For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking that this is going to be another blog post where I'm raving about my perfect new horse, who never puts a foot wrong and is certain to be an absolute paragon of the show ring, and who can't possibly be that perfect and awesome, this one's for you. Sort of.
Yes, I have new horse-itis. I still want to spoil Saxon, and baby him, and just spend hours brushing his face (which he practically drops into my lap for me to stroke) and watching him in the pasture. Even though my old mare lives out on pasture 24/7 (except in the case of bad weather or injury; ever since rehab for her stifle injury 5 years ago kept her stalled for 6 straight months, she seems to relish her freedom as if I might decide to imprison her again without warning), Saxon sleeps on a bed of fluffy straw in his stall every night. He has stopped looking surprised to see me every night just before bedtime when I sneak out to the barn to pick his stall and top off his water and hay. He's probably developing airs about the daily grooming and primping, and his wardrobe changes, and I'm pretty sure he thinks his new name is "Good Boy" or "Handsome" or quite possibly "His Excellency the Supreme Commander of All He Surveys."
Well, any jealous readers will be happy to know that he isn't completely perfect. (But what horse is? Though I digress...) We're now 12 days into our new riding career and he's finding that his crazy new owner isn't asking him to work very hard, but she is asking him to do the most bizarre things.
Saxon: See the poles on the ground there? Today she wants me to walk over them, then turn around and trot over, then turn around and trot over them again. Yesterday she wanted me to stand beside them, back up next to them, and turn around between them. The day before that, she had a tarp under them and led me over it. One day, she spent 10 minutes just getting on and off me. She spent another day squeezing a dog squeaker all around me and whizzing Frisbees past my head as the dog chased them. It's all very strange...
By now my readers have concluded that I like a calm, desensitized horse. And they're right. I am a methodical, cautious, and logical sort of person, so that's how I approach working with my horses. A recovering perfectionist (does one ever truly recover?), I've always been an overachiever, a straight A student, and I suppose some would call me a kiss-up because I aim to please and be praised, and to strive to do everything better. Saxon seems to have the same sort of mindset. Up to now, he has taken every new experience I've presented him methodically and unquestioningly. Well, we finally met some challenges that we had to work through. The first was water crossing. Heavy rainfall last week left a few large standing puddles a few inches deep in the back pasture. I took him out there on the lunge line to see if he would walk through them. I splashed through the puddle ahead of him, but he froze at the edge. He was uncertain and unenthused about the idea of going through the water, but he wasn't panicked. He fidgeted back and forth along the edge of the puddle and tried to inch backwards. I kept insisting, and he kept edging around until finally, he jumped it. Well, at least he can jump; that's a good thing. The next two attempts were the same way, but on the fourth try, with me up to my ankles in water, he braved it and walked through. Once he went through it the first time, he was happy to calmly walk through the puddle from then on. A couple days later we tried it under tack. It started off the same way - a lot of edging around and trying to back away from the puddle (his favorite avoidance tactic). I gave him the benefit of the doubt as much as I could, but he started trying to flee backwards more insistently, and I spoke to him in an admonishing tone while keeping leg on him. Well, his head shot up and both ears shot back towards me. It was as if he was unhappy that he hadn't gotten it right. I kept insisting that he not go backwards or side to side, and he eventually put one foot in, then the second, and then splashed nicely through the water. Pats and "good boys" followed, and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, he almost seemed pleased and relieved to get the right answer, as his head went down, his ears went forwards, and he let out a big breath. "Oh, that's all you wanted? Well that's easy." After that, he was happy to oblige.
The second challenge was the tarp on the ground - that blue crinkling abyss that eats horses whole. I don't know if horses really learn through observation, but I made it a point to ride Legs over the tarp in sight of Saxon in his paddock. Legs, of course, is used to my shenanigans and unhesitatingly plodded over the tarp with a heavy sigh. ("Mom's at it again...") I brought Saxon out on the lead rope for his turn and let him have a good look at the tarp. The day was just windy enough that it would billow a little under the poles I had anchoring it. He took a good look at it, sniffed it, and like most horses, came to the conclusion that there was no need to actually walk OVER the tarp, as there was plenty of perfectly good real estate surrounding it on all sides. He did a lovely sidepass all the way around the tarp. (Well, there's another skill just waiting to be assigned to a rider's cue... He fidgeted some more, and finally stuck a foot on it. Nothing ate the foot, so he put the other front on it. So far so good. He stepped across it with his forefeet and neatly jumped it with the hinds. A good first effort got him some praise, and from then on, he walked happily across it, much more interested in trying to graze the grass in the yard then heed anything the crinkling blue mass was doing.
