Chapter Five

Sometimes you just have to trust your gut. I believe this to be especially true when working with green horses. The markers indicating when a young horse is ready to move on to the next big thing can be ethereal or plain as daylight and the colt himself can be anywhere from demonstrative to a big pool of dark water. Working with young horses requires living with some degree of uncertainty; you can do all the prep work you want but you still haven’t ridden him ‘til you’ve ridden him and until you do, you can’t know how he’s going to take it.

I like living with this uncertainty. Every day, every horse, brings a little spice and challenge. There are things I usually do—almost always do—with every colt but I’ve also learned over the years to heed my instincts. If nothing else this (usually) keeps me from making assumptions. When Lynx came along however, I felt like I did when I was first starting out. Most of the experience I normally rely upon was gone. After all, how many newly-made-one-eyed- three-year-olds does a guy get to work with in his life? A lot of the old doubts and questions came rushing back.

Chief among these doubts was the question of how much and what sort of groundwork I should do. I felt like there was a lot riding on the choices I’d make, namely the course of the rest of Lynx’s life. I sensed that how things started out would set a permanent trend. The biggest dilemma centered on desensitization, that is, finding something that will cause fear in a horse and exposing him to it until he overcomes his fear. In this country the old-timers called it sacking out; they would tie a horse to a stout post and wave a feed sack at him until he quit spooking at it. All things being relative, it mostly worked. When it didn’t you either got a tougher cowboy or gave up on that particular horse and left him to his fate. These days we start with far gentler horses and use the ubiquitous little flag on a stick, which can be more effective and enlightened if the human holding understands all the nuances involved. If not, the horse gets sent to a tougher cowboy or left to his fate…

The reason this question loomed so large for me was simple—Lynx spooked, especially when something came up on his blind side. Shouldn’t I work on that until it went away? He seemed to be settling in and making progress just hanging around here with his new friends. The temptation to work on the ground until the spooking issue was resolved was great; it could make the riding easier if we did not have to deal with some of his other fears.

But my gut would not have it. I left my flag hanging on its peg. Instinct told me that I would be overexposing him at a critical juncture. I did not abandon ground work entirely: circles, saddling, being moved from the back of another horse, working from the fence, moving out under saddle in the round pen—all normal stuff—were covered under Lynx’s rehabilitation program but whatever scares he had just happened as they came up.

Then came the big day, time to get on and find out. It’s not as if Lynx had never been ridden before so hold the drum roll but he’d never been ridden with one eye and he’d never been ridden when he was quite so vulnerable. I wouldn’t—couldn’t— know if my gut was right until I got on him. 

I saddled him up in the round pen and turned him loose. There was some tension, some “grabbing” of himself, even a little bucking, all of which fell within the normal range. I matched my feet to his and it caught his attention. Soon we were making transitions up and down through all his gaits. We were together in our groundwork. I caught him, bridled him (he knew a snaffle) and got myself ready to get on.

I touched both of his sides and shook the stirrup leathers. I rocked him from side to side by pushing gently on his withers. I wanted his blind side to see this coming as best it could; mounting was what was most likely to get us into trouble. 

It didn’t. When I settled down on his back he blew gently through his nostrils and I knew we’d be fine. We set off at the pace and direction he chose and it felt to me like flying, like the first time I ever rode a horse. The first ride still does that to me, even after all these years. When I think of the trust I’m being given then—I am well and truly awed. I hope I never lose that feeling. 

Soon Lynx and I were trotting along and then loping easy. A little shifting of weight and we were off in the other direction, going through our gaits again, blowing gently and smiling. The next day Lynx let me ride him in the big arena and the following day it was a trail ride down through the hay meadows along the creek bottom. Life is good.

Next week: Lynx’s Big Adventure (bulls are such jerks…)