As the year winds down to a close, I find myself looking back. Maybe not on this year, but on happier moments from years past. Some of the happiest memories I have are from my time at the stables when my horse Bert was still alive. This time in my life lasted about a year and a half, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it, until the unexpected conclusion of Bert having to be put down due to a sudden onset of illness and extreme pain. Regardless, here is what a typical day at the stables I used to frequent looked like.
I walk to the pasture, where Bert, a ten-year-old grey paint gelding, is king of during the day so I can retrieve him for a ride. I pick his blue halter out of the mass of others and loop it over my shoulder before heading out into the pasture.
“Bert!” I call as I close the gate to the pasture behind me. His ears flick, so I know he heard me but he doesn’t raise his head from the hay.
“Bert! Come here!’ I call again and stand by the gate. He raises his head to look at me as if to say I hear you. I’m eating. Go away. And then continues eating hay. Today is going to be one of his stubborn days. He has more of these than his willing days, but that’s just his personality. I don’t take it personally.
Most days, I only have to walk halfway to him and then he meet me. There are a few days I have to go all the way to meet him but I hope this isn’t one of them. It looks like it might rain soon and I want to get a ride in before it does. I walk a little less than halfway into the pasture and call Bert again, this time pulling out my secret weapon, a handful of alfalfa leaves, Bert’s favorite. The mares in the pasture walk up to me nickering, but I push and shoo them away. Bert finally leaves the hay and lumbers towards me. Another facet of Bert’s personality is that he’s lazy, and as such he tends to act much older than he actually is.
“Hey Bert,” I greet him as I feed him the alfalfa. Any other horse, I would have to halter them and then feed the treat, but I have no worries about Bert eating the alfalfa and then running off…that would take too much energy. I slip the halter over his nose, flip the strap behind his ears, and buckle it on the side of his face. I walk to the left side of him and lead him out of the pasture, being sure to lock the gates behind us.
I decide to test his laziness and start to jog beside him, pulling on the lead rope, and clucking my tongue. Bert snorts and walks a little faster, but for the most part lags behind. I slow down to a walk again, when it’s apparent he’s not in the mood to trot. It’s always a 50/50 gamble, and since I haven’t been out for a couple of weeks due to rain, I know he’s testing me again to see how much he has to listen to me. I decide not to make such a fuss about this, as long as he stands for grooming, tacking, and behaves under saddle, not trotting on the ground next me is not as big a deal. Normally I would continue prompting him until he trotted next to me, but as it’s been a couple weeks I do not want to frustrate him this early into the ride. I will work on this with him later.
As we reach the picnic tables behind the stables that are situated underneath the only trees on the property, I tie his lead rope to the blue metal hitching rail in a quick release knot. This way if anything happens to spook him, I can release him from the rail before he can hurt himself. I don’t anticipate this happening because I am the only one at the stables’ right now, plus the fact that Bert hardly spooks at anything as it takes to much energy to be scared and act foolishly. I only make the knot out of a force of habit and as a precaution, better safe than sorry.
“Be right back,” I tell Bert as I leave him tied to the rail and walk into the tack room that is attached to the stables. I open my tack locker and begin to take out all of the equipment I will need; the western saddle and bridle, my riding helmet, saddle pad, and my tack box which holds all of my grooming supplies. I place the helmet haphazardly on my head, loop the bridle over my arms, heft the saddle and pad, and grasp the tack box in my left hand under the saddle. It’s easier when I only make one trip, because then Bert doesn’t get as impatient.
Heading back out to the picnic tables, I set the tack box, saddle, pad, and helmet on the table and hang the bridle on one of the hooks on the fence next to the hitching rail. I carry the tack box over to the hitching rail and set near Bert. I take the body brush, a large brush with stiff bristles, and do a once over Bert’s body. He twitches his ears in annoyance, but stands still. I get most of the dust and caked on dirt off his coat before switching to a softer brush. I use this brush to go over his body once again, brush his belly, and all the way down his legs. Bert snorts as I place this brush in the box and take out my softest brush which I use on his face. Brushing his face isn’t necessary, but I do it to build up Bert’s tolerance. When I first started with Bert, he couldn’t stand be groomed. He would move stamp his hind hoof, and would not stand still for anything. I would have to have someone hold him while I gave him a quick once over and then quickly saddled him. Now I have gotten him to the point where he will stand tied and let me groom him for ten minutes, only twitching his ears and snorting in annoyance. Any longer than this and he starts resting the tip of his hind hoof on the ground as if he is threating to stomp his hoof again.
