Monday, January 19, 2009

Though January 17th started as any other day, I would never have guessed that it would turn into the best day of my life. In the evening, I had every intention of just lunging Maia in a saddle, as I was getting her used to wearing it. I don’t know what it was that made it so clear, but I knew that tonight was the night, and not every horse is the same, and has to wait until they are exactly 3. She is now 2 years and 9 months old, and two nights ago, I rode her for the very first time.
We finished up lunging, and Jaimie put Ben away to help me. I walked to up next to the mounting block and put my feet in the stirrups and put weight in them. I banged on the saddle, I jostled it, I leaned over her back. She didn’t take a single step the entire time. She was just waiting patiently. Jaimie returned with my helmet, and began leading Maia around and pushing in the stirrups herself. I stood on the block while she led her up next to me, and I slowly put my foot in the stirrup once more, I let her first feel my whole weight, then I lifted my other leg and swung it over. And there I was.
Maia stood, and a second later, began to lick her lips and chomp on the bit. The praise was like she had never heard before, but she couldn’t understand why. To her, this was no biggie. It was as if I was the beginner, and she had been doing this for years. Jaimie led us around in a circle, letting her go out as if she were lunging, just a little in the walk. I couldn’t contain my happiness, and silent tears snuck down my face. We halted and then walked on a few times, and were even brave enough to try the trot, only for a few steps. It was so big, so monumental, everything we had been working towards for the last two months, day in and day out. I didn’t want to spoil anything, so as much as I never wanted to, I slipped off of her and walked her around the arena a few times, praising her constantly. I put her up in a daze, and it lasted me until the next day, until I couldn’t resist tacking her up a second time, this time with Diane there.
Again I lunged her normally, and Diane came in before I got on, to see for her self. Once more, Jaimie led her around the block and I mounted, and the bliss returned in full swing. We walked around, practicing halting and then moving forward to the pressure of my leg, something we hadn’t introduced the night before. I took the contact, and she reached for it, down into it, and she felt my hands on her mouth and embraced them without question or fear. The line was let out a little so we had a little more independence, and I began to take her from left to right, and then straight. By the end of the ten minute ride, she understood that my leg meant go, and my hands and deeper seat meant stop. It was an experience I will never forget, and to share it with her means so much to me, it is the one thing I cannot even try to put into words.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Once bridling had become easier, and we had lunging down, and were used to the surcingle on as she went, it was time for side reins. Diane swore by sliding side reins, and it was easy for me to understand why, they felt like a human’s hands on your horse’s mouth. I started easy, on the longest possible setting, just so she could have them there and be used to the flapping on her legs and chest. The first time I put them tight enough for her to feel them on her mouth; she wasn’t sure what to do. When I tried to send her off on the circle to begin lunging, she only turned right around and tried to hug to me. She was scared. Diane would always say “scared of the contact” and so she was. She didn’t understand how she could go forward while there was pressure on her mouth, pulling back. I returned to the most familiar thing she knew: leading. We had spent lots of time doing just that, and she was most comfortable at my side, with my voice as encouragement. Once I convinced her it was possible to move forward with the pulling on her mouth, we began our session, and I saw the understanding in her eyes. For a few steps, she would raise her head and try to shake it off, but then she would drop her head and keep it there for much longer. During those moments, I could hardly keep actively lunging, I wanted to just stop and watch her go, because she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I would have never expected a 2 year old to be OK the very first time a saddle was put on their back, but then again, this girl had surprised me before with her acceptance of most things I threw at her. It was a huge demonstration of her trust in me, her belief that I would never do anything to hurt her was established right away, and I would be very grateful for that for the rest of her training, not to mention the rest of her life. The girth was no issue, except for the normal tail swish and pinned ears, but any 20 year old would do that. After that, the surcingle was no problem. The only real trouble came during the first attempt at putting on the bridle. Maia wanted nothing to do with a cold piece of metal in her mouth, but before it even touched her lips she was throwing a classic Maia fit. She swung her head, she stomped, and she took as many sideways steps as she could while I was up on the block, slowly moving the Stubben leather over her face. The first few times, I left her halter on and took it off after I had the bridle on and latched up. This worked, but my god what a hassle! The next step was taking the halter off her face but keeping it hooked around her neck, which helped, but still allowed her to pull her head away from me. There were days when she would let me slide the bit in no problem, and she would stand quiet as I latched the noseband and chin strap. Then, as always, a bad day would come. Once, Diane had to come over and help hold her nose and pinch her upper lip just so that she wouldn’t knock me right off the block the second I stepped up it. One thing was for sure, when Maia didn’t feel like playing (as I always called our work) she let me know, and there were never any misperceptions with this horse.