Saturday, June 28, 2008

Psycho Gelding

Poco and Jaz came home from Heather's sometime in mid-June 2007. Heather had declared Poco "Leah ready at walk and trot," however Leah was not Poco (or anybody else) ready at trot, to be sure. I was looking forward to being able to toodle around our five acres to work on my sucky riding skills. Heather warned me that both horses might act up at home because of the move, and she was right. Jaz was fine and happy to be back, but if I remember correctly, shortly after the photo at left was taken in early July 2007, Psycho Gelding ran me into a tree.

The first six months and maybe even longer after the horses were back, Poco was my problem child 24/7. He was totally uncooperative no matter what I asked him to do. I think it was still linked to the "foster child" mentality: he still thought he was going to leave any day. Every time I tried to ride him, the behavior I first witnessed at Heather's -- and rationalized away -- escalated. He was unwilling, though completely manageable on the ground. Whatever I asked under saddle, he'd do the exact opposite. One time, we were standing by Jaz when Jaz decided to have a nice roll in the dirt. I don't know how I knew, but I KNEW Poco was going to do it too -- me, tack and all! Thank God I already had my feet out of the stirrups and was halfway off by the time I felt him start to go down. I jumped off and got in his face, kicking and screaming. He's never done that again.

We had dominance issues. He became bossy and just plain mean to poor Jaz. I had to stand between them when I fed them or Poco would block him from both feed pans, if he let him near the loafing shed at all. I had to start carrying a crop because he tried to challenge me to steal Jaz's food, or he'd try to crowd Jaz and me into the corner. I used Heather's chest butt move more than once. I kicked and I threw buckets. Conversely/perversely, he became very possessive of me, biting Jaz and running him off whenever Jaz tried to approach me. Although he seemed to seek and enjoy my attention, his behavior in the saddle did not reflect it. Over time, he would do pretty much anything I asked of him on the ground, but it got worse and worse under saddle. He was a total BRAT and a JERK, and his behavior was dangerous for a me as a novice rider, albeit unintentionally so. I never felt as if he actually wanted to hurt me; he just wanted his way and knew he could get it. He took advantage of me every chance he could, which was every time I got on, because I lacked the experience and skill as a rider to best him. He was in no way tolerant of my newbie mistakes and his lack of respect for me on his back was clear.

Heather and I put our heads together and tried several different approaches to turning him around.
One of the techniques called for completely ignoring him unless he was tacked up. The only attention he got from me was related to being tacked up and ridden or worked. Only then would he get hugged, praised and sweet-talked, which he loves. He also loves to be groomed but he only got it after he was tacked down. I learned to drive him with lines looped thru the stirrups. He doesn't like it at all (BO-RING) but I made him do it anyway. If I got on and he misbehaved, I hopped off and drove his sorry ass. Heather said he wouldn't make a distinction between a win on the ground and a win in the saddle, but he most certainly did.

When Jaz got attention and he didn't, he would turn his back, sulk and pout. If anyone did try to walk over and give him attention, he'd walk away or at least turn his head away from them. The most amazing behavior I observed happened when some little girls visited and rode Jaz. I had asked everyone to treat Poco like an invisible horse and explained why. Everyone was paying lots of attention to Jaz, and the little girls were just gushing over him. Poco was acting like a dog does when they are trying to engage in play -- sort of crouching down in the front with their butt sticking up in the back. He was literally dancing and leaping like a Lippizaner: "Look at ME, see how pretty **I** am! Watch ME! Watch ME!" It never ceases to amaze me how beautifully and effortlessly this horse moves in spite of the fact that he's built like a barge.

Because he got himself so worked up when he was saddled, we checked the fit of the tack and had the vet look at him to be sure there were no physical problems. I tried different headstalls and bits, bought a really nice thick wool saddle pad. I doubted this explanation all along; I really felt like this was all just BAD BEHAVIOR, but I believe in due diligence. There were no problems. I tried putting a halter and reins on him, riding bareback, allowing him to wander and graze. "It's all good. We're all friends here. Nothing bad will happen." We did fine as long as we did what HE wanted to do. As soon as I tried to assert myself, Psycho Gelding would start the shenanigans. I'd say left, he'd yank right. He'd simply plant his feet and refuse to move at all. He'd take me under low-hanging branches or plow into the cedar trees. Then it got to where if I gave him his head, he'd march back to the place where we'd started and just stand there until I finally got off.

Those were dark days. Every small step forward seemed flanked by several steps backward, if not abject failure.

Next time: A Study in Contradictions

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Back to School

My job requires travel five non-consecutive weeks each year beginning with a trip in January, then five others from April through July. Several of my latest posts have come to you live from sometimes sunny Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. The time in between trips is spent planning all aspects of the trips for groups as large as 900 people. It's intense and stressful. It's hard enough being away from the long-suffering Mr. Fry, whom I absolutely adore, but as my relationship with The Boyz has grown, I find myself pining away for them as well.

