Monday, October 14, 2013

Not just a boy with a horse, but now, a *horseman*

This day, my son was not a boy with a horse.  He was a horseman.

Firefly revealed why "pony" is seen by many as a four-letter word, and why her nickname with us has always been Firebutt. While he fawned over her, grooming, softly talking, caressing, she ignored him and pushed him about as best she could while tied to the hitching post.  There was plant material on the ground and she wanted it and was doing her damnedest to access it, and if that meant knocking her seven year old caretaker about, so be it.

I watched this unfold from Trilogy's back, my 1000lb sofa during my minimal, walking-only exercise as recommended by the rheumatologist.  From there, I was able to give my son the independence he craved while still secretly supervising.  I could see Firefly was being a Firebutt, and saw my son's face change from warm affection to frustration and anger.

After I finished my 15 minutes of walking, I returned to see he had turned Firefly loose on the property to wander and roll and was cleaning her stall.  I asked what he was doing; he answered he was trying to think of a punishment and had settled putting her to bed without her dinner.  ", honey.  You can't punish her like a person; skipping a meal could kill her."  (Okay, it's a touch hyperbolic, but it could trigger a colic which could kill her.)  Hearing my gentle correction, my son's brow furrowed and his eyes darkened.  He was angry and frustrated, and was inching toward pouty.  "Let me get the saddle switched on Tril," as we had planned for him to ride after I did, "and then let me help you learn how to punish her the way she'll understand."

As I switched the saddle, I could see my son was hurt his beloved mare had treated him so poorly.  "Can't we just have someone else take care of her until I'm like 15?" he said in his frustration.  "Not get rid of her, just make it so I don't have to take care of her?"

"No, honey.  You need to learn how to handle her in every circumstance.  I saw how she was treating you--she was being naughty.  She needs to be reminded that you are in charge, not her.  Just trust me, hon."  I was surprised my fiercely independent son actually acquiesced and agreed to trust me and try.

With Tril's reins in my hands and Firefly's leadrope in my son's, we led our horses to the round pen.  As we walked, I asked my son if he knew who the real leader of a horse herd was.


"The lead mare.  The stallion protects the herd and signals when it's time to move on to new food and water, but it's the lead mare who handles business in the herd."  An analogy popped up that I hoped would help him understand: "Think of the stallion being like the principal of your school.  He's ultimately in charge for the big decisions, but think of the lead mare being like the teacher in your classroom.  She's the one who takes care of everyone day-to-day; the learning, the behavior, managing the each kid in her class.  Some horses like to be lead mare, and some horses are happy letting others be the leader.  Firefly is convinced she is lead mare--we need to remind her, the way the lead mare in a herd would, that she is mistaken."

I let my son ponder that the rest of the walk up the the pen.

There, I stood with Tril patiently waiting at the gate while my son removed Firefly's halter and schooled her through each step of my basic instruction on natural horsemanship.

"In the wild, a horse is punished by being kicked out of the herd.  They're sent away and not allowed to rejoin," I said.  "In the wild, that's a death sentence.  A horse without the protection of the herd is easy pickings for predators, like what you've seen with buffalo and wildebeast."  My son loves all things with hooves and horns, and watches multiple documentaries on them.  As a result, he has a firm understanding of the importance of staying with the herd (as well as a tremendous hatred of lions).

"The banished horses will gallop back and forth trying to get reconnected with the herd, but the lead mare will block their attempts--until the naughty horse submits and apologizes.  Remember how a horse shows you they're submitting?"

"Yes, moving the mouth and licking and chewing," he confidently responded.

"Yes, and sometimes even then, the mare will say, 'No, you were too naughty, I'm not ready to accept your apology yet.'  Eventually, though, she lets them rejoin and the punished horse is much more quiet and willing to do whatever is asked."  Son was silent and processing.  "Now it's your turn.  Send her around this arena.  Make her work when she doesn't want to.  Make it clear this is not turn out--there will be no rolling or attempts to nibble on the grass on the other side of the fence.  Make her move, make her turn, make her listen to you."

My son had done something like this before, so he got to work cracking the lunge whip and making her go without ever touching her.  She tried to ignore him at first, and a few times tried to sneak past him (with some success), but he stayed on her and made her go until she submitted.  When she did, she was allowed to rejoin his "herd" and walk alongside--but, as history had told me she would, she lost interest in submitting and soon chose to hang with Tril and I at the gate.

"Don't let her do that--make her listen to you the entire time."  Away son went, making Firebutt move and change direction until once again she would listen.
The mare is leader no more
This time, she stayed with him, intent, cautious, submissive.  They walked as a herd of two along the circumference of the pen, Firefly always accepting her position as follower while my son led.  He'd stop, she would stop respectfully behind him.  He'd turn, she'd follow.

A herd now complete
I glowed in pride.  After a little time, I asked my son if he was ready to ride Tril now.

"Mom, go ahead and let my younger brother ride.  I just want to stay here with Firefly.  Would you mind bringing me some carrots to scatter in the pen for her?"

My heart melted.  These two friends had had their first fight, and now had made up, and were closer than ever before.

That's my fine young horseman.
Bonded even more closely than before