Do you (insert name) take this horse…

Finding a new horse is kind of like finding a new spouse.  First, you have the dating phase where you try out different situations and see if your philosophies and sensibilities fit.  Then there’s the “emotional” phase where you are trying to figure out whether or not you are really in love or just infatuated because he has such dreamy eyes or a nice car.  Then there’s the DECISION phase, where you have to make up your mind whether or not you want to spend the REST OF YOUR FREAKIN’ LIFE with that person.  It’s sort of like that with horses too.  Only first, you need to date the right horse!  Trying out the horse that’s not for sale is kind of like dating a married man.

So first, I had to return the wrong horse, Rasmin, and pick up the right horse, Jasmine.  Sometimes, I have to laugh at my own preconceived notions.  I had it in my mind that Rasmin might not want to get back in the trailer since the last time she got in, I, essentially, kidnapped her away from her herd and dragged her to a scary place where giant grey mice attack you in the sage brush.   So I’m thinking, maybe I should use Dolly as a babysitter if this becomes a problem.  With these erroneous thought molecules bouncing around in my brain, I introduced Dolly to Rasmin over the fence to see if this would be feasible.  And Dolly roared…  Like a stallion!   Wow!  I’ve heard her squeal and I’ve seen her strike, but I’ve never heard her just flat roar like that.  She was letting Rasmin know, in no uncertain terms, that she was The Big Cheese, The Head Honcho, The President and The Emperor all rolled into one.  I guess Dolly won the talent portion of that competition.  Anyway, I decided that even over the fence was a little close for comfort, so I gingerly led Dolly back to her corral and turned her loose.

“Thank-you.  I won’t be needing a babysitter today after all.”

And Rasmin, bless her heart, just jumped right in to the trailer.  Maybe she figured “Let’s blow this joint!  How much worse can it get?”

So we were off.  It wasn’t until I was about half a mile down the road when I remembered that it snowed the day before.  And Sonora Pass was closed!  Dang, now what?  So I called road conditions and they said the pass was closed, and judging from the message, it was closed before the pack station.  I kind of vaguely remembered that there is a dirt road you can take around the gate, but I was a little leery of running the gate, then getting into snow while hauling a horse trailer.  I have had a couple of snow-trailer-hauling experiences and I’m not really up for those kinds of adventures if I can avoid it!  (Of course, the old adventures were that much more exciting because my windshield wipers would randomly fail while you were driving through a blinding snowstorm—at least I had the new truck this time.)  Next I called Craig and left a message.  Maybe I would just return Rasmin to the “home” pasture and pick up Jasmine in a couple of days.  Fortunately, Craig called right back and said he’d just driven down from the pack station and there was no snow on the road at all.

I was feeling like such a bad girl, driving around with my “stolen” horse, running the gates.  Maybe I should be wearing black and listening to grunge.  But alas, my outlaw days were short lived.  Cal-trans had the gates opened before I got there and I just drove innocently through.

As I pulled in to the pack station, I saw a pretty little bay mare tied to the hitching post.  This had to be the right horse, right?  Fortunately, there were actual people there who were able to confirm that this was the actual correct horse.  We swapped horses and a few stories, I did my usual paranoid trailer check (wheels still attached: check!) and I was off.

When we got home, I found Jasmine to be very sweet and likeable.  Whereas, with Rasmin, I couldn’t really spot the Arab half, with Jasmine, I couldn’t spot the non-Arab half.  She had a refined head and body and a perfectly dished face with dainty little ears.  She is that blood bay color that makes you think of a perfect copper chestnut who accidentally wound up with someone else’s black mane and tail.  She stepped daintily out of the trailer and looked around.  She wasn’t calm and unconcerned, but I also didn’t feel the need for a stick for self defense.  As we headed to the corrals, we stopped to look at several scary objects.  She seemed quite worried about objects on the ground, but willing to approach them and look anyway.  I noticed that her eyes have a bluish tint to them.  Non-Arab half?  Hmmm…

Once at the corral, I played my usual games of moving her around and seeing what she was and wasn’t willing to do.  She was quite similar to Rasmin in that respect—willing to move around, but no backing and no bending to speak of.  It was then that I had an epiphany.  I had had the thought with both horses that maybe they had done some Parelli or other brand of natural horsemanship before because of the way I was able to move them around softly.  Still, a Parelli horse would both back and bend.  Neither horse did that although both horses figured it out with a few hints from me.  That’s when it hit me—I have made it, Rocky-like, to the top of some set of steps where my body language is finally so clear that even random horses begin to understand what I want!  Very cool.  Of course, Rocky had all of those sequels.  I still have to beat Apollo (riding) and the big Russian guy (liberty) and, when I’m really, really old, there’s still some other guy (finesse) to beat in a heartwarming, impassioned comeback that no one will watch.  But hey—it was still a very cool feeling.