Given the newness of horse ownership to us in 2007 (less than 6 months) coupled with the fact that Mike was immersed in a new job, I decided the '07 travel season would be a good opportunity to send Poco back to school. I made arrangements with Heather for both horses to spend April and May at her facility, with Poco receiving a refresher course in civil behavior. In addition, Heather would work with him under saddle to both evaluate him and devise a plan to bring the two of us together and forward.

By this time, I had purchased a used stock trailer, which you can see in the background of the goofy Jazu photo in the banner topping this page. After watching both horses wig out in a conventional divided horse trailer, I decided on this style. My relationship with Poco had progressed to a point where I knew he would probably follow anywhere I led him. The day we transported them to Heather's was the first time we used the new trailer. Heather and Jason came just in case, but both horses loaded quietly the first time. I also remember this whole experience being an affirmation of my blossoming instincts/intuition with the horses. Heather said I had them all along; I just needed to learn to listen to them and trust them. In all the time since, we have had no incidents loading either horse.

When we got to Heather's, we unloaded the Boyz and since both are geldings, we turned them out with the main herd. Jaz entered the 30-acre pasture, found some of his old buddies and he was off to tell stories about his new life. Poco immediately challenged the head mare, a no-nonsense Clydesdale easily twice his size, by becoming a little whirling dervish, kicking and spinning so fast Heather and I just stood there slack-jawed. I secretly hoped
he'd get his proud cut ass kicked to take him down a few pegs, but the little shit (14.2 if he's lucky) WON and proceeded to round up his harem. Meanwhile the REAL stallion started pitching an absolute fit, threatening to bust out of his paddock and give Poco a piece of his mind. We caught Poco and Jaz again and isolated them in the arena, well away from Testosterone Central. The herd's disdain for Poco was unmistakable; they stood with their backs to him and wouldn't respond to his overtures. The posturing between the stud and the wannabe (or once was) continued throughout Poco's stay.

I received reports from Heather via email as I traveled to San Diego, Scottsdale, back to San Diego, DC, and finally Beverly Hills.
Heather said Poco was belligerent and even threatened her, and had to have his attitude adjusted by a firm, calm hand. She said he kept acting as if he were expecting to be punished (as opposed to simply corrected) when he did something wrong, which certainly would explain a lot. Armed with that knowledge, she adjusted her approach and he began to respond. She started out driving him with lines and a surcingle, graduating to longeing both on and off lead. She rode him and he did well, although he would get himself all worked up when he was confused or made a mistake, again, seemingly expecting punishment. She used Jaz as a reward. If Poco did well, he got to have Jaz in the arena with him. If he behaved poorly, Jaz got turned out with the herd, and even he ignored poor pitiful Poco's wailing.

I guess I should back up a little and mention that in the months prior to leaving Poco with Heather, I had been climbing on him after having groomed him. I'd just sit there, or lie draped on him while petting him and talking to him. All of this he tolerated well. I think I may have actually taken a few steps around the front pasture on him, but that's about it. I was thrilled beyond description the first time I was able to ride him in Heather's round pen! I totally sucked at riding, but I was loving it!

The photo at left is me riding Poco with Heather giving direction. I think she was coming over to adjust my stirrup leathers here, as my foot kept slipping out. It was only later I discovered the stirrup straps aren't even, and had to punch "half space" holes on one side. (Something I'll address when I get around to posting about tack!) On this day, it was 104F -- gotta love Texas in the summer -- so the lesson was pretty short and much Gatorade was consumed. Poco got lots of praise and some alfalfa, so he was a pretty happy camper.

Shortly after this session, Heather had to go to NY ( to pick up some horses, so I opted to leave the Boyz there rather than transport them home then back again a week later. Heather said to come and ride anytime, which I did. The first time went pretty well, but the next time I went, I noticed a little bit of resistance, which I was able to rationalize or overlook because of my own excitement. I was either oblivious to or in denial of the message my horse was sending me.

Next time: Psycho Gelding

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Did National Velvet do this?

As mentioned in the very first post on this blog, although my obsession with horses may not have started with TV or books, it was certainly fueled by those images. It took awhile, but I eventually understood I could not grow up to be Zorro or the Lone Ranger, much less their horses. Imagine my disappointment. Reluctantly, I looked to National Velvet to keep my dream alive.

I had only ever been around four real horses until well into adulthood, which means my
understanding of horses and horse ownership was seriously flawed. It was limited not only by a lack of in-the-flesh experience (quantity), but because I had such a narrow scope of experiences as well (quality). I read the glossy condensed version. I saw the movie trailer containing only the best scenes.

Horses on TV, in books, and at horse shows are all so clean, sleek, and beautifully groomed. For an embarrassingly long time, I felt sorry for horses that were turned out all the time because they were exposed to the elements and looked so filthy. If I had a horse, I'd make sure it had a nice clean stall to live in and it would always be clean and perfectly groomed. Not only that, but all those POOR horses had to eat was grass. If I had a horse, it would get the best hay and oats because I would really CARE about MY horse.
When I saw shaggy, thick-coated horses, it never dawned on me that horses got winter coats. I thought they were just some ugly, ill-bred horse. Yes, I really thought these things, but, in my defense, that was a long time ago. Well, mostly anyway. Once again, the word "naive" understates it by miles and eons.

