If you aren’t 100% consistent, if you don’t establish and communicate a firm set of rules and boundaries, and if you give in to the temptation to just love all over your precious horse [human offspring]…you have a near 100% chance of winding up with behavior problems. Sassing has to get checked, even if it’s funny. Pushiness has to be resisted, even if it’s not convenient. Otherwise, you wind up with a 1,200 pound Death Machine [Juvenile Delinquent].
The vast majority of things to which you have to deliver a firm “NO!” are things that make you want to laugh so hard you fall down, or that are really, really cute. The problem is not with the first wave, it’s with the way these things will develop if left undone.
The remaining thing that you have to dissuade that isn’t cute or funny is Biting. I think every one of my friends who have kids has gone through this with at least one of them: you pick up your Darling Toddler from the preschool, and the teacher has the Big Frown and says “We need to talk about Darling.” That’s when you find out that Darling arrived at that most mammalian of conclusions: biting is a great way to get what you want. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to get kicked out of preschool. If you’re really unlucky, you don’t have the Big Talk when you pick up Darling, you get the Phone Call of Doom in the middle of your work day. Fortunately, sort of, horses are expected to bite each other. It’s not desirable but it’s not, I think, something that is likely to get Darling Pony kicked out of the barn. Might create some problems when it comes to the Sticky Question of Turnout. I’m well familiar with that scene. Thank heavens my barn owner loves Huey, that’s all I have to say on that.
No, the big problem with biting in re: Darling Pony is when the little blighter bites you. I went through this phase with Huey this winter. With horses, it usually starts cute: Darling Pony wants to Snuffle Your Hand with her cute wittle muzzle. This is so cute it’s impossible to resist, for the amateur. I don’t know about for the professional, I can’t speak for that end of things. But having Darling Pony wuffle around with her whiskery chin and fuzzy rubber lips is…well, even just thinking about it, it makes me want to stick my hand right out for some of that.
Then it moves on to silly giggle time, when Darling Pony escalates to lipping. Horse lips are magical things. They’re all rubbery and elastic, but they’re soft. They’re like a fuzzy short elephant trunk. Horses can do all kinds of things with their lips, including sticking them out from their teeth by six inches. Huey’s BFF Tango purses hers up and makes a pout. Huey can make a frown. And while he doesn’t have the awesomely prehensile lips that Tango has, he can use his to pick things up, and to play with my clothes. That’s cute. Just thinking of his lips makes me want to stick my hand right out for some of that.
Unfortunately, the next thing that happens is biting. When Huey went through that phase, he’d be hanging out and I’d be (misguidedly, but uncontrollably) letting him put his lips on me, and the next thing I know, NIP.
Horses have really big teeth. They’re huge, like piano keys. And they’re flat. And, because they spend hours and hours every day masticating big lumps of dried hay, they also have very strong jaws. Getting nipped by a horse is no fun at all. So when Huey went to that stage, I had to be Mister Tough for a while and not let him put his mouth on me at all. This created some Issues for us, because we both like it when he’s got his mouth on me. I still think it’s cute, even though I know it’s not right. I am pretty sure he considers it bonding behavior. So we had to go through a zero-tolerance thing, and now I’m seeing if it’s possible to draw the line without going overboard.
Then there’s the Accidental Bite. I had one of those today. When I went to the barn I brought with me some of the Orange Gold. C. A. R. R. O. T. S.
I have to spell it because he knows the word. It’s like saying “treat?” to a dog. Or possibly just waving a steak under the dog’s nose. It flips the Carrot Hound Switch on in his brain, and nothing else happens until he scores.
Horses either have God’s Own Sense of Smell, or possibly they have ESP. I know this because the c. a. r. r. o. t. s. were buried in an inside pocket of my jacket, yet when I went into the paddock, Elvis zeroed directly in on that pocket from across the paddock. I had to push him off. I think he told Huey about them, because Huey was strangely co-operative with the halter (see #4, below) and when we got into the barn, his muzzle stayed firmly pointed in the direction of that pocket, no matter where I went. He also wanted to sniff my hand. This is OK, and it’s important, even, so I’m letting him do that while I scratch his forehead, and next thing I know WHAM! Super Genius mistook one of my fingers for the Orange Stick of Goodness. YOW!! I yelled, and he pulled back with his eyes wide and white. OOPS!! Silly horse.
You get to play the I Don’t Wanna Get Dressed Game. I remember this one quite well. Little kids have an endless bag of tricks when it comes to avoiding getting dressed. The noodle arms. The limp legs. The stiff angled foot. The starfish hand. The hiding under the bed. It doesn’t seem to matter what they’re getting dressed for, They Don’t WANNA. Get kid out of bed, take off PJs, put on shorts and a t-shirt. It’s a 15 minute ordeal. And it’s not that the kid doesn’t want to leave the PJs, because you’re going to have the exact same battle in reverse at the end of the day.
Horses? I Don’t Wanna Go In The Halter Game. Huey started this one up this fall. This game costs him a lot more than it costs me. I just have to spend extra time collecting him, and access a bottomless pit of patience. He, on the other hand, has to spend that entire time trotting (or, sometimes, cantering and even galloping) in his paddock, and he doesn’t get to stop until he decides that he’s going to stand and go in the halter. Once the halter is on, there’s no further nonsense, but getting to “halter” is an extended process of late.
