Cowboy Changed Me – I Got Sucker Bucked

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

Even though this 15 year old ranch horse was exhibiting explosive behavior to a couple of people, and causing problems when being shod, I felt that if I worked with this horse named Cowboy, that he could be a good trail horse for me in the end. He was still exhibiting some stiffness in his neck that I was helping him work through with regular massages, lateral flexion and bending through small circles. After getting to know him and spending Spring and early Winter starting him over as if he were a young horse, I started riding him.

Riding Cowboy

I rode Cowboy for the first time on February 21, 2021 and, while he protested a little at first, I reminded myself that he was an x-ranch horse at 15 years old. This helped me to be more confident in myself and that he already knew what to do. The work that led up to that day included casual walking around the property while switching directions. I was teaching him to understand where my personal space was, as well as paying attention to me for where to go next. We worked on desensitizing and calming methods. We worked on tight circles and ground poles to help him find his feet and to get his canter under control. He also learned my queues when asking to yield to the leg and to side pass. I continued to work with him on what was being asked with the bitless bridle from the ground so that we would have clear communication while I was on his back.

Cowboy was on his way to becoming the gentle trail horse that he was destined to be.

Beth was kind enough to take a video of me getting on Cowboy for the first time.

Building Our Partnership and Communication

There are a number of ways in which I helped to build trust and strengthen the partnership with Cowboy. While riding him, I focused on just walking and kept a loose reign on him. I had him turn into the wall, pressed my outside leg gently just in front of his flank (on his barrel) to encourage him to move his hind end away from the wall, and reverse directions. This movement was one of many that helped him to be supple in the bridle and to listen to my queues on where to go. He could trust that I wasn’t just asking him to run into the wall.

Beth recorded me walking him through the obstacle course.

On March 7, 2021 Audrey (the dressage trainer and barn manager) had set up an obstacle course for the boarders, and horses in training, to try out. Even though I was riding Cowboy by this time, I wasn’t ready to attempt the obstacle course while on his back. I walked Cowboy through, but challenged him a bit by having him back through some of it. Beth (a friend and one of the boarders there) was kind enough to capture some of it on video. As we walked over the tarp, he handled it no problem. We walked through the L and and backed back through it again. This was showing me that his desensitizing and his trust in me was coming along really well.

Oddly enough, when I rode Moe (my bombproof and, then, 27 year old AQHA) through the same course, he didn’t want to walk over the tarp. Moe stopped and side stepped a bit then sighed as I encouraged him forward and walked over it. My relationship with Moe has developed over the years. He knows me well enough at this point that it isn’t worth fighting me on it. I will just outpatient him until he does what I’m asking. He also has trust in me that I won’t put him in a situation that he can’t handle. Someday I hoped to have the same relationship with Cowboy.

You and your horse. His strength and beauty. Your knowledge and patience and determination and understanding and love. That’s what fuses the two of you onto this marvelous partnership that makes you wonder, ‘What can heaven offer any better than what I have here on earth?’

Monica Dickens

I’m Listening

Cowboy was still flinching when I would reach my hand towards his right ear. I slowly worked with him as I pet his head and then worked my way up to his ear. I wanted to show him that I wasn’t going to hurt him, but also stopped when he pulled away so that he would trust that I was listening to him. I managed to get him to let me touch his ear, and work my way inside to rub it when I felt an odd shaped bump in there. Almost like a hard fungus growing in there that wasn’t going to come off with just rubbing. The bump was obviously hurting him, because each time I got close to touching it he would pull away. Despite this pain, I was able to get him to trust me as I haltered and bridled him. He eventually came to know that I wouldn’t push him too hard to where the pain was setting in. Through some training, he even learned to put his head down for me to slip the halter and bridle on easily.

Throughout the last several months, I had the Masseuse giving Cowboy massages pretty regularly. Donna (his masseuse) worked on his flexibility, and helped as I worked on him becoming supple both physically and to train him for the bitless bridle. At one point he reacted very negatively to being touched on his right hind stifle (just below the hip, behind his flank). He kicked out when I went to brush him for Donna and I jumped back. He immediately tensed up ready for a fight, as if I was going to punish him for the reaction. That’s not how I do things though. Donna (the masseuse) saw this, and began massaging him carefully towards that area. She slowly worked her way up to the spot where he kicked out with me, then eased back as he swished his tail at her. We both were showing him that we were listening and not punishing him for his behavior. We had a few sessions where Donna and I both showed him he can trust us not to fight him. That we were hearing what he had to say and responding. This gained his trust and eventually eased his demeanor.