Movie and TV horses are compliant, well-mannered. I assumed if they were born in captivity, they
were basically like large versions of Lassie -- "Fetch the C-clamp, girl!" I thought the only horses that really needed breaking, per se, were captured wild mustangs. I reasoned domestic horses somehow knew people were their friends and they just automatically complied, sensing we benevolent humans had their best interests at heart. "This lady feeds me, grooms me and loves on me, therefore I will be a good boy and do anything to please her." Mmm, not so much.

When I got Poco, we couldn't (still can't) afford a barn, so I bought a prefab metal loafing shed to provide shelter, which is, of course, the humane thing to do. It's a law in my county, but I found out trees, which we have in plenty, count as shelter. At first, Poco was scared to even walk into it. To this day, neither horse spends time in it doing anything other than eating the food I place there. When it's gone, so are they. Regardless of how inclement the weather, they prefer to be exposed to the elements. In the midst of tornadic activity in the spring or ice storms in the winter, they'll have their butts backed into a cedar tree. There's $1,000 I could have spent on better tack, but that's a post for a different day. It's nice for ME because when the weather's crappy I can spend time with them out of the elements, but Poco and Jaz sure as hell aren't impressed with it at all.

I knew you were supposed to brush them, pick out their hooves and bathe them, have regular vet and farrier visits, that kind of stuff. But I didn't know you had to teach them to tolerate any of it. "Uhhh ya want me to lift muh foot? Here ya go. How about this one and these other two?" Well, Jaz DOES, but that's why he's my pocket pony :-) At first with Poco, it was more like, "My foot?? Why do you want my foot? This can't be good! You're trying to KILL me! I'm going to die! Who's THAT? HE'S not touching me either! Help! Murder!" Now I know for a fact he'd been through all this before, but we had to learn it all again. I must have missed the episode of National Velvet where she tries to pick up a hind foot and ole King decides he'll just lean on her rather than bothering to shift his weight and balance.

Never, in my wildest dreams did I EVER imagine some of the less savory tasks associated with horsekeeping. I don't recall having seen the episode wherein Velvet puts on rubber gloves to reach up inside King's crusty, disgustingly nasty sheath, as he leans around, wide-eyed with that "WTF do you think you're DOING???" look on his noble face. I must have also missed the one where Velvet cleans King's dock, only to have him lift his tail and fart directly in her face, or worse yet, crap all over her impeccably booted feet. And the one about cleaning the sand and dirt out of his nose and eyes, and then he blows his nose all over her pristinely starched ratcatcher. I never saw Velvet worm her horse, trim his ears, spray him for flies and mosquitoes, or deal with the myriad of things which can irritate their skin. Never saw the one where she got poison ivy from kissing on him after he'd been rubbing against trees wrapped in it. I'm really sorry I missed that particular episode.

I must really be a die-hard, because I don't mind a bit of it.

One more time: THANK YOU Heather, Jason, Nita, Jon and all the wonderful people on the Happy Appy forum for your infinite patience and generosity with your time. Help has always been there when I've needed it.

Next time: Back to School

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Night and Day

As deep, dark and mercurial as Poco can be, Jazu is at the opposite end of the emotional & behavioral spectrum: puckish, curious, mischievous, quirky, with a gentle, light, (mostly) cooperative little spirit. What you see is pretty much what you get. They couldn't be more different.

Heather and Jason brought Jaz in the first few days of January 2007. Jaz called to Poco from the trailer, Poco perked up, called back and came trotting over as Jaz did a backwards jackrabbit hop out the back door, and they were off! Seeing Poco so joyful about his new friend made me feel happy for him, but I also felt bad that he had been without a friend at all. It has only been over time that I have come to realize the nature of herd animals -- they don't like being alone. Heather had also told me they would learn from each other. Initially, I hoped any learning would be one-sided, since Poco had so many bad habits, and according to Nita and Heather, Jaz hung the moon!

I almost forgot! Besides being a great opportunity for me to learn and gain confidence on a safe horse, this arrangement was also rehab for Jaz. He had suffered a good sized crack in a hind hoof, had not been ridden and was therefore out of shape. This was a chance for him to be eased back into activity.

Jazu is and always will be a teacher and caregiver. You could put a two-year old on his back, walk
away, and Jaz would keep the baby safe. Jaz's attitude seems to be, "Don't worry. I know this drill inside and out. Let me do the driving and you'll be fine. I know what's best for you." This is great for children and other bare-bones beginners, because it builds confidence along with skill. However, once a rider is past the point of needing to be babysat, the other side of Jaz, aka Shithead, shows itself. He's so submissive and so far down in the pecking order in the herd, newbies, kids and foals are about the only things he gets to boss around. When they push back, Jaz doesn't want to give up his position as know-it-all boss. As described in a previous post, it was at this point in our relationship -- although I didn't realize we were at that point -- that Jaz began resisting direction, even running me into a tree!

