Chapter Nine: Learning the Ropes (Part One)

Well, I am starting to wonder if this chapter on introducing a one-eyed horse to rope work was ever meant to be. As Lynx seems determined that I not make the necessary progress required to give a full, beginning-to-end report I will have to do this one in serial form. The reason for this incompleteness is not one you might suspect. It wasn’t fear or an inability to adapt to the sudden appearance of nylon over his head that derailed us. No–he got himself BEATEN UP BY A YEARLING! One about two-thirds his size no less. I’m soooo humiliated. What kind of self-respecting ranch horse lets himself get run off his feed pan and thoroughly whipped by a little unbroke filly that can’t even look over the top rail of the corral? Lynx, that’s what kind. Rrrr.

The loss of supplemental feed and self-esteem was not the worst of it (at least not from my point of view). In surrendering his extra calories and his machismo, Lynx also gave away a patch of hair and hide about six inches square. Now normally I would not lose my equanimity over a horse bite—they tend to look worse than they really are—but this one was deep. As in layers deep. As in the swelling that surrounded it looked like a squashed watermelon. As in we won’t be riding Lynx for a while because of course, it’s right where the left bar on the saddle tree goes.

There is nothing left but to make the best of it however, and a lot of early rope work can and should be done from the ground. I believe every horse should be introduced to ropes, provided that their human is capable of doing it correctly. Even if a horse will never, ever help some unwashed cowhand catch a sick calf, the foundational training required for ranch roping can help any horse of any discipline learn focus, self-confidence and decision making. In order to doctor a sick animal under range conditions a rider must dismount and leave his horse tied to a very large, unpredictable animal. The horse must continually make adjustments, on his own and under duress, while the cowhand tends to the cow. To succeed he cannot let his attention wander, neither can he get flustered. Any wreck that happens under these circumstances could be bad for all involved so the training needed to get a horse ready for a job like this must be thorough, pertinent and correct.

I usually begin introducing horse and rope by touching, tapping and rubbing the horse all over with the coils, taking as much time as a particular horse needs. Lass ropes make funny sounds after all and look like very long snakes. Lynx didn’t need much time; he accepted the idea of a rope from the get-go. Actually he progressed through all the usual steps with ease until I tried to stop him by a loop on his left leg. 

To teach a horse to stop by a leg I send them around the round pen loose except I have one foot roped (really, I gently slip a loop over whichever leg I’m working on…). I start at a walk and do most of my work at a walk but will eventually get this done at all gaits. I typically use a visual pre-signal; I raise up the hand that is holding the rope before applying any pressure to stop the horse. This worked fine on Lynx’s right side but wasn’t going to cut it on his left. When working on that side I kept his halter on so he wouldn’t lose track of where I was. I didn’t want the panic button to get pressed. While he never panicked he had great difficulty picking up my intent and stopping well; he could just never see it coming. Over a span of days I tried many things to get this working but it never really seemed to smooth out. Lynx was willing enough but he didn’t seem to possess the capability to get it done. 

It was very frustrating. All along I’ve harbored a secret hope that Lynx would turn out be a super-horse, able to smash through his disability and out-perform every fully sighted horse in Wyoming. It is much like the way we want our kids to be perfect and we want them to turn out the way we want them to be, forgetting that they are who they are—separate, valuable individuals with lives of their own, not lives that we own.

I was treating Lynx like that, as if he had to be super to prove me right and prove that horses have this incredible sixth sense that I can tap into and show off. And I was blaming him for being who he is, forgetting that he is a horse who can’t see a damned thing on his left side, a horse who is damaged and is just trying to get along the best way he can. Propping up my ego is not his job.

I’ve been around enough barns and horse people to know I’m not the only one who’s ever done this. Our blue ribbon dreams and desires often get shoved onto our horses whether they share them or not. It’s easy to forget what they are giving us when it doesn’t look exactly like what we wanted to see. So if Lynx lets a little filly chase him off his grain I shouldn’t take it personally. That’s his business. And if his stop is not as good on his blind side I shouldn’t fault him for it. It’s not a runaway either. By the way, we did eventually get it worked out. I had to change when I asked for it in his stride. Actually, he’s forced me to bring my timing to a level I didn’t know I had. Looked at from that perspective it’s a gift, not a struggle that he’s given me. Who knows, maybe it’ll be a gift to some other horse down the line. 

So thanks, Lynx, thanks for being who you are.