It was my husband’s idea to lease Bit the horse for me. At the time, he was trying to impress his girlfriend (P.S. it worked!). He didn’t quite realize what he had gotten himself into, though, until time passed and he had to keep paying barn owner Wendy every month. Clearly, he hadn’t thought this one through very well. Still, what price happy girlfriend? And, indeed, the following year, I agreed to marry him. The boyfriend, that is; not the horse. The horse did come along for the ride – literally – when I decided to ride him into the barn we were married in. The hubs played guitar (his special love), and I rode the horse (my special love), and a splendid time was had by all.
Little Bit of Beau is actually anything but little. At 14.7 hh, he’s a strong, muscular fellow, and as head of his herd, he’s strong of personality as well: it’s his world; the rest of us are just taking up space in it. He was originally brought to The Harmony Barn because he had EPM – a neurological disease that affects things like balance and stability – and his owners were hoping that Wendy could treat him. She could, but when the owners found out what it was going to cost them, they left Bit at the barn and never came back. Bit became yet another in a long string of horses who had come to the barn when they no longer proved useful elsewhere. Wendy also rescues abused and neglected horses, and gives them herbal supplements and alternative treatments for the things that ail them. She’s had a great deal of success. Indeed, Bit thrived on her herbal regimen.
He was never going to be a show horse, but Wendy knew that someday, someone would come along who would take a shine to him. After my lesson horse died, and there were no other horses available at the barn, I decided to try a few lessons on Bit. He was a headstrong horse who was perfectly happy to let you know when he didn’t want to do something. His favorite tactics included bucking and rearing – two things, as it happens, that I am not a fan of. Still, we muddled through a number of lessons, and then the boyfriend (now hubs) came along, looking for the birthday present that would send me over the moon and guarantee that I would fall madly in love with him. In truth, I already had fallen madly in love with him, I just hadn’t gotten around to telling him yet. Next thing I know, I’ve got my very own lease horse.
You should know that while I’ve been leasing Bit for the past four years, I consider myself no more than a novice horsewoman, and I don’t expect to ever be anything more. In the first place, there’s just too damned much to remember, and at my time of life (older than 40, younger than 60), my ability to remember anything past two hours ago is long gone. Learning about horses is akin to learning a foreign language; I’ve got the basics down pat, but anything more detailed is beyond me. And in the second place, did I mention that I have memory problems?
In any case, I spent the first year of my lease walking Bit around the track outside the barn. I didn’t actually ride him – I didn’t trust him enough yet – but make no mistake, walking him around the track was a learning experience in and of itself, for him and for me. I learned that I needed to exude calm every time he spooked, and he spooked frequently. He spooked at the wind blowing, he spooked at the old wagon parked beside the track, full of rusted junk that he was sure was going to eat him, and he spooked at anything else that struck him as out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, I spent the time talking soothingly, making up songs about him, and letting him graze on grass as we slowly made our way around that track.
After a year’s-worth of grazing/walking/spooking, I felt ready to ride. On a lovely cool, crisp fall day, I tacked him up and took him outside. I was certain that he would refuse to walk, because Bit was like that: if he didn’t want to do it, he wouldn’t do it, and at that point, I wasn’t yet sufficiently horse-savvy to know how to get him moving when he didn’t want to move. Happily, it wasn’t an issue that day. I tsked, and Bit walked. It was a major triumph, and a huge step forward in our training.
Mind you, I’d never trained a horse before. I’d taken lessons, and that was it. I had no idea how to train someone who actually knew more than I did, and Bit knew that he knew more than I did! I simply took things step by step. I asked questions, I probed the minds of everyone at the barn who knew what they were doing. And I read. Indeed, I read a particularly helpful book about bomb-proofing your horse, called, handily enough, Bombproof Your Horse, by a fellow named Rick Pelicano. The book was invaluable.
It wasn’t so much that Bit needed training for competition; it was that he needed confidence to go outside his comfort zone so that we could safely and comfortably ride trails off the barn property. Bomb-proofing would help with that immeasurably. But first, I had to address and conquer every one of Bit’s fears that presented itself, and they were legion.
We had an unseasonable amount of rain, the second year I leased Bit. It rained so frequently that some puddles didn’t dry up until the very end of summer. This created long-term problems in that much of the track was under water for much of the summer. Where else were we supposed to ride? Finally, it occurred to me to ride through the puddles. Easy, right? Not so much. Bit took one look at the puddle before him and balked.
I’m not walking in that, he said.
“It’s just water, Bit,” I told him.
Then you walk in it! he replied.
Exasperated, I sighed, then proceeded to splash my way through the puddle. It didn’t eat me as Bit thought it would.
“Satisfied?” I asked.
Hmmm, he answered as he stepped with trepidation into the water. It didn’t eat him, either.
That didn’t mean we were in the clear vis-a-vis puddles; it only meant that we had surmounted the first one. Ultimately, I would have to walk through every single puddle on the property if I wanted Bit to do the same. On unseasonably hot days, those puddles actually felt pretty good.
