Plumber. But I had not been up there since I got pregnant with my son. So I hadn’t seen the trails in eight years. I didn’t even really remember them all that well, and the way we used to access them had been blocked by a housing development. Thus I was pretty much starting from scratch to figure out if we COULD trail ride from here.
            I headed out on the newly acquired Henry to explore a little (and make sure he was as reliable on the trail as I thought he was), and I found a way back up to the ridge. As was inevitable, it involved crossing the very busy road at the end of our driveway, and then some rather dubious skirting of other people’s property. But horse hoofprints indicated that riders from the nearby boarding stable rode this way. And sure enough, I eventually found (and recognized) the same old trails I had ridden years ago with my husband, and reached the Lookout—a high spot with a glorious view of the Monterey Bay. I knew that this was where I wanted to take my son trail riding.

            Henry was an absolute champ outside. Nothing bothered him, he was relaxed and calm, and walked quietly at all times. He was as steady as a rock when I crossed the busy road, indifferent to the traffic. I felt that I could take my son riding out on the trails with a reasonable degree of safety. So we tried a few expeditions, beginning with some easier trails. And I realized that the only problem I was going to have had nothing to do with my son or Henry. It was Plumber.
            Plumber was nineteen years old at this time and I had done plenty of trail riding on him in the past. But for the last eight years he had been strictly an arena horse. My friend Wally roped on him and I rode him while I accompanied my son on short rides in the arena. Plumber was starting to slow down and Wally and I were pretty sure this would be his last year as a team roping horse. I thought that the timing was perfect and Plumber could now become my trail horse. But I was wrong.
            Because it turned out that Plumber didn’t want a new career as a trail horse. And he made this very plain. Every single time I took him out on the trail, he danced anxiously and spooked at every little rustle in the brush. He also protested at the downhill bits, tossing his head and pinning his ears, switching his tail, and walking at a slow, reluctant crawl. He absolutely never relaxed and just walked along, enjoying the scenery, as Henry did. I took my son for his first ride on the beach and Henry was perfect. Plumber was nervous and unhappy the whole time (which I think you can see in their respective expressions in the photo of that expedition—below). In every way he could, Plumber communicated, “I don’t want to do this.”

            A lifetime spent with horses will teach you a few things. Even though it was reasonable to suppose that the still quite sound Plumber could be my trail horse, I had to acknowledge that it wasn’t working for either him or me. Steady as Henry was, Plumber’s constant spooking triggered Henry to spook once or twice. Despite the fact that I felt perfectly safe on Plumber in an arena (and had ridden with my kid in front of me in the saddle for two years—that’s how safe I felt), I did not feel safe standing next to the busy road while Plumber danced anxiously. I was pretty sure I could control Plumber, but at this point I had my son on the pony rope and I absolutely needed to keep my whole focus on him. Nor could I risk that Plumber would startle Henry. So I made the rather unpopular decision (just ask my husband) that I needed to buy a new trail horse. And I knew just the one.
            Nine months previously, I had tried a little palomino horse as a possible replacement for Toby the pony (Toby’s cancer had reoccurred and we had removed another tumor from his sheath—I was aware that his time might be limited). This was a horse that I had known for a few years and I believed that he was a steady, reliable trail horse. But upon trying him I realized that he was also opinionated, ill broke and a bit spoiled—not a good combination for a kid’s horse. So I passed on him and eventually bought the much better broke Henry for my son. Still, for some reason, I couldn’t forget the cute little palomino horse. Neither could my boy, who continued to ask about “Sunny.”
            Sunny remained for sale. A friend of mine tried him and rejected him for much the same reasons I did. “Too ornery for a kid’s horse.” But when I thought about finding a steady trail horse for myself, Sunny popped into my mind with irresistible force. And despite my husband’s protests that we did not need another horse, I picked Sunny up that very day to take him on trial. The rest, as they say, is history.

(To be continued—the beginning of the saga is here)


Anonymous said...

You would think that all horses could learn to enjoy the trail, but as you point out, that's just not so. Our Lily was the same - she was a competitive show jumper and loved to do that, but anything else - regular arena work, trails, you name it, she wanted nothing to do with and made her opinions know - her signature move we call, in one word, the "boltandbuck", and in a very fast horse who is athletic enough to easily jump 5 feet, you can imagine what that was like. So she's now retired and seems to approve of that . . .