Jazu is such a BOY. He's not fond of being groomed ("Awwww MOM!!!") and the second we're done, he'll take 2-3 steps before he drops and rolls, undoing any good which may have just been done to his appearance. Despite any therapeutic anti-itch, anti-fungal products, he still rubs his entire body against anything and everything, abrading his mane and especially his tail to the point where he resembles an old, worn broom. It's worse in the summer, and I keep a product called Swat on his tail. All the trees have these pink smears just at the height of Jaz's tail. And don't even get me started on the state of what remains of his manhood -- YUK. Overall, he's just a mess most of the time.

Which brings me to the most annoying of Jazu's habits: this horse poops & pees often and
everywhere. If you see that tail go up, you better MOVE because he has no qualms about letting it fly on your feet or whatever appendage happens to be under him at the time. He craps in the loafing shed and has even fouled his own grain bucket. Personal hygiene is Poco's only good habit, which he seems to be passing along to Jaz, although I'm still caught by surprise sometimes, as is that cute little farrier :-)

Mike calls Jaz "Curious George." I've seen Mike bent over a car or under the tractor, digging, using a chainsaw - you name it -- and Jaz will have his nosey noser stuck smack in the middle of whatever it is. Whatever you're eating or drinking, both horses think they should have some, but their favorite is beer and beer soaked limes. Jaz is very social but until recently was not particularly affectionate. I LOVE loving on my ponies, so I'm glad he's decided it's OK to be a little more lovey.

And it turns out, I didn't have to beg them to sell Jaz. He chose where he wanted to be. He's gained weight and is so obviously a happy, happy boy. I consider myself really lucky to have him. He HAS taught Poco a lot. And without his patience, kindness and cooperation, I would have given up a long time ago.

Next time: Did National Velvet do this?

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I had WAY too much horse for my limited abilities, and I hadn't ridden at all in 8 years. In order to ride my horse, I needed to be a better rider, but I couldn't ride my horse to become a better rider. Such a conundrum. Meanwhile, Heather's telling me Poco's behavior would probably improve if I had another horse. They're herd animals and they do better when they aren't alone. And I need a horse I can trust to help me learn and give me confidence. She very generously offered to lend me a teaching horse, an 8 year old Egyptian Arabian gelding named Jazu. She'd had this horse since he was 6 months old and used him to teach children. Her exact words were, "Jaz is so sweet he'll rot your teeth. You'll be begging me to sell you Jaz." I was skeptical.

Jaz came in January 2007 and those two horses were instantly best buds. I was so excited to have a horse I could actually ride, I came flying home from work the first or second day I had him so I could jump on for a quick ride before it got dark. I didn't even take the time to tack him up. I just threw a halter and a rope on him and jumped on. Well, TRIED to jump on. I did not yet have a mounting block and tried standing on an inverted bucket. I completely underestimated Jaz's height, the bucket wasn't quite high enough, and as I swung my right leg over him, Jaz started walking and I realized I didn't have the strength to pull myself up. So Jaz is walking up the driveway and I'm hanging on by a handful of mane in my left hand and my right ankle hooked over his withers. It was six months before my right hamstring, glute, and groin muscles were completely healed. I bought a mounting block and kept riding anyway. Notice in the picture, Poco has pulled the blanket almost completely out from under Jaz's saddle. That's so Poco. Also notice how much taller Jaz is than Poco. When they run together, Poco's stubby legs are taking 2-3 strides to every one of Jaz's. Highly amusing.

Later in January, Poco was due for his annual vet visit. The vet and his
assistant came to the house and Heather and Jason were here for moral support and help if we needed it. Poco is very mistrustful of new people, especially men. The vet insisted his tech hold Poco, which I didn't think was such a good idea, and wasn't. The tech was way too forward and abrupt with Poco and he behaved badly. He got his shots, but it was not a good day, and I heard, not for the first time, the opinion that my horse was crazy and dangerous and I should sell him. He needed his teeth floated, so I made an appointment to take him to the clinic the following week.

Heather and Jason showed up early that Saturday morning with their horse trailer, as I did not yet have one. I had also never loaded a horse into a trailer. It took about 30-40 minutes, which Heather assured me was not any big deal at all, but it was stressful as hell for me, not to mention I was bruised all over from being bashed around the trailer. The lesson? When a horse bolts while on a lead, LET GO OF THE ROPE. Apparently it's a common newbie mistake to not know when to let go. We made it to the vet's and Heather suggested to the
vet that things might go better if they'd allow me to hold him and lead him. I did and he was fine. They doped him up and worked on his teeth. Holy crap, that thing looks like some early Industrial Age torture device! It's a full size compressor with heavy-duty pneumatic drills, rasps and files like Mike uses to work on his car! It did not look like fun at all, but Poco was so doped up, he was listing like a drunken sailor. The anesthesia also messes with their body temperature, and he was dripping sweat like I've never seen. He loaded in 2-3 tries and was completely subdued for the mile ride home.

