PROLOGUE: The other day I discovered a new blog, Equine Insanity. I stayed up way too late reading the whole thing, and it really, really got me thinking about the boys, especially about Cash. I've had him for so long and I feel like we've got a connection - or at least, we used to. I think I gave it up when I retired him, and tried to distance myself from him, because I never knew if I was seeing him for the last time. Now he's home with me, but I haven't spent the time to reconnect... or maybe I'm afraid to do so because of his age. But thanks to the new blog, I'm inspired to try again...
When was the last time you really stopped to listen to your horse?
Yesterday the trimmer was out for the boys. When I went to bring Cash in, he walked away from me and then left the barn. Not wanting to give chase, I snagged Saga instead and we got him trimmed. As the trimmer was finishing up with Saga, I went back out to try to get Cash again. He was on the other side of the track, but he let me walk up to him and put his halter on, and then he followed me all the way back to the barn... and then stopped just before we got there. I touched his halter and asked him to come with me (I didn't have a lead rope), and he walked forward for two steps and then swung around away from me and the barn. His message could not have been clearer: I do not want to go in there.
Normally I would have grabbed his halter and insisted that he come with me, and he would have done so without a peep, but I something made me stop. He didn't want to go in the barn, but why not? Since the trimmer was waiting, I felt like I couldn't really take the time to explore the reasons, but I didn't want to force him to come in. Instead, I rubbed the itchy spot on his withers while I explained that I understood he didn't want to come in, but that the trimmer was there and needed to see his feet. I told him that we would not be riding, and that I would scratch all his favorite itchy spots and get him a few treats if he would come in for a little while. I felt like I was bribing a child to go to the dentist or something!
After a moment I caught his halter and asked him to come with me, which he did. I scratched him all over as I had promised, and it was the strangest thing - when I rubbed his left side, he yawned and made all sorts of funny faces, licking and chewing non-stop. When I did the right side - nothing. He looked away and I got the distinct feeling he was just putting up with it. So I went back to the left side and got the same licking and chewing - bizarre. He's never done that, although he usually makes funny faces if I scratch him.
What was he trying to tell me about not going in the barn? What's up with the left versus the right side of his body? I feel like there's something going on here, and I'm just too dense to see it.
After yesterday's experience, I vowed to take some time and really try to listen to what Cash had to say to me tonight. JD, Fuzzypony and I decided to go for a short ride after dinner, so I figured it was the perfect time to see if I could understand the situation better. I put his halter on with no problem, when led him over to our grooming spot. When I was selecting a brush to use, I dug through the box to find the softest horsehair brush I own. I don't normally use this one, but for some reason I needed it tonight. Cash seemed to not really want to be groomed, so I kept it as short as possible with just the soft brush and no curry. He seemed happy enough to have me pick out his feet, offering me each one in turn, just like normal.
The flies were bothering him, so I went to get the fly spray. However, when I approached him with it, he noticeably shifted his weight away from me, even though he didn't move a single foot. I waited for a few seconds to see if he'd change his mind, but his body language said it loud and clear: he did not want to be sprayed. I've sprayed him all his life, and he just barely tolerates it... I knew he'd tolerate it now if I forced the issue, but I decided that there was really no point. The flies weren't that bad, and we were just going on a short walk. If they bothered him a little, it wouldn't matter that much - and besides, he didn't want it. Well OK then, no fly spray tonight. He relaxed visibly when I put the bottle back.
I had decided to ride Cash in his old sidepull instead of the eggbutt snaffle he's been using. I figured maybe he was objecting to the bit, or the saddle, or heck, maybe just being ridden! when he wouldn't come in the barn yesterday. I showed him the sidepull and he amicably stuck his nose in it - exactly like he used to do when he was ready to go for a ride. I showed him the gel-filled saddle pad I like to use when riding bareback, and he dutifully inspected it and seemed to find it acceptable. Thus armed, I let him down the driveway to our mounting block (my mailbox), and tried to get a sense of how he felt about going for a ride. I didn't feel like he was super interested in going, but he also didn't object, possibly because Red and Saga were there too. I (gracelessly) climbed on, and we set off.
