Last week I flew to Alberta, Canada, to visit my dad on his 300 acre property for a week. The highlight of my trip was that I made friends with six new horses and was able to spend time with each of them every day, along with my horse Red, who learned the Seven Games (for what I am sure is the first time in his life!). With the natural horsemanship skills that I have acquired since February, I was able to tame five horses and train them to halter, lead, and pick up their feet, while gaining their trust. I was also able to load Red, my 17 year old Tennessee Walker gelding, into dad’s horse trailer by sending him into the trailer rather than leading him. He loaded with confidence.
The first couple of days of my trip were spent in Barrhead, Alberta, at a family reunion. About 20 family members met at a small Community Center in the middle of the prairies. We enjoyed chatting it up while sitting in our lawn chairs, chowing on a BBQ meal, playing card games, and sharing a delicious pancake breakfast the following morning. We also enjoyed watching my cousin pull his dad’s truck and camper trailer out of the deep, black Alberta mud.
Dad and I arrived at his place Sunday evening and were greeted by four Quarter horses—Scar (because of the big scar that he has on his butt), Oro (she has a gold hue to her coat), Breeze (who, I would learn, loves food!), and Stormy. Up at the house I was greeted by my horse, Red, who I hadn’t seen in two years, which was also the first time I met him, and Moon, another Quarter horse Dad and I named named him that evening, per my suggestion, because of the little crescent moon on his face. Dad also had a skittish Quarter Horse named TNT who roamed a small pasture near the house. I was supposed to tame TNT that week, but he had injured his foot a couple of weeks earlier and was still limping. We decided that I wouldn’t push him to get haltered, but would still try to tame him.
Red was the oldest of the bunch, followed by Scar, 5 years old, TNT, 2 years old, and Oro, Breeze, and Stormy, who are all about 1-2 years old. Moon was the youngest, only 1 year old. What a sweet pea! I fell in love with all of them but Moon captured my heart most because of his innocence and sweet nature.
The first day spent with the horses was about 12 hours worth of taming. Those hours flew by! Dad has a nice set of corrals, which allowed me to sort horses easily. Things went so smooth compared to how I used to spend time halter “breaking” horses. This time I went about it thinking, Who wants to play with me first?, rather than, Okay, I’m going to catch this one first and that one next. Pat Parelli was right, it works much better when the horse catches you.
Scar and Oro were both tame enough to allow me to rub their bodies with my hands before I played approach and retreat with the halter and lead rope, and then I rubbed their entire bodies with the halter and lead rope. Scar was already trained to lead, but hadn’t lifted his feet yet. When I began teaching Oro to lead I applied as little pressure as possible on the lead rope and quickly released when she thought about taking a step forward. I was amazed at how fast she understood what leading meant. I also did a lot of petting on their legs and around their hooves before even attempting to train them to pick up their feet.
Breeze was a bit more timid than Scar and Oro but quickly accepted my attempts to tame her and allowed me to halter her on the first day. Stormy was much more reluctant to allow me to touch him, even though dad said he has had the halter on and has been led. I asked dad about Stormy’s history and it’s no wonder that he is not trusting of humans. Stormy was sold at the auction (to dad) as a mare/foal pair. Who knows how he was trailered to the auction, but just imagine the loud clanging of the steel gates, the wobbly movement of the scale before entering the ring, the noise of the spectators in the bleachers, and the loud racket of the auctioneer’s voice, and on top of that his mom was scared as well. Talk about a bad first impression of humans!
With Stormy I had to have a different approach than simply walking up to him; he wouldn’t allow that. Instead I slowly asked him to walk around the round corral until he stood and faced me. Every time he faced me I would turn and walk away. Eventually, instead of turning and walking away I would back up while facing Stormy. After a few times doing that he started walking toward me as I backed away and would follow me around the corral. I don’t know a lot about round corral training and tried not to apply a lot of pressure to the horse while sending him around because my knowledge was lacking, but it was working well enough. I was able to approach Stormy and pet him all over (after a lot of approach and retreat). I did not try to halter him on the first day, but instead waited a couple of days until he gave me the queue that he was ready to be haltered. When I did halter him it was smooth and calm, and he led well.
I had to laugh each day while spending time with Stormy in the round corral–the other three horses would stand and watch me. I started calling them the Peanut Gallery.