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

When December began, it was time for more. Not just because she was now completely settled in and we had developed trust and mutual understanding, but also because the trails were now covered in a foot of snow, and thus we had no more walks. The day came when Maia would finally see the room where she would spend a good part of the next year or so of her life, the indoor arena. The sliding door was heavy, and some days it took some real muscle to get it open, but what it revealed was worth it. The same pine wood that flocked the walls in the grooming area and in the stables went along three of the walls of the ring, the fourth, the far short side, was one large mirror. The wood went up about 10 feet, and then the walls were white up to the ceiling. Speakers connected to a sound system in the viewing area were perched in the rafters, and there were sliding windows all along the tops of the walls. My favorite part though, was the flags of the U.S, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and Russia that hung at the tops of the walls. Once you were done looking up and around, and were walking into the arena itself, your footsteps fell on nicely maintained footing, made up of wood chips, sand, plain dirt, and small pieces of rubber that gave the floor a nice springy feeling.
Maia took it all in the best she could as I led her around the edges, up to the mirror, and then back towards the viewing area so she could look through the windows. I had learned over the last couple months that she was not the type to spook. In fact, I can’t think of any one thing that she has shown a serious fear of. Instead, it was always replaced by curiosity. When she saw herself in the mirror for the first time, she did not shy away as most horses do. Instead, she moved closer, and put her nose right up to the surface, staring intently at her own reflection. To this day it is still her favorite thing to look at while we’re in the ring.
Each day, we went into the arena and walked around, once in a while I would introduce lunging just by swinging the lead rope and getting her to walk a circle around me, but mostly we just spent the time enjoying the time alone, just like our walks. I began taking her down to the round pen on the nicer days, setting her loose and chasing her around with the whip, using my voice as much as possible to teach her the lunging commands. After a few sessions like this, introducing the rope wasn’t so hard. There were a few really good days, where everything went smooth and as planned, and Maia seemed to be on the same page that I was. Then of course, there were the bad days. Maia would go every direction but the one I wished her to be going, she would not go at all, or she would rip around the pen at breakneck speed, which didn’t accomplish anything. Working through those days with her was difficult but necessary, as squashing that behavior early on would save a ton of work later, when she was taller and much, much stronger. Up to this point, all the work I did with her was in the halter, which I preferred so that she would be comfortable and not feel restricted during our sessions. There is only so much you can do in a halter, however, and so, it was time to begin introducing tack.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

For the remainder of November, a daily grooming and a walk through the forest was all I did with her, who until this point didn’t have a name. My first thought was to translate love into a different language, and see if any stuck, but it was a failure. I thought of a few here and there, but they always had some previous meaning for me, an old friend, or more often, an old horse. I sat online for hours looking at list after list, and I eventually started researching names of Greek goddesses, as she saw herself as quite the queen. Again, I wrote which ones were my favorites; I shared them with Howie, my boyfriend, and Jaimie, my long time horse friend/room mate. No decision yet. When I first read the name Maia, I knew it would be between that and just a couple others. Maia was a wholesome name; it was short and sweet, but not so girly. It also meant Goddess of the fields and mountains. The meaning itself was half the choice, she came from a field to live with me in the mountains, and I was sure I had never known anyone by the name of Maia, especially with an I instead of a Y…and so my search was over. Her registered name, Wind Dancer, was soon forgotten, and so she was My Maia.
