Saturday, July 10, 2010

Meeting you where you need to be met... only you are a horse.

I got a new job this week, working with the Maroon Bells Outfitters here at the T Lazy 7 Ranch in Aspen. Its a dream job, really, and another one of those awesome coincidences from my past life. I've worked with horses on and off forever, first, I went to camp at a ranch camp, and fell in love with a horse called 37 who was a retired army horse.

No one else could ride him, he was scared of all loud noises and sudden movements, and so, of course, I decided that even if I couldn't ride him, I'd love him, because he needed to be loved, and I had love to give. I was six when this started. I was ten the first time I got on his back.

I joined Gymkannah when I was seven, gymnastics on horseback, where the first thing you learn is how to fall off a horse, immediately before you learn how to ride a horse standing up with no saddle. I was lucky enough to do this for five years or so, every summer for about nine weeks, on a gentle beast named Reno. His back was broad enough to play cards on, and if I fell off, it was because I fell off, not because Reno was spooked. We climbed all over him, and practiced on an oil barrel with handlebars. The candlestick, the shoulderstand, standing, sitting, three person manouvers... it was the circus in the dirt in the pine trees in Awanhee California with no audience, and it was just awesome.

A few years later, our family went on vacation at the Marr ranch in Susanville, California, and I found myself unable to leave. I begged for a job, and came back at calving season, and found myself in the dirt branding and castrating 10,000 head of cattle, the only girl on the crew. Rocky Mountain Oysters were cooking on the top of the branding fire as I cut them off, they'd pop open and the coyboys ate them like popcorn. Absolutely disgusting. I fixed a lot of miles of fence that summer, and came back for more the next season. 

After that, I found myself in Mexico one spring, renting a house in La Bufadora, where there were horses for rent on the beach, but they were all sick.  The wranglers all rode bareback, and there was no medicine. I went home and quizzed our local vets, started reading up on colic and issues with feet. I learned quick and dirty remote vetting, and brought a ton of drugs accross the border, but its not what you think, it was penicillin in huge syringes, from America to Mexico. Turns out the horses were colicy because they were eating pig slop, including corn husks. We did the best we could, I rode bareback and did quite a bit of wrangling with nothing to help me but a braided rope harness for two summers.

Later, I met Frizall, the first of a couple of Arabian horses that I was to work with. He hadn't been ridden in a decade, he was atrophied, no shoes, teeth hadn't been floated in years, his whithers were high and he was on the batty side.

His owner was nice enough to let me work with him, and after about six months, we had him out of his small pen and onto the trail, two months after that, he was going over low fences in the public corral. But we started with me on the ground, trying to get him to follow me willingly with no halter.

It was a whole lot of seat of the pants, but it was always rewarding, and it was awesome to work with these old, spookey, set in their way horses, Frizall was 28 when I met him.

Today, I had the honor of beginning to work with Doc, a part Percheron horse that was rescued by the Maroon Bells Outfitters. He's a beautiful animal, and for some reason, he's spooked like crazy. He won't pick up his feet to be shod or for any other reason. I'm kind of desperate for work, and I heard that they had a wrangler who didn't show.

I started pestering the owner for a job, and lucky me, he's open to being pestered. He told me if I can get Doc to pick up his feet, I've got a job. Today, we started our work. No feet, no touching. We are starting over.

I thought about what he must have been through, this huge loving, wary animal, and decided to start from square one. I'm not going to ask him to give up his power. I'm going to help him decide that he wants to be with me, to follow me, to lean into me, to be touched by me, and eventually, that he wants to give his feet to me. For now, we aren't touching his feet for at least two weeks. (Everyone has been trying to pick them up, so I think he must be feeling like at any moment, someone will come at him and try to get his feet.)

If he doesn't pick them up willingly by the end of August, we are going to do it the hard way, with a rope. But I don't think we'll have to go there. Today, we had our first three sessions. Brian, the owner, gave me a corral in the back to work in with Doc, and when we started, Doc didn't really like the halter, didn't really want to be caught, didn't like to be rubbed, and didn't know how to "come".

His body felt tense and wary all the time, high head, pricked ears, unsure. Just barely on this side of willing.

My goal was by the end of the week to have him following me around the round pen with his head in my back with no halter.

For our first thirty minute session, I put my backpack, full of carrots, in the pen where he could get to it, so I could say "no" to him when he nosed it. I put carrots in my pocket and just hung out with him for a while, pretending like I didn't care, I wasn't there to work with him, walking by casually and petting him, and then walking away, turning my back on him.

He would stick his head out as far as he could without moving to get the carrot, but was soooo reluctant to walk to me. Eventually he took a few steps.

In our second session, I decided to up the ante. I got a small bucket of soft feed, (yum!) and brought him out to the pen. He followed me around the pen at my shoulder a few times while I held the bucket and fed him, then I diched the bucket and took just a handfull. We practiced like this for about thirty minutes, and at the end, he was following me all over the pen for a handful of grain.

I came back tonight, and a couple of people came out to watch, which was distracting, as Doc is IN LOVE with one of the female wranglers, my kids were climbing on the fence, three or four horses had their heads over... but eventually, everyone left, and Doc and I fell into rhythm. It was time to add and relieve pressure, and reward him with pets and love, and just a few carrots, rather than gluttonous grain.

By the end of our thirty minutes, he was on my shoulder, following, every step I took, he took. He put his head down, and I rubbed his ears, over his eyes, his chest and neck, he smelled my hair and nibbled it, and he did it all just for praise. At the end of our session, he had learned "come" and followed me out of the pen, into the corral, past all the distracting horses, the mares in heat, the feeders, and all the way to the end, where he put his head down on my chest to be pet. We had made huge steps in just a day.

I'm dumbfounded and grateful to have the opportunity to work with an animal like this, to have my kids around this incredible crew, the trust that Brian has shown me by putting Doc in my care is huge and humbling. Heather, the wranger who Doc is in love with, is an incredible source of inspiration, her spirit is light and lively, and she's shown me the ropes at the stables. Greg, who has worked there for six summers, gave me a huge hug today and said welcome aboard.

Once again, I find myself wondering how I landed here, grateful for the incredible, knowledgeable people who I work with, and excited for the challenge ahead. But what's really exciting is that it is Doc's challenge. I get to watch as he decides to join the working ranks or not. To trust and open, or not to. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be with him while this happens, and really happy to be taken on by such a cohesive, knowledgeable crew.

1 comment:

Liat said...

Congratulations on your new job! How cool it is that you get to work with horses once again. And no doubt it will give you some new insight into teaching, or skiing, or maybe it will work the other way around. Maybe dressage is the new slackline! Xoxo