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Going Gaited

 

Last November a friend and I spent three days horseback riding the beautiful trails of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee.  A local stable rented us quarter horses for our stay, and we spent long hours in the saddle each day.  Interestingly enough, with only a few exceptions, the other riders we met were on gaited horses.  Those horses’ smooth ground covering strides left us in the dust on our slow walking quarter horses.

Getting home, I began my research, and decided my next horse would be gaited.  I was not set on one certain breed, but was willing to look at Tennessee Walkers, Spotted Saddle Horse, one of the Mountain Horse breeds, or Paso Finos.  My requirements were pretty simple:

1.  15 hands or shorter

2.  Between 7-11 years in age

3.  Safe for this senior citizen who has never ridden a gaited horse.

And the hunt began…  HorseClicks, Equine Now, Craigslist ads.  I contacted owners of at least five different horses – some had already been sold, while one owner was honest enough to tell me her horse was probably more than I needed to handle.  I came across one Paso Fino who looked and sounded promising in the ad, so one Saturday I drove over four hours to South Carolina to try him out.  He was smaller in height than the ad indicated, and after riding him, I didn’t feel any connection.  The hunt continued.

Towards the end of March, I was checking ads on Huntsville, Alabama Craigslist , and one really got my attention.  A 7 year old TWH gelding, 14.3 hands, trail safe, was for sale in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the Walking Horse breed epicenter.  I made the call, the horse sounded promising; so on Wednesday, March 26, I headed up I-75 to meet him.

His owners were an engaging older couple who had a small breeding farm for Tennessee Walkers.  Wayne, 72 years of age, and with two knee replacements, rides every day, several times a day, but did say he now sends his young horses out to a trainer for their first rides.  He and Sandra walked me through the barn, telling me about each horse in the stalls, from a broodmare with bulging sides close to foaling, a pretty young mare who was sold and on her way to her new home, to their striking gray stallion.  And then we got to the last stall.

Bubba met us at the door, with his bold white blaze and incredibly liquid brown eyes.  I completely forgot all the other horses in the barn, and only had eyes for this boy.  He stuck his nose out to smell me, and gazed at me with those eyes.  Wayne saddled him and knowing I had never ridden a gaited horse, rode him around to let me see how he moved.  Then it was my turn.

He and I started up the driveway, both of my hands on the reins, feeling his powerful stride beneath me.  After several trips up and down the drive, I took him out to a large field to let him stretch out some.  By the time I got back to the barn, I knew Bubba was the horse for me.  

My husband and I pulled our trailer back up to Shelbyville on Sunday to bring him home.  Sandra told me that over the past few weeks, several potential buyers had come to ride him, but they dissuaded them due to not being a good fit.  She said the second time I rode down the driveway on him, she knew I was the person Bubba had been waiting for…  sigh!

Bubba loaded like a dream, and was the perfect passenger on the over four hour trip home.  Belle had a new buddy, and I had my first gaited horse.  Let the adventure begin! 

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From the moment I laid eyes on him, my heart was his, and I knew I would do all within my power to give this colt a good life. He has beaten the odds and grown into a gorgeous and healthy adult horse. For a long time, I imagined Tuff and myself as an inseparable team, my retirement years spent riding down the trails of adventure together.

Then reality began to invade my imaginings.

Tuff would need training – more expense, but more importantly, regular time in the saddle once he came back from the trainer. At 60 years of age, should I be riding a young, green horse? Did I have the know how to finish him? And then, what would I finish him to do….. trail ride?  Tuff’s personality and genetics told me he was destined to do much more than take a senior citizen calmly down mountain trails. For the first time, I really considered what was best for us separately.

The answer I came to was a hard one; Tuff needed a life I couldn’t give him, and I needed an older, calmer horse than Tuff. I worded a  “for sale” ad, prayed for the perfect buyer, and waited. It didn’t take long.

I questioned those who called and felt one prospective buyer was the best match for Tuff. Jeff arrived from over sixty miles away, horse trailer in tow, and three buddies with him. For over an hour he examined Tuff, questioned me about him, worked him in the round pen , and consulted with his friends. His buddies told me what a fine horse I had, and what a good job I had done with the groundwork.  While Jeff was checking out Tuff, I was checking out Jeff by chatting with his friends, and I got a good feeling for his training methods and the home he would give Tuff.

