Surviving Kryptonite

A horse’s scariest spook object goes on the attack at a search-and-rescue training clinic.

Plastic. It’s the bane of my horse’s existence. Now, at a desensitizing clinic, we were facing it head-on. Yikes.

Credit: Photo by Caroline Fyffe Californian Nichole Fetterman and her Pinto/Arabian gelding, Boogie, at a calmer moment…with no plastic in sight—or sound.

Boogie is my 17-year-old Pinto/Arabian gelding, a tri-colored tobiano, registered name Yah Cantscootnboogie. Ordinarily mellow and eager to please, he draws the line at plastic. 

He’s taken me trail riding, horse camping, and frolicking in the river. He calmly carries a whipping flag at a full gallop.

Crinkle a plastic bag near him, however, and you’ll have this 17-hand giant cringing.

Plastic is Boogie’s kryptonite.

I think it’s the sound that spooks him the most. When I first got him, he was terrified of anything that made noise. Once, early on, I picked up a metal bucket from the top of a barrel, and the scraping noise got him spinning around me until I dropped the bucket. I’ve desensitized him to many things since then, but plastic is an ongoing challenge.

I’ve owned this wonderful gelding since he was 10, and we’ve done a lot together. In addition to adventures on the trail, we’ve won in the show pen, including the youth reining championship at the 2005 Canadian National Pinto Show.

Full Full-Frontal Plastic

Most recently, we’ve been volunteers with the search-and-rescue unit in El Dorado County, California. That, in fact, is what brought us to the clinic, sponsored in May of this year by Sacramento County’s search-and-rescue unit. The daylong session was a mix of obstacle-course challenges and desensitizing.

On the obstacle course, Boogie and I tackled the wooden bridge first. Piece of cake. In addition to simply walking over it, we stopped on the bridge’s midpoint, backed up, even served as “bridge buddies” for another horse convinced there were monsters lurking underneath.

We moved on to the rope gate, negotiating it fluidly several times. Then I gave Boogie a few moments just to stand and process all the activity going on around us. My eye immediately went to someone who was sacking her horse out with a plastic garbage bag full of plastic bottles.

Double plastic!

The woman was readying her horse for the task at hand, which was picking the sack up and carrying it to another location. In our case, that other location was likely to be the moon—but I didn’t want to think about that just yet. I was starting to turn away when the bag caught on the sacked-out horse’s saddle horn and he bolted, bag in tow.

‘Bag of Doom’

As soon as I saw the horse leave the woman’s control, I dismounted. I wasn’t about to ride a rodeo in the same arena with a terrified horse being pursued by my horse’s worst nightmare. Naturally, the frightened horse galloped toward other horses, seeking safety. As he did, they panicked and bolted, too. One horse even flipped over—fortunately, without a rider aboard.

Despite the chaos—and the fact that the horse made several passes at us, too—Boogie remained under control. He was trembling, for sure, but not once did his 1,600 pounds crowd into my 5-foot, 4-inch frame.

At last the horse was caught and freed of its plastic tormentor. My heart still racing, I remounted Boogie and drew a deep breath—probably the first I’d had through the whole ordeal.

We worked a few more obstacles, including a nearby creek, without incident, saving the “bag of doom” for last. When I asked Boogie to approach it, he resisted. I insisted, and he took a few tentative steps. I immediately rewarded him by directing him in a circle around the bag, instead of continuing straight toward it.

Gradually I made the circle smaller until Boogie was right next to the bag. Then I asked him to touch it with his nose (a maneuver I’d taught him to do previously, at home). He complied.
Finally, another rider carried the bag at a slow walk as Boogie and I trailed after her. Boogie’s eyes and ears never left the bag, and I could feel his tension, but he did as I asked and followed along.

It Takes Time

Then, after he relaxed and his ears started drifting, I made a judgment call. I walked him away from the bag, ending our plastics work for that day. What we’d done was big medicine for Boogie, and I didn’t want to overwhelm him. I knew we’d go home and continue the desensitizing, as we had been doing. (Our current challenge is “Boogie’s maraca”—a plastic water bottle with small rocks inside. I shake it, let him smell it, then shake it closer to him.)

Everything with Boogie takes time, but the extra effort always pays off.

And, slowly, even kryptonite is losing its power over him.

Nichole Fetterman lives in Placerville, California. She enjoys baking, gardening, and taking on new adventures with Boogie. A search-and-rescue volunteer for over three years, she’s currently taking a break from horse-show competition. She and Boogie go trail riding whenever they can.

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