Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back To School

doesn't mean to me what it used to when the kids lived at home. The anticipation of the new school year, the mad rush to get clothes and supplies together . . . to make sure the kids were as properly prepared for their next adventure as I possibly could . . .

Now I am still working on proper preparation, but the kids are on their own. Hopefully some of the stuff I tried to teach them stuck, but like most humankind (all of it, that I know of) they will best learn from their own experiences, and then can engage their education and make their best choices as to what next. Doing the right thing has to be individual choice, learned not forced.

This is a horse training blog, not child rearing, so how does this apply? Well, I am still working on proper preparation, only now it's for myself, and my horses, rather than my family, although the principles I have learned from good horsemanship tend to cross over really nicely. Through my experiences of handling hundreds of horses since I got my first pony at the tender age of 2 1/2, my education studying other people who have handled even more equines than I have, a philosophy of engaging willing cooperation from my horses in all aspects of their handling has been born.

Believe me, it was not always this way. I changed up because what I saw happening, in person attending clinics, watching dvd's, taking lessons from people I admire, and talking to the clinician's at Expo and wherever I could showed me methods that are faster, safer and more effective than what I was doing, previously. I could be from Missouri. I am a "show me" kind of gal.

Ever since I got a buttermilk buckskin filly for my 7th or 9th birthday (who can remember that long ago) that acquainted me with dirt flavored toothpaste on a regular basis, I have had a desire to turn out gentle saddle horses that don't want to buck you off in the process of getting them there. That journey has taken me a lot of places. I came from the old "show 'em who's boss" school of thought that has translated into being the right kind of leader. A horse that respects you will trust you, and one that doesn't, don't, if you follow my drift. Trust, respect and confidence in each other are the building blocks I use to get everywhere else I want to go with a horse, and I do it that way because people who are better at this than I am have taught me so, and my horses continue to teach me.

I have the honor and priviledge of being able to teach a couple of horsemanship clinics this Fall, and I am thinking hard about how to present the tools that I employ. It isn't so much the methods, themselves, or the bits, or the ropes, the sticks and the strings. What matters is the underlying approach and the mindset. That it's the little things that create the big ones, positive and negative. That horses don't compartmentalize, if they run over me on the ground, they will think it's perfectly okay to ignore me in the saddle and why shouldn't they? What changed just because I managed to scramble aboard? That if I set their feet while I am handling, grooming and saddling and I allow them to yaw and wander around, why should I be surprised when I go to mount, or want to stop along the trail, and pony continues the behavior he's had all along and steals steps to get where he wants to go?

Little things . . . allowing a horse to acknowledge my hand before I sling a halter on them. Working out jumpiness and stiffness when I find it, coming in from the pasture, instead of waiting til I get to the round pen or the trail or the show ring . . . Fixing what I find when I find it, and not blaming the horse because he has a different idea of what we are doing than I do. Where does the responsibility for communication between us lie, anyway? Him? Is it his idea to come in from the pasture, his buddies and that good sweet summer grass? Strap on a wood and leather contraption, place a bit in his mouth and pack around . . . well, more weight than he would have to on his own, let's just say that! Nope, it's my idea. Might be nice if I take responsiblity for it.

Since I have bought into that basic philosophy, things have really changed around here. I like the changes. I like the soft eyed horses I ride, I like the fact that anything around here that's broke will go down the road without much fuss. If you remember (those of you who keep up with this thing, LOL) last Spring, I ran into what many of us do, a Spring fresh, herd and barn sour crew that cried, wanted to stay home, return home, and were not a lot of fun to just jump on and go with. Once upon a time, I'd have corrected that problem with the ends of my reins and a handy set of spurs. Would it have worked? You bet. Will I still let a horse know in no uncertain terms it's not okay to run through my hands, legs, or ignore my cues, you bet. Does that sometimes involve a snap of a rein, or letting a horse find a poke in the side. Yes, absolutely, if necessary. I just don't start there, and often don't ever have to go there. I do what it takes to get the job done. Ray Hunt used to say to offer the horse the good deal each and every time you ask something of him, and now I do. Once they figure out you mean it, and you will reward and release them as they reach for it, it's amazing how much easier this stuff all becomes.

