By Krystal Showalter
Sitting in the truck with my husband, Nathan, and friend, Barb, I had a hard time keeping up with the chatter. My mind kept going back and forth between two things: the game plan that Nancy and I had talked over the day before and the excitement that a goal I set a year before was going to be attempted that day.
Behind the truck was a horse trailer with three of the horses that we foster. One of which was the now well known horse, Chevy the Wild Mustang. A year ago we were at Nancy Slater’s for training and had just barely begun to halter and lead him around and now I was heading for our local parade. His journey had been nothing short of amazing and with all of those amazing milestones came an extreme amount of persistence and hard work. Could we do it? Time would tell.
We arrived at the staging location early so that there would be as little chaos as possible. That meant the gate was still locked though. So we headed down to the parking lot to find someone who could help us. She sent us over to another parking lot instead of the staging area, and I made my first critical error of the day. I let someone else’s judgment override mine and what I thought my horse needed. I figured we could deal with it.
We unloaded the horses and from the time Chevy came off the trailer and saw everything going on, he was rattled.
Snorting and high headed, he was paying attention to everything except me, his leader. When a trailer with draft horses pulled up next to us and unloaded their horses, he started to really get nervous. I moved him to a safe area, away from people and horses and put into practice all that I had learned over the past year. In time, he was convinced that I was the leader and relaxed and ate his hay.
I dressed him in his Santa costume and tried to keep assessing how calm he was and how connected to me he was. I was aware, like most times I am with other people and horses, that everybody around me was completely unaware of exactly what I was dealing with. At one point, I handed him off to my husband just for a minute while I went to grab something I needed and Chevy protested to me leaving by setting back. My husband’s response was priceless as he made a “OH, NO!” face when he realized how powerful just that response alone was. It is intimidating enough to handle any horse in a chaotic environment but when you add in a horse that has learned to trust himself first and foremost due to trauma caused by humans, it brings a whole other level of challenges to the horsemanship. I had a great coach and she has poured into me over the past year, but at that moment I was on my own, and I was hoping all that I had worked on would pay off so I could help Chevy get through this experience.
I kept at it until he was very calm and decided that eating hay was his top priority. He’d have been quite content to stay there all day and do just that, but it was time to move down to the staging area. I made my second critical error, I grabbed my 12 foot lead rope and a short carrot stick without a string. I have replayed this decision over and over and groaned each time I realized just how big of an error it was. The ironic part was that I checked to make sure the two people with me had a longer lead rope and mentally thought to myself, “good…they might need that extra length of rope today!” My ego got the best of me though and I picked the clean, brand new rope over the dirty, worn a little tool that was the best one for our situation.
We had to walk down the street, on a narrow sidewalk with cars driving by us and vendors on the one side and a crowd of people moving around on the other. This was my biggest concern when I laid out my game plan the day before and was why we had planned to just go directly to the staging area and bypass all of the chaos. It has been overwhelming to our other horses in years past and I knew it would be even more so for Chevy.
As we moved, Chevy was trying to take it all in and I realized how much every single thing that even my other horses barely glanced at, was new to him and completely overwhelming. Had he had time to process them one at a time, he would have fared better, but it was too much coming at him all at once and we were moving pretty quickly to get where we needed to go.
He started to drift mentally and then physically he began pushing in on me due to his fear. When I saw a spot where I could move off the sidewalk and away from people, I took him in a yard and started backing him up. I was going to do some Falling Leaf patterns but wanted him out and away from me first.
Because I had the 12 foot rope, I didn’t have enough rope to let him drift and he started to scoot away from me instead of backing appropriately to the pressure. When he felt that he’d hit the end of the rope, I tried to hold, but he took that one more step backwards, felt it pull and then jerked to free himself. I face planted on the ground which spooked him even more and he realized he was free and took off, running back to the road and then down the street.
I wanted to cry. I so wanted this to be a positive growing experience for him and here he was, doing the very thing I was trying to keep him from doing: running away and taking care of himself because he didn’t trust my leadership. I ran after him and then realized in amazement that as he was running along and people were trying to help by grabbing him, it wasn’t scaring him even worse. He was ducking and weaving in that mindful “Nope, I’m not letting you get me” way. “Good!”, I thought to myself, “At least he is thinking!”
