Friday, October 30, 2009

Dar = To Give

They named this horse D'Artagnan. That's a great name for a joust horse or an adventurer, but not this boy. Who really is, I'm coming to understand, just a boy. "Dar," they called him, and so have I for the meantime. I looked it up tonight. It means "to give" in Spanish.

Names often come easily to me with animals. Cats have a way of announcing them. I hung my mare's name on her the day I met her; it was that plain to see.

Dar might be like a quasar, an energetic and distant galaxy. I see his energy coming up; I see his being holding back.

But we came far this week. As he begins to feel better, with steady food, regular deep grooming and necessary veterinary care, he's gaining strength. He has a long way to go, lots of muscle building, lots of flexing, lots of walking and trotting. But he's started. What feels as good as seeing an animal begin to bloom under good care?

Since the last post, we've advanced in our lunge work. Now Dar goes in a bridle and cavesson. Yesterday my wonderful trainer and I strapped a surcingle around his deep girth and suddenly my jouster transformed into a dappled circus pony. He likes the cavesson; it seems to make him feel secure. That's evident in his change of attitude. His ears stay active and often forward or swiveling toward me. He wears his mind, if not his heart, on his sleeve. He turns toward praise: "Who, me?" The cavesson keeps him light on his feet, light on the line. He works with less hesitancy, not so glum. He doesn't flee into a buck.

"Hello," he whiffles when I walk into the barn. "Hello, puppy," I say.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Best Defense is A Good Offense

"That's fine, but keep moving forward," I told my boy. I think he's been in my care for three weeks tonight. I want him to leave the joust ring behind. I need to separate him from his past so I can see what he brought out of it and what he took in to it. We've been working on the lunge line. Walk, trot, halt. Stay out on the line; don't swoop in toward me, it's okay to just stand out there. Last Thursday night he reared, ears pinned in the resistance of forward. "Uh-huh. Move on," I said. Ears pinned, he obeyed. I watched the stiffness of his top line: his spine rises and straightens. Before long, he bucked. "Yeah, I get it," I said. "Tuh-rot!" And he did. His body language says no, but he obeys. I wondered then whether he was in pain. On Friday morning he colicked, nothing bad, but enough to depress him. I don't know him well enough to connect the events.

Sunday night, we returned to the lunge line. He was better, more relaxed, but I could see in him the question. I don't know yet if this big kid hates to work or learned to hate to work.

Tonight I asked him for a canter. He offered a silly power trot. "CAN-ter," I repeated. Almost, and a miss. Again. "Easy, easy." I brought him down to a steady trot. "CAN-ter!" He leapt into it, and then stayed there, circling out at the end of the line, fast in it until he tuned in to my voice. As soon as he leveled out, I brought him back to a trot. "Good boy. See? You're okay."

He understands praise; I don't know if he believes it, though. But already I get that I have to persuade him, and that's how both of us will accept possibility.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Joust Horses

I work at a renaissance faire, one of the largest in the country, one of the best. Every longstanding fair offers its guests the opportunity to watch a joust, a quartet of armored knights squaring off on horseback in dust and sunlight. The horses pound toward one another, breakaway lances shivering into splinters. A rider falls heavily, the instant calculated to thrill the crowd.

A joust horse is trained to a simple, one-dimensional skill: pivot and run. Armored riders sit deep, lean back, control the horse through neck reining and a bit of balance. There's no space between man and horse for subtleties like leg aids and seat aids. Leg armor makes that nearly impossible.

Joust horses must be trusting and indifferent at the same time. No two shows are exactly the same, but the routine never varies. Gallop. Pull up. Pivot. Gallop. Stand. Banners wave, crowds cheer, the sound system crackles. The horses wear caparisons, long, flowing trappings; some wear face armor. The challenges might undo an ordinary horse, but the joust horse accepts his work because that's what it is, his work. It has nothing to do with him.

To train a horse away from the joust, off of the joust, is to train him to be what he has never been: an ordinary horse. For my boy, only two months off the joust, "ordinary" doesn't yet exist.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Coming Back to Zero

I have had him for nine days. In that brief time, he's had his feet done, his teeth floated, a wolf tooth pulled, his mane and tail detangled, his sheath cleaned, vaccines injected, and a five-day course of deworming started. I need to bring him back to zero before we move forward.

He leans hard into the brush, eyes half closed. The cross ties were new to him, but he's learned that grooming feels good. My hands touch every inch of him, lift his feet, run along his spine and across his chest. I rub his ears, wipe his nostrils, flick the shedding block in short arcs through his curves. White hairs rain to the ground, rain over my black sweatshirt. He whiffles at my neck, rests his chin on my shoulder. This is the sweet time of convincing him that I will see him often, touch him often, speak to him often.

His eyes light up, his ears tip forward when I approach, but he hasn't yet spoken to me. I know he will, though. They almost always do, given enough time.