“If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.”
Don’t do what I did.
Today, finally, after a long, long winter, I got to drive my horse. The lawn finally melted (mostly) free of snow, Aggie Days is over, my horse de-haired, and our first events and shows are approaching with alarming speed.
Hawk hadn’t been driven since fall – five months ago. For the last week he’s spent most of his time in a stall after a winter spent running on a quarter section with his buddies.
When I went out this afternoon, the wind hit – and here in southern Alberta it knows how to blow. I went back for my coat and decided Hawk would have to wear his driving blanket thingy (quarter sheet? but it’s not a sheet, it’s more like a quarter winter blanket), even though he’s only worn it once before. And it might be flappy in the wind.
I almost changed my mind. I turned back towards the house then headed back to the barn three times (Grandad counted – he was watching me from the window with great amusement). But the itch to drive, and the pressure of those upcoming clinics and shows won out and I dug out the quarter sheet and went to get the cart out.
It wasn’t easy. I almost changed my mind again – the quonset door I usually use was still frozen shut in a snowbank, so I had to open the big doors. I always have trouble with the big doors, on account of I’m a wimp, and today was no exception. I couldn’t get them wide enough to roll the cart through, but with some lifting and twisting I got it out.
I took Hawk’s blankets off and he instantly started to shiver. I hurried to get him harnessed and get the “quarter winter blanket” on him to keep him cozy. My harness pad was missing (the last thing I did in the fall was clean and oil my harness – it took a beating in the rain at the last show), so I substituted a towel. All the strap ends were out of the keepers from being oiled. Apparently, the holdback straps stretched in the rain, so the breeching was loose even on the last hole, but since he’s driven without breeching lots in the show ring, and we were just doing circles on the grass, I left it.
Hawk was pretty goosey while I was hooking him up, and I was hearing Grandad in my head, telling me that hooking and unhooking is the riskiest part of driving a horse. Luckily, I’ve insisted on Hawk standing for harnessing/putting to ever since I started training him, and after 5 years of consistent training (well, for half a year each year, we do live in Canada 😉 it’s pretty ingrained.
By this time I was counting the number of strikes, things I shouldn’t be doing. I looked up to see that my grandparents had headed to town. Strike … well, I’d lost count, but I was on my own.
I jumped into the cart and convinced Hawk he had to walk to the lawn were we drive. As he was jigging along, spooking at the flap of the blanket, I remembered my cell phone was dead.
I made this all sound bad, but Hawk is a well trained (if I do say so myself ;-), sensible boy. He was pretty lifey there at first, but walked when I said walk, and very quickly settled into a free walk on a loose rein, which is how we usually start our training sessions. He was perhaps a little more forward than usual (which suits me, actually!) but he was his usual steady self and we had a very nice drive, especially when we weren’t facing the wind that was strong enough to take my breath away.
If I’d been driving another horse, with all those strikes against me – the weather, the poor fitting harness, the strange blanket, driving on my own, no cell phone, and perhaps most significantly, my horse’s long layoff – things might not have gone so well.
I’ve seen some scary wreaks here and there, and while anything can happen and horses are unpredictable, often they happen because people didn’t take every precaution they could to ensure a safe and successful experience for their horse.
A few years ago some guy asked me how I start horses in harness. I outlined the steps I take: bitting, ground driving in the round pen, ground driving outside the round pen, ground driving everywhere in the yard I plan to drive them and some places I don’t, long lining, etc, etc. He told me, “You don’t need to do all that, we just walk them up and down a few times then hook them to the cart.” While I was trying to think of a reply, he started making excuses for me. “Oh, but you probably don’t have an arena to drive in.” Well, no, I don’t. But I would do all those steps anyway.
I want to do absolutely everything I can to set my horses up for success. All it takes is one bad experience, and a horse can be traumatized or injured, and never again be able to be a driving horse. We have one horse that spooks and runs if he so much as SEES a cart – I don’t know what happened in his history, but I will do my best to make sure that whatever it was doesn’t happen to a horse I’m training.
In the meantime – today was my first drive of the spring so it was a GREAT DAY!