Witch: Lead Trail Horse, Like it or Not

When it comes to riding trails, most riders prefer a calm, quiet, solid horse who willingly takes on obstacles without fuss.

I also prefer a trail horse who wants to ride out — one who’s eager to explore. I certainly don’t want to have to spend the whole ride holding a horse back, but I’d rather do that than have to keep nagging for forward motion. I like a horse who wants to find out what’s around the bend or on the other side of the hill. And I want a horse the others naturally follow.

Of our horses, there are three who are natural leaders in the herd. One is our gelded herd stallion, Quioxte. The other is the mare everyone follows to food, Senorita. And the third is Witch.

Witch is the one who is first to come when called, the first across the pasture, the first to the hay bale, the first to try to slip through the fence, and the first to find her way into everything. She also has the nasty habit of moving everyone else (except for Quixote and Senorita) off their feed piles. The last thing any of the other horses wants is Witch behind them.

Witch has had three names. We named her Ally Katt when she was born, but by the time she was weaned, I’d given her a well-earned nickname: Turkey. Crafty, adventurous, and conniving, Turkey took things apart, opened gates, jumped cattle guards, and slipped through otherwise perfectly good fences.

By the time she was broke to ride when she was four, she had acquired a highly appropriate a name: Witch.

Good or bad, which witch is Witch?

Whether Witch is a Good Witch or a Bad Witch depends on the moment. She can be bewitchingly affectionate. She can be bold and protective. Her sense of humor is sly and dry. She’s the most out-of-the-box thinking horse I’ve ever met. You never know what she’ll come up with. And her constant obsession is “what’s in it for me?”

She isn’t the herd leader, but because she’s the savviest one, the rest of them tend to hang back and let her go first. She’s bold, but she doesn’t make mistakes. She has a strong survival sense, but she doesn’t waste time with things that aren’t dangerous. She quickly assesses every situation and takes whatever action is in her best interest.

I had trouble training Witch right from the beginning. She has up-ended all the typical training I’ve used on every other horse. She gets bored with R+, but if you’re too rough with her, she gets stubborn and then creatively figures out how to avoid the lesson. She’s quick as a cat and comes up with things no other horses have tried.

I knew if I stuck with her, however, she would be a terrific trail horse once she matured. And that she has.

One day this week I got a chuckle from her which confirmed my certainty that she would make a great lead horse.

We were truckin’ down the gravel road – I was making her weave back and forth, stopping and starting — changing gates. Turning around and going home, then turning around and riding away. She was getting a little steamed at me like she usually does when she sees there’s no point to what I’m doing, but she is getting better at going along with my insanity.

We rode by a culvert covered by litter in the ditch and she tucked her nose down, snorted, and skittered to the side.

It was totally unlike Witch to pay any mind to culverts. And she LOVED garbage — loved to stomp in it and make it rustle and crackle. So, puzzled, I turned her and made her ride past it again.

She threw her butt out away from the culvert and snorted again.

What the heck? I thought. I made her take yet another pass.

“What’s your problem?” I asked. “You’ve seen that culvert before and I know you don’t care about garbage.”

I tried to get her to step up to it but she flat refused.

Miffed at the refusal, I was about to dismount and drive her over it, when I noticed a movement, there in the weeds beside the culvert.

Curled up in the sun at the bottom of the ditch were two of the biggest snakes I ever saw!

I nearly leapt out of my skin until I realized they weren’t rattlers.

Bull snakes — each at least four feet long and as thick as my fist — coiled around each other.

Mating? Maybe. I didn’t stop to check.

We aren’t supposed to have rattle snakes down on the valley, but they are up in the bench land and the hills. Witch has seen plenty of them and she doesn’t know that a bull snake, who is a non-venomous constrictor – can’t hurt a horse. Only a rattle snake would strike a horse if the horse was careless enough to stick her nose in it’s vicinity.

At any rate, Witch showed me that she was far more aware of what was going on around us than I was. I took a few deep breaths to slow my heart down and she shook her neck as if to say, “Snakes! I hate snakes!”

“So do I, Witch,” I said. “And you were right — we’re not going near the garbage by the culvert today.”

A typical bullsnake, completely harmless to horses. Courtesy Wikicommons.

“But just today,” I warned her. “Don’t you think for a moment you get to pretend they’re there next time.”