On January 22, 2023 I took my last ride on horseback until after I deliver. It wasn’t the intentional last ride, but after three hours in the saddle, I realized nothing about riding is comfortable any more. It just doesn’t feel the same, and simply getting on the horse is a chore now. This was a depressing decision. I was hanging up my spurs, only a few weeks before spring show season started. My social media feed is blowing up with everyone optimistic about their competition year, and for me, 2023 will be a virtual bust. Sure I can work hard through the summer and compete in the fall, but I’ll have no hope at end of year awards, missing half a year worth of points.
Thankfully a riding hiatus does not mean an equine hiatus, and there are lots of things we can work on, but have I mentioned how much I hate groundwork? Yes, yes, I know it is the foundation of a well trained animal, but its like eating your vegetables compared to dessert (riding) in my book. That’s where the ponies step in. Driving isn’t the same as riding, but its pretty close in fun factor, and I have lots of ponies that need work. I also have that 6/8 hitch goal I’m working toward.
The recent ice storm gave me the opportunity to not only work some animals, but also feel more productive than simply playing with ponies. We have 35 plus trees on our small property. There were casualties from three days of being incased in ice, and the limb carnage is littering my yard and pastures. The property is also a total mud pit, so while Darling Husband was lamenting the fact that it would be several days before he could take a tractor into our pastures without getting stuck or leaving huge ruts, I was thrilled. To quote Eminem, “Now, this looks like a job for me!” Or more precisely a job for ponies.
I don’t know why I feel the need to justify their presence on the farm, but I guess there’s the tiniest trace of old farmer lingering in me. If I’m going to support the mostly freeloaders, all animals including ponies at least need to possess marketable skills whether I put those skills to use consistently or not. I rigged some PVC pipe to the sides of my Appalachian work sled my grandfather made me some 30 years ago to allow me to stack tree limbs higher. I consider PVC to be the miracle construction material. I will literally construct anything out of PVC pipe, and despite complaining about the way excess pipe looks junky laying around on the farm, can’t part with any of it, because there will be a time I regret discarding it.
I grabbed my pony girls out of the pasture and went about the business of hitching them. Admittedly hitching took far longer than it should because they were covered from head to hoof in mud, and I couldn’t handle that. So after I knocked mud from head to hock off and washed their tails we were ready to rock in roll. We would be marching through ankle deep mud so I wasn’t going to go too crazy with grooming. I transferred the studs to the round pen so I could open their area up into the Bigs’ pasture without having to worry about constantly working the gate, and off we went.
Darling Husband, bless him, helped load the first load of limbs because he didn’t fully trust my team and had his doubts about my coordination at 7 months pregnant walking through ankle deep mud holding back a rampaging pony team. This was only the fifth or sixth time the girls had been hitched as a team, and Summer did not understand why we hitched her up and drove 40 yards to stand around on the first load. By the third load, she was down with the program, and realized she better enjoy the break because draft work is a lot more strenuous than taking the easy entry cart for a jaunt around the neighborhood.
Apple Jack did her part to contribute to Summer’s training. She decided since Summer felt obligated to do more work than was needed, that it was her obligation to do less. Apple Jack was perfectly content to sit into the breeching and let Summer not only pull the sled, but her also. She traveled at her pace and refused to go any faster or slower. The only time Apple Jack decided that more than an amble was required for the day’s activity was crossing through the gate into the second half of the Bigs’ pasture. For whatever reason, that area retains water and a soupy mess of mud. Both ponies charged through that at an almost gallop the first few times through. After we successfully navigated that obstacle several times, Darling Husband left me to my own devices, tired of playing My Little Ponies. He had already pointed out several times that the tractor was faster, to which I replied “Not the Point.”, and pointed out that we would tear up the paddock area using the tractor, and so far the ponies and sled had barely left any noticeable traces of our work.
I’m a member of several social media groups dedicated to driving horses and draft power. There tend to be two camps on these pages. The people that think you should take everything slow, and start with short driving sessions and gradually increase those sessions. These people are also the ones that say some horses will never make suitable drivers. Then there is the other camp of old farmers and people that actually work their animals for a living that say hitch’em up and work them hard. I definitely lean more toward the latter. If I had stopped after load three yesterday, Summer would still be holding onto anxiety from the experience. However, we worked for over 3 hours and traveled almost 10 miles according to my Fitbit. By load five Summer was no longer charging ahead, and was moving at a reasonable pace on a loose rein. When I asked her to stop and stand she did without fidgeting. She stopped blasting through the mud pit at the gate. By the time we finished, she was acting like an old plow horse, and after all that work wasn’t far from it.
Even though I still had available day light, my back said no more. By leaving some work for the next day, I ensured the team had a legit and more satisfying activity for the day than just simply ground driving around and calling it training. Neither one seemed tired from their day as work horses, which considering Apple Jack refused to do any work wasn’t surprising on her end. Both happily enjoyed treats and their post work grooming, and when I released them back into their pasture continued to hang out for more scratches rather than high-tailing it away from me as fast as their legs would take them. A few more sessions like this and these girls will be ready to hit the neighborhood as a team!