It turned out that Firefly wasn’t really a red roan after all. Within a year or two she “grayed” out. She became a lovely silver gray, and was sprinkled all over with small red freckles. This is known as a flea-bitten gray. I found that term highly offensive, so I described her as being sprinkled with fairy dust.
Eventually, I also found out she was not always as sweet as sugar cookies either. Later on, I had a friend who referred to her as “Spitfire.” Indeed, she did have a fiery disposition. The next couple of years she was allowed to just be a horse. I loved spending time with her, being with her, grooming her. I continued doing ground work with her, and all kinds of games and exercises on the ground. I read up on John Lyons and Pat Parelli, and many others. I attended demos and sessions at the Stock show, and many other places. I worked quietly and gently at de-spooking her. I got her to accept the saddle and a bridle. I put a young friend on her for her first “ride” in the round pen. I rode her in all kinds of patterns in the safety of the pasture, at a walk or slow trot. We did not want any extra pressure on her damaged joints while they were healing and forming. I did not ride her outside familiar areas. We delayed actual riding “out” until the spring of her 4th year. I knew that I was too green to do that. I could not practice the “wet blanket” theory due to her limitations. I was forty when I got my first horse, with no previous experience. My gelding had been 16 when I got him and he was an experienced trail horse.
I searched for just the right trainer for Firefly. I found a young lady, who came and met Firefly and worked with her in the round pen. The trainer had a boyfriend that actually worked with wild horses. It seemed a good match. However, the alter ego of Spitfire showed up the minute the trailer came to transfer her to the stable where she would receive professional training. Firefly went to a Hunter/Jumper barn, just for saddle training- not hunting and jumping. Firefly hated being stalled with a run, failed to perform on the lunge line in the arena, and could not be caught after turn out. People at that barn did not know what kind of horse she was as she was still in her natural winter coat. The stabled horses all had 3 kinds of blankets. Even the trainer complained that she couldn’t cool Firefly off after a 20 minute session, and decided to clip her so she could put her in borrowed blankets. Firefly heard the buzz of the razor, rolled her eyes until the whites showed, and pitched quite a resistance effort. The trainer changed her mind about clipping her.
The trainer worked to fix any training “holes.” She got her ridden at a walk and trot. Firefly did fairly well. The day she was urged to lope she exploded into a bucking frenzy, sent the trainer flying and broke her arm. I had never seen Firefly buck. I was told to come get my horse, that she was wilder than any Mustang, and that I needed to find another trainer and not get on her again, in case she repeated the incident.
I called Marty Martin who referred me to Larry Fleming. They were all part of the Natural Horsemanship movement, trainers like Buck Brannaman, Ray Hunt, the Dorrance brothers, etc. I spent the 4th and 5th summers of Firefly’s life working with Larry Fleming learning Natural Horsemanship techniques, and how to ride better. Larry put 90 days on Firefly the first summer, and 60 days the following summer. I also attended clinics with her. As Larry first asked Firefly to lope in the round pen (he was not riding), she again went into a bucking frenzy. I was shocked. She had never done that with me, but if she had, I would have been severely injured. Larry soon worked through the bucking, by putting no pressure on the bit to begin with, and that freed her up. It is possible the previous trainer was asking her to go and putting pressure on Firefly’s mouth which meant go and whoa. That confusion caused her to buck. Larry did not work her hard, because I explained her injuries to him, and let him know what I wanted to do with her. Even with limited work, Firefly developed mild splints in her front legs. She still loped lop-sided. I hoped to take her for walks/trots in the park so to speak. Larry would look at me curiously, as both the horse and I were differently abled. Trainers want horses to respond quickly. I could not balance and maneuver that quickly. He had to take the trainers edge off of her. I spent hours on suppling her with ground work in the ankle deep sand in Larry’s arena in the blazing sun. Larry was really good with horses. Not so good with people skills. He spent long days working out solutions with some of the toughest horses. Then he stood by and watched their owners wreck his hard work. Larry was hard on me. He insisted that I saddle my own horse, and be able to get on and off by myself. Both of those things were difficult for me. I had a bad back and I had lost the fine motor skills in my right hand and also had problems with my arms after blood clots and surgery. A nerve in my right arm was damaged during surgery. I was able to “park” my gelding next to things to get on. Firefly learned to do the same thing. Even a hump in the landscape, a rock or tree stump worked.
At other times Larry talked on and on, struggling with things in his head. In our discussions, we both tried to make sense out of the world, from very differing perspectives. I actually grew quite fond of Larry. One day I sat down on the ground and cried, tears running down my dirt and sweat streaked face. What made me think that I could ever train a horse, I wondered. I was exhausted and every part of me hurt and pinched. I could barely lift a saddle. I must have been out of my mind! One day Larry told me not to ever pressure Firefly, because if I did, I would find myself hung up in a fence or face down on the ground. He told me to ask her, and treat her fairly. He told me what a big heart Firefly had, and that if she understood what I wanted she was full of try. Adding pressure to something she did not quite understand caused the reactive behavior. Larry was patient with horses. I had noticed with Firefly’s previous trainer, that everything was on a twenty minute schedule, as time was money. The trainer was often frustrated and not present or focused on the horse, just on putting the horse through its paces.
It was an adventure with Larry and Firefly. I became “handy” with horses, but never graduated to a “good hand.” I will never forget the day when Larry approached me with a wet wash cloth in his hand. I just stood there, stupefied not knowing why he was standing in front of me. He gave it to me saying it was for my face, since I was pretty red faced. He worried I might get heat stroke. Guess he wasn’t as hard and tough as I thought, and that maybe he had a soft spot for me after all. I knew my ineptness was a challenge.
I hoped mostly to use Firefly in on- the- ground healing programs with people. Firefly and I both suffered from chronic pain and injuries. I knew that I would have to stop riding one day. In the meantime- we would enjoy walks in the park (trails) together. She was taught how to spook in place, but on trails she still nearly gave me whip lash when she spooked.
During this same time frame- another incident occurred. Firefly developed an abscess, caused by gravel that had penetrated the soul of her hoof. It took weeks to travel and eventually exited out the bulb area in the back of her hoof. Meanwhile, we soaked her hoof in a dishpan of Epsom salts, and wrapped it. One day as I brought her through the gate, heading for the round pen to soak her, my gelding ran at her with his ears pinned, turned and began kicking her. Firefly bumped me hard with her big, beautiful butt, as she tried to get away. I hit the ground underneath her. I was sure I was going to get stepped on. She launched herself over me and was chased into the herd on three good legs by my other horse.
My shoulder was jammed into my upper ribcage. The nerve pinched and bruised so badly I could not move my arm. The wind was knocked out of me and I lay on the ground for several minutes gasping for breath. Well, at least I wasn’t dead! Images of hooves blended with the stars floating behind my closed eyelids, and the thuds of the kicks rang in my ears. It had happened so fast and unexpectedly! What had gotten into that old fart of a horse? Prickles from the weeds were embedded in my skin. A lady from another barn had seen it all and came to offer help. By the time she got to me, Firefly had limped back and was standing over me with her head down. When she and Tom (my future husband) got me upright, Firefly moved into the round pen and waited for me. The lady said that she could tell how much that horse loved me, to come back and stand over me. I am not sure I had the presence of mind to say so- but the love between Firefly and I was mutual. Once Firefly was taken care of I was taken to the emergency room.
Until Firefly was eight, the next few years were fairly uneventful. With training over and quiet walks on the trail, we enjoyed our time together.
Next time- Challenges.