Sunday, February 28th. I wake up at the sound of my alarm clock, but truth be told, I’ve been half vigil all night, unable to fall deeply unconscious, too excited at the prospect lying ahead. Today is the day that I go pick up MY NEW HORSE, the beautiful, and fully registered, Dandy Lena Boon, formidable 22 mth old Paint Horse stud colt. I drive 1.5 hr and get there a few minutes ahead of the specialised horse trucker I’ve hired, the same that has transferred my horse Joli when we moved, back last summer. Ludovic is there on time, and we share a coffee and some horse small talk with the breeders, before getting to business. When we get ready to load Dandy onto the truck (which he’s never done before), I’m all determined to apply and only apply Warwick’s methods for horses with no groundwork background : lead them one step at a time, let them back up as much as they want, but release every time for that one step forward. One step after another, the horse gets in the trailer. Eventually.
Dandy waiting for me, after an unusual (for him) night in a stall
Unfortunately, Dandy’s breeder, a very nice man by the way, has other plans. To him, his horses “always get in at the first try, no fuss” (but then again, they also “get saddled and ridden in just a few attempts, no fuss”, yes that same horse that I’m still having to desensitize to the saddle though he’s had 5 rides already <sigh>). I intend to let him lead the horse, as I get a strong feeling he’s gonna mess things up, so I’d rather “not my circus, not my monkeys” this one, but he hands me the leadrope telling his wife, “It’s her horse now, better she leads him”. I put on my best poker face and start leading the colt, who, surprisingly enough, follows rather meekly, and after just one second of hesitation, puts a front foot on the truck’s ramp (I must add it’s one awesome truck, as little intimidating as one can be). The colt stops there, a little unsure. I let him think about it for a few seconds, let him feel there’s no threat and no one’s gonna rush him. Then I put some light but steady pressure in the rope again, and wait. He gives in a second, taking a couple of steps, at which point his breeders starts pushing him on the bum and cooing him and making all sorts of vocal enouragements. Jeeezus…. I’ll spare you the rest. I got pretty worried he would mess it up really badly, thank God with much diplmomacy on my part, and some subtle but useful suggestions of Ludovic, a great professional in his own right, and on whose skills I was confident we could fall back on in case of real screw-up, the horse was loaded in less than ten minutes. I let a sigh of relief out and off we went.
The trip wasn’t long, 1.5 hrs later, we arrived at my friends Jean-Michel and Christel, the beautiful Double V Farm, a Quarter Horses breeding farm and boarding operation.
It’s a lovely place, with great facilities, and even greater people
The colt looked pretty chilled when we lowered the truck’s ramp. He walked off rather well, too. High headed and flaring nostrils to take in all the sudden novelty of the place, lots of horses grazing in paddocks, vehicles on the parcking lot, the massive barn aisle… As Jean-Michel and Christel were looking at him admiringly (“He’s a real looker”), we decided to put him in a stall during lunch break so he could settle down, and I could go home and grab a bite, until I’d return in the afternoon, and start getting going with him. He entered the barn following me on the lead, and froze. I gave him some time to look around, then asked another step towards the first stall to the left which, fortunately, was the one planned for him to step into. Those are fairly small stalls, and he felt legitimately claustrophobic, but he went in in less than a minute. By then he was strongly wanted to crowd towards me for safety. In the blink of an eye, I had become the one and only thing that he had seen in his previous life and still was seing now, in other words, his surrogate mommy. I promptly left the stall not to get things worse, and went home for a much needed lunch.
Fast forward two hours later. My husband, moved by sheer curiosity, as he strongly dislikes anything horse related, and my 7 yr old, horse crazy daugher, in tow, I went back to the stables to get acquainted with my new colt. Little did I know that would turn into a super intense session that would really make me question my sanity…
We heard him screaming from inside the barn all the way to the parking lot. Hmm, that is not good, me thought. We went to his stall and here is was, prancing like a nut, eyes a bit wild, tense as a board and a neck made of concrete. For a brief moment I wanted to close my eyes, opened them again and see the sweet and quiet face of my previous horse, Joli, who hardly ever got mad at anything. But it wasn’t Joli staring back at me, it was that crazy looking Paint not-yet-two-year-old *stallion* (to top it all) and he looked pretty upset about the whole situation.