Given the way that he was acting, I was getting more and more worried about his leg. Shawna (his previous owner) mentioned that he had x-rays done of both his hind hocks, but something just didn’t seem right. Maybe he got a new injury from all of his falling down during his groundwork cantering with me; or, he could have possibly injured himself in the pasture with Moe. Despite Moe’s age, those two got pretty rambunctious at times. In April of 2021 I had the Veterinarian (Dr. Perkins at Equine Medical Services) come to the Island to look at Cowboy. She took x-rays of both his hind hocks, she cleaned his sheath, and while we had him drugged, she checked on his ear for me. The x-rays came out with no visible issues. Dr Perkins and I talked about his previous work ups that Shawna had done. He was checked for kissing spine and they did a neurological exam because he was exhibiting wobbler type movement when cantering. They had x-rayed both hind hocks previously and all of this came back negative for any issues. I mentioned to Dr. Perkins that Shawna had told me that she had Chiropractic work done on Cowboy as well, but nothing significant found in his back (though that Veterinarian had noted his neck was stiff).

I talked to Dr. Perkins in a bit more detail about how he was crossing his left hind over when cantering. I mentioned how I was working on getting him to bring that leg out using the wraps and bell boots on his hind legs. Also working in tight circles at a canter to get him to bring the leg out so he didn’t fall down anymore. Dr Perkins had me walk, trot and canter Cowboy in the arena for her to watch his movement. She mentioned that Shawna did the same thing for her as well back when she had him. Back then he was more focused on all the possibly scary things in the distance and less focus on Shawna. Perkins commented that there was a significant behavior shift in Cowboy. A sort of calmness and focus on me. She mentioned that there could be a possibility that there were problems in his gut that could be causing the bucking. However, since Shawna had him on the probiotics for almost a year before I got him, that couldn’t be it. She added “It looks like he could use some build up in the hind end.” and we discussed work that I could do to help him with that.

We went back into the barn for his sheath cleaning, and she looked at the bump in his ear. She said it was a plaque build up. Perkins then gave him some meds for it, and cleaned it out while he was still drugged from the sheath cleaning. I speculated that maybe the plaque build up could have been causing his sensitivity to that ear, maybe even affecting his behavior. She agreed that it could affect the ear sensitivity, but she wasn’t certain about it affecting his behavior.

It was good to get the Veterinary work out of the way to help me get closer to what was going on with Cowboy. Perhaps some of it was physical combined with mental. The behavior work I was doing was bringing him along, and the physical issues he could be facing was being treated as we worked through possible causes.

Groundwork and Cavalettis

The following day that I visited Cowboy for some work, he wasn’t as flinchy with his leg. It was almost as if he never had the problem at all. I went to brush him and he didn’t kick or flinch, or even swish his tail at me. I proceeded to brush as normal and he just stood there. I laughed and thought to myself “Glad I paid the Vet all that money to x-ray is perfectly fine legs a second time.” Though, this is how Cowboy seemed to operate. One day he’s perfectly fine, another day he’s not.

That week we started in on more ground work with the poles. While he had been using one pole, and sometimes two poles at opposite sides. As you can see in the diagram below, I continued the smaller circles to help him work on his bending, and also forcing him to pay attention to his feet placement. While the poles in this placement may seem easy for most horses, Cowboy struggled in the beginning.

Cowboy shied away at first, but then eventually went over the one pole calmly with some work. As he would step over the pole (walk, trot and canter) he would repeatedly knock it with his hoofs, sometimes tripping over it. He learned to pick up his feet and look downward at the ground so he was focusing on what’s in front of him. His focus on what was outside the arena eventually turned to me and his feet (the present), to where he went over the poles without really even needing to look down anymore.

I worked him up to two poles on one side. The poles were spaced just right so that he could walk over them perfectly when in the normal circle, then wider for the trot, and wider for the canter at an even wider circle.