I continually tried to remind myself to give the horses time to process, to allow them to lick and chew, and to wait after they did something that I asked for—wait for 30 seconds to 1 minute before asking for something else. I was surprised at how much they did lick and chew and the amount of yawning that went on. To me that says that they were thinking a lot and relieving stress. For them to do that with me around was awesome. Each night when I went to bed I felt so grateful—happy for what they were allowing me to witness and appreciative for their trust.
At the end of each day I would save a couple of hours for Red and I to bond. It seems to me that Red was the type of horse that the human never asked permission from; instead the human did whatever they wanted to Red, and Red acquiesced. At first, Red seemed like he was doing what I asked but only because I asked, not because he wanted to do it. Eventually, as I surprised him with my different ways of approaching him, he seemed to change his thoughts about me. He wasn’t fully engaged all of the time, but I think I surprised him enough that he thought of me a little differently than he had thought of humans before. For instance, every time I saddled him I “asked” him if I could put on the blanket and saddle by presenting them to him first and allowing him to sniff them (for as long as he needed). He sniffed them every time I presented them!
Another break through that Red and I had was with trailer loading. On Thursday morning I had planned to haul Red over to a neighbor’s place so that I could ride with them. I had met them two summers earlier and enjoyed riding with them at dad’s house–they had hauled their horses to dad’s. This time I offered to haul Red to their house.
At first I tried sending Red into the trailer, and he did pretty well. He offered his nose, then his head, neck, and, finally, his front feet. But that’s where it would stop. Noticing that I was going to be late I figured I would try my old way of loading, which involves leading your horse into the trailer by getting into the trailer before them. I was somewhat successful with this method but only in the loading part—as soon as he was in the trailer he became quite anxious and wanted out.
I decided that I was not going to tie Red up if he was anxious and didn’t want to force him to stay in the trailer while his emotions were up. Back to sending him into the trailer instead of leading him.
It became apparent that if I wanted to load him properly, with his confidence, I did not have enough time. I would either have to haul him while he was in a right-brain state or skip the ride and take the time it would take. My inclination was to take the time it took but I also felt pressured by expectations and the responsibility of fulfilling my commitment to ride.
I thought about Stephanie and Pat and Linda Parelli and what they would do. I tried to call Stephanie for her support, but could not get through. Back to thinking about what my mentors would do–I decided that they would put the relationship first, and would take the time it takes so that it takes less time next time. Plus, they would rather have the horse’s trust than focus on the direct line thinking, which would be forcing him in the trailer and taking off. What a decision! I was somewhat emotional because I felt obligated to go riding, but in my heart I knew that Red was more important than that.
So it was back to square one. I worked on sending him into the trailer. Each time he offered a bit more, I would let him rest. Eventually, it was his idea to get in the trailer. He loaded on his own, but spun around and ran out fast.
We took a few breaks during our session, walking away from the trailer and around the yard before starting again.
In the end Red loaded with confidence while I stood at the side of the trailer, and he would stand in the trailer for a while looking back at me. I will never forget that experience. My decision to stay home was the best decision I have had the opportunity to make in my natural horsemanship journey so far.
Leaving my new horse friends behind when it was time to head home was very difficult. I spent a lot of time in the wee hours of the night before my flight outside with TNT. It was dark out and the stars were bright. Red and Moon had gone to the woods for the evening and Scar, Oro, Breeze, and Stormy were way out in the woods, away from the mosquitoes. I fed TNT some nugget type treats and listened to him eat grass. I felt sad to leave them all behind and tried to remember the good things that they had given me. I told myself that they would all be there next year and would be enjoying fresh air and freedom until then.
The next morning, before my flight, I grained Red, Moon, and TNT—it was too early for the other gang to be up at the house yet—and I hugged and thanked them for what they taught me. I cried. I bid them farewell and told them to take care of my dad. I told them to teach him as they had taught me. As we pulled out of the driveway I saw the other four horses. Dad pulled over and I reached into my pocket for the four treats that I had saved for them. Breeze made her way to me the quickest—the piglet—followed by Scar, the dominant one, Oro, the golden companion, and finally, my new timid friend, Stormy. I tried to be brave bidding them farewell. It was tough but I managed to do it.