Cowboy Changed Me – Back to Square One

In September of 2020, during the Covid pandemic, I bought a Horse. Though I only spent just over a year with this older ex-ranch horse, the red roan gelding taught me so much during my time with him.

This is that story

Up to this point it had been several months since I was introduced to Cowboy and spent the first 5 months starting him as if he were a young horse just learning. I eventually started riding, and worked with the veterinarian and Massage therapist through some neck stiffness, pain in his stifle, plaque in his ear and other signs of pain. Throughout the following months, Cowboy and I worked our way to trotting just a couple of times. Cowboy exploded while just hanging out with a loose reign chatting with the barn manager (and local dressage trainer), Audrey. I call it “Sucker Bucked”.

Continue the Progress

That Friday May 24, 2021, that I was bucked off of Cowboy I wracked my brain as to what was going on. We had done so much groundwork before, and several months of getting him comfortable with me in the saddle. Looking back at that day, Cowboy showed a few signs of being uncomfortable that I was aware of, but chose to ignore. The first was the crinkling of his nose at me when I put the saddle on, the second when his energy picked up with the other horse cantering (even though he settle back down quickly) and third was nervousness with the hoses near the corner.

I have three rules I remind myself of daily when working with horses:

  1. Horses have all the time in the world, so don’t ever be in a hurry… out patience them.
  2. Listen to your horse. The subtlest queues are the most important.
  3. If they aren’t in the mood to work, then don’t work them.

I should have listened to the nose crinkle. I should have just walked him around the property with the saddle on and let him eat some grass. I should have recognized his energy (in conjunction with the nose crinkle) during our ride, followed by his spooking at the corner. Hind sight is 20/20 and we are all human, we make mistakes. I’m not beating myself up over it, but just simply reminding myself of why I have those three rules, and why I should follow them. Especially with Cowboy.

After my friend Beth (and fellow boarder) helped me put Cowboy away, I got into my car and drove down the dirt road out to the main road and to my house. The potholes in the dirt road (and my Mini Cooper’s tough suspension) exaggerated the pain. I felt crunching in my back just above my left hip, which didn’t seem good. I have Systemic Scleroderma, which affects my connective tissue. So, the crunching could have been from the soft tissue tearing but sounding worse because of the Scleroderma, or I could have broken something. My older Brother (Mike) was visiting my parents (just 5 minutes away) with his oldest kid for the weekend. I called my Parents and asked if Mike could help me get to the Hospital for X-rays. My parents, one of my Nephews, and my Brother were heading to town (just 2 minutes from house) for dinner at that exact moment, so they all stopped by my house before dinner. My Mother helped me get changed out of my redneck boots, Wrangler jeans and flannel to head off of the Island and into the city.

With my tennis shoes, stretch pants and t-shirt now on, Mike drove me off of the Island and took me to the hospital closest to his house. This way I could just go to his house after instead of worrying about taking the ferry back to the island late at night. The hospital was backed up with Covid cases. With our masks on, we waited in the ER for 4 hours before I was wheeled in to a bed behind the big metal doors. The Doctor came in to see me and after moving my joints around, and checking my back, he said that I was probably ok. He still wanted to x-ray me just in case. I was wheeled into the x-ray room, and put into uncomfortable positions and asked to hold my breath. When it was all over, they wheeled back to the bed where Mike was waiting. The Doctor came in a while later, and told me that nothing was broken. He said I most likely had some soft tissue damage, which would explain the crunching. He gave me some pain meds, and sent me home. We arrived to Mike’s house at some odd AM number. I was too tired to really know what time it was. I carefully walked up the stairs to my nephews room that my sister-in-law had cleaned up for me. I laid down in the bed and laid awake for a few hours from the pain. While I was tempted to play some practical joke on my Nephew, I only had the energy to take a picture of the wall across from me and posted it on my Instagram for him to see.

