This was our second Thanksgiving on the island. The festivities began with a Friendsgiving/Oyster Roast at my brother’s house.
We ate Thanksgiving dinner at my mom’s house, and this year my brother and his wife and baby were able to be with us (most years they travel to see her family). We split up the cooking so it wasn’t too much work for anyone, and we enjoyed a nice meal followed by a walk around the village just before sunset.
I had some time off work and I wanted to ride as much as possible. On Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, we took the horses on a trail ride and Rusty the Donkey came along. This was his second time accompanying us, and he was much improved. He gets to run loose in the woods for part of the time, and then we hold his lead rope when we’re on the road. Actually, I don’t do much of anything. The kids do it all!
Our ride on Wednesday was eventful because King freaked out a little and took off with me. The other horses had trotted up ahead and King is reluctant to trot with a rider. Once they were totally out of sight, he decided to trot. They had turned right onto a different trail, and King blew past the turn and got increasingly anxious when he didn’t see them. I was riding in a halter (no bit, and not much control) and I couldn’t get him to slow down. He wasn’t in full blown panic mode, but he was doing his huge, fast trot as fast as he could without breaking into a canter. We hit a spot in the trail where the sand is very deep. He tripped and went down on both front knees, and I went sailing over his shoulder into the soft sand. It was the best possible fall for me, because he was low to the ground and I hit soft sand instead of hard packed dirt. I was actually thankful that he tripped, because I wasn’t able to slow him down at all and I’m not sure if the situation would have escalated into a full blown, bolting, panic attack. I didn’t want to find out.
We walked back on the trail until we found our friends, and King calmed down. I got back on and we continued the ride with no issues, but I knew I had to revisit my tack choices because the halter isn’t cutting it. I have to have some brakes! I also knew I had to get him more confident about being alone.
Thanksgiving morning I took him on a walk/ride. I walked the first half of the loop route that we do, and tried to ride the second half. I brought some carrots and, as we walked, I would say “whoa” and give him a carrot when he stopped. He caught on to that game really quickly. I was able to walk next to him without holding onto him.
We had a nice walk through the woods, and he genuinely seemed to enjoy himself. I tried riding again once we came out onto the road, but he was a bit anxious again, and I got off and walked again. He was still in the halter, I knew I didn’t have any brakes, and I didn’t want to risk another runaway. The last thing you want to do is put a horse into a situation where he panics and bolts. He was calmer with me on the ground, so on the ground I stayed.
On Friday morning I decided to try riding him in a bit. This was the first time I had ridden him alone with no other horses along. In the past he’s been reluctant to walk away from the barn, even to follow the other horses, and it took about 5 minutes to convince him to leave, but once we got going, he was a gem.
The way that I got him to walk away was essentially by doing nothing. I would ask him to move forward, he would turn back, and I would sit quietly and give him a minute to think about it. I didn’t let him eat or wander around. I pointed him down the road toward the trail and asked him to move forward. No escalation of force, no getting irritated, just asking quietly until he decided he was bored standing there and he may as well start walking. It isn’t always that easy, believe me, but I could have created a bigger problem by making him anxious.
We did a short ride in the woods, and he was calm and relaxed the entire ride, even on the way home (most horses want to rush back to the barn). He actually wanted to keep going, but I turned him around so as not to overdo it.
The bit made a world of difference. He has worn a bit before as a cart horse, and I think he understood that form of communication much more than he did with just the halter. Even though I prefer to ride bitless and that’s the goal with every horse I ride, I’m not opposed to doing what the horse understands and is comfortable with for the time being. Safety first! I need some brakes!
King is a good horse- he’s willing and cooperative, he isn’t spooky or anxious, and he seems to enjoy having a job. I’ve also been able to take all the things I’ve learned with my other foster horses and apply those principles to King. In the past, I would have had a much less patient way of dealing with his reluctance to leave the barn, and it would have really bothered me when he freaked out about losing his friends.
The most important thing I have learned is that relaxation is the number one goal. Trying to force a horse to do anything is a losing battle. Setting the horse up for success is key. I have no problem getting off and walking if the horse needs me to be with him on the ground to give him confidence. In the past I would have viewed that as a failure.
Now I see that I have to work with what I’ve got- trying to force a nervous horse to cooperate creates more anxiety and often turns into a fight where the horse feels his only option is to do something really stupid like buck me off or bolt back to the barn. Instead, I take everything slowly and never allow the situation to devolve into a battle. If he’s not ready for something today, we’ll try again tomorrow.
This Thanksgiving I am thankful for my family, my horses and for being able to live in such a wild, beautiful place. No one’s life is perfect, but mine is very good!