Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Becky the Big Name Trainer

His name was Boss.

Ever since I’d sent Jubilee off to be “trained” and he’d come back a couple hundred pounds lighter and sporting a wonderful set of spur scars, he’d had on again/off again issues with his back.  It wasn’t a constant issue, and it wasn’t anything a quick trip to the chiropractor couldn’t fix, but it always seemed to crop up at the worst moment.  Right now we were in the middle of the busiest season up at the ranch.  With three rides heading out daily before noon and a long waiting list, we didn’t have time for Jubilee to be hurting.  We also couldn’t afford for me to keep borrowing one of the ranch horses. 

“I’ve got a horse you can borrow.”  My farrier was like something straight out of a cliché western film.  Don had a long, handlebar mustache, weathered hat, and deep, quiet eyes.  He spoke with a slight drawl and had a quietness that drew people to him.  He was the local horse-whisperer, or as close as we had to him.  Out-of-control studs, “people-killers” ,half-crazed abuse cases… after a couple of months with him they all came up to you from the pasture in a big, friendly herd, vying for attention with good-natured respectfulness.  Even today, years later,  I've never met anyone like him.

I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of relying on a completely unknown horse, but I  trusted Ron's opinion.  If he said the horse was a "good-un", then he was.  Apparently someone had dropped "Boss" off at his house in hopes of finding him a new home.   I could ride him until he found him a home.  It sounded like a great plan.

When Don came up the next day, it looked like he was dragging an empty horse trailer.  I looked through the windows for a pair of ears, but couldn’t see a thing.

“Where’s the horse?” I asked, as he got out of the car.

As if he heard me, from inside the trailer came a long, deep, impressively masculine trumpet of a neigh.  The other horses all sounded like soprano choir girls when they answered back. 

“What do you have in there… Invisahorse?”

In response, Don walked around the back and dropped the back of the trailer….

...and out backed the world’s SHORTEST, FATTEST dark bay Arabian gelding.  He looked like a claymation horse straight off a children's show – He was just a big ball of dough, with four little stick legs, a square little neck, and a a pleasant, albeit slightly long face.

“Don, what on earth…?”

Boss stared around, and trumpeted again.  It sounded like the whinny of a 3,000 pound Percheron Stallion….. except Boss was MAYBE 14 hands, and about 1,000 pounds.  He should have been closer to 750.  I’d seen Shetland ponies that looked like skinny supermodels next to him.

“Don, that’s not a horse, that’s a pony.”

“He’s a good horse, Becky.”

“He’s short.”

“You like them short.”

“Yeah, but there's short and then there's SHORT.   I don’t want my feet dragging along as training wheels.”

“He’s too fat to worry about that.  Your legs are going to stick straight out, not down.”

I snorted.  Don had a point.

I threw on a saddle and headed right over to the round pen and climbed on, walking him around for a few moments to settle him down.  He was alert, a little overly responsive, but he seemed nice.  We did a couple of figure eights in the round pen, testing how much he respected the snaffle bit and making sure his breaks still worked.  After a few more laps I asked for a trot.  With a slight squeeze of my calves he broke out into the world’s fastest, smoothest trot.  We were covering ground at an incredible rate, and I didn't even have to post.     I grinned over at Don, and gave him a thumb’s up. What a cool little horse.

Maybe Boss was a little short, but I didn’t care.  I liked him.

When I crawled down, Don helped me untack.  “You looked good up there, Becky – looked like he had a nice trot.”

“He was smooth!  I really liked....”  My brain caught up as I processed what Don said.  “Wait, haven’t you ridden him?”

“No, he’s been in someone’s back yard for the past couple of years. They just dropped him off.  I could tell he’d be a good horse though – he has an honest eye.” 

“Don!  You let me just crawl up there!  How did you know he wasn’t going to bolt and run into a wall?”

“Well, he didn’t, did he?’

“DON!  You’re supposed to warn me that he hadn’t been ridden in years!  He could have bucked me off!”

“Naw, he’s not that kind of a horse.  You can tell.  Besides, if I told you he hadn’t been ridden it would have made you nervous.  Since you expected him to be nice, he was.  Don’t you like him?”

“Well, yeah…..”

“Well, then what are you complaining about?”  He looked at me, eyes twinkling. 

Boss was fun to ride.  He was short, but he was fun  He had just enough peppy alertness to keep me from going to sleep on our endless trail rides, but I never once felt nervous on him.

Of course, he was also pretty fat. Trail rides with him went at a very leisurely pace, as we had to stop at the top of every teensy hill and let him gasp and blow to get his heart rate back down.  It felt like a last-chance workout scene from the Biggest Loser.

