Thursday, November 29, 2012

Living History With Cocoa (pt 2)

As promised, here's more about Cocoa the Mustang. 

Once I found that she was a solid, usable horse, I started making plans.  My other hobbies include living history , and historical trekking .  My focus in these activities is the colonial frontier, and I intended to include Cocoa. 

The living history events that I attend are generally held at public historic sites.  That means there are lots of people around, with lots of kids who want to pet any animal they encounter there,  I didn't anticipate much of a problem in that regard.  As far as Cocoa was concerned, interaction with humans wasn't a favorite part of her job description.  But, she would stand still for as long as I needed.  My main concern was the noise.  These events usually involve battle reenactments and weapons demonstrations.  I had no intention of turning Cocoa into a cavalry horse.  We would be operating in the civilian sphere.  But there would be no escaping the sound of the musketry and artillery fire.  I had no idea whether or not Cocoa had ever been exposed to gunfire. 

Without a company of redcoats to fire musket volleys for me, I did the next best thing.  I signed up to ride in the local Christmas parade.  The riders at the stable I was boarding at always participate in this parade, so all I had to do was join in.  Cocoa endured the indignity of having Christmas ribbons and bows plaited into her mane and tail, and glitter painted onto her hooves.  All of us riders were in black pants, red shirts and Santa Claus hats.  The parade went really well.  Cocoa wasn't nervous, but she wasn't relaxed either.  The holding area was a field of grass.  She simply ate, and kept a wary eye on all the goings on.  Along the route, I found she was most comfortable in the middle of the street.  That kept her an equal distance from the crowds on either side of us.  I experimented with riding close to one side or the other.  Cocoa didn't misbehave, but she made it clear that she did not think it necessary to be so close to all those noisy people.  The middle suited her just fine, and I agreed.  Her performance gave me confidence that she could handle a living history program without any problem.  She took marching bands and random firetruck sirens right in stride.  With the parade under our belt, I set our sites on a demonstration at Fort Dobbs State Historic Site, near Statesville, North Carolina. 

Living History at Fort Dobbs, North Carolina
My plan was to show the public one of the ways commercial and military goods were transported in the 1750's.  By pack horse.  My method was fairly straightforward.  I had to learn all I could about historical and modern animal pack transport.  That was something I had a head start on.  I've been interested in it for a long time.  I had to learn how pack horses fit into the scheme of things in the North Carolina Piedmont during the 1750's.  Then, I had to transfer all that book learning into actual practice, and be able to communicate it to the site visitors. 

The logistics were also fairly simple.  I needed a picket rope and fodder for Cocoa, and a bedroll and fodder for myself.  I also needed enough "stuff" to demonstrate different configurations of loads to the visitors.  The problem was more or less self solving.  I parked the horse trailer in the parking lot.  Packing all the gear into the site on horseback, and setting up camp was a demonstration in itself.  It took several trips back and forth to get everything to my camping space.  First priority was all the things Cocoa needed.  I had two bales of hay, cut down to three quarter size, and wrapped in canvas.  The rest Cocoa would eat in the trailer.  These were lashed to the pack saddle with barrel hitches.  On top were the picket ropes needed and a tub for water.  Other trips brought in my camp gear and several odds and ends to demonstrate various load configurations to the public. 

Cocoa with a full load of camp gear

I built a simple camp.  Then, I spent the weekend talking to people in my camp, and leading Cocoa with her load around the grounds. 

My camp is very basic.  A bedroll on a pile of leaves, a box of kitchen supplies, and space for the horse.  The picket line is tied to trees, as high as I can reach.  The lead rope is tied to the picket line with a slip knot.  That way, the horse can reach the ground for food or water, and even lay down without getting tangled in the rope.  In a public place, I generally put up a rope corral.  This is more to keep people away from the horse than to keep the horse in. 