After I finish grooming him I get the saddle pad and place it on his back, above his withers, or horse shoulders. I make sure it is flattened and then put the saddle, with the right stirrup and girth looped over the saddle horn, over the saddle pad and shake it slightly to ensure it is properly in place. Both of these are placed while I am on Bert’s left side, as everything important happens on his left side when I interact with him on the ground. I release the stirrup from his other side and cinch the girth. The bridle is next, I place the reins over his head and then unbuckle his halter. I guide the bit into his mouth and settle the bridle in place behind his ears and on the sides of his head. I double check all of the straps, buckles, and girth and then buckle my helmet on.
I lead him into the arena, with extra coaxing from me at the gate, “Come on Bert, the donkey in you is coming out,” my running joke as he is a mixed breed that his stubbornness comes from donkey somewhere in his ancestry line. I double check his girth, to see if it had loosened in the walk over, and then lead him over to the mounting block. Another of Bert’s little issues, along with his distaste for being groomed, is his stubbornness in not standing at the mounting block. This is also an ongoing problem I’ve been working on with him, and now it is to the point where he stands three out of five times. Despite today being one of his stubborn days, he nonetheless stands patiently while I climb to the top step of the mounting block and swing into the saddle.
“Good boy!” I praise him once my feet are in both stirrups. “You’ll get an extra carrot for that,” I promise him as he chews at the bit, impatient to be off. I touch my heels to his sides and we move away from the mounting block at a walk. Once his hooves touch the dirt path of the arena, I shorten the reigns a little and put more pressure into his sides and urge him into a trot, clucking and then giving the verbal command. As we trot around the arena I talk to him about what has been going on since the last time I came out to ride him. His ears are turned back to my voice as he listens, Bert isn’t a very vocal horse as he hardly ever nickers or whinnies, but he is a great listener.
I run him through his paces, trotting in both directions, figure eights, circles, and amorphous shapes with lots of turns. When I can feel he has settled enough, a feeling learned through months and months of riding, I shorten my reigns even more, raise the left reign since we are going clockwise, and apply pressure with my heels. With the command of “Canter Bert!” he takes one lengthening stride, and then breaks into the easy stride of the canter. I move easily with him as we settle into our rhythm, after a couple times around the arena we reverse directions and canter a couple times the other way as well. No words are needed when we are cantering except for whenever I feel him start to slow down, I urge him on before he can move back into his choppy trot. Likewise, I hold him back when I feel him want to sprint the straightaways and keep him from transitioning into a gallop, a more uncontrollable and unpredictable gait.
After we have cantered both directions, I bring him down to a trot for a few paces and then down into a walk. “Catch your breath Bert,” I tell him as we walk so I can cool him out. All of the trotting and cantering have caused him to work up a sweat and heat up his skin, we walk until his skin is cool to the touch. The ride lasted about an hour, and the cool down about twenty minutes. I dismount, freeing my right leg from the stirrup, and putting all of my weight into the left stirrup and swing my leg over so I am leaning over the saddle. I slip my left foot out of the stirrup and feel the slightly jarring impact as my feet hit the Earth. The whole process takes about five seconds, it has gotten much smoother over time. My first dismount took almost thirty seconds and my left foot got tangled in the stirrup, luckily Bert isn’t the kind of horse to spook easy and just turned to watch me as I struggled to sort myself out as if saying Well come on, I’m waiting. It can’t be that complicated.
I lead Bert out of the arena and back to hitching post where I untack him and place his halter back on, and brush him off some more. I give him an apple and carrot after putting the tack up, and then let him graze for a few minutes before putting him in his stall. I hang his halter on the hook outside of it, and double check that his stall door is locked and the chain is secure. I leave him with a flake of hay, a bit of alfalfa, and a promise to be back soon.