Consider the Why
By Betsy Kelleher
My February column announced a contest. If you forgot or didn’t read it, here’s the deal. I want to teach Lady something new, simply because of my amazing experience in 2011 when I taught her to pull a small log before our first ACTHA ride. Lady was a different horse that whole day. Instead of reacting to new things as she often does, she seemed to be thinking about each obstacle.
After the ACTHA ride, I wondered WHY Lady was so different. She even backed out of the trailer slowly instead of rushing out, for the first time in the seven years I had worked with her. I now believe it was our deepened connection. Instead of taking charge as her usual alpha self, she was following. I was leading.
So now I want another training challenge for Lady to reinforce that thinking horse attitude. Send me an email (email@example.com) with your name and a description of the task in the body of the email, not as an attachment, please. Be sure to put CONTEST ENTRY in the title of the email so it won’t get lost in spam. You have until midnight, March 17th. My April column will announce the winner, who will receive a copy of my book, MARES! (ya gotta love em)…Fifty Stories to Aid & Inspire Mare Owners. Details about that book are on my website, www.goduseshorses.com. If the winner already has that book, I may substitute another one.
Remember the guidelines. I’m an older woman, and Lady is a strong minded Tennessee Walker mare. No mounted shooting or jumping (Lady is already good at jumping ditches!). I am interested in a project that will help build Lady’s confidence to ride out alone (or maybe around tractors?). I will not judge on the complexity or presentation of the entry, only on the appropriateness of the task for me and Lady (in other words, can we do it?). Send as many ideas as you like, one per email. And if I get more than one great idea, I might award more than one book. I have already received four entries, plus a few interesting comments.
While I was teaching Lady to drag a log, I was working to teach Rocky the same skill. He didn’t pass the final test, so to speak, and I’ve decided to try again. I hope to find a new owner for him and I haven’t ridden since last November. This groundwork is my first step toward getting back in the saddle. So on a warm February day, he stood quietly in the crossties as I brushed him and picked up handfuls of long hair! This is a true sign of spring and I am definitely ready!
I started by leading him around the indoor arena, dragging the rope behind us. I flicked the rope all around him, on both sides, and tossed one end over his back. Before our session ended, Rocky was walking around with the rope over his back, one end clipped to his halter and the other dragging behind him—first on one side and then the other. It was a good first session, and Rocky earned a carrot treat. Our next session will include the log.
I’ve wondered why there is such a difference in the way each of my horses learn. Is it just personality? Intelligence? Lady thinks fast, moves fast and learns fast, often with three or four repetitions of a new task. But it may take Rocky a dozen or more repetitions to learn the same task. Rocky is cautious and careful, Lady is impulsive. Maybe it’s a gender thing. I once read about a study comparing male and female horses which said mares often learn faster.
I remember the first time we loaded Rocky and Traveller to go riding at a local park. I knew Rocky was used to a larger stock trailer where he could turn around and walk out. I made the mistake of not working with him on this issue before loading him into our two horse trailer. He backed up easily under saddle or on the ground. Why wouldn’t he back out of a trailer? Well, he hadn’t done it before.
When we arrived at the park to unload, he tried to turn around and couldn’t. I tried for 40 minutes to get him to back out. We finally reloaded Traveller and went home. I had to get pretty scary to finally back him out, and then I did what I should have done in the first place. I led Rocky toward the trailer slowly, two steps forward and one step back until he was all the way in. By then, Rocky backed out without a problem. You can’t assume a horse will know how to do something new, until you show him.
Rocky is not stupid. He figures things out for himself. Any horse that can carefully walk out of a four strand wire fence without getting tangled up is pretty clever. During the first year we owned him, he got out a dozen times. I worried that he was jumping out until I actually saw how he did it. So I would go get him and put him in his stall for an hour while the hot wire fence was checked and put back to work. He didn’t avoid my catching him and seemed proud of his success at reaching the green grass outside.
And then one day I watched as Rocky put his head through the two middle wires, carefully put both front feet on the other side, stood there a moment, then slowly backed up into his paddock. He was definitely going through a thought process, not reacting to a hot wire. I believe he remembered that he was put into his stall every time he escaped, and decided he would just as soon stay in his paddock. He never got out again.
Rocky has a wonderful personality, friendly and willing. But I have never felt the same bond with Rocky that I have with Lady. Again, maybe it’s a gender thing. Two horses are just a bit too much right now for me. Rocky deserves an owner who will have the energy and time needed to develop a good connection with him. He needs more fun in his training. He has much potential that is going to waste.
A connection is the essence of any relationship. Rocky is easily distracted and keeping that connection is a constant struggle. Sometimes we can run a horse around in a round pen, or make them move their feet to show who is in charge, which renews the connection. I want to share something else about connection.
For the past four years, I’ve been dealing with my son’s struggle with cancer, a struggle that is very near its ending as I write this. I thought I would be able to handle this time when it came, that I would be strong because of my faith. But I was so focused on finding a cure to fix the problem that I couldn’t make the most of the time I had with him. And I lost connection with the God in charge. The day my son told me to stop searching for cures and to let go, was the day I lost hope. I lost the crutch that was holding me up. And I fell hard.
Sometimes, when life presents an obstacle, we get so focused on the problem that we lose the one connection that would help us have victory over it. I urge my readers to stay connected to family and friends that matter. But even more, stay connected to the One who supplies our strength, our hope, and our sense of belonging. We are born to die, as Jesus was born to die for us. This Easter season, may we take time to meditate on the significance of Christ’s death in our personal lives. From the words of a Gaither song, because He lives, we can face tomorrow. Because of His resurrection power, my son will soon have a new healthy and strong body, and a new life without pain. Now I can praise God with a thankful heart.
(Originally published in the March 2013 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)