This week the rain desisted, the sun came out and so did my mini, early daffodils.
Oh good, I thought, Spring can’t be that far off. My grass arena and the country tracks should dry out and I can get back to work with my horse.
I found out he had other ideas.
There’s absolutely nothing I can do to alter the fact that in the last two years I’ve had three long layoffs due to accidents and operations. And just when I was getting fitter last Autumn, a weird, inexplicable attack of vertigo meant that, for two months, I was unable to balance on my own two feet, never mind on a horse. Then the rains came, and when it wasn’t raining, it was snowing….
So you could say our work ethic has been severely undermined!
This hasn’t stopped me spending as much time as possible with and around the horses, in their fields and in their boxes in the barn where they pass the winter nights, but the only time I ventured out on a hack with Pom this year, the going was so slippy, I decided the possiblity of yet another fun spell in hospital just wasn’t worth the risk.
There is also nothing I can do to alter my horse’s past. If you’ve read earlier posts on this blog, you’ll know that Pom is a Pura Raza Española, or PRE, as Andalusians are now known. Born in Tarragona in 2001, sold as a yearling, sold as a five year old, sold again nine months later and imported into France. Thus far all his owners were male. A year after his importation to France, he was bought by the woman who sold him to me. She had, although she downplayed the situation, in effect ”rescued” him from a stables where he had had some kind of accident in which his rider had come off and he had been loose in a wood where his lower legs had been grazed and his left eye had been slightly damaged (there is a small cloudy spot, though he sees quite well on this side). She had given him a good home and regular work, but her business commitments forced her to sell her two horses and move house.
Why on earth did I buy him, you might well ask?
I had been looking a long time for an Iberian horse; a Lusitano (for several years I’d been riding a friend’s Portuguese horse after my oldie retired) or an Andalusian – and horses with ”papers”, in my (modest) price bracket and geographical area, were relatively rare, so I was prepared to give him a chance.
Long story short; I came, I saw, he conquered. He came home a week later and in the early stages, I felt he was the Iberian horse I had been looking for – to fulfil my relatively simple requirements of pleasurable riding around the countryside and making modest progress together at dressage.
Getting to know each other should be the most exciting part of having a new companion. Under saddle, Pom showed himself to be bold and forward-going, virtually nothing phased him. On the ground, however, that bravado made him apt to be a challenge. Before he was able to fully integrate with our two older horses he was visibly an unhappy, insecure horse and he soon began to be a serious problem, biting and lunging at Aly and the Pie and also at me and my husband.
In the initial weeks I wouldn’t approach him without having something to put between me and him in case of danger, be it a wheelbarrow, mucking-out fork, lead rope or even a tree. It was winter and he was 8 when he arrived. We’d had snow, so I was bringing the horses in at night and I thought being around Pom in the stable would help our relationship, but I found myself keeping a short length of branch handy, so if he was eyeing me nastily I proferred that for him to chew on instead of parts of me and that worked quite well. He got the message and got used to the fact I wasn’t going to go away and that, often as not, food and I arrived at the same moment.
However, leading him in hand was awful; even with the nearest hand right under his chin he’d still try to turn and bite and even to get ahead of you and turn back on you. I tried leading from the right in case his impaired vision was causing trouble, but it made no difference.
By the time he knocked me over, jumped over me and gashed my head with his shoe, I began to be seriously unnerved and wondered whether I ought to get help or get rid of him. I certainly made double sure to wear a helmet when leading him in future.
But, in the way these things tend to happen, whilst I was trying to decide what to do I carried on riding him, which was a joy, and handling him and breathing calmly and evenly to keep the misgivings down and disguised, and suddenly, it was better weather, and time to leave the horses out at night and at last they seemed to have negotiated a compromise between themselves and allowed Pom to settle in.
We appeared to have weathered the worst and over the subsequent months my worries subsided and we began to enjoy each other’s company. Pom actually turned out to be more appreciative of stroking, scratching, rubbing and grooming (he very obviously appreciated treatments to calm his itchy mane and tail) than either Aly or the Pie. In short, there was no more need for the chewing stick and we became a good team.
A year or so later I had a complicated leg fracture which took a long time to heal and left me much weakened, which in part was a reason for tripping backwards and breaking my jaw and fracturing my skull when around the horses, (on a stone wall or a hoof, I still can’t be sure which). Since when I have been much more risk-averse and only fit enough to ride for relatively brief periods. Though when I have, the Pom has scarcely been any different than pre-breakages.
And so back to this week. I’ll make no bones (sic) about the fact that, because of our history, I have only done groundwork with Pom in very restricted situations where I felt safe and I have mainly side-stepped lungeing.
On Monday, after a dry weekend when I was otherwise occupied, I prepared Pom, mounted up by the barn and rode down to the school, where we had a ”bitty” but not entirely unsuccessful short schooling session. One thing I absolutely love about this horse – however fresh he is - he has never bucked or tried in any way to dislodge me when under saddle. However, getting him relaxed, balanced, even, and heeding downward transitions was never going to be a cinch.
What the heck, we needed to get back to some basics so, on Tuesday, I decided we should give lungeing another go. It actually went better than expected, and we carried on with a few basic exercises on the ground until I saw he was getting frustrated and ”lippy”, so we finished on a good note (one rule I had imposed was respecting my space, so he is now a champion ”backer”!) and left it at that.
On Wednesday, my friend Kerri came to ride the Pie – as she has a couple of times previously – for a short hack out. This has worked well before as there’s no separation drama for the horses (now Aly’s no longer with us to keep Pie company). But the Pie is smaller, much older and slower than Pom, and he quickly became frustrated – not having seen the greater outdoors for a couple of months – at being restricted by his friend’s pace.
About twenty minutes into the ride, Kerri found the Pie faltering and, indeed, upon closer inspection, though his feet were clear and there was no heat or visible problem he was favouring his left fore. A touch of arthritis in his hips and particularly in his shoulders was one reason he had been allowed to join the slightly older Aly in early retirement years ago, yet he had been sprightly and fit enough recently for the farrier and vet to give their encouragement for some light work (and Kerri’s definitely much lighter work than me).
Obviously we had to turn back for home. Kerri dismounted to lead the Pie and I would have done the same, except the only way I could confidently control Pom was from up top. He’d sweated himself up into a state of frustrated over-excitement and it was all I could do to hold on to him. It was not exactly the pleasant ride out we’d anticipated.
Yet by the time we got back he had calmed down and we decided to keep to the original plan which was to try loading the boys into the new (old) trailer, which I’d parked conveniently (yep, I’m slowly getting the hang of reversing!) and opened up in readiness.
After untacking and a quick breather we brought them round and Kerri took the Pie towards the ramp. He was taking his time, but I didn’t think we’d have problems, as the Pie is generally quite amenable to persuasion. I did however twig that, instead of positioning Pom by the forward, exit ramp to encourage the Pie up and through towards him, it might be better with Pom not far behind Pie, that being the usual herding order. Bingo! Pie onto the ramp and in without a fuss.
Pom’s turn and he took a little sniff of the ramp and strolled in like a pro. This is the upside of his boldness; nothing scares him.
I was so pleased with him as, to me, this trailer represents our main hope for future progress and it’s certainly been one helluva long time coming.
On Thursday, I had to go out to a legal meeting and a miss a glorious, bright, warm day for riding, but on Friday, I hesitated between riding out on my own and risking repeating an overexcited, stressful experience, or schooling at home again, or a little more groundwork. As the previous day had left me wrung out, I opted for the latter, much to my later regret.
I started by placing a couple of obstacles in the small area of field we were using (nearer the house than our ”school”) for us to do simple exercises of walking up to, around and between them, bending, stopping, backing; just trying to get him more lightly responsive again to forward, halt, turn and reverse in different configurations and combinations, but even so, from the start, I sensed resistance. Suddenly the softness went from his eyes and he went back to the behaviour I thought we had long overcome; trying to bite my leading hand, trying to get round in front of me, striking out with his forelegs (damn and blast training him for Spanish Steps). So, reckoning he was bored and not comprehending why we were doing what we were doing, I aimed to send him off into a lungeing circle, but time and again he attempted to come back in, as a challenge, not as a join-up. At one point I fumbled the rein and whip, and, seizing the advantage, Pom charged in at me and made to bite the back of my (helmeted) head. (I didn’t see all of this as I leapt aside, but I’d asked my husband to stay close at hand and keep an eye on us in case anything went wrong.)
I’m sure at this point we had lost all coherent communication and I was now dreading another trip in the ambulance, so I did the only thing that came into my mind as a solution – bear with me and don’t laugh – lunged him round a tree! The advantage of this being that, in keeping me, him and the tree as a triangle, with the line forming one side of the triangle away from me to the ”base” line between the tree and the horse, if he started to turn in, I could prevent him doing so by keeping the line taut between him and the tree ahead of him. Not exactly something you’d find in any textbook, but it did, finally, enable me to get my point across in safety.
A short while was enough for me to note that his eye had softened and his jaw relaxed and thus to feel able to approach him again and re-establish contact. I did, however, feel bitterly disappointed that I’d confused or angered him to the degree where he felt he had to make his unhappiness felt by dangerous aggression. I’d seen the resurgence of that little devil in him I thought we had exorcised years ago. I also hated to feel the return of the fear I’d managed to put behind me and a loss of the complicity we’d built over three years.
That was yesterday; today it’s freezing cold and, intermittently, snowing again. I felt it better for both of us to have a day off to enable us to return to routine normality.
What conclusions to draw …..?
My gut feeling is that Pom comes from a breed honed to work cattle, fight bulls and parade their owners at the ferias. He was bred, owned, probably broken in and worked by different men for most of his early life and (though it can be invidious to generalise) the equestrian culture of Spain is a far more machismo affair than that of Northern Europe. He was probably treated strictly and learned to defend his corner.
He may only have been castrated at six, on entry into France, as in Spain many male horses are left entire, but French riding establishments do not welcome stallions. He was also apparently shut in and left unexercised for a long while after his accident - which must have occurred not long after his arrival in France - becoming bored and sour. He certaintly did not seem at all socially adept on arrival here, treating horses and humans with suspicion and sullen wariness. Even after finding his place and feeling more secure, his tendancy is still to try and dominate. In our very limited ”herd” situation, though he now defers to the Pie’s elder statesman status at a haynet, it doesn’t stop him herding and bullying his fieldmate. He was also quite gratuitously aggressive towards a weakened Aly, who had been top horse before his arrival.
I knew from the beginning he would require firm but intelligent – strategic handling even, and I considered my experience and nerve sufficient to the task. Even so, I was unprepared for the level of aggression he showed and have had to apply all my resources to upping my game and conquering his demons for both our sakes. His life is now secure, reasonably natural and content and his rules are few but clear and I suppose the hardest thing to endure yesterday was to feel that after we’d come through so much together, it felt like going back to zero.
An over-reaction, emotionally, as today he has been as good as gold to be around. I suppose he has made his point in the only way he knows.
But I wonder what makes him so dislike being worked from the ground and lunged?
I dream of the day I might play freely with him at liberty as well as riding him ever better, but I know that until we are able to keep up a regular routine – with a trainer to advise – and put in much more work, that dream is going to remain, tantalisingly, just beyond my grasp. But what do any of us get involved with horses for, if not to strive towards those slight but shining possibilities ……..
As regular readers will know, I am not usually to be found lacking a sense of humour, or, for that matter, using this blog as a soapbox, but I have had a gut-full of sick, tasteless jokes (even from friends) and ill-informed media comment about the horsemeat scandal in the UK. I choose not to eat or buy red meat and, while everyone has the right to choose what they put in their stomachs now, it may not be the case for larger populations in the future.
For what it’s worth here’s my view. It seems to me the present problem is twofold:
Firstly, government legislation, backed by local food inspection should have safeguarded that if you buy a product labelled “beef”, that is what you get. The proliferation of European legislation and the monopolising tactics of the multinationals have closed local abattoirs, butchers and grocers and made the standards for farmers so exacting that the supply chain for cut-price, processed food has lengthened to the point of untraceability. Hence illegal operations have been able to make a mockery of governments and consumers. The only way to fight back is to buy local, demand quality and pay the price for good food even if it means making other economies and, if there’s any way you can ….. grow (at least some of) your own.
Secondly, the scandal of live transport of horses has still not been properly tackled. And there are far higher welfare standards for farm livestock destined for the plate than for equines; old, unfit and unwanted, who end up in the food chain. Presently, though it’s distasteful to me personally, there is a demand for cheap meat and a need to dispose of an excess of horseflesh. The only way I can accept a justification of any consumption of any mammalian (or other) meat is for animal breeding, welfare, transport and slaughter conditions to be beyond reproach.
If you couldn’t look your food honestly in the eye …. then don’t eat it; I’m sure we could all agree on that!