I concentrated on totally dropping the reins on his neck and letting the tension out of my legs, keeping them away from his sides. For the first 1/4 mile, he just sort of plodded dutifully on after the other horses. His head was low and his ears at half mast. Then, when we went past the Appy's house, he stopped and stared for perhaps ten seconds, looking for the Appy, who was nowhere to be found. And then he walked on of his own volition. From that point on he started wandering back and forth across the street, looking down driveways and peering through the trees. When the road ended and the trail began on left, he decided to go right. We have never gone right, so I let him, and he went to inspect some roses. After a moment, I told him we had to rejoin Red and Saga, so I picked up the reins and pointed him back on the trail.
He obliged me and I dropped the reins immediately, but he went back to plodding again for perhaps 50 yards. Then, suddenly, he was interested in his surroundings again. He veered left and right around the trail, inspecting trees and shrubs. He found an old pile of poop that he stopped to sniff. When we came to a steep spot in the trail, I grabbed his mane and let him choose how to scramble up it. I got a lot of branches in the face because I let him pick the way, and he was clearly choosing what was best for him and not for me. He stopped to grab a mouthful here and there, but was quick to pick back up again with Saga and Red. Maybe this was "misbehavior," but I suddenly felt like Cash was actually enjoying the ride, enjoying getting out and looking around and exploring, instead of just being a dutiful all-terrain-vehicle for me to sit on.
Suddenly, a guy on a mountain bike come up behind us with his dog. Cash spooked (in place) and I asked the guy if he could please wait while we moved off the trail. He kindly did so, and once he was past we picked up our ride, but the mood had been ruined. Cash was nervous. He'd been walking in the back quite nicely (unusual, since he normally jigs when he's in back) but now he was crowding Saga on the trail. Once again I dropped the reins and tried to relaxed, and just let him figure it out. He was kind of a mess for a few minutes - tripped on rocks because he wasn't paying attention, tried to pass on the edge of the trail - but he calmed back down on his own. As we approached home, he became more and more bold with grabbing a bite to eat, even though Red and Saga were getting further ahead. Eventually I told him that we really did have to go home, shook the reins at him, and smooched to him. He didn't seem to want to go back, but he obliged me and moseyed the rest of the way home.
Once back in the barn, I took his saddle pad and sidepull off and asked him if he wanted to be scratched. He inspected me for treats (I had none) and then reached around to his flank and began scratching himself. I nudged his nose away and scratched him instead for a minute or two. When I stopped, he almost immediately reached around to the other side and started scratching, so I changed sides and scratched him there too. He quite literally showed me (with his nose) two or three other places that needed scratching, and I made sure to get those as well. Then I stood there, arms at my sides, and asked him if there was anything else. He waited for perhaps ten seconds, then turned and shoved his butt in my face. So I scratched his left cheek, and when I was done with that, he shifted so I could do his right cheek. Subtle, that one. I once again asked if there were any other spots, and he maneuvered so that his withers were even with me, so I rubbed him there while he wiggled around, shifting back and forth, so I could get just the right place.
And then, without warning, he left. He turned and walked directly to Taran, who had been watching us the entire time perhaps 15 feet away in his stall. Cash draped his head over the stall door and immediately starting grooming Taran, right on the neck where I had been grooming Cash just moments before. Taran sort of half-heartedly groomed back, but it was pretty clear that Cash was doing the grooming and Taran was the itchy one. I stood there, mouth agape. How had Cash known what Taran wanted? He was facing the opposite direction from Taran when he had suddenly turned around, so it wasn't like he could see Taran... yet somehow, he had known.
So tonight, I listened to my horse. I learned that he hates fly spray (ok, I knew that, but now I REALLY know that), he likes his sidepull, and that if given a choice, he enjoys exploring on our trail rides. I learned that he has no problem telling me where he wants to be groomed, if I will but listen to him. I also discovered that he has empathy for another horse - Taran couldn't come join us to be groomed, so Cash left me and went to groom him. I learned, once again, that I am very fortunate to be able to spent time with an absolutely amazing animal - and that despite being together for 15 years, there's still an awful lot I have to learn about him.
If you listen to your horse, if you let him have an opinion, what does he tell you?