Four Is Old, by Aaron Ralston (and his son, Parker)
Me: “#@*! @##**! ! ! “ (Picking. myself up off the ground).
Parker: (riding his horse in the arena with me) “Wow dad! That horse looked like the horse on the rodeo (NFR)! He kicked so high and jumped super fast!”.
Me: (grabbing my neck in pain) “Yea buddy, he probably could be. But that’s not good for what his job is going to be.”
Parker: “What’s his job?”
Me: (loosening the shoulder I landed on). “He is going to be a ranch and hunting horse”
Parker: “Why did he jump so high?”
Me: “He got scared and panicked.”
Parker: “Why he scared?”
Me: (limping, trying to catch my horse AND maintain my temper) “What Buddy?”
Parker: “Why he do that? Why he scared?”
Me: “He doesn’t understand as well as most horses. He doesn’t think, he just reacts.”
Me: (still trying to catch my horse – still trying to maintain my temper) “Some horses are different than others, Buddy. This guy is 4 and is just getting started. He’s a baby.”
Parker: “Dad, 4 is old. Colter is 4.”.
Me: “Yes buddy, 4 is old, but he hasn’t had very much time with people. It doesn’t matter the age of a horse or person as much as the amount of time working and learning.”
Parker: (Blank stare for a few seconds, then) “Dad – four is old”
Me: “Yes buddy, four is old.”
It’s a good thing Parker was with me. I really think he was able to talk me into a better frame of mind. You see, I have a 4-year-old colt in for training that is the snortiest, coldest backed horse I have had for a long, LONG time. He rides well enough with a long drawn out warm up routine but he is getting ready to go home and the owner has to use him as a work horse. There is a BIG difference between the recreational rider who may actually enjoy this process and the working cowboy who has a job to do and not enough time to be a “horse trainer”. I’ve had my stomach tied up in knots over this horse for a while now. All he needs is time, right? Well, time is money and money is tight. I’m not talking about lowering my standards of animal welfare, I’m talking about finding a way to make it work for everyone.
Well, today was the test. I had to get on this horse cold to see how he would handle himself even though I could see he was uneasy. I didn’t get two steps before he went into his act. His head dropped between his front legs while his back legs kicked out as high as my son’s head while sitting on his horse (that’s what my son told me). It really wasn’t that bad, but experience made me think this horse would kill himself in an attempt to save his life so I tried to step off. I swung my leg off and with just my left foot in the stirrup my horse hit the ground and jumped again ejecting me horizontally to the frozen ground. I hit all at once, on my side, and felt my head bounce off the arena sand and heard a crack in my neck (nothing major, just popping).
It’s at this part of the story I began the previous dialog with Parker, however, the monologue in my mind was very different. My survival instincts switched on and said, “That was completely out of our control and I am in a large amount of pain. Do not do that again!” I listened to my instincts and went back to the old drawn out process and was able to get on and have a quick ride before I had to leave for a few hours. During those hours, I was not very pleasant to be around. My neck hurt, my back hurt – but mostly I was scared. When I got back on, the pain in my body was controlling my mind and no matter what my conscious mind said, my subconscious would have nothing to do with it. I was timid and unsure for the first time since I can remember. Later in the day, I returned to work him cold again to see if the earlier session had been retained. My gut was tight and my legs were weak and, not surprisingly, he was worse than ever. I didn’t get half way up before he blew up. While trying to catch him again, I realized something. My feelings controlling my actions came from the same place this horse’s were coming from. His subconscious survival instincts were just too strong for his mind to overcome. I always knew this, but now I was feeling it too! This was a great feeling of empathy, however, I still needed to get us both over our subconscious control issues.
If you ever hear me giving a seminar or a clinic you will hear me say, “If they take their feet away from you, take their feet away from them”. A horse runs or fights when their subconscious takes over and a horse like this has a very strong subconscious flight instinct, therefore, I concluded that simple re-direction was not enough for this individual. I had to “take him off his feet”. I spent the next 90 minutes trying to convince this horse to give up his only means of protection. I have found that you cannot make a horse lie down; they have to give you all four feet. He would surrender his fronts but would not allow his hind legs to lose their advantage. As I was just about to give up, he made his strongest but last struggle to run before he gently gave out and set himself down slowly across the ground. Both of us were exhausted and motionless for a few minutes, I standing and he lying down. I walked around him two or three times to get a feel for his flight zone but received no response. I began to rub him and sat one knee on his side to see if he would react. This is a horse that doesn’t like to be brushed, let alone manipulated in this way. Another motionless five minutes passed and his breathing was back to normal. At this time I asked him to stand again. He stood up licking and chewing with his head low and relaxed. With little hesitation I stepped on. As soon as I sat, my body went weak, my heart fell shallow and I could barely hold the rein. I was out of control; my subconscious was now on autopilot. Luckily, the horse was now working from his conscious mind and allowed me to regain mine before riding off. That moment was one of my least favorite feelings while being on a horse. I felt helpless due to my self-preservation instincts.
We’ve all heard that if you get bucked off you get right back on, but until now I kind of thought that had more to do with pride. Now I know that, had I not gained controlling influence of my subconscious, I would be heading down a road that people have described to me but one I had never experienced. By getting back on without stopping to think about it, I put my subconscious in a position to be overcome. This reinforced my years of experience and challenged this one situation. Fortunately, my horse was now of a conscious mind and walked, trotted, turned, stopped, and backed like he has never done before. All together I had spent 3 1/2 hours working with this horse and by the time I had this successful ride on him, the sun was gone and it was total darkness.
The actual ride while in a “conscious” state of mind was only 20 minutes long. Had I spent anything less than 3 hours 10 minutes, I would have failed the horse and myself. Had I not been told so many times to get back on, I would have reinforced the fear of us both.
Change happens in a moment, but the preparation for that moment may take a great deal of time. The process was not “ideal” and is not for every horse. I do believe that most of the process had to happen in order to get the final result for this individual and his horse.
Til’ next time, Aaron