Friday, September 01, 2017

Summer of the Horse: Leader of the Pack

Selfie with Dakota after a post-lesson hair brushing. 

After I'd brought Dakota into the barn and clipped him into the crossties to be groomed and tacked for our lesson, he started dancing around. He was agitated, eyes rolling, ears flinging around. In all our lessons together this summer, I'd never seen him act like this so I called to Dawn.
"Something is bothering Dakota. He's really agitated in the crossties," I said.
"No, he's not. He's just acting up. Smack him."
"No, really, I've never seen him like this," I insisted. "Something must be wrong."
"Nope," Dawn insisted right back. "This is what he does. Don't let him get away with it."
She walked up to Dakota and said, in a firm, take-no-crap voice, "Smarten up."
"Why has he not been like this before?" I asked.
She explained that the weather was cooler and the wind was up. "The horses are more docile when it's hot out."
So on the first day of September, this was a whole new Dakota. I hadn't even started on his feet yet so I knew, if he was dancing around, I'd never get them cleaned and might get hurt in the attempt. I had to use that voice and I had to make sure he behaved properly.

Three lessons were underway as a result of this discussion:
1) I knew that by "smack him", Dawn didn't mean beat him with a whip. She meant a solid hand on his flank. A horse is a large, heavily muscled animal; a smack is not going to hurt, it's just going to make a point.
2) Dawn knows horses, and this horse, far better than I do. You can't work with a horse until you understand its temperament, and its quirks.
3) I have to learn to deal with this kind of stuff on my own, by asking questions and paying attention. I already knew that if I wanted Dakota in one spot and he moved out of that spot, it was up to me to immediately put him back in that spot, not let him get away with doing what he wanted. This was an expansion of that.

Now I had to really be the boss.
The average horse, like Dakota, stands 15.0 hands or 60 inches tall, and weighs 1075 pounds. Dakota might be 15.1 or 15.2 and a bit heavier.
I weigh (hopefully) 140 pounds. So who gets to be the boss in this situation? Or rather, who must be the boss?
All summer, Dawn has talked to me about the mindset of a horse, that it will test you and push you. Today she expanded on that, saying that confidence and leadership is what makes a good horse.
"I've seen calm and gentle horses ruined by people who don't assert themselves," she told me. "A horse should not run you out of the pasture. You can't let a horse walk all over you."
Or crush you against the wall or stand where it chooses to despite where you put it or pull its head up when you try to bridle it. Today, with his agitation -- which was just his normal quirkiness -- Dakota needed to be controlled and made to stand still while I cleaned him and tacked him up.
I did the horse whisperer thing: "Dude, I'm new to this so calm down and let me get you brushed." Then every time he shoved over to the wall or walked forward, I did the horse wrangler thing: "Get over." poke poke "Move back, Dakota."
By the time we walked out to the arena, he was his usual lesson-horse-lazy self. And we were both happy with the cooler weather.  

As I brushed him, and settled him, I realized that this "top dog" attitude, the "I'm the boss" energy is something I've always lacked, and that lack has dogged me since I got my first dog at the age of 25. I'm too accommodating, too hesitant to stand up for myself, too high-strung. I've always admired, and attracted into my life, women who have that energy naturally, who are born with it.
Now, I get the chance to learn it from the start of my interactions with horses.
The best advice I had in dog training was "Start as you mean to go on". Thankfully, I haven't developed the bad habit of letting a horse walk all over me so today was a perfectly timed reminder that with a horse, I have to be firm and confident. I have to be -- this isn't a 60-pound dog I'm walking. Bottom line, it's about the safety of the horse and myself, and our enjoyment of our time together. (And boy, do I enjoy my two hours a week at the barn.)
Right from the start, with this big four-legged friend, I'm going to be the boss.

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