Sunday, March 02, 2008

Nags and Zags

I was blown away when I looked out the kitchen window this morning. A totally clear sky on this crisp March Sunday. It froze pretty hard last night, but that's okay when we have a day like this ahead, there will be no complaining.

The thaw has caused a bit of a problem, though, for my Lily. She remembers falling into a big hole that caved in next to the barn last December on sink-hole day. Now that the snow pile covering that area is gone and because the ice turns into a big pool of water during the day, Lily is very fearful of walking back to her stall through the same gate she uses every morning to go to the barnyard.

I became aware of her hesitancy about three days ago. The first night she simply bulked for a moment and then made a sharp turn toward the narrow pathway next to the snow bank south of the gate to get as far away as possible from that scary dark pool of water. The next night she showed a little more reluctance to walk through, but after a couple of gentle urges, she carefully planned every step from the gate to the barn.

Last night's ritual turned into a totally different story. The Gonzaga game with St. Mary's (for the league championship) was about to start. I told Bill I'd better go out and put the horses in, forgetting momentarily about Lily's hesitations and figuring the five minutes would be ample time to get out there, put the horses in and button up the barn for the night.

Well, it was midway through the game's first half before I returned to the house. Lily wouldn't budge. The dogs sat quietly watching the action or lack thereof on their snowbanks, and Lefty was considerate enough to refrain from making his nightly mad run at the gate while I tried to lure Miss Lily to the barn. Every time we made a few mini steps of progress, she'd go into reverse, nixing out any forward momentum.

I've learned a lot about patience with animals over the years. That doesn't mean I've reached 100 percent yet. The neighbors can tell you that, based on the soiled language that occasionally goes drifting their way when I catch a dog digging up the lawn or flirting with death while wandering into the barnyard behind those loaded equine hooves.

Last night was definitely ripe for my impatience. The big game of the year was on. I knew it had certainly started by the time I resorted to Plan B of leading Lefty through the gate so that Lily would see that everything was okay.

I could have easily lost my cool, but for some reason, reason kept me calm. Not wanting to make this a bad situation, I did not resort to yelling or yanking, although I did rest my rear end on the lead rope a couple of times, figuring Lily would eventually give in.

The sight of Lefty heading for the barn to plunge into his grain bucket did nothing to entice Lily. I even tried turning her around and backing her through the gate. No dice. I encouraged her some more in vain. Finally, I went to the barn for a supply of the surest of all horse come-alongs: a can of grain.

I opened the gate. Lily still would have no part of coming through. I stepped across the lane at least twenty feet away, allowing her all the flexibility in the world of coming through on her own terms.

Still, no luck, and by this time, I knew that championship game inside had to be well on its way. I was hoping Gonzaga was holding its own against the team they had to beat during the time my presence in front of the television was missing in action----as if, they were going down the tubes just cuz I wasn't watching!

Lily remained committed to staying in the barnyard. By this time, I was truly amazed that for the first time in my life, I was viewing an unusual phenomenon: a real live horse refusing the ultimate of all horse invitations---the open gate. Maybe I could market whatever was keeping Lily inside that enclosure and make a fortune.

After more than enough encouragement, rattling that grain bucket from my stance, I came up with a new plan. Heading back to the barn, I grabbed a flake of hay and scattered it along the pathway where Lily was to come through. Then, taking her lead, I held the grain bucket away from her nose but close enough for her to smell the delicious treat of Nutrena Youth pellets inside. Suddenly, she took one step, then another, and finally we made it to the barn.

I praised her profusely and rewarded her with an extra helping of grain. Then, I almost patted myself on the back for not losing my cool in the face of losing out on most of the Gonzaga game. Lily and I made some headway last night. She finally made it to the barn unscathed, and neither of us lost respect for each other through what could easily have turned into a frustrating, desperate situation.

Lily is a smart horse, and I'm gaining more and more respect and admiration for her all the time. She knows there was danger next to that barn last December, and she's not taking any chances. We may have a few similar sessions until all that water dries up, but that's the name of the game when you're trying to build trust with your animals.

And, the best part of it all was that when I finally made it to the house, Gonzaga was tied 12-12. Within a minute, they zipped ahead by six points, and they continued to play magnificently to an impressive triumph in their all important game. What's been the key to that success? Patience and a willingness to stick with a calm, calculated approach to reach a desirable goal.

I can't help but think my situation leading Lily past scary water last night had some similarities, especially because it led to a desirable outcome for both horse and human.

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