The following day Mike took me home, and I immediately crawled into bed. I focused on allowing my body to heal for a few days. I mostly stayed in bed or sat on my couch and binge watched some TV. The following Monday I was able to get back to work since all I needed was my computer. Microsoft had switched to 100% remote for all employees, and GitHub (where I work) has always been supportive of remote work. As the sun shined on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I was longing to get back to the barn to get the saddle on Cowboy and start working him from the ground again. I didn’t want too much time to pass, since the last time he bucked someone off he stopped working altogether, then sold to me. It was months before anyone worked with him from then, and on top of that I took many months before getting on him. I just didn’t want that to happen again.

On Wednesday I was walking around a bit more and felt I could probably walk Cowboy down to the arena and around a bit with the saddle on. That evening after work I drove to the barn and proceeded to catch Cowboy. I brought him into the barn and tied him up then brushed him down. I talked to him quietly, gave him a kiss on his nose and rubbed him all over. No nose crinkle this time, and he stood still nicely for me. I casually walked up with the saddle pad and then proceeded with the second pad, followed by the saddle. I walked to the other side and straightened out the cinch, then walked back over to pull the latigo through the cinch and tighten. At that moment Cowboy put his head down as far as he could and bucked like a bronc as much as he could while still tied to the post.

I calmly stepped back and laughed at him while I walked out of the barn and closed the door. If he wanted to trash the place, he was going to do it without me in there. When I heard him stop, I opened the door and walked back in and said “Really? This is how things are going to be now?”

I rubbed him down on the neck and waited until his energy was calm again. I bent his neck a few times from both sides for lateral flexion and continued to rub his neck. The saddle still on, I reached for the latigo (still through the cinch) and slowly brought it up to tighten again. I gave a little tug while one foot was ready to run out the door again. He looked at me and just stood there. I gently pulled it tighter and took a sigh myself just as he sighed and licked his lips and chewed. I tied off the cinch and proceeded with the bridle.

I walked Cowboy down to the arena slowly since I was still sore and hobbling. I believe at this moment Cowboy realized something was wrong with me because his head came down and he walked slowly just next to me. I walked him around the arena a bit and had him do some circles. I worked on his bending and I gave him a big rub down all over his body then back up to the barn to remove his tack.

In the end, we don’t know what horses can do. We only know that when, over the past thousands of years, we have asked something more of them, at least some of them have readily supplied it.

Jane Smiley

Talking to the Vet Again

The following few days I continued to visit Cowboy and walked him around with his saddle on. I wanted to keep my confidence with him up, and also show him that while I am listening to him, he still needs to continue his progress.

A few weeks after I was bucked off, Cowboy’s regular Vet came to take x-rays of Moe’s (my other horse) front feet. The 27 year old was showing signs of laminitis. Moe’s x-rays came back ok, but showed that he came close to foundering in the past, explaining the sensitivity. While Dr. Perkins was looking at Moe, she asked how Cowboy was doing. I told her the story of how I was bucked off, and how he bucked while tied up the next time I saddled him.

We talked about the next steps for him which was to continue with the ground work I have been doing. I mentioned to her that I wonder if he wasn’t started gently. If, being a ranch horse, he was broken in or perhaps started as a saddle bronc and decided that he didn’t have enough buck in him. She laughed and agreed it could be a possibility.

Working on a Horse that Bucks – Respect and Explosive Behavior

I was stumped as to what to do with Cowboy. The following weeks I continued to push him with pole work and more cavaletti work. I research for videos on dominant horses and explosive behavior and found some of Clinton Anderson’s older videos. I’m not a fan of Clinton. While he has some strong techniques, what he calls “respect” is a different version from what I consider respect. This young woman put together a good compilation for YouTube for some examples of him taking things too far. What I consider respect is equivalent to the relationship I build with my horses. I respect that they are a very large animal that has heightened senses and a fight or flight response and I ask that they respect my personal space, and that I am a fragile human that is asking them to help me with a task (whether it be my buddy on the trails, bringing their all in the show ring, or herding cattle from one pasture to another). Our mutual respect for one another is a dance in communication as I learn their language and they learn mine and we form a partnership. I do my best, when asking for respect (and communication) to mimic what the head mare does to let them know who’s boss. It could be a queue as subtle as a stare in the eyes and a grimace, or it could be a step towards them with flag in hand waving to get them to back off and give me space. I tried to find some videos of techniques I use, but most natural horsemanship trainers use these subtle queues while educating about something else. The best video I could find is Dr Robert M. Miller’s video in which he talks about horse behavior. At this point he talks about herd behavior and dominance in the pecking order (the entire video is very educational). He also talks about “controlling the feet” which is a strategy I use with my horses. If you can keep the feet moving and in a direction you’re asking, then you have a connection and a partnership. I did find this video of Clinton’s where I liked how his assistant trainer handled this horse that has explosive behavior. She’s methodical in how she asks for space and getting him to move his feet. She swings the pole as a warning and taps when he doesn’t listen. Over time, this horse is listening to her and respecting what she’s asking, and she is respecting the time it takes for him to understand what she is asking.

One of the days I was at the barn working with Cowboy I met one of the ladies that frequents there. I talked to her about the horse she had there with her and she asked me who I owned. When I said “Moe and Cowboy” she laughed and said “Oh Cowboy. I’m sorry.” I paused for a moment then asked “What do you mean?” and she added that he was such an asshole. Now, I had called him that a few times, but it was in jest since I know he really isn’t. I responded “Oh no, he’s such a sweetheart. Best horse I have ever had next to Moe. Sometimes he’s even better than Moe.” She said “Really?”. I continued “Yeah, he’s come so far from where he was a year ago. He’s respectful of my space, leads well, listens to the leg, bends nicely, is supple to the reigns, rides bitless, and is good for the farrier.” She said “Oh, that’s good!” and I added “I just need to figure out what is going on with his saddle. There’s something negative that he’s associating it with. Not sure if it’s pain or some traumatic event that has happened in the past. I just can’t seem to put my finger on it.”

While searching around for content on horses that buck, I found this video from Larry Trocha. He takes you through videos of horses bucking and breaks down the signals leading up to the moment they explode. I still (to this day) run the bucking scenario with Cowboy through my head over and over, and just didn’t have any sign that he was going to buck. Maybe I was distracted because I was talking to Audrey, but when going over that moment with Audrey she says that she didn’t see any sign at the moment. Perhaps she was distracted by chatting too. Regardless, as I mentioned before, there were signs leading up to the moment. The subtle way he crinkled his nose when I put the saddle on, his energy coming up for a moment when the other horse cantered, spooking at the corner of the arena with the hoses. They were so subtle, and subtle enough that some horses (like my other horse Moe) would just continue through without protest. I watched some more of Larry’s videos since his strategy followed mine a bit. He will use slight pressure to ask for an action and wait a moment for a response. When he doesn’t get the response he is expecting, he takes it to a slight next level, and so on.

As I have been finding videos these past few weeks as I write these blog posts (2-4 weeks after my time with Cowboy ended) I found this video of trainer Don Jessop who is working with what he calls an “explosive horse”. This horse, he says, is calm and easy going until something irritates him and he will explode. He works on some explosive techniques with the horse that I had done with Cowboy. My strategies were some I had learned in the past working with my trainer and other horsemen, and some I had developed on my own. The idea is to find what the horse is sensitive to and how they react, then help them to desensitize them from whatever it is and help to calm down. Either they try to find that calmness themselves, or you be the herd leader that passes the calming energy that directs them to relax. There are some points where Don gets out of sorts with the ropes he’s working with, I think mostly because he trying to “teach” in the video and not staying focused. He even mentions that he is messing some things up, so he’s aware of it. When working with a horse in these moments, I remind myself to be the calmness for the horse that they are looking for, I stay focused on what I’m doing, and help them find their way back to you through the “explosion”. This is all the work I have been doing with Cowboy up to this point.

Summertime Meant More Work

Cowboy’s masseuse, Donna, continued to work on him during this time to help him to keep working on his flexibility. Donna had mentioned that his back was stiff, so she had me push slightly on his chest just at the girth until he rounds out his back a bit. She also asked me to to walk him backwards up the hill to help build up his hind end. So for the couple of months from following the day that was bucked off, I continued to work him 4-6 days a week. I worked with him on the cavalettis, his small circles and onto bigger circles (now that he wasn’t falling down and wasn’t crossing his left over his right hind at the canter). I walked him down to the arena and when we went back up to the barn I turned him around for a couple of steps, then working up to several steps backing up the hill. I continued his lateral flexion (bending), yielding to the leg (using the stirrup on the saddle), and we took one day off a week to just walk around the property. As the summer days were getting warmer I used the heat of the day to help him desensitize to the hose and boom at the wash rack. Cowboy was terrified of hoses on the ground, and the hose on the boom at the wash rack is even scarier. On the days I worked him good and sweaty, I walked him a bit to cool off then tied him up at the wash rack and hosed his chest. He jumped the first several times, but learned that the cold water felt good on his hot body. The black rubber hose going over top of him on the boom was still very scary, but we were working on it.

In early spring I wanted to give Cowboy’s mane and forelock a chance to thicken up, since it was very thin. The summer previously I had roached the mane and forelock on my other horse (Moe), washed it with Fungasol shampoo, and followed with dousing it with M.T.G. once a week for the first few weeks. Moe’s mane and forelock came back thicker and looked cute as it grew back. I roached Cowboy’s mane and fore lock and bathed him with Fungasol, following up with the M.T.G. treatment. While his mane started to grow back thicker, it didn’t lay down in the same cute way that Moe’s did. Cowboy slowly grew a crew cut. He looked like a 1950s schoolyard bully with his flat top.

Through June and July 2021 I continued to work Cowboy from the ground over the cavalettis and ground poles. I continued the different formations and added more complex setups. I switched it up so that there was a cavaletti, a pole then a cavaletti. Sometimes having two cavalettis on one side and one pole on the other, or three poles on one side and a cavaletti on the other. It seemed no matter how much I switched it up, Cowboy was sailing over them with ease. No more tripping over just the ground poles like he was when we started.

I started thinking that maybe he was finding a new calling. That at 15 years old and retiring from ranch work, he wanted to try jumping. The last week of July (into August) I set up a small jump. Just a couple of cross bars on the lowest setting with a guide pole for the lunge line to slide up. Just an inch higher than the cavalettis he’d been hopping over.

Even though I had him lunge past the jump just short of it to get used to the new object in the arena he seemed ot tense up when passing it. When finally seemed to accept it, I stepped toward the jump to ask him to go over it. He spooked a bit just before the jump and tried to go around it. I gathered up the line, started him through the circle again and stepped behind him to encourage him over the jump. His second time through he sailed over it. He did so well that I took that moment to give him a break and put him away. I rubbed him down, hosed him in the rack and walked up to the barn. I was so proud of him.

Trashing the Arena

The following day I went to work Cowboy was on Tuesday, August 3, 2021. It had been a couple months since I was bucked off. I woke up at 6am to the sun shining and the birds chirping. With the smell of summer in the air I thought it would be a nice time to work Cowboy that morning. I didn’t usually go in this early since it could break my rule of “Horses have all the time in the world, so don’t ever be in a hurry… out patience them“. If I had work that day and morning meetings on my mind it could pressure us both to be in a hurry. This morning felt different though. Cowboy had been coming along so well the last couple months. I had a few moments where I felt I could probably get on him again without any explosions. I almost hopped on him the week before, but there wasn’t anyone at the barn and I didn’t want to take the risk.

I got dressed in my boots and Wrangler jeans, and drove the 2 minutes down to the barn. I thought I could just throw the saddle on him and lunge him a little. No expectations this time since he did so well with the jump last time.

