Friday, April 20, 2012

Taming Water Monsters (Cherokee pt 1)

Had a very satisfying round of horse work this past weekend.  Been working with a young Kentucky mountain horse named Cherokee.  He had a good start with a professional trainer, but apparently was kept mostly as a pet after that.  Darn shame, because he has a silky smooth gait that makes me want to put on a flat topped Zorro hat, and ride with a glass of wine on my head.  He is a big scairdy cat, but that comes from being sheltered from the big wide world.  However, his personality and training shows through in his trust for the rider.  It is fairly easy to push him through whatever startles him.  The exception has been crossing water. My instructions from his new owner are to get him trail ready.  I'm convinced that he's never seen natural running water until a couple of weeks ago.  He seems convinced that a horse eating monster will get him as soon as he gets his feet wet.

His first experience was on the perimeter trail around the farm.  There's a ditch there, with a tiny trickle of running water in the bottom of it.  I finally convinced him to cross it.  After a lot of hesitating, and attempts to duck and run, he jumped it.  A very herkey-jerkey affair, and no fun at all.  Next, it was on to the trail in the big woods with the real creek running across it.

The next weekend I rode out with a small group of trail riders, hoping to use the herd instinct to my advantage.  The farm is located within an easy ride of a rather large state park, with a very good trail system running through it.  In spite of his naivety, the little horse ambles effortlessly over the trail as if he knows this is what he was born to do.  That is, until we came to the creek.  He wanted nothing to do with it.  I had pulled to the rear of the bunch, so we wouldn't interfere with anyone else if he refused, or jumped.  Nothing dramatic happened.  He simply couldn't be convinced to get any closer than 10 feet from the edge.  We tried a second time, riding in the middle.  Still no luck.  We tried to pony him across with an experienced rider leading him by the off side rein.  Nothing. Finally, I dismounted.  While the other riders waited patiently, I tried to lead him across.

The creek is about 10 feet wide, and about knee deep in the middle.  There are stones piled up on the downstream side to allow hikers to cross without wading.  I stepped into the water, but he wouldn't follow.  Finally, after I splashed around a bit, he became curious enough to splash a little with his nose.  Rather than hold up the trail ride, I called getting his nose wet, without panic, a success. We doubled back to a fork in the trail, and took another route.

The rest of the day was a big success.  We had a long ride and worked up a good, honest sweat.  There were two wooden bridges to negotiate, I'd wager the first he's ever seen.  A pair of ducks flew out from under the first one, just as he stepped on it.  He danced across it without coming out of his skin.  At the second one, he was obviously worried, but soldiered across bravely.

Last Saturday, I avoided the group ride and took him out alone.  I wanted to see if he was herd sour.  It also gave us the whole day to cross the creek, if we needed it.  Cherokee is not herd, or barn sour.  He loves being on the trail.  He moves with his head and ears up, and seems fascinated with how big the world is.  We rode straight to the creek.  He recognized the place before I did.  I felt him tense up, just before it came into my view.  I didn't take him straight to the crossing.  Instead, I dismounted in a grassy area by the pond that feeds the creek.  I let him graze, and have a look at the pond.  I splashed around at the edge, and he came to have a look.  When he seemed comfortable near the water, I remounted and headed to the creek crossing.  As I expected, he refused, just like before.  However, this time, I was using a rope halter, a 25 foot training rope, and a bunch of carrots.

I pressed him a bit, but he still wanted nothing to do with the water.  I dismounted, and gave him a bite of carrot, just to let him know that I had them.  Stepping into the water, I called to him, and pulled gently on the rope.  The long rope allowed me to let him know I wanted him to come across, without putting too much pressure on him.  It also let me keep him from turning away from me.  After some coaxing, he stepped to the edge and investigated the water with his nose.  I rewarded him with another carrot, and crossed to the other side.  With the long rope, I could pull him toward me and still give him enough slack to keep him from panicking.  I could still control his head enough to prevent him from turning his back on me.  It also allowed me to keep a safe distance, in case he decided to turn himself inside out.

I was prepared to spend the entire day getting him across.  It actually took only a short while to accomplish. After some hesitation, and attempts to turn back, he took a few steps into the water.  He splashed about with his nose, then stepped tentatively across.  I gave him another well earned carrot, and remounted.  Cherokee normally stands still for mounting, but he was still nervous, and wouldn't this time.  He had just passed a major hurdle, so I didn't worry about it. 

The crossing lies on a neat little loop trail within the larger trail system.  We rode around the loop until we came to the creek again.  Once again, he refused to cross, so I dismounted and led him.  This time, he allowed me to lead him directly across.  He got another carrot for that.  Instead of continuing on, I turned him around and went into the creek again.  I stopped him halfway across, and gave him yet another carrot.  He was nervous, but I kept him there for several seconds after he finished the carrot, then led him out before he panicked.  Once on the other side, I mounted again, and turned back to the creek.  Success!  With only a little urging, he splashed across.  He was still obviously nervous, but he stopped on command on the other side and stood for me to pat his neck and praise him enthusiastically.  We rode out on another trail, and met up with some other riders and finished out the day as a group.

The following day, we struck out alone again to reinforce our success.  He hesitated at the crossing again, but, with only a little urging, stepped into the water.  I stopped him halfway across, to see how he handled it.  He was trusting, but nervous.  He stood with a slack rein, but I could feel him trembling.  After some encouraging words, and a pat on the neck, we crossed to the other side.  We rode to the top of the loop and turned around to approach the creek from the opposite direction.  This time, he simply put his head down and picked his way across like a veteran trail horse. 

There is another creek on a trail farther out in the same park that I want to try.  This one is about twice as wide, and has a big noisy dam spillway next to it.  And, we still have to smooth out that ditch crossing.  But, I'm pretty enthusiastic about young Cherokee's prospects.