In our third year, I focused our attention on obstacles. Once I found out what a bridge was (not necessarily an actual bridge, but a constructed element that horses are meant to walk across, commonly made of wood), I asked handy hubs to make one and he did. Using the scraps from his lumber pile, he made the bridge four feet wide by eight feet long, and it stood about six inches off the ground. We took it over to the barn’s indoor arena, and I anticipated walking over it with no problem. Except that there was one little problem, and it’s name was Bit.
I’m not stepping up on that thing!
“Aw, c’mon, Bit. It’s just some wood!” I implored him.
Nope! Not gonna do it! He could be really vexing sometimes. I would have to get creative.
“Hmmm, what do I have here? Why, it’s a crisp, crunchy apple!”
“Cross the bridge!”
“Apple!” And I set it down on the end of the bridge farthest from where he was. He stretched his neck, clearly thinking that he could reach the apple without having to set a hoof on the bridge. He was wrong. I sat down with my back to him and waited. In a surprisingly short time, I heard a thud, and then another, and another, as one hoof after the other stepped up onto the bridge. When the fourth hoof was in place, I reached for the apple and, still sitting on the bridge, offered it up to him.
“Good job, dude!”
By this time, I had acquired a number of First Place rosettes for Bit. I knew that we would never participate in any proper competitions – despite Wendy’s herbal regimen, Bit would always have balance issues – but I saw no reason for that to get in the way of success. I hunted around online and found a number of people selling old family ribbons and such, and I purchased quite a few. My main requirements were that they had to be First Place, or Best of Show, and they had to be old. Really old.
The hubs made a large plaque for them, big enough to hold several, and he drilled holes at the top. I ran some twine through, and hung the plaque on Bit’s stall door. We were both very proud of his accomplishments, and I explained every single rosette to him:
“This one is for First Place in the Wedding Trot competition. Remember? We trotted into my wedding ceremony. And this one here is for Best of Show in the Puddle competition.”
Rosettes for me?
“You earned every one of them, Bit!” I said proudly.
As he was the only horse at the barn with a stall door full of rosettes, it was only natural that visitors would be drawn to that stall. The Saturday volunteers just chuckled; they knew me well enough by now to know that this was just the sort of eccentric idea I would think up. Wendy, though, tells of a time when strangers came to look the place over. They stood staring at Bit’s rosettes, noting the dates – none of which was later than the mid-1950’s – until one of them finally asked Wendy, “How old is this horse?!”
In our fourth – current – year, having decided that Bit and I had pretty much conquered all the challenges that the barn property had to offer, I decided that it was time to take Bit off the property, to put him in a trailer and go somewhere else and ride. When I presented the idea to Wendy, though, she looked doubtful.
“There’s a lot more to it than just riding,” she told me.
“Like what?” I asked naively.
Wendy shrugged. “Loading him into the trailer, for one.”
I began to see her point. There were logistical aspects that I would have to learn, and teach Bit, before we could even think about leaving the property. Clearly, my new mission should be to teach Bit how to get into, and out of, the trailer upon request.
We were headed for just that mission recently when I saw to my dismay that Wendy’s niece, Pippa, was already trying to load her horse Rudy into the trailer. Apparently, Rudy didn’t want to load on request either. I stood a few feet away, letting Bit graze while I watched Pippa at work. She was getting nowhere with him; he simply refused to go in. This went on for a good ten minutes. Pippa would walk Rudy in a circle, then lead him up to the trailer. She would walk in, and he would balk. After a time, she gave up altogether.
It was as I watched them that I remembered the lesson I’d learned from Wendy’s husband, Ronald. Ronald was the recognized head of the herd. Even so, the horses didn’t always do as they were told, and I watched once, years ago, as he tried to load a horse into the trailer and it refused to go. Multiple times, he walked it up to the trailer, and multiple times, the horse refused to get in. Eventually, I asked him,
“At what point do you give up?”
“You don’t,” he answered.
Giving up would teach the horse that if he just held out long enough, you would quit asking him to do the thing, and that’s not a lesson you want your horse to learn. So Ronald stuck to it, and ultimately, the horse went in the trailer.
I was thinking about that as I watched Pippa and Rudy walk away. I realized then that training Bit to go in the trailer would be a big investment of time, because if Bit didn’t want to, he wasn’t going to, and it might take all afternoon to change his mind. I thought about that as I lined him up in front of the trailer. I walked in, and to my considerable surprise, before I even turned around to ask Bit, he’d already joined me inside. Bugger me!
But of course, Bit had no intention of making things easy, and indeed, the very next training session, he refused to even consider the idea of loading into the trailer.
“You just did it yesterday, Bit!” I said, exasperated.
“Yes it was!”
“Bit! I was here! I saw you get in!”
“It was, too, you big meatball!” And out came the apple. They work every time, even if it does take 30 minutes just to get his two front feet in.
Thus far, I’ve met with limited success in this latest endeavor. Limited because it never seems to get any easier to get him in the trailer. It’s usually two feet in, then two feet out. Repeat for 25 minutes, and then consider myself lucky when he finally decides to walk all the way in. At this rate, we might actually go on our first off-site trail ride by Christmas. If I’m lucky.