I had been struggling to find the motivation to push towards my next equestrian goals. (see my previous post) Then, just as the funk was dissipating I had a horrible day. Excitement was building about some upcoming events, collaborating with a friend to host an Adult Horse Camp in hopes of making it an annual thing. The day started out on a high. My training schedule had been revised to ensure that each horse/pony in training (all five of them) had a minimum three training days a week. Having my training plan written down was motivating and I was feeling the old enthusiasm for all things equine return.
It had been more than 2 weeks since I had worked with my training project Apple Jack. His owners had done some ground work with him at two parade desensitization clinics, but other than that he’d had a nice little vacation. Apple Jack’s owners were on vacation, and had told me that I could continue to work him solo during that time or I could wait, my choice. I felt a one month break for a horse in training may be too much time off, and planned to work him a few times this week. If all went well I had hoped to have him hauling around a passenger, by the end of June.
In theory all of these were great plans, but in reality you can never expect things to go perfectly with horses. They are living breathing creatures with minds of their own, the best laid plans of mice and men! In hindsight, there were a few factors working against me, at least one I didn’t even consider until after the fact. So I began my training with Apple Jack exactly like every other solo training session I had worked him. I fed him treats, groomed him, and tacked him up, in this case harnessed him. Just like previous training sessions I took him into the small area in front of the barn, where the cart was already staged and waiting for him. I’ve really tried to reinforce stand as a command with him, just like I do with all of my ponies when being put to the cart. I set the cart shafts in the shaft loops and began to hook up the traces.
This is the part where everything goes wrong. Apple Jack’s single tree is not an easy hook up like my easy entry cart. The hooks do not easily slip into or out of the traces. While I was fumbling to get the traces over the single tree hooks, Apple Jack had lowered his head to scratch at his leg, or so I thought. Once both traces were attached, I began to wrap the breeching or hold back straps. Apple Jack is alternating between standing and scratching his leg, but not moving. As I begin to do a final walk-around to ensure everything is hooked up properly and I haven’t missed anything, I realize something is not right. Houston we have a problem. AppleJack has not JUST been scratching is leg, he’s rubbed his bridle off one ear, despite the throat latch being pretty tight.
Now I have to think fast and make a decision. I can rush to unhook everything before he rubs the bridle totally off but, the traces/single tree combo on Apple Jack’s set up is a B!tch. Or, I can simply slip the bridle back over the ear. I won’t even build the suspense, I made the wrong decision. Holding the reins, I run my hand over the brow band and begin to slip the crown piece over the ear, at which point Apple Jack jerks his head pulling it totally off. I loop the drive lines over his head, hoping to wrangle it back on before he notices the cart attached to him. He’s never spooked at the cart, and we’ve worked on walking him on halter while I pull the cart slightly behind him, so it should not be terrifying, but on this day it was.
Apple Jack steps forward, the cart rattles, he steps forward faster the cart rattles more, and I’ve lost all control of the situation. He ignores the reins tightening around his neck, drops his head and bolts dragging me with him because the cart shaft is caught on my pants leg. Luckily I hit the ground, the cart rolls over me, and I can quickly jump up to catch Apple Jack before he can injure himself. This is easier said than done. A panicked animal pulling a cart is not something that is easy to contain, let’s say I reconnected with my religion as I ran/prayed something would bring him to a halt. That something ended up being a bush by the round pen that the cart tire got stuck in. I managed to get to him and quickly began unbuckling everything. The moment the breast collar dropped he shot off again, except there was one breeching/hold back strap still attached to the cart which he began dragging again.
I’m going to call it lucky that one cart shaft caught on the fence, while the shaft attached by breeching snapped allowing the pony to run free from the scary object that had been chasing him, and he headed straight for the barn. I slowly approached Apple Jack and removed what was left of his harness, then retrieved his halter so that I could inspect him for injuries. By some miracle (my prayers were heard) Apple Jack had only a minor superficial scratch that wasn’t even bleeding. His legs looked good, and there was no sign of a limp when he walked. I took him back to his stall where I continued to inspect him, watch for swelling, and then feed him some treats until he was calm. After about thirty minutes I left him to retrieve what was left of the cart and harness. Other than the shafts, the cart appeared to be fine. The back strap/crupper strap had snapped, and I’m sure there are other week spots on the harness. It will need to be replaced. Once I was satisfied that no serious harm had come to the pony, I contacted the property owner and Apple Jack’s owner to explain I now owed them cart repairs and a new harness. I checked on Apple Jack four hours after turning him out to make sure that no injuries had surfaced.