Cocoa with a light demo load.
Photo courtesy of Fort Dobbs State Historic Site, North Carolina.
  From time to time during the weekend, I put a light demo load on Cocoa, and led her out of our wooded camp and around the site.  This was both a test of Cocoa's people skills, and my strategy for dealing with the gunfire.  Outside of her little rope corral, Cocoa had to deal with small throngs of people, up close.  I walked her around the open spaces, away from other peoples camps and demonstrations.  Of course, we attracted groups of people, especially families with children.  It's important to remember that most people nowadays have no idea how to behave around large animals.  It's just not something people have to learn anymore.  While talking with folks about animal pack transportation, I constantly kept a 360 degree watch around us.  I occasionally prevented toddlers from playing under the horse, or whole families from rushing headlong up to her hindquarters.  I found the light came on for most folks when I explained "This is the friendly end, and this is the dangerous end. Come on up slowly to the friendly end."  Cocoa's all business personality also showed through during these walks.  She stood quietly while children patted her nose.  But, she didn't lower her head as horses who enjoy such attention do.  She just politely endured it.  A few children were disappointed when Cocoa wouldn't eat grass from their hands.  The explanation that she was a work animal, and not a pet seemed to satisfy them.  One thing that surprised me is the number of people who assumed she was a mule, simply because she was carrying a pack.  These are, more or less, the typical things you encounter when taking a horse out amongst the general public.  I look at it as a teaching opportunity in keeping with the educational goals of the historic site.  The visitors at Fort Dobbs are polite, and genuinely interested.  I always enjoy participating in their events. 

These excursions away from the campsite also allowed me to put some distance between us and the battle reenactment.  When this part of the program starts, nearly all the visitors flock to the viewing area.  I took Cocoa to to a patch of woods on the other side of the site.  When the shooting started, she became agitated.  I couldn't get her to stand still, so I walked her back and forth through unoccupied parts of the site.  During the afternoon reenactment, I tried to get even farther away.  I took her to the horse trailer in the parking area.  She remained nervous and jittery.  She paced around between mouthfuls of grass.  I worked our way to a spot where at least I could watch some of the action, and found that was the key to the whole problem.  Cocoa saw what was causing all the racket, and that it wasn't coming to get her.  After that, she settled right down to grazing.  Every now and then, she would pop her head up to check on the situation.  From then on, whenever I took Cocoa to Fort Dobbs, we had no problem with the battle reenactments.  I simply picked a grassy spot where we could see all the action.  Cocoa grazed and kept tabs on the situation.  Occasionally a visitor would come by to talk with me.  She did so well, that on a later trip we actually participated in the reenactment as civilians being rescued by soldiers. 

Next time:  Into the woods!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cocoa the Mustang (pt 1)

It's been about three years since I retired my old horse.  I'd like to take some space here to brag about her. 

I have had the privilege of working with other peoples animals for many years.  I did not intend to own horses until We had the property to keep them on.  However, our job options have kept us in suburbia, and I was leery of the expense involved in purchasing, and then paying board for a horse. 

That changed several years ago.  A friend of mine had an older horse that was giving him some trouble.  He said the horse was not mean, just extremely stubborn and uncooperative.  He was a novice horseman and at a loss as to what to do.  He couldn't afford a more usable horse until he found a new home for this one.  Because of her age, the only people willing to buy her were the meat packers.  That prospect did not appeal to my friend at all.  Instead, he offered the horse to me free of charge, if I would take over her care.  She was what we call an "easy keeper".  She stayed fat eating only grass and hay.  That was a big point in her favor.  I went to see the horse, and found that she was rideable.  After finding an affordable place to keep her, Cocoa came into my possession. 
Marlyn riding Cocoa the Mustang

She was a B.L.M. mustang.
From the freeze brand on her neck, we know that she was born wild in Nevada, and captured as a two year old.   The vet pegged her age at about 20.  Once I started working with her, I found that she had no serious problems.  Although the ones she did have were likely more than a novice could handle. 

She was well trained.  She knew what she was supposed to do.  But, it was obvious that she had become an expert at avoiding work.  The biggest issue was me learning how to understand her temperament.  I had some idea of the differences between horses born wild and those born into domestic conditions.  However, I did not have any first hand experience with it.  One of the first things I noticed was that she did not enjoy human contact the way a domestic horse does.  Most horses I've worked with seem to enjoy being groomed and petted.  They let you know which part of their neck or withers they prefer to have scratched.  Not Cocoa.  She simply stood there and tolerated it.  That same aloofness carried over into her work as well.  She did every job I ever asked of her, but her attitude was strictly business.  Whenever I approached, her expression said "What are we doing now, and where's the hay?". 