It's been a good summer, and we are not quite done yet!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Looking for the Changes

Nope, not talking about moving or personal development, this one is pretty much back on track with horse training :-)

Right now, I have a scheduled set of horses that I am riding as close to every day as jobs and weather will allow. Both of those are being generous and I am getting quite a bit accomplished with my crew. I have Hawkeye, Skipper, Sadie, Slippin in the line up for sure with Hershey and Classic on deck. I'd rather sell Classic than Skipper but I have started riding Skipper and I am not getting off again until I am happy with where we are at. If she sells because of that, so be it, I've got to both reduce headcount and inflate bank account, and that is life as I know it.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

People often ask me how long I ride a training horse in the course of a day's work. I can't remember what I do tell them but what I want to say is however long it takes to make a change. One day last week, I was riding Teri's Sadie, who is a quick, stocky reining bred QH mare, and she was having a very hard time figuring out what I wanted. When she did make the change, it came really well. Her mind and body totally relaxed and I knew we had accomplished something good. I'd only been on her about 30 minutes at that point and called it good. The day before I rode a lot longer and got less of anything that mattered. Making the change is what was on my mind today and I was determined to pay attention and not miss it!

The morning started in a fine way, with me sleeping in, missing both a call from my farrier, who fortunately came later, and a prospective customer, who bravely came anyway. I am in my jammies, haven't yet had my first cuppa (and we all know how THAT can be) and this lady is knocking at my door . . .

It went okay. She is looking for a really broke, ride down the road, do most anything kind of horse, and I already sold him. She knew that, but came anyway as she may want me to ride a horse for her, plus she wanted to see what else I had for sale.

It was a great opportunity to start with Skipper. After I showed her to that gal, and we both agreed Skipper is an extremely nice horse who showed herself very well (the lady said she would never have known Skipper was not the "broke to death" she was looking for had I not told her different), the customer left, and I rode Skip again. Something at the back of the pasture really had her bugged (in fact, at the end of the day, when I turned her back out into the grove, she was running back and forth, snorting and staring back there, eyes white and tailed flagged. Very UN Skipper!) and she got the most hot and bothered I've seen her with me on her. Head would come up, the tension would just rise up off of her. I would bend her and ask her to come back to me, mentally and physically, and she never really did. It was hesitant step after hesitant step, bunchy, jerky, fits and starts. We worked the figure eight's, never turning away from the side that scared her and when she'd soften, I'd ride away, she'd grab her butt, and we'd have to start over again.

It smoothed out eventually. I had the idea I might have to "ride her til I liked her", but it didn't take all that long and a change was made. It wasn't perfect, she wasn't as soft and quiet as I would have liked her to be, but she stayed under and with me. Tomorrow, I will warm her up a little more, ride in the round pen first, and then we will graduate outside and see if the world looks better to her. I really want to jump start that mare to being where I want her to be, instead of allowing her to be where she is and grow from there. That would be a bad mistake, and could cost both of us. Tomorrow, I will do a mix of getting us OUT of the round pen, which is entirely timely and necessary but not causing her to lose confidence and blow her mind.

Hawkeye and I are not working in the pen or pasture at all. We are heading down the road, and today, that felt like a job kind of on the scale of cleaning the bathroom or doing the dishes. I wanted him to ride straight out, and for whatever reason, he was just not feeling it. He whinnied, he wandered, he tippytoed, tender footed, having just been trimmed. I decided to go back to not making a big deal of anything I don't want, and ignored his cries. I rode him in the ditch beside my gravel road which is worrisome as sometimes people throw junk and you can't see it in the tall grass but it was easier on his feet. We took what I used to call the "short ride", down my gravel road, turn right at the street, cross Buchanan and down the dead end. It's about a mile or so, and I thought it would be a decent short work and get something done without eating the day.

