The Haunted Dog

It’s been a quiet year at the barn. What with 2020 and all. I mean, it’s a quiet little place to start with, but especially quiet the past 12 month.

But then came the fake goose dog.

I noticed the dog when I drove in. A little black silhouette of a German Shepherd type dog slowly rotated in the gentle breeze at the end of the drive way. Closer examination revealed he was part of a goose deterrent effort, and he was on the way to one of the fields we frequent.

Knowing how distrustful Midas is of changes in his familiar landscape, I decided we’d come see the fake dog in hand before riding. I didn’t think it’d be a big deal, Midas likes dogs. So I tacked up completely and then led him down the driveway.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done that, but Midas saw the dog and was interested immediately. Midas likes dogs…but there was something off about this one. We went up, he warily sniffed it, shifted around, looked at it with the other eye. I made sure to touch it and wobble it so he could see it was safe. He wasn’t thrilled about it, but he was calm, and so I led him back up the driveway to the woodpile to get on.

While I fussed with the girth and stirrups, he looked over his shoulder at the fake dog. Then he looked again, more alarmed. Then he began to snort, and looked again, shifted his feet nervously.

Then I realized what was happening.

The fake dog MOVED every time he looked away.

A horse reaches out  with his nose to sniff a black silhouette of a German Shepherd dog that has been stuck in the early spring grass.
Looks like a dog, but doesn’t smell, move, or have shape like a dog. Not a dog.

This is not normal behavior for inert objects–things he’s confirmed with his own nose are not living.

Without getting on I led him back to the fake dog, telling him it was just cardboard turning in the wind. Midas did a lovely little piaffe the whole way there, and then when we arrived he swung his rear at the fake dog menacingly. He didn’t kick, though, because he’s a hunt horse, and you don’t kick dogs.

I was surprised and delighted to see him trying to scare it away. Midas is the responsible guard horse at the barn. He’s the one who stands watch when everyone else naps. He’s attentive and watchful, and while he likes dogs,

THIS WAS CLEARLY NOT A DOG.

FOUL MACHINATION OF SATAN.

I tried to reason with him, and honestly he was calmest walking in a circle around the haunted dog, but being in sight of it was, overall, NOT OK. The Cardboard Weeping Angel Dog that would surely attack if he blinked.

With a sigh I decided to start my ride in the ring–from the ring we could still catch glimpses of the fake dog, but Midas considers the ring as SAFE, so he’s pretty brave in there. We had a great ride.

I caught him eyeing the dog now and then.

We cooled out outside the ring–and went past the Haunted Dog, giving it a wide berth and goggly eyes so it wouldn’t try anything as we went past.

The next week, the Haunted Dog was still there.

Midas still DID NOT LIKE the Haunted Dog. But then I noticed that there is another Haunted Dog in sight of the pastures. The horses had probably been watching it all week. We still gave it a wide berth, but apparently this was a peaceable Haunted Dog that wasn’t going to eat him.

The Haunted Dogs have been patrolling for geese for weeks now, moving around the yards every couple days, turning in the wind.

We ignore them now.

Mostly.

Midas keeps a casual eye on them in case they’ve just been luring us all into a false sense of security.

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Horse Eating Hay Trolls

The neighbor’s hayed their field, and now there is a long line of round bales in the field where Midas and I ride–and there has never been round bales in that field for as long as we’ve been going there.

It’s been upwards of 10 years.

So obviously the new bales, which appeared out of no where, overnight, must be sentient horse eating trolls.

And Midas noticed them immediately.

By this point in our ride, we were cooling out. It was hot out. I was tired.

He went stiff, head up, snorting, I could feel the spin and run inside him even if he hadn’t succumbed. I knew that there was a solid chance we’d just be spinning our way through a field of gopher holes should I stay mounted and coax him over to face the trolls. (We normally ride around the edge, where there are no holes, but to do that we’d have to walk RIGHT NEXT TO THE TROLLS).

So, I retreated behind a treeline (cover from trolls) and dismounted. He’d been feeling good and peppy all day–finally sound after a spring battling thrush–so spooking might be half for the joy of feeling good. The other half being his guard-horse mentality–and the thought of gopher holes just really meant this was a monster best faced in hand. Mounted, there would be an additional layer of adrenaline. In hand, I could use my tiredness and lack of adrenaline to my favor, radiating calm at the prey animal bent on survival.

He pranced. He snorted. He stopped. He never tried to get away from me.

I strolled, stopped when he stopped, asked nicely to move again after a moment of assurance, or let him move in a nervous circle. Assured him verbally that these weren’t trolls. Finally got close enough that I could touch the bales, bang on their plastic, make noise.

