Five Hundred Pounds of Fire
“Five hundred pounds of fire.”
I once described Acey thus to a firefighter friend of mine. He agreed that five hundred pounds ain’t much for a horse, but it adds up to a helluva lot of fire.
The thing about fire is that, unchecked, it’s a terribly destructive force. But learn to contain it, and you have an unmatched source of beauty, heat, and light.
I saw both sides of Acey’s powerful personality at Canyonlands. She wasn’t there to race, of course, having been out on the trail for only a few weeks. I simply wanted to see how she would handle ridecamp and a taste of desert terrain.
We arrived on Tuesday. By Thursday afternoon, having spent the intervening time munching hay in her panel corral, Acey was fit to explode. Though I’d planned to wait until Saturday, I decided to burn some of that energy on a short ride.
Leaving Consolation was a little difficult. Acey didn’t balk, but her attention was certainly not focused on me as I led her, saddled but unmounted, away from camp. We’d hardly crossed the campside creek (with me driving her, not leading, for safety’s sake), however, when the adventure of the trail sucked her in like a vortex.
She wanted to go! So much that I led her for another quarter mile before mounting up. Some might view this as a coward’s route, but I believe it is typically unwise to ask a horse to do something marginal when the horse is emotional. That’s no way to set the horse up to succeed, but it is a good way to get hurt.
I mounted when Acey’s radar ears slowed, her head lowered, and her eyes lost that distinctive gleam that says, plain as day, “I’m not listening to you!” Without asking her to stand more than a few moments, so as not to push her attention span beyond what it could bear, I pointed her down the singletrack bordered by gnarls of sage.
She took the trail on briskly, all pricked ears and courage, enchanted with new sights ranging from bird fly-ups to trail-marking ribbons in the brush. At the base of the first hill, I asked for the trot she’d been begging to try. She powered up the slope, pure joy!
What a difference from Consolation’s conservative demeanor. Acey reminded me of Aaruba in miniature, full of speed and interest to see what waited ’round the bend. Better still, she lacked Aaruba’s tendency get worked up over minutiae, instead choosing to absorb the scene and accept its bugaboos wholesale.
On the flip side, these positive traits are’t free. With them come Acey’s willful attitude, impatience, and tactical mind. Those were the bits that showed up on Saturday, when I again saddled up and led her to the quiet vetting area to let ride management know we were headed out.
As I stood there chatting, preparing to mount, I felt Acey’s emotions escalate. We were well within earshot of Consolation, who insisted upon hollering, and Acey was newly in season thanks to a late-arriving trailer that had set up next to us with a rather verbal stallion.
When I gathered my reins to mount, Acey spun away from me and kicked out — not at me, but with her opposite hind. What the…? That was a new one. I tried again and earned a repeat performance.
I tried to step around her head to see if something was stinging her or there was a problem with her tack. She sat down and backed. I whapped her hindquarters with my dressage whip. We were not going through the evasive backing thing again! She came forward. I asked her to circle — and she half-reared.
Oh, really? It was fast becoming clear that this was an attitude issue, not a physical one. I decided that mounting Acey here, where she was clearly uncomfortable and distracted by Consolation, was too much to ask. I’d settle instead for a moment of standing quietly.
A handful of ride volunteers looked on (with not-so-subtle expressions that asked, “You’re going to ride that thing?”) as I employed a stern voice, followed by the head-down cue, which I teach for precisely this kind of situation, to get some acceptable behavior.
“I’m going to lead her out a way before I get on,” I told the ride manager. “If we aren’t back in a few hours, send out the dogs.” Then we marched out of camp, stopping frequently, pivoting, and backing — whatever it took to keep Acey’s mind on me instead of her own ambitions.
Once we hit the trail, however, my amazing little horse resurfaced. She took on hills and sand with gusto, slithering down and up again to cross steep gulleys left by floods of rain. She drank from the creek and faced the wide world as though she’d been doing this for years.
As the miles passed, I grew deeply impressed by Acey’s physical ability to handle the strange and difficult terrain. Despite inexperience under saddle and her presently low fitness level, she displayed a remarkable talent for carrying a rider downhill. I tested her ability at both walk and trot, and was quite astonished by her smoothness and balance — and I’d thought Consolation was good down hills!
Ten miles or so into the fifteen-mile loop, I evaluated Acey’s status and took a shortcut back to camp. She was clearly hot and tired from the difficult climbs, and I’d no desire to curb her enthusiasm for the trail by taking advantage of it. It was a good decision. She finished the last couple miles respectfully, but with spark enough to spare.
Back in camp, Acey rested and I pondered. A ton of fun, this little horse, but feisty! I’ll need to put some real effort into establishing a repertoire of push-button responses that enable me to move her body and engage her mind in every situation. It’s likely that I’ll need to employ a stronger bridle for a while, too. I’d prefer not to do so, but if the alternative is letting Acey learn that she is stronger than I, there’s no question on the issue. Letting her take control would be disastrous for us both.
Acey won’t be an easy horse. But to have that wildfire in hand, to roar across the hills together? That’s a privilege worth making the effort to earn.