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!

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