(Hey Nineteen, that's Aretha Franklin.)
I'm still high from last Saturday's ride on Poco, accompanied by my friend Kristen on Jazu the Wonder Horse. Poco surprised and delighted me with his willingness and attention. The big chicken trusted Jaz and me to keep him from being eaten on the road. I needed the quality of that ride. We'll continue to work on the buddy-bound behavior another day. For now, I pronounce it bueno.
Mare owners, don't get your chaps in a wad here, but sometimes Poco reminds me of the more hormonal, bitchy mares I've met (I know nice ones, too.) We can argue all day about the emotional capacity of horses, but the best way to describe Poco is that he's moody and brooding. Thinks too much. You never know if you're gonna get the sweet, tell-me-again-what-a-good-boy-I-am pony, or the head case, although I have improved in my ability to predict how he'll behave based on his attitude when I catch him and tack him up. Admittedly, Psycho Gelding's appearances have become less frequent, but every once in awhile, his ugly head still pops up (literally).
I've had respect issues with Poco since the day he got here. Without going into the 'why' details, he respected and feared men, but had no regard for women or children. Obviously, I've had to work on the latter, but to this day, he is distrustful (if not downright fearful) of strange men. I would have been embarrassed for you to have seen him the first time he met the farrier, Jason (Heather's BF), or the vet. Those were the days when I heard a lot that I should get rid of this horse before he killed me.
Because Poco was too much horse for this newbie to just jump on, Heather gave me a regimen of ground work, starting with the basics: respect my space, walk on a loose lead, stand still, pick up your feet, move over, take a step forward, and my default win when nothing else was going right, BACK THE HELL UP. At some point, I assume he knew all this stuff, but he had been allowed to revert to rudeness. The ground work was as much for me as for him. It helped build my confidence by giving me a safe way to interact with my horse other than grooming him.
Bringing Jaz home in January of 2007 made a big difference. Jaz's manners are impeccable, and Poco seemed to rise to a new level of expectation. Poco is the dominant horse, but without fuss or fanfare, I began to defer to Jaz: I greet him first, he gets treats or dinner first. If I'm riding, he gets ridden first. If Poco is pushy or ill-mannered in any way, he'll find himself ignored while Jaz gets all the treats, praise, and attention. If I'm grooming or tacking up Jaz, I don't look at or speak to Poco unless it's to make him move.
Kristen's comment about how well-mannered my horses are made me stop again and realize how far Poco and I have come since 2006.
- I can make him step back with a look, subtle body language, or pointing at his chest.
- He stands respectfully by his feed pan instead of trying to grab the bucket out of my hand. Even then, I make him take at least two steps back from me before dumping the feed.
- I can lay a finger on his hip or shoulder and he'll move, or he'll respond to me pointing in the direction I want him to go with the verbal 'over'.
- He understands the difference between 'stand' (we're going to be here awhile) and 'wait' (we'll move when I say so in a moment.)
- He will freeze at a darkly uttered 'uh-UHH!'
- When tacked up, he will walk with me and mirror my movements. Look ma, no hands.
The point here is that even if you are not a highly-skilled horse person — which I absolutely am not — you can still accomplish a great deal by getting into their heads and using it to your advantage.