Horses, being prey animals, are always on the lookout for the next thing that is going to eat them. 99% of the things that frighten them are inanimate objects. The sheer number of horse eating rocks is nothing short of amazing. Many horse owners go to great lengths to "de-spook" their horses, while others simply pray for a spook free horse.
Alas, Smokey is not one of them.
But here's the rub. If I haul him miles away and take him on a trail ride in the mountains, he is as solid a horse as anyone could ask for. Sure footed, with great stamina, he doesn't let anything bother him. Narrow trails, steep trails, water crossings, elk, rocks, nothing seems to faze him. Last summer while riding in the hills, my nephew and I encountered two bears on the trail. Smokey never batted an eye.
Around the farm is a different story. If there is something new in the barn, he will stop dead in his tracks and cast a wary eye at this potentially horse eating object. If there is a barrel where there wasn't one yesterday, it must be carefully avoided. And the first time he saw a miniature horse...well, suffice to say that he nearly jumped out of his skin, and gave me a look that seemed to say "what happened to that horse, and am I next?"
Tonight, I was leading him up the alley to the barn. There is a horse blanket draped over the fence near the barn. Now this blanket has been in the same spot for weeks, and he hasn't given it a second look. But tonight, it was flapping in the wind. Thankfully, he didn't try to jump in my pocket, but he started, and gave the blanket a wide berth.
But the best Smokey spook story involves an event that happened while were attending a Ken McNabb clinic several years ago. On the last day, Ken brought out the dreaded Blue Tarp. Many of you may not realize that blue tarps are natural predators, which are at least one step higher on the food chain than horses.
The tarp was probably about 8'x8', and was spread out on the ground. The goal of this exercise being to get the horse to trust the rider's guidance enought to walk across it. When a horse is unsure of their footing, they will avoid the obstacle. Several of the horses walked right across it, as though they did it everyday, whilst others required a bit more coaxing.
Then it was time for Smokey and I. He wanted nothing to do with this tarp, turning left, then right as I forced him to walk up to it. Several times he started a quick fake to the left or right, whipping my spine around like a tilt a whirl. Each time I brought him back to face the tarp. I was finally able to persuade him to stand quietly in front of the tarp, but no amount of liberaly applied leg pressure to his gut was going to convince him to set foot on it.
Have I mentioned that Smokey can jump?
I should have filed a flight plan, for, in the very next instant, the horse and I were airborne. With nothing to do at this point, I merely held on, waiting for the flight attendant to roll the beverage cart past. Was that a flock of geese?
Returning my saddle to the upright and locked position, we came in for a four point...er hoof, landing. But the fun wasn't over, as we were quickly running out of runway, the momentum carrying us toward a line of horses and riders. Gathering up the reins and pulling back, I uttered a well timed "whoa". Smokey complied, and we came to a stop in a cloud of dust.
After the laughter subsided, I was complimented for having a good seat and riding the whole thing through. Those who witnessed the event attest to the fact that not one of his feet ever touched the tarp, and that I never lost my composure, and rode the whole thing through as though I do it everyday. I can assure you, there was no skill involved in my part. I was merely a passenger on the flight.
In the end, I did manage to get Smokey to walk quietly across the tarp.