Some of you may remember my posts from last summer about some horses I was training at a quarter horse ranch. Last fall, after our car accident and subsequent time spent in the body shop, I had to quit going to the ranch. Once I had the car back, we found ourselves into the holiday season, and then of course lost our sweet pup Nova and then our wonderful old guy, Manni. Finances have been a little tight, and the ranch is NOT located close to us, so I haven't been in several months. Much to my chagrin.
I promised myself though, I would not and could not give up on my underdog friend, Luna. I've finally made it back out to visit her, and I'm really pleased with the news I have to share.
The first time I saw her after a long hiatus, I don't think she placed me. She saw Yvonne (the ranch owner) and was acting slightly nervous, pacing at the front of her stall with a stiff neck and body. I let myself into the stall and she finally did notice me. I began scratching and stroking her shoulders and withers. The first thing I noticed (apart from her fuzzy winter coat!) was that she'd gained a good amount of weight back. Her hindquarters weren't hollowed out, her ribs weren't showing, and she didn't look skeletal any more. I was thrilled to see her looking so good. Her tail had begun to grow back in, and the rubbed-out portion of her mane had new growth as well. Of course, nobody had taken her from the stall since I'd last seen her, much less groomed her, and I set to work. The hair was flying! Warmer temperatures and springtime caused her to begin shedding out that long winter hair. It had to feel good to get groomed! Yvonne stood outside the stall and caught me up on the ranch horses. (Turns out they were able to sell Abe the Paint stud to a show home because of the great start I gave him!) She also mentioned that since I'd taken the nasty old halter off Luna, she wouldn't let anyone catch her.
Luna pushed her nose into her purple halter when I offered it to her and eagerly followed me to the gate after I clipped on her lead rope. We walked out to the round pen. She was a little nervous on the way, or maybe more like hyper-alert. After all, she hadn't stepped foot outside her stall since autumn. We walked around the round pen, and Luna spooked when two large Labs came bounding up to the fence barking their heads off. They really took her by surprise! It didn't take very long before Luna decided they weren't going to eat her, and we moved on.
I want to mention that last autumn, in the single session that I was able to have Luna in the round pen, she was very nervous and suspicious of my saddle sitting on the ground. She was visibly anxious about it, and normally young horses aren't afraid but rather curious. Of course, I had that rough tough cowboy to thank for Luna's reticence about the saddle. As if it isn't hard enough to start a young horse right, I knew I'd have to help Luna see that not everybody is out to get her and that the saddle and being ridden can have very positive results. I knew last fall that Luna and I had a lot of work ahead of us.
So this time, I worked her around the round pen without pushing her - I hoped that walking for awhile beforehand would be enough to warm her body up so that she wouldn't injure herself being an idiot after all those months cooped up. She was surprisingly reasonable at the end of my lunge line, particularly for a young, very green, very fresh horse. Once she'd stretched her legs, we began simple groundwork. It's easy for me to fall into my habit of assuming that the horses I handle know what I'm asking of them - I constantly have to remind myself to keep expectations low for Luna and remember that she really doesn't know anything. This helps immensely in keeping my frustration at bay. We worked on walking side by side, turning together, stopping together, and backing up when asked. I began asking her to move different parts of her body independently with very little pressure from me. I was amazed at how quickly Luna picked things up - I legitimately don't think I've ever worked with a brighter horse. She would move her shoulders or her hips aside for me with just a touch of my hand within minutes of learning what I was asking. Teaching a horse these things on the ground is helpful because they're all things that I want her to already know when I finally do manage to climb onto her back. (An aside - I always refer to Luna as "little", but I think maybe that's just because of her affectionate, in-my-pocket kind of personality. In truth, she's quite large! She stands at least 16.1 hands high at her withers, and I wouldn't be surprised if she were still growing. Someone forgot to tell her she's a quarter horse and NOT a Thoroughbred.)