I’ve been replaying the incident over and over in my mind examining my failures and wondering exactly what I could have done to prevent the incident. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Possibly a grooming collar would have prevented the accident, but I’ve only recently discovered them, never used one before, and really haven’t had the need. Also the area I was putting to at doesn’t have a great place to tie a pony for hitching. The property owner wondered if Apple Jack may be acting out or odd due to the death of his pasture mate the previous week (she was old, with health/arthritis issues, and her quality of life was diminishing). I hadn’t considered this as a factor before working him, and his behavior did not lead me to believe that was the case, but anything is possible. At the end of the day nothing was damaged that could not be replaced, and I’m just glad that Apple Jack didn’t suffer any injuries.
When I returned home, my pony also called Apple Jack was penciled in for a workout. After my earlier adventures today, I almost wanted to take the rest of the night off, but I have a training calendar to keep. My Apple Jack has been pulling passengers since early January, and is one of my calmest ponies on the property. I took her to parade prep this past weekend, and off property she was a nervous wreck. My Apple Jack had been worked at least once a week just to keep her in the habit of driving, but after her behavior at parade prep, I felt she needed more attention. After the horrible start to the day, I really wanted it to end on a high note, or at least just call it a half and half kind of day. If I had expected my Apple Jack to make me feel better, I was in for disappointment.
My Apple Jack ran to me as soon as I entered the field. She was eager to be played with, and that gave me hope. She was an angel during harnessing, but began to fidget while I was putting her to the cart. Due to my earlier cart disaster, I double and triple safety checked everything. Once I was satisfied, I sat down in the cart for what I thought would be a relaxing jaunt around the neighborhood. Except my Apple Jack who usually drives on an extremely loose rein was fighting the bit, and refusing to soften. She took off at a trot, when usually she walks at a snail’s pace without prompting. As we passed the fence line of my back pasture the other horses ran up and down the fence line making a scene which only caused my Apple Jack to tense even more.
I continued to work her through the neighborhood, asking for softness and focusing on my release the minute she responded correctly. Halfway around the neighborhood my Apple Jack appeared to settle until we were coming back down the back pasture fence line on the way out of the neighborhood. Once again my Apple Jack’s pasture mates began running, neighing madly like she had been gone for months rather than thirty minutes. She began to fight the bit in an attempt to speed home, and toss her head when I cued for her to slow down. Finally as we returned down the drive way, it was all I could do to keep her walking instead of trotting or cantering. As we entered the yard, I asked my Apple Jack to stop, stand, and then afterwards back. Once I told her to “walk on” she attempted to go straight into the trot which I did not allow. She began throwing her head and then backing refusing to listen as I told her “walk on.” When I opened the reins for the “walk on” she would attempt to bolt forward.
Apparently my Apple Jack was both in heat, and is beginning to develop herd sour tendencies. So I forced her to walk on, not bolt, and we spent another half hour doing circles in the yard in front of the barn until she realized that I would continue to make her move her feet until she behaved on a loose rein. By this point I really wanted to call it a day, but knew I needed to get on Odessa. Third time’s a charm, right? Thankfully it really was. Odessa saved the day as she gave me several nice canters complete with flying lead changes and good side passes all bareback. I showered her with treats and called it a night.
Days like these can be the ones that suck the will right out of you. A near death/serious injury experience, combined with a usually angelic animal turning demonic for no discernible reason is enough to make you question why anyone would spend so much time, effort, and manual labor on this hobby/insanity. If I had quit after driving my Apple Jack, I would probably still be questioning why I even bother. As it was, I did not quit and was rewarded with a great ride on one of my favorite equine partners.
I don’t blame either Apple Jack for the day’s misadventures. In the case of my Apple Jack, she hasn’t been receiving enough solo work, as I juggle other training prospects. She was also having a hard time focusing due to raging hormones, nature’s drive to procreate, and an all too willing vocal stud letting her know he was available. As for the other Apple Jack, I should have paid more attention when he dropped his head during harnessing. Maybe I should have waited to work with him until I had an assistant since he’s still a newbie to the entire driving process.
As it is I will have a lot of work to do to rebuild the confidence that was damaged. I will most likely have to go back to ground zero with the little guy and start all over. C’est la vie…