Our senior horses are saints. After a lifetime of hard work, they're enjoying their "retirement" by either teaching beginners the ropes, packing the kids or grandkids around the farm at a steady walk, or helping a person nervous around horses realize that they're not so scary after all. But, regardless of how well-trained, quiet, and creaky our seniors might be, they still spook.
Dorado, now 18, helped remind me of this fact last week. Admittedly, Dorado isn't the quietest aged horse in the world. In fact, he's kind of a giant weenie. Jump over anything? No problem. Walk by that scary liverpool I just jumped, or a pair of fallen jump standards (those are the worst!)? Heck no! Not without a sideways dance and a snort for good measure, anyway.
So last week, it was a tad windy here in Lexington—so windy that a set of solid standards had blown over and were lying on either side of a grid of ground poles. "Oh excellent!" the horse trainer in me thought. "I can school Dorado through the standards and over the poles, and show him there's nothing to be scared of!" After hopping on and warming up, I put my plan into action.
Dorado was as brave that day as I've ever seen him. He was clearly nervous about walking and trotting through the scary fallen standards, but he marched along honestly without any indication he'd try to spin and bolt away from his fears.
Dorado makes peace with the evil chair the day after our spook-and-fall incident.
Photo: Erica Larson
And then, just as we were about to enter the grid and in what felt like slow motion, a giant gust of wind came from behind us, causing the chair sitting just a few feet from the grid of poles to tip over. Now, I know that a falling chair doesn't seem like much, but for Dorado—who was already nervous about the scary standards—it was the last straw, and he did the biggest spook he's done in a long time. And yes, I ended up on the ground, covered in sand.
But the best part of this story? After I climbed back on, Dorado walked and trotted bravely past the evil chair and through the grid of poles and scary standards several more times before we called it a day. And the next day, he even made peace with the evil chair. That's my guy!
But it's not just the already spooky seniors who can find things to react to. One of my fondest memories of Taz, our quiet Appaloosa gelding who died at the age of 27 last year, has to do with a silly senior spook. Anyone could ride Taz, and 99.9% of the time he was as bombproof as they come. He once simply looked with one ear slightly perked when our former neighbors started shooting their Sherman tank one Memorial Day (seriously…they had a Sherman tank!), and Taz was laughing as hard as I was when my father's horse Lance finally made it by a cow he was convinced was going to eat him, only to have its calf stand up and really blow his mind.
It was early summer in Michigan, so our arena was covered in green grass. My father and I had set up a new jumping course for the younger horses earlier that day, and an ugly brown patch was left where our barrel jump sat prior to the move.
See that little brown patch of grass? Taz was 100% convinced it was going to eat us both!
Photo: Deborah Larson
I'd been riding Taz for roughly 10 minutes when we finally trotted by that ugly brown patch, and it didn't take him a second to slam on the breaks and say, "I am not going near that brown patch!" Nope, he was convinced that brown patch was going to eat us both. My parents and I got a good chuckle out of that one…and they had a grand time poking fun that I "made" Taz refuse a patch of grass.
But in reality, spooking is something senior horse owners and riders should always be ready for. As Dr. Stacey Oke (DVM, MSc) shared in one of my previous blog posts, even the quietest senior horse's eyesight and hearing might not function at 100% anymore. This could cause them to spook more easily. And I'm sure that Taz's "spook" at the brown grass was more of an uncertainty if he was going to step in something that simply looked darker or fall in a hole, considering he had uveitis in both eyes.
Now that you've heard my spooking senior stories, what's the strangest thing your older horse has spooked at?