For the heck of it, as we are striding along, I jump in my saddle and yell "boogie, boogie." I thought the danged Painted fool was going to buck me off. He threw up his head, startled, skittered forward . . . geez Hawkeye, all that for that? So, I boogie boogie'd him a lot, til it was annoying but not worrisome. Then, I slapped a mosquito on his neck and he jumped at that. More slapping. Rump, my legs, his neck. I've done some of this stuff before, but you have to complete a thing to have it done. That might sound really obvious, but if you start something with your horse you have to make sure you are not leaving them in doubt, (quitting while the horse is still bothered leaves them in doubt and makes it worse next time). Hawkeye is what you might call a left brained horse. His responses are more on the inside until they leak through on the outside in a big way, and it's easy to miss when he is bothered. Today, the change I was looking for was for him to get okay in his skin regardless of what I was up to, up there. He's not a spooky horse regarding what's going on in the world around him, it's his rider he's learned not to trust or listen to, and that's what I have to fix. Slowly but surely I am getting to the bottom of what is going to be a heck of a really nice horse.

By the time we were ready to turn back down our lane, I did not feel we had made enough progress. He was still leaning through my leg, in the direction he wished to be going (how i got a hella bruise on my shin courtesy of a tree from him a few weeks ago at Stone Park), still leaning heavily on his bit, and still crying for company, although not as much, that. The highway overpass is about a half mile down the road the other way, so we struck out for that. I was not thinking on trying to ride him under it. That thing scares me when the motorcycles and semi's rattle over it, and I am always fairly sure my horse will lose it's mind, scrabble madly about, either fall down on me or run me into an oncoming car or some such disaster. Such a thing has never come even close to occurring but that doesn't stop me from thinking about it.

I am tired of him wandering about and we start riding boxes and I am picky about moving his hip out of the way before he makes the turn and crabby about him falling through his shoulder when he thinks he's heading for home. Hawk gets his feelings hurt more than his ribs, but he does run into a spur a time or two, or ten. He runs into his bit and finds out he has to back himself out of the problem instead of turning into a bent spaghetti noodle behind the pressure. We do this most of the half mile. It takes awhile. Now we are riding some sweet ovals around bushes, I am setting his feet on a path, left here, right there, move your hindquarter Hawkeye, soften and back off that bit, atta boy. Whenever he leans on his bit, I catch him and hold until he softens and shifts his weight back. The very instant I feel that about to take place, my hands go from iron to butter, rewarding his try and teaching him, over and over again, how much nicer it is to be light . . .

We get to the bridge. What the heck. We ride under it. He's a little worried, but more about the tire marks on the street than the stuff crackling overhead. I have to sing myself through there to stay loose and okay in the saddle. We mess around on the other side, ride a box or two . . .dropping your shoulder into the homeward side really makes more work for you, Hawk . . . and come back through, zero incident. As usual, I am more scared of the overpass than the horses ever are . . .

Coming home, we get to lope some. We are far enough away, and he's not chargey. I have to hold my phone pouch with one hand as the velcro is shot . . . Hawkeye, don't you dare buck . . . He really hasn't offered to, except when he got a little hoppy at Stone Park when I wouldn't let him go tearing off with some other riders, but I watch him close. He doesn't offer to, now, either, and we have a nice lope up the way. We still have to back and soften a couple of times on the way home, but for the most part, when I reach for a soft feel, I get one from him and he can hold it without dropping his whole front end on it. His ears are up, and he's quiet. He has more to think about, just now, than where his buddies are . . . It's a nice change. Hope it sticks.

Teri's Sadie mare went down the road today too. She's a talented athletic little thing, and I'd love to put some reining training into her, but that isn't really what Teri needs me to do. They are going to sell this mare and the best thing she needs to know how to do is carry people nicely out in the world. I have enough handle and ride to feel safe on her, so it's out we go. Not too much bothered her, and we did some of the same softening and backing when occasionally she'd trot through my hands and attempt to take matters into hers. Coming home, it was head down, loose rein, felt nice. Big ole apple picker truck comes rattling by, it's worth an ear but that's about it. I am feeling good about her and tomorrow, we'll go further.

Slippin was the rock star today though. Top of her class last year, she's headed there with a bullet now, too. Bridled her up, pretty easy, just had to let her move her feet first, and then ask her to bring her head down to me. I never chase them to bridle, never ever ever. Did her usual groundwork with her halter, letting her wear the bridle and remember what that feels like. Slippin is like a good dance partner, doing groundwork. She had a little worry to her, and that worried me. Not that I thought she was going to do anything out of control or naughty, but I want that happy, open look she can have when she's having fun with what we are doing. I slowed WAY down, did some "friendly" work, slapping the stick and string on the ground, til she could stand and let that happen, sent the string all around her body, and waited for the lick and chew. Not so much. Hmm, worry lines and unhappy face still there. Hmm. I walk away from her, casually swinging the string in a figure eight in front of me. She follows hesitantly at the end of the lead. Pretty soon there is no tension there, and I can feel her feet freeing up and her body getting loose. I hear the big lick and chew, we are there.