Eventually working him to three poles. As you can see in this diagram, the middle pole is straight to the cross of the circle with the outer poles slightly in and fanning out for the trot and canter spacing.

As Cowboy was becoming comfortable with the more complex setup, we worked up to the single pole on the opposite end. This way he wasn’t getting too confident on focusing on just the one spot on the circle and relaxing for a the opposite end, then focus again. This kept his focus throughout the entire circle.

While I primarily ride in Western tack, I was lucky enough to be boarding at a place where there were a lot of dressage riders. I say this because not only did we have poles around to use, but we also had cavalettis to work with. As Cowboy became more and more comfortable with the poles, it was time to raise them up a bit.

As you can see from my badly photoshopped photo here, this horse is focused on lifting it’s hoofs up higher, which then builds up the hind muscles.

I worked Cowboy up through the various patterns I had done with the ground poles but using the raised cavalettis. He became more and more comfortable with both the poles and cavalettis, which were building up his hind end beautifully.

His Masseuse, Donna, was continuing to wok with him regularly and was really noticing a difference in him. He wasn’t flinching in his hind anymore, he was more flexible and he was actually looking forward to his sessions.

At this point in our time together, Cowboy wasn’t falling down anymore and his left leg wasn’t crossing his right at the canter. He was doing a great job at being calm, paying attention to me and really focusing on his feet placement. He was off of his gut supplements, and I had asked Audrey to also go ahead and take him off of his SmartCalm® pellets from SmartPak. It appeared he didn’t need it anymore. Cowboy was coming along real well and I was proud of him for it.

Trotting Under Saddle

From February to May 2021, I worked Cowboy 4 to 5 days a week. I switched up his program and gave him a day or two in-between each day for rest and contemplation as it has been shown that change in routine and time off is beneficial to the horse. One day a week we would do our basic ground work, which consisted of the switching up strategy I use while leading. Keeping him “in tune” (as I like to call it). We also worked on bending his neck, yielding to the leg (using the touch of the stirrup from the ground), sidestepping, etc. For 2-3 of those days we would work on the ground poles or cavalettis, both with the saddle on, and sometimes without it. 1-2 days a week I would get on his back and just walk him around the arena. The idea behind just walking, was that the work under saddle wasn’t supposed to feel like work to him. I wanted him to be comfortable with the saddle, and possibly look forward to the saddle and with me in it. Occasionally, as I walked around the arena with a loose reign, I would ask him to change directions quickly. I would turn him into the wall, and sometimes turning in to the middle similar to this video from Hannah Kaufman – the only difference being she asks for very quick and forward movements while I kept Cowboy walking calmly.

Cowboy was progressing well. With all of the work we had been doing he was calm, feeling confident and trusting in his partnership with me. Our connection was growing stronger every day. Being that my end goal with Cowboy was to take him out on the trails once or twice a week, I wasn’t in a big hurry to do any heavy training.

On May 7, 2021 I walked Cowboy into the arena as usual, and started him with his lateral flexion stretches and walking calmly in a small circle. While walking him, Audrey came in with her cute little lesson horse and a young woman. At that moment, Cowboy continued to walk with his head level and calm as he always does. As the woman stepped up the mounting block to get on, the Mare stepped away and Audrey quickly corrected her. Cowboy continued to walk in his circle, and to the left. Audrey and the young woman talked louder and louder as the lesson began and the other horse walked to the other end of the arena. Audrey went to sit down in the corner with the chairs and put the microphone in her ear and started talking again. I asked Cowboy to come into me and switch directions. At that moment he pulled and took a step back then planted his feet and froze. I stepped into him and calmly said “Come on, let’s go.” He raised his head while looking down at me. He was ready for a fight. I took a deep calming breath, looked at him and said “What’s going on with you?”. While the women both continued to talk across the arena, I relaxed my shoulders then stepped to the side and encouraged him forward. He took a few quick steps then eased back into his circle and walked calmly.

As the lesson continued, he was calm and did everything I asked just as he usually did. I heard the woman that was taking the lesson talk about how her hip was healing up but she was a bit stiff riding again. I remembered the story of the woman that Cowboy bucked off before I bought him. That woman had broke her pelvis in several places from the odd way that she fell, and wondered if that was the same woman. When we wrapped up, I walked him to the middle of the arena to have him do some of his bending, but he was stiff in the neck. It was as if he was calm, but there was underlying tension in his body. I asked for some bends and gave him a good rub down to try to settle him. He licked and chewed then put his head into my chest and sighed as I took a deep breath. I then walked him back to his paddock and put him away.