It took a couple of weeks before I started to see an improvement, but when we did, I realized he was an awesome little horse.  He never complained, he approached everything with a willing, happy attitude, and he had that wonderful little ground-eating trot. 

One day, when coming back to the barn after clearing trail, my boss and I got into a bit of a trotting race.  My boss road a large, roan, 16 hand thoroughbred mule that could outtrot anything on the place..and probably off of it..  I felt a little silly riding alongside him, as from a distance Boss looked short enough to be a yearling.  I’m not sure what set it off, but one minute we were both jogging along… and the next moment we were racing at a trot.  Even the horses seemed to sense it.  The boss’ mule had legs a mile long, and she swung out easily, eating up the terrain.

Boss lengthened his stride and kept up. 

The mule went faster.

So did Boss.

Back and forth, back and forth…

Fast enough that I started posting…..

Fast enough that I started laughing....

Fast enough that I realized I didn’t even know it was POSSIBLE to trot this fast…..

and the next thing you know, Boss and I weren't just keeping up, we were pulling away into the front. 

A head… a neck… nearly a length… a full length….

With a laugh, I reined the little guy in, patting his neck and cheering.  “Take THAT, mule!  Beaten by a dwarf!” I laughed, leaning down to give him a hug.  He was the little engine that could.

Boss taught me that, sometimes, it’s okay to meet a horse on their level.  You don’t always have to win.

The first time I rode him up to a stream, he acted like I was trying to asking him to travel through lava.  He danced, he jigged, he tried to spin… he did it all so smoothly that I never actually felt frightened.  He snorted, he blew, he raised his head up high and stared down at the tiny streambed with dramatic rolls of his eyes…. But he never actually crashed into the trees on either side of us.  And he never tripped over the logs and rocks that he was dancing over.  And he never threatened to bolt.

Basically, the whole thing felt like a big, gigantic, dramatic act… So I pushed on.  It was just water, after all.  And he stubbornly refused to go.  And I stubbornly refused to give in. Eventually he soared over the stream with an undignified scramble of a leap.  It was anything but pretty. 

It was the same the next time, and the time after that.  I was tired of being launched forty feet in the air every time I led a trail ride, so the next time Don was up to shoe a horse, I asked him about it.

Wordlessly, he motioned for me to follow him over to a muddy rivulet where a water trough had overflowed.

"Pretend that's a stream, and you're a horse.  Cross it."

I shrugged, but obeyed willingly, and stepped over the stream.

"No, I said cross the stream."

I stepped back over it, the other direction.

"I said CROSS IT!" he snapped at me angrily, and I froze.  What the heck?  "Just cross the stream, and we can continue on with the lesson!"

I lifted a foot to hop back across. 

"NO!" Don snarled.  "Not like that."

"Well, what the heck do you want me to do, Don?"  I stared at him, foot frozen in the air, frustrated and more than a little hurt.  "I am crossing the stream."

"No you're not.  I wanted you to put your foot down in the mud.  You stepped over it."

"Well, why didn't you just ask me..."  I'm not the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to horse training, but I am not completely hopeless.  "Ooooh."  Now I got it.

"Boss is doing what you want, Becky.  You told him to cross the stream, and he crossed it.  He just didn't cross it like you wanted.  Maybe he can't tell how deep it is and he's scared.  Maybe he doesn't want to get his feet wet and is jumping it, just the same way you hopped over this mud puddle.  Who knows?  You need to take a step back and realize he's doing what you asked, and not get both you worked up."

There's a reason horses liked Don. 

The next day I saddled up Boss and headed out to the creek, eager to breach the communication barrier between us.  .  I was steady and confident, armed with new intelligence and a clean outlook on how to approach this issue.  I was calm.  I was quietly assured.  I was alpha. 

Fifteen minutes later, both Boss and I were sweaty, grumpy, totally pissed at each other, and still on the wrong side of the creek. I took a pause and let us both catch our breaths, insisting that he face the stream and not back up any further, both of us fuming.

I had no idea how to make him understand what I wanted, and it was irritating both of us.  The problem was I wasn't fluent enough in horse.  It sucked not being able to tell him what I wanted.

But what if.... what if I showed him, much the same way Don showed me?

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I got off, tucking the rein over my arm.

I walked straight into the stream, and splashed about, soaking my boots.  “Boss, LOOK.  It’s water.  Water, water, water.  You've been drinking in it practically your whole life.  Remember that stuff you splash with your nose?  It’s a million degrees today, so I'm not going to take that whole 'it's cold' excuse.  It feels good.  See?”  I splashed some more, walking back and forth, soaking my jeans.  “You don’t die, there are no alligators, there's no hidden pack of wolves in here.... nothing.  Nada.  Zip, zero, zilch. Nothing bad happens.  You just get in, walk through, and walk out the other side.  Get it?”

