Sunday, January 15, 2017

Smarter Not Tougher Or Sam Goes To School

Thump! My entire leg, calf down bounces off Sam's ribcage inspiring absolutely zero response from my horse. I am on a 1200 pound Mack truck, stiff as a board with no power steering and manual brakes. It's already been a very long day for us both.

Getting to Kip Fladland's January Winter Clinic had turned out to be harrowing. I recently bought a new truck and a different trailer. Any time there's a new rig, there's tires to consider, lights to check out all that stuff. I don't buy new so it's never a matter of plugging my 7 round trailer plug into my 7 round truck receptor. There's always an adapter involved.

Pulling into the gas station to air up my tires, black smoke rolls out from under the trailer. The adapter hadn't fit right which was fortunate as when it did engage, it caused the brakes to seize and they were HOT.

No horses were aboard and I scowled at the thing. It's Friday night. Horses need to be delivered to the Event Center. My husband is there, and we go back, sans lights. He follows me. We load, take the back roads and make the trip. It's been a long time since I have run outlaw and I have no taste for it anymore. I knew the problem would be easily solved the next day with the correct adapter but it was not an enjoyable ride.

Saturday morning, Sam greets me calmly. Unlike Royal, he has no problem staying in a stall. He'd drank well. One bucket mostly down and had gone through half of the hydration hay bucket. All was well until we entered the hub of activity.

Sam is an honest 16 hands. Walking into the arena I swear he was closer to 19. Eyes wide, head up he was the high horse I'd glimpsed for a few terrifying moments last year on our first trail ride when several riders took off directly in front of us. We'd survived that and I found myself grateful I wasn't in the saddle for this one

I'd really thought this was going to be a fairly laid back experience for both of us. Learning, bonding, a day of helping Sam find the softness I have not taken the time and put in the effort to give him. Fire breathing dragon on the end of my rope said it might be lessons of a different sort.

One day clinics like this usually offer a morning of groundwork with riding in the afternoon Plenty of time to work the bugs out and get you and your horse ready. I had no doubt this would be different. It wasn't like I didn't ride this horse, after all.

The other gentleman I ride with, Peter Campbell, talks about letting the horse learn where the end of the halter rope is, how important it is to be consistent for them. I thought I'd given Sam a pretty good idea of what that was about. As his weight hit the end of the rope time after jolting time I realized no. If it only works at home and falls apart in the world, you don't have what you think you do.

We did circles. Sam's rib cage bulged to the inside and I put my flag to work. The first of many times, I missed Royal and wished I'd brought him instead. Royal can lose his brain in unhappy ways but in general he will operate on that cushion of air, end of the lead or moving off your leg. Did it happen overnight? Heck no. Years. Countless hours. Now I have a very green horse who hasn't the slightest inclination to move his ribcage over and bend just because I am telling him to.

Sam gets irritated with my insistence and jumps around a little. The arena is crowded, there's 20 something of us in there but suddenly I have plenty of room. I remember my days of early Royal and people scattering. Sigh. It won't always be this way.

I do what I have to do to get results. I firm up, insisting he bend and hanging in through the storm until he does, at least a little. Can't get a soft feel if they can't bend. Can't do much of anything without a soft feel.

Sam is wearing his saddle. We usually start with Kip in the raw but lots of people were saddled and I thought Sam would benefit from doing the work that way. One less thing to worry about when time to ride. He's got a big hair coat, unusual for a Southern boy race horse and he's sweaty. I am too. No hair coat but plenty of layers and some of them gotta go.

Backing him up from in front of him, moving the rope up and down no big deal. He understands that. Sam is the kind of horse if he understands what you want, he will give it to you generously. If he doesn't, his go to is ignore, hope you go away. If not, he will push on you. If that doesn't work, he gets sully and angry.

I ran into that part on the second back up exercise where you hold the knot under the chin and run the noseband back and forth. You don't pull the head down, don't push them backwards. The goal is that the horse tucks his chin and steps back in a smooth two beat trotting cadence. It's where the soft feel starts.

That was NOT happening. Sam's response to pressure on his noseband was to shove his head out and back up as quick as he could to evade the pressure. Had he been stuck and unable to move back, the motion alone would have been acceptable. As that is not the case, it was not.

He threw his neck and shoulder into me to shove my pissant self out of his way. I block with my elbow and his offended head goes skyward. I go to Kip, tattling. He won't act right!

I know getting my horse further upset is not the way to go and it is without doubt the road we are on.

Kip says, okay, let's see what you've got. I begin from the left. Sam softens a little and steps back a few feet. "What's wrong with that?" Kip asks. "I'd have stopped sooner and released when he was doing it right, too" Yep, I was so sure Sam would do it wrong, I missed the right.

Watch from the other side, please. I've worked Sam on the right more than the left as racehorses are only handled on the left as a rule. He's pretty good over there until he's upset. It's on his right he's trying to turn me into a rag doll.

