Murphy’s Law

I’m not sure who this guy “Murphy” was, but once upon a time he invented a law that applies to any average day in the horse world.

Murphy’s Law goes like this: Whenever something totally random can occur and cause a minor (and expensive) crisis, it will. If you adhere to this Law with horses, you’re all set. If on the other hand you forget it sometimes, you’re guaranteed some gnarly headaches and emotional turmoil.

Consider the following points as both illustration and warning.

You see, I’m a bit grumpy about this man Murphy and his Law and admittedly it’s because I had a run-in with Murphy’s Law last week.

I have a particularly feisty and opinionated mare in training at the moment that I have been preparing for some big competitions in the spring. As is often the case with mares, some days are a lot better than others. Some days she is an angel and other days she is a vixen. On the vixen days, I have a very tough time convincing her that MY way of doing things– and not HER way– is the best. It becomes a battle of wills and stamina. It becomes one alpha mare (me) trying to out-alpha the other. It has been this way for a few months. Some days go quite smoothly. Other days go the very opposite of smooth. All the while, I’ve been patiently (okay– willfully) guiding her towards these competitions, hoping like hell that the vixen days get fewer and farther between.

And then a couple of weeks ago, aha! The little mare had a breakthrough of some kind. At last!For five days in a row, she performed beautifully. Her work ethic, her attention span, her willingness– everything was lovely. I started to visualize success at these competitions. I called her owner with a glowing report. After workouts, I brushed her endlessly and whispered “see, my way of doing things aint so bad, huh?” We were becoming a little team, she and I. We were pretty darn ready for competitions (without suffering embarrassment). I let out a contented sigh.

Then last week I arrived at the barn and it looked like someone had swung a baseball bat into the mare’s leg. A lump the size of a golf ball protruded from her right cannon bone. What? I poked and prodded it. The mare lurched back and in those two steps, showed me that she was dreadfully, horribly lame. Yes, my young training project had blown a splint. Right out of nowhere. And now those competitions that, a few days earlier, had seemed so positively do-able looked like the farthest away things in the world.

I did allow myself a brief pity party. I mean, could the timing have been any worse? My willful little mare had finally turned the corner in her training, we were coming down the homestretch. Then overnight we were sidelined completely. Damn Murphy! That stupid Law about random things! Why does it have to be so accurate?

Shorter, Smarter

There’s something about standing shorter than 15 hands that imbues members of the equine species with an attitude best suited for global rulers, bawdy cabaret performers, or criminals. Or all three. Ah yes, those feisty steeds we know and love as ponies.

ponies

Horseman’s lore has long defined ponies as just plain ornery. But as a trainer, you tend to dismiss sweeping generalizations like this. How can one section of the equine population, each with completely different breeding and upbringings, share the same behaviors? Nah, it’s just not plausible. We trainers like to believe that a horse’s demeanor and attitude is the direct result of any handling and training he’s had. All those stories about ponies bucking their riders off and galloping back to the barn, or ponies that turn from angels to stubborn beasts back to angels in the blink of an eye– all these antics we trainers diagnose as simple training problems. Those particular sub-15 hand steeds have been allowed to do naughty things and therefore they continue to do so, we say.

cute-ponyThen along came Sally. Jet black, doe-eyed, and just 14 hands, this pot-bellied little Morgan mare strolled innocently into my training barn as a three-year old. She was the sweetest looking animal I’d laid eyes on. Or so I thought. She fixed me in her big-eyed gaze, sashayed her round rump around the stall and left me with the impression that I just scored a really easy training project. In hindsight, I can’t stop laughing at the foolishness of my thinking.

I would estimate that for 80 percent of the time, Sally is pure delight. She is sweet, docile, pretty, mostly uncomplicated. Then there’s that erratic 20 percent of the time when she is devilish, sneaky, and highly unpredictable. And as much as it pains me to admit this, no amount of good consistent training will ever change these facts. If Sally were taller than 15 hands, I might stand a chance. But she never will be. So, therefore I am forever at Sally’s merciless whims.

There was one particularly memorable afternoon at Pebble Beach Dressage Show, a very high-pressured and classy competition, when 30 minutes before her scheduled class, Sally “colicked” in her stall. This is to say she buried herself in shavings, splayed out flat on her side, and could not be made to stand up. I got down in the dirt wearing my show jacket and boots trying to roll her up onto her knees at least, but the little pony laid out stiff as a board. Panicked, I called the vet and cancelled our class. Within about 60 seconds of my canceling the class, Sally hopped onto her feet, shook off her shavings, and batted her eyes at me. Had she been faking sickness? Nah, said my inner trainer voice, horses do not fake things.

When Sally’s self-burial in shavings began happening at every competition we went to, I had to concede that the blasted doe-eyed mare was in fact out-smarting me. She was faking sickness in order to get out of this stupid thing called Dressage that she was being made to do, she let me know.

Sally sometimes goes months at a time behaving like the world’s most perfect equine. She is so submissive and well-mannered that a complete novice could handle her no problem. And then one day, like today, half-way down the barn aisle she will stop dead in her tracks, grow roots, and refuse to move an inch further. She will become the world’s most stubborn beast for a few sweaty moments as I cluck, pull, poke, and prod her forward to the cross-ties. Finally, when she budges, Sally blinks those big lashes of hers and looks at me as if to say “What was the problem?”

Our ride goes no better, though. She spooks at an imaginary something-or-other in the brush, which sends her tiny body squirting straight ahead at light speed bucking and snorting. When she regains her composure (amidst much yelling from me), she again stops dead in her tracks. Like she has grown roots into the ground. I kick. I tap with the whip. I scowl. This is a horse that I have competed all over California in all kinds of weather, noise, and disruption, sometimes competing in classes at 10pm, and yet here we are acting like she’s never had a day of training in her life. She stands there flicking her ears, annoyed by my disturbance atop her back.

Finally, she obliges me and walks forward… and then swivels her neck around and grabs my stirrup in her mouth. Now we are cascading sideways towards the fence as a colleague of mine looks on in wonder. I know what she’s thinking. After four years in training, horses just don’t do these sorts of things.

Unfortunately, she had also last week witnessed a mishap when I was leading Sally to turnout. I marched along in my ever-alert and attentive trainer’s way with Sally close at my heels. Seeing my fellow trainer, I nodded my chin briefly to say good morning, and in that nanosecond my eyes shifted their gaze, Sally struck. Like lightning, she darted sideways, yanking my arm nearly off my body. Once she had me off balance, she kept pulling. Her target: a patch of sweet spring grass 20 feet away. I stumbled and staggered, trying to yank her back into my control. But I soon found myself ankle-deep in a mud puddle and looked around for the quickest way out before I ruined my new Ariat paddock boots. Damn!

Now splattering mud in all directions, I was still yanking and growling at Miss Sally who had arrived at her destination and burrowed her face in grass (she avoided the mud puddle, by the way). “S-A-L-L-Y!!” I snarled as I tugged on her halter with a force that would dislodge a draft horse. But not a pony, obviously. She had again grown roots.

The other trainer abandoned any attempt at being polite. She now stared unabashedly at me. My face flushed with embarrassment. I knew how ridiculous the scene looked– me , a trainer, getting dragged around like a novice child.

In that moment, I swallowed my pride and all my former beliefs in training, horsemanship, horse behavior, etc. I heard myself saying out loud what I once believed was just a cop-out for explaining behaviors that hadn’t been properly addressed. Trust me, I have addressed ALL of Sally’s behavior more than once.

“Ponies! You know, they just do the darnedest things,” I mumbled to my colleague. “I mean, they’re just plain ornery.”