Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Part IV in the series on Horse Packing How-To: Getting the string together

Getting the string together starts with teaching the horse to both lead a pack string, and be part of the pack string. I never gave this much consideration until last week. Usually it’s just been a quick session of showing the horse what I’d like, what works, and allowing him/her the time and opportunity to get it. Really, it’s that simple.

Using a well seasoned, experienced horse, I’d ride one, and pony the other, then switch off. All of this work has already been introduced on the ground, and at this point, is well comprehended by the horse. The horse is comfortable and knowledgeable with what you are asking. The added ingredient here is only that you are asking the same things from the back of a horse, not from the ground, but that’s a remarkably simple transition for the horse. It only becomes more difficult for the person because of the complications of juggling the two horses at once; and any subtleties of fear and confusion on the part of the rider emerging into the equation.

Ideally, every one of our horses should be able to do it all: lead/pony, be led, and pack, step out as a guide horse, and follow in line as a dude horse. We can train each to do all, but some horses will excell in some things, others in other things. You can train any horse to learn and do anything, but you can’t change who he is. You can’t change his personality, and why would you want to? The best we can do it work with who they are; help them be the best at what they are by developing their strengths and helping the horse overcome his weaknesses; and do our best to help them feel safe and confident and understanding of the work at hand. All with positive leadership, without fighting or working against the horse. Our goal together should be to get whatever job needs to be done, done well and smoothly and comfortably for us, our horses, and any accompanying riders.

I know for many folks, having a “job” to do is not necessarily where you’re at. Most folks are not out here with an actual job. But I think it is all a matter of how you look at the task at hand, how you choose to focus and present the goal to your horse. Your “job” can still be a goal of getting safely and timely to a destination, working on a new skill, or a focused discipline in an arena. If you look at the task at hand with focus, it is still your, and your horses’, job. Somehow, I think it helps both horse and rider to have that focus.

OK, now all this said, last week I ran into the first major complication of this equation: the stallion in the pack string. There may be many a more confident and experienced horseman out there for whom working with a stud is simple business, but it throws me for a bit of a loop from time to time. Each simple task can become an escalated issue. But like everything else in learning to work with my little stud horse, every challenge he presents has become an opportunity for me to fine tune my learning, understanding, patience, leadership, and ultimately, my knowledge and skills as a horseman.

Like with so many specific “problems” we may have with our horse, if we overlook the small details and focus on the big picture, often the small details work themselves out. So, with the stud being quite upset and aggressive with the mare in front of him, being led by the mare (walking around with his nose under his tail, I suppose is a big confusing to the poor boy), we worked this problem out by focusing on leadership. My stud can not breed when his is being ridden by or working with me. Get him out there working with me more, and he’ll remember that there’s a time and a place for everything, and if I’m the leader, and hopefully a fair and good one, he’ll remember his respectful place in our working relationship. If I ask him fairly but firmly to be in line, he can accept it.

For a few days, I rode the little stud on the trail, alternating places in front of (he liked that) and behind (he didn’t like that) the red mare. Eventually he became more comfortable with that place.

Now, although his ears remained pinned back when he’s in the following position, he no longer snakes behind her as if he’s driving or pushing her along, and no longer aggressive, lunging towards her trying to bite her. In due time, I am certain he’ll feel more comfortable in this place. It’s my job to provide him with plenty of good, positive experiences there so that he can become more comfortable more quickly. If I’m afraid of the matter and avoid addressing it, it will not resolve itself. He will never be allowed the chance to get over this if I don’t give him the opportunity.

Or ask my husband to help out. Bob is a far more confident rider than I may ever be. The issues I have with fear do not exist for him. So he is, at times, my secret weapon for helping me overcome a horse obstacle that has me blocked. I see nothing wrong with that trick!

Well, at the end of the week of working on this, we find that this lesson of teaching a horse to follow the lead turned into a good example of rising above the little details, and addressing the bigger picture. This little horse needed a little more time on the trail, a little more time behind the mare, before he could feel comfortable back there. Pretty simple way to work out a “problem.” But please remember this: it has never been so difficult (although it’s hard to call this one really difficult) for Bob or I to teach a horse to follow a lead. Working with this little stud from the mare turned into a good lesson for us, going far beyond this simple matter at hand here of teaching the horse to follow in line. However, these are the great chance opportunities, when the bigger picture emerges and presents us with an occasion to be worked on and improved. And ultimately at the end of the lesson, both horse and horseman have a better understanding and knowledgebase because of the time spent working on one specific skill.