January’s roared in like a lion, not unusual for Alberta but character forming all the same. The normal lined work gloves cope to about –20, but when temperatures seriously zero down, down, down fingers have about 10 minutes before numbing begins. Canadian Tire had a special blowout sale and one stout pair appealed for all the right reasons. Feeling pleased I hauled ‘em on in The Tank’s toasty warm interior before out into take-your-breath-away cold, five layers padded up (silk thermals absolutely!) and began heaving round bale hay over the fence line, then into the corral and a slide-down-the-neck greeting to Mops.
His eyes widened in the half-light before executing a lightning spin a reining horse would be taking notes on. His eyes were bulging, ears straining forward and every muscle was shrieking ‘flight, flight, flight’ mode coming up. I sighed, wondered if the gloves were too bright a yellow, whether the outside leatherwork might – as he was suggesting – be horsehide (they came from China, the label told me and that was about all the detail), or just the newness smell of them.
Taking them off wasn’t an option that evening so we left the situation like that. Next morning he still wasn’t negotiating so on went a halter and line (without gloves!), and began brushing that enormously luxuriant mane with gloves now on, as an intro. He wasn’t thrilled. I brushed out his legs (I don’t brush outside horses’ body hair as it’s greased for a reason and also fluffed out for their own heat trapping mechanisms). His eye locked onto the nearest offending item; picking up his feet had never been faster, he wanted those things off him ASAP. A bit more fiddling around moving on the line and finally, a deep breath from him, took off the halter, careful stroke and finish.
The next day, same deal, something about those gloves certainly didn’t smell right to him, so repeat all over again. I was beginning to remember this mindset of his when confronted with something he wasn’t comfortable with, that ‘we-don’t-like’ status. I remembered spending two, three, four hours getting something acceptable (to him and me!). Once he had it, he had it, but until persistence won through sheer time repetition – and absolutely a dead-calm mindset by the human – it didn’t cement in. I thought about my fingers and toes and –25 this particular morning and working horses in this province in wintertime and all the time-consuming challenges that Arctic conditions include. Sighed, settled in, just his way of working through situations.
Each horse is different, that simple, is my philosophy. That kind of repetition would drive some horses mental, but then again, they might not cement in the ‘learn’ deal quite so strongly. It’s how I work with horses on groundwork and ridden – you’ve the core foundation training and then I adapt as needs and situations arise. I remember working in a large public outdoor arena one summer with The Fox, who sometimes gets that Appaloosa mindset, that small kernel of resentment that can sit, undisturbed sometimes for years in this spotted breed. No, he said, trying to grind to a halt, ears most unattractively backwards, definitely no.
I stopped, thought about it, mindful too a well-known reining trainer had just driven up with his rig before opening the gate, nodded a greeting and instead disappearing to ride atop the huge open training grounds, trotting a large half circle and kicking into canter before straightening up to motor up to the hilltop on springy inviting turf. Then a neck scratch, a walk back to the starting point, half circle and up again, say half a dozen times on each lead before quitting. This, he indicated, was much more enjoyable, thank goodness His Human was using her brain cell today! A week later and six daily sessions up there getting more and more precise, fine-tuning the transitions, we rolled into the car park and then into the arena, warming up before a few immaculate canter strike-offs. Unnoticed the reining trainer had his horses unloaded, ready to enter, politely waiting until we approached the exit gate.
“Glad you made that horse see sense,” he remarked, “made him come up with the goods.” He hadn’t seen me working up on the open hilltop expanses; his horses only work in arenas, with their more push-button Quarter Horse minds. I thanked him, didn’t explain as I doubted his philosophies and mine cantered (loped!) the same roads. But surely if an animal (or human) learns in an agreeable manner, it’s a better deal?
Next week: Long-lining, short-lining and me learning about harness.