He was skeptical still, but finally relaxed. We walked all the way around the line both ways–saw a few gopher holes.

With our scientific investigation satisfied, we walked allll the way back to a woodpile by the driveway so I could remount (another object we’d investigated thoroughly when it was first introduced) and I rode back to face the trolls.

Except they weren’t trolls anymore. Just hay bales.

We doodled peaceably around the field and went back to the barn for a nice cool shower.

*

I brought out the little white pony, Blue, for a walk in hand to see what he’d do with the trolls. It amused me that it took him several seconds longer to notice them than it had Midas, and he danced back and forth behind me like a tube behind a speedboat. I don’t think he stopped moving once of his own accord, just when I paused to assure him. Once we got to the bales, though, he accepted them much more quickly, and even walked across the half-blown tarp when I did. I hadn’t expected him to follow me (Midas hadn’t), just wanted to show that it wasn’t scary.

Horses are so different. Blue isn’t a dominant creature (unlike Midas, who is dominant and the horse who stands guard while the others nap), he’s somewhat nervous but quite trusting. He, too, never actually hit the end of the lead rope, though he was pretty worked up.

Granted, I didn’t try to keep him from dancing around. I let him have the rope he needed, which turned out to be not that much. I didn’t care if he danced around as long as he didn’t bolt. That was my approach with Midas, too.

It helps to focus on one thing at a time with horses. For investigating the trolls, they just needed to stay with me so I could show them everything was alright. They didn’t need to bury their emotions or instincts entirely, just use their brains enough to come with me.

Trolls vanquished.

*

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strength training

I should look for a job conditioning someone’s expensive sporthorse, because I enjoy it. I enjoy walking up and down hills, trotting over hill and dale, all with a careful eye on building the strength and stamina of my mount.

This winter has been pretty wimpy, but one side benefit of that has meant more trot! The ground never got hard, and we’re probably going to have a drought this summer because there hasn’t really been any mud either.

We’ve been going up and down hills at walk and trot, mostly. I’ve taken delight in the 10 minute warm up and 10 min cool down (always observed this, but with renewed vigor as I follow Denny Emmerson’s writings), carefully warming up Midas’s muscles and then working them on the hills, then cooling them down again. Important at any age, but he’s in his 20’s.

We are outside the ring as much as we can manage.

We’ve also done some canter up hills, not a lot, but some.

I’ve worked twice in the ring this spring–I mean actually worked hard in the ring. There have been one or two other times when I didn’t have time for a proper ride so we did some bareback work while I dwelled on seat and legs.

And wouldn’t you know, that ring work was MUCH better. We’re straighter (it’s also been just me riding all winter, so that helps with his straightness, too), softer, and stronger in the right way. I’ve been deliberate about asking for softness, and then for shorter periods of time asking for self-carriage and roundness. (Rather than asking all the time and hoping desperately to get it now and then). Understanding that it takes physical strength to carry oneself makes a big difference.

All I have to do is think about me doing pilates and my approach to asking for such things changes dramatically. Midas not going around like a dressage pony has less to do with obstinance than fitness and know-how.

He gets fast when we introduce canter, like it simultaneously excites and frightens him, and if you let him, he’ll counter-bend and speed into the canter when he thinks you might want him to canter. So I focus on bending him the correct direction and not letting him zip, and then if we’re organized I’ll sigh, and say “Alright, go ahead” and he’ll usually pick up canter.

Sometimes I have say canter. Sometimes I don’t 😛

Sometimes I have to cue with my leg. Sometimes I don’t. 😛

But once we’re cantering, leg becomes essential.

He falls on his face a bit when he canters, so I have to sit back, lift my hands and apply lots of leg–not a kick or anything, but a steady pressure alllllll down the inside leg to remind his body which way to bend and to block his shoulder. If I’m too weak, he caves in and we lose our balance on the turns.

After all the hills, though, it’s easier to help him stay balanced.

We moved quickly through a bunch of different exercises last time I rode. A 10 minute walk on a long rein, then finishing with some bending, and leg yields, then trot–first at his pace with a long rein, then more organized and then finally collected for a little with bending. Then, canter.

You’ll laugh, but we cantered a time and a half around the arena left lead without falling apart, and that might be the first time that’s happened since I broke my foot.

When we changed direction, I let him canter without making him do figures at trot until he was bending properly, and it was a very unpretty and resistant canter where he DID NOT WANT TO BEND, so even though we made it around the ring it was disorganized and probably would have scared 13 year old me.