Riding her today was a BLAST! This smart little horse remembers so much of what I taught her last year it isn't funny. Hip over, shoulder through, from the saddle, did some friendly from up there and that got the feet moving. Okay. Let's trot around a little then. She was moving good, so I slapped my leg, just a little. Sure enough she picked up her lope. Scared her a smidge, and I let her pick her trot again. Around we go and I ask again, she picks it up and we lope and trot around the pen. I bend her to gently bring her to a stop, as she's getting on the worried and scooty side. We turn, go the other way, walking, then trotting and pick up the lope again. There's some fear in it, it's a little grabby and not smooth, but at least she doesn't want to buck her way out of it. I was 99.9 sure she wouldn't, it's just not her. Trotted some more til she felt okay, then brought it back down. I went looking to see what all she remembers. Pivot on the rear, really quite nice, not much sidepass but a few lateral steps . . . tucks her nose and backs up sweet. Not bad for third ride in almost a year . . . Biggest and best change, in her, though, were the sweetly relaxed forward ears and the nice way she greeted me when I got off, head turned in for her atta girls. That's what I wanted to see.

The grulla mare, who I adore, and once again, did not ride, came clear across our grove when I called her name. I am so gone over this mare, it's ridiculous. Just the look on her face when our eyes meet is change enough for me, with her. I do plan to ride her again, tomorrow, though :-)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Winds of . . . What?

For those of us with this particular affliction of horse addiction, there is just something soothing about sitting the back of a good horse, even if you aren't going anywhere in particular. When you and your guy head out of the drive and the only future you want to think about is the immediate one framed between his ears, it takes the edge off the sharpest day. That certain something is the gel that's been holding me together through a certain amount of fairly knifey days. These are trying times for many of us, and I am not holding myself out as having anything more difficult than anyone else . . . it's just . . . difficult. Thank God for horses.

There's been a lot going on up here, hence the lack of blog posts from me. What was looking like time to move is looking more like time to hunker down and settle in. I have more than a drop of gypsy blood and have walked away many a time when it looked like the winds of change might blow a little rough. Not the best habit to develop, I am like a horse that flees at a sudden loud clap, without realizing it was just the sound of the feed bin banging shut . . . Now I am examining a different way to go. Not much more expected of me than to do what is right, and what is right in front of me to do . . . Might not make sense to you, but it's sure starting to make some to me, and probably not a minute too soon.

Horses have come and horses have gone, some expected, some not. Sold my good Donovan to some wonderful friends who will give him a kind and loving home. They will appreciate his sweet, slow moving nature and not try to change him into something he isn't meant to be. Funny, how in our little community, different horses are sifting around and finding new homes. I am going to miss Donovan, but I won't miss the upset and worry on his face when I ask him to pick up that walk for heaven's sake, can we PLEASE get there, TODAY, d'ya think?? He stopped nickering at me several months ago. I knew we were headed down the wrong road but it took some other circumstances to make me willing to let him go, and it's for the best all the way around.

Training horses have graduated and gone home. Rode beside little rock star Ella this evening, going down the road barely over her 30 days with more aplomb than the gelding I was on. In his defense, Hawk's not seen much road riding and he did okay. You just can't compare him or most other horses to Ella. She's unreal.

