In trying to think of ways I can engage Rocky without putting too much pressure on his feet, I remembered that he was nervous about bicycles when I first got him. Seeing as I recently got my 20-year-old Specialized Crossroads hybrid in riding shape, I figured I could accomplish two goals at once: assess Rocky’s confidence and get some exercise.
The back 40 is mostly hardpack dirt now, with some pockets of (sharp! deadly!) rocks and a lot of (spoke-penetrating!) sticks. And have you ever noticed that land with a gradual slope suddenly becomes a sharp incline when you put your body onto non-motorized wheels? I zipped and zoomed and bounced along, trying not to panic each time I came near the electric fence, and figured it was important for the horses to get used to the sounds of bicycle brakes, panting humans, the occasional exclamation, and the soft clank of an old derailer shifting gears.
I did manage to catch Rocky’s initial expression, though, when I first got on the bike and started pedaling. It clearly said “What the heck is that crazy human doing NOW???” He couldn’t take his eyes or ears off me for two full laps, and he looked astonished the whole time.
“The hardest part of raising a [horse] is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky [horse] on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the [horse] will always need can hit hard.” ~ Sloan Wilson, author
I made several circuits along the fence, while they were eating in the middle, and I kept my eyes on where I was going so that I would not put predator eyes on the horses. That made a difference — when I looked over at them without smiling, they got tense and Star had to move her feet. When I looked over with soft eyes as if taking in the scenery beyond, and smiled, they watched me but were not as nervous. What surprised me the most was the mini-donkeys’ reaction; they were much more worried by the bike whizzing by than the horses were (and “whizzing” is relative; I wasn’t going all that fast). I made sure to laugh and keep my eyes ahead when I went by their area, and to coast, and keep my energy relaxed, and sometimes to say their names so they knew it was me.
After an eternity, or maybe 12 minutes, I came into the center and stopped, and of course Riley was the first to come sniff and nudge the bike. Rocky took advantage of her interest to wander over to a better pile of hay and gobble it while she was distracted. When I caught my breath, I rode off, with Riley following me a few steps. I didn’t want her to think she was driving me but when I looked back, she had already veered off and driven Star away from a hay pile.
This time, I wove around the trees, cut closer to the horses, and made figure 8s around various sticks, trees, manure piles, and the salt lick. Whenever Rocky held his head high and looked at me I rode away from him, pretending to be very intersted in my destination (and indeed, I had to keep my eyes on the path so I didn’t biff).
When I’d gone by a few times, cutting through some trees and brush near him but without looking in his direction at all, and he was no longer raising his head, I started making figure 8s around the horses. That brought up some adrenalin within me, because I was within kicking distance if anyone panicked. But at this point, came to a stop and dismounted. Again, I got an astonished look. He was a little nervous but just barely — I think it was as much “dang, she stopped, is she going to take me away from my dinner” as it was “eek killer bicycle.”
I’m not sure how long I rode. Probably not that long; I’m almost afraid to take a timepiece out tomorrow, in case my 12 minutes turns out to be three, and my “two rides of 12 minutes each” turns out to be seven … but I supposed after 2.5 years of trying to function while three dementors swirled around me and only two weeks of having my patronus charm drive them off (expecto bupropion!) I should be grateful I remain in good enough shape to lift my leg over the bicycle at all, much less ride it on a dirt hill fast enough to spook the donkeys.
Star went over to sniff the bike when I leaned it on a tree so I could inspect Rocky for new cuts or bruises; Rocky didn’t mind it being there, but when I wheeled it with me over to pet his neck, he tensed. I stroked him and looked off into the distance and kept my body between the bike and him. Then I wheeled it away and put it outside the gate, staggering a bit at the tightness in my quads and hamstrings. I stretched while the mini-donkeys cautiously inspected the still and silent bike.
THEN I retrieved the wheelbarrow from the barn, piled a bunch of hay into it, and wheeled it outside the back 40, to prevent the mares from eating it all while Rocky was forced to spend time with his human, who can’t seem to adjust her work and horseplay schedule around his feeding times.
I think he learned “lead by the leg” tonight, mainly because I led him to obstacles that had cookies on them. I’m not sure I’m doing it right, with the right amount of pressure and release, so I need to brush up on some materials, or try it during lunch time tomorrow when I can call the Savvy Club gold member hotline.
This is our second session of my putting pressure just on the leg, without having it pull on his halter too. (By this I just mean that today I’m keeping the slack between halter and leg, by holding the part of the rope that would otherwise pull his chin down to his shin.) I’m breaking it down — separate, isolate, recombine — because I realized when I was trying to lead by the leg and have the tension on the halter, I was trying to teach two different things at once. I’ll do one more leg-only session at the fetlock, then move up to the knee, then the elbow. When that’s all working (by the 7th session in all, I’ll wager), then I’ll do something else for a while, then start with lead by the leg with pressure on the halter. The point of that is to teach him to think his way through if he steps on his rope, to lower his head and lift up his foot. Or, barring that, to stand still and await rescue.
That, plus a little tiny bit of catching game and stick to me, was all she wrote. I brought in the hay to give him an hour of catch-up eating time while I got the dog and cleaned our Western saddle. The whole family, in the middle of the arena, listening to the radio over the PA system and enjoying a quiet summer evening together. If only the paparrazzi had come around then to snap a photo for the blog!