Hula Hoops & the Driving Horse
by Lydia Rennicke of Comstock, WI
As happens all to often between horses and their owners, I became enthralled with a vision my horse did not share. I dreamed of my immaculately groomed, elegant Arab mare trotting briskly through the woods, pulling my family all together in a bright red cart, breathing the crisp autumn air, surrounded by the brilliance of fall colors. I had the horse, I had the cart, I had the family. All I needed to do was put the three together.
It is really amazing how quickly things can go from fine to trouble.
I was pondering this a few days later as I was holding one end of a nine foot lead rope, and at the other end was my 1100 pound bay mare, with dark determined eyes, doing ninety miles an hour. Well, okay, she would have been doing ninety if she could have, with two eleven foot aspen poles joined by a crossbar strapped to her unwilling sides. That training session ended with my ground poles in pieces, my harness shredded, my mare on two weeks stall rest.
I, like many before me, had just entered that gray foggy area where those more timid, or could it be more experienced, fear to tread. I had a thoroughly terrified horse who had no interest in harness or cart, and many knowledgeable horse people told me I had ruined her forever. To find my way out I would have to reach deep inside both myself and my mare, and in the process discover that no matter what people said, it could be done.
There is one very useful aspect of a prey animal that helps immensely with training. Panic flight takes a lot of energy. Nobody, man or beast, likes to expend energy if they don’t have to. This is a basic survival instinct, just as strong as panic flight. Never make yourself so tired you can’t run if you have to. (I have always suspected this is the reason exercise equipment spends so much time in storage.)
How does this help with pulling a cart? Or anything else for that matter? Ever have anyone come up behind and yell BOO!? You jump out of your skin the first time, but if you are not hurt, you only jump a little the next time, by the third time you are bored. This is what I was after. I wanted the day I hitched my 1000 pounds of female horsepower to the cart to be the most boring day of her life.
Pulling a cart, or anything else, I reasoned, really involves a series of new sensations. Shafts, confining and intrusive. Sounds, of something dragging behind. Weight, and its accompanying restraint. I saw no reason each one of these could not be introduced in a way which respected my mare’s sensitivities.
We began in the round pen, a nice, safe place. Not with the harness, too many bad memories. We started with a Hula Hoop. One look and she tensed, like a balloon stretched to the breaking point. I took the Hula Hoop away. She breathed. I came back, with the hoop. She tensed up, but not so much. I walk away again. She relaxed. I came back, she merely raised her head. Soon she simply sighed, and stood still wearing the pink rattling Hula Hoop with a martyred resigned expression. There is just no point in tensing up, using all that energy, when the scary thing is going away in another second or two. Or moment or two. Or hour or so.
I dressed her in Hula Hoops and foam noodles, to simulate the harness without reminding her too much of the Great Wreck, as I have come to call it. I ground drove her wearing this outfit up and down our property and street, to the amusement of the neighbors. This greatly offended her dignity, but good beast that she is, she dutifully walked ahead of me, the smell of burning martyr in the air. She was much relieved the day I brought out the harness. We ground drove dragging branches, cans and anything else I could think of that would rattle and make odd noises. But eventually we had to move onto more concrete things.
I felt my training must go back over the ground we had covered when the Great Wreck occurred. We needed to brave ground poles. Only this time, I didn’t hook her right away. My wonderful husband ran alongside her, pulling the poles himself while holding the shaft loop of her harness. She could feel the bump of the poles along the ground, and hear the sound of the dragging, but before she became too nervous, he simply let go. It was funny, you could almost see the light bulb go on. Oh, so this is what this crazy human was getting at. I’m supposed to pull these things. Oh, well, whatever makes them happy. It took an amazingly short time for her to be completely indifferent to the ground poles. Whereupon we hitched her with a self-devised quick release hitch consisting of a rope run through the shaft loops and held against the poles. A quick tug and the poles were off. In a very short time she pulled them with no problems around the hayfield.
The cart was simply another step, which we handled the same way. People used to stop and watch as I sat in the cart, leading my mare, and my husband pulled us around the field. We traded jobs, and became mighty tired of doing the work, but my mare was able to see and feel the cart, a very noisy metal contraption, as it rattled along. She couldn’t see another horse pull it, but she could see us.
The give and take approach I used built in a priceless safety device. I didn’t even know it was there until the day the axle broke in my cart. As soon as the edge of the cart hit the ground she broke into a canter, but a light tug on the reins and a gentle whoa stopped her in her tracks. She cocked one foot and stood waiting for me to unharness her. It came to me that all the times I had approached with Hula Hoops, branches, ground poles, and the cart, only to take them away when she became nervous; (we must have hitched and unhitched twenty times during the first turn around the field;) all this had a side affect. She now waited for me to take away the problem. And so she stood, waiting patiently for me to take away the problem of the broken axle and lopsided cart. I tremble a little at such trust, and hope desperately I can always take away the problem.
Unhitched twenty times? Yes. And boy, does she stand perfectly still for harnessing and hitching.
She now loves to pull. Horses are designed for pulling after all. She is especially careful with the kids in the cart. She can’t see them, but somehow she always knows when they are there, and transforms from a fiery Arab into a model carriage horse until they are safely down. This is one reason I was willing to take the two months we did to make things right about that cart. She earned it.