In Which Miss Mocha is a Butthead

Or, in other words, a horse in wintertime who doesn’t particularly like the cold weather, hasn’t been ridden for a while, and even in turnout won’t move around after it hits a certain temperature.  It’s been a week and a half or so since I was last at the barn, thanks to schedules and this darn bug.  She’s been getting regular turnout from G. but he reported that she’d not do her usual tearing around, standing around instead.

I didn’t get a nicker from her when I got to the barn, but she was shoved up against the front of the stall with her nose right on that crack where the door first opens.  She didn’t explode out but her head was definitely MUCH higher than her usual self as she came out.  Maybe a wee bit of tiptoeing to let me know this wasn’t the usual Mocha self.

But, most of all, head carriage more like a Thoroughbred than a reining-bred Quarter Horse.  Ears forward, looking at everything.  And, of course, reacting in that classic equine drama of “ZOMG!!!!  Hand truck!!!! ZOMG!!!! This!!!!  ZOMG!!!!  THAT EATS HORSES!!!”

In other words, dramatic, sharp jerks of the head as she startled.  Pretty exciting on crossties.  Well, okay, not as exciting as a Thoroughbred doing the same thing would be (for one thing, Much More Drama And Eight Inches Taller on average).  But still, silly horse.  She actually set back a little bit in the crossties and started capering around when I was picking hooves and treating them, to the degree that I ducked out of there because I was working a hind when she got into Hand Trucks Eat Horses mode.

Being a sensible cowhorse at heart, of course, the moment she hit the ends of the crossties, she stopped and danced in place rather than pull back further.  I unsnapped her from the crossties, G muttered about it being another horse and marrying her to it while he ran it back and forth and she eyeballed it for a while before stopping her sillies.  She settled, he took it past her, and I clipped her back up to resume grooming.

Then she decided she had to poop, and, while I was scraping up the poop, squatted and peed.  Now Mocha normally doesn’t do that.  But, I figured (sighing), it might just be the first heat of the season.  Lovely.  Muttering about silly butthead mares, I grabbed a lunge line and hauled crazy girl off to the arena.  She wasn’t prancing down the alleyway but, as G said once about her, she was in the mode where she’d almost look like a Three Gaited Horse.

Once in the arena, after a circuit of walk, I clucked her up to trot.  Then it was more than a few circuits of Quarter Horse Does Paso Fino mode, or at least some sort of gait that sure as hell wasn’t a solid, smooth-cadenced Quarter Horse big trot with nice forward shoulder motion.  For a while there I wasn’t sure if I was looking at four legs or sixteen legs, and her ears were up in the rafters.  A couple of reverses (she was focused on me to the degree that all I needed to do to reverse her was switch whip hands–yep, round pen trained, got her trained to reverse on the lunge at walk and trot as well) and she started licking her lips, lowered her head to her usual level topline, relaxed a bit, and I started getting that nice swinging trot.  At that point I decided maybe it was time to throw on the saddle, and she was still tense and tight, earning more than a few muttered growls from me about how we’d Just Reinstalled The Brain, Damnit.

It took more than a few circles at the trot before she started relaxing under saddle because yep, once my butt hit the leather those ears were right back up in the rafters.  At least I got spared the Paso Fino imitation, which is a Good Thing, because that Mocha trot is one of the most teeth-jarring gaits you’ve ever sat.  I did get Grumpy Tail Switching because I asked her to bend and yield, in the correction curb with romal.  Not perfect for lateral work but actually not too bad because once she softened I could go back to single hand neck rein and I think that helped her relax.  We did a little bit of loping but most of it was jog, jog, jog, work circle figures at the jog.  Once she relaxed we did two track with haunches in and out for a circuit in both directions (four circuits in all), a good steady working lope in each direction (I didn’t even go anywhere near asking for lead changes, nope, not tonight), walk to catch her breath, and then a last jog.

A few strides into the jog, she asked for more rein and a bigger gait.  I let her go into a big long trot and started posting.  She picked up a steady, hard long trot asking for just a tiny support from my rein hand and I gave it, clucking to encourage her when she needed it.  We reversed across the diagonal several times, Mocha still trotting strong and hard, and put away quite a few circuits with her pushing through her shoulders.  I let her set the pace of it, encouraging but not pushing her to keep up the big shoulder swing and step right out.  With each circuit those shoulders relaxed and she reached out just a tiny bit further.  I kept out of her way, encouraging but not pushing.

And then she was done.  Her cadence slowed, her crest softened, and she eased back into a jog.  We jogged a quarter circle and I eased her back into a walk.  We must have walked for a good ten minutes while G lunged another horse, her head its usual low and relaxed, neck and haunches swinging big, nowhere near the same tense, tight horse I’d climbed up on.  Meanwhile G and I discussed horse minds and why she’d been acting like this.  Then we talked about the mind of the horse he was lunging (big, pushy gelding with good movement but a sneaky poop who was earning whipcracks from the lunge whip G was holding to his side and back–he can crack that lunge whip as if it were a bullwhip.  I’m envious because I’m nowhere near that good).

The horse I unsaddled in the crossties was nothing like the horse I tacked up.  Relaxed, semi-sleepy, her usual mellow self.  Mind you, none of this was scary stuff.  Regular Thoroughbred riders probably wouldn’t notice her antics.  But like G and I agreed, horses like her, you’ve gotta respect them when they get into this mode because there’s usually a reason for it.  We figured that since it was cold, she just wouldn’t go out and push herself like she usually does in turnout.  Her mama was that way too.

The other piece of it, too, is that if I’d punished her for acting like this or been afraid of her, I’d have created more problems.  By giving her the outlet to settle down by lunging her first (without allowing bucking, capering and running wild on the lunge), she was able to be successful at behaving correctly in the crossties and before riding.  I didn’t give her the chance to get wound up and crazy on the lunge but simply reestablished boundaries that she knows and welcomes. The lunge was more about “hey, here’s the routine of what I expect from you, here’s the boundaries again.”  Yeah, I could have ridden her without lunging first, but this way we got to avoid more craziness on the crossties and more drama that would have gotten her wound up and possibly even irritated.

As we went through the ride and she not only got her tight muscles progressively worked out but the structure and boundaries she’s used to got reestablished, she relaxed and fell back into familiar patterns.  Most horses prefer predictability, patterns and structures.  Mocha has a stronger pattern drive than many horses because she’s the result of a breeding program that focuses on horses who do well at working in patterns.  Reinstating those patterns in her life gives her the structure she thrives upon…so yeah, happier horse at the end of the ride than the beginning.

Dang, I love my horse.  Even when she’s being a butthead.

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