Three Good Habits

Since it’s New Year’s Eve and since most folks like to read top ten lists and make the appropriate resolutions on this day, I thought I’d toss a few out there for the sake of our horses. (Also, it’s snowing like crazy and I’m still waiting for that lazy ol’ sun to come up—it’s always better if I stay gainfully occupied.) I’ve kept my list at three because a) frankly, ten good habits are way more than most old cowboys are capable of having and b) even for normal people, trying to remember a ten-point checklist in the heat of an equine moment is overwhelming. But I believe that if we humans could develop the following three habits and learn to apply them most of our horse’s troubles would go away.

1) Be observant, look at the whole horse: 
When I was in college one of my professors told a story about Dr. Jan Bondsma, a South African famous for his ability to observe cattle. I’ll retell it here to the best of my recollection. 

At a cattle show a grand champion bull was picked, by all accounts a superb looking bull. Knowing that he was in attendance, Dr. Bondsma was asked what he thought of the bull.

“Wouldn’t have picked him.”
“What?! Why not?” 
“That bull has spina bifida.” (A rare, congenital hole in the spinal column.) 
“What? He does not—and anyway, you couldn’t possibly tell that from where you are.” 

For an answer Dr. Bondsma walked into the ring and put his finger on the bull’s back. He pressed down and the bull fell in a heap at the judge’s feet. THAT, folks, is being observant. 

We may not all be able to take it to that level but we can all get better—and I’ll tell it to you straight, we need to. Seeing what we want to see is endemic in the horse world. Part of the problem is evolutionary; human faces are extremely expressive and we quite naturally expend most of our powers of observation towards the reading of them. In the clannish world of our ancestors one needed to figure out at a real young age when the alpha male was getting grumpy. Incurring his wrath could be fatal. Even in today’s world it would be extremely tough to get along without the ability to pick up on the tiniest facial signals that others send us. Just ask somebody with Asperger’s Syndrome. However, this heavy reliance on facial cues often causes us to miss or gloss over most of what our horses are telling us. Ask yourself how often you’ve greeted your trusty steed by gazing into those deep brown eyes without even seeing the right hind foot. Or, having met some new horse friend, you can recall every velvet curve of his muzzle but can’t remember if he has two socks or three. 

Let’s think about some of the benefits of getting beyond the face magnet. We’ll go to an imaginary corral full of strange horses and see what there is to see. We’ll pretend we have to pick one out for a cross-country ride. The roads are closed and you must deliver medicine to the next town over. This is Wyoming so it’ll be a long, long ride. 

Just noting age, shape, sex and color would go quite a ways towards helping a person in this situation. First off you could eliminate a lot of choices just using age as a criterion. Forget the bony sorrel with the swayback and the deep pits above his eyes; he’s too old for such a ride. There’s a nice little bay, she seems curious and gentle but her slightly underdeveloped head and her thin mane and tail tell you she’s just a two year old, too young for such a trip. Likewise those two gawky blacks—they’ve been busy fooling around, playing stallion-fight with each other and being basically unaware of anything else. Their attitude tells you that most likely they’ve yet to do a single day’s worth of honest work in their lives. 

There’s an Appaloosa mare that looks alright. Her frame is filled out and strong so you guess her age as nine but you’ve seen her pee three times already and pin her ears too. She’s horsing (in heat) so today might not be her best day. Working your way down the list you mark off the big roan gelding (ringbone left front), the horse that rolled and Flehmened (ulcers?) and the horse with dull eyes and a tail caked with dried manure (he’s not calm, he’s sick!). 

At last, here’s a grey, seems the right age, nicely put together, good feet. Not a mark on her that you can see. She’s a little hard to catch but once haltered she follows you over to your saddle. You get your saddle on her and notice she hasn’t moved an inch except to raise her head. How cooperative. You get her all cinched up without a hitch. She does seem reluctant to lead off but the bright side is that it seems as if she’ll stand still while you get on. Just as you are about to swing aboard something nags at you and you take another look at this horse. You might describe her posture as “statuesque.” You carefully feel the flesh around her flanks. Tight, tight as a drum. Not having time for a bronc ride you unsaddle and go take another look at the two remaining horses in the corral. 

Both of these horses have shoes on, that’s a good sign. They probably wouldn’t be shod if someone wasn’t using them. Each one has little white saddle marks below the withers, also signs of use. Now you are getting somewhere. One is a brown horse, the other is a dun. Both stand about 15.2 and are fit. The brown has slightly rougher lines than the dun but this ride aint gonna be for show. However, you can’t tell if this roughness extends to the brown’s lower legs and includes signs of chronic lameness because they are absolutely caked with dried mud. Both horses do appear sound though. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the dun expect for rub marks across the back of his thighs. You ask yourself, “Pin worms?” and wonder if it matters. They are waiting for their medicine over there in that little town. 