Last, but certainly not least…you anticipate the arrival of your horse [offspring] with complete and total eagerness, waiting anxiously for the moment when it will be All Yours and you will go together into a Life Of Bliss…and you spend approximately ten seconds in that State of Bliss…and then the horror starts. You stare, with eyes of admiring love at your horse [baby] and as you do, the realization that this precious creature is both ultimately fragile and completely dependent on you begins to dawn. And you realize all of the ghastly things that can go wrong, and – especially if you’ve been paying attention, or this isn’t your first – you know that at least some of that will happen. And you can’t prevent them from happening. And you start to lose sleep. Yeah, new parents always write the sleepless nights off to baby colic, or nighttime feedings, but I know the truth. You’re worried. Something will happen. Something might be happening right now. Come on. Tell me, you parents, that you never got up in the middle of the night to go look at your baby just to make sure it was still breathing. Do it, and I’ll call you a liar.
Believe me, it’s not that different when it’s a horse. Only, Huey doesn’t live with me. The only thing that keeps me from sneaking out into his stall to make sure he’s still breathing some nights is that it’s a 10 minute drive. Probably just as well, that, because the person Huey does live with is a sensible individual, not given to nighttime freaks like that. Or if she was, she’s gotten over it. Or, hell, what do I know, maybe she does sneak out to the barn in the middle of the night to make sure all the horses are still breathing.
I’ve got to say this – for those of you who don’t know me personally – I’m not given to nighttime freaks, or daytime freaks, or any other kind of freaks. I think I’m generally regarded as an individual of a strong mind and powerful common sense. But…all those parents out there swearing that It’s Different When It’s Your Own are right. I’m not nearly as concerned about other horses. Nor am I particularly concerned about kids, my friends, my spouse, or myself (despite all indications that a different perspective might be helpful from time to time). Bah. People can take care of themselves. Huey, on the other hand…
So, I discovered as soon as he became Mine, he came along with a small but persistent and pervasive package of Anxiety. This is a novel sensation for me, anxiety. And as hard as I have tried to assure myself that He Is Fine, It Is Fine, Everything Is Fine, I can’t shake it. I was able to bury it with skiing, which was nicely restful. But now skiing is over, and the Anxiety is flourishing right along with the daffodils.
And what I find, appallingly enough, is that no matter of indulging in Oh My God What If thinking makes it better when something does happen. I know this because something has.
Huey is lame.
He’s not super lame. He’s walking on all four feet. But as soon as I put him back into work 10 days ago, I noticed that his trot was…choppy. He doesn’t usually have a choppy anything. Floaty? Yes. Huge? Yes. Choppy? No. The first time I rode him any amount of time (which was not much at all, maybe 4 minutes) I thought something was strange. The second time, as I was incrementing up his work a bit, Iknew something was strange. The third time, I identified what it was. He was favoring his front right leg.
Now, that leg is…complicated. Huey the Wonder Horse had a full career before he came to me, and by all indicators, it was full of excitement, adrenaline, and the occasional injuries. He has splints on his legs. He has some arthritic changes. He’s lost three teeth. He’s got some funky thing with the angles on his front right hoof, that the old farrier dealt with by putting a wedge on, but too-small shoes. The new farrier, the Farrier Of The Gods, hasn’t shoed him yet, because we pulled his shoes over the winter for Hoof Health. The FOTG and the chiropractor think that the problem isn’t in his hoof, but in his suspensory (a ligament that goes from his knee to his ankle). It’s further complicated by the fact that wearing this wedge was a little like wearing a high-heeled shoe, and for you non-shoe-people, this makes your calves and hamstring muscles tighten up. And either the suspensory thing or the hoof thing or – incredibly – the missing teeth (on that same side of his body) make his shoulder there tight. So I massage his shoulder, I have some stretches for his hamstring (or whatever it’s called for a horse), and I’ve had several discussions about whether he needs shoes or he should be kept barefoot.
So when I became aware that he was favoring that leg at the trot, I realized it wasn’t going to be an Easy Thing to get this sorted out. But I also wasn’t sure if it was my imagination, or if I was riding him improperly, etc. So I waited a few days and then I got my trainer to watch him. Yes, she said, when she looked closely, she could see that something was going on. To me on his back, it felt huge. But she said it was pretty subtle.
It wasn’t so subtle yesterday, meaning, it’s gotten worse. And today, he was doing it without any weight on his back at all.
So here, in a dreadful turn, is the last way I think having horses is like having a kid.
Because when something goes wrong – as you had to have known that it would unless you’re a totally hopeless Pollyanna – you blame yourself. Yes. Even though I know that Huey’s got something going with that leg, and have a reasonable idea of what kind of thing is it…I am still totally sure that I caused this. Every rational cell in my brain says not to be absurd, that the horse has been off work for three months, he’s 18, it’s unlikely that he’s going to make a totally smooth transition back into work. Every rational cell in my brain says that when there is a problem, because it is a when and not an if, it is going to be with the right front leg. And every rational cell in my brain says that this is really not at all surprising, it’s to be expected, it’s almost certainly reparable, that I just need to get the vet and the farrier to attend to this.
And the Horse Mom part of my brain says yadda-yadda-yadda, blah blah blah none of that matters, I. broke. the. horse.
Holy cow, I thought that the anxiety over What Could Happen was bad. It’s not a patch on the anxiety over Something Happened. I’m horrified. I’m appalled. And I’ve been a Conversational Zero the last two days while I was trying to figure out what to do.
And, really, this is the last way in which these things are the same: If Something Is Going To Happen, It Will Happen At The Worst Possible Time. On the second day of a two-week vacation. In the middle of the night. On a Sunday. On a Saturday night. Saturday of a three-day weekend. Christmas morning. It’s like there’s a magic witching hour, or cursing hour, that ensures that whatever goes wrong, it will go wrong at a time when you are least likely to have access to your Regular Medical Care. In my case, here, right as the vet is going on vacation. I don’t know if he’s left already, and I have to wait until tomorrow to find out. Why this couldn’t have become obvious last week, when I was on spring break and had all the time in the world, and the vet was in town, I don’t know. Oh, wait. It always happens that way.
Ask any parent you know.