Knosie girl grew up and turned into a saddle horse. She's a real testimony to hard work paying off and validation of me sticking to my commitment to not rush the horse and bring them along on their own schedule. Her graduation ride was at Big Elk Park, out of Macy, NE. (if you haven't ridden there, and you like to trail ride, you need to . . .) She pulled on a pair of big girl panties I didn't know she owned and gave me one of the most fun rides I have had all season. Those of us who ride a lot of different horses know that feeling when you first settle in the saddle on a broke one. There is this solid feeling under you and you know you could ride that horse over the Grand Canyon if you really felt the need and probably survive. I brought Knosie that night because I had procrastinated getting her out on the trails for weeks. I didn't think I'd run into anything worse than a possible flinchy scoot here or there, but most Wednesdays, I just don't want to work all that hard. Stepping up on Knosie, I felt that unmistakable feeling . . . I was on a good one. It held true all night, over hill, dale, logs and slippery limestone, that filly kept her head together, feet under and rider on top, no flinch, zero scoot, including when I had some crawly thing roll down my neck, jumped, screamed and flailed like a goofy little girl. I have photos from a day down at the barn in Moville, it was her next best ride before this one. She was her same calm self when her owner came to take her home. Good to see. I might have liked her a little more technically advanced but I sure cannot complain about the change between her ears and that should set the foundation for the rest of her life. Plenty of time, in there, to learn the fancy stuff. She's for sale and if you want more info, let me know and I'll put you in touch with her owner.

Have new horses in . . . Slippin, Knosie's half sister, who was last year's rock star, is back, and if possible, even cuter than last year. She's no taller but even more filled out. What a little brick!

Sadie, who belongs to my friend Teri, (Ella's owner) is here for a 30 day refresher and to get her ready to sell. This mare has Highbrow Cat ON her papers (hmm, am I lying? It's one of those reining giants, anyway, I'll have to check). She doesn't turn out as broke as the horse trader who sold her said she was (love those guys) but she's a really nice mare and with a little more education, she'll make someone a super nice little horse. They have purchased another horse, more suitable for Teri's long legged daughter, and now this cutie is an extra.

Last but not least is a grulla mare I brought home to settle a debt. I am not sure she will work for the person I brought her home for but I am thinking she might work for me. I know . . . I have a penful out there . . . all needing riding . . . she does, too. There is something else that happens sometimes between horses and the people who work with them . . . it's that loud, resounding CLICK when the time and the horse is right . . . She might be mine forever, for awhile, or even a few days, as the person I owe a horse to has first right of refusal . . . We'll just have to see about grulla mares and what the future holds for us all, here at Good Hands.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

"A Man Convinced Against His Will . . .

is of the same opinion, still." That is a quote out of Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People book. No, I haven't read it, and yes, I probably should. It's a paraphrase from a guy named Laurence J. Peter. The point is, there is no winning side to an argument.

Seeming segue, down the street on the way to Arron's shop is a church marquee. Right now what's been on there for quite some time is "truth is not taught, it is lived."

Both of these concepts spring from the same vein, and I have been giving them a lot of thought lately. Yes, toward, you, my fellow human beings traversing the planet with me, but of course, WAY more as it effects my horses.

I made a comment in another post about the wonder of Jack, my rescue horse, acknowledging me of his own free will and volition and the change that made in him. A few people were puzzled, didn't he already know me? What was the big deal about him recognizing me, that way? I meant to get across the wonder of him reaching for me, and letting me know that I am part of his world. It wasn't that he suddenly discovered me, it was that he brought me in, instead of me reaching for him, and putting myself in HIS space.

I know Colleen Hamer taught this idea at her clinic, awhile back, and I teach it at mine, too. The necessity of getting a horse to acknowledge those things in his surroundings that bother him, whether it's an obstacle, water crossing, a saddle, or whatever. A frightened or unwilling horse can be made to do just about anything he thinks he absolutely has to . . . The horse says, "I Am NOT Okay With THIS! I Do NOT Want To DO This!!" Sometimes there is bucking, sometimes rearing, most of the time, the horse, under lash and spur or just continual urging, will eventually go forward, tear through it, and the rider thinks they've got the job done, because "we made it, finally, didn't we?" Nevermind that the horse is completely refusing to look at the scary thing, blows through, eyes shut, nose pinched tight.

That horse might cross the obstacle more willingly next time or not, but the resistance will show up, again, somewhere. Guaranteed.

The same goes for trying to reach the mind of the horse as well. I used to go out, keep my halter and lead close to my side, get up to my horse and get that rope around his neck as quick as possible before he could scoot away, and I'd have to spend more day chasing him down. I didn't realize how rude that was, and how it set up our relationship from the very get go. I have a dvd of a benefit Ray Hunt put on, there are all kinds of well known names riding in this, first in the colt starting clinic and then in a horