Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sneaky Shadow

Good Wednesday morning to you! You're going to hear several stories about my sweet horse, Shadow, this week.  Shadow is a 15 year old Tennessee Walker.  He's my most requested lesson horse.  Why? Because he's a gentle giant of a horse that's easy to ride.  I think he may be getting tired of that reputation.

Maybe two months ago, Shadow started doing this new thing when he was asked to go faster than a walk-- into a trot or a canter.  In western horsemanship, it's a jog or sometimes trot, but a canter is a lope.  Since most people in my area ride english, I use the words they know-- trot and canter. People come in knowing those words because it's what they've heard their friends saying.  So, I acquiesce.

Normally, Shadow really enjoys going faster.  He spends so much time with beginners at a walk, he loves the change of pace with a more experienced rider.  That's when this big black horse with the long mane and tail looks like a horse in a movie.  He's really beautiful going faster, especially in a canter or a lope.

But, recently, Shadow started ducking his head down when asked to go faster than a walk.  Usually, when a horse gets his head down in front like that, it means the back end is getting ready to pop up!  That's right folks, that kind of head lowering is a precursor to a buck.  A horse cannot physically buck with his head up.  It's one of the many reasons to keep a horses head up when you're riding.  So they can't buck or eat.

A horse will lower his head in a way that his body looks relaxed when he's feeling calm.  A horse will lower his head below a human's or another horse's to show submission.  He's saying, "Ok, you're the leader."  But, when a horse's eyes are down around his knees and he's moving, a buck is getting ready to happen. No, Shadow never even tried to buck.  That's what was so strange.

First of all, it's not Shadow's nature to buck.  He doesn't get to feeling good and want to kick up his heels.  You know like those people who, when they are feeling good, let out a big whoop and holler?  When horses are in that kind of mood, they'll do a little playful buck.  Shadow's more of a quiet type.  When he's feeling good, he just moves easily.  He's happy to do his job.  Shadow's happiness is subtle.

Second, it's not in Shadow's nature to buck when he's aggravated with someone or to cause trouble.  Sometimes, a horse will be aggravated with a human for kicking too hard or pulling too hard with the reins.  Then, one of the ways he shows his aggravation is with a buck.  Kind'a like, "Ease-up, Jerkface!  You're hurting me!"  If a horse is feeling surly and doesn't want to ride, he may buck.  Shadow is simply not that kind of horse.

Shadow is easy going. He's actually a very passive horse.  He's happy to be alive.  I rescued him from a meat processing plant.  He acts like he knows it, too.  He's just grateful to be here. He always does his job and does it well.  Why was this horse ducking his head like he was going to buck and then not doing it?

I had Cowgirl Slim ride him.  Often, if a horse is giving a student a problem, I'll ride him or have Slim ride him. With horses and riding behavior, RW says, "80-90% of the time, it's not the horse, it's the rider."  That's absolutely true.

If a horse is giving a problem that's not obviously medical, Slim or I can get on him and he's perfect.  It's the experience level of the rider.  The horse can tell.  He's judged his rider in the first fifteen seconds you're on him.

If a horse "won't do" according to a student, I'll ride him or have Slim ride him.  That's usually because the student isnt't "asking" the horse properly.  Because, if Slim or I get on him, he's fine.  Rider experience, again.

If a horse changes behavior, for a non-obvious medical reason, I'll have Slim ride. This way I can watch his body in motion from the ground.  Then, I can see if he's physically off somewhere or if there's a problem with the tack.

It also allows me to see bad habits that have developed from beginners riding my horses.  Often, a horse will exhibit a new habit with a student, but not for me or Slim.  They're like kids with a substitute teacher, they know what they can get away with and with whom.

When Slim rode Shadow, he'd put his head down, but allow her to pull it back up without incident.  This happened regularly over a couple of months in the winter.  Ok, well, I know he's developing some arthritis in his back legs, maybe he's trying to tell us this is uncomfortable?  Maybe he's got some back soreness and he's trying to take the pressure off?  The winter cold can aggravate both conditions.

I looked at all of this.  I looked at his tack.  I gave him rub downs with something like horse Icey-Hot.  I gave him anti-inflammatory meds.  The behavior continued.

Mack, the vet, was coming out soon, so I waited to have him look at Shadow then.  I kept using him.  I kept having Slim ride him to see if it would change.  He never seemed in pain, why not?

Besides, large animal vets stay busy.  They have to drive out to see their patients for the most part.  I hate asking them to come to the farm for a non-emergency, if it's not a scheduled appointment.  And, I avoid scheduling appointments for stuff like this when I know I've got one in the near future anyway.  It's being considerate of my vets' time.  I know enough about horse health to save them a lot of useless trips.  I can always call and run it by them, too.  This is how responsible, knowledgeable horse people operate.

When it was time for their six month shots and dentals a few weeks ago, I told Mack about Shadow when it was his turn.  Before sedating him for his dental, Mack took a lot of time with Shadow.  He examined him.  We lunged him without tack.  We lunged him with tack.  We lunged him with Ruthie in the saddle to see if the added weight did anything.  Nothing.  No head ducking.

Mack examined Shadow's tack.  He looked at it on Shadow.  He looked at it off of Shadow.  Nothing.

Do you know what this means?  Not medical.  Not the tack.  Not the weight of a rider.  It means Shadow pulled a fast one on us!

Good ol' sweet, passive Shadow had learned how to get out of working.  Just put you're ol' sweet head down and they'll stop making you go faster and work harder.  "Hot dog!  I figured it out," he said.  And, we never suspected a thing.

Geez!  Good ol' Shadow, huh?  Good ol' sweet Shadow just proved my point all over again.  Horses are smarter than people.  And, occasionally, they'll get one over on me, too.  Ok, Shadow, you had your laugh.  Time to get back to work!  Slim's been working him to make sure of it.

That's life on the farm, folks!  If you want to read some background on Shadow, go to the January entries and read Cast of Characters - Part Three.  He's still a good boy even though he proved to be a little sneaky!

Thanks for reading!  Thanks to the international readers, too!  I hope our adventures translate to be funny or educational or both!

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