Boss stood there, head cranked up high, eyes rolling in anticipation of continuing our fight…. Watching me.


I splashed a few more times, then brought him closer.  Trembling, he reached down and flipped the water a couple of times with his mouth.

“See?  It’s water.  It doesn’t eat horses.  It makes you wet.  And then you get over it, you big ninny.”

I climbed up and urged him forward, half-expecting to jump right back into the fight we just had.


Boss hesitated slightly, and then walked straight through the water, as if he’d done it a thousand times.

I was both elated and ashamed – why hadn’t I tried it earlier and saved us both a lot of trouble? 

When we came to the next stream, after a minute or two of trying to force him to cross, I did the same thing.  I got off, I splashed around and showed him that it wasn't a bottomless horse-eating cavern of death.

Boss watched, and then I crawled back up and we crossed.

After that, he seemed to trust my judgement.  Something about the way I got off and led the way on the ground in front of him clicked with his brain, and I no longer had to get off to show him. 

I felt like such a horse trainer.  Screw Monty Roberts and his join up system.  Pat Parelli and his seven games could kiss my dirty saddle blankets.  They had nothing on me. I was Becky, Horse Trainer Extraordinaire.

A couple of weeks later, one of the other wranglers and I were out on trail again.  He was on his own horse, and I was working with Chip, one of the string horses. 

We came to a new streambed that neither horse had seen before, and for some reason both horses balked .  After a couple of moments of both horses jigging at the water's edge, refusing to take another step forward, I knew what had to be done. 

"Here, this works like a charm.  Watch this."

Confidently, I dismounted and walked forward into the stream bed, making it about knee deep before I ran out of rein.  "See?  It's just water."  I kicked and splashed for a moment, waiting for the light to click on in both horse's heads like it did with Boss. 

"See?  It's just water  You'll be fine."  I clucked a couple of times, pulling slightly on the reins, trying to coax the spooky little bay gelding forward.

Without any warning Chip obeyed - launching himself forward - right on top of me.  I managed to stagger back at the last second as he landed where I'd been a second before, falling on my butt in the water as he blew past me.  Somehow I managed to hold onto his rein, and as when he hit the end of it he spun around, snorting and dancing at the edge of the other bank as I tried  to regain my feet.  The current was stronger than it looked, and wet jeans and boots filled with water didn't exactly make me nimble.

Finally, finally, I stood up.  I sludged my way over to the dry bank, leaning on the saddle as I struggled to empty my boots. 

"Oh, yeah, Becky.  You're right."  With Chip on the opposite bank the other wrangler's horse suddenly remembered how to cross a stream, and was striding through calmly.  "That worked like a charm.  Great method.  You thinking of marketing it?"

"Shut up," I said, as I started the difficult process of trying to remount in wet jeans.

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Anonymous MacLeod House said...

"Kiss my dirty saddle blankets" - *snort* - great one!!

My horse (who is now in that great green grass in the sky) had an armful of ways of crossing a stream. Every time we got to one (which was everytime we rode out since we had to cross the stream to get onto the 'greenbelt' to ride out and get down to the arena over on the next estate - I just had to pick one - and he'd do it. His favourite was by far the "I'm a big event horse - look at me go WHEEEE!" where he dove off the river bank into the water (about a foot deep) making me lean right back letting the rains go through my fingers - in a classic down the bank at the Badminton horse trials pose (made me feel like a million bucks too). His least favourite, was when I wasn't in the mood for 'fun' and just wanted to get back to the stables and made him go "slowly-slowly" walking down the bank, through the water, and back up the other side. Dang I miss him.

October 26, 2011 at 4:40 AM  
Blogger Dom said...

OMG... I love Don and I love Boss and... OMG.

October 26, 2011 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger Albigears said...

It's always good to know you're not alone when it comes to things like this...

October 27, 2011 at 2:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don sounds like the twin of a horse trainer I've been reading about Mark Rashid. Some calm, quiet way of working with horses, and the same way of "considering the horse" before really losing it.....Great post Becky.

October 27, 2011 at 6:54 AM  
Anonymous chicu said...

you crack me up.
and then make me think.
I think i'll be 'considering the horse' the next time before I snap.

November 2, 2011 at 8:04 AM  
Blogger lytha said...

this story gave me shivers and then goosebumps. you are so good.

November 6, 2011 at 5:08 AM  
Blogger The Ladies Who Luncheon said...

hahaha! we wonder if this would work with children...

November 7, 2011 at 6:50 AM  
Blogger Breathe said...

You had built up enough trust with boss that he was willing to consider your example. I'm finally at that point with my boy, who I get off several timesaver talk/walk him thru situations.

I loved reading this story, whatever became of Boss?

January 15, 2012 at 6:06 AM  

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