My plan was to get Satts prepared to partner me to work other horses. Breaking in and training can be hard on the body for a fragile little flower like myself. Although I have never been seriously hurt by a horse and never had any injuries worse than big ugly bruises, it is still a physically demanding way to earn a dollar. You get pulled around, so your shoulders ache. You’re always exerting yourself in positions that strain your back. Your knees get worked overtime with all those hours in the saddle and your legs become weary from miles of traipsing through sand arenas. And that’s not counting the rope burns, the crushed toes and the love bites. So being able to work from a horse that can take a lot of the physical strain for you is something any trainer can appreciate.
My other horses were able to do the job to some extent, but they were not ideal. LJ was getting too old and his knees could not take being worked more than a few days in a row. Chops was only 14hh and although she was wonderful to ride she was too small to stop a 16.2hh Clydesdale ready to leave the scene at high speed. Besides, I had really screwed up early on when teaching her to work other horses.
She was proving to be great at first. I was so impressed with her boldness for such a sensitive horse that I got greedy and pushed her into working tough horses too early. She had helped me with about half a dozen settled horses and had taken to the work with gusto.
But then a lady sent me an Anglo Arab gelding that was pretty sure of himself. He commanded all within his sight. I found him difficult to get moving forward when working him from the ground. So one day I rode into the round yard on Chops with a flag in my hand. Bruno came up to Chops like he was going to initiate her into his harem and I bopped him on the nose with the flag. I then started to direct him around the yard at a trot. Chops was doing terrific and listening well. But Bruno was not putting much effort into moving. I manoeuvred Chops to come alongside his hip about 2 metres to the inside and I flapped the flag above his back. Bruno flung his head in our direction as if to tell me what orifice I could insert that flag. Then I raised the flag high and came down pretty hard on his rump. Bruno jumped forward, spun around and charged at Chops. I managed to bop him across the nose again, but Chops was turning and heading for the hills. She got nailed in the hip. I kept trying to flag Bruno away from us while at the same time trying to get Chops to turn to face him. I guess it would have been comical if I hadn’t been in the middle of it. Eventually, Bruno backed off and Chops stopped trying to escape over the fence.
That one mistake of presenting Chops with a horse like Bruno too early in her career and at the same time pushing Bruno too hard, was the ruin of her. After that, she was only good for working horses that were pretty quiet. She lost her confidence and if a horse threatened her she would back off no matter how much I pushed her into the fray. It was a mistake I promised I would never repeat with Satts.
Now that Satts was back in work and I had been riding him quietly around the paddocks and the horse trails, I could feel him gaining the focus he had lost while playing at being a racehorse. I could also see that he was becoming physically stronger. The ligament injury that had forced his retirement from racing did not seem to bother him at all.
I began introducing him to the things I would need him to know and be okay about in his new life as a working horse. I had already taught him how to neck rein before he left for racing, so I was ahead of the game in that respect. But I needed him to be good about being ridden with a flag and have that flag flapping like a politician’s gums around his head and his body. He needed to see it change sides and still not be bothered. He had to be okay when I picked it up from the fence and when I dropped it on the ground. He had to know when I was directing the flag to another horse and he was to ignore it or when I was directing the flag at him to do something. I spent a lot of time shaking that flag at gates and trees trying to get them to move and then suddenly turn the energy of the flag towards Satts and get him to move from it and then back to the tree or stump. He needed to know the difference between when the flag was talking to him and he needed to do something and when it was talking to another horse and he didn’t need to bother about it. It sure helps to have a smart horse!
Another project was to get Satts feeling unbothered when I threw a rope from his back. He needed to be settled if I swung a loop above his head, around his side and when I threw it 5 metres away on the ground or at a post. The flag work helped prepare him well for this task. The hardest thing about the lariat for Satts was not to tuck his tail and run when the lariat got under his tail. This really bothered him and I spent quite a bit of time getting him to accept a rope grabbing tight around his hind end. The big breakthrough came when I taught him to back up into the loop around his rear. He discovered that when he backed up into the rope I released the tension in the rope. It was his way of controlling the rope. Although I had no intention of roping Satts’ bum, it has been known that when you have another horse on the end of your rope, it can occasionally position itself behind your saddle horse before you have time to do anything about it. More than one trainer has been bucked off their super quiet and experienced saddle horse when this has happened. I knew it could never happen to me (…again), but I figured it was best to be prepared.
Then it came time to get Satts okay with dragging a tarpaulin, a jump rail, a horse rug, tyre etc. This proved a bigger challenge than the rope training. I started on the ground with dragging a chaff bag on the end of my lariat. Satts took to this pretty quickly. From both sides and with all sorts of objects to drag, Satts was doing great – even at a canter. But the real challenge was when the object was being dragged along the ground from in front of him. If I faced him to the object and dragged it towards us, he tried to turn tail and run. It really scared him. Coming at him from behind was okay, but coming from in front was a matter of life and death. But time, patience and consistency paid off and I was able to ride him while dragging objects from all directions and even being able to use my rope to flip a chaff bag from the ground and into my lap while he trotted around as if he had been doing it since birth.
