Monday, October 2, 2017

Pain, Fear, Memory, and Compassion



I have a Palomino who used to explode as soon as my butt hit the saddle.

He didn't buck during his initial interview, when I rode him for the first time to see if I wanted to buy him. I had brought my trainer friend along to prevent me from making a foolish decision (he's so cute!).  She rode him too, and thought he seemed like a reasonable guy.

Jesus, what a faker.  Either Tanner interviewed well because he was on Reserpine, an antipsychotic drug, or because he wanted to live with the two horses down the hill, instead of by himself with no herd. 

For whatever reason, Tanner let Jen and I saddle up that afternoon without a fuss. 

Not so much at my farm.  From the mounting block, I lowered myself onto my English saddle and Tanner went berserk.  It was like riding a rodeo bronc. 

On You Tube you can find videos of people riding bucking horses--falling off, laughing, getting back on, doing it again. They make it look fun. 

But it isn't fun. It was scary enough to make me not look forward with enthusiasm to my next ride on Tanner.  

But that was alright because Tanner was my project horse, and I generally rode my other horse, Belle.

Long story short, now Belle is dead and I have to ride Tanner.   

You might remember that Tanner was the horse that viciously bit me twice.  But he doesn't kick! And in his defense, he really is quite adorable. When he was in a sweet mood, which was often, he enjoyed being petted and loved on. He definitely had a big heart. 

So, why did this horse want to buck me off? 

And why did he go ape-shit when we cantered? 

I didn't know. But if I was going to have a horse that was enjoyable to ride (assuming I didn't sell Tanner and buy a different horse), I was going to have to address these issues.

Right around then my friend told me that she got a horse at her barn that had killed a man.  

That's like your friend telling you she has a malignant tumor. 

I had a lot of questions. 

It all boiled down to this: There was a reason why the horse bucked the rider off repeatedly. They found that something sharp beneath the saddle had been hurting the horse (perhaps a bur, or a thorn, easily overlooked). 

Still. Understandable though it may be for a horse to react to pain in that way...to train and ride any horse that has committed involuntary manslaughter is really scary--and not just for my friend, but I was also afraid for her; and it gave me pause, frankly, regarding Tanner.

My friend and I both knew that if she went about things in a safe way--from the ground--until she was 125% confident that this horse did not want to kill her, then everything would be okay.  

So that's exactly how I proceeded with Tanner, having ridden through so much of his bucking, and now knowing that it was exactly that behavior which had killed someone from whom I was separated by a scant one or two degrees. 

I observed Tanner moving in the round-pen wearing first one saddle, and then the other; first one bridle, and then the other; first one bit, and then the other, etcetera, etcetera.  I was in no hurry whatsoever to mount up. 

I felt a little ashamed, as if I were being lazy and abjectly fearful. Not very cowboy at all. 

On the other hand, I profited from that slow approach: my interest in trying different things and closely observing his response to each item paid off.   

I learned that Tanner didn't want me to saddle up from the mounting block.  It went much better if I saddled up from the ground.  

He hated my English saddle. He was more tolerant of the Western saddle. 

He fussed with the bit all the time.  The faster he moved, the more the bit troubled him.  By the time he broke into a canter, Tanner was ready to explode.

I tried two bits, the snaffle and the Kimberwick; and two bridles: English and Western. He clearly preferred the English bridle, but the bit continued to bother him.  

I could have tried a whole bunch of bits, but researching them was a grim exercise, like standing in front of the meat display at the supermarket. It made me wish that things could be otherwise. 

From the snaffle bit (the kindest and most gentle), things just got heavier and less kind. If you have a sensitive hand, it doesn't matter as much; but it seemed like a negative approach to a problem, pairing pain with error. 

What if I eliminated the bit altogether?  Would that work? Or would it just make Tanner more dangerous?  Would he be out of control?

I obsessed about bit-less bridles and researched the heck out of them. Finally, I felt confident about buying a bit-less bridle from an outfit in Australia.  While it was being shipped, I was guardedly optimistic that it might solve at least one problem. Maybe.

I had to watch an instructional video three or four times to figure out how to put on the bit-less bridle.  The side-straps kept poking Tanner in the eye, but I couldn't help it, so I reimbursed him for his troubles with biscuits. He was perfectly willing to shut his eyes and grit his teeth for a biscuit.

Hell yeah, I give biscuits. 

Horse people are like feminists and Republicans: There's very little that we agree on.   There's a huge divide between those who give treats to their horses and those who don't.  I have always been in the first camp.  

Those who never reward with treats know for sure that Tanner bit me viciously twice because I gave him treats by hand (the worst possible way to tithe in that religion). 

Nothing I could possibly say will ever change their minds. If he never bites me again, it would be too late.

I don't let Tanner demand biscuits. That's forbidden--he knows he'll never get one from me that way. Certainly not usually.

I watched Tanner assess this new apparatus, the bit-lessness of the bridle.  He moved his jaws, prepared to make a fuss, but there was nothing to fuss about.  

After some time, and pulling his head this way and that, feeling out the various pressure points, he seemed to forget all about it.  He wasn't annoyed or distracted.  He began to watch me and pay attention. The bridle was just as transformative as I had hardly dared hope it might be.  

We did not have any bucking. We have not had any since.  

Last week, I heard another scary story about a horse that unpredictably goes berserk.  He had no issues with pain, no baggage from a checkered past... But, unlike Tanner, who is gushingly transparent, this horse did not respond to insults at the time they were committed. 

Instead, he became quietly bitter. He harbored resentments. Every little thing that didn't go his way played like a tincture of poison until, at some random moment, he exploded.  It didn't  matter if he was alone when it happened or being ridden. He did not necessarily need to hurt somebody, he just needed to flip out. 

Last week, he flipped out while someone was riding him, and my friend had to call an ambulance.   

What to do about a horse like that?  

I really don't know.  

I wondered whether a calming supplement might help.  A mood-elevating herb, perhaps?  A cup of chamomile tea? Something to boost the self-esteem? 

That's what I would try if it were my horse. Actually, I would probably try biscuits, first. He might feel less resentment if he felt compensated.  

But I would not take any chances.  I would test the hell out of any possible solution in the safest possible terms.  I would want to know exactly what that horse's temperament tasted like before I ever rode it again. Was he bitter? Was he sweet?  

(To the suggestion of a calming supplement, my friend texted, "He's calm. He's just an asshole." She could be right.) 

I am happy to report that Tanner's attitude is getting better and better.  

He used to see a halter and take off in the opposite direction. Now, I don't  tie him up  at all. 

I find him in the barn, stuff my pockets with biscuits, and fetch the saddle pad. I put the pad on Tanner.  I give him a biscuit and a pat.  I fetch the saddle. Put it on him. Give him a biscuit and a pat. Buckle the cinch, not too tight. Biscuit and pat.  

By the time I'm ready to put a halter on, Tanner is saddled up.  I put the halter on. Biscuit and pat. 



Sometimes, I think about how far away a mad horse will run from her home, through electric ropes and over barbed wire. And, by contrast, I see how content sane horses like Fire and Tanner are, just  to be at home. Sometimes, I let both horses graze at liberty on the long grass at the periphery of the fields.  No halter. No tether. Fifteen minutes or so of freedom and autonomy.  The time passes slowly, like a walk in the woods.  

After eons of looking down their noses at those who would attribute human emotions to animals, current scientific research now suggests that animals--a surprising number of them, if not the whole lot--are sentient.  Their emotions are not that different from our own.  Attributing human emotions to animals no longer qualifies me as an idiot. 

Horses learn differently from humans, in specific ways:  The two sides of their brains are connected by just a bridge. You have to teach both sides of the horse, left and right, as though they were two different children.  They're herd animals, so they are political. And they are herbivores and naturally distrust predators...like us. 

But everything else is human-ish. 

Tanner came with baggage: A dent in his nose from a halter left on too long...might explain his lack of enthusiasm for halters. His feet had been allowed to grow out to where it would certainly be painful to run.  I can imagine someone getting on him from a mounting block and putting him through his paces, which would have become more and more painful as his feet grew out and the bone deformed. This might explain his attitude toward the mounting block. And the English saddle.

But someone loved him. They taught Tanner how to bow, which he does willingly and with flourish.  He knows all the basic commands: walk, trot, whoa, canter kiss.  

I learned how to put the bit-less bridle on him without getting straps in his eyes. We spent fifteen minutes one day figuring it out. I was afraid I might have to watch another video.

I've got him walking a circle around me while I stand at the top of the mounting block.  After circling it, he positions himself next to it so that I could climb onto his back if I wanted to.  For now, I'm focused on making the mounting block a happy place.  I want to be sure that he has good feelings about it before I climb into the saddle.  I brush his mane, scratch his back, check him over for signs of pain, and give him a nice massage.  I am in no hurry.  I believe that soon Tanner will let me saddle up from the mounting block of his own free will. It won't be easy for him, but he'll do it. And that will be a big personal victory for him that makes him saner and safer to ride. 











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