Take that, Murphy!

For the last few days, it seems that the infamous Murphy has been hell-bent to complicate my life with his unbreakable law. It’s been said that Murphy couldn’t have been a horseman, because he was too optimistic. And, as I’ve pointed out before, he really wasn’t a horseman. He was an Air Force flight test engineer, aka rocket scientist. Now I think I may have managed to prove that, even though Murphy’s law has a firm foundation in rocket science, it can at least be bent, if not broken.

In my last post, I briefly mentioned an example of Murphy’s law in action, Crossbo’s lost shoe, without giving Murphy proper credit. Maybe that was the reason he decided to turn up the heat. Or maybe he was pissed because I evaded his law by taking Arthur instead.

Although I was able to successfully regroup on Wednesday, there was a greater issue to consider. Crossbo was going to need a full set of shoes on Sunday, because he was enrolled in a Police Academy sequel, to try to redeem ourselves after last year. I had already realized that the condition of his shoes left some doubt about whether they would be in good shape on Sunday, and had left a message for my farrier and let him know that we had a specific deadline. Since he hadn’t showed up or returned my call, I decided to reinforce the message on Thursday, and managed to reach him and get a promise that he would be here Saturday morning. Take that, Murphy!

Murphy’s next gambit was to complicate the farrier’s schedule by loading him up with more work on Saturday. But Murphy lost that one, too. When I got home from work Friday night, the farrier was in my barn shoeing Crossbo, since the Saturday appointment wasn’t going to work.

The original Saturday date would have conflicted with hunting, which I just shrugged off as an unavoidable loss. But now, opportunity awaited. Some might think that I was recklessly taunting Murphy by hunting the day before a clinic. But I can sometimes be a cocky sonuvabitch. I may have heard Murphy whispering “I gotcha now, sucker” as I loaded Crossbo Saturday morning, but I was on a roll.

Well, Murphy was on a roll, too. He threw a stone wall up in front of Crossbo and clipped his knees. At the time, it didn’t look serious. A couple of small nicks, with some light bleeding that quickly stopped. But when I unloaded him at home, my heart sunk as he held out his left front foot at a strange angle and said “Dad, it hurts!”, and walked on it very tenderly. Closer examination of the left knee showed a very small cut that didn’t look bad, except for some strange yellow fluid oozing from it.

I didn’t think infection would set in that quickly, and the fact that a knee was involved scared me. Googling horse wounds and yellow fluid yielded a dire warning that yellow fluid from a wound was a sign that a joint had been compromised and I was in deep shit.

In a panic, I called my vet and reported that my horse had bumped his knee on a stone wall and there was yellow stuff oozing out of it. He said “That’s serum that results from bruising. Give him some bute and relax. And antibiotics might be a good idea.” I had already given him bute and antibiotics, so the only thing left to do was relax.

I could relax with the knowledge that Crossbo’s leg probably wasn’t going to fall off. But his Police Academy reunion was in jeopardy. Was that the sound of Murphy chuckling?

By Saturday evening, things were looking a little better. Although the knee was still puffy and oozing, he was walking normally. But as his pasture mates galloped around, he trotted after them, indicating that he probably still wasn’t feeling quite his normal self.

The clinic started Sunday afternoon, and all morning I debated with myself. He really didn’t look like he was feeling any pain, but the knee still looked a little swollen and had some seepage. Finally I decided to take him to the Horse Park and keep my options open.

Arriving at the park, I met one of my hunting buddies whose horse sense I trust far greater than my own. I showed her Crossbo and told her what had transpired. If she had shown any pessimism at all, I probably would have put him back on the trailer and taken him home. She said “He’s not lame on it, he’ll be fine”. And he was.

After making the big decision, the next decision was whether to leave the flask on the saddle, and if so, what to put in it. I had been assigned to a session groups with two hunting buddies, who have never seen me without at least one flask.

In this case, wisdom won out over showing off. I decided that although all the instructors had a sense of humor, swigging booze during their instruction might seem a tad disrepectful, as if I wasn’t taking it seriously. I also realized that at an event hosted by a police force and held at a state park, drinking on horseback might be seriously frowned on by some of the higher authorities. As an example of the uptightness involved, participants not only had to sign liability waivers which are typical at such events; the waivers also had to be notarized. Although I didn’t see any explicit alcohol ban mentioned, I assumed government entities which insisted on notarized waivers were not easily amused, and I certainly didn’t want to jeopardize the clinic. But I didn’t want to take the flask off of the saddle, and leaving it empty just didn’t seem right. So I filled it with water, which I thought might come in handy during long sessions.

On one hand, that was probably a good choice. One of the officers actually did ask (albeit with a big smile) whether that was a whisky bottle on my saddle. That may be the only time in my life I’ll ever be able to hold up my flask and say “See Ossifer, no alcohol at all.” Somebody else advised me not to let her smell it, because of residual rocknrye fumes.

On the other hand, it was probably somewhat confusing to poor Crossbo. Normally, during a hunt, he is able to sense the weight of the flask and determine when it’s safe to trust my judgment, and when he needs to stop trusting me and rely on his own sense of self-preservation to keep us out of trouble. In this case, where he was constanty being asked to trust me, the decreasing weight of the flask during the day may have left him wondering how much to trust me. I actually explained that to the officer, but I don’t think she bought it.

This year’s clinic was much like last year’s, with some minor changes. One change was the schedule. Instead of a single full day, we had a few hours Sunday and a full day Monday. Sunday was sort of a settling in time, beginning with a demonstration from the Lexington instructors. Some of the demonstration was impressive but not especially surprising, such as firing guns from horseback without the horses even flinching. That requires a calm, steady horse, but that’s something that would automatically be expected from a police horse. But other parts of the demonstration were a little more interesting, and left me even more determined to avoid arrest. The two mounted officers approached a dummy from both sides, and reached down and handcuffed him. That was cool. Then they lifted him by the arms, and took off at a trot with him dangling between them. When they took him over a jump, I decided I might almost rather be Tasered.

After the demonstration, we were given a choice how to spend the remaining time that evening. People who felt they, or their horses, needed more introduction to the natural horsemanship style used in the training could do some groundwork, while others could get some instruction in riding techniques.

I thought the mounted instruction sounded more interesting, but based on our experience last year, I thought we probably really needed to do some more of the groundwork instead of trying to rush things. That may have been the only mistake I made. Crossbo was quickly bored with the ground stuff, so we moved over to the mounted division, along with another hunting buddy who had reached the same conclusion. But since we entered the session late, we didn’t get the full benefit of the instruction, and although it wasn’t a total waste, it would have been better if we had started at the beginning.

Then I tucked Crossbo in his stall, said goodnight, and went home, hoping that I would return in the morning to find his knee better, or at least no worse, and that he wouldn’t totally freak out about spending a night in a stall for the first time since I brought him home two years ago.

I arrived bright and e
arly (or actually dark and early) Monday morning to find that Crossbo and the barn were still intact. His knee was a little less swollen, and there was less seepage. He was a little stiff from standing on an asphalt floor, but he quickly walked out of that.

Monday’s format was much like last year’s, with three of the same instructors and three different ones. The two from Lexington were back, with similar work and some new and different challenges. One of the RCMP instructors (the one who rode Crossbo last year) was back, with a different partner. They taught the same type of equitation lesson as last year, but this year’s was a little more organized. The two from London were replaced with two from Toronto, who taught a lesson similar to the Brits, although with a little more focus on working as a group.

My first session of the day was the RCMP equitation session. I’m sure Murphy was happy to see that, as that would be the one most likely to aggravate any lingering lameness. Starting with that session gave less time for recovery and warmup, and pulling up lame then would knock me out of the other two sessions and ruin the whole day, instead of letting me get through the other sessions first.

Since it’s often easier for a spectator on the ground, especially a skilled one, to notice lameness than the rider, I told the instructors at the beginning that Crossbo was recovering from a booboo and asked them to tell me if they saw any hint of a problem and I would retire. Not only did we make it through the entire session, but when the instructor who hadn’t been here last year wanted a horse for a demonstration at the end, he chose Crossbo. I don’t know whether that was a total coincidence, or whether his buddy told him how wonderful Crossbo was, or whether he had just figured out that Crossbo was the horse who could show the greatest transformation with an improvement in the saddle.

The instructors pointed out some areas where my equitation needs work, not surprising for an old fart who has spent 30 years gallivanting cross-country with no formal riding instruction. It’s going to be hard to remember it all in the heat of a hunt, but as often as possible, I’m going to try to remind myself to try to think of at least one of their tips.

The next session was with the Lexington instructors, teaching the horses to walk over or through various obstacles, first from the ground and then mounted. Some of them were ones that Crossbo handled well last year (the infamous teetertotter), some were ones that he failed miserably at (mattresses and water), and some were new. By the end of the session, he was doing well with all but one, and I decided that probably wasn’t a good one for us to tackle. It was a pair of gates, with tarps hanging below them to give the appearance of a solid obstacle. They started with a gap between them big enough to walk a horse through, and then started to move them closer together so that the horse would have to push them open. Crossbo did that well with me on the ground. But when I was mounted, he stopped, and then when urged forward, his front end started to come up. I didn’t know whether that was an evasion tactic, or whether he really thought I wanted him to jump it. Obviously I didn’t want to him to jump it, and didn’t want to give him that idea. Then, after more thought, I wasn’t sure I wanted to give him the idea that pushing through solid obstacles instead of going over them was desirable. The next time I point him at a stone wall, I want him to pick his knees up higher, not try to move it with his chest. My hunting buddies expressed similar doubts about the dummies we walked over; they didn’t think they wanted their horses to walk on them if they were lying on the ground. I suggested that the point was to walk over bodies without stepping on them, but they didn’t even think they wanted to be walked over.