You grab two halters and decide to choose after catching both horses. The brown tries to leave as you walk up but his attempt at escape is half-hearted and you catch him in the corner of the corral. The dun pins flips his ears back in mild irritation when he sees you’re coming for him but he gets over it quickly and stands for you to catch him. Which horse do you ride? Come on, time’s a-wastin’. (*see below for correct answer…) 

I’m waiting… 

Still waiting…

Duh!!! The brown horse. That he’s the only horse with mud-caked legs probably means somebody has recently ridden him across the creek and the fact that he walked away from your halter only means he thought it was too soon to go back to work. The rub marks on the dun are too low to be from pin worm irritation. They are from a britchin. The dun is a pack horse. He only stood for you to catch him because he’s not clever enough to see the work coming, which is probably why he’s a pack horse. p.s. plus, mystery writers ALWAYS try to mislead you. It’s called contradictory clues.

2) Work on what needs working on right when it needs working on:

This is a great habit to get into. If you’ll work on what needs working on right when it comes up—whenever that is—you’ll take care of the fundamentals which will pretty much take care of everything else. This will require a great deal of mental and emotional flexibility on your part. You’ll have to be willing to drop your plans at a moment’s notice. For example you may have your horse all saddled up on a beautiful, sunny day when you feel your horse dragging behind you as you lead him up to the gate. Even though your heart is set on a relaxing trail ride the right thing to do might be to work on your horse’s lead-line skills. Or, perhaps you’re just going to throw out a few flakes of hay before heading to the house for the night and your trusty steed nudges you none to gently aside on his way to get at them. Supper really ought to wait for the both of you until after a friendly lesson in personal space and other important parameters. 

If you develop this habit you’ll probably find yourself returning again and again to the most basic lessons or even the most basic parts of the most basic lessons. At first this can seem like drudgery. The thing is one way or another you’re going to put your time in on these lessons, whether it’s in the beginning of your work with a horse where it should be (and it’s easier), or later when the things you glossed over come back to haunt you and you hit the proverbial wall in your training program. 

The good news is that once you’ve committed yourself to this habit the things that come up will start to come up less and less often. The other good news is that you won’t be so inclined to skip over stuff with your next horse.

 3) Prepare your horse:

 A few years back I came across a calf that we’d missed at branding. We were going to head out to summer pasture in a few days and I wanted to get him branded and vaccinated before we went. So I got the calf corralled, lit the branding torch to heat the irons, and made ready to get this calf done. Upon closer inspection, the person who was helping me in this endeavor and I decided that this calf had grown—a lot—since coming into the corral and was too big for the two of us to rassle into submission. We figured a device called a branding fork would be our best option. A branding fork is designed to hold the front end of a calf for branding while your horse holds the hind legs. To use it you simply (simply ha ha!) rope his hocks and drag the calf past the fork so it can be hooked over his neck. My daughter’s horse Zim was already saddled so I jumped on him and got down to it. 

All went well at first. Zim put me in position for a nice, easy shot at both hocks. I closed my eyes, threw my loop and the calf accidentally stepped into it. Zim dutifully drug the calf past the forks and…the ground-person missed on the hook up. 

Did I mention that cowhands are not so big on planning ahead? The configuration of this particular pen meant that 
you only got one chance to hook up the branding fork. If you missed your horse came to a dead-end and it got real hard to keep enough tension on your rope to hold the calf down. Impossible actually. I did not account for that in advance. So the calf got up and went streaking past poor, unsuspecting Zim. In doing so he’d kicked one foot out of the loop but it had gotten tight above his other hock. In case you didn’t know, a calf caught by one leg is WAY feistier than when he’s caught by two. I did some quick mental math. A sixty foot rope plus a three foot long calf in a forty foot pen meant that there was approximately twenty-three feet of lass rope for a circling calf to tie around an innocent rope horse. Turning loose of my rope was therefore not an option. All I could do was swap my end of the rope from one side of Zim to the other as that calf windmilled around us. 

Did I mention the two portable corral panels standing randomly in that pen? That calf must not have known about them either because he plowed right through them. Plowed through them, wrapped the rope around them and drug them into the branding torch, which was still lit. At this point the ground-person (the smartest human involved) crawled up on the fence to watch the show. A calf on one end of a rope, a horse on the other with two panels and a branding torch in between can be quite a show. Zim however, disappointed the audience. He calmly kept swinging around to face the calf, dodged the panels and ignored the propane comet until I could get things under control again--just what you’d hope for in a well-seasoned rope horse. 

There was one other thing I forgot to mention; this was the first time Zim had ever been used to rope a live animal. He was well-prepared though. A few weeks earlier I’d told my daughter she’d ought to get her horse ready to rope from. Apparently she’d done a good job. She’d had her rope off both sides, crossed him under it, held a post tight, drug logs, could move his front or hind quarters with her legs and in either direction, he backed well, and she’d shown him he could ignore scary things. He could already do these little things very well, so well that when the chips were down and he really needed to, he could keep it together and do them all at once. The lesson here is that even though you can’t necessarily practice being tied to a flaming calf and two flying panels you can practice enough parts of the equation to at least give your horse a chance if his number comes up.

Good luck with your new habits and have a Happy New Year!