Cowboy Changed Me – The Introduction

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


I call my horses ‘divine mirrors’—they reflect back the emotions you put in. If you put in love and respect and kindness and curiosity, the horse will return that.

Allan Hamilton

Forward

Animals have been in my life since I was a shy little girl. From Dogs, to Cats, Parrots all the way down to Hamsters, Rats and Gerbils. I even had a Prairie Dog at one point. There is just something about the deep understanding of animals and the partnerships we form with them.

I started riding horses after begging my Mother for lessons when I was 8 and I have never looked back. When I was young I dreamt of being a Horse Trainer. From 1992-1994 I took that dream and worked for Doc Nichols at Blue Spruce Veterinarian and learned more about training from Les Corbett (a well known saddlebred trainer) at Marywood Farms. The experience gave me a solid foundation of horse care and working with them, but I also experienced some very tough cases. in that time, I discovered I had a knack for working with horses that had behavioral issues due to abuse or other sort of unknown cause.

While life got in the way, I found myself focusing on my children and took a break from horses. I managed to keep my saddles, brushes, and all of my tack until I was able to make use of them again in the early 2010s as both my boys showed a passion for the animals that mirrored mine. Throughout the years I have helped horses to trust again and found them good permanent homes. I still have my younger Son’s AQHA named “Sunny Moe Deluxe” (Moe) who will live his days out with us. In addition to Moe, I like to have a young, or “project” (as I call it), that needs patience and understanding. This is the beginning of a 6 part story of a very unique project that deeply touched me who goes by the name “Cowboy”.


What’s This Crazy Horse You’re Talking About?

For several years I had been considering getting a second horse. My career had been advancing and my role at Microsoft was giving me the flexibility to work from home and financial stability. My retired AQHA cutting horse (that couldn’t cut it), Moe, was getting up in age (27 years old when this story began). Though Moe acted as if he was just 10, the reality of his age was becoming clearer as each year passed. I’d thought about taken on another project horse many times. There are a lot of horses that people give up on because they can’t deal with whatever behavior issues that had developed. Since working with problem horses has always been a sort of skill of mine, I have always been fairly confident that I can work through just about anything.

In the spring of 2020 the world had stopped. Covid was running rampant across the globe shutting down entire cities, and the Island I live on was doing their best to cope in an uncertain world. I had hunkered down in my little house and hadn’t gone to the barn to see Moe for several weeks. When things opened up a bit more in early summer, I was spending more time with Moe. By mid-Summer, the boarders, and people in dressage training, were frequenting more while maintaining social distancing. The barn started to become my “normal” (as much as it could in a world flipped upside down).

When us women are around each other, talks about our horses, other horses, and gossip flies when anything significant happens. I tend stay out of those talks and generally don’t pay much attention to what’s being said. In those stories I had overheard something about a horse being kept up on the hill with the owners of the property (they had separate paddocks for their horses and some boarders). Audrey (the trainer and stable manager) and Nancy (the farrier) were talking about how this crazy horse flipped in the cross ties from spooking. He was also unruly during his shoeing tp the point where they had to drug him in order to get his shoes on him. I didn’t think much of it at the time, other than noting that there was a crazy horse up the hill.

Tell Me More About this Cowboy

It was mid-August when I was with Nancy (the Farrier) getting Moe’s hoofs trimmed up when Audrey and Lauren (the weekend stall cleaner, and one of the instructors) were talking about the crazy horse on the hill. There was mention of Shawna (the owner of the horse) needing to take him to auction. I perked my ears and inserted myself into the conversation. “What horse is this?” I asked. Audrey turns to me and says, “Actually, he might be perfect for you. He just needs someone to take some time and start him over.”

Cowboy (this crazy horse’s name), was bought from upstate New York and shipped to our Island in the Pacific Northwest by Shawna. It was said that Cowboy was 13 years old and a registered AQHA. Shawna and the wife of the property owner were good friends and traveled to New York to ride a coupe of horses when they first met him. Shawna was on Cowboy and the other woman on a different horse. The other horse flipped out and severely damaged the other woman (broken bones, concussion… the works). Cowboy was so calm during the drama that there was speculation that he was drugged.

Audrey told me a story of when she was bucked off of Cowboy. She described his buck as being like a rodeo bronc. She said that while she was cantering him she could feel him rounding out under her and he suddenly exploded. Head down and hopping around the arena until she came off. He had done the same with a young woman that was in training with Audrey soon after. That time she came off, she broke her pelvis. That was the last straw for Audrey. She said felt that he wasn’t safe for Shawna to continue with him, and no one else could ride him.

I had mentioned that it would be nice to have a project again. A horse with behavior issues that I could just start from the beginning with ground work and work our way up to riding again. I had the money and the time, and with Moe being my “day off” (as I call him) I would have the patience to possibly give this horse another chance.

Audrey introduced me to Shawna and we got to talking about Cowboy. Shawna repeated some of the stories I had heard, which confirmed his behavior. She said he bucked with her on the trails once, but she believes it was because of a bees nest as she saw welts on him when they got back to the barn that day. She added that she bought him with the intention to ride him on the trails, but after some time she really liked the dressage work that Audrey trained for. Shawna had put Cowboy into training with Audrey and she also took lessons for several months. It was some time after this that Cowboy started his bucking (aside from the bee incident).