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Groomed and waiting to meet Jeff

When Jeff told me he’d buy Tuff, I felt so relieved, yet heartbroken too. I kept telling myself that this was for the best for both of us.  Trailer loading provided some much needed comic relief.  After the three men tried to load Tuff for over 30 minutes, I asked if they’d mind if I tried.  I put some of his feed in his bucket, and he calmly followed me up into the trailer.  The men laughed, swore each other to secrecy, and said they figured it would be all over Facebook before they got home.

Favorite food, and loading was a breeze!

Favorite food, and loading was a breeze!

Over and over I told Jeff that the MOST important thing to me was that Tuff went to the right home.  Jeff intends to train him as a ranch horse, using him to work cattle – cutting and roping.  That will be so much more in tune with  Tuff’s abilities and bloodline than just trail riding. Jeff realized this was not an easy decision for me to let him go, (could it be because I asked for absolute first chance to buy him back should he ever decide to sell Tuff?) so he told me I was welcome to see him and even ride him once he is trained.

The winter sun was getting low and I knew that Jeff was ready to head north, so I gave Tuff one last pat and stepped down.  The trailer doors were closed, and the truck pulled out.  It was then I could  no longer hold back the tears.  A chapter in Tuff’s life was over, and my emotions were all over the place.  Yet I knew I had chosen to do the hard thing, which was absolutely the right thing for Tuff.

Rain, rain, go away!

North Georgia is on track to have a record breaking year for rainfall.  Gardening is one of my favorite endeavors, and in previous years I have had to devote a lot of time to watering my plants.  Nature has taken care of that for me this year, but the downside is that many of the plants died or performed poorly because of soggy roots.

The barn area has taken a hit too.  The run in (Tuff and Belle’s favorite hangout) is deeply shaded on one side, and the constant rain created a boggy mess!  Belle has had a couple of bouts with thrush, and the mud makes doing anything a messy job.  Finally, last week, we went five whole days without rain, and had a friend use his Bob Cat to scoop out the soggy dirt down to the clay, and slop the ground away from the run in.

The round pen is located in one of the few flat areas on our property, and has stayed wet  most of the summer.  The few times I attempted to do some groundwork with Tuff, he ended up slipping, so rather than risk an injury, I stopped the lesson.   Add to that my parents’ rapidly declining health issues, and I have not had the time I thought I would to train.

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So rather than send Tuff off as a two year old to be saddle trained, I am postponing that until his three year old year.  I think the extra time will be good for him; he can grow out of some of his baby foolishness and shenanigans, and I will have more time to work on ground manners.  Assuming of course, that eventually, this rain will go away!

Monday I will begin my last week of teaching, not just for this school year, but forever!    As of May 25, I will officially end a career that began in November, 1975.  I took time off to have three children, but have taught nonstop since our youngest began kindergarten back in 1987.  The vast majority of my career has been challenging and rewarding; retirement was not something I gave a lot of thought.  Older colleagues told  me that would change, that I would just know when it was time to go.  That happened during the first semester of this, my 29th year.  For years I could never imagine doing anything else but teaching,  but now I want to immerse myself in all those things that were  limited to summer months, weekends or holiday breaks.  Harvesting tomatoes and other vegetables instead of preplanning, enjoying horseback rides on those beautiful cool fall days, taking my grandson to the park on a weekday morning,  traveling at a moment’s notice with my husband, birdwatching from my deck with a second cup of tea, hanging clothes out on the line, spending Sunday afternoons doing whatever, not rushing home to grade a mountain of papers, sending Tuff to a trainer knowing I will have time to continue his lessons once he comes home, and planning a girls’ trip with my daughters are just some of the simple pleasures that await.  “For everything there is a season…”(Ecclesiastes 3).  I welcome the new season in my life’s journey!

Belle was long overdue for a trim, so when I called Matt, my farrier, I also mentioned to him that I’d like him to look at Tuff’s hooves, but didn’t expect any trimming as Tuff has not totally grasped the idea of lifting his feet for any length of time.   A few days earlier I had read an article by renowned horseman, Monty Roberts, on “12 Things your Farrier Would Love You to Know.”  Mr. Roberts confirmed my reluctance to have Tuff’s feet trimmed.  “The farrier often feels that he is being taken advantage of and should not be required to take the time necessary to train.”  It’s not that I haven’t worked to get Tuff to the point that lifting his feet is easy, but like most training goals so far, more time has been needed to see desired results.

When Matt finished trimming docile Belle, we moved over to Tuff’s stall, rasp and nippers in tow.  As soon as he lifted his front left foot, Tuff attempted to put it back down.  Matt hung on to it though, and was able to trim and rasp the hoof before letting Tuff put it down.  I told Matt again I didn’t expect him to have to train and trim my horse, but he said it was no problem, and good for Tuff to begin to experience trimming.  On the right front foot, Tuff seemed even more determined to win the battle for control of his foot, but once again, Matt succeeded in getting the trimming done.

