With the promise of spring in the air, I want to encourage Ruby to be comfortable on the back ten. If I were to listen to Chuck Mitzlaff, I would need to give her freedom of expression, freedom of choice, and freedom of movement. And, if I were to listen to myself, I would say I want to stay safe! The two wheeled hay cart provides the answer. If Ruby becomes excited, I can use the cart as a barrier to keep her from rushing me. So, with the other girls in their stalls and Ruby loose in the arena, I open the trail gate. She just stares wide-eyed out the door. Pulling the empty cart behind me, I walk half way down the outside of the east pen. Ruby stays close to the arena - staring, running, and bucking. When she gallops back into the arena, I walk back into the arena, too. All total, we consume less than ten minutes. For Ruby, it is not just a matter of her venturing out into the unknown. It is also venturing without her support group.
We start the next morning with Ruby following me in a figure-eight around two barrels. She is confused and chews on the edges of the barrel lids. We play roll-the-barrel and I take a video. I ask her to stand next to the wooden box at liberty while I stand on the box and scrub her back. She does not stand close enough, but I can almost ask her to move sideways to snug up. When she is not on a lead, she tends to back away instead. I tap my chest to ask her to walk forward and encourage her to cozy up to the box.
In a repeat of yesterday, I open the trail gate and pull the empty hay cart half way down the outside of the east pen. After pondering a moment near the arena, Ruby canters to the back end of the pen - a hundred and fifty feet from the barn - and immediately back to the safety of the arena.
In the evening I again walk the cart half the length of the pen. Ruby comes that far and stops to nibble grass before returning to the arena. I continue to walk the cart thirty feet past the end of the pen and through the "pine gap" - where pine trees encroach on both sides of the path. It is almost like an opening to the unknown.
Ruby gallops from the arena, through the gap, stops just long enough to eye the area around her, and races back to the arena. I return through the gap and stand near the end of the pen. She again races from the barn, through the gap, and back to the arena. Holy bejeezers! Can that girl run!!! I am amazed at her speed. She was having FUN! Some day soon, this child is surely going to deserve a younger and more athletic rider. For now, all she has is sixty-four-year-old me.
It is spring break for our local schools and, even though it is chilly, I host six-year-old Nova, who has never touched a horse, for a day trip purchased by his grandparents. He is so shy that I do not get a word out of him for the entire two hours we spend together. Not one word. But, he offers many squinched up faces, yes nods, no shakes and, eventually, big smiles. I will not explain here how I bring about a youngster like this but, early in the encounter, I decide that Sparky is the right size but the wrong temperament for Nova. Even though she is much larger, Sara will stand quietly for him and, after time for acclimation, Nova becomes confident enough to lead her on his own. I use five incremental leading exercises culminating with his leading Sara back and forth between his grandparents. At one point, his grandpa says, “Put that cell phone away!” and his grandma answers, “No way am I going to miss this!” Nova brushes Sara in the tack room to keep his fingers warm. I do not know whether his grandpa is the John Wayne type so I state my policy ahead of time. There are dads who will just swing a fearful - even a crying - child into the saddle. I cannot say for sure that it does not work, because some of those kids settle down and enjoy their ride. But, I wonder how many of them would develop an interest in horses after that. I prefer the just-say-no approach. For one thing, it teaches “just say no!’ which I think is more important than a pony ride. And there is a lot we can do with a horse without getting on. With Nova being assured that, just because we saddle Sara, it does not mean anyone has to get on, he has a pleasant time helping me tack her up. Back in the arena, Nova is not tall enough for his foot to reach the stirrup, even from the wooden box. He lets me give him a leg up as he scrambles onto the saddle. He does not have an interest in addressing the reins, but Sara’s bitless bridle has a nice lead rope snap attachment, so we walk together in the inside arena and outside pen for over a half hour. At one point, I take his grandma’s camera so she can have a photo of her with Nova and Sara. I tell her that, for the forty dollars she gave me, the pony ride is one dollar and the photo is thirty-nine! She laughs and says, “No, this is a million dollar photo!” Nova smiles but does not say a word. Part of the reason I am including Nova’s story here is because his grandmother said she called every stable she could find and no one was interested in offering a one-time experience for a six-year-old. What a crying shame. I have not advertised my retired stable for at least four years; but information stays on the Internet forever. I did not take any pictures but she sent me these two.
As for Ruby, in the evening, she canters half way back along the pen and briefly through the pine gap. I take a video. When we come in, she is pleasant but obnoxious. Is that an oxymoron? Pleasant and obnoxious? It is chilly and she still wants to play.
