Monday, May 7, 2012

Cherokee has graduated! (Hawk pt 1)

Friday, May 4th, 2012

I didn't get out to the farm last weekend, so Cherokee has had a few days rest.  Or so I thought.  I went there today thinking to let him work on his ditch crossing for a bit.  As I was pulling in, I met the owner at the head of an outbound convoy of horse trailers.  We stopped to exchange a few words before he pulled out.  He said "If you're looking for that little mountain horse, we've got him in the trailer."  We've been riding him, and he is awesome!"  Then they headed out for a three day ride in the Carolina mountains.  So, now my once naive little pupil is out in the big wide world, earning his own keep.

Before he left, the boss pointed out a big, brown, pinto walking horse.  He said "That one has been giving his rider some trouble.  Get him out, and see what you think."  Hawk is tall, muscular, and alert.  I'd never ridden him, and didn't know his personality.  He has performed well, but now he is not holding his gait.  I gave him a good brushing down, and began to saddle up.  He shied away from the saddle pad, which surprised me a bit.  I got the feeling that it was an act.  The riders at this barn are mostly beginners, with a few intermediate level folks, and a couple or three experienced riders.  The horses are chosen carefully to match that.  I knew Hawk to be a veteran trail horse, with no major behavior issues.  I spoke to him firmly, and continued the chore.  He settled down, but nipped at me as I tightened up the girth.  I don't tolerate any behavior that can hurt a  human, especially on the ground.  I spoke sharply, and thumped his nose with my finger.  He didn't need any more than that.  With the saddle screwed down tight, we went into the arena to do some work.  He continued trying to buffalo me as I mounted.  Nothing aggressive, he just tried to crowd me while I tried to get my left foot into the stirrup.  I kept the off side rein tight to keep him straight, while I repeated the command, whoa.  Once I was in the stirrup, and committed, he stopped his antics. 

Hawk is not a mean horse, he was testing me.  After I was in the saddle, he waited for me to get settled and give him the command to move out.  When we started working, I quickly realized his problem.  He was anxious to move, and move out fast.  He wasn't concerned with holding the smooth, fast, and comfortable racking gait that walking horses are famous for.  He only wanted to go fast, at any gait whatsoever.  It was also difficult to get him to move in the direction I wanted.  Not that he didn't know what I wanted.  Now he was trying to bully me into letting him be in charge. 

One of the things I've noticed in recreational trail riders and horses is the tendency to simply go with the herd.  If someone up front decides to move out at a faster pace, all the horses in the group want to do the same.  Many, many riders seem content to let the horse make the decisions for them in this situation.  The result is often that an intelligent, and strong willed horse, like Hawk, decides he no longer needs to take direction from his rider.  I only worked him for about an hour.  Just long enough to make an assessment.  This seems more of a case for training the rider, rather than the horse.  Although, Hawk will need some work to get him to return to his natural walking horse gait.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fun House (Cherokee pt 2)

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Sometimes I worry that riding the same trail over and over can get too familiar to a horse.  Something akin to never riding outside your own pasture.  I didn't have that problem today.  I was planning a simple conditioning ride for Cherokee, the Kentucky mountain horse.  I wanted to reinforce his water crossing, and put in some distance to strengthen his endurance.  Instead, it turned into a Halloween fun house, full of one spooky thing after another. 

I hadn't realized that there was a major mountain bike and foot race scheduled for Sunday.  We arrived at the trail head to find the park service preparing the trail for the race.  The route was marked with blue and white signs.  Strings of fluttering flags blocked every trail not being used for the race.  All along the route, there were obstacles built alongside the trail.  There were climbing walls, ladders, mud pits, rope nets, and swinging and climbing ropes.  Cherokee managed the distractions as he's handled most of the other, more normal ones he's encountered.  He gives a little start, tries to avoid it, then allows himself to be urged past it.  We went through this little routine the entire length of the trail.  To his great credit, he settles right back into his usual willing, trusting, attitude immediately after passing each situation. 

In the middle of all this, we still had to cross the creek.  A week ago, this horse was trembling in fear when stopped in the middle of the stream.  This day, I gave him his head as we approached.  He put his head down and entered the water.  Halfway across, he stopped of his own accord, investigated the footing, and picked his way across.  Other than a little snorting, you'd never know he'd had a problem with it.

With that victory, we continued through all the spooky sights to a place called the Equine Center.  Here, the park service has built a riding ring, rest room facilities, and a large trailer parking area.  The race organizers were using this as their start and finish lines.  The area was being set up to suit the festive occasion.  There were more flags and banners, bright colored tents and sponsors booths, rows of port-a-johns, and every description of truck and tractor moving things around.  I stopped Cherokee at a respectful distance to allow him to take it all in.  To my surprise, he was curious instead of nervous.  He casually stepped up to a fluttering flag barricade to get a better view.  Standing calmly, he drank in the entire scene.  He even wanted to go around the barricade to get into the midst of all the activity.  Instead, we pushed on down the trail. 

The last challenge of the day was the quarter mile stretch of paved public road between the park and the farm.  Cherokee has gradually learned to calmly stand his ground in traffic.  This time, however, there was a large delivery truck among the oncoming vehicles.  The truck was larger and louder than than anything he's faced so far.  The driver showed no indication that he would slow down as most other traffic on this road does for horses.  Cherokee was obviously agitated, but I spoke to him, and kept him from dancing around in the road.  He held on until the truck was right beside us.  Then he set back on his hocks, pivoted right, and jumped the ditch to "safety".  The whole movement was so smooth and fluid, that I couldn't get mad at him.  Once the truck was gone, he settled right down.  You'd never know that he'd been afraid for his life a moment before. 

The smooth ditch jumping showed me, that if he can approach the water-ditch calmly, an intermediate rider should be able to stay with him.  His other issues will require more miles on the trail, and a rider who can stay calm while approaching spooky situations.