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April 8, 2014: Horse Training: Twenty Seconds

I recently went over to the Saddle Up arena out in the Butte, in order to visit with my friend Heather, who was there working with her horse Rio. When I arrived, Rio was in the round pen waiting to be groomed, tacked up, and ridden. Rio is a slender dark bay Arab/Quarter horse cross. He has a large white star of Texas on his forehead. I’ve watched as over the years Heather has ground trained and ridden him. Her success is impressive – he was young and unbroken when she purchased him. Now he’s a fairly reliable riding horse.

Taking on Rio was not something I never would have done. And if he was now for sale, I would not buy him. Heck, I have yet to ride him although I suspect he’s fairly safe. This is because I lack the most important defining characteristic of a good horse person, which is confidence. I have a lifelong habit of envisioning the worst when around big horses – I think I get this from my father. This has been impossible to shake. So I’ve learned to live with it.

I deal, by making the time to watch the likes of Heather and Rio. Rio (at least in my estimation) isn’t the easiest fellow to work with. He’s reactive and flighty. I am not going to say overly reactive and overly flighty because he is not. He’s a normal, healthy, nine year old horse. I watch the pair because they’re inspiring. I used to say “If Heather can deal with Rio, I can deal with Raudi.” And admittedly, Raudi was never, ever the handful that Rio once was.

Raudi’s now a dependable riding horse, although early on she was not. But, at times, before riding, I still think of her as being wildly willful. And for this reason, I sometimes momentarily put off riding. But I so badly want to ride that I put caution to the wind and go for it. And most times, everything works out just fine. After, I repeatedly remind myself of how well the ride went.

I got lucky, having taken to a type of horse that tends to be calmer and more level headed than most. Had the cards been dealt differently, I might have instead ended up owning an Arab-Morgan cross. I was smitten with Delilah, but never rode her off-lead. As I now realize, like Rio, she would have been more horse than I might have been able to deal with.
Some of my horse friends scoff because they see Icelandic horses are pony-sized and stubborn. Rather, I tell them that they’re strong and smart. I then add this is the breed for me, mainly because they’re the embodiment of what I now call “the twenty-second rule.

I came up with this the twenty-second rule midway through reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Gladwell theorizes that quite often, people rely on (what I call) left brain decision making. When in a bind, or attempting to solve a problem, they consider as many variables as they possibly can, and then, in a logical and precise manner, act upon them. Gladwell instead suggests that in many instances, it’s preferable to take immediate action. The alternative is to act quickly, and go with less instead of more information

For example, my horses (which are of northern descent) are smaller and less reactive than those of southern descent. Sometimes when I’m riding, I have to deal with what I call the “hela monster moment.” Visible hela monsters may take the form of a two-headed human (that is a hiker with a child on their back) a swamp buggy trundling down trail, a mountain biker coming down trail, a train at the distance, a bull looking for some action, or a bear looking for some inaction. Or, invisible hela monsters may take the form of the ghost of Christmas Pass, the ghost of Christmas Forward, or aliens. Aliens –I know that they’re out there because all my horses have told me so. Mine all have a special nose that they make when aliens are about – it’s a chuff, chuff sound—this means abduction is close at hand.

Icelandic horses generally don’t have blowouts, blowouts being when a horse loses their wits and does something stupid, like yank the reins out of one’s hands and take off. But never say never, especially when riding a young horse solo. What comes to mind is an incident that occurred when I was riding young Raudi. We were out riding alone, and trotting across a nearby field. She saw what I think was a moose, went from three miles per hour to ten in a split second, then a moment later cut a razor sharp right turn. I went flying through the air like an unstable electron, and hit my helmeted head on a rock. In all fairness to Raudi, she’d given me time to take action, by warning me that she was scared, and if I didn’t take matters into my own hands, that she was going to take them into her own hooves. She did this by raising her head high, dancing sideways, and snorting loudly.

This matter of giving one time to take action is (I think) unique to northern breeds, and in particular, Icelandic horses. I have learned in my decade-long relationship with these very wonderful animals that when confronted with hela monsters and the like, that I have a small window of time in which I have to deal, for they will take a moment and access the situation. All horses will do this. However a regular horse will act near instantaneously when confronted by the seemingly unknown, while an Icelandic horse will give the matter some thought.

When Raudi bolted, I attempted to act upon my lengthy mental list, that is one that acquired in the process of learning as much as I could about runaway horses. I first put weight in my seat, next put weight in my heels, next threw my shoulders back, next did core breathing, next did a one rein stop, then did a reverse rotation. I then considered doing a time-honored emergency dismount. But by the time I’d thought all this out, I was on the ground, and Raudi was crashing through the cow parsnip. I walked home and found her waiting for me at the gate.

I have, since reading Gladwell, had greater success in putting what I call my twenty-second rule to practice, by acting instinctively on what first presents itself as a workable option. For example, the other day, Raudi and I (who were out alone) came across two neighbors who was up on a scaffold. One was pulling down Tyvek and the other was nailing up siding. Raudi gave the pair a sidelong glance, and then began sidepassing. (This was something that I’d recently taught her). Rather than weigh my options, I squeezed a few times on the reins and released my leg pressure. She snorted and we moved forward nicely. I then rewarded her with a treat.

The list of things I could have done was long. And all, including get off and walk would have worked. What’s important here is that I did what first came to mind, while also limiting my options. My caveat is that Raudi is now a very dependable riding horse, and so my window of time is far greater than it used to be. Conversely, I have a shorter window of time when dealing with young, green, or unfamiliar horses. So the question is, am I ever going to ride Rio, a horse who probably has a short window of time and is unfamiliar to me? The answer is never say never, because limiting one’s options makes one a dull and uninteresting person. Plus, hardship sells. If Rio tossed me, I’d have a story to tell. But I have to say that the likelihood of my riding him is up there with my being a passenger on the Challenger Space Shuttle, that is possible but not probable. Bottom line: I will continue to own and ride Icelandic horses, well knowing that I may never again have any more stories to tell.