A friend of mine backs and breaks green horses for the bulk of her living. Daily, she spends her time on horseback, walking, trotting, doing collected canters, lead leg changes, always looking for supple movements and a soft mouth. She rides the gallops in a racing saddle that weighs less than my handbag and is virtually fearless. She spends 90% of her time outdoors at a yard, the rest driving to ‘problem’ horses and their usually clueless owners. I say clueless not in a mean-spirited way, but that’s what they are.
A lot of folk buy horses thinking horses are large dogs and as such can be treated accordingly. This is where mistakes are made, and after a number of mistakes are made– and the horse has the person’s number– the results are usually the same. Horse spends its time out on grass, eating, or in a stable being fed all manner of treats, brushed and cuddled and cooed at, but never actually ridden as the rider is now scared stiff of said horse’s actions once under the saddle.
If a youth spent being schooled by a fiery mare with a mouth like concrete has taught me anything, it’s that horses love nothing more than a nervy rider. Nervy rider= horse that can pretty much do whatever they hell they like, and the longer they go on doing whatever they hell they like, the more they enjoy it.
A recent ‘problem’ horse my friend was working on was not a horse at all, but a cunning Connemara pony named Frosty. Frosty is eight-years-old, broke two years and has all the manners of a feral pig. So far Frosty has bucked/bitten/slammed and stamped on her doting owner. The owner’s response to this behaviour is to ply Frosty with treats in a seemingly endless desire to teach Frosty that acting like a dangerous fucker means she’ll get treats. Thus Frosty and her owner have become co-dependant in a most abusive relationship: one, as my friend commented, will see the owner wind-up in hospital or dead.
My friend, let us all her K, got a call about the mare not long after Frosty had run her owner, let us call her O, into a tree, smashing her right leg hard enough to deaden it and cause massive bruising.
‘What did she do when that happened?’ I asked K, thinking of the time my own mare tried to garrote me under the washing line.
‘Got off the hoor and walked her back to the yard.’ K replied, sending two streams of smoke through her nostrils in sheer disgust. ‘You know she’s clicker training her? Like some kind of dog?’
‘No idea. But I imagine it’s to keep from riding her.’
The week previous, Frosty decided she like didn’t trotting over poles in an indoor arena, and so decided to leave and head back to the stable where her pals were. To do this she bolted towards the smallest gap in the world (NEVER leave arena doors open even a crack) and shot through it, leaving her owner winded and mangled behind on the sand.
Frosty spent the rest of the week sitting in her stable, having a ball snickering over the doors to the other horses, stuffing her fat face on hay and meal and not doing a lick of work. Result for Frosty.
When the owner recovered from her ordeal, she went to the stable and groomed her oh-so-cute mare. Frosty tolerated the grooming, got some mints for her participation, accepted a bridle and saddle and waited until O went to cinch the girth, then, without any warning – according to O, (K laughed)– turned her head and did a pretty good impression of a shark by taking as much of a chunk of O’s shoulder between her teeth and biting down as hard as she could. (God damn, I do have sympathy, I’ve had this happen and it this really hurts)
O, bawling at this stage, returned Frosty to her stable and accepted she needed more help than a Pat Parelli video could give her. After a chat with a few others in the yard, K was duly called.
Now K is widely regarded as an excellent rider; her seat is fantastic, her hands responsive, she is patient and capable. She usually rides flighty 2-year-olds and is no slouch when it comes to dealing with people either.
On arrival at the yard she strolled across to the stable and met with the owner for a chat. Having assessed the situation within seconds, K said, ‘Right, let’s get this mare out and see how she goes.’
First things first, K checks out the mare pre-tack, looking for sore spots or sensitivity in case there is some under lying problem. Nada. She takes the mare to the arena, O carrying the tack, and K lunges the mare for a few minutes again looking for any sign of stiffness or pain, Nada, this is a fine moving animal. She’s over-weight and lacking muscle, but she moves fine. K goes to her car, gets her own gear, which includes a pretty hefty riding crop (riding whip) and her helmet and a back protector.
First thing the owner says. ‘Oh you won’t need that,’ pointing to the crop.
‘Un huh.’ K says, ignoring her.
She tacks the mare in nano-seconds. The mare pins her ears at the girth so K gives her a dig in the ribs, with a sharp, ‘hey’. Mare keeps her teeth to herself.
K puts on foot in the stirrup and immediately Frosty tries to wheel, but K is an experienced rider. She makes the mare stand again and rolls her head tight to her mounting leg and is across the saddle in a single movement. Frosty attempts to wheel, K spins her the opposite direction. They do this for a few seconds, first one way, then the other. When the mare tries to bolt, K, turns her head so Frosty has no option but to circle tight on the spot, gaining no momentum.
After a few more seconds of this, Frosty decides this is a waste of time and energy and she stands.
K pushes her into a walk, then a trot, then just as she’s beginning to relax, the mare acts the maggot, throwing shapes, trying to crabwalk into the arena sides, so K give her a tap on the arse with her crop and lo and behold, the startled mare lunges forward, tries one more bolt, then eases back into a trot again.
This continued for a spell. K rode the mare for forty minutes, working on forward motion, stops ( Frosty has brake problems), turns, diagonals and so forth. K is talking most of the time to the owner as she works, explaining what she is doing and why. In an hour she has had to use her crop twice, never over-the-top, but a reminder to Frosty that is it there and she is not afraid to use it; that is it up to Frosty to avoid it.
Frost understand K: K understand Frosty.
K stops before O and suggest O ride Frosty so that she can observe.
O, nervous as hell, climbs aboard. K has to hold Frosty to stop her wheeling. K puts them on a lunge line and observes. First thing she observes is that O is ungainly and unbalanced and an absolute wreck. This, she concludes, is understandable, given what she has gone through with this mare. However, K also sees that O is in dire need of some good lessons. After a spell, including an extremely awkward canter, K suggests O get down, and she rides again. This time Frosty stands to allow K mount.
O is speechless.
K trots Frosty over the poles and even over a small jump. Frosty’s ear go forward. She likes jumping K explains. ‘Could be a great little all-rounder this one,’ she says.
K finishes on a good note, dismounts and pats Frosty. Frosty is pleased with the attention and tries to crowd K, K FIRMLY backs her off. No crowding, learn some ground manners. Frosty learns immediately and gets a single pat on the neck for her step back.
O still speechless.
K and O return Frosty to the stable, untack, throw a rug over her and go to have a chat.
K patiently explains that Frosty will need a ton of work to become a ‘safe’ horse/pony, and to do that she will need consistent discipline, which will include learning some ground rules, tieing, feet being picked up, tack, standing for mounting and so forth. No more treats either. She needs to be exercised daily (!) and taught to behave accordingly with or without other horses around. K says O needs lessons, and that at the moment she has too much horse to handle and suggests O takes some lessons on a more experienced animal, and then a lesson every week on Frosty. K suggests O might also consider selling Frosty to a more experienced rider. In short K offers the truth as she sees it, and does not add any sugar lumps or polo-mints to the deal.
This was over two months ago. Word came back to K that O is still trying to clicker-train Frosty from a secure spot on the ground. K also discovers that O found K to be rude and unkind in her attitude. O informs people, from her secure spot on the ground, that horses respond to love and affection, not ‘brute strength.’
K, all five foot two of her, shrugged and said, ‘Pity, that little mare could be a good all-rounder.’
So there you have it. Horses are not dogs, but people sure can be chickens.
Horses, they’re not dogs.