Taming the dragon by staying one step ahead of her.
Riding at home. Can't see the scales and wings here, can you?
More on Buster McLaury’s colt-starting clinic …
On Day 1 of the clinic, Zen quickly showed her stripes by asserting her dominance over the nine other colts as they were turned loose in the arena wearing their saddles. She had kicked, dive-bombed and generally taken on the role of Ms. Alpha Mare. She owned that role.
And now, Day 2, I was astride the dragon with only a rope halter and lead rope to prevent any playground fights. I had talked to Buster about how to handle the situation, should she show aggression toward another horse while I was on her back. The key, he said, was to be ahead of the problem. Pay attention to her (she’ll tell you with her ears and body what she’s thinking about) and when she puts her focus on another colt, move her feet and bring her mind back to her rider. Even with a halter and lead rope, you can ask for soft lateral flexions.
Bear in mind, though, that none of these colts had very good steering yet. You know how bumper cars clumsily maneuver? Kind of like that. But we didn’t need to be in these colts’ mouths yet. Buster wanted them to get accustomed to having a rider on their back (which is no small thing) and being directed with broad strokes.
As expected, Zen made ugly faces at the colts who crossed her path, but she tried no physical violence. Using just the single lead rope and swinging it over her head to change direction, I tried to direct her feet away from oncoming colts and keep her focus on me. It wasn’t the smoothest thing I’ve ever done, but we did stay out of trouble. The maneuvering got easier on Day 3, when we put the colts in snaffle bits and I had the benefit of two reins. Still, though, there were ugly faces.
My concern — aside from everyone’s safety, of course — was what was causing Zen to act that way, when she didn’t normally show aggression toward other horses at home. I suspected it was insecurity. You know people who, when they get fearful, end up sniping at everyone around them?
If Zen was going to come out of her shell and be Miss All That, that’s fine … but I didn’t want it to be rooted in fear.
When we got home, I called my friend, AQHA Professional Horseman Brent Graef. He knew me, and he knew Zen, and I was eager to hear his take on the situation. He agreed with Buster’s suggestions, but he expanded on them a little bit.
If I can stay just a little bit farther ahead of Zen … let’s say a horse is walking behind her on her right side. The instant she flicks her right ear around, if I can be there — maybe just by stroking the right side of her neck — to say, “I see what’s bothering you. Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered.” — that should help allay her fears and help her gain confidence.
Horses, after all, are born either to lead or follow. They’re happy to follow the lead of a clear, confident handler. But if they’re not given adequate direction, they’re equally happy to take the reins themselves, so to speak. In Zen’s case, I needed to let her know, “I’ll handle those other colts; you don’t have to.”
We’ve been working on that at home. It’s not that often that I have someone to ride with here, but when I do, I ask the other rider to circle us at varying distances, ride up beside us, etc., while I keep close track of where Zen’s mind is. The real test, I know, will be when I take her somewhere again.
We’re trying to organize a clinic with Brent in Amarillo in December, though the details are not worked out yet. When that comes together, that’ll be my target for Zen. Another strange place, more strange horses … how will she handle it? How will I be able to help her?
That all remains to be seen, but if the dragon rears its ugly head again, at least it will have better steering this time!
Editor, America’s Horse magazine
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