The progress Satts had made was enough to make me think I actually knew what I was doing. But I wanted to be sure I didn’t repeat the mistakes I had made with Chops. Satts was sensitive, but he was also bold. He had come a long way. In the process of teaching Satts the things I needed him to know, other things developed between us that I had not taught. I hardly ever used a halter or rope on him now. He came up to me when called and followed where I lead. I could direct him with a little energy to where I wanted him to wait. He would ground tie and wait patiently while I walked away to get something from the tack room or house.
I could direct Satts with pressure I had never taught him. For instances, if he walked away I could stop him and have him back up by grabbing his tail – something he had never had a lesson in. Satts had never had a lesson in ground tying or following at liberty or coming when called or backing up when I touched his tail. To me, it indicated that Satts had a bigger picture of our relationship than just “I press button A and you perform behaviour B.” It occurred to me that Satts had learned that pressure and energy from me had intent and meaning and it was his vocation to try to make sense of it and respond accordingly. He was not just performing a bag of tricks I had taught him. He was interpreting my actions in a way that made sense to him. So while I had been teaching him lots of different behaviours, he was also learning things far outside those lessons that go to the heart of the relationship between horse and human.
I was very excited about starting Satts with another horse in the round yard. My aim was to make it easy for him to gain his confidence, so I volunteered Chops for the mission. They knew each other really well and although Chops was higher up in the pecking order, she threatened a lot without ever following through. If Chops decided to assert herself with Satts it would take almost nothing to call her bluff. I saw it as my priority to look after Satts’ confidence and make sure he listened to me. If things were going awry I would forget about Chops and take care of the horse under me. I had invested a lot of time and hope in Satts and I needed to make sure he developed into a quality working horse.
The first step was to work them together at liberty in the round yard. This would give Satts confidence with working in close proximity to another horse, but at the same time to listen to my direction.
For a minute or two, I let them get familiar with each other in the yard. There was some squealing from Chops, but Satts followed her around like a bad debt. When I started to move them around together, Chops held the lead. After changing direction Chops again went out in front, flicking her head at Satts as she went past. Soon I asked Chops to change direction, but Satts was to maintain the same direction. As they started to pass each other, Satts tried to turn to go with Chops, but I blocked him with the flag. After several laps, Satts settled in the rhythm and didn’t seem at all bothered by passing Chops going the other way. I figured this deserved a little break for both of them and called them into the middle where we all rested for a couple of minutes. Then I sent Chops out to the fence while I asked Satts to stand behind me. Satts shadowed me as I followed Chops around the yard. Every time I asked Chops to change direction or slow down, Satts was with me like fly paper. Then it was Chops’ turn to stand by my side while Satts was working out on the track. I don’t think I could have asked for the work to be going any better. Both horses were listening and working well.
I gave them both a few minutes of rest, but added lots of rubs and scratches to the mix. Finally, I slipped the bridle on Satts and stepped up into the saddle. I turned Satts away from Chops and walked to the fence to collect the flag.
I held the flag high in my right hand and passed it over to my left side and back again. Everything seemed okay, so I repeated it with a little more vigour. As I walked Satts around the yard I started swinging the flag as if I was swatting a fly. Chops was not bothered by this because she knew it was not about her, but nevertheless, she kept out of our way. As I trotted and cantered Satts, Chops was aware that there was nowhere she could stand where she would not encounter the man with the flag every few seconds, so she decided to stay ahead of us. I was not driving Chops, but she was intent on staying out of our way.
I brought Satts back to a walk and Chops parked herself by the gate. I approached her with a gentle wave of the flag as if to tell her she needed to not be at the gate when Satts and I got there. She walked on. I pointed Satts across the round yard to get in front of Chops. It was enough to stop her halfway and turn her in the opposite direction. I repeated this a few times and I could tell Satts was picking up on the job. Despite the fact that Satts seemed to work out what I was trying to do I decided I had better change the job because I didn’t want him believing he knew what I was asking and start to pre-empt what I wanted. He needed to stay listening to me and not just doing the job because he thought he knew what coming next. I needed to make the work a little less predictable for Satts.
I turned him away from Chops and asked for a side pass to the fence. When we got there, I climbed out of the saddle and stepped onto the fencing rail. I sat on the fence and scratched Satts’ wither. Chops wanted in on this and wandered over. It surprised me that she did not tell Satts to get out of the way. She just found a space to squeeze through and sidled alongside.
After a short time, I mounted Satts again from the fence and flagged Chops to move on. We followed behind. The next lap I moved Satts up to a trot and pushed Chops along harder. We cut her off on the other side and had her trotting in the opposite direction. I then flagged her into a canter but told Satts to follow her at a walk in a tiny circle in the middle of the yard. Initially, Satts wanted to go with her and I had to drop the flag while I worked on him coming back to the walk. I firmed up pretty hard on the reins and told him to stand quietly while we watched Chops lose a few kilos. Even though he was doing what I asked I could feel him bubbling away underneath me. When I felt him hit a good spot, I dismounted and picked up the flag again, then got back on.
As Chops slowed to a walk, I urged Satts alongside her. He was on the inside, so he could easily out pace her. As we caught up to her rear, I reached across and petted her croup. Satts was easily out walking Chops, so I petted all along her back as we made our way to the front. Then I stopped and petted both horses. It was a good way to finish Satts’ first day of his new career.