She showed me the Dressage saddle (stuffed and fit by a saddle fitter), and the bit she was using on him. I am personally not a fan of bits at all. I don’t think badly of people that use them, as I know that most horses need the various degrees of contact. For some, the communication the bit provides is also important in most disciplines. My first mare had a curb (30 years ago) and it was what she needed. In the 90s, I rode saddlebreds in double bridles understanding when to use the snaffle and when to use the curb. In the past, I was diligently trained to keep my hands steady while riding and communicate gently. Today I spend the months it takes to train my horses to use a side pull bitless bridle. The trust and communication we develop is not because of the piece of metal in their mouth, but because of the respect and relationship we have with each other. I was getting the feeling that Cowboy could be a candidate for a bitless bridle, but it was going to take a lot of time to get him there.

Shawna talked about all of the Veterinary and Chiropractic work that she had done on Cowboy. They checked for kissing spine, did a neurological exam (he exhibited wobbler type movement when cantering), and they x-rayed both hind hocks. All of it came back negative for any problems. The Chiropractor had worked on his back as well, but didn’t see any significant issues. If she hadn’t have had all of the Veterinary work done, I might not have even considered buying him.

Getting to Know Cowboy

Shawna was very reluctant to sell Cowboy, so we worked out a lease in the beginning. I texted her on the days I wanted to work with him and communicated each step. He was very reactionary to things that were (or weren’t) in the distance. He also had a tendency to want to walk ahead of me, drag me in the opposite direction, knock me in the head with his head as he quickly looked at the ghosts in the trees, had no respect for my personal space and struggled to back up when asked.

Cowboy standing at the gate
Cowboy standing at the gate waiting for me for the first time.

The initial groundwork consisted of:

  • Leading him around the property asking him to respect my space
  • Not knock me in the head
  • Yield his front end as I turned in the direction towards him
  • Follow me as I changed direction away from him
  • Back up as I stopped and backed
  • General calming methods while walking in a tight circle

My goal with him was to get him to keep his focus on me rather than what was going on elsewhere.

I noticed during Cowboy’s first shoeing that he was very tense. His neck was solid and he planted his feet as if he was ready for a fight. Nancy has been working on Moe’s feet for years. She and I are both proponents of barefoot. I asked Shawna if she was ok with taking Cowboy’s shoes off. She said “I’ll let you make the call.” I also asked that we not drug him this time so that I could see how he reacted.

Shawna had to leave to another appointment and left Nancy and I with Cowboy. I gave him treats when he exhibited calming behavior while Nancy worked with him. After each hoof that he was good for I rewarded him with pets and treats. Basically showering him with positivity so that he would become familiar with how I work and trust that I wasn’t there for a fight. It wasn’t a smooth process, but he didn’t flip out or act up as I have experienced with some horses. This proved to me that he had a good solid baseline to work with, we just needed to bring it out of him.

Over the course of the month I continued to work on his ground manners and scheduled a massage therapist to work on his stiffness. Donna (the masseuse) pointed out a few places where he could use some work. His neck was especially bad and his hind end was reactive. She was scheduled a couple of weeks out as I worked on loosening him up through ground work and lateral flexion.

I Bought Cowboy

A photo os me and Cowboy my mother took
A photo of Cowboy and I that my Mother took

In September of 2020 I made the decision to buy Cowboy from Shawna officially. Audrey had been working on introducing Moe and Cowboy to each other with plans to have them stay in their own two stall and paddock setup on the hill above the main barn. I eventually would come to call the two “Brothers from another mother” as they became best of friends.

The ground work, bending techniques and massages were working well for Cowboy so I felt it was time to try my old Western saddle on him.

I tacked him up with the saddle while still in his halter and lead him into the arena. Cowboy ripped the lead from my hands and immediately took off down the arena bucking like a bronc.

I laughed loudly and yelled “Woo, look at you go!” with a big smile on my face. Audrey was putting the horses away for the evening and I could hear her laughing from a far. She stopped and talked to me for a bit as I got a hold of him, and we talked about his bucking again. She exclaimed “That’s exactly what he does”. She described it as not some little kick out or a protest, it’s a full on rodeo buck that’s very difficult to stay on.

I had wrapped things up with his usual tight circles and calming techniques. He got to where he was doing a lot of licking and chewing during our sessions. Around the same time he went crazy with the saddle he was running out of the Magnesium that Shawna had been giving him, so I asked Audrey to let it run out and bought Smartpak’s SmartCalm® supplement to replace it. We still continued the probiotic that the Vet recommended for Shawna to use to help with any gut related issues that could be causing his behavior.

Over the course of the following months Cowboy needed a lot of groundwork if I was ever to get on him. He needed to work with the bitless bridle, bending, stopping, and yielding to pressure from the leg. All of this would be accomplished from the ground to develop a partnership and clear communication before I braved the bucking bronc. As I put it “I want him to love me so much that he won’t want to hurt me.”… right?

One Response to “Cowboy Changed Me – The Introduction

  • Such a beautiful story, and thank you so much for sharing. I particularly like how you described in detail how you worked with him to earn his trust. I am working with a horse that is very similar and I am going to try some of your techniques.

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