Midnight and the Scary Bridge

IMG_5994The other night we decided to try again to get Midnight to walk over the “scary bridge” at the ranch. It seems to be made from an old boxcar, with girders attached and boards fastened securely over it. Though recently renovated and quite safe, it’s noisy, and you can see the creek below through gaps between the boards.

Midders has already made it clear that he doesn’t like the bridge. Over the past year or so, several of us have tried to lead him over it. He won’t cross it. Instead, he insists on coming and going through the gate that leads from the creek up to the road. Walking through the creek is fine; going over that noisy bridge is just wrong.

That evening, we led Midnight’s two pasture buddies, “Mike” and “Starman,” across it with no fuss at all.  Midders, following us at liberty, stopped just before the bridge and waited. His friends, once back in the pasture, turned to look at him.

Now, Midnight is a virtually bombproof, experienced trail horse. In his 25+ years, he’s seen and done just about everything. His owner, P.C., has lots of stories from their years of trail riding together. But there’s one in particular that always amazes me, though I completely believe it, knowing the two of them:

One day some years ago, he and Midnight were out for a ride, and P.C. wanted to find the tunnel that goes under the Interstate to the trails on the other side. Some of his friends used it frequently, but for some reason, P.C. had never been with them.

So he and Midders set out to find it for themselves. Down the trail and across the creek they went to get to the area where the tunnel was said to be. P.C. spotted a big, metal-lined opening that he and Midnight could easily walk through. This must be the tunnel, right?

P.C. recounts how the tunnel kept getting smaller and smaller the farther in they went. Midnight was reluctant, but P.C. urged him on. The tunnel got so narrow that P.C. had to duck his head…and then, Midnight finally had enough and refused to go further. But there was no room to turn around, so they had to back out the entire way.

Once they got out, P.C. says, they went on a little farther down the trail and found…the tunnel: wide, high, and cement-lined. Oops. That first one turned out to be a stormwater drain from the highway.

So you see, Midnight has done WAY scarier things than walking across this bridge.

That evening, my friend and I tried for nearly an hour to convince him to cross it. We tried leading him. We tried circling him, then leading him. We tried bribes: “Here’s a cookie, Midders! Come get it!” We tried encouragement: “Come on, Midnight! You can do it! You’re such a brave guy!” We tried shame: “Midnight, both your buddies went over it! Are you a chicken or a horse?” We even (I am embarrassed to say) tried traditional techniques: signal a “send,” swing the butt end of the lead rope with increasing velocity, then eventually tap him on the fanny with it. He just turned and looked at me.

He refused to budge. He would put one foot on the first board, then remove it and decline to put the second one on. He was very polite and not the least bit upset, but he made it completely clear that he was NOT crossing that bridge, no matter what.

So eventually we gave up and led him back to his normal gate. He looked at me reproachfully—I am not kidding!—and I felt like a real heel, doing that stuff to him.

My trainer friends would laugh at me, I suspect. I “should” have been able to get that horse to cross, if I hadn’t spoiled him so much and if I weren’t such a softie.

But here’s the thing: Midnight is a wise old horse, dependable, honest, and true. How important is it, actually, to force him to cross that bridge, when there’s no real need? He chooses not to cross. I suspect that if his life—or mine—depended on it, he’d go. That’s just the way Midders is. So I’m just going to accept his decision and not impose my own need for control.

After I took his halter off, I apologized to him, and he nuzzled me as if to say, “Are we OK now?”

Yup. We’re OK, my old friend. This is a partnership, and you get to have a say. And he wandered off over the creek and rejoined his buddies. Love that mean little black horse.