I asked Audrey later if that was the woman that was bucked off Cowboy and she confirmed it. The interesting part about Cowboy is that he is so very subtle in his communication. He is reactive, but tries to hide it. Almost out of some sort of avoidance for a fight that might have happened in the past. He wants to please, but it’s not because he wants to, it’s more because the alternative hasn’t been pleasant. What I continued to try to do with him is to help him understand that while I will be asking things of him (even insisting at times), he can let me know when he’s not ready, or if it’s uncomfortable, and I will give him a moment. Our relationship is a little dance as we learn how to talk and listen to one another.

Around that same week, just 8 months after I bought him and 3 months since I started riding him, Cowboy was coming along so well that I felt comfortable trotting him while in the saddle. I always rode Cowboy while there were other people at the barn. That way, if anything were to happen there would be someone there to help if I needed it. That first time I trotted him, I didn’t want too much excitement while anyone was in the arena, so I just walked him around while they worked on their dressage patterns. When they were finished, out of the arena and putting their horses away, I trotted him in a big circle and then back to a walk. Once again, not expecting too much from him while under saddle. We walked a bit more, and then I dismounted, gave him a good rub down with love and put him away.

Cowboy was becoming the horse I envisioned him to be. Soon we would be riding out on the trails and enjoying the sunshine together.

It takes a good deal of physical courage to ride a horse. This, however, I have. I get it at about forty cents a flask, and take it as required.

Stephen Leacock

I Went For a Wild Ride

On May 29, 2021 I saddled Cowboy up just as I had any other day. While putting the saddle on, I noticed his nose was crinkled up as if he wasn’t very happy about it. I’m used to the Mare Stare (as some call it) where a Mare will pin their ears, show the whites of their eyes and crinkle their nose in protest if they are unhappy (or when they are telling a boy to get away). However, Cowboy’s ears where normal. I tapped him gently on the nose and kissed it saying “You’re fine!” and proceeded to put the saddle on him.

That day I was planning on just walking around the arena, but when I got there, one of the young ladies who’s name is Rumor, was there getting a lesson on a beautiful Morgan/Friesian cross from Audrey. The young woman’s Mother (Alyce) and I were (and still are) good friends. Alyce was in the arena watching as Audrey was guiding Rumor around the arena. I walked up and asked how long they would be. Most of the time, when there was a lesson and we can’t use the arena, I would just walk Cowboy around the property casually and come back when they were finished. This time, though, Audrey told me I could come in no problem.

I lead Cowboy into the arena and closed the gate behind me. I walked him around the middle a little bit and when the other horse was at the far end, I parked him at the mounting block and got on. Audrey told me I could use the far end as she was going to have them do some work in the circle near her.

I casually walked Cowboy around in a circle, sometimes stopping and backing up. Sometimes switching directions. Sometimes bending his neck to work on his lateral flexion. All of our usual easy and casual stuff.

Audrey shouted to me “She’s going to canter around the entire arena so be ready.” At that point I walked to the middle of the arena and stopped Cowboy then gave him a loose reign to just relax for a moment while we watched.

The Moresian (as some call it) had a very forward moving canter with a lot of power behind it. He grunted and snorted as Rumor held him back and kept him in line. Cowboy perked up for a moment. Trying to take a step forward I could feel he was taking in the energy of the powerful Moresian. I gathered the reigns and took a deep breath then leaned down and calmly spoke to him. Cowboy settled back down and I gave him the loose reign again.

As the lesson was finishing up, I was ready to trot Cowboy in a circle again before putting him away. I took him to the far end for a quick trot, then walked to the gate as the Moreisan was leaving. Just as we were walking along the rail up to the gate, Cowboy became nervous of the corner where the hose for the sprinkler was stored. At that point I knew I couldn’t get off of him since he had this energy again. We needed to be calm (both of us) so I circled him a bit just next to the hoses until he focused on me more and was comfortable with the hoses again.

