Because I’ve been riding Shelley most mornings and late afternoons down the driveway and then letting her run back up, I’ve had lots of opportunity to see how she leaves me after I unhalter her. It’s been fascinating. For most of the winter, she seemed highly motivated to get back up the hill for food, so more often than not she rose directly from standing to a canter and not long thereafter to a gallop. I’d never seen another pony make the transition from standing to canter before. Normally if they want to depart quickly they take a walking step or two then a trotting step or two then go into a canter with a toss of their head, but then they usually find a reason to slow down (like the presence of green grass) before galloping.
On the day I took my camera on our ride, of course, Shelley didn’t do what she had been doing. It was a spring-like day, and she sauntered off at a walk, only transitioning to a trot at urgent requests from me so I could take a picture and then leisurely working into a canter just before she reached the limit of my zoom lens. Laughing is good medicine, and I’m fortunate that this event brought me that medicine.
Watching Shelley leave twice a day this past winter brought to mind the following passage in Edward Hart’s book Pony Trekking:
When ready to turn into the paddock for the night, lead your charge by its head collar or halter shank, pass through the gate with ample clearance on either side, walk into the field a little way and swing the horse around towards you, ie facing the gate. Then slip off the headstall… A spirited horse may swing round on gaining its freedom, and lash out its heels from joie de vivre, not malice. If you are within range the effect is the same, however, and by facing the horse towards you, the kick is more likely to miss than if you allow it to dash past on its way to pasture. (1)
When I first read this passage, I was surprised that the author went into so much depth on such a mundane topic. The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more I’ve realized it really isn’t that mundane; how ponies leave tells us about our relationship with them and ultimately about our horsemanship. There is definitely a safety element, too, as the author alludes to. Pondering how ponies leave reminded me that I had been kicked in the ribs once when I wasn’t paying attention to a particular pony’s mindset as he left, so the author’s instructions are well justified.
As compared to the people the author had in mind – perhaps not schooled in handling horses and certainly with a limited relationship with the pony in their care – in handling my own ponies I expect and enforce good manners when unhaltering. Being kicked in the ribs once was one time too many. Going through gates is an equally good schooling opportunity. Again, being run over going through a gate once is one time too many. If you’re interested in watching a video of me unhaltering ponies at pasture a few summers ago, click here.
On one occasion recently, the dogs were in irresponsible positions as I was unhaltering Shelley. The young, naïve puppy was just barely not in front of Shelley, and my other dog who usually knows better wasn’t in a much better place. Even though Shelley is usually very good about the dogs, as I untied the halter I telegraphed and may have spoken to Shelley a request that she be mindful of the dogs. It was amazing to see what happened. Her first step was sideways away from the puppy, then she walked for several strides before quickening her pace. I was once again thankful to share my life with this mare. It’s exciting to think what may lie ahead in our time together.
1) Hart, Edward. Pony Trekking. David & Charles Leisure and Travel Series. North Pomfret, Vermont, and others, 1976, p. 3.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013