When we got home, we unloaded him and I gently hosed him down (the weather was unseasonably warm) and groomed him. Jaz seemed to revel in picking on poor Pokey in his weakened condition. I'm sure in Jaz's mind it was entirely deserved for Poco's dominance of him the rest of the time. Jaz is normally submissive to all but the youngest foals. The day after the procedure, I came outside and Poco walked over to me ever-so-slowly and laid that big ole head in my arms, obviously just miserable. That was the first time he ever came to me on his own for anything other than food. Jaz leaned over and scraped his top teeth along Poco's face from between his eyes down to his nose. He was actually quite gentle and didn't hurt Poco, but it was truly pathetic.

I rode Jaz every chance I got. A friend of our sons came and brought his 2 little girls who were immediately in love with Jaz. Of course, Jaz was perfect and they were thrilled. Right after this photo was taken, the blanket slipped and both girls slid off. Their dad was right beside them and broke the fall, but the little one was very frightened and upset. As soon as her heart stopped racing, the older one was back for more. I knew then she was a kindred spirit. I recognized that longing in her eyes. They have visited several times since. Jaz doesn't look too bad in this photo, but at the time, he was so bony. Even Nita, to whom Heather always sends hard keepers to fatten up, wasn't able to keep weight on him.

One day in late winter/early spring (2007), I got on Jaz and it was like he was possessed. If I said left, he yanked me right. He refused to do anything I asked him. He even ran me into a tree! I was truly despondent: if I can't ride Jaz, friend of children and idiots everywhere, there could be no hope left for me! I called Heather and she laughed and said Jaz was known to do that. When I asked her why she didn't tell me, she said he only does it when his rider starts to gain confidence and wants to call the shots, and she didn't think I had gotten that far yet. Me neither, but apparently Jaz thought so! He tried it a couple more times, but I was onto him and we got past that pretty quickly.

Next time: Night and Day

We All Have Issues

From the very beginning, I had thought of keeping a journal of my adventures, but it has taken me a year and a half to get around to it. I'm glad I waited, for it is only in retrospect that I can (hope to) accurately write about what's inside Poco's head and heart. Little is known of Poco's history prior to Jerry. Back then he was called "Cappuccino." Much of what follows is conjecture, based on our observations of Poco's behavior, Heather's experience, and our combined intuition and instincts.

Think of him as the rudest, cockiest, and most macho of bachelors -- "Yo Adrian!" One common description of a horse like Poco is "proud cut," which means nothing more than he doesn't know he's a gelding. In his own mind, he's still the studliest of muffins. Get him around a stallion and he is unpredictable at best. Get him around mares (in season or not) and he's downright STUPID. Some of this is just bad behavior and he has gotten a whole lot better as his manners have improved.

Poco (or "Rusty," as he was known in at least one previous incarnation) was probably a working ranch horse, primarily handled by men.
Prior to meeting up with us, he had very little experience with women and zero respect for them. He was not a pleasure horse; he had a job to do. While not necessarily abused, Poco was handled roughly and forced to obey; he was never given an opportunity to develop a willing spirit. It was the cowboy's way or the highway, and we think he changed hands quite a few times. His behavior and attitude in those early days here reminds me of the classic foster child mentality: "Why should I settle down? Why should I trust? I'll be leaving soon, so I'll just act up and make it happen faster. That way, I am in control." This attitude prevailed until only recently. I guess we must have passed the mark when he thought he'd be sold.

With Poco, what you see is not even close to what you get. He is scary smart and thinks way too much and too hard about everything, which is the source of most of his problems. If he had opposable thumbs, we'd be faced with global domination by an equine. He is his own worst enemy. For all that bluster, he is sensitive, intense, moody, mercurial. He is extremely food-driven and easily bored. "What's in it for me? Please tell me it's food. OK, I'm bored, time to do something else." He will try to take advantage of you every chance he gets, and he can be very clever about it. He can be stubborn, pushy, petty, jealous, uncooperative, non-compliant, belligerent, sulky. In one of his milder moods, we call him a snotty pony; if he's really acting up, it's Psycho Gelding. Don't get me wrong, he has NEVER threatened to kick or bite me, although he has challenged my authority on many, many occasions. Only once has he even hinted he might be thinking about rearing or bucking, but it was a total bluff.

The other side of this horse is sweet, affectionate, mischievous, playful, curious, at times even exuberant. This is the horse that follows me around like a puppy. When we're sitting outside in the drivewa
y, this is the horse that comes over and puts his head between my knees, leans his head on my shoulder, or nuzzles my hair. He is fascinated by my toes. This is the horse that fights to keep his eyes open when I whisper mush in his ear. THIS is my Wildman Rockstar, my Pokey Pony.

BOTTOM LINE: This is not a beginner horse. Naive doesn't even begin to describe my purchase of this horse. If I knew then what I know now, I never would have bought him. This is a LOTTA LOTTA horse. That said, necessity's a mother, and only because I have had to learn to deal with him do I know what I know today. I wouldn't be this far along if I didn't have to rise to the occasion. It has been and continues to be richly rewarding and satisfying.

