The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Now that we’re past the equinox and into official spring, everything—light, temperatures, wind, the ground, animals, us—is changeable.  Each morning more and more light seeps into the tail end of our dreams, and light lingers on into the evening.  At mid day, the air sparkles with light and flickers with the shadows of birds flitting to the willows, birches, fireweed, brittle from last summer, rustling with last year’s seed.

At night, the temperature slips below zero, with wind, something we’re not used to after the long still nights of winter.  During the day, the sun warms the south-facing slopes and melts the crystalline structure of snow piled in the yard so that it becomes crunchy, brittle, dense from thawing and re-freezing.  The sidewalks on campus run with water in the afternoon, which freezes into thick sheets by morning, making walking precarious.

Mattie gets nervous in spring and fall.  In my narrative of her life, the spring was when she went to work as a pack mare and fell into the defensive patterns she sometimes still displays. I imagine someone sometime treated her badly, thus her ears-back attitude about anything new or unfamiliar.  In the fall, once, she was left out to fend for herself over winter, gaining a taste for wood as she survived in the wilderness south of the Alaska Range.  All this happened when she was between three and five years old—still an adolescent in horse years and very impressionable.  When the seasons change, she goes through a period when no trust we’ve established between us is certain.  She’s edgy, touchy, and would just as soon be left alone.  And in spring, after a winter of eating, sleeping, and standing looking at the valley or the road below her fence, she goes into heat again.

So, yesterday, I should have read her cues better.  I was grooming her, trying to desensitize her to some touchy spots, especially the area where the girth goes, under her chest.  Things were going peaceably until she started stamping her foot, and I left my hand under her chest, asking her to put her ears up.  Instead she reached over and grabbed the sleeve of my coat in her teeth—inexcusably bad behavior, and dangerous.

I have to admit I was frightened—whole scenarios flashed through my head—but, as far as I know, I kept my cool.  I yelled and she pulled her head away.  I untied her from the fence and backed her up, flinging the end of the rope at her till she skittered across the snow backward.  She still put her ears back and rolled her eyes at me as if she thought she was intimidating me.  I didn’t let on that she was, a little.   I unclipped the lead rope from her halter and walked away.  She stood there till I came back with the longe whip, with its long popper cord.  I snapped the whip in the air behind her, and she trotted away.  I followed and snapped it again to turn her in a new direction.  She trotted and cantered around the corral away from the snap of the whip so that I was driving her in front of me and not letting her rest.  Finally she stopped and turned to me, standing stock still, ears clearly up and pointed towards me, as if to say, “Enough.  Can we make up?”  I tucked the whip under my arm and said, “Step up,” and made a come-here gesture with my hand, a cue she knows.  She came up to me, and I took her halter.  She was a little trembly, and so was I.  Then we went on to work on the longe line, as we’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks.

I don’t have a round pen, the tool some horse trainers recommend for training young horses or for corrections like the one I was trying to give her.  Because she had transgressed on one of the cardinal rules of horse manners—don’t threaten or damage the handler—I had to respond immediately, dramatically, and fairly.  The last one is the hard part.  She was challenging my leadership in our partnership, and I needed to make clear to her that that was unacceptable.  The hard part, given how vulnerable I actually am as a human working with a thousand pound horse, is not to give in to or act out of fear, for that could lead me to act unfairly and could make the situation worse. So, while I was backing her up and making myself big and scary to her with the rope end and the popper on the longe whip, I couldn’t do anything that would hurt her or make her feel truly threatened, though I did want her to feel bossed around.  It’s a kind of acting, with serious intent.  I had to keep my wits about me not to push her over the line again while I was keeping her moving, and to, at the right moment, see when she had given up the “debate” over leadership and was ready to do what I wanted, signaled by her standing with ears up.

Coming back to horses when I did, after thirty plus years away, I have relied on reading all I can read—especially newer trends in positive horse training and horse psychology, and on listening and watching any horse person with experience that I can.  What I did with Mattie was based on reading Gincy Self Bucklin, John Lyons, Cherry Hill, Bruce Nock and others.   Yet, with a rescue horse like Mattie—and during the first heat of spring—I have to keep reminding myself never to take anything for granted.

By feeding time and then by morning, Mattie was back to her sweetest self, letting me rub the itchy spots on her face and neck.  All day, the wind gusted, and, when I came home this afternoon, she was standing by the gate, her black coat spiky where she had rolled in melting snow and dotted with pale spruce shavings.   She had her ears up.  I had my good sturdy Carhartt’s jacket on.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “The View from Mattie’s Pillow”

  1. KD Says:

    I can feel this event. I too had a rescue horse who wanted at times to challenge me. The lounge line and whip were crucial to teaching him manners without breaking him. He was never one to meekly accept human opinions, but he was safe and funny and smart. I finally had to adopt him out when I retired because I could no longer afford his keep. I miss him still, and I applaud your handling of Mattie. She’s a lucky mare.

  2. mattiespillow Says:

    Yes, I’m pretty dedicated to her, and have come to accept that her truly bad behavior–which happens less and less often–is rooted in her fear of pain. Nothing else makes sense, because she can be so sweet, too. The long winter lay-offs don’t help.

    I hope you can find ways to be around horses again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: