Me on Chaunson, in front, and Titan's little ears listening to Barb
Our time here in Florida has been warm and full of horses and dolphins and tennis and beach and kayaking and bike riding. As November ended and December began I came to the realization, with sadness, that I am not really a writer at all. I do not feel compelled to write. Blog and book have easily (and happily) been forgotten as I try to eek out every second of time I can get with Maizie and Brian and horses and sunshine. Being outside, far away from a computer is liberating and the most fun ever. Then, sunset comes and Maizie cooks up an evening scheme of swimming or poker playing or shuffleboard or some such family time together and any ideas I have of writing a blog post go out the door. She is 14 now and the thought that we probably only have four more years together like this seems impossible and makes me not care one shred about the balance of philosophical thought with action. In other words, I am so busy doing that I can't stop to document it properly!
Still, ideas about horses and kindness and training swirl in my head and I need to get them down before they go missing forever. The one that has been nagging at me for a few weeks is the idea of groundwork. So this post might be staccato - just a purging of some loose and random observations.
On my second day here this year I was asked, "Do you do any groundwork with horses?" The barn where I ride in Florida is full of good, solid, kind, horse people who put a lot of emphasis on lunging and roundpen work so I answered, "Yes, I do groundwork, but I don't think you would call what I do groundwork per se." I knew if I explained further it would seem like I was a complete idiot.
A little behind the motion here as I drive my sweet, green charge with my seat.
Chaunson, the chestnut Appendix gelding I've been riding had some difficulty with riding on the trail with other horses. His first time out with me he willingly took me through all the parks. I was new to him and together we floated forward on the euphoria and overall giddiness of my return to a favorite place. The second time out was not so happy as he pulled ugly snake faces, threatened to kick our companions, balked and refused to walk forward some of the time. Any quiet encouragement from me would elicit pinned ears.
I knew that I had to get him to trust me by using my own style of what I called groundwork. Actually not groundwork at all, some of what I wanted to do involved basic horse care. My first concern was his stall. I don't care how a horse is kept - in a stall with partial turnout or 24/7 turnout with shelters - but whatever system is used, the horse must be provided with a safe clean space and clean water - around the clock. Chaunson has a habit of pooping in his water bucket. I believe this is an intentional act that illustrates frustration. Destructive habits like this begin to disappear when horses are happy and engaged. I cleaned out his buckets and with help to move the mats, stripped his stall. I am trying to keep his buckets as clean as possible during my sporadic visits. The amazing barn operator and Chaunson's fabulous owner, both, sadly, are injured right now so Chaunson's constant bucket cleanliness is understandably not a top priority to anyone but me (this water-bucket neurotic lady from Pennsylvania). Still, we have seen improvement in this area with a few days in a row that Chaunson used his stall rather than the bucket - hooray! I believe a horse can better concentrate on giving me a safe ride if his stall is clean and his bucket fresh.
Next, I put a huge emphasis on hand grazing - before and after a ride. Chaunson's kind owner grooms and hand grazes him regularly and Chaunson knows he is loved immensely because of this quiet bonding time. I needed Chaunson to know that I, too, value hand grazing and our rides sometimes begin and always end with a relaxed non-hurried hand grazing session in the churchyard. This is payback for his effort and seems to me to earn way more respect points than other acts. His nonchalance as we walk out to the churchyard on a loose lead line, he helping me nibble my own clementine, speaks volumes about his confidence in me. He doesn't grass dive with worry that his time to graze will be brief. Instead, he calmly strolls out as if we have forever to munch and soak up the sun. I like to give my horse at least the same amount of grazing time as riding time. Fat over-stuffed sausage horses like Pie can be led and ambled along sparse patches too for free "special grazing" time which creates a non-riding bond.
More "groundwork" for Chaunson involves the way I pay attention to him as I groom. It is difficult to talk to other people while grooming a horse and still keep my own concentration, intention, and interest. I needed Chaunson to know that I was listening to his comments. This brush tickles, this foot is tricky to pick up because it once was ouchy. I hear him and do not rush him and I can tell he appreciates that.
On our rides when the ugly faces were pulled, I would ask Chaunson to stand silently and together we would wait until his ears were again forward. Then, after a short amount of time - enough so I thought he would not associate my actions with his nasty behavior toward other horses - I would slide off the side of him and we would walk side by side together. I was willing to walk the whole time if necessary, but usually it didn't take long. I believe his pinned ears and posturing is true fear of the other horses. When I walk with him I am certain that he knows that I am his advocate - "on his side of the disagreement" - if you will. In a short amount of time Chaunson's body relaxed and he snorted a bored sigh. Then I can remount. The same process works for me with hot, nervous horses who, for whatever reason did not get their bucks out during turnout. Hand walking at a brisk and intentional pace without anger or malice in my body is the very thing to diffuse a bomb. Calm sighing invariably follows and remounting is possible.
Of course, this isn't always graceful bareback. Luckily, we are in an equestrian neighborhood - sometimes there are mounting blocks and sometimes there are fire hydrants!
I am happy to report that this type of "groundwork" has worked wonders with the Chaunson boy so far. By our fourth ride, he walked the entire circuit of parks with three other horses beside him and without me dismounting once. At one point in this ride all three horses were crowded together in a tight space to avoid a belching and screeching trash truck. Chaunson moved delicately with his horsey companions, never flinching at all. He neither sneered or threatened to kick. He was relaxed and happy for the whole ride. In fact, one of the riders didn't know that Chaunson had had flare ups on previous rides. He gave no indication of any worry at all. I don't think we are entirely out of the woods yet, but we are well on our way to forming a bond that instills trust, confidence, and mutual respect.