That was Tuesday.  Wednesday, I spent about an hour gently combing the knots out of her mane using liberal applications of Laser Sheen and patience.  I trimmed her feet and fussed around with different Easyboots, then played with her on the ground some more.  I didn’t ride because Thursday, I was headed to Sacramento for Horse Expo (more on that later) and I didn’t want to rush things.  So it wasn’t until the following Monday that I even had the chance to get on and ride.  When I saddled her up, I found that she passed one really important test—my saddle fits.  In horse dating, this is like making it to first base!   She is also not the slightest bit cold backed which is like halfway to second base in my book.

And with that, I got on.  She’s a good size—not too big.  I would guess maybe 14.3 to 15.0 hands.  I asked her to step up next to my big tire that I use as a mounting block and she did it quite willingly and without spooking.  I chose to ride on our road circle for this first time.  We created it so that large trucks could turn around on the property.  It’s more of a teardrop with the pointy end about 100 feet from the corrals and the farthest end about 200 feet away.  So we walked.  And we tried to stop.  I say tried to because there was no bend there.  How can you do a one rein stop with no bend?  It was like trying to bend a piece of metal and, just as bad, she didn’t move off of my leg at all.  She had bent for me on the ground, but it didn’t seem to be transferring to the saddle at all.  So we practiced walking, then bending to a stop. Each time I would ask for the bend, she would just turn her whole body and blunder off in the new direction.  Finally, she would get the idea of bending her neck and stopping, meanwhile tripping all over the sagebrush where she had blundered.  So she would stop, but she would never yield the hindquarters.  Then we would blunder back on to the circle and try again.

Her walking was great.  In fact, she felt gaited to me.  I couldn’t tell what she was doing except to say that it was a very fast walk, but it had that swinging feeling you get with a gaited horse. Maybe the other half is something small and gaited like a Kentucky Saddle Horse (do they have blue eyes)?  It was nice to ride.  As we progressed, though, I noticed that she would become agitated at the “far” end of the circle and then wanted to hurry off towards the corrals as quickly as possible when we came down that side of the circle…to the point where she wasn’t willing to bend or stop at all on that little leg of our trip.  She started to get that sticky feeling where she felt she HAD to go forward, but I was asking her to bend and stop and she was feeling very trapped and beginning to get light on the front end.   In the meantime, she was upset and tripping all over her feet.  As long as I let her go towards the corrals, she was fine.  Meanwhile, my brain was beginning to scream at me “GET OFF!  You DON’T have a one rein stop!”

I chose to listen to my brain.  After I got off, we spent some time working on bending, backing, and yielding the hindquarters. She’s a very sensitive horse and picked it up very quickly, but I could see where this was probably headed.  She is afraid and unconfident—more so under saddle than on the ground.  So not only do I need to teach her how to yield and move properly from the ground, I have to translate that to the saddle while at the same time teaching her to be confident.  It also explains the fact that Craig described her to me as “bombproof” and “bold.”  She’s more confident when leading mules because she’s not alone, but she’s still afraid.  Her reaction is “Damn the torpedos!  Full speed ahead!”  Hence, she gets all stressed and outwalks the mules.  Sure, she seems bold.  That’s because her main goal is to get where she’s going as fast as she can get there, so that she might be safe again.  Smart mare, anyway!

We spent the next few days working on the basics: bending, stopping, moving off a feel, backing, desensitizing.  She’s a really sweet mare, but also very defensive and bracey.  I have yet to see her back up just softly without bracing her front legs.  I’ve finally gotten a few steps back from the saddle, but she’s still very “stuck” mentally.  She’s very touchy and claustrophobic in a squeeze.  For this mare, a circle that touches the fence in one spot is a tough squeeze.  And don’t ask her to go out on a trail ride by herself.  That’s completely off the table right now.  I tried it the third day just to see, kind of like taking a new guy to a chick flick.  And just like the guy who panics and runs for the popcorn counter when the mushy stuff starts, she got panicky and wanted to head for home about a mile out.  I finally wound up getting off and playing on the ground because when she gets panicky, she gets bracey.  And when she gets bracey, she doesn’t bend to a stop any more—in fact, she doesn’t bend at all (or stop).