I move Sam to put me on his right side. He allows this willingly. I grasp the fiador knot, gently slide it back and forth, timing my breath with the movement. Sam softens his chin nicely and steps back. That time I catch the release and shake my  head, All it takes is for the teacher to be watching.

We back up a third way which is like riding. I can see Sam is making progress and I am not hard on him, here.

We do the half circle exercise, I use my flag to keep him round. I get him wound up a few times and I am having trouble finding the balance of doing enough to get a reaction and not doing so much to send him off the ground. A few times the big horse got handy and found his feet. Most of the time it was a clumsy mess trying not to run into the other participants. He is respectful of my hand and moves away when I put down my flag. Success there.

I am scowling at myself. I have tired quickly and my timing is off. I can't be unhappy with my horse when I know I am not directing him well.

After lunch, my heart is in my throat. He's still pretty high about all the other horses moving around the arena. I step up on the mounting block and my trepidation lightens as he moves in politely to pick me up. All those layers under my chaps and my knees are stiff and the left one is already swelling in it's brace. Dammit. I can do this. I am up, reaching for my right stirrup. He's moving and I'd prefer him not to be, didn't wait for me. It's not turning into a disaster and I gratefully find my stirrup and we go see what we can see.

Nothing came easily for us. He ignored my leg, stiffened his head and neck against my request for a soft feel. It was one of the toughest clinics I have ever ridden. I couldn't find a way to communicate with him. I took a firm hold and got him mad enough, he did that sideways crooked backwards slink that says you keep that up, I might just flop over on my side.

Okay, that's not successful. He's too green to wear spurs and my legs were wearing out hammering on his side. I go back to Kip. He won't move off my leg, I want to go get my spurs.

Kip looks up. Uh uh, he says. You can do that at home but you are not riding him with spurs here.

I know he's right. The horse isn't ready and being sully is not when you pick up the bigger bit, the tougher gadget. If I get him really mad, I imagine I'll see more movement out of him than I can handle. Kip knows that and I know it too

I go back to work. I take my foot out of the stirrup. BAM! I said move over, you sonofagun, THUMP!

My fellow riders are once again giving us plenty of room and I imagine they are thinking things like "why the heck is she kicking on that nice horse like that". I am determined I am going to get something out of this day, this horse. I'm a little judgy, myself of the ones letting their horses just slump around. I stop it. They are there on a cold winter day, riding their horses. We are all on the journey.

Sam sulkily shifts his hip. I stop banging on him. I realize I have completely abandoned the concept of start slow and build up. I am so sure he is going to continue to ignore the good deal, I barely offer one before I get heavy.

Royal would have sent me flying.

Sam continues to passively resist me and I finally realized I have to get smarter. If it were your horse I was riding I'd have been busy searching for the tiniest of tries, the smallest change. My horse, I am impatient. I want big changes and I want them right now.

We do some trotting. He is expressing his doubts in a tiny tight trot that is rough and hard to ride. I can almost not post. My leg muscles are cooked and I darned sure can't sit this. Two laps around and I am so disgusted with both of us. I do catch a glimmer of "Terri. You are trotting your Thoroughbred in a mess of 24 other horses." Sam would pin his ears defensively when someone got close but he let me direct him out of trouble without incident.

Kip was loping circles on his mare and I think it freaked me out more than it did Sam when he passed by in closer increments. Sam was insecure but not reactive. He's coming along just fine.

During our slowdowns, we are walking out on a loose rein. I have been pestering Sam for his big walk all afternoon. Like pushing a sulky teenage to do the dishes. Now, I pitch the reins, our crowd angst long past both of us. We walk along and some of our bad attitude lifts. I rub his neck.

We back some arcs and even though we have the barest beginning of softness, we are still getting something done. I am lightening up in my demands, giving Sam a minute to figure out what I want. He doesn't process like Royal does, why would he? The speed I have to go to keep Royal interested is overwhelming for Sam. I have deep habits to overcome to be successful with the kind young horse and he deserves me to do the work. He shifts his hindquarters awkwardly away from my leg but no reins and no thumping. Just ask.

As Kip speaks to us about goals, progress, things to think about, I bring Sam's head around laterally and rub his sweaty face. We are still friends, buddy. Rough day for both of us.

The last thing we do is a counting down exercise. Ten steps forward, ten back, nine forward, nine back and so on. Right around 8, Sam tucks his chin and softens his poll joint. He steps back hesitantly, is this right, under me. I rub his neck enthusiastically. YES! Sam Bones, this is it! The Grail!

We do the countdown. It's easy to keep him straight and on track. Straightness is a trial with Royal T to this very day.

At the end, you sit and rock without feet moving. His foot shifted occasionally and I did not care one whit. I asked softly, quietly, he responded in kind.

That's what we came for.

Very end of the day, I load horses in a trailer with working lights and functioning brakes. I am so tired I can hardly think and I know I have to do something about this. No more lip service to physical fitness. I have two grand horses to ride and I need to be in shape to get it done.