Just as he was settling down, Audrey walked over to me and we started talking about Moe (my other horse). Moe’s feet were getting bad and I needed to do something about it. I knew I needed to have the Vet come out again. Cowboy was relaxed and on a loose reign as Audrey and I continued our conversation.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was lifted up while still on Cowboy’s back. It felt like I was on a very exaggerated rocking horse. You know the ones we had as kids with the springs? I would shake that plastic horse up and down, back and forth to where I would nearly fall off.

Audrey yelled “SHIT!”, and at that moment I realized that Cowboy was bucking.

I thought to myself “Oh… we’re going now.”

I had no means to pull his head back with the reigns to stop his bucking since they were loose and his head was down between his front legs. In this situation, I usually wait a horse out since most horses give a few kicks and give it up. This time it seemed to keep going, and going, and going. Up one, down one, up two, down two, up three (“Jesus he’s still going” I thought), down three, up four (“he’s not going to stop” I thought), down four.

At the fourth buck, I felt myself leaning to the side of the saddle so I used that momentum and took advantage of him being in the down position to kick off. I landed on my left side avoiding my bad shoulder and felt that jarring feeling you do in your head when you hit the ground on your butt.

Not me, but this is what it felt like.

Cowboy continued down the wall of the arena, then across to the other side, then to the other side zigzagging his way to the far end. My friend Alyce (Rumor’s Mother) came running out of the barn to the arena. At that same moment she and Audrey both ran towards me asking if I am ok. I couldn’t get up for a moment and I saw Cowboy coming back down bucking frantically. I was worried that he was headed right for me not realizing what’s around him. I said “I’m ok, but don’t let him come towards me.” At that point Audrey turned around waving her arms. I jumped up and screamed “Knock it off!” as he crossed the width of arena again and the pad slipped out from under the saddle hitting the ground. Audrey screamed just after “Knock it off!” and Cowboy stopped bucking then went into the far right corner and stopped. He just stood there looking out to the horses in the paddocks on the other side of the wall.

I walked a few steps feeling sore, but told both Audrey and Alyce that I was ok. I said laughingly to Audrey “Whoo, I stuck it pretty good huh?” She said “I think that was 8 seconds!”.

I wanted to get the lunge whip and push him around the arena a bit, but Audrey doesn’t allow us to free lunge in the arena. She doesn’t like having to drag the arena after the horses run around all crazy like (not to mention all the mirrors, and the poles and other stuff stored in corners that the horses could get into). So, she said “No”. My best option for the moment, and for Cowboy, was to let him know that I wasn’t mad. That I was calm and still loved him. I walked half way to the other end where he was and asked him to come to me. He looked back towards me (as his butt was facing me) looked at the other horses again and then turned towards me. His head was down and he was calm but breathing heavy. I took a few steps and he stopped. I stopped and asked him calmly again “come come” while signaling. He started walking again and I walked to meet him half way.

I got a hold of the reigns, tied the outside one up to the saddle-horn and walked him in a circle. We worked our way in circles calmly towards the other end, and then I asked for a trot. He trotted a few circles, and then I asked for a canter. I worked him for a few minutes while keeping his energy calm. I gave him a rub down, handed him a treat and had him bend his neck for lateral flexion, yield to the leg (the stirrup) and back up. Then forward we went as I hobbled out of the arena with him. Audrey was cleaning the paddocks on the hill and I yelled up to her “Maybe we should put him back on his meds.” (meaning his SmartCalm® pellets) She laughed and said “You mean Cowboy shouldn’t be off his meds?” and we both laughed.

I continued on hobbling slowly, when thankfully one of the ladies at the barn, Beth, had put her horse away and asked if I needed any help with Cowboy. I giggled (uncomfortably) and said “I’m ok.” then hobbled a little more when she insisted she take him up the hill for me to his barn.

At that point the pain was setting in and I had a feeling this was going to take a while to heal up. My hip and lower back was in pain and making crunching sounds. On the drive home, I got nervous so I called my family to come help. My Brother and his family were visiting my parents (who live 5 minutes from me and the barn) so he drove me into town to the Hospital. I spent the night in the ER getting checked up, finding that after all the X-rays everything checked out ok. The Dr. said the pain and crunching was most likely tissue damage so he gave me some good pain meds and sent me home. That was the last day I ever rode Cowboy, but our story didn’t end there.

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