New Year's Eve Day we got our chance to ride in company, as my friend R came out to ride Legs. Saxon had mostly progressed past his sticky feet and to responding readily to minimal cues to go forwards (though he still loves to stop a lot just to look around). I guess he was just too overcome by Legs' beauty and charm to remember such trivialities, since the sticky feet returned. As long as she was in front of us or beside us, he was happy to stride along, but the suction cup feet kicked in when she lagged behind. We eventually worked through it, but we'll certainly have to get over that before we hit the showring!
On New Year's Day, winter attempted to make a comeback. Mild temperatures persisted, but gale force straightline winds (25 mph or more) heralded Old Man Winter's coming raid. Saxon tried to be a trooper in the wind, but he kept wanting to stop with his butt to the wind. He seemed less than pleased when the winds were so strong that both of his flattened ears were on the left side of his neck. We had our first under saddle spook when he caught sight of the blowing pine branches above the corner of our ring - they wind was so fierce it gave the impression that the branches might be ripped from the trees and turned into lances, so I can't say that I blame him. We worked our way back into that corner after that, closer and closer to the fenceline, so he seemed to get over it well.
Besides our work ethic and tendencies towards overachievement, Saxon and I seem to share a common dislike for cold winter weather. Winter was present in its full, blustery glory, complete with sideways snowfall. Normally a fair weather rider, the thrill of a new, young, fun horse to ride convinced me to saddle up. I opted to ride in the back pasture again, since it's a little more sheltered from the wind. Outfitted with a fleece dress sheet as a quarter sheet, we started our ride. He was "up" from the cold wind under his tail, but I didn't want to start trotting until I had removed the quarter sheet. He danced around and didn't want to stand close enough to the gate for me to deposit it from astride him, but had no objections when I actually slid it off him and laid it there. A flock of wild turkeys started flapping and strutting on the other side of the creek at the back of the field. I didn't expect this to rattle him, since he had become proficient at dodging honking Canadian geese on the track at his last home. Whether it was the weather or the turkeys, he made them the perfect excuse to get spooky and try to avoid the back fenceline. Rather than fight with him about it right away, I let him trot some big circles in the field to get the dance out of his feet. We rounded the corner towards the front gate and he spied the dress sheet now billowing on it. "What!? That wasn't there last time." He alternated between freezing and trying to be brave, but he couldn't quite convince himself that it was harmless. Legs came to the rescue, bless that mare. She came down to the fenceline to visit, parking herself right next to the dress sheet. As soon as he saw that the blanket wasn't attacking her, he was convinced that it was OK for him to go nuzzle it, too.
Other than being a little more responsive and crooked than normal, he finally settled down, so I went back to address the back fenceline. The snowfall started to fall thicker and the wind was blowing it sideways now. His Excellency was not pleased. He balked about going near the back fence, going sideways, backwards, every which way but towards it. At this point in his training, I know he understands the go forwards cues, so I kept at it. Standing still and going forwards were the only answers I would reward. He hopped up a little, then spooked when I growled at him for hopping up. By now, I sure couldn't give up - I didn't want to reward spooking and misbehavior with a trip back to the barn! More balking and avoidance, and it seemed that we could only get about 20 feet from that back fence. Finally I hopped off and led him forwards. He was more confident with me beside him, and sniffed at the fenceline and stood next to it while I climbed back on. We circled around to approach it again from astride, and someone decided that the only direction he was capable of going was back towards the front gate. Ah, so he IS a true redhead - I found his stubborn side! Enter my stubborn side. No matter how tempting, it doesn't pay off to get angry at a horse. It is far better to be insistent and persistent until you "win". This is where being stubborn comes in handy (despite the fact that BOTH of you would really rather be inside with a toasty hot chocolate or pile of hay than standing in the corner of a field staring at a fence with the wind and snow whipping past you). I found that he would turn left, but not right. So I turned left until we were turning right, and then went right. "Dangit! She tricked me!" He continued to balk, refuse to go forwards, swish his tail, spook a little and hop up when he was sufficiently peeved. I finally got him circling to the right by the offending fence. I switched directions to make a figure 8 to the left, and it was a war of attrition all over again when I asked him to go back to the right. We alternated the 8s with looping serpentines towards and away from the fence and kept at it. I kept up a constant chatter talking to him, as it seemed to relax him. I could barely feel my toes, but I finally succeeded in getting him to walk calmly alongside the fence, and I felt his sigh of surrender. One more quiet and relaxed lap of the field, and we both were only to happy to go back inside out of the wind.
Score one for the stubborn redhead who, as it turns out, is a lot like her overachieving and methodical but occasionally stubborn (and winter hating) redheaded horse!