Mike and I take the stewardship of animals very seriously. We have never gotten rid of an animal because it didn't act the way we thought it should. We've always done our very best to help our pets be the best they can be, and provide for their health and happiness. This horse is no different. For better or worse, he's mine for as long as he lives. We'll take the relationship as far as it can go.

Next time: Jazu

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Nature of the Beast

It didn't take long for me to realize having a horse was going to be a completely different experience than what I had always thought it would be. How could it NOT be, given my apriori knowledge was based on TV, books, and isolated experiences in settings controlled by others? Subconsciously, I guess I thought of them as big dogs. Although they sometimes do behave like dogs, they are SO NOT like dogs.

I'm sure I will say this more than once; I pray it every single day: Thank God for Heather and her family. Everything I REALLY know about horses, I have learned from them. There is no doubt in my mind that had I not been blessed to meet them, my whole experience would have been quite different, possibly with a very bad ending.
I continue to be humbled by what I DON'T know, and there are times when all I can do is shake my head at my own naiveté.

The first weeks with Poco were not unlike the first few weeks after the birth of my son. I was operating solely on instincts and common sense, which is just a euphemistic way of saying I was making it up as I went along. Because my actual experience around horses was so limited, the first thing I had to do was acclimate myself to how BIG a horse really is, how they carry and move themselves. Knowing a horse weighs 1100 pounds and having that 1100 pounds at the end of a lead rope are entirely different things. I learned quickly to not ever be complacent. They can spook at anything or nothing at all, and when they do, it is not always possibly to predict or control what happens next.

A comic aside: I was also not prepared for how much they eat, and just how much poop that translates into! Man, they are eating, pooping machines! One horse on 2.5 acres and I was spending close to a half day a week trying to shovel the front yard! And then, what do you DO with it?? I'm no gardener, so maintaining a compost pile was and is in no way appealing to me.

Heather gave me a crash course in Herd Animal Behavior 101. Herd animals are herbivorous prey animals, as opposed to almost all other domestic pets, which are carnivorous predators. In the wild, carnivores hunt and eat herbivores. If it comes to fight or flight, if the avenue is open to them, the prey will almost always choose to flee. There are dominant horses and submissive horses, and each has a place in the herd. Even if it's just one horse, there's always a herd, and there's always a leader. At one point, Poco had the old horse Brown, his goat, and Jerry's kids, and he was the undisputed boss. Now I was his herd, and he was making it very clear whom he thought should be the boss. For obvious safety reasons, in a domestic situation, regardless of where a horse thinks he ranks, it is crucial the human outrank him. You don't have to SHOW fear or intimidation or confidence or dominance -- they can sense it from deep inside you, which is so amazing to me. This can call for some pretty courageous (sometimes OUTrageous and audacious) behavior from a 5'4" woman.

There is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the herd. The enforcer? The Boss Hoss. On TV, you always get the impression that some big skeery stallion is the herd leader and everybody else is either his offspring or part of his harem. Imagine my surprise to learn the lead horse and brains of the outfit is actually a MARE. If Poco ever had any manners, he had forgotten them. He was bossy, pushy, uncooperative and sometimes downright belligerent. My job as lead mare was clear, however, the methods were still fuzzy.

Somewhere in that first week or so, Heather came over to hop on for a test ride. The deal was, if she got tossed, I had to give her a homemade pie. I tacked Poco up, Heather got on and it was obvious Poco was very nervous. Heather was on him for just a minute or so when Poco wigged. At the time, I didn't know what was going on, what his intentions were. Knowing him as I do now, I know he was unsure of what was expected of him and he over-thought himself into a nervous dither. He started hopping and spinning, and the more he did it, the more he spiraled himself into panic. Heather wisely chose to voluntarily dismount. Or maybe my apple pie is just that good. At any rate, this was no "pocket pony."

This was also a lesson for me in just how strong horses are: Poco snapped a brand new set of reins, and they weren't cheezy ones either.

Together, Heather and I plotted a course of action. My job was to spend as much time as possible with Poco, doing whatever I felt confident and comfortable doing, which at the time, wasn't much at all. He got groomed a lot. We worked on basic ground manners, how to walk on a lead, how to stand still.
Heather's #1 rule: ALWAYS WIN. Even if it's not the win you wanted, change the game and rig it so you do win. I quickly learned how to make him back up. To this day, when all else fails, backing up is my default win.

Next time: We All Have Issues

What are the odds?