I tied Cowboy up outside the arena and carried a couple of poles in for him to walk/trot over. I untied him and walked him into the arena then turned him towards me and backed up as I closed the gate and locked it behind us. He looked down at the pole on the ground and stepped back, then continued to pull and turned the other way as the lunge rope burned through my left hand. I tried to grab the rope with my right, but quickly remembered to favor my bad shoulder and in my instinct to let the horse go (rather than try to hold the 1500 lb animal) I dropped the rope and jumped over the slack line as he took off bucking to the far end of the arena and stopped in the right corner. He stood there for a moment looking out at the horses in the paddocks.

I calmly walked towards him, and asked him to “come come” and signaled with my hand (as he was trained to respond to). He looked back at me and, with butt facing me still, turned to look at the other horses again.

I tried the same compromise of him coming to me and me meeting him half way that we had when I was bucked off, but he wasn’t having it. He just stood there. So I waited. I reminded myself that I need to be patient. After a few minutes I asked again “come come” and signaled. As I stepped towards him he turned around and ran to the left corner bucking like a madman. He stopped there, and we repeated the process. I asked “come come” and stepped toward him, he took off the other way like a bucking bronc.

We went back and forth for about 10 minutes in this same pattern. At one point I laughed and said to him “Go ahead, I got all day. I can cancel my meetings.” Though I think I said that more for me than for him. I even managed to get a short video of his crazy behavior and post it on Instagram at one point. With each step forward we repeated the process. Back and forth, back and forth.

30 minutes in and I managed to get half way down the arena, which unfortunately put more pressure on him. He turned from the right corner to the left bucking and running. This time he wasn’t stopping as he looked like he was attempting to jump the wall. A little panic set in with me as I flashed back to my 15HH AQHA Mare 35 years prior in the same arena. She was free running as I chased her around. She hit the same right corner that Cowboy seems obsessed with and jumped. Only, that Mare was too short to make it over the wall. She teetered on her belly hanging with front legs on the outside, back lags inside . She raised her right hind leg scratching at the wall until she hooked her hoof on the railing and hoisted herself over. Up the trail, out to the road and into town she went.

Thankfully, Cowboy didn’t have enough running speed from bucking to get himself onto, or over, the wall. His chest slammed into it and the nearly 40 year old wall bent at the pressure. He bounced back, turned around and bucked to the other corner this time getting his head up just in time to slam his chest into the other wall. The wall bent even more than the other side did, knocking the drain pipe on the outside and crashing it to the ground.

The noise must have scared Cowboy, because he turned towards me and ran down the length of the arena bucking as the under pad slipped out from under the saddle, dropping in the middle. Now he was in the left front corner of the arena where the mounting block sits while I stood in the middle. I laughed out loud at him again and yelled “Are you done now?” Since that corner was blocked with the mounting block, he turned around to the right front corner where Audrey’s chairs and gear for her lessons sits. She has the corner “roped” off with poles and blocks as a, sort of, rail but that didn’t stop Cowboy. He bucked his way towards the corner stopping just before the rail. He looked down just as I said my usual “Don’t be stupid” phrase I use before he does something that could injure himself (or me). I ran a few steps towards him and stopped just 10 feet from him. Cowboy stepped over the rail and my mind flashed with all the possible scenarios of how he would get hung up in the chairs and equipment and trash everything while hurting himself. I took a step backward and yelled “Come on, you know better than this.” He stopped, looked back at me and stepped out of the corner. I sighed with relief, but we still weren’t out of this yet.

Now 40 minutes since we entered the arena, Cowboy began bucking again heading towards the wall just past the front right corner (that has the mounting block) as the second pad slipped out from under the saddle. He slammed into the wall while his hind jammed right through the old wood and broke the bottom three boards. He stopped and stood with his leg in the wall then ripped it out and stepped away. He bucked again across to the other side, directly behind me. As the saddle rolled under his belly he bucked his way towards the corner with the chairs. He stopped bucking and walked to the gate in-between the corners. He looked up, snorted and stopped.

At 8:03 am (roughly 40 minutes after we started) I sent a text to Audrey with this photo. The text read:

“I’m having some trouble with Cowboy this morning. He took out some boards on the rail. I’ll pay to replace them and put them in for you. No broken mirrors at least.”

