Sunday, June 27, 2010

Practice Horses

Confession time. As a kid, I had an infatuation. With horses. Startling, no? I read about them, played with likenesses of them, cut out and saved pictures of them, dreamed of riding them -- even dared to dream of being a jockey. With others, I played at being them. Yes, this quiet, shy girl became one bossy lead mare on the playground.

I knew with the inevitability of moon and stars I would own them one day.

But my family was entrenched in suburbia and we moved around a lot. Plus, while I didn't want for any of the essentials, I had very few nonessentials. And horses were a HUGE nonessential.

Time and childhood passed, horseless. The desire, though, never passed. I took animal husbandry classes in college to get my accreditation as a vet tech and got to be around horses a couple of hours a week for awhile. But I wound up working at a small animal clinic and so missed out on them as a career.

In 1989, I set out to make my dream come true by purchasing 14 acres south of Fort Worth. By then, however, I had left veterinary medicine behind and was working in advertising for a large company headquartered in town. The hours were brutal, the commute long and, though there was a large pole barn on the property and I had built out 6 stalls in it, I never felt I had the time to properly attend to horses. After 5 years, I moved back, defeated, to suburbia.

But I never gave up the dream.

When technology and company policies made it possible a dozen years later to work remotely from just about anywhere, I tried again.

After one failed fiasco of an attempt to get a barn built that landed in court, a second contractor erected a nice, suitable structure, and my dad and I fenced off a couple of pastures. Soon I'd be galloping across the land and, like one or two neighbors, go visiting on horseback.

But I noticed on some of those visits from and to horsy neighbors that my elderly dad -- because of an earlier accident that had left him with a pair of feet that were none too stable -- was intimidated by large, heavy animals. Like Quarter Horses or Arabians or Thoroughbreds.

So I compromised.

The first horses I would get would be "practice horses." They would be smaller versions of the "real" thing and they would be healthy horses that didn't need special care so I could become accustomed to what normal health and behavior looked like before attempting to rehab abused individuals. But I was still determined to get older or younger horses that would be harder to place.

I wound up purchasing a 17-year-old mare and her 4-month-old colt from a breeder who was selling out and moving on.

The brown-and-white paint mare was on the tall side of miniature standards, but still much smaller than a pony. She was a good mother, and rightly so as she'd been having babies yearly since she was 4 or so. I felt good I could at least get THAT cycle broken. And while she hadn't been completely neglected, it was clear she only got cursory attention. Still, except for some minor hoof issues, she was in good health. It also became obvious that aside from her colt, she had only one other motivation in life: she was a food junkie. Her name, as it said on the registration papers that I didn't really care about otherwise, was Alyssa. I shortened it to Lyssa.

Her son was a compact little bay, deep brown with a black mane and tail. It was obvious from the first that he needed to learn some manners -- and fast. He was a little too mischievous and a lot too bull-headed about getting HIS way. His favorite trick was backing up to you as if all he wanted was a good scratch, then kicking. If he wanted more treats and there weren't any more forthcoming, he would kick. He would rear up and lash out with his front hooves, too. And he would nibble and bite and grab and yank at any loose piece of clothing. So I set about teaching him to be more polite with the goal of him not losing his natural curiosity and spirit. I credit time and maturity more than my training that we seem to have succeeded. I let my dad name him, and he chose a good one: Cody.

While Lyssa seemed quite content to simply hang out with Cody and eat all day, Cody was obviously missing a playmate. Plus, I figured having a playmate other than me would help run out his energy and settle him down quicker. The single playmate I decided on quickly became two -- but I'll have more about that, and them, in another post.

My practice horses accomplished everything I hoped they would. I learned hands-on the care I needed to and my dad felt at ease interacting with them. In fact, he became so attached to them in the year before he had his stroke that it was the desire to come back and see them that helped drive his rehabilitation during his 4 months in a nursing home. It wasn't pictures of me or my brother or my brother's children my dad asked to keep in his room to motivate him, but pictures of "his" horses -- most especially Cody, his favorite. His laser focus on the horses helped him relearn to speak and move and think.

Turns out my little practice horses helped us practice something far more important than simple husbandry. They helped us practice how to live again.


Anonymous said...

Minis are a grand way to start into horses. My little guy would come in the house and watch tv. Gentle, curious, he and Dobie Spock would play tag. Hilarious. Do you know one is used as seeing eye service animal in the US? They can live up to and over 30 years so the owner doesn't have the heartbreak of getting a new helper every 5 - 7 years as is the case with dogs. There may be more minis in service by now. Whimsical and delightful characters. Charming. Bibi

sylvia said...

They are beautiful. I can't wait to hear about the others.

Phoenix said...

Bibi, I LOVE the mental image of your little guy watching TV! HA! And yeah, I saw a documentary on the cU.S. enter that trains minis to be seeing eye horses. Minis are even used in pet therapy in hospitals. I think the dwarf minis are used more frequently for these purposes, but some of the regular-sized minis (my guys aren't the too-cute-for-words little dwarfs) are occasionally used, too.

Thanks, Sylvia. The others can't wait to have their stories told. They were jealous that Lyssa and Cody got here first.