When my neighbor friend, Libby, a horse-crazy twelve-year old, spotted Speckles and I coming home from a trail ride the other day, she trotted (on foot) up behind us. I haven't seen her much since school started and volleyball at our house ended for the season. She had something she wanted to tell me.
She was out of breath. She said hello to Speckles and patted his nose. Speckles likes Libby and he likes any reason to stop, even if we are almost home, so he was happy to stand there on the road.
I said, "How's school?"
"Good," she said. "I had to write an essay on 'Life is Good' so I wrote five paragraphs on Speckles, Buckles, and Darby."
(Libby and Speckles, 2007)
She followed us back to the barn. While I finished up with Speckles, Libby hung around, talking to me and petting Darby, who was hanging his head outside his stall hoping for attention. Libby patted him, talked to me, talked to him, picked up stray bits of hay and gave them to him.
It was only later that I realized how wonderful Darby's behavior had been. There was no fussing - no pushy head nodding, no lips or teeth, nothing. You would have thought she was petting a trustworthy old gelding.
Darby is not gelded. I would like to keep him uncut for at least another year. His dad is being ridden by Courtney King-Dye and she is going to try to qualify him for next summer's World Equestrian Games in Lexington. If his dad would do well in Kentucky, I think his owners will aim him towards the 2012 Olympics. If any of this comes to pass, Darby's value as a stallion could be huge. But I will only keep him a stallion as long as he is safe and pleasant and easy to be around. I'm not brave and I have crappy insurance.
I've been studying on this, trying to figure out which of his behaviors stem from being a colt and which behaviors stem from being a yearling. I have worked with horses for more than twenty years but Darby is the first stallion I have handled and trained alone. (There were a lot of little kids around here when Speckles was born so he was gelded as soon as both testicles dropped.)
Thinking about it though, I remember some two-year-old uncut horses who were in training at a Standardbred barn where I worked. They were handled daily - groomed, tacked up, hooked to a racing cart, exercised, bathed, cooled out, etc. I don't remember ever feeling scared or even uncomfortable around them. But Standardbreds, in my experience (the ones at the two barns I worked at, anyway) are pretty laid back horses. On the other hand, I once worked at a Thoroughbred barn where two-year-olds of all three sexual persuasions were beginning their racing training and they were the scariest horses I have ever been around. This was no slacker barn. The trainer I worked for was, at that time, my state's winningest Thoroughbred trainer. But the horses were nightmares. They had only rudimentary handling and they were fed rations intended to make them, let's say, peppy. To take them out of their stalls required a chain over their noses and you used that chain constantly to pull them down out of their peppy rearing. Constantly. I only lasted at that barn for three months. It was too nerve-wracking.
So I have been studying Darby, trying to assign a cause to his behaviors, most of all his lippiness. I ask myself, does he do this because he's young? Or maybe it's a Warmblood thing (he's my first Warmblood). Or is it a stallion thing? But now I know what it is - or was. It was an untrained thing. Because after three months of daily handling, of clicker-training, (and of twice being shanked with the lead rope when I felt his teeth) it is nearly extinct. I use the modifier nearly because it's too soon to say just extinct.
The other day I was out in the barn after the horses had their dinner. The pen gate was open but the horses hadn't gone out to pasture yet. They were hanging around in their stalls, seeming to want something from me even though they had had their dinner. I petted them and then I began doing 'the claw.' You know, you make your hand into a claw and bring it down on your victim's face while growling "It's the claw!" like in a bad horror movie. I know, I know, but everyone here loves it - the horses, Trixie, even Logan, who at sixteen sometimes will snuggle with me and say, "Do the claw."
So I was doing the claw, grabbing (gently) the horses' muzzles and making horror movie noises. When I started playing with them, Darby was in one of the end stalls. He left his stall and walked into the middle stall with Speckles, putting himself in between Buckles and Speckles where he would, literally, be the center of attention. It was sweet and fun and telling, to me, of the progress Darby and I have made.
Libby was here playing volleyball that evening in July when Darby arrived. He was snorting scared about this new place he found himself in - new people, new barn, new horses to find his place with. That Darby from three months ago is different from the horse Libby petted over the stall gate on Saturday. This older Darby is a confident, maturing horse who is beginning to understand the language of training.