I haven’t written about my riding in a hot minute, and since that’s where my blogging (and fiction) days began, I thought: today’s ride definitely deserves a blog post. You see, everything looked so promising. Everything started out so well.
And then, Florida happened.
THE TALE OF THE TORTOISE AND THE BEN
At my old farm out in swamp country, I had an issue with alligators. Well, one alligator. He (gender assumed but not determined for convenience’s sake) was about four and half feet long, enjoyed long swims in the pond at the back of my property, and had reflective eyes which were handy for late-night horse feeding. We just always remembered to swing a flashlight around and check for the gator’s presence before we went into the back pasture to dump grain.
Then the alligator discovered my round pen, which was only about twenty feet from the pond, was the perfect place for midday sunbathing.
Nowadays I ride at a farm in hilly country. There isn’t a pond, so there isn’t an alligator. But since I ride Ben in a bright, sunny field adjacent to un-mown hay fields and half-wooded cow pastures, I have other animals I have to deal with.
Ben is a very alert pony. He likes to keep his eye on things — there’s very much a protect-the-herd instinct going on in between those pricked ears of his. He watches people walking around the farm while we’re riding, and he has a decent spook when something really surprises him, but he’s not as likely to run away from something as to stop and stare at it, maybe edge closer to it for a better look.
Think of a little kid poking something dead with a stick, then leaping backwards when it moves a little bit, then coming back to poke it again… that’s Ben.
At first we had an issue with grass snakes spooking him, but I kept riding him towards the little buggers and he decided that was fun, so now he just looks at snakes and doesn’t flip out about them. The tortoise problem… well, that’s been harder to solve.
If the best way to desensitize a horse is to ride them right up to whatever is alarming them and let them take a good look, it’s almost impossible to desensitize a horse to a gopher tortoise. These are big dry-land, burrowing tortoises who can move at a decent clip. They have beige-to-brown shells which aren’t shiny, but stand out against green grass. And because they have a sort of shambling, two-beat walk, they move a bit like, well, spiders?
So you have this thing that looks like a rounded rock, moves like a spider, and goes barreling across the field. If you can convince your horse to go take a look at it, the tortoise retreats into his shell. It’s just a rock. The horse forgets about it. You ride away. The rock-spider-demon comes back to life. The horse sees this in his rear-view mirror and freaks the eff out. IT IS MOVING! IT WASN’T MOVING BEFORE!
You ride back, to show the horse the moving rock. Only now it stops moving again. The horse loses interest.
Guys, you can do this ALL DAMN DAY, but the tortoise will always thwart your efforts.
It’s a problem.
So today I take Ben out to ride and I see that there is a tortoise in the very middle of the field. I sigh. I cannot chase the tortoise out of the field, for reasons previously mentioned. So I take Ben over to a hill and we do a little hill-work while I wait for the tortoise to get through the field.
This takes ages because the tortoise is not in a hurry, but finally he’s at the end of the field near his burrow and I say, fine, Ben, let’s go do some work.
Now, a lot of the work I do with Ben is concentrated on getting him to be cool and focused, because I want children to be happy to ride him (he is a large pony, after all). So we do a lot of walking work – about fifteen minutes most days – before we even begin trotwork.
Today the BLOODY TORTOISE is hovering near his burrow, which is under a bush at the end of the field, and doesn’t want to go in. And just as I want to start trotting, Ben sees the tortoise.
He does a little half-rear before I catch him, then I push him forward towards the tortoise while he watches, snorting. I let him come to a halt so he can have a good look.
The tortoise gazes at us. He is literally right outside his burrow. Two steps, and he could be underground and out of our hair. But no, he wants to stare us down.
“GET BACK IN YOUR HOLE YOU STUPID TORTOISE!” I command, with some expletives for extra emphasis, but the tortoise is unimpressed.
Ben has his head up and his ears pricked but he’s not freaking out, so I send him forward. Let’s chase the tortoise into the hole! He can’t possibly resist going into his burrow if we’re bearing down on him like a one-horse cavalry charge, right?
Right.. eventually, but that tortoise makes us get really close before he scurries underground. Ben is huffing. I am annoyed. It’s going to take me another five or ten minutes to bring him back down to earth and get a relaxed walk again. I turn Ben away and we do a circuit of the field.
As we turn at the top of the field, I realize the tortoise HAS COME BACK OUT OF THE BURROW.
“Oh, no, you don’t! Let’s get him, Ben!” I send Ben forward and we chase the tortoise back underground. Ben finds all of this tortoise-chasing exhilarating and is now looking for other scary things to chase. Maybe there is something scary in the woods! LET’S STARE AT THE WOODS! Maybe there is something scary at the house! OH GOD A PERSON HAS COME OUT OF THE HOUSE! SHIT, WHAT DO WE DO?
“Jesus Christ, Ben,” I say, again along with some other expletives for extra emphasis.
It keeps happening. Apparently the tortoise was only making a quick house-call, not retreating to safety, and now I cannot keep the stupid animal out of my field. I just want twenty minutes to do some trotting and get Ben to relax into the bridle, but the tortoise comes out and cuts across the bottom half of the field, then proceeds to start grazing. I cannot chase him now; he’s too far from the burrow and he’ll just go into his shell if we get near him. Ben is mostly unbothered; he doesn’t see him, but I’ve lost half my riding space.
Another ten minutes goes by before the tortoise has ambled with its awful spider shamble into the high grass of the hay field and I finally have my riding area back.
But Ben doesn’t know the tortoise has gone off on a nature walk. He keeps looking at the burrow at the edge of the field. IF IT COMES BACK OUT, I, BEN, WILL BE READY!
“It’s not coming back.”
THAT’S WHAT IT WANTS YOU TO THINK!
He never really got over his desire to trample the tortoise. We did some nice trotting, some lateral work and some canter circles, and even jumped a few cross-rails, but he was always keeping an eye on that burrow. There was nothing fearful about his attitude. He just didn’t want to miss his chance. He had a taste of tortoise-chasing and by god, he wanted more.
Even after I turned him out, an hour later, he was on high alert, looking all around the pasture as if tortoises were hiding in the tree branches, waiting for him to drop his guard.
I love Ben’s hilarious macho man antics, his bantam rooster approach to life. He’s fun to ride and work with for exactly that reason. There’s so much of Ben. He’s the embodiment of that old classified ad verbiage, “personality plus.”
I’m just really, really glad this farm doesn’t have a pond. because I don’t need him to start thinking he can chase away gators.