One word about me : I have the ability to be scared stupid inside, and still look pretty solid outside. Not quite sure where it comes from, but it’s both a blessing and a curse. Let’s say I’m very good to pretending to be brave, when in fact I’m the chickenest shit on Earth. So it’s with the calmest appearance, but my confidence badly shaken, that I slid the door open and went in with my rope halter and lead. Warwick Schiller’s video with the 17.1 hands Andalusian was playing in my mind as I thought of how I would keep that big frightened colt to walk on top of me. Sure enough, he dove for me as soon as I entered the stall. I raised my hands in front of his nearest eye, and very assertively pushed him out of my space. That took a great deal of determination, he had NO experience of backing up in front of a human. I realize he had absolutely no agressivity in him, but he was towering above me in an attempt to get rid of my hands before his eye, not understanding the slightest bit of this situation, or this sudden and brutal life change ! A few hours ago he was chilling out with his best buddy, in a big pasture, with friendly humans who could be easily shoved out of the way when needed, and here he was, in a strange place, full of strange sights, sounds, smells, confined in a tiny box, and now with a human assaulting him in a way he had no experience with. Talk about sensory overload !!
Knowledgeable colt starters will always tell you that between a rather unhandled, wild, wary, aloof horse, and a partly educated but spoiled, bratty, pushy one, they’ll take the untouched colt in a heartbeat, any time of the year. Well, Dandy was a sort mix of rather unhandled AND pushy/spoiled, an unlikely combination that was going to make both of us very scared and very miserable for a litte while. This pictures illustrates it pretty well :
Here his lady breeder tried to refrain him from following his buddy down the pasture… It was only a matter of seconds before she had to get out of the way, lest she’d get properly trampled ! I remember pushing the shutter and thinking “oh boy, we’ll need to work on that”…
Somehow I haltered him, and got him out, in the not so wide concrete barn aisle. That took a few attempts before he figured out he wasn’t rushing out like and idiot, flattening me in the process. With 4 or 5 tries, he figured it out, and some of this thoughts started to focus on me, that weird little human sending so much energy off her. We walked down the alley, towards the arena. He was getting more upset by the minute at all the horses being stalled and looking or breathing at him, I can’t even recall how we ended up in the sand, finally.
I have to laugh looking at that picture now. It says it all… Look how wary but potentially reactive he’s holding himself, look how straight and determined, but puzzled about thing, I am…
The horse found himself in this unknown and very large, covered arena. He was frightened and defensive. He wanted to move his feet so I offered him to make a circle around me. He had no idea how to do that, keep in mind other than being haltered, and having his feet trimmed a handful of times, he has zero education to speak of.
When he wanted to huddle close, I wanted none of it.Get outta my space, horse, and go find your own peace somewhere, I ain’t you mom !
As things got faster and tougher, I got dragged a bunch of times, found myself in uncomfortable position behind the horse a few, but he never had an agressive move, never tried to kick, bite, or strike me, which reassured me as to his normally good nature. At some point I knew my leadope wasn’t the best tool for this, so I managed to travel towards the place in the arena where the training gear is stored, and to find a very long flag (thank God this is a Western barn with some horsemanship methods, and the assorted tools…).
Ah Ah ! I gotcha, horse. The flag instantly got his attention and commended his respect…
The flag allowed me to practice a foundation of horsemanship routines, known simply as “the circle exercise” with Buck Brannaman, or “Focus & Balance” in Warwick Schillers’ Plan. It looks a little like lungeing the horse, except the emphasis is put on correct form, the head slightly tipped to the inside, the horse arched on the circle, and his butt respectfully moving away from you. The important part is that the horse pays real and undivided attention to YOU, and can arrange his body to change direction willingly and fuidly on request. Of course, of first attempt at this was very primitive, crude, even. But I was keeping him at safe distance, and he was learning very quick that I meant every single thing I asked… and was ready to follow through with the flag if he didn’t at least try
I got a lot of “No !”, or taking off at full speed in the wrong direction, etc, but I kept my ground and didn’t lower the pressure until he gave the right answer. It was like a crash course in horsemanship for both of us. He taught me that starting an uneducated stud colt was not fluff and bubbles, and I taught him he was *not* Moses, in front of whom the sea would part, and humans would yield. He learned, right there and then, than people have personal spaces no different from horses, and that from now on, they would protect and reclaim them.
There was more head flaggind involved as we walked the barn aisle back to his stall, and I found out a freaked out horse can be pretty adamant about running you over, and that a long flag is a life safer, even if you have to wave it at their eye super assertively to be effective. I hated every minute of that session, the unexpected brutal reality of it, how pushy the colt had been allowed to become. I was sorry for him, shocked, felt totally overhorsed. But mostly I was exhausted, so I went home making a mental note of being there early the next morning, for a round penning session, hell or high water. And that will be for the next post 😉