He took a few steps forward after the photo and I gave us both a moment to take everything in. I didn’t want to keep pushing him, and at this point I was worried about the saddle being under his belly.

He walked with his head down around the pad that was on the ground, turned towards me and stopped. I took a step towards him as he stretched his neck in my direction as if to ask me to come help him. I said “whooooaaa” slowly and in a calming voice as I walked up to him, hand stretched out to connect with his nose. He reached out to my hand and took another step towards me with his head down, ears forward and relaxed. I walked up to him at that point, gave him a rub down on his face and told him that it was ok, “I’m not mad buddy, I’ll get you out of this.”

I pulled the lunge line back to give him some slack and as he put his head up, I felt the need to step back and take a photo of the saddle on his belly and the pad on the ground.

I walked back up to him, gave him a treat and rubbed him on his eyes (every horses favorite spot) around his face, under his head, his neck and all over his body as I walked around him. Now that I trusted he wasn’t going to take off bucking and he trusted me to not put any pressure on him, I stood at his side to get the saddle off of him.

I strategically placed my body just forward of his front right shoulder so he could jump forward, or jump to the side, or back if he were to spook from the saddle dropping off as I undid the cinch. “whooooooaaaaa” I said calmly and added “It’s ok, I’m here to help.”

I undid the cinch and the saddle dropped to the ground. Thankfully, Cowboy stood there quietly with his head down. At this point, he was pretty exhausted and trusting me to help him. I walked to his left side and said “This is a good time to use that side stepping we’ve been working on.” I looked down at him and added “You ready?” Then looked down at his shoulder and tapped saying “step”. He stepped sideways passing over the saddle, just as we had been working on for the last several months.

I walked him forward and checked him over for any issues. I saw a hole just on the inside of his hock, and a few scratches around it, most likely from his leg going through the wall. Nothing major that I could see. He was standing just in front of the boards he put his leg through and still breathing heavy from all that bucking. I took a video and photo to send to Audrey. After that, I walked him over to the pad that was in the middle of the arena, then back to the pad and saddle at the front. I pulled out my brass stud chain (for those special moments when he’s wanting to pull), and put it through the halter. I didn’t want a repeat of him jumping back and ripping the rope through my hand.

I dusted both of the pads off and threw them, one by one, back on him. I picked up the saddle, and set it on his back. Holding him in one hand and slowly cinching up the saddle, I then rubbed him all over.

With the saddle on, I walked him on the lunge line as he calmed down and cooled off. I used my phone to cancel a couple of meetings I had that morning. One of the VPs at work was messaging me, so I answered a few of his questions. I accidentally video called him as I fumbled with Cowboy and the phone. He picked up, just as I cancelled. He then messaged “I was looking forward to seeing you.” So I called him back, and we video chatted for a bit while I lunged Cowboy in a circle. When I hung up with the VP, I had Cowboy do a little trotting, and one circle at the canter in each direction. Not too much work since he had roughly 40 minutes of exercise already, but enough that he knew he needed to continue with what we were there for.

I gave him a good rub down, lots of kisses, some bending and basic ground work, then back to the barn to get put away. I had a few meetings that afternoon to get to, but returned that evening to check on him and for his scheduled massage with Donna.

That evening, during his massage, Donna and Audrey both looked at his wounds. Audrey talked to me about him possibly having a puncture wound that could get into the joint and infect it. She told me how she knew a horse that got a joint infection and it was very serious. I scrubbed the puncture wound and used a syringe to flush the hole with a dilution of Chlorhexidine.

The next day I decided that Cowboy needed his own Instagram account. So I set one up that was similar to mine and called it “MisadventuresofCowboy“. That day I uploaded the first photo I took of him, and backfilled with a few in a timeline of our work the past 11 months. I felt that his journey was so unique that it needed to be documented.

The following weeks proved to be even more challenging as the injuries he endured during his buckfest led us to the emergency Vet, and surfaced underlying problems that explained the bucking under saddle. While he had come a long way with his behavior, there was a lot more to learn about what was physically going on.

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