When I go pick Sportie out of the picturesque lineup of horses grazing in the pasture on a warm summer evening, I want him to feel like it's a privilege, not a burden to be borne. I make sure the other horses, who have pretty much put Senior Sportie to the bottom of their pecking order, know that he is very special to someone, and I want to make him feel special. Like the star in Dirty Dancing: no one puts Sportie in a corner.
Our ritual begins with me closing in half the distance between the gate and Sportie, which is almost always nowhere near the gate and patting my pocket. Sportie has a few friends in his herd of a dozen horses, but no besties, so he is usually a little distant from the others. If I pulled the treats out of my pocket I would be swarmed, but Sportie alone knows what I am patting and his head goes up with a direct look into my eyes.
I am shameless, I admit it: I will give Sportie a reward for coming to me. I have seen too many caretakers running after too many horses in the pasture to ever want to be one of them. I turn my back on him to play hard to get, hoping it builds his curiosity that must be satisfied quickly: What is the treat of the day? I soon feel his warm breath on my elbow and discreetly clip my lead rope onto his halter, then he gets a little snack. We then can walk relaxed, on a nice loose lead, to the stables.
Then we groom. I have a pair of "HandsOn" grooming gloves that Sportie and I both love. They are basically gloves with curry brushes on the palms, so you can groom with both hands at the same time and more importantly get all the itches in just the right spots. Sportie actually leans into my hands like he can't get enough of my magic scratching fingers. I give him an extra long belly scratch and he stretches his neck out to show his appreciation. A quick finishing brush, then hoof-picking, then I put my tack on Sportie and my helmet on myself, and we're off.
After a nice ride, Sportie gets a leisurely sponge bath while he eats a handful of sweet feed. I hand graze him behind the stables for whatever time I have remaining, leaning into him as he glows with the sunset behind him. He gets to reach the choicest clover and a few of his friends stuck with everyday pasture grass glance over the fence with horse envy.
It's OK, their owners will be out sometime tomorrow. But right now Sportie is the Star Student of the Day.