Friday, June 24, 2011

Memoirs: A New Horse Scares His Girl

Unable to blink and with my guts twisted, I stare at my horse.  His body is draped over the panels of the round pen, with his front legs hooked around the top rail like a cat grasping the side of the vet's examination table.  His hind legs are mostly touching the ground, but he is still awkwardly dangling from the now crushed aluminum panels.  I thank the heavens that aluminum crushes instead of splintering, as I wonder how on Earth my horse has found himself in this predicament.  I have been a horse owner for approximately twenty-four hours, after twenty-four years of dreaming, and now I fear that my new horse is badly injured, hanging from the fence.


I took Harley on trial for one week before I purchased him.  I knew by the second day that he would be mine.  On Saturday, December 9, 2006, I paid the previous owner his asking price, the deal was officiated with a hand-written contract, and at last, I had my horse!  I was over the moon.  I kissed my horse.  I brushed him with brushes that had been purchased long before his birth date and already possessed the hairs of many beloved ponies.  I started detangling his long, dreadlocked tail.  I clipped a white cotton lead rope, with purple ribbon braided into the line, to his halter, a gift from a childhood friend who knew that I would have a use for it someday.  I watched him eat his dinner and I felt the tears well up.  I had waited so long for this moment.  Every birthday and Christmas since I was three years old, I had wished for a horse.  I would imagine him in my backyard on Christmas morning, with a red bow in his mane.  Every year that I checked the backyard, I would feel this twinge of excitement before the blinds parted.  Maybe, just maybe.  Finally, I was no longer dreaming.  My horse was flesh and blood, standing before me, munching his hay, twitching his delicate ears, just waiting to start his life with me.  I looked at his shaggy winter coat, bony shoulders, and straggly forelock.  He was the most beautiful horse I had ever seen.

On day one of horse ownership, I decided that it would be best to start with some groundwork.  Harley was broke to ride, but it was clear that he was going to be a "project horse", so I wanted to establish some trust and communication before requiring too much under saddle.  I had previously received some instruction on training in the round pen.  I learned to use my body language and the whip to encourage the horse to go and stop, change direction, and walk next to me without a halter.  I had spent most of my round pen experience working with a very lazy horse, but Harley was quite the opposite, which would necessitate great tact.

Once in the round pen, I led Harley around to get him used to the work space.  I petted him and talked to him.  Then I removed his halter and clucked.  He trotted off without hesitation.  I let him move at his own pace as I watched from the center.  At this point we had known each other for one week.  I had been very kind to him, but we did not have a working relationship.  According to his previous owner, he had not been under saddle for years.  Harley was an eight-year-old greenie with a good heart and head, but very little formal training and unknown informal training, whatever that may include.  As he trotted, he picked his legs up quite high and held his face and neck towards the outside of the pen.  His back and neck were tight, and his tail was slightly raised like an Arabian.  I waited for him to show signs of relaxation, but nothing noticeable changed.  He did not lick and chew.  He did not drop his head or slow down.  After more time passed, I carefully stepped ahead of his drive line, which is an imaginary line approximately perpendicular to the point of the shoulder.  He slammed on the brakes and swung his hindquarters to the inside of the pen.  This is not considered a respectful stop from the horse.  Ideally, he should turn his shoulders toward the center and his hindquarters away from the handler, but, clearly, Harley had not read the manual.  I did not correct his body position, because I like to focus on one thing at a time.  He had stopped and was relatively calm, so I left him alone.  Slowly and without moving his body, he turned his head and neck around to look at me.  This 180-degree stretch and look would become a characteristic move for Harley, something that he does now in the cross ties, long lines, or when munching hay in the paddock.

I praised him and pointed with my arm to the right.  I looked at his hindquarters and clucked.  He was back in trot, but in the new direction.  He still looked tight and tense, but he was giving me an ear.  I could work with that.  We repeated the stop, wait and turn several times.  He started stopping less suddenly, I started understanding how much cue to give him, and so we slowly progressed.  After a little while, we gained an audience.  One of the barn owners stopped by on the gas-powered gator.  The barn owner immediately noticed that my horse was not stopping with the correct position by yielding his hindquarters.  I told him that we were working on it (really we weren't yet), but I guess that he was not impressed, because he offered to work with him for five minutes.  My barn owner is a very kind person and only wanted to help us, but my perspective was that I did not wait twenty-four years to buy my horse to watch someone else work with him.  Mistake or victory, I wanted the experience.  If my horse needed 15 minutes or 15 months, I was prepared to let him have his time to learn and trust me.  I felt a little aggravated, but I tried to hide it.  Just because I could not train my horse in thirty minutes like the cowboys at the Expo did not mean that we were not doing something worthwhile.  I decided to politely ignore the comments.

Finally, my patience paid off and we were left to our training journey.  I was just cuing my horse to move off to the right again, when the gator engine started up with a loud rattle.  Faster than my eyes could register, Harley leaped into the air.  My horse was trying to jump out of the five-foot round pen!  Seconds seemed like hours, as he scrambled on the aluminum bars.  I did not want to look, but I could not look away.  He wrestled his front legs free and returned to the ground.  I was petrified.  What did I do to my new horse?  Did he injure himself?  Would he ever trust me after this?

I approached him carefully, afraid that he would take flight again.  I tried not to look into his eye, as I felt him looking at me.  I could hear him blowing through his nose.  The skin over his muscles was taunt.  I touched his shoulder and he shuddered, but then relaxed and allowed me to examine him.  My fingers groped his legs nimbly.  I scanned his body with my eyes as I ran my hands over every inch of him.  Except for a large tuft of hair removed from his chest, he was unharmed.  Even the lost hair did not result in a scrape or raw skin.  Harley had survived with a close shave.

The round pen was not as lucky, but two hundred dollars later, the pen would be good as new.  This was not exactly the welcome to horse ownership that I had been expecting, bills and all.  I suppose trial by fire was as good an initiation as any and, before long, Harley did make peace with the round pen.  Thankfully, he did not seem to hold the situation against me.  What could have ended in tragedy became a small hiccup in our progress without lasting effects except for the lesson impressed upon me:  Respect the power and unpredictability of the horse.


  1. That must have been awful, reading your opening paragraph made me hold my breath. Scary, scary stuff.

    My mare tried to jump the fence a week after I got her, she didn't quite clear it though. Three thousand dollars later she's got a scar for life and I've got a healthy respect for the anxiety of herd-bound horses.

  2. As smazourek said, scary!

    When I bought Speedy G as a three-year-old, he gave me a similar scare during the first few days that I owned him. I did all of the precautionary stuff, but the first time I really let him have free turnout in the arena, he galloped around the corner and passed a leg through the fence on a gallop stride, but he pulled it back through in time not to hit the next post. And as with Harley, not a mark on him.

    All I could say was, "I think I bought an athlete!"

    Karen of

  3. Hmmmmm. I am starting to think that horses have a new owner hazing pack.

    Thank you for adding your stories!

  4. oH GOSH, do you know I had almost the IDENTICAL situation with Laz and I. He literally tested the round pen fence and threatened to jump OUT!! My audience of "Rudies" were gleefully exclaiming I had a dangerous horse on my hands. What I did have, at the time, was no respect from him. Scary!!

    1. I think that round pens can be fairly claustrophobic for horses, especially if they have been chased, which I believe may have been the case for Harley. Perhaps, Laz too.


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