Gold Miner's Storm Cloud, with her new-born mule, Ernestine, on the first full day of her life.
From the time she was born to age two or so, I witnessed only one attempt to reprimand Ernestine. It was issued by Ellie, our senior mule who had just returned to the herd from a 5 year hiatus on Guemas Island where she’d lived with a family and their donkeys. Ellie had a pile of hay all to herself and Ernie wandered over and started to eat with Ellie.
“Get out of here, kid,” Ellie said, flattening her ears and wagging her nose in Ernie’s direction.
“I’m Ernestine,” Ernie said. “I can eat with anyone.”
“Scram, kid.” Ellie snarled, pinning her ears again and giving her head a more forceful thrust.
“I’m Ernestine,” Ernie repeated innocently. “I can eat with anyone.”
Ellie’s fuse snapped. She reached out and bit Ernie on the bridge of the nose. “Move, kid!” she growled.
Ernie’s eyes opened wide and her mouth gaped in disbelief. “I’m Ernestine,” she cried, “I…”
Ganny stepped in before she could finish. He strode to Ellie with long, confident steps that clearly communicated his authority. “Go on,” he told Ellie.
“The kid needs discipline!” Ellie said already retreating under his pressure.
Sierra approached, giving Ganny unnecessary backup. “No one picks on the baby,” she stated.
“I’m telling you; the kid needs discipline,” Ellie rebutted as she stomped off, disgusted with the lot of them.
Pippen added his two-cents worth, joining Sierra and Ganny at Ellie’s hay. “I didn’t pick on Ernie, so I can eat here too,” he said smugly.
I had to agree with Ellie.
It was early September (2008) when my friend, Mary, and I set up the round pen in the "Back 40". We had not realized that the neighbor’s dogs would pose a hazard, coming down from their yard to bark menacingly at the horses. So this was to be the first and last time we would use the round pen until it could be relocated.
Given Ernie's lack of experience with discipline, it came as no surprise that her first round pen lesson, at age 16 months did not go smoothly. For 40 minutes she played out her own agenda: leave the enclosure by any means possible. She tried climbing under, through and over the rails.
Just before I collapsed from exhaustion, Ernie capitulated and jogged along the rail for two consecutive laps. Although her nose was pointed toward the outside of the pen, she did not make a physical attempt to leave, and we ended our lesson on that note.
Early in July (2009) , Mary drove over from Bellingham to spend a few days playing with horses. We collected a group of people to break the round pen down and move it to its current location: in front of the barn. And then Mary and I held a mini-clinic for Anne, a wonderful lady new to horses.
We marched up to the back field and collected the desired critters: Mary would work with Pippen; Anne with Quincy, and I with Ernie. But all of the horses came with us. So we put halters and leadropes on everyone and tied them all to the outside of the round pen. It was absolutely fascinating to watch them watch the training.
Ernie’s mother, Stormy, was particularly riveted on the training. She watched with burning intensity as Mary worked with Pippen. And when Anne got in the round pen, her first groundwork lesson ever, I could feel Stormy coaching her: “Get behind his flank. Not the shoulder. See you stopped him! You have to stay behind his hip!” For Stormy the greatest revelation was that people need to learn this stuff too.
Ernie did not seem particularly engrossed with the goings-on.
Before Ernie and I stepped into the round pen I summarized our last lesson for Anne. I told her that I fully expected ‘sparks to fly’ as Ernie and I worked through the avoidance issues that had been our focus on our last session, 10 months ago.
But sparks did not fly. Ernie worked respectfully and cooperatively, never attempting to leave and maintaining an invisible connection with me while she worked. We spent our time merely working on a good, solid “whoa” and getting an outside turn.
When we’d finished, her brother, Bert, seemed rather pouty. I’d chosen his sister over him he moped. So I used Bert to show Anne a couple of the exercises I use to teach good gate manners. One is to have the horse or mule approach the gate with me and when I stop at the gate, back up three steps. I then ground tie the horse while I open the gate. Then I ask the horse to step though the opening before me, and when their body is through, to spin around to face me and back up three steps again. This keeps them focused on me and allows me to stay out of their way should they become frightened or claustrophobic. It also keeps them safe when going through barbed-wire fence gates.
The other thing I work on in getting them through gates is having them help me open and close gates with me. This sets up a foundation on which I can build when opening gates from the saddle.
We will be offering clinic-type sessions here at the 3-Bell Ranch in late August. You’re welcome to contact us should you be interested in attending.