For the next two weeks leading up to Poco's arrival, I was posting to The Happy Appy forum multiple times a day. I was encouraged to find actual (as opposed to virtual) help and got a message from a woman named Heather, who offered to help me. She asked where I was, and I responded in broad terms. She kept narrowing it down until we discovered she was only 2-3 miles away. She and her boyfriend (Jason) were staying with her parents (Nita and Jim), but had 30 acres and about 20 horses on a spread maybe 20 minutes north of here. Texas is a big place and she could have been anywhere. What are the odds that she would literally be a neighbor? In the time since, Mike and I have come to be friends with the whole family. Turns out, Nita and I are the same age and get on like gangbusters! But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

Jerry brought Poco out here the Friday after Thanksgiving 2006. Poco was wigged and pretty scary when Jerry opened the door to the trailer; he came FLYING out. He remained really spooky for weeks. Texas was headed into winter, with crisp, windy days that I have since learned can be crazy days for horses. Poco had been kept in a naked .75-1 acre corral, without a tree in sight. We have lots of trees. Every time he was hit by a falling leaf, or a bird flew out of a tree, or the wind rustled the leaves, he'd bolt. A moderately busy road runs along the south side of the property and he was unaccustomed to the noise, not only from it, but from the house as well. The first morning I had him, I went out to feed him, the AC kicked on and had I not dived over the water trough, I would have been trampled. Talk about an adrenaline rush at 5:00am! Same scenario the first time Mike opened the garage door. Through all this, Poco seemed wary, if not indifferent to me. I had to work to catch him, and when I did, my impression was he had something akin to disdain for me.

I don't recall how long it was until Heather actually came over to meet Poco and me; it might have been the same day he got here, may have been a day or so later. She came by herself and Poco played hard to get, giving us a chance to see him move. It was beautiful. Although he's only about 14.2 and built like a tank with little bitty short legs, he has a smooth, lovely stride. His cannon bones are stout and sturdy, and the power in that barrel chest, thick neck and big butt is very obvious when he moves. The shape of his head and neck, as well as the feathery fetlocks seemed to indicate draft in somewhere in the gene pool. I don't remember if we ever did catch him that day. Heather told me he was out of shape, 150-200 pounds overweight, and he needed his (unshod) feet trimmed.

I made an appointment with the farrier she recommended, who turned out to be this absolutely adorable young guy named Jon. Ladies, this guy makes a pair of jeans look REALLY good from behind :-)) But, I digress... I had caught Poco and had him on a lead rope. He took one look at Jon and just flipped out. He wouldn't let Jon near him. He was rearing, snorting, pawing. Talk about idiot newbie moments. I honestly had no idea you had to TEACH a horse to stand for the farrier or the vet. DUH. Jon was so kind and so patient. He spent 30 minutes with me, just talking to me, showing me how to approach and handle Poco. He introduced me to the basic concept of stress-release when working with a horse, and how to tie a quick-release knot. He finally was able to approach Poco, stood his ground when Poco acted up, and showed me how to pick up his feet. He told me Poco's feet really didn't look too bad, and that I should practice making him stand and lift his feet. He didn't charge me for his time. Those 30 minutes continue to pay dividends for me even now.

When Heather visited next, I had a veritable litany of questions and observations about Poco's behavior. I had him on a lead rope, and when she tried to approach him, he puffed up like he was going to strike. Before I could say a word, she threw herself forward and chest-butted him, growling through her teeth, "Don't you DARE!" To this day, the memory of her getting up in that horse's face never fails to make me LOL. I've since had to do it myself a few times, and it works every time. Poco's manners totally SUCKED, and in his mind, HE was the boss. This actually made sense. Jerry's wife and kids mostly cared for him. Poco pulled them around like they were rag dolls, and was doing the same thing to me. And so began my instruction in how to become the lead mare, the Boss Hoss. This is an intimidating but completely necessary concept to grasp considering the sheer size and unbelievable quickness of these animals. Things can go terribly wrong in a heartbeat.

Next time: The Nature of the Beast

Friday, June 13, 2008

What the HELL have I done?

Anyone with half a brain and a modicum of sense would, at this point, be asking, "What?! You bought a horse without ever having actually lain eyes on it, much less ridden it? Are you CRAZY?" Well, there WAS a photo but yeah, pretty much. I talked to my husband and wonderful man that he is, he said I should go for it. Little did either of us know. Crazy? Impulsive? NAIVE?? Even I can't believe I did it, and I've been living with the consequences of my own actions for 56 years.

As is sometimes the case when adopting a child, we were not prepared for the arrival of this very large bundle of joy. Fortunately, the guy who owned him offered to keep him until I was in a position to take possession. What followed was weeks and weeks of hard work, and lots and lots of money to finish securing the perimeter of the property and collecting the various supplies and equipment. About 75% of the land was fenced with pipe and cable. As a temporary solution, we had a gate made and cross fenced just in back of the house with T-posts and hot fence, which effectively gave us 2.5 enclosed acres. We didn't have the money or the time to cross fence around the house, meaning the animal could literally walk up to the front and side doors if he so chose. The existing fence configuration was not readily conducive to doing so either, and we decided to play
it by ear, hoping we didn't have a destructive one on our hands (BTW, we lucked out).

Meanwhile, every chance I got, I'd go to Jerry's to see Cappuccino. He is a bay roan Appaloosa gelding, at the time 9-10 years old. His name was changed to Poco even before I brought him home (and before I ever heard of the legendary Poco Bueno bloodline). I mean, who names a horse descended from Native American war ponies Cappuccino, I ask you? I can see why they chose that name, and if you look at his butt blanket, you can too. It looks like swirly coffee or melted rocky road ice cream. That's his winter coat, but in the summer, he is the color of a good cup of coffee.

