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


the7msn said...

Where would we be without our mentors? Bravo to you for realizing your dream of horse ownership. I think the older we are when we get our first horse, the more we appreciate their splendor.

jme said...

congratulations on poco! i can remember how excited i was when we got our first horse, but it never wears off - learning about them, interacting with them, building a relationship with them is just as exciting with each new day.

you said "I continue to be humbled by what I DON'T know." that too, is a sentiment that lasts forever. i've been involved with horses for more than 25 years, at times professionally, and i still learn something new every day... i hope you are enjoying your journey together. good luck to you both :-)

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin