The Scruffy Brown Pony
Author's note: "I always saw pictures of Audrey and her beloved Gizmo, but never did I think that Paso Fino's... Show full author's note »
Stopping?Gizmo's reaction to winter would have been highly amusing, had I not been the one dealing with it. His already too-high energy level began to escalate to ridiculous proportions. The first winter, I certainly would not have deemed him memoir-worthy, and yet for whatever reason, I continued to ride him.
He needed to be lunged 10-20 minutes before each ride. Regardless, even after lunging him, it was still difficult to ride him. Because he was a Paso Fino, he had taken to performing half-correct gaits, to the point where they were not comfy—they were a hybrid of trot and paso fino or paso largo. He would stick his head straight up in the air, so that the bit had no affect, and go through the awkward movements I came to hate so much. There was almost no way to get him to go back to a trot. If he wasn't lunged, this would go on for about a half hour; if he was lunged, it went on for about five to ten minutes.
It was around this period that I discovered what is called the join-up technique. Join-up had been written about in my second favorite novel series, Heartland, but only now did I know that Join-Up was a real until that winter. Enthralled, I researched the technique and decided to try it on a lunge line. I hadn't seen anyone who joined-up using a lunge line, but nobody had told me it wouldn't work. We didn't have a round pen or small ring, so a line would have to suffice.
Join-up is an exercise developed off of wild horses. When a young horse in a herd misbehaved, often a lead mare will chase the horse off until it "asks" to be let back in, acknowledging the other horse's superiority. The signs of asking to be allowed back are a dropped head and neck, licking and chewing, and an inside ear focused on you; not what is going on outside of the ring. When a horse shows these signs, the "alpha horse" stops chasing them and allows then back outside. By aggressively chasing a horse on a line or in a round pen, a person can act as the alpha horse. My first attempt with Gizmo—which was on a lunge line—was a success. I am not sure whether a lunge line join-up works with every horse, but I have had success with several ponies, and the more people-oriented they are, the more likely they will join you. I can honestly say that there is almost no feeling as magical as the moment a horse freely chooses to follow you.
Our next undertaking was bareback. The green pony had never been bareback before that we were aware of, and I decided it was time for us to try it. I lunged him for a good twenty minutes before mounting. He did not react any different than he would have if there had been a saddle on him—he moved forward slightly, out of impatience, but stayed calm underneath me.
He was bouncy and thin; and there was so little of him below me that if he had bucked or stopped, I would have slipped straight off back then. He behaved very well, and I was thrilled. I'd been riding bareback for as long as I had been riding and it was one of my favorite things to do.
Suddenly, as we trotted by a closed door, Gizmo spooked. He dropped his hindquarters and his front feet flew forward. He skidded across the entire side of the indoor. My hands pulled backward against the reins in response to his flight, my balance lost. Finally he came to a walk. My leg had slipped until I was hanging on by a knee hooked over his withers. When I looked back, I saw that someone had opened the heavy sliding door and terrified Gizmo, who was now acting as though absolutely nothing had happened.
I rode him bareback once a week ever since.
That winter, I fell off several times, probably more than I had ever fallen in a single season. One of Gizmo's least favorite things was bounces/gymnastics; still nervous about jumping, the next jump would face him before he'd had time to accept the previous one. One lesson, my trainer, Gail, set up a bounce to a one stride. When it was out turn, Gizmo rose over the first and abruptly stopped at the second. Unprepared, I rolled off his right shoulder and hit the standard, crashing down on the jump. Slightly sore but undaunted, we made another attempt. Gizmo took the first jump, hesitated, and stopped a fraction of a second before he would have risen. Unbalanced from a wiggling turn, I fell when he ducked his head and pulled back. I slid from his left shoulder onto the ground. I climbed back on, face slightly red but otherwise unharmed.
"Sit up, add leg!" Gail called. Gizmo clambered awkwardly over the first jump, leapt hugely over the second, took a halting strode, and made a sliding stop that would have put a world class reining horse to shame. Predictably, too forward from his large jump over the second fence, I flew over Gizmo's head and the cross-rail, and slammed into the dirt.
My mouth was full of sand, my coat covered in grime, and I was stunned. I had just fallen three times in about...ten minutes or less.
I got up, brushed off my arms, and once more braved the gymnastic, braced to come off. It was as though I were going into war; I was patted down with dirt, my face was set, and I was determined to get over these fences. I sat back, kicked, and allowed whatever terrible idea Gizmo had to go away. Somehow, we made it over, but we didn't do any bounces for a while after that.
In another lesson, Gail set up a small vertical. The vertical had a filler so terrifying, surely any horse would have died to see it—a small plastic rectangle with a few straggly, plastic flowers sticking straight up. These flowers were Gizmo's single most dangerous foe; though he seemed to be the only pony who realized the horrifying danger that arose from the scary object.
Before going at the jump, I allowed Gizmo to sniff the flowers, and though nervous, he was not terrified beyond measure. I turned around and trotted him at the fence.
About ten feet away, he stopped dead and refused to move even an inch forward. He side stepped, backed up, twisted and ducked, but we could not get him near the flowers. My trainer stepped up to the plate, attempting to first lead him over, then removing the flowers and trying to lead him over, then removing everything but a poly and trying to get him over it.
The attempts failed miserably. Clearly, the jump was beyond his wildest nightmares and nothing could ever get him near those beasts or anything they had touched.
Around January, I started asking him to walk over the flowers while I lead him on the ground. It took several attempts before he agreed, but finally he did and began to tip-toe over the scary fiend...