Through darkness, I last my own personal storm of frustration, doubt, fear and anger. Peter says, what I feel my horse felt first. I believe that. I hope with all my heart that the pride, the joy and the love I felt at the end also echoed through from my good Sam.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Knot Head

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending four hours in the saddle on a horse that some years back I would have called a knothead. Other people were calling him that now.

Parking cars for a big event is hard on a horse, more strenuous mentally than people give credit. It's go, stop, turn, back here, no not there! All the while the rider is mostly focused on getting people in a spot and not being run over in the process.

My mount was a flunked hack horse. He'd learned he could stick his nose in the air, flip the bit upside down and not only could the dude aboard no longer punish his tender mouth, pony could go where he would whether. And, whether he would.

I don't park cars anymore or work on the ranch. I got a call from my friend who owns it. Big night, overwhelmed, a million hayracks going out, would I please come help. Checked my calendar. No real good reason to not.

"He rode the very best, at one time." I'm told this while I survey the placid looking mid size spotted gelding saddled and waiting. "Then, he went to the camp, and well, you know about that."

I do. Summer camps lease horses. They don't always have the most experienced people running them. They use the snot out of the good ones who return home thin and sometimes sour. This one came home both.

There's a thing that happens when you step up on a really good horse, if you've rode enough of both kinds to know the difference. I've had the grace and fortune of spending my life getting on horses and that's a gift I got that I didn't even know about, for a really long time.

I don't know if it's instinct or what but the good ones kind of steady up under you, It's a . . . click.

This horse did that. Right before he decided to leave without me. I registered the click and also the leaning into what was going to become steps here in a moment. Let's don't, I said. He fussed. A little.

The best part of parking cars, for me, is the time I get to play horsemanship. I pick up a rein,see if there's a foot attached and I play games with the horse. I set up opportunities for them to do a hundred things right and release to the best of my ability as they start to understand the game and seek out the reward.

The knot headed Paint (a super good horse in Halloween disguise) didn't trust my games. When he would respond without thinking about it, he would soften up and sync his feet with my brain so sweet it was like we'd rode together for years.

I'd take him on the corner, finessing the tricky broken mouthpiece bit with the long shanks so it didn't leverage against his face and left front foot, now right, now left.

Then, he would remember he was a knot head and . . . people had betrayed his softness with yanking hands, kicking feet, crude butts weighing heavy, awkward in the saddle hurting his spine.

I'm going to throw a fit, he'd tell me.

Okay I said. I could feel the low grade tension in his muscles, see the set of his ears. He thought there might be a fight coming and he was ready to the best of his good natured ability.

That was it, he'd say. Did you see it?

Yes, I said. Good job, now let's park this guy, ok?

Once in awhile he'd flip his head up and attempt a coup.  The Paint knew quite a few people would pull back helplessly with both reins on the sky high bit as he carried them back to the barn. He might get a whupping but he'd also get to stand at the rail, go back to his dreams and pretend he was somewhere far away, knee deep in tall grass.

Paint? I hate to interrupt your fantasy but we're still working here.

One rein, gently bringing his face around. When the hip turned loose, we were facing the direction we needed to be, his neck had relaxed and lowered in the course of the turn. I released the reins.

The sour laid back ears flickered. What?

I rubbed his neck. (Peter says to surprise the horse. Anybody can beat on them, get harsh with them. Do something unexpected.) The ears came up, relaxed. Then, a foot came lifted to take a step, unbidden. Leaving was a habit.

I caught the foot in mid air with my rein, asked him to set it down where I wanted instead of off in the direction Paint had chosen. (Peter: Always give the feet a place to go.)  Before there was any kind of argument, I asked another foot to move, put it here. Released. Let the games resume.

That Paint horse lined up and worked with me. He's one of the good ones who'd done what he felt he needed to to protect himself in situations he had no tools. He'd soften his jaw, round up, and move pretty under me.

We loped in the pitch black across the big pasture.  Chief Paint (I didn't name him, it was printed on his bridle) never missed a step. He was brave, bold and fun.

So, cured then? Four hours with me and him all better? No. That's not how it works. We had a great time and I did insult him by giggling at what he thought was full flown rebellion. Not out of disrespect for the unhappiness inside his guts that told him he needed to protect himself. I giggled because the inherent sweetness of his nature meant the rebellion was a few steps in the wrong direction. Don't get me wrong, A different rider, different experience than mine might have also found a different horse. A knot head.

I sure enjoyed the horse I rode. I'd own him if there was space in the budget to board another beside my equine soul mate and sweet Sam who is earning his hay bales with every ride. There isn't. I don't know what that horse's future holds. I do know that we had four hours of  good times. Him learning that even though my hands are not the best out there, a human can still release to him. Can still provide softness, trust, respect and guidance.

I hope his next rider does the same. Best of luck, Chief Paint.