The next morning, it is yucky. A sleet storm was supposed to blow through last night so I stalled both Allie and Zena and left the others free in the arena. This morning, Zena’s udder is again as large as a football. Ruby is quick to demand milk. I give Zena three treats while she tolerates the suckling. With Ruby full of grain and warm milk, we play fetch-and give with Sue’s ball and, for the first time, I throw it far and jog after it. Ruby picks up a trot, too. It is the first time we are jogging together. She pushes the barrel and stands by the wooden box for a back scrub (and treats). She is not very cooperative with “stay.” I will have to get the hula-hoop to help her focus.
On April 11, Bill trims hooves. Ruby does not want to stand quietly in the arena but, when we take her into the tack room, she does fine.
After walking Allie, Sara, and Sparky each out for five minutes of spring grazing, I attempt to take Ruby out on a twenty-foot rope. This is not very productive because she keeps entangling herself. Back in the arena, I line the six barrels in two rows of three with a very narrow path between them. Ruby walks through them - and backs through them - at liberty. Good girl!
It is mid-month and I am not yet able to walk Ruby on the back ten. I head down the path with the empty cart and Ruby trots almost along with me. We pass through the pine gap before she decides to trot back to the security of the arena; but there is none of the crazy she offered previously. In the arena, she again backs through the barrels lined three deep. I drag two black hay tubs and line them up at the end of each line of barrels. She walks through and backs out of the barrels plus the tubs, all very close together. I am truly impressed and pleased. Finally, I move four barrels in a row along the arena wall to fashion a narrow path between the barrels and the wall. Again, Ruby walks through and backs out of them nicely. On each of these exercises, she stops at the entrance to the “tunnel” and waits while I walk through first; and then waits until I ask her to back, back through them.
On the morning of the 15th, while picking the arena, I turn the two-wheeled hay cart upside down so Ruby can play with the wheels. When I am finished, I spray detangler into Sara’s mane and tail and give her a good groom before saddling her. We enjoy a short but perfect half hour walk in the park - the farthest I have ridden her out alone. We walk a clockwise circle down the park road, through an area we call the gun range - because the county once considered putting one there before area residents nixed the idea with a lot of not-in-my-backyard noise - through the trees along the upper river trail, and back to the road and home. On the gun-range trail, we come upon a woman walking a small dog and enjoy a chat. On the upper river trail, we pass under an eight-inch-diameter tree that had fallen diagonally across the trail some time during the winter. Just before returning to the road, the trail is completely blocked with a very bushy fallen tree. We have to retrace our path by forty feet to find a way through the trees, but Sara does just great - stays calm and attentive. I am really happy with her. Out on the park road and heading home, she does not jig even once. It is a truly nice ride.
After putting her up, I brush Allie before leading her out on a grazing walk. She does not at all mind leaving the barn - and the other horses - and we enjoy a half hour just the two of us. I tie Zena and Sparky to the arena wall rings to fly spray and wipe their ears for gnats. When I tie Ruby to the wall, she does not fight. I do not leave her tied long and I untie her before applying the repellents. After they are all released into the pen, I go looking for the big green Parelli ball, inflate it, and roll it into the pen. Even after not seeing it since last fall, Sparky immediately rolls it; then looks for her treat. When she sees I have none, she paws a tire - anything to earn a treat. I feel badly. Ruby takes an immediate interest in the ball; but does not play with it for long. At least I get a video.
On the 16th, with the barrels still in a row three feet out from the arena wall, I ask Ruby to walk through and back out of the tunnel without my walking ahead of her. Instead, I walk along the outside of the barrels - and I ask her to back while standing beside the barrels instead of in front of her. In the middle of the arena, I ask her to move her hip away from me from both sides; and to move her head away from me in both directions. We complete full circles, but she does not like turning her head and shoulders.
In the evening, I halter Ruby and let her loose in the arena with the trail gate open. She trots to the gate and stares outside. I halter Sara and bring her to the gate, switch in hand. When Ruby ventures outside, I follow with Sara. I walk Sara a short distance across the lawn such that I am safely between her and a row of trees and shrubs. If Ruby races toward us, I can retreat into the shrubs with or without Sara. With lead in hand, Sara grazes her way past the end of the pen and through the pine gap. Ruby raises her head from where she was grazing and races back with us. For the next fifteen minutes, she races around the back area. Twice, I wave the switch to keep her from colliding with Sara; making sure I am always near the protection of a large tree trunk or honeysuckle bush. Sara handles the entire ordeal with exceptional calm. She is just happy to have the spring grass. Ruby flags her tail like a deer as she high-steps her way in and around the bushes and trees. I wish I could take a video but safety dictates that I keep my mind on matters at hand. Ruby races all the way back to the arena, and then returns to us, three times. When she settles a bit, I scurry Sara back through the pine gap and walk her to the arena, leaving the trail gate open for Ruby. She runs up to the arena but does not see us. So, she gallops around to the front of the arena and back again before racing back down the path. When she does not see us there, she turns and races back again. Safely shielded by the trail gate, I call to her. When she races in, she is warm and panting. She is going to sleep well tonight! Although it may seem hard to imagine as you read this, what with Ruby running around like a crazy woman, I think this is a huge step forward for her. She showed a great deal of curiosity and braved leaving the arena repeatedly. I so know for sure that traditional trainers - and me in my past - would say I am doing this all wrong. Maybe, I am.
The next evening, I take Zena out back with Ruby tagging along. I still keep fairly close to the trees and bushes for protection if Ruby decides to barrel past too closely but, as expected, with each outing, she gets better. Tonight, we stay out to graze for twenty minutes. When I bring Zena back into the arena, I am surprised to see that Ruby does not follow us in. She stays out to graze near the barn. Really? Well, well. I put hay in the pens and, before letting the other horses out of their stalls, I fetch a lead rope to bring Ruby in. She has wandered around to the front of the arena but, when I snap the lead on, she walks around back to the open trail gate nicely. Good girl.
When I give Ruby her breakfast in the tack room, she pulls the comforter off my chair and onto the floor. So, I open it over her entire back. She wears it for most of her breakfast, mouthing it every so often. On the way out of the tack room, she stops at the saddle racks and pulls the bareback pad to the floor. I pick it up and lay it on her back. It has no girth attached.
On April 21, Ruby goes out back with Sparky for the first time. She canters hither-and-yon, but not crazy. When she trots toward us, I simply hold up my switch and say “stop” or “no.” When she grazes near us, I tell her she is a good girl. Just before dark, I walk Skipper around the ten, munching on a bag of cheese puffs. When we come up the west side of the horse pens, they are all ears because of the plastic bag. But not a one of them has an interest in the cheese puffs. They must be smarter than us!
It is Earth Day, a good day for a ride, but Kim is sick so I make her soup instead. Out in the barn, Ruby wants to play. For the first time, I stand far enough away that she has to move a foot in my direction in order to give me Sue's ball. On the third fetch, she has to walk three steps forward to give it to me. I am thrilled! There is a huge amount of communication between us. Sparky walks in and stands on the wooden box, hoping for a treat. But - but, but - if I treat her for doing things for which I did not ask, she will become obsessive about treat seeking. So, I flip two blue barrels on their sides and ask both Ruby and Sparky to roll them. I keep say, "Roll the barrel." I need to use the word “push,” not “roll,” because I will later want Ruby to push other things. This is the first time I have two loose horses performing for treats together. I take videos because it goes quite well.
On the 24th, Ruby eats her breakfast in the tack room and lets me clean all four feet. She still does not stand well for me to pick them up in the openness of the arena. She has a nasty little crack up the front of one hoof.
Later in the day, we take Skipper for a drive in the park.
Holy bejeezers and mackerel, too! April 25th is catastrophic! Out on the back ten, Ruby flips herself over the four-foot-high perimeter field fence! I am grazing Sara along the trail and Ruby is both grazing and running circles around us. She canters farther off than usual, maybe sixty or seventy feet to the east. Suddenly, I hear a loud screeching and immediately think she has flushed up turkeys. But, I see no turkeys - and no Ruby. Sara and I trot to the scene of the crime and there she is, standing in an opening among the trees - on the other side of the fence, on the neighbor’s ATV path, staring up toward the houses - and the road! The screeching sound was five posts worth of metal staples being pulled from the wood. We are in a real pickle. I scrunch the fence down the best I can - and hate to do it - but Ruby is definitely not about to jump back over. And, either jumping or walking over the fence risks getting a hoof caught in the scrunch. She just stands there bug-eyed. Both girls are wearing halters, but only Sara has a lead. If I unhook her lead to use with Ruby, I know from experience that she will trot or canter straight back to the arena. If Ruby tries to follow, her only option would be to run along the fence line - which would take her directly through the neighbor’s yard and out to the road. Our road is black topped and busy! My only option appears to be to walk Sara along our side of the fence all the way to the back of the property - maybe another seven hundred feet - and then around the back by another two hundred and fifty feet to the gate between our property and the park. Other than two or threes walks around the ten acre path when she was newborn, Ruby has never been this far back. But, that is what we do. She is befuddled but, for the most part, follows along. Sara and I have to squeeze between tree trunks and honeysuckle bushes to stay near the fence, but Ruby has the benefit of the neighbor’s ATV path. Fortunately, their property is not fenced along the back but, when we reach the end of the fence line, where our properties meet the park, there is a common path that all the neighbors use, running in both directions. Ruby is now standing inside Richfield Park and the park path is not particularly close to my back fence line - maybe forty feet out. I am afraid that, as Sara and I make our way west through the trees toward our gate, Ruby might become confused and head back the way she came. But, she keeps an eye on us through the brush and finds her way to the gate. When I open it, she is momentarily not sure that she wants to come through. The three of us head back up to the barn along the west side of the circle trail - all new to Ruby. Half way up, the path runs right along the west property line and, when Ruby sees the perimeter fence, she is clearly apprehensive. I think, hmm, even though I have a fence repair job now, as long as Ruby is not hurt, maybe her little flip foray taught her to respect fences. AND, we managed to walk all the way around the ten acre path! Ruby is as good as gold as she enters the arena. She heads straight to her mom for a much needed emotional serving of milk.
