Sorry for the length of these posts, this is just something I want to get down for my own sake, the process of buying this mare is one I want to remember....however, I doubt it makes for great reading so feel free to skim it over or skip it all together:)....
I watched, for a shortness to her step, for her to push into or past M. I watched her ears, her eyes and her expression... was she bitchy, sour, sweet or lacking for personality all together? How do we make these deductions in but a moments time? Is it the shape of the head? The wideness of the eye or the set of the ears? Is it in the lazy or quick swoosh of the tail? The headset? What makes us look at one horse and say that horse looks placid and at another and say that horse looks full of fire when both do nothing but stand and stare at you as you pass?
As M. walked Sweet Pea out of the field and as I watched her go I decided two things. One, that this mare was submissive. No genius required there. Barely a square inch of her hide was free of some size of mark, from a little piece of hair missing to a larger piece of skin bared bald and raw. She eyed her herd companions wearily as we passed and let a few feet back from M. without having to be reminded. The second deduction was that she was quiet. Her eye, though worried, was still loose, with her lashes hanging low and ears pointing more to the side than the stars. Her head set stayed at wither and her tail head swayed gently behind her. Her body was slightly braced but more in fear (of her herd mates) than as if bundled for energy and movement. As we walked out the gate she dropped her head some more and chewed, as if she understood she'd stepped on to the safe side of the fence. M. parked her in front of the barn where the remainder of some sour smelling round bale enticed her appetite enough that tying didnt seem required. And tying was the biggest issue I had with this horse. One of my first questions is always "How does she tie?" and when that question is answered "Good" I am not satisfied, so I ask "How does she tie in new places, to trailers, next to other horses." And even if I get another"good", I am still weary and only willing to believe it, naturally, when I see it. Why the emphasis on tying? Well, I'll tell that story in another post but for now will just say that I believe horses who tie are better MENTALLY broke than those who dont. I also have learned (the hard way of course) just what a pain in the ass it is to have a horse who doesnt tie. Anyways, back to Sweet Pea and M. Before I had gone to see her M had told me that she did tie well, however, (to be totally honest, she said) there was a time when she did not. I guess the first time Sweet Pea was tied she managed to get herself shocked by an electric fence and from then on was quite nervous while tied. She had been sent for two months training (not pro but a "good hand" who was her close friend) and her friend had tied her every day until she "got over it". However, M admitted that she rarely tied her and she usually just ground tied her. And so the tying issue because my greatest hesitation in this mare and having seen her stand quietly while not tied (though well occupied by a pile of hay) was no reassurance.
What was reassuring was that M didnt take much time to brush her down, and didnt seem to care about little bits of hay left stuck to the underside of the saddle pad, or the bite marks on her back that looks a little puffy and sore, nor that the saddle didnt seem to fit her well. In my mind this goes to show that she isnt worried about giving her an excuse to buck, which means she probably doesnt buck (or that M. is the type who doesnt care if her horses buck, but, hey, I was trying to be optimistic.) She saddled quietly and bridled just as well. There being no arena at that barn and only a gravel drive there wasnt a whole lot she could show me so I asked her to walk and trot up and down the length of the drive. I watched the way she walked, watched for signs of unsoundness. Her quality of movement was great (winged in a little in the back and is slightly toed in at the front) she did seem sound and stepped out nicely. As for riding, Sweet Pea seemed to go when asked and to stop when asked (bonus!) but her steering was rough around the edges and even M admitted that while she was good mannered with no vices, and though she had quite a lot of trail miles, she didnt know much. That much I could see for myself but I could also so that she was no dead head. As she trotted down the driveway she weaved slightly from side to side, just a step off a straight path but enough to see that there was plenty on that road she was unsure about but also that she unwilling to put much effort in to spooking and she tried to be brave. I am more impressed with a horses ability to handle and process "scary" things with a horse who has seen much (much) more and has become desensitized. I was also heartened by the fact that when it came time for me to get on her I really didnt feel uncomfortable with the idea at all. Normally I hate getting on horses I dont know, but there was something so reasonable about the way she handled herself that I felt (somewhat) confident that even if things did go sideways it wasnt going to be an a disaster.