I changed tack, focused our breath on trot, doing figures, relying as much as I could on leg rather than hands, so I could encourage softness from him. Once we were organized, I let him canter again and it was MUCH improved, and I didn’t make him go more than once around.

I gave him a long rein immediately upon coming back to it–before he could pull, even–but kept leg on so he knew he wasn’t to walk–his trot was loose and not zippy, he was clearly quite pleased.

Once we got down toward the “canter corner” he sped up, despite my gentle whoas, and picked up canter. I decided I didn’t care. He picked up the correct lead, and I didn’t feel like spending the next however long fighting with him about that corner. I kept up the gentle whoas, but offered him no other help with his canter. He cantered up the side and returned to a dignified trot of his own accord, shockingly organized, actually, and I insisted he keep trotting because that’s what I had asked. In the “canter corner” he again ignored my gentle whoa and picked up canter, but only went a couple strides before coming back. As if he was tired, and also might have just realized he wasn’t listening to me. The next time he didn’t even speed up at all. The whole thing was on a long rein, I did almost nothing, and he figured out all on his own that maybe he should pay attention to my gentle cues like he does when we’re walking.

Also, we cantered on a long rein, and he actually did an OK job. We’ve both made good progress.

*

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Knight with a Red Plume

https://ravenslanding.redbubble.com

I just really like red plumes.

I painted this when I first got masking fluid. I’m still trying to learn how to use it. And putting riders on horses is startlingly difficult. Perhaps because I think I know what it looks like, but the eye and the brain don’t actually communicate as well as I think.

I am trying to push myself to explore composition more and think creatively.

What? Think creatively? In a painting? I know.

i did really enjoy manipulating the masking fluid and brush flicks for the flagging tail. I think there must be Arabian lines in this horse 😉

I’ve always liked Arabians–not just because they are spectacularly gorgeous, but also the legends around them, their endurance, and of course their loyalty. Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind was also, definitely, instrumental.

Actually, I learned a lot from that book. I read it repeatedly, and the details of how Agaba treated Sham, the care he took to groom and saddle for the comfort of the horse, has definitely influenced how I treat horses. I try to always be kind and respectful when handling a horse. When you do that, they take it much better when you correct them for not being kind and respectful.

This is actually a character from my novel. If you read The River Rebellion on zarecaspian.com you’d know him, Trinh Kegan. His armor should be golden, but artistic liberty dictated bloodstone for this piece.

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One horse after another

This fall I’ve had the opportunity to ride with a friend who is a horse trainer professionally. She has a wide variety of horses in her barn, and it has been so much fun to ride different horses again.

When I was a kid, mucking stalls in exchange for lessons, I jumped at the chance to ride every single horse that came through the little barn. There were only 4 stalls, but 2 of them were borders and changed out every couple years. I rode every single horse that came through that heavy sliding door except for one, who came during my last year of college. I was 8 hours away.

There were some horses I bonded with more than others over the years, particularly the one I knew the longest and was paid to ride in the frigid winters–but riding different animals was so incredibly valuable for me as a rider.

I’ve been riding Midas for 10 years. 8 of those years, its been almost exclusively Midas. There is something different and special about working with one horse for a long time. But the value I’ve found in a variety of mounts is incredible.

Horses are different. Nothing forces you to learn how to communicate–I mean, RIDE–like facing someone else’s presuppositions head on. Because that’s what most horse behavior is, really, a presupposition. A worldview that has been taught to them by the other humans in their life.

One horse has been systematically taught by past riders that she doesn’t get an opinion, but she has to go fast. She doesn’t understand medium or slow, so you have to ask gently, patiently, consistently.

Another has been trained for the race track and doesn’t know how to stand still or put his head down.

Another has been trained with Rolkur and just…tucks his chin…but has no fight at all and not a mean bone in his body, doing everything asked, whether you meant to ask or not.

When you ride them, you have to unravel the way they frame the world, and reframe it for them. It takes time. It is SO much fun. Nothing teaches you what your body communicates to a horse at the most basic level like riding different horses teaches. You learn how you have to adjust the height of your hands based on the shape of the horse and the discipline and what you’re trying to accomplish at that moment. You learn how to use your legs–the roles of your upper thigh vs your calf–things you may have already known, but now they are vitally important every day, and can’t just be auto pilot because different horses need more or less of different aids. You learn to use your breath–a shockingly useful tool.

I guess that’s what it is. Riding a variety of horses makes you think, and be aware, and also makes it easier to think and be aware. I love it.

It makes me better.

It makes me a better rider.