Friday, October 24, 2008

My Horse just became a dog

(round penning, outside a round pen)

Okay, I know, I know. Horses don't become dogs. But stick with me for a minute.

All my life I've had dogs. And there is one rule with every dog - you adopt that life, it is yours for life. Through thick and thin, bad housebreaking habits, discovery of an astonishing lack of brains, propensity for chewing up valuable electronics, allergies to every substance on the planet (proving once again that some dogs are simply not from here - it does not matter. You work through it, period. As long as no blood is drawn, of course.

Dogs also believe in you. They come to trust that you will be there for them, that you will come home at the end of the day. That's why it's particularly tragic when older dogs are abandoned. They never stop believing and will forgive you in a heartbeat.

But I never really saw that with horses. I didn't see anyone with that level of connection. There were a few good horse people I'd run into, they had an appreciation for horses, no question. Still they were horse traders, looking for the next great jumper, cutter, team penning horse.

In the last few months I've met one person who seemed to connect with her horses on a different level. The kind of connection where she raises her hand casually and the horse over her shoulder drops his muzzle into it, cuddling in horse fashion. I admired that connection, but she lives with her horses, trains and teaches. Time and habit, I reasoned. Horses are not dogs. They don't get that kind of connection.

Then something happened on Sunday that made me reconsider things.

Rudy was demonstrating the absolutely gorgeous side passing of his horse, Woody. When Woody side passes, it looks like Fred Astair tossed on horse shoes. Five steps to the left, five steps to the right. Flowing tail like the tails of a tuxedo coat. Amazing.

"you have to teach me that!" I said, riding up on Canyon. I've never been able to get Canyon to side pass. It doesn't help that I don't know how to even ask for it, but even experience riders haven't been able to just get him to do it.

So Rudy tried to tell me what to do: pressure in the middle, open leg on the side you want to go to, little bit of brakes with the reins, little bit of pull off to the side.

We went in a circle. Canyon had no clue what I was doing.

That made two of us.

Very diplomatically Rudy said "Do you mind if I try?"

"Sure," I said, jumping off.

Now, I should mention that Sunday was the second day I hadn't warmed up Canyon. I spend a good 5 to 15 minutes with him in the round pen, religiously. But lately he's been coming up to me in the field, backing and responding well immediately and I've thought that maybe we didn't really need any round pen time. Just a feeling. So I just did a few things - check the brakes, a trainer told me - and got on. He was perfectly still and willing.

(by the way, here's how I was taught to check the brakes on my horse:
  • First try backing him with the least possible pressure, either just a gesture or the lightest touch on his chest. If he backs, that's a good sign.
  • Then place one finger in the halter under his chin and pull downward very, very lightly. If your horse drops his head easily then you've got great brakes.)

Something happened when I got off of him and walked over to Rudy's horse. Something I never expected.

(continued tomorrow)


GNH said...

I think dogs make the connection automatically because dogs and humans are both predators. Horses are prey animals. You definitely can make the connection with a horse as well as many people including myself will attest to, but you have to go an extra mile to really earn the trust of the horse. When you do its definitely worth it. I also think its tragic and extremely mean when people abandon old dogs. How someone could do such a thing is beyond me. I have a German Shepherd who was 8 when I got him. He is the sweetest dog you could ever meet. But the guy that owned him didn't want him anymore for some reason. Its also sad when people do this to horses, and they seem very willing to after a horse has outlived its practical usefulness (jumping or whatever).

alma said...

This reminds me of something that affected me deeply, and this after many years of working with animals and experiencing or hearing of all kinds of cruelties and stupidities visited on them.

I meet a woman with an elderly retriever dog who told me the dog, at age 12, was left with our local municipal shelter by people who moved back to Europe. What bothered me so much was that the dog was a Seeing Eye dog, and had led the person around for years and years, only to be dumped at the local kill shelter when they decided to move back home.

Somehow, doing that to a dog that has had that kind of relationship to you made me cringe - what kind of person does this?

Thankfully, a staff person learned of the dog's story and took him in, fostered him and got him a wonderful home to spend the rest of his life in.

Well, all's well that ends well, but... gosh...

Unknown said...

I used to work with a service dog organization that makes every person sign a contract that they will return the dog should they no longer want it or when it gets too old.

I'm with you and GNH, it boggles my mind how people can abandon dogs, particularly older ones. It's heart breakings.

I recently heard a story about a man who has written about how our relationship with dogs has changed in the last 40 years - how 40 years ago people didn't walk their dogs much, only fed them table scraps, etc. Maybe it's generational?