Note: This is where my whole concept of assessing horses has recently changed. In the past I've focused on a horses training and experience. To me this means that I would ask questions more about where a horse has been, what they have done, how seasoned that horse is rather than trying to assess their inherent disposition. This time around I've focused more on how that horse reacts when faced with something new rather than trying to find a horse who doesnt have much new left to see. Big differentiation there. You see, the more "exposure" a horse has had the more a buyer has to count on the quality of training of the past users. The biggest "ghosts" I've found in my past horses have come from that horse having had a bad first experience or from having been trained poorly or abusively. A blank slate, or a slate that has limited exposure combined with good solid training can be a beautiful thing ONLY (IMHO) if the horse has a naturally good or inherently trainable and sensible disposition. The less naturally trainable and sensible a horse is the more I have to look for a horse that has had PLENTY of good solid training of a professional. In other words, some horses are suited to amateurs like me and some horses really do need a professional. How to assess the inherent disposition of a horse (as oppose to the disposition that has been created in that horse) is something I'd love to write more about in another post.
After watching Sweet Pea be ridden I came to the conclusion that she was a naturally submissive, quiet and sensible horse who wanted to please and that what training she did have in her was of some quality. And so when I got on her I felt more comfortable than usual because I was betting on her natural sense of wanting to please and on the training of someone who seemed practical and competent.
Within a minute of getting on her that was put to the test as the tractor that had been, up till then (murphys law) working a nearby field decided to come in. In order to get back to the equipment shed he had to drive past us at a distance of no more than six feet. As the tractor approached Sweet Pea kept a close eye on it. As it got really close she asked if we could move by taking a tentative step forward. I said no, "stand". She stood, quietly. The tractor passed and we walked on. It was as simple as that. She move forward well when I asked and stopped when I asked. As we walked down the driveway I noticed that her attention would bounce back and forth from one scary object to the other and though I did have to direct her back to the path I had set her on every minute or so her reaction and willingness to move past those scary spots without making a big deal out of them was commendable. M and I headed for a small round pen at the far corner of the property but when we got there it was half covered in water and the sandy ground was fetlock deep and slick as snot in a door nob (I learned that expression last week and have since revelled in it disgusting descriptiveness! lol) As we moved in to the arena she hesitated but walked on at my urging. When we approached the edge of the water she stopped and bulked when I asked her to walk through. She snorted, she sniffed the water and took a step forward then back. I bumped her gently and kissed her forward and she went, not smoothly, not prettily and with her body all bundled up but she went. On the other side I stopped, petted her neck and told her she was a good girl. She blew out the nerves and huffed a sigh of agreement. M. suggested that we give it another try as Sweet Pea is always better the second time and by the third she usually gets over it entirely. I walked her to the edge of the water and kissed her forward before she could stop. She went. And this time she didnt bobble her way through, she just went as confident as can be. I liked that she processed that experience so quickly and decided that it was okay. As we walked back to the barn she had to go buy the tractor again, this time stopped next to a work crew with bright orange traffic cones and shiny vests. I could feel her bunch up as she walked past but once again she did as she was asked and relaxed quickly on the other side.
And that was the end of my ride. We untacked her at the barn and she once again just stood with her nose buried in the hay. The only thing left to do was find a safe place to tie her. We walked her over to a fence and rather than tie her hard M. wrapped the lead rope three times around a pole. I pulled the rope a little shorter and then did what I could to back her up against the line so that she met the pressure of being tied. She didnt get nervous or react in any way. Under the circumstances it was the best that I could do but the tying thing still worried me. It was also then that i picked up her feet and discovered that she wasnt great with her back legs being handled. As cranky, if you could even call it that, as she was about it she didnt wig out or create a big scene, she just tried to pull her foot out of my hand.
After a few minutes of standing there, trying to get a feel for her and giving her a little pat I put her away in her paddock (unhappily as within a minute she was getting dive bombed by a big black standardbred mare) and left the barn. Not before being told, naturally, that there was a lady coming the next day to see her so "could I let her know asap." I told her "sure I'll let you know in the morning" less than enthusiastically and with a bland stare. Horse sellers! Also, naturally, I was quick to get on the phone with a friend and when asked "SO!! How was she?!?" I said, "Ehhh... fine." I wasnt excited. My mind wasnt day dreaming of what it would be like to take her home. I didnt think or feel or say "I have to have that mare!" There was no pull at my heart string. The best I could do was, "I'll sleep on it."