Friday, July 8, 2011

You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can't Make a Shetland Pony Do Anything

Growing up on a small, family farm in the south was rather idyllic in many ways. Although at times I longed to be a City Mouse, and live closer to my school friends, country life afforded amenities that my in-town peers did not possess. For example, living in the country, we could shoot off fireworks on the Fourth of July since we were outside the Little Rock city limits. We also had a stream running through the property that provided a place to swim and catch fish in the summer. City kids paid big bucks to go away to camps and do the stuff we did everyday on our farm. Our most prized country amenity, however, was a little brown Shetland pony named Butterball.
  Butterball became the family pet around the time I was born. She was a Christmas pony. With four girls in the house, there is no doubt that Santa fielded his share of requests from us for a pony, and Butterball was finally delivered. She was fully grown when she arrived, and no one knew for sure how old she was, but she became a fixture on our farm for decades. In her latter years, my sisters' children enjoyed her largess as she dutifully gave them rides and pulled the little cart my Dad bought just for her.
My sister Gretchen and me, riding Butterball.
   To be honest, I was never the horsey type. I took riding lessons as a Girl Scout, but I never fell in love with horses the way many girls do. They were always too big and intimidating for my taste. I don't recall being thrown off (extremely) or clinging to a run-away—no horse trauma—but I possessed a healthy respect for the beasts, who were, after all, a great deal bigger than I. Yet, Butterball the Pony was the perfect scale. At one point when I was about ten, I fancied myself as an equestrian and determined I would make Butterball my mount. I imagined the tricks I could teach her and the adventures we would have galloping across the open pasture. We would have been great pals, too, if not for one major consideration: She was stubborn. Shetlands are known for their ornery streak. If they do not want to go, they simply will not be moved. There is no sugar cube or switch that can prompt a Shetland with her ears pinned back. All you city kids out there can just take my word for it, a Shetland pony will out-stubborn a mule.
   One fine summer day, I decided to play Annie Oakley and bridle-up Butterball for a ride on the range. I caught her without much trouble, slipped the steel bit between her big, yellow teeth and fastened the bridle tight. Saddling the pony was trickier. She had a habit of bloating out her stomach so that, once cinched, all she had to do was exhale to loosen the saddle, and her riders would slide precariously off to one side to humorous effect for anyone watching. For this reason, I determined to ride bare back.
   Butterball was short enough to climb aboard without benefit of a saddle horn or stirrup. One would simply take a lunge across her sway-back and quickly swing a leg over. Voila! I was aboard the horse and ready to ride. Of course, Butterball had other ideas.
   I prompted her to walk via clicking my tongue against the roof of my mouth and tugging on the reins. She complied, slowly ambling along in the general direction of my intention. There was an old cedar tree in the pasture, and Butterball made her way to that goal. I realized what she was doing but could not stop her. If she were going at a full gallop (which thankfully, she was not) she would make for that tree and expertly run so close to the trunk to "brush off" her hapless rider. Even still, I knew that tree was home base for her. Butterball outweighed me, of course, and my ten-year-old biceps were hardly a match for her will. I tugged on the reigns to try to make her turn the other way. No luck. She ambled to the cedar so close that my knee touched bark, and there she stopped. She bent down her large brown head, pulling the reins defiantly from my fingers. With bit in mouth, she started to nibble at a blade of unseen grass, ignoring my attempts to move her from that spot. And there I sat, my big adventure curtailed by the pony's desire to stand in the shade: The end of the trail. All I could do was cry in frustration or get off and give up my aspirations as an cowgirl.
Perhaps my sister Mary had the better idea.
At least expectations were low when riding a cow.
   Turns out good ol' Butterball was a wonderful Dharma teacher, and it's taken all these years for me to appreciate her lessons.
   How often do we try to push or pull a relationship when it has the inertia of a fat, Shetland pony? You cannot make someone do or feel something that they cannot do or feel. You can cajole and coax and sweet-talk all you like, but if the person on the end of the line is not willing to go there with you, then you might as well call it a day. Somewhere along the line—perhaps before she came to live with us—that pony learned to dig in when she didn't want to serve, and she found that an effective means of dissuading her young mistresses from riding on her back. Even if it was good exercise for her and companionship to boot, once she had it in her head not to go, that was it. People learn to dig in too when they don't feel like going the distance. Sometimes it's for the best. They are just not up to the task and should recuse themselves. Sometimes it does him or her a disservice, but I've found I cannot persuade a stubborn person any more than I can a stubborn pony. Better to walk away and, if I really want to become Annie Oakley, find a horse more suited to the task.

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