Luna was progressing very well, so I felt inspired to try introducing the saddle and pad again. I retrieved them from my car and brought them to the round pen. Luna snorted anxiously at the sight of them and I saw her eyes widen. I set both the pad and saddle over the fence rail so she could sniff them as I came through the gate. She must have smelled every square inch of both saddle and pad by the time she was through. Once she was satisfied that they were safe, she began gently taking different parts between her teeth and tugging. At this point, I was reminded yet again that although Luna's body may be 5 years old, her mind is still very immature. She hasn't been exposed to hardly anything; she has not had the opportunity to progress like a normal adolescent horse and so, she is very much like a two year old (or younger) in how she approaches life. This fact alone explains to me much of her behavior.
I brought the saddle and pad into the center of the pen, and Luna followed me dutifully. She had to re-inspect them, because now they were on the ground and they looked different. Satisfied, she was not bothered when I picked up the pad and held it to her nose. She sniffed it, and bit it. I rubbed the pad slowly against her. I noticed she was not nervous about it, so I grew bolder. I switched sides and rubbed her with the pad. I opened the pad and began flopping it gently against her. I placed it over her back, and she was fine. I felt proud of her for being brave. I took the pad on and off several times, walking her around in between applications.
Then I held up the saddle. After sniffing it some more, I stood beside her and just lifted the saddle slowly into the air without advancing towards her. She eyed it suspiciously the first time, but quickly settled. Then I would lift it and touch it to her back. Slowly, back and forth, advance and retreat. Luna was uneasy, but held still and kept blowing warm air into my face as I worked beside her. Finally, I hooked the edge of the cinch ring over her spine and slowly slid the saddle onto her back. She craned her neck around to look at it, but her feet remained steadily in place. I pulled the saddle off and repeated the process several times before leaving it in place. I asked her to walk forward and she was a touch nervous, walking sideways a few strides before settling down. I stroked her neck and repeated my mantra, "You're safe. As long as you're with me, you're safe." I pulled the cinch around her belly and pulled it just tight enough so she could feel it against her. We walked a few more strides as I pet her and talked to her. I tightened the cinch another notch. Walk, repeat. I never tightened it enough that it would actually support a rider's weight getting into the saddle, but she had issues with cinches and bucking with the cowboy and I didn't care to repeat them. I just wanted her to learn the saddle isn't so bad.
I kept my lunge line short and asked her to move out. She began trotting in a very small circle around me, unsure about the stirrups bumping into her sides but moving forward and trying. I called out to her and praised her efforts. Though she was obviously uncomfortable with the stirrups bouncing around, she never blew up and went on a bucking rampage, which is what you can typically expect of a young horse wearing his first saddle. Gradually I let the line out and her circle widened. After a few full-size revolutions, I asked her to pick up a lope. She did so, lengthening her stride and picking up the pace. She loped along uncertainly, but the point was that she was trying. For me. She wanted so badly to do as I asked. I called for a whoa, and turned her the other direction. She trotted along until I asked for a lope, and when she transitioned into the faster gait she took a misstep and caused one of the stirrups to hit into her side harder than usual. She tucked her hindquarters underneath her and kicked out with her near hind foot one time, but then picked her lope back up perfectly, if not a bit confused about what had happened. She loped a few turns around the pen before I stopped her and let her come in to me. She stopped in front of me and sniffed my cheek, my hair, before touching her nose to mine and blowing sweet hay breath in my face. I hugged around her neck and told her how proud of her I was.
Just then, Yvonne stepped out onto her porch. She had been watching from inside. She called out to me, "That is damned impressive. The cowboy said when he saddled her, she broke down his railroad tie round pen with all her bucking. TWICE."
I glowed a little with happiness just then, knowing that Luna was willing to try so hard for me. I hoped Luna saw how hard I was trying for her.
I didn't want to push my good luck, so I unsaddled Luna and took her out of the round pen. We stopped at the tack shed to brush out some of her sweaty long winter coat before heading back to her stall. As always, saying goodbye to Luna is the worst part of my day. Her bright chocolate eyes always follow me as far as she can see.
We still have a long ways to go, but I feel encouraged. I know Luna is special, and I'm interested to see what we can make of each other.
(I brought a camera to take pictures of her, but the battery was dead! I was so disappointed I didn't get a photo of her first time wearing my saddle. Oh well. Next time.)