It took a few sessions under saddle for us to really get to know each other.  In each phase we had to establish who was in charge.  It started with tacking up.  As I said, she was well trained.  She didn't try to avoid the saddle or act skittish.  the test came as I tightened the girth.  Cocoa arched her neck, flattened her ears, and began chomping her teeth together.  She didn't reach for me, but I didn't wait for her to.  I simply gave her a gruff "Knock it off!"  That was enough to stop her aggressive posturing, but the look in her eye told me that it was far from over.  In those early days she acted as if she would bite me most times that I saddled her up.  Each time I was able to stop it with words.  After a while, I wanted to see just how far she would actually take it.  That day, I took my time with the saddle and girth, and ignored the slowly escalating aggressive signals.  Finally Cocoa reached for me, mouth open and teeth bared.  I gave her a sharp slap on the softest part of her muzzle and continued working with the saddle.  She returned her head and eyes to the front.  Her expression softened with her eyes blinking and brows wrinkled.

She never tried to bite me again.  From time to time, she acted as though she would.  I'd stop it by simply looking in her eye and saying "I'm watching you.".  I've come to believe that it was a test of leadership.  "We're about to go to work.  Are you still on your game?". 

She had another small habit that may have been a test.  Or, it may have simply been exuberance.  From time to time, when we were at a canter, she would buck.  It didn't happen often enough for me to worry about, and it never lasted more than a couple of strides.  I always broke out laughing when the old gal tried to crank it out like a young bronc. 

The real test came on the trail.  One afternoon, we were riding alone on familiar trails.  At a fork in the trail, Cocoa decided that she should be the one who determined which direction we go.  I reined her to the left, but she wanted to go right.  She shook her head, stomped, reversed directions, and threw in the occasional crow hop.  I knew that the outcome of this little tussle would set the tone for our entire working relationship, and I wasn't about to give in.  We were going to take the left fork if it took til midnight.  I think we fought for fifteen or twenty minutes before she finally relented.  After that, from time to time, she would attempt to contradict me on our choice of route.  But, it never again took more than a simple correction to keep her on the path I chose. 

I don't like working in a vacuum, so I constantly read.  this helps me see what other folks are doing in similar situations.  Over and over again, professional trainers make the same point.  Horses in general, and wild born horses in particular, do not respond well to abusive methods or indecision.  The continuing little tests seem to be a trait of wild born horses.  they need to know that the one in charge is up to the task.  And to perform well, they need to trust that the one in charge will make the right decision. 

Another thing I noticed was other peoples reaction to her.  When people learned that she was a mustang, they tended to back away from her.  Even some experienced horse people acted as if she might suddenly attack them.  I heard parents warn their children away.  It didn't matter that Cocoa had been a well trained saddle horse for 18 years.  She had been a wild animal for two years.  That aura of wildness frightened some people, just as it attracted me.  It was the traits and habits she had developed in the wild that endeared her to me. 

Next time:  More Adventures with Cocoa.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Saddle Your Own Broncs

My wife, Marlyn also enjoys horseback riding.  She grew up around large animals on a farm, but never rode horses very much until recently.  She has wanted her own saddle for a while now.  She has ridden in several, but we hadn't found one that was comfortable to her until last year.  That one belonged to someone else.  But, it became available recently, and we bought it.  Marlyn is a very independent person.  The first thing she wanted was to learn how to saddle a horse herself.  So, one sunny day, we went to Beaver Hollow Farm , and fetched Pepper out of the field. 

Marlyn & Pepper with her new saddle
 Pepper is a black Walking Horse.  His face is turning gray with age.  He is an old standby at the barn.  In his prime, he was a calm and steady trail horse.  A year or so ago, his age caught up with him, and he was retired from the trail.  He still earns his keep around the farm as a lesson horse for beginners.  We brushed him off and I showed Marlyn, step by step, how to put the saddle on.  Then, she rode around the farm for a while. 

Marlyn can saddle her own broncs

Of course, bronc is a relative term
 A week or so ago, Marlyn wanted to go riding again.  She used to ride Pepper, but now he's retired.  Her riding skills have also improved beyond what Pepper was capable of.  Instead, she rode a relative newcomer to the lineup, named Cindy Lou. 

Cindy Lou is a mature, well mannered horse with a smooth, steady gait.  Marlyn groomed and saddled her with no problems.  I saddled up a gentle horse and off we rode.  We put the horses through all their gaits, and had a long, relaxing ride through Pocahontas State Park. 

Enjoying the ride.
 One of Marlyn's other hobbies is nature photography.  We stopped often to take pictures of the Fall foliage and each other.  All in all, it was a good day spent enjoying the company of each other and a pair of good horses. 

Stopping by the dogwood tree