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January 17, 2014

The Sunday Horse

"It's been such a learning curve with him," said Liz Arbittier of Ephraim, who was previously an Amish buggy horse.

I have to say that when I got a buggy horse, I assumed he’d be relatively bombproof. When I pass those horses on the road, I give them wide berth, watch carefully, and never see them react. I’m especially cautious at night and am constantly amazed at how focused these special horses are, to be trotting full bore on the pitch black roads with drivers buzzing by.

That said—I need to remember that Ephraim is only 4½ years old. He clearly didn’t have a long career as a buggy horse. From what I have been told by those who know these horses, they are started around 18 months or so, and they drive on back roads until they’re broke enough for real road work.

Eph wasn’t born with the desired dramatic knee action, so he may have been a horse used for everyday errands ("Eph, time to go to Walmart!") but not as the “Sunday horse.” In the Amish community, much pride is taken in breeding the big-moving creatures that drive to church on Sundays. I have passed some incredible movers on the roads! Their breeding goal would have been akin to making a high-performance Corvette. But Eph is like my high school car, the Ford Tempo. It was a fine car, especially for a new driver, but nobody’s eyes were drawn to my sweet ride as I cruised around the school parking lot. I’ve got to tell you, though—I am convinced Eph is a Subaru Forester or maybe a Volvo, because I think that no matter what trouble I get us into, Ephraim will always get me home at the end of the day.  

With all that said, today he was far from bombproof. Some things don’t scare him at all—like equine traffic in the ring or other horses acting up. He gets moderately wide-eyed at other things: farm equipment, Things (capital T) moving at the ring gate or in ring corners, and strangers. But his true nemeses are things above his body, like me, when I’m riding.

However, we are improving! He will now always take a treat from me when I’m on him, and that dramatically relaxes him. After the near-death, vest-of-doom episode, I worked on desensitizing him to that noise, which didn’t bother him until it was above him. Now if I purposely swish my vest when I’m on him, he immediately looks around for a treat. This conditioned response recently helped me out of a jam. I’ve realized that I need to be able to carry a dressage whip on him when I ride, as he is very…umm…unmotivated sometimes. His inexperience makes him dull to the leg in spite of how sensitive he is mentally. He knows what it means, but he’s green and basically doesn’t care. He also knows what a cluck means and is good at ignoring that as well. So, a little tickle with the dressage whip to learn to go forward is what he needs, but I need to be able to carry it first—thus, the story.

Confession time: I’m not good at carrying a dressage whip. I’ve carried one plenty, but I’ve never learned the finesse of it. I’m the one who is just as likely to whack myself, the arena wall, or a passing rider, as use it elegantly on the horse. And, my 25-year habit of riding with open fingers doesn’t facilitate sophisticated whip usage. My hands are soft. Some (Kevin) might (does) say “ineffective,” but I prefer soft. I’ve spent a lot of time starting babies and definitely have bad habits.

Another one of these habits? Sticking crops in my back pocket.  

I decided to see how he would be with the whip, so I tapped him all over with it. He didn’t care. Even on the saddle—making that “whap-whap” noise—no response. I patted him and absentmindedly stuck the whip in my back pocket…do you know me well enough yet to recognize one of my patented, unwise decisions?

I went to mount and was swinging up when he caught sight of the whip above him and panicked. He bolted from the block but only went a few steps (with me dragging behind him like an awkward, middle-aged anchor). Then he stopped and looked for a treat. I was able to disentangle and apologize. When I took him back, he acted like it had never happened and stood like a rock to be mounted. I love that he doesn’t hold a grudge!

My new plan is to start with a crop and work my way up. I don’t think he’ll care, but I still think I’ll ask Kate to be the one to introduce the dressage whip. I doubt he’ll mind it touching him, but he won’t like it swinging near his body, especially when he’s not working. That can be her project!

Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. She also enjoys rescuing elderly shelter dogs and just added Byron, an elderly blind poodle, to her household. Byron joins Virgil, Cybil, Gladys, and Maude (and Liz) in Coatesville, Pa. She grew up casually riding hunters, did IHSA in college, and got started in show jumping before vet school when she took a job managing Kevin Babington's team. She's ridden with Kevin for 18 years and, while Ephraim is a departure for both Liz and Kevin, Kevin is excited to meet him!

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