People were calm and hollered out encouraging things to me as I ran after him and I saw that three men had put up their hands to stop him and he had allowed one man to grab his lead rope and pet him. Again, I mentally cheered and applauded this huge accomplishment for him even with all that was going on. Chevy was letting a stranger hold him and pet him!
My husband had been ahead of me and got to him first. He went with him no problem, but was still looking around for me. He had realized that running away was not such a good choice. When I got to him, he was very happy to see me. I took his rope, told him what a good boy he was that he came to me and we went on our way down to the staging area.
Once we arrived, there were floats, horses and vehicles with sirens and flashing lights. If he thought the road was a mind blowing experience, this was a hundred times more so. I knew right away that there was no way he was up for walking in the parade, but I also knew that it was a great experience for him. A few people suggested that I take him back to our trailer and get him away from it all. I knew that was not a good idea so I just told them that I was not going to do that, ignored the chatter around me and concentrated on figuring out what to do.
I looked around until I saw a short side road next to us that was empty. We moved over there and I started to work on letting him see what was going on, and retreating as much as he needed to so he could get calmer. I was looking for lots of licking and chewing and yawning.
The staging area was behind us and the parade was in front of us, so he ended up getting even more exposure to it than had we been walking in the parade. It was a better environment for me to be able to handle him though, so it was were I stayed until the parade had moved out of the area. He was very rattled and wanted to escape. I had to stay very firm and focused to say to him, “We are doing this together. If you need to leave, we can do that, but I go with you.”
I am quite sure it looked neurotic to anyone watching us because just as he would retreat enough to get calm and process what was going on in front of us, he’d be aware that the parade was moving behind us and we’d have to turn around and do that same thing again. And then over and over again some more. I was exhausted and running on adrenaline at that point, but I just kept hearing Nancy’s voice in my head saying, “give your horse what he needs”.
I didn’t let myself get sucked into any of the other thoughts running through my head and there were plenty, but told myself to do my thinking that night so I could attend to what was going on in the moment. We kept at it until he got calm enough that he finally settled and could just take in what was going on and think about it.
When the parade had moved out of the staging area, we headed over there. I was so relieved and thought maybe now we can both take it easy while he eats grass. That was not the case though. There was a playground and a child was swinging and Chevy lost his mind all over again, wanting to run away. He most likely had never seen anything on that playground and so we did retreat and re-approach until he got to a point where he looked over at me and asked if he could go check it out closer. As I relayed this part to Nancy later that day, she pointed out how huge it was. He went from scared to confident and then became curious!
We did the same thing with red clay that spooked him. Then other horse trailers. Then with the people cantering their horses into the area we were in. And finally with people with horses with trailers (and hay bags!) that he didn’t know. Each thing he spooked at went from being scared to becoming calm and then hit a point where he asked me if we could move in closer and he could really investigate it.
By the time my husband was finished with the parade and had come to pick us up with the horse trailer, he said Chevy looked like he was at home. Very calm and asking me questions about things. He loaded into the trailer like a champ and was happy to see there was hay there for him.
As we headed back home, I joined in the chatter this time and it was mostly about what I had learned that day. It was a very big thing that we tackled and I had learned a lot to say the least. It was eye opening both about Chevy’s holes and my own horsemanship holes. It was very humbling in many ways. It was very intimidating to think of how badly it could have gone when he ran away. It was also very daunting to see how much more exposure Chevy needs to our world.
More than anything though, I was thrilled that we did the parade. It was a huge boost to see how helpful and kind other horse people were when we needed help. I was so proud of Chevy for trying so hard that entire day. He wanted to take care of himself and run away in his own ways over and over and for the most part, he picked partnering with me over that instinct that runs so deep in him.
As I sat in the truck, the awareness of how big the day had been hit me. I said to Nathan and Barb, “oh my goodness…Chevy and I just did the parade!!” as it really sunk in that the day was over and we were heading home.
Chevy! Did the parade! We might have had to do it our own way, but my horse that could not really even be touched a little over a year before, did this monumental thing. I was proud of both of us for trying and for working at putting our principles into practice in a real life setting and stretching ourselves. I saw the day as a win overall because it is not about walking in the parade. It isn’t about us doing every single part well. It is about my relationship with my horse.
That afternoon, when I went out to the pasture to get Chevy, he saw me and ran to me. Not walked quickly but ran to me. He had never once ran to me like that before then. That told me everything I needed to know whether he believed that I was there for him that day and was the leader he needed overall. His feedback was worth it all.