Little is known of Poco's history prior to Jerry. He was bought from a guy who had him in a pasture with a couple other horses and rarely, if ever, rode him. Back then, he was called Rusty. He has several large, nasty, crude firebrands which have not helped at all in tracing his origins. On his left shoulder is a HUGE stacked "R" over an "S" over a rocker. The one on his left hip is not so easily distinguishable. It appears to be a brand over a brand. Could be "41," but so crude, it kind of looks like a backwards "P," or may have once been an "F" that someone filled in later. Jerry's other horse, an ancient Quarter Horse imaginatively named Brown, had recently died, and Poco was left with a goat as a pasture buddy. Jerry's job left him without adequate time to devote to a horse. I paid $1,000 for Poco and all his tack and supplies. In the 2008 horse market, I could have gotten the same deal for probably half that, or even less.

About two weeks after I handed Jerry the money and two weeks before we thought we'd be ready to bring Poco home, it suddenly hit me: What the HELL have I done? I knew as much about horsekeeping as I do about rocket science. I hadn't been on a horse in close to 8 years and even at that, I never got beyond the seasoned novice stage. I don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' babies, Ms. Scarlett! Although we live smack in the middle of prime North Texas horse country, I don't know any of these people. What to do, where to turn? Ahhh, the internet!

I Googled something like "online horse forum" and got a bunch of hits, many of them Yahoo groups, so I decided to take that avenue. There were a LOT of them, some very specific, so I found several I thought might be a good fit and posted a long, impassioned plea for help. What came back from two of them totally knocked the wind out of me. According to them, I should have boarded the horse out for six months so I didn't kill him and he didn't kill me. One guy posted a diatribe about how (in much more concise and simple terms) horses aren't pets and should only be owned by professionals. According to him, amateurs had no business owning horses. I was devastated! The notable exception, the shining beacon of light and hope came from a group called "The Happy Appy." I was welcomed, I was encouraged, and most importantly, I was promised help.

Next time: What are the odds?

The History of an Obsession

Hard to say from whence the obsession arose, but I think some people are just born with the love of horses as part of the very fiber of their souls. I am one of those. It was the dream that, despite all logic and logistics pointing to the contrary, refused to die. It would not have mattered if I never was blessed to own one; it would have been a part of my soul nonetheless. That it took 50 years for this dream to be realized also matters not at all.

My earliest memories of wanting a horse were fueled by 1950s-1960s TV: Zorro and Tornado, Lone Ranger & Silver, Hoppy & Topper, Roy & Trigger, Velvet & King. My mind could not differentiate between wanting to OWN a horse and wanting to BE a horse. My play generally centered around the latter, and I ran around with the abandon of a wild mustang, my spirit refusing to be tamed or daunted by the small minds of small town Pennsylvania. I had a shoe box full of model horses that were my most cherished playthings.

I became a voracious, insatiable reader, and my subject of choice was, of course, horses. I read every Anna Sewell, Margherite Henry, and Walter Farley book there was, and probably dozens, if not hundreds more. Then I read technical books, how-to books, books about various equine disciplines, horse anatomy. I drew horses and I dreamed about horses. With the innocence (or brazenness) of a child, I'd let myself into peoples' pastures and barns to hang with their horses. Naturally, I made my passion known to my parents, but with 5 children under the age of 10 in suburbia, owning a horse wasn't in the cards for me.

When I reached junior high age, I'd save my babysitting and gift money to go riding at a local stab
le. It's odd for me to think about it now, but my hobbies and passions and indeed my very nature must have been so alien to my parents. They were quite strict with me (eldest child, only girl), but when I wanted to go riding, they'd literally take me and drop me off at the gate to the stables! Different time, eh? These days it would be no unaccompanied minors and even then, you'd have to sign waivers and such. Back then, it was no big deal. I'd just call them when I was ready to be picked up. And for a few hours, I'd live my dream on some poor world-weary hack.

Boys, high school, college, marriages, a kid, divorces, major geographical moves -- life happens. I didn't give much thought to horse ownership. Fifteen years ago, in what can only be described as "one of those God things," I met the love of my life and embarked on a whole new chapter. He grew up on his grandparents' farm and his dream was always to live in the country. We bought land just south of the Red River and that old familiar obsession popped back up with a vengeance. We owned the land for about 2 years before we moved out here, and while still living in suburbia, I took riding lessons, which were marginal at best, but I got to be around horses, so it was all good to me.

The years that followed had us concentrating on our careers, getting the kid raised up and the land and house squared away. And then came the fateful morning in November 2006 when I walked in the door at work and found myself staring straight at a "For Sale" notice on the bulletin board. It was love at first sight. I walked over, pulled it off the board and said (maybe out loud), "MINE."

Next time: What the HELL have I done??
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