At the end of the month, Doc Jim administers spring shots. Because he is in his late eighties, he brings two assistants along. One is Kenny, a surly man in his fifties who has worked for Doc since he was in his teens - breaking bucking Arabian Horses that would go on to earn Doc national fame. For all those years, Kenny clearly does not like horses - I clearly do not like him. He is just plain rough. Doc's not that way, but he seems fine with tolerating Kenny.
My girls are given a four-in-one injection for Eastern and Western Encephalomyelitis, tetanus, and flu. They also get a rabies shot. Judy wants Allie to get a 5-in-1 - I forget what the fifth is - plus Potomac, West Nile, Rabies, and a de-wormer. My horses do not travel and I don’t think they need all that. Judy’s horse does not travel either - other than being here this winter - but she has a little more cash than me and a vet that encourages her to spend it. All five have blood drawn for their Coggins Test, which determines whether they are carriers for Equine Infectious Anemia. Ruby paws noisily against her stall door. She must be wondering why there are three new people in the barn and no one is paying attention to her? Ruby accepts the needles well. They back her into the corner of her stall and stand very close to her. Doc’s granddaughter, Christina, holds her lead and massages between her eyes while Kenny does the pokes. He is such a scowler. Ten years my junior but a grumpy old man.
In the evening, I take Zena along the path with Ruby following. It has been some number of hours since Doc left but, when Ruby walks through trail gate and onto the lawn, she is wobbly on her legs. It appears that her spring inoculations have knocked her for a loop. Then again, yesterday she flipped herself over the fence, so maybe she is also sore. No, what I am seeing looks more like woozy. A half hour passes and she manages to trot around us on the back ten; but she is definitely on the quiet side. Even the next morning, she still seems subdued.
On April 28, I drop the buckle on Ruby’s yearling halter down to the last notch. She won’t even BE a yearling for three more weeks! Actually, in the horse community, a horse is considered a yearling after its first New Years. But, when Doc came for spring shots, the first thing he said was, “My, she’s tall for her age. And, pretty, too.” Today, we have another first. I saddle Sara and slip her bitless bridle over her head. Then, I release Ruby from her stall. It is a good thing I am carrying my switch because, sure enough, I need it to keep her away from Sara. When I ask her to stay back, she listens. I sure wish I could understand what she and Sara are saying to each other, because it is clear there is a conversation taking place. And, I cannot tell what Ruby is asking of me. Something. Everything in the movement of her head and her facial expressions are begging to come closer. I am concerned that, if she does, she will suddenly bite at Sara’s saddle or, worse yet, rear up and come down on Sara’s back. She still does that when she is excited. Zena and Sara seem to not care much but, if I am standing near, I do! After ten minutes of displaying - trotting away and coming back - I realize that one thing Ruby is saying is, “Why are you not with ME?!” She trots to the barrel and tugs on it - then looks at me. "Why are you not playing with me?!" I am thinking it is safe enough for me to mount Sara, so I lead her to the wooden box in the center of the arena. Ruby comes near and, from Sara’s back, I ask her to back away. Ruby places her own front feet up on the box and absolutely clearly asks, “Is this what you want? Do I get the treat?” Maybe, I should not give her one because I have not asked her to do that. But, I cannot resist. I ask Sara to move close enough for me to lean out to Ruby. I give one to Sara, too. I remain on Sara for ten minutes. We walk slowly and stop often. I would like Ruby to follow but am afraid to let her approach Sara’s hip. I dismount without event and return Sara to her stall. I think Sara is in heat because Ruby spends measurable time smelling Sara’s urine on the arena floor; and makes a point of urinating on top of it. Interesting.
April ends with a forty-five degree drizzle. Ruby wants a treat so, after standing outside her stall for a moment, I point toward the line of barrels near the wall. She gets what I am suggesting and we walk toward them. She walks the narrow path between the barrels and the wall but does not stop where I ask; instead coming all the way through and out. I circle her around and ask that she walk through and stop a second time. I then ask her to back to the center of the tunnel and stop. She stands there for a good measure and receives a treat before backing the rest of the way out. At the two barrels standing in an open area, I ask her to circle one to the right and the other to the left with a treat after each maneuver. I then ask her to figure eight the two, passing around from my left to my right as she makes the transition. Treat. We walk outside and to the far end of the chute and stand quietly. Before heading up the house, I check the water tank. No ice!!!