Friday, July 8, 2011

My Horse Is Fearless

The last couple days have been way too hot for any kind of work under saddle, so I joined two friends on a casual trail ride through the woods.  Harley was a gem.  He was peppy but obedient, even though we were nearly always going at a slower pace than he would like.  He doesn't mind following in the middle or at the end, but clearly prefers to be in the lead, probably for the pace reason.  I love that he can do the "quarter horse walk" on the buckle or trot in the bridle with enough power to gain on another horse's canter.  We need a good stretch of trail to canter ourselves, but when we have the opportunity there is nothing like cantering threw the trees and leaning down beside my horse's neck to avoid low branches and pine needles.  Even though he interprets little changes in my balance in the ring, on the trail he knows that he should continue straight ahead even if I am hanging off to the side or stealing a look behind us.  He has saved my skin more than once, like the time we got stuck in a bog and I had to trust him to slowly work his way to stable ground.  Feeling your horse sink into the earth and then walk like his legs are supported by pudding is not something that I want to experience again anytime soon, but it was amazing how he kept us upright and knew enough to slowly rotate 360 degrees and back track our steps.  I was pretty shaken by the event, but Harley seemed no worse for the wear, eager to continue down a dry section of the path.  He basically came to me with the sensibilities that I now enjoy, although I did have to teach him that ignoring his rider while cantering down the trail like a bat out of hell was not acceptable.  I suspect that he was encouraged to barrel down the trail like a freight train, because his previous owner had such a thing for speed that he owned not one but two Harleys (one motorized and one in the flesh).  I like to go fast, but not at the expense of safety and balance, and now that Harley has experienced the two, I think that he agrees.

However steady Harley may be when we are out and about, occasionally I am reminded that even a confident trail horse can become afraid.  At the very end of our ride, we walked by a neighbor's backyard and they had a silvery, birthday balloon tied in the garden.  The helium-filled, reflective object bobbed in the gentle breeze before I noticed it and Harley actually stopped and balked.  I turned him and re-approached the balloon, but he balked again.

I stopped and thought for a moment.

Should I force him up to the balloon?  He is not putting up a real fight and it certainly feels like I could make him walk up to it.  On the other hand, he is a reliable horse and it seems unfair to turn around and demand that he ignore his own feelings of caution.  Harley's ears were back listening to me even though I was not speaking aloud.

I decided to pass on the training opportunity and give the balloon a wide berth.  We were still within 25 feet of the silvery foe, but Harley appreciated the space and relaxed, marching forward like the object had never crossed our path.  In the back of my mind, I will store this incident and if I remember, bring a silvery balloon to the barn one of these days to show him that there is nothing to fear.  I know from experience, that all he has to do is touch the object with his nose and he will no longer be afraid, but a significant factor pushed my decision from "try" to "pass".

There was pavement under our feet.

A paved driveway.  I will admit wholeheartedly that I have a fear of riding on pavement.  My horse is not shod, so the likelihood of slipping is small, but I still possess this lurking image of falling on the pavement.  If we hit the concrete, one or both of us will break.  I do not like the feel of pavement under my horse's feet.  It reminds me of ice.  I vividly remember my Dad relaying a story in the paper when I was kid.  A woman was riding her horse along the road, fell and hit her head on the asphalt and was killed instantly.  I do not recall if she was wearing a helmet, but you can still get plenty hurt wearing a helmet.  More recently, I read about a horse slipping on pavement and falling on his shoulder.  The road to recovery has been very long, as the horse is still stiff and not back to full work even a year later.  I also bear a couple noticeable scars on my right wrist and knee from when I fell from my bicycle in middle school.  In my early twenties, I probably would have pressed the issue, but I no longer feel that I have anything to prove.  Harley trusts me to keep him safe, as he has me, so that is my priority.

After this minor event, I thought about what scares Harley:

  1. Things that resemble holes (dark piles of mulch, dark puddles, or the dark face of a fallen log), although touching these things dispels his fear.
  2. The vet.  He knows the sound of her truck and becomes visibly worried.  On one occasion when I was at work, he refused to be caught, so he now has to be collected before she arrives.  She is a very kind, compassionate vet, but unfortunately she is the one who has to stick him with needles.  He does not forget!
  3. Loose and/or snarling dogs.  Me, too!  I often carry a dressage whip on trail rides for this very reason.  We met up with an unleashed, bristling golden retriever one time.  I did not think such a creature existed, and I was equally terrified.  The owners were able to call the dog back before it reached us, but I had to wonder what turned the golden into "Cujo".
  4. Miniature Horses.  The only time that I have seen him really wig out was when two miniature horses charged us from across an arena.  I am sure that he had no idea what they were, but they smelled like horses and looked like dogs going in for the kill.  He ran backwards 50 feet before he would be consoled.  He did touch noses with them several minutes later, but has remained very skeptical of miniature horses, especially when they are harnessed to a cart.  Apparently, he makes a distinction between ponies and miniature horses.  Go figure.
Although I recognize these things as scary to Harley, I always think of him as fearless.  I got a funny look from a friend when I stated in complete earnest that "Harley is not scared of anything."  Even though I can be realistic in this discussion, when I am with my horse and riding my horse I believe it one hundred percent.  My horse is fearless.

Truly believing that he will not be afraid is a powerful prevention.


  1. Very true. I firmly believe that many horses are fearful because their owners are fearful. I can't fault Harley over the mylar balloon - those are scary for most any pony. And I agree 100% - there are times when it is appropriate to work through a situation, but there are other times when it just makes sense to leave it for another day.

  2. I think it's great that you decided to just move on from the scary balloon. I'm sure Harley appreciated not having a "teaching" moment right then. There will always be more and he really didn't get away with anything, he still had to go by it, just not too close. Sounds like a very nice ride.

  3. It really felt like he was trying to get my attention, to alert me to the balloon. It was low in the garden and somewhat hidden by plants so I did not see it before he stopped. I know that the balloon is harmless, but from Harley's perspective he is keeping us safe from the unknown. He seemed quite happy that I recognized and respected his warning. I know that I am supposed to be the leader in this pair, but more and more I feel that the horse has worthwhile input, even if this time the dangers of a balloon were not real.

  4. Good for you! I like that, and really it makes sense.


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