Trusting the Unstrustful Horse

We joke that the Dark Mare, Lee, is a survivor. She lives her life in a fairly constant state of alertness, and if there is a sign of trouble brewing, she is going to get out of dodge.  In her younger years, she broke cross ties and halters with frequent regularity and closely monitored objects such as dumpsters, mounting blocks and piles of jumps for the presence of trolls, chipmunks and other instigators of mayhem.   While she has mellowed somewhat, in general, if danger is afoot, Lee is leaving—with or without you.

When Lee gets upset about something, she can really revert to a primitive state of fight or flight.  On the one hand, it is easy to understand that this reaction has kept horses as a species alive for eons, and the behavior is imprinted in her genetic code.  But at the same time, it is frustrating because the reaction can be so out of proportion to the problem. And at some level, one would hope that her training and systematic exposure to all kinds of stimuli would result in at least one ounce of trust in her humans, but this has not always been the case.

Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR.  I was also impressed by her overall "coping" here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.
Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR. I was also impressed by her overall “coping” here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.

As a result of dealing with this behavior for the better part of a decade, I realize that I have come to assume the worst of Lee in many circumstances, expecting her to have mini or major meltdowns over various situations.  You might think that I am about to tell you how my preconceived ideas usually set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that Lee lives up to my (minimal) expectations when push comes to shove.  However, increasingly, the opposite is the case, and perhaps it is I who has the trust issue, not Lee.

This March, tired of being in the indoor and looking for a change of pace, I was riding Lee in the dirt parking lot at the University of New Hampshire during its Spring Break week.  The footing was actually quite good given the season and weather we had experienced this winter, but the lot was ringed with a decently sized plow bank creating a de facto fence line and leaving only one entrance/exit from the lot.  I had planned to do a set distance, changing direction at regular intervals, working at the trot and canter.  As I was getting close to the end of my set, I noticed a fairly dark and ominous looking cloud in the not so far distance, coming from the direction that ‘weather’ normally approaches us from.  “I am almost done,” I thought. “Two more laps and I will head in. No problem.”

Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.
Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.

Almost before the thought was complete, the wind picked up like I have never experienced and began to howl. Debris that I hadn’t previously noticed was flying sideways and into us.  Suddenly it began to precipitate—something.  Hail? Snow balls?  I couldn’t even tell you because the intensity of the icy precipitation combined with the incredible wind meant that I couldn’t even lift my head.  Lee instinctively swung her hindquarters into the wind, but we were still being pummeled from all sides and were instantly soaked through.  I had no idea what was going to come next—I wondered if a tornado were about to blow through, and had the thought, “so this is how it will end”.

We were not in a safe situation, and I knew we needed to get out of there, but due to the snow banks and our position in the lot, to do so required riding the length of the parking lot heading straight into the wind and snow/ice/rain to reach the exit.  I truly couldn’t even raise my head to see ahead of us due to the intensity of the weather, so I dropped down onto her neck and yelled “go on!” to Lee over the wind.  And sure enough, Lee actually went—straight into the wind, neck and head down, in spite of the power of the frenzied air.  As soon as we rounded the corner, I urged her to the trot and we made a break for the barn, wind to our backs.

Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.
Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.

I was impressed with Lee that day.  She would have been well within her rights to bolt or panic, to scoot or ignore me.  But for whatever reason, she didn’t.  I was (and still am) quite proud of her for all of it and for getting the both of us to safety.

This spring, I had to move both of my horses to new facilities.  Anna had been in the same barn for five years, but Lee had been at UNH for over ten.  I wasn’t too worried about Anna making the transition, but I honestly worried and worried about Lee.  I can worry like it is my job.  The barn she moved to is a low key private barn at my good friend’s home; it allowed Lee her own paddock with run in and access to dirt roads and trails.  Perfect.  Yet I worried.  My friend has a mule—what if Lee is scared of her funny mule noises?  The fencing is just electric wire.  What if Lee doesn’t see it or respect it? What if I can’t ride Lee alone on the roads? What if…?

The night before the move, it poured, the first rain in almost a month.  When I say it poured, I am talking about the soaking type of deluge that saturates you through to your core instantly, the kind that is like a hose from above.  I don’t think I slept more than a few fits and starts as my anxiety and worry ate away at me.  What if Lee won’t go into the shelter?  What if she works herself up into a colic?

As I hitched up the trailer in the pouring rain, I not so silently cursed the Powers That Be for the weather on this most important of days.  The schedule was to move Lee first, then go back and pick up Anna, since she was taking over Lee’s stall at UNH.

When we arrived at Namaste Farm, Lee fairly quietly unloaded, marched into her new abode, and took a tour around.  She didn’t touch the wire fence.  She didn’t respond when her new neighbors whinnied to her.  While clearly not 100% settled, she was far, far less worried that I was.  We did end up having to lock her into her run in that evening, as it continued to pour, because she wanted to stand outside near the other horses (who had sensibly gone into their own sheds) even once she was shivering under her rain sheet.  Once she figured out that the shelter was dry though, she began using it on her own when the doors were re-opened the next day.  We haven’t had to shut them since.

PinelandKurLeeNewCar 100
Lee’s new friends, Taydee the Connemara and Marybeth Applebottom, the chestnut appaloosa mule.

After a day or two to settle in, I took her for her first ride.  I decided to start in the fields first.  Lee’s new neighbors whinnied as we left, but she didn’t answer, and instead was all business.  But when we got to the fields, she became quite unsettled and agitated, and was being overly spooky and difficult.  “Here we go,” I thought to myself.  “I knew this would happen.  She is going to be unrideable here.”  I ended up having to dismount for safety and led her in hand for a bit, full of negative thoughts and wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The fields were soaked after the heavy rain and I was worried about leaving hoof prints once she started to act up, so I decided that maybe I should try taking Lee down the dirt road instead.  I had hesitated to start with this, because the traffic on the road can occasionally be unpredictable and since she can be too, I thought it might be a bad combination.   However, I knew that on the road I could more confidently ask Lee to go forward and it seemed like maybe that was just what she needed.

Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.
Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.

So I gamely re-mounted and headed off down the road, away from the farm.  Almost instantly, my reliable distance horse was back.  She happily trotted off, one-two-one-two,  going all the way to where the pavement starts near the town line, and then home.  No issues.  No spooking.  No drama.  She was in her Zen place.

And so it has gone with Lee at Namaste Farm. Since that first ride, she has gone all the way into Newmarket and into a little subdivision, she has ridden alone and in company to Adams Point and seen her first cormorants and sailboats, and she has even come to tolerate the fields (though the bugs which live on them, not so much).  She has done nearly two hundred miles of trail since her arrival, and is just one of the herd.

I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about things which haven’t happened and might not ever happen.  I can at least recognize that the worry and anxiety I feel is, for me, an inevitable part of change, but I also am trying to learn to be more accepting of the fact that some variables are just out of my control.  I think worry starts with some kernel of truth, but then it can grow and mutate and take on a life of its own.

Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).
Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).

I need to start to give Lee more credit for the animal she has become.  On August 1-2, she completed her first two day 50 mile competitive trail ride (CTR), and I never felt one ounce of quit in her the whole weekend.  In a week, she has more than recovered and was joyfully jigging all over the place on our AM ride today.  While I am sure there will be situations in the future where the “survivalist” Lee comes back, I also think that I know the horse well enough to start to trust that she will cope more often than she won’t.

As we all know, trust in any relationship is a two way street.  Perhaps Lee and I are more alike than we are different in our tendency to worry.  Sometimes I take care of her, and sometimes she takes care of me.

Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.
Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.
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