One of the most interesting new obstacles was a round wooden platform, about 3 feet across and 4 inches high, painted black with a white rim, to make it look like a black hole to a horse. During the Sunday night demo, one of the officers nonchalantly stepped up onto it and had her horse standing with all four feet on it. Later that evening, Crossbo refused to even walk over it, let alone stand on it, and all the other horses that tried it had the same reaction. By the time we got back to it Monday morning, enough horses had walked over it that it was covered with sand, making it much less threatening. With just a little urging, Crossbo walked over it. Getting him to stand on it was a little tougher, since I wasn’t smart enough to communicate that after he got his front feet on it, they needed to stay still as he pulled his back feet up under him. But eventually he figured out what I wanted, and I managed to get him standing on it, both from the ground and mounted.

After lunch, the next session was with the Toronto instructors. They talked to us about “the power of the herd” and how they use that to their advantage. Horses that are somewhat timid are likely to follow strong leaders through something scary rather than risk being left behind. They started working us through some drills in pairs and groups of four. Then they had us approach a “scary situation”, people waving flags in their faces, in pairs. The pair they initially chose for a lead pair were somewhat spooky, and didn’t want to get near the horse-eating flags. Crossbo and I, paired with another hunt buddy, were behind, and after a couple of tries, the instructors said that it was OK for stronger horses in the rear to push through. That was all the encouragement we needed, and things got a lot more fun when they said “OK, now that we’ve determined which are our strong leaders, we put them in front.” Our horses got high praise from the instructors, who said they were probably the best they had worked with all day.

After the flags, their next trick was a large ball, about chest-high to a horse, and the horses had to walk up to the ball and push it forward. Crossbo did fairly well with that, although he was a little more confused by it than the flags. I think it was not really fear, but just not figuring out what the hell he was supposed to do.

After that session, we had an obstacle competition, similar to the one last year that I wimped out of. Of roughly 30 people in the clinic, 13 opted to compete. The obstacles were similar to what we worked with in the training session, but different enough to be new to the horses. Rather than setting a specific time limit for each obstacle, the judges said they would give us three attempts at each one. I vowed that if I had any problems with an obstacle, I wasn’t giving up until I had to. Realizing that I was going to need as much trust as possible from Crossbo, I refilled the flask (with water!) to try to avoid the “empty flask = crazy rider” equation.

The first obstacle was the infamous “black hole”. Not only was it moved to a different location, which would make it completely new to a horse, all the sand was cleaned off. I knew that would be a problem. The requirement was to walk over it, touching it with all four feet. Standing on it was not required, but jumping over it didn’t qualify. When asked when I wanted to ride, I wasn’t totally joking when I said I wanted enough people in front of me to leave some sand on that thing. I ended up riding fourth, and since none of the first three got a single foot on it, it was still shiny and black when Crossbo and I approached it. We eventually got one foot on it, but no more. With all the dancing around, I was a little confused about exactly what was a single “attempt”, but when the judges said “That’s it, you’ve had three tries”, I was satisfied that we had been given a reasonable shot at it. Almost everybody else had problems with it. One horse, the eventual winner, walked over it without hesitation, seeming somewhat bored. A couple of others got 2 or 3 feet on it.

After the black hole, Crossbo handled the others reasonably well, although not perfectly. We ended up in seventh p
lace, which I thought was pretty good compared to last year. And now I have a shiny julep cup that says “I kicked Murphy’s ass”. (Okay, it doesn’t really say that. But that’s what it means). Take that, Murphy!

I once again want to recommend this clinic to anyone within reasonable hauling distance of Lexington. The instructors are fantastic, and this is the only event in the world where these Mounted Police instructors train civilians. I don’t expect to return soon. I think the decision to bring Crossbo back this year was a good one, but now he has been there, done that. Continuing education is good, but this is not the kind of clinic that needs to be continually repeated with the same horse. It’s great fun, but I probably won’t be back until I have a new horse, and since that probably won’t be until Crossbo is approaching retirement, I hope it’s not anytime soon. But I also hope that when I do have another horse, the clinic is still available. It’s really surprising to me that it doesn’t sell out. Fortunately, I was able to get in this year after missing the registration deadline, and they were still hoping for more entries. Since this clinic would be valuable for any riding style (there were a few western saddles this year), I think a little more publicity would easily increase interest to the point that they have to turn down entries.

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