So how’s the romance going?  Believe it or not, I really like this mare.  All those problems, all that baggage she’s carrying?  That can all be fixed.  It will take time and effort, but if I can turn Dolly into a decent trail horse, I can do it with Jasmine.  Did I mention she’s pretty?  And she really wants to be friendly too.  The first couple of days, she was pretty leery of me approaching, but now she meets me at the gate every time.  And I didn’t do anything to achieve this other than earn her trust some.  And every time I ride her, she gets better.  In just a few days, she’s gotten more confident and begun to soften and offer me more each time I ask.  And I’m not afraid of her.  She doesn’t seem like the kind of horse that is belligerent or out to hurt me—I just have to always be aware of where she is mentally and take care of both of us if things begin to go south.

So now we’re into the decision phase.  It’s not quite as bad as marriage because I don’t have to vow to keep her for the rest of my life, but in today’s horse market, if you’re a realistic and responsible horse owner, that is about what it amounts to.  Because it’s really easy to say I might buy her and ride her for a year, then try to turn her around and find the perfect 12 year old girl who could fall in love with her.  But what if I can’t?  Could I really put her up on Craig’s List and sell her to the first cretin that comes along and hope against hope she has a decent future once I get some of her problems solved?  Probably not.  So I’m working off of the assumption that this is for better or worse.  I’m not good at aging horses at all, but if I had to guess, I’d put her around 10, so that’s a 20 year commitment.

What other criteria can I use in this decision making process?

Let’s see…  She’s a random pooper!  Some of you know right away what I’m talking about here.  It makes them harder to clean up after because it’s kind of like playing Where’s Waldo every time you clean the corral.  Of course, this would be less of a problem if the corral wasn’t full of rocks and sagebrush.  Somehow, I just never got in there with the tractor to clean it all up.  It’s amazing to me how you can miss poops in a 40’x100’ corral, but they are pretty good at concealing themselves.  Still, checking out the hygiene habits ahead of time is important to some women.  Am I right?  I know one woman who married a fellow who was living alone at the time.  His kitchen counters were stacked to the ceiling with TV dinner trays.  She married him anyway.  She feeds him real food now and in exchange, he cleans up the dishes on a fairly regular basis.  In my case, cleaning Jasmine’s corral will always be work intensive.  It’s a con, but not a deal breaker.

Then there’s that mane.  It’s that lush, silky, long Arab mane that everyone covets.  Except I’m always grabbing it!  A one rein stop to the right is more like a one mane stop.  You have to understand that I learned to ride on 3 gaited American Saddlebreds and they have their manes roached.  From there I progressed to hunter jumpers—pulled and braided, dressage—pulled and braided, western pleasure—pulled (in those days).  So pretty much, I like a short, pulled mane.  Not sure I can sanction doing that to this pretty Arab mane, but I do find it darned annoying.  You also have to keep after it pretty much every day or it tangles and knots back up.  I guess the con here is all the extra mane goo I’ll have to factor into my budget.

Her hooves seem to be a plus.  They’re a little out of whack.  That can happen when you don’t trim them for 6 months while they’re out on winter pasture (it’s also why the mane is so nice), but given a few trims, they ought to be back in whack in a few months.  I’ve been riding her in Easyboots in front, and so far, these seem to be working well.  So it seems like I could keep her barefoot if I wanted to.  Now most of you know I’m not exactly a pundit of the Grand Church of the Barefoot Trim, but I do think it’s better for them if you can get away with it.  I have yet to meet the horse I could ride in our area without any boots at all, but if the Gloves will work, they are pretty easy to deal with.  So hooves are pretty much a pro here.

The biggest con, sadly, has turned out to be the deal breaker.  She is mechanically unsound.  That means she’s not lame, but she has a kind of hitch in her giddy-up.  She short strides with her right front.  She has an old scar on her shoulder that may be the cause, or maybe she’s just lopsided. I noticed this right off the bat and I was hoping it would resolve itself as I began to ride her more, but it’s turned out to be pretty consistent.  I thought maybe putting shoes on might help and when I went to fit the shoes up, I found out that hoof is about half a size or more smaller than the other.  It’s not something you would notice unless you worked her from the ground like we do in most schools of natural horsemanship.  You have to be pretty observant to feel it when you’re on her back too.  But there it is, the monster in the cupboard.

If I was a 90 pound featherweight who had to run around in the shower to get wet, I might be willing to take a chance on her.  There’s no telling, however, how she might hold up over time. There’s no telling how she’ll hold up over mileage either, which may rule out the possibility of endurance riding.  Or she might hold up just fine…  It is possible that I could take the “find the right little girl” route and if she’s really the RIGHT little girl, the unsoundness won’t matter.  On the other hand, I may get stuck feeding another horse for the next 20 years.  And, in the end, that’s what finally got me.  If I had a boatload of money, I would be perfectly willing to take the chance, but if she does ever go lame on that leg, I’ll wind up feeding two lame horses for the next 20 years and I really don’t want to take that chance.  Which really breaks my heart…

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