I had occasion to go to South Texas and the ranch this past weekend. Unfortunately, I was already hauling a tractor, so I wasn't able to take any of my horses, and didn't anticipate getting any riding time. But as luck would have it, I did ride!
I went to James's ranch in Ramirez, TX. The soil there is sandy and fertile. It's good for growing grass and watermelon. He and my cousin had taken their horses to the vet to have Coggins' tests pulled, and James had managed to convince my cousin they should ride later that day. I drove over from the JAG Ranch in Benavides, TX with the friend who had accompanied me from San Antonio.
James was going to ride "Sugar", his older, grade QH mare. She's a solid mount, and usually offers no foolishness. My cousin was going to ride his red roan grade QH, aka "The Red Roan or Nacho". That horse has one heck of a smooth trot. The plan was to pony my cousin's filly, a grade QH/mustang cross about 3 years old, named "Mustang Sally". No one really wanted to mount the filly, as she hadn't been worked in about a year, and her training even up to that point hadn't been exactly solid. She'd been ridden, but when pastured a year ago, there were still a lot of issues left to be worked out.
I offered to handle the filly on the ground a bit. I made her lower her head, yield hindquarters, longe a bit, did some desensitization with the lead rope on different parts of her body, touched her all over, and generally just worked her until she licked and chewed and I felt had her attention. Now I knew I didn't have her RAPT attention, but I had more than when she was caught in the pasture 30 minutes prior. Maybe it was pride, because my cousin had been giving me grief about my blog that he teased me was self-serving. Maybe it was foolishness. But I announced that I would ride the filly.
I got a few stares. I think someone even called me crazy. But I tacked her up anyway. I wasn't going to be using a bit I would prefer to use in a young horse like her, but it was a bit with which I was familiar. I snugged up the cinch and rear strap well, lest she start bucking and throw the saddle. I half-mounted her several times, partly because I wanted her to stand still for mounting, partly because I wanted her to get used to the weight in the stirrup, and partly because she's damn near mutton-withered and I needed a good jump to mount her properly!
Finally, I was on her back. She wasn't quivering underneath me, but I could definitely feel tension. I worked on flexing her laterally from the saddle. She did very well. My cousin told me later that this was something the charro that had trained her some had worked on extensively. nice to see some of the lessons had stuck.
We headed out, James on Sugar, my cousin Frankie on Nacho, and me on Sally. Sally followed willingly, a little too willingly. It was obvious she was following them not because I wanted her to, but because SHE wanted to. This was obvious when I tried to stop her, and she resisted the bit and wanted to follow after the other two horses. I asked James and Frankie to stop for a moment, and then worked on stopping her. I knew she was stopping because the herd was stopped, but I wanted to at least cue her some to stop in case I needed a better stop down the trail. She had absolutely NO back up, I mean NONE. Pressure and cues to back up were just met with a lock down - no movement in any direction, a total "freeze". Frankie then told me that she had never learned to back up with the charro either. Hmm, this was going to be weird. I tend to really use the back up to settle a horse. That option was gone.
I did a lot of circling while the herd moving forward. That way, she would get used to turning away from the others, but then immediately get to turn back, a source of security for her. But each circle was bigger, and her turn AWAY from the herd a little longer.
We rode to a back pasture, where James had the idea we would work the cow herd back through some corrals to another pasture. Ordinarily, with three horses, I'd say that should be a reasonable task. But I knew I was going to be virtually worthless with Sally. As we walked, she wandered like a drunken sailor stumbling home, and I was constantly tweaking her to get her to walk straight. She also had a habit of wanting to walk next to the other horses, in such close proximity that she was TOUCHING and rubbed up on the other horse. Again, Frankie told me that this was one of her habits. Well, not with me! That felt absolutely dangerous to be letting her do that, so I started to anticipate her movement, and tipped her head away as soon as she started with this behavior. She still wanted to sneak her rear end over to touch the horses, however, so I had to put some leg pressure on her to get her hind end over. I was pretty nervous applying leg pressure to her - I didn't know if she'd blow up! But I came to realize that her problem is not one of "blowing up" but rather the "freeze". She is virtually dead to anything but extreme cues. When she feels pressured, she just stops dead in her tracks and won't move.
So on we rode to find the cow herd. James then informed me that Sally had never really seen cows, been in the same pasture with cows, and certainly never worked cows. Hoo boy, this was going to be interesting. Sugar had seen cows plenty. The roan had been a roping and sorting cow horse. But Sally was green.
We spotted the herd, and started to slowly move in. But necessarily, this meant that we had to split up some. As the other horses got further away, Sally's anxiety level increased. I could feel it. At one point, the other horses were out of sight, and Sally and I approached one particular cow that was reluctant to move. She started to freak out. She whinnied as loud as she could for the other horses. Her head was straight up in the air. She wanted to know where the other horses were and was calling for them to join her. The roan answered back from the brush just as loudly, only adding to Sally's anxiety and pretty much convincing her that she was indeed about to die.
Well, at this point, it was obvious that what little connection I had with Sally was gone. I was NOT in control and she was going to do whatever the herd dictated. I tried to move her forward, turn her, anything, but she was locked down and "frozen". "This is when the buck is going to happen," I thought. What to do?
I dismounted, and started to longe Sally. I had left a lead rope and halter attached in case I needed to do this, so I was prepared. It took some effort, but I got her unfrozen and started her moving in circles around me. About the same time, Frankie rode over with the red roan. He didn't say anything, but I suspect he was nervous with the red roan calling out so forcefully to the filly. I doubt my longeing had much effect, but the filly did settle down. But I think that was a result of her being close to the roan again, more than my efforts to get her to connect with me.
We rode on, but I was content to just keep Sally moving along the general direction of the cow herd, and with the roan close by. She obviously didn't have the confidence or number of rides needed to do much more than just walk a bit.
We caught up to James, who had abandoned his efforts at moving the cow herd. There was no way he was going to be able to do that solo and without riders on the wings of the herd, and Sally and the roan had proven they were not going to do much to help this ride.
We settled in and rode on together for a few more miles. Sally did start walking straighter, and gained some confidence. I rode her ahead of the others at a trot at times. She kept looking back, but I kept her moving and anticipated the "freeze" better. I was trying to build up her confidence. I think it worked some.
The same number of riders that left, came back, and that's the mark of a good ride any day. The horses got a work out, and I got my adrenalin fix for the day, for sure.
At the end of the ride, Frankie complimented me on the size of my "guts" (another term was used) for even attempting to ride Sally.
Sally has a long way to go, but like a lot of young horses, she has promise. Whether she'll reach her potential remains to be seen. But it was great to be riding, chasing after cows, down a long trail, with friends, as the sun faded and set, in the glory of South Texas.