Saturday, November 14, 2009

Oh, Deer

On Friday, Steen and I hit the trails again, and things didn't go so well. We started out with a mistake on my part. I assumed he'd be ok walking past a car he spooked at a few days ago. But he wasn't. Within two minutes of the start of the ride, he'd treated me to a 180 degree spin followed by a bolt.

After I stopped the mad dash, I hopped off and did what I should have done in the first place. I led him up to the car and let him sniff all over it until he was no longer scared. Then I remounted and we went on.

But, things continued to go downhill from there. One of his herd members was feeling vocal and calling to him as he walked away, which was not helping his desire to leave. And then, the final blow, three deer burst out of a thicket behind and below us, making a remarkable racket, but positioned in such a way that Steen could not see them. And he lost it. He just exploded under me into a crazed gallop and raced off into the cornfield. I got him back under control within a few hundred yards and steered him back to the trial, but then he would not go on. I decided to get off and walk with him for a while. We made our way along and he seemed to calm some. I paused in a relatively clear area and decided to have him flex to the bit from the ground a few times to get his head back in the right place. But when I tried to approach his side, he started edging around me in circles and refusing to stand.

So, for the first time, I made true use of the mecate I've been wearing in my belt for the last year. I tied Steen's reins around his neck just behind his jaw to get them safely out of the way, and sent him out on the rope to do some circle work. And boy was he horrible. He was freaked out, distracted and had clicked into survival dominance mode. At first when I asked for a directional change, he'd try to run, reach the end of his rope and get a yank. After he did that a few times, he stopped trying to run and just started rearing.

Thus I found myself in one of those odd moments when you know you have two choices. One is to step up and do what needs to be done, and the other is to hike half a mile back to the barn with your tail between your legs and an unruly horse in tow. I took a deep breath, poured all the command I could muster into my body-language and took charge. When he reared, I made him back up as soon as he came down, and then went for his hind-quarters to make him move again. I really drove him for about two minutes, making him turn again and again.

And then, he gave in. It's like his brain turned back on, and the gigantic, dangerous animal on the other end of the rope became Steen again. Finally, when I asked for the disengage, he gave it to me and stopped, turned to face me and dropped his head. I asked him to approach and he came, head down, licking his lips. I stroked his neck, even though my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in the soles of my feet.

We transitioned to softer work. Flexing, standing. I got myself calmed back down and climbed back into the saddle.

The ride that followed would have been good if I could have forgotten the first ten minutes. Steen never spooked again, and walked nicely most of the time. We did our usual loop and went back to the barn and he behaved just like his old self, even going back by the scary places we encountered on the way out.

I have decided two things because of this ride. One is that I will always do groundwork before heading out alone to decrease the chances of something like this happening again. And the second is the comforting (if hard-earned) knowledge that Steen can actually lose it completely and go nuts on me, but I can still make him do enough to be able to bring his rational mind back into control.

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