Since the front feet were enough for his first trim, we stood around for a few minutes talking horses in general and Tuff in particular.  Last summer, on Matt’s first trip out to trim Belle, I had told him the story of Tuff, and by the time I finished, he told me he had been looking for a young red dun with Hancock breeding, and offered to buy him on the spot.  Seeing him now, eight months later, he told me he would love to train him, told me what he would do if it was his horse, and quoted prices.  Of course he said, I could save all that expense by going ahead and selling him Tuff.  Again I told him I wasn’t ready to do that, but that didn’t mean that the time would come when I would realize that selling Tuff to the right person may be the best thing for the horse.  Matt asked if I would give him the first opportunity to purchase should that time come, and then he only charged me for Belle’s trim, and not the wrestling match to get Tuff’s two front hooves done.  So for now, Tuff has a reliable farrier; only time will tell if Matt’s relationship with Tuff will become much more.

A Long Yearling

Today’s almost 60 degree weather and sunny skies were a harbinger of spring.  Seems like this winter has been longer and wetter than usual, and tomorrow’s weather will return to cloudy skies and highs in the 40s.  Tuff has had several periods of lameness this winter, and I’m not sure if it is due to slipping on wet ground, or his rambunctious ways to expel his youthful energy that is resulting in sprains.  He was at least considerate enough to wait until the Christmas break for his worst injury which required twice a day soaking in  hot epsom salt water in an inner tube “boot.”

Tuff with boot

In just over three months, Tuff will turn 2.  For the time being, he is a “long” yearling, the term given to young horses between 18 months old and their second birthday.  All winter long, his life has been pretty cushy.  On my way to school at 6:30 each morning, I stop to feed grain and hay.  He and Belle spend the midday hours out in the pasture soaking up the sun, but by the time I return home each evening, they are waiting at the gate for more grain and hay.  Long hours as a teacher and short hours of sunlight haven’t left much time for much else other than just making sure my horses’ stomachs are full.  Weekends, when I have the time, often the round pen is too wet for much ground work training.  But things are about to change – in the weather, and  in my life as well as Tuff’s.

Tuff and the Trainer

Most trainers agree that one of the most important things to teach a foal is halter breaking, that is, the foal accepts wearing a halter and can be led.  Tuff accepted a halter at a very early age, but he did not lead nearly as well as he should.  I also knew that he was not respecting me as he needed to.  It was time to get help.  I mentioned the situation to a good friend, and she immediately loaned me her natural horsemanship videos, but didn’t stop there.  Both of her sons have worked extensively with horses, so she  volunteered her pilot son’s services for three lessons on his off days this past week.

Chris arrived Wednesday morning and decided that the first lesson Tuff needed wouldn’t involve the halter at all.  Tuff needed to learn 1) to respect our space, and 2) that nipping or chewing on people or training equipment was not acceptable.  Chris was slow and deliberate, explaining in great detail what he was doing, and why.  I have read a lot of books by natural horsemanship trainers, as well as watched their videos, but seeing Chris put these strategies to work with Tuff was very enlightening.   By the end of the first lesson, Tuff was respecting our space, and only occasionally attempting to be mouthy (hoping we would have forgotten that we didn’t want him to do that!)  The most memorable part of the first lesson, though, was near the end, when Tuff, apparently tuckered out from all the thinking he was having to do, dropped down and stretched out on his side in the middle of the round pen, and closed his eyes, ready for a morning nap.

Movement is the opposite of reward, or being allowed to stand and rest for doing the right thing.

This morning was the third lesson.  Not much time was spent getting Tuff to specifically lead wearing a halter, but what has been accomplished is amazing.  He is respectful of our space, much less mouthy, lifts his feet, and has shown some “latching on” behavior, following Chris and even me around the pen.  Chris has shown me some exercises to do with Tuff to soften him and get him to yield to pressure which will eventually translate into leading well with a halter.

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Teaching Tuff to yield to pressure and lift his feet.

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A good rub and rest is the reward for doing well.

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Chris giving Tuff a moment or two to relax..

Tuff will get the weekend off after his three day “boot camp,” but after that he and I will continue building on what Chris began.  Chris has said he will check in with us towards the end of the month, so I sure want him to be proud of both Tuff and me and the progress we will make by then.  So rest up, Tuff!  The work has just begun!