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Plumber approves of being retired, too. Its so interesting. I thought he would enjoy being a trail horse (he'd been a good trail horse in his youth), but somehow in his teenage years he seems to have decided that rope horse/arena horse was his job and the sense I got was that he felt "demeaned" by being asked to do something else in his old age. The funny thing is that I thought he would be bored if we retired him, but he seems absolutely content. If I could put it in words, I think he feels "I've done enough work for one lifetime." Isn't it fascinating how, if you pay attention, horses often surprise you with their responses.

And I so agree, by the way. Not all horses enjoy trail riding. My Sunny horse, in contrast, loves trail riding and is very cooperative about it, but hates the arena. They're all different, aren't they?

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

One reason why I cross-train Mocha is so that she doesn't get a chance to get locked into opinions about what her job is (with an opinionated mare like her, with her work ethic, I think this is crucial). I've not taken her out on regular trails, just hacked her on wide spots by a busy road, and she's gradually shown more interest and liking of this task. But part of that, too, is that we're not ponying another horse and all she has to do is relax and go on a loose rein. I try to use it as a post-schooling reward, and she seems to like the idea now.

Some horses have to be schooled to like trail work, and I think she's one of them. For her, using it as a wind-down from schooling is perfect. Now I just need to get her out on some real trails.

Laura Crum said...

Joyce, that's interesting about Mocha. I'd be curious to hear how she acts on actual trails. My horses seem either to love this event or hate it. The laid back horses tend to love it and the more intense, reactive horses find too much to worry about.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Laura--I'd be interested to find out how Mocha reacts as well. My trainer maintains that you have to train a horse to trails--start out with easy stuff to get them comfortable with it. I'm still hoping to pull something together for the summer.

I do know that our first hacking out rides were full of Mocha worrying about things--and funny moments such as her zigzagging back and forth drunkenly because she'd look at something and her body would follow her gaze. Now she's much quieter about it, but she worries if we go beyond what she's accustomed to doing. It's just lack of exposure. Still, she likes looking at everything (she's a looker and a noticer) and it's a nice way to unwind.

Interestingly enough, when I take her to shows, she's anxious outside of the show ring. Put her inside the arena and she settles down because she knows what is going on. She's also a fun horse to take to shows, though, because she likes to watch other horses perform. I can park her on the rail and let her watch--her reactions can be quite entertaining (like watching driving for the first time, or the first time she saw a high-stepping Saddlebred--after watching the Saddlebred, I had a week of Quarter Horse-trying-to-move-like-a-Saddlebred). This can be useful if you're watching a trail class and you're not the first one up. She is one of those horses who learns patterns by watching.

Laura Crum said...

Joyce--Mocha sounds very smart. Well, your trainer may be right, but that hasn't exactly been my experience. Plumber, for instance, I basically "trained" to trail ride when he was a young horse, taking him on short easy rides for a couple of summers, as your trainer suggests. By the time he was ten he'd been on many trail rides, including some multi-day rides in the mountains. He'd been to the beach dozens of times (he never liked the beach). He was a good, steady trail horse, but after eight or nine years of nothing but arena work, he let me know pretty clearly he did NOT want to do trail riding any more. I can't say exactly why. I can say it was not because I had never trained him to do it, though. I really think that 1) he didn't want to work any more and 2) resented being asked to be a trail horse when he considered himself an accomplished team roping horse (which he was). But its just my theory.

Laura Crum said...

Oh, and by the way, I do agree about training a horse to do trail riding. I did this with all my young horses, taking them on short, easy rides in the company of a solid, older horse before I asked them to do anything difficult. Crossing streams, bridges, rocky ground, climbing/descending steep hills...etc are all things that a horse has to be accustomed to for sure. Unless they've been raised "outside" they often need some patient practice learning how to do this stuff.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Laura--feeling that a trail horse job is coming down in the world does make sense to me, especially if a horse has pride in a particular job like Plumber does.

I've heard way too many tales about folks who brought horses not trained to deal with trails up to the mountains. I definitely to want to prepare the horse and train the horse to it before trying it. It's only common sense...but dear Lord, some people sure lack that!

Val said...

It was incredibly fun to read about your journey with horses. I really appreciate the parts about finding what you really love about horses and parenting your child and the role horses has played. I hope to offer some of the same lessons to my daughter some day.

I also completely get that horses have preferences for their work and jobs. Harley has many great qualities, but he is not a show horse and does not like horse shows, even if he tolerates the occasional small excursion for my benefit. Fortunately for him, I am not focused on competition and enjoy my horse the most where he is at his best (at home).