I had the most wonderful ride on McCool this weekend. He has always seemed like a cheerful fellow. But as we’ve worked through his little issues (dental problems, muscle soreness, chiropractic stuff, etc.), one by one, he’s really becoming a character. And that’s saying something since he was a fairly irrepressible soul to start with.
I’ve been quite worried about the issue that he has with going down hills. He was genuinely concerned about it, would stop dead and lash his tail. Take a step or two. Stop again. Pin his ears. Etc. He’s got a lump of scar tissue behind his left shoulder blade that looks like it came from bad (severely bad, I would guess) saddle fit. It’s reduced in size and consistency over the last six months and is now just barely palpable. I’ve tried a few different saddles on him and anything with any kind of tree is very alarming to him. So in the end, we’re back in my battered old standby… the Barefoot London, which is a treeless saddle.
Over the last week or two, I’ve been just messing around with him. Mostly riding in the round pen, or around the yard, or in the driveway. Nothing exciting. Just ambling around, practicing circles and sidepasses. Nice square halts. Serpentines. And a long session of grazing at the end of every ride so he could just sort of ‘be’ with me and the saddle on him. I had Ana lead him down the steep hill on the driveway quite a few times, with me on him. I just dropped the reins and sat still while Ana led him. I didn’t want it to be an argument or cause anxiety. Just a quiet walk down the hill without pain so he would get his confidence back. He got a cookie every so often as he went down, which was quite motivating for him.
So after a whole lot of successful short rides, I decided to take him out with Veronica and Ella, and Ana and Ares. Ella can be a kicker and she’s not normally turned out with McCool, so we put her at the back. Ana was trying out bareback on Ares, so we put him in the middle to minimize any spookiness (not that he’s particularly spooky). McCool led the way.
His ears were up, and he was practically skipping. He sailed out of the yard and headed down the steep hill without the slightest hesitation. Halfway down, his exuberance bubbled over and he started trotting “Whee!” I asked him to walk, and he did so immediately. For one step. Then “Whee!” Trotting again. I asked him again “Just walk, buddy… remember? walking!” It turns out that McCool’s response to everything is pretty much, “Okay… but… Wheeeeee!!!!”
After touring around the back of the farm a bit, with Ares being a total gentleman, Ana started to think that he (with shark-like withers and an A-frame back) was possibly not as comfortable to ride bareback as she expected. So we went back for Ares’ saddle and then headed across the road to the longer trails. McCool was thrilled when we actually went past the mailboxes (that was the farthest he’d ever gone on the home trails). As we got further from home, he perked up his ears and walked faster, breaking into a jog at every opportunity. He looks around with great interest at everything. He’s not spooky, though he did stop and look at the neighbour’s lake for a long time. It has swim platforms and poolhouses etc. So it looks a bit different than our big pond at home. He didn’t do anything, just looked.
Once we got onto the mowed trails around the fields, he was sure these were gallop trails. Walking was the dumbest idea he’d heard in a long time, but he did mostly listen to me. Except whenever I tried to take a picture with my phone. He’s very opportunistic about those loose reins and breaks into a sneaky baby jog, then a trot. Eventually I let him move out for a bit. He’s really quite good. Maintains a straight, rhythmic, forward trot. His gaits are nothing exceptional. Certainly not powerful springiness of King, nor the silky responsiveness of Diego. But quite good enough to be rideable. And he actually wants to do it, which is probably more important than any other quality.
Turning for home though… he was a whole different horse. He walked at half speed, looking for excuses to turn on to a new trail, or stop and graze. We passed a house in the distance with a pool and kids shrieking and splashing. One of the kids started waving at us, and McCool tried to head on over. “That kid wants to see me!!! Let’s go!”
When we finally got back to our own driveway, he was a bit sulky. “Don’t WANNA go home”. I let him graze on the lawn for a while when we got back, so he cheered up. I was so pleased with his performance that I felt a bit giddy and gave him a great big hug. Which he, of course, was happy to snuggle into. He’s a friendly, happy clown.
There’s still lots of work and training that he needs of course. But he’s come a long way already!