Approximately four months ago, I had a terrible day. By terrible day, (you can read about it here) I mean I narrowly escaped having my right hip dislocated and/or femur broken. The pony I was working with on the terrible day, suffered some serious PTSD, not to mention the busted pony cart, and destroyed pony harness. The cliff’s notes version of the catastrophic day go like this…
I had been successfully training AppleJack #2 (AJ2) to drive at the same time I was training my pony Dixieland Delight (aka Moonshine). He had been ground driving and pulling a cart without a passenger for two weeks prior to the event. Moonshine and AJ2 were on schedule to have their first passengers a little before the sixty day point in training. We were mere days away from adding the passenger. Then one day as I was hitching him to the cart, AJ2 rubbed his bridle off, bolted, dragging me in the process, and it was only by the grace of god neither of us were seriously injured, at least physically.
Training ponies to cart is a recently developed skill set. I’m not working with decades of experience in the driving discipline, but everything I had read said that one bad driving accident can cost you weeks if not years of training time to re-build the confidence that the animal lost. “Years” may be a little dramatic, but apparently months is well within the realm of possibility. I know how long it takes to build lost confidence in a riding horse. I also know that some experiences horses just don’t recover from.
This accident could not have come at a worse time. The “rush” or more “push” to get AJ2’s foundation drives in were due to climate restrictions. It varies year to year, but every summer in Texas you can count on a heat wave, be it two weeks or two months, that I consider it animal and human abuse to train unless you are in possession of a covered arena with fans, preferably air conditioning. Since neither I nor AJ2’s owners had consistent access to such a facility, “the accident” meant it would be fall before AJ could do any serious training.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, the month following “the accident” had me questioning whether I had ruined this pony for the possibility of driving…ever. He would kick if anything so much as brushed his back legs. AJ2 was terrified of anything resembling a cart shaft. It was an act of sorcery to attach two pool noodles to his sides to begin the re-desensitizing process, and then he bolted like the hounds of hell were at his heels. Why pool noodles? Pool noodles are solid enough to retain their structure and resemble cart shafts, but unlikely to cause any pain/injuries. We (AJ2’s owner and I) spent 2 weeks lunging, and just turning him loose in a round pen with pool noodles attached, before he finally realized that pool noodles were not infact, the devil.
Once ropes, pool noodles, pvc pipe, and any other object we could find touched AJ2’s legs without him kicking, the ground driving began again. Ground driving yielded mixed results. One day everything went great. The next day AJ2 would stand frozen refusing to move forward. The following day he would attempt to bolt, rear, spin, and kick backwards. AJ2 was struggling with two issues. He really had been traumatized by the accident, but was working through that experience. The second issue had more to do with his living situation. AJ2 had lived with an ancient pony for over year, until she had to be euthanized due to health conditions that destroyed her quality of life. There were other horses on the property, but AJ2 was segregated due to his size and the desire to prevent injuries. Seeing the other horses, but not having any companions of his own were causing some anxiety issues and behaviors to present themselves.
By this point it was the middle of July, and the Texas summer was bearing down on us. I tapped out. My schedule for my day job was getting crazy, and the heat/humidity were too much for me let alone a pony. My personal horses were only getting worked late at night on weekdays, and super early on weekend mornings. There were two weeks that none of my horses trained at all. So AJ2 was turned out on pasture for a month and a half. At the end of August, guilt over the AJ2 situation began to take over. It wasn’t all guilt. Finishing the task I had set for myself (training AJ2) was a moral imperative. I just couldn’t walk away until I had succeeded with this project. In my head, this was a test of my skills as a horseman (woman). So I called AJ2’s owner and made her an offer.
I wanted to complete AJ2’s training, but training him on his home turf wasn’t working. I needed to start AJ2 on my property. It may be small, we may not have an “arena”, but the property is set-up for the way I like to train my animals. Unless it was covered with A/C, an arena really wouldn’t get much use in my program anyway. AJ2 would also have the opportunity to join my pony girls during the visit and get loads of equine social interaction when he wasn’t in training. He watched the girls driving and working, which was exposure to the noise/activity of driving. AJ2 could observe the ladies, not freaking out at the prospect of driving, but actually lining up at the gate demanding to be worked, jealously nipping at the chosen one for the session. This is not an exaggeration, my ponies literally line up fighting to come out the gate when they see me dragging harnesses and carts out.
So IHeartArabians (my nickname for AJ2’s owner) dropped him off. I explained, that I would give him two weeks to settle in, and then we would start training. And….Oh what a difference a change in environment made! AJ2 would walk the fence line with Tater (Tater’s too young for training) following my AppleJack or Moonshine when I drove them off property for their four mile spin down the road and in the neighborhood behind my house. He spent more than a few hours several days a week just tied to a flatbed trailer learning that boredom and patience are virtues. I’m not sure that he made any friends. The mares are really bossy, but at least he wasn’t alone.
I did a few refresher sessions on ground driving, and worked AJ2 over various obstacles in my pasture, cones, cavalletties, ground poles, and a wooden bridge. My jump standards freak him out, so we circled them in both directions for what felt like hours (probably only fifteen minutes in reality). I reintroduced the cart. Leading AJ2 in a halter, I would pull the cart with my free hand to get him used to the noise and sensation again. He spent an hour tied to the trailer where I pulled the cart up behind him, dropped the shafts over his back and stood there several minutes before backing the cart up and repeating the process. AJ2 freaked the first five times or so, and then realized he hadn’t died yet. Then it clicked that he got treats for chilling out when he was standing between the shafts, and all of the sudden the cart wasn’t so scary anymore.
Once AJ2 could stand tied for a few minutes between the cart shafts, I rigged up a travois from PVC pipe. We spent an hour driving/dragging that in the back pasture and going over all the obstacles with the travois. Finally I felt like we were ready to actually tow the cart. This took a huge leap of faith on my part. First, I witnessed the demolition of AJ2’s cart in “the accident.” Secondly, my easy entry may have been a cheap starter cart that looks like every other generic easy entry cart on the market, but I really, really like it. After being the starter training cart for three ponies, making an appearance on the Gardner Family Christmas card, and doing a parade, it has sentimental value now. Third, I need this cart functional on November 9th for a Christmas trail drive with Offspring through the BLORA Christmas light display.
Learning from my last hitching experience with AJ2, I convinced Darling Husband to stand at the ready should I need assistance, and more importantly film this session for IHeartArabians. I did some ground work with AJ2 to get his mind ready for work before tying him to the flatbed for grooming and putting to the cart. We repeated pulling the cart up and standing between the shafts with no bridle or blinders, while I adjusted tug loops to balance the cart. This is another feature I love about my easy entry…It is an extremely well balanced little cart despite its humble manufacturing and lack of a brand name. I honestly have no idea how an impulse buy from ebay turned out so well for me. I just don’t usually have that type of luck, but I digress.
I bumped the cart shafts against AJ2’s sides to remind him how the shafts move. Then I pulled his bridle on, checked, double checked to ensure it could not be rubbed off, and began attaching the cart. Not having full faith in him yet, I decided not to attach the breeching in case we needed to unhitch quickly, then I backed him up enough to clear the flatbed, and asked him to “walk on.” The cart rattled, he freaked a little and thought about bolting, but I squeezed and released, squeezed and released my fingers until he calmed down. There’s a slight incline in the yard where I was working and the cart pushed forward. AJ2 tucked his rear, attempting to bolt again. At this point I decided the breeching may be more of a comfort to him, so I asked Darling Husband to hold AJ2 while I wrapped the straps.
We were off again. AJ2 jigged in the shafts, he bobbed his head, but he kept moving forward. I squeezed/released until he began to settle, and when he lowered his head I would give him slack in the reins. Sometimes instead of the squeeze/release, I would circle, so that he realized the reins weren’t trapping him and there was an open rein for “escape”. I also let him move at the trot instead of holding him at the walk, so that he would see faster didn’t mean escape. After about ten minutes of endless circles and figure eights, AJ2 was dropping his head and walking on a loose rein.
Now this is the moment that a sensible horseman/woman would call it a day, and a very successful day at that! For better or worse, that’s not how I roll though. I like to live a little dangerously from time to time. Darling Husband looked at me like I was insane when I requested that he move from his perch on the flatbed to the center of my working area. DH did the valiant thing trying to talk me off the ledge. “Why don’t you let me ride while you drive, like we did with Moonshine?” he asked volunteering to be the first in the death seat. But you see, we didn’t do a test drive for my Apple Jack or Moonshine. Beau Pony was the last pony to have a “test passenger” and that day didn’t go so well. You can read about my very first attempt at training a cart pony here if you are interested. I just slipped into the cart seat with Apple Jack and Moonshine on training days that were “purely ground driving” because the suspense was killing me, and I didn’t have the benefit of DH standing there to save me from my own stupidity on those first rides. I’m pretty sure he was in the house napping during Apple Jack’s maiden voyage.
DH realized that this was going to happen, so he did the only thing you can do when your spouse is getting ready to do something stupid. He held my beer. Just kidding, I don’t drink during a training session. DH pulled out his phone and prepared to capture my last moments on earth for posterity. One day he could tell Offspring that I died doing what I love. Since you are reading this, and it is presumably written by yours truly, spoiler, I didn’t die. Actually, the maiden voyage of AJ2 went better than ground driving with the cart. Mainly because the cart isn’t so noisy under load, and it doesn’t bounce as much. Despite my earlier assertions about sensible horse people, I knew not to push my luck too far. After one round each direction with AJ2, I asked him to stop and rewarded him, by removing the cart, harness, and stuffing his face with treats.
My conscience is clear now. I have video evidence that “the accident” did not ruin this pony, far from it. With some more mileage, AJ2 will make a nice driving pony. “The accident” allowed us to identify and fill in some training holes. I made good on my promise to a friend. It was a great night!