My Maia
I searched for a task, anything to keep me busy, to keep from pacing up and down the grooming area. I kept hearing imaginary engines pulling imaginary transport trucks down the drive. I would poke my head out the locker room door, and sigh in disappointment, nothing. Diane was in the ring for a lesson when she finally arrived. I rushed out to meet the huge truck, searching the trailer windows for a dark bay filly, with an L plastered on her forehead. The driver jumped down, cowboy hat and all. She was shipped from South Dakota, after all. I walked around the back of the rig to get to the driver’s side, and he had already opened the top gate of her stall. The second I turned the corner, she stuck her head out and looked directly at me, a blank stare. I caught my breath. She was here. I couldn’t believe that I had gotten my second horse. And this was no quarter horse, like my old buckskin mare, Lady. Oh no. This was a well bred, registered, beautiful moving Holsteiner filly, and she was all mine.
The younger, soft spoken driver walked with me as I led my new horse into the barn. We walked down through the grooming area, and on into the stall area. The beautiful pine wood lining every wall of the barn was enough to make someone ooh, but the Dutch door stalls with pine green steel and the fans whirling from the 30 ft. ceiling added some ahhs. We walked slowly; I watched the filly’s feet clop on the cobblestone hall floor. Her feet needed to be done; I needed to choose a farrier. She was put in the furthest stall down, and it wasn’t easy to get her in. The girl had been on a truck for three days, I didn’t blame her for wanting time outside. I got her hay once she had been backed into the stall. The shipper explained that she had been tough to get her on the truck every time they loaded up. I apologized. The guy watched her in her stall for a minute, as if to say goodbye. Then we walked down the aisle and he handed me the paperwork, hopped in his truck and he was gone. Diane was still in the arena, in her lesson. I turned to walk back down the aisle, to the very end.
I was surprised at how mellow she was, but I knew she must be tired, and now she had delicious eastern Oregon hay to eat. I leaned on her door and really looked at her for the first time. She was leggy, she was lean and a little lanky, but really not bad for a two and a half year old. She had already gotten a good part of her winter coat, much darker then in the videos and all the pictures. In the summer she had dapples and she was a brilliant bay, like glossy dark chocolate. Her neck was still a little short, and her withers were slim, but she already had a built back end, which made me grin. She had multicolored feet, and three ankle socks, two with black spots in them. Her most remarkable feature, though, was the large L in the middle of her forehead. I stood next to her in the stall, talking quietly and stroking her.
“But you’re not a loser; you’re going to be a winner.” I whispered as I stepped out of her stall. I spent the rest of the day at the barn, checking on her every now and then, making sure she was content. That night, I played it over in my head, trying to picture her, trying to picture what was in store for us.

The next couple weeks showed me all the things that grown and trained horses do that now go unnoticed; like standing in the cross-ties, for instance. It was day 2, and the filly was leaning back, bracing on the green nylon halter she had come in. She was filthy from the 3 day trip in the trailer, but it was my luck if she let me get the brush even a foot from her side. Each time I would step behind the rope attached to her halter, she would swing her entire body in my direction, and she wasn’t a small 2 year old, either. She started charging the ropes, moving forwards and backwards, as well as side to side. On occasion, another horse would be standing, perfectly still, and would look at her as if to say “I’ve been there.” I quickly learned to swing the lead at her face whenever she charged forward, and sometimes it even would work to get next to her. I read of many recommendations saying to have 2 people while training a baby, simply because it took less time and it was easier. I never took the suggestion. A couple of times Diane would see me struggling and would move over to help me, but besides those few times, I was the only one to touch her.
Once I had discovered the swinging rope technique, along with how much my new horse liked to be curried, things got easier. I went and bought a leather halter, which she broke by flipping over backwards the very day I got it. Diane was actually pleased when this happened. She said it scared the living daylights out of her, and she probably wouldn’t ever do it again. (Turns out it was one of the many things Diane has been right about, it never did happen again.) I got a replacement crown piece for the halter, and used the old broken one to make a handsome collar for Dartagnan, my black lab. Day in and day out, we fought, and then we compromised. The quicker she let me curry and run a soft brush over the whole of her body, the quicker we got to go for our now daily walk on the maintained trails that covered about 80 acres of Diane’s property As soon as she realized what our deal was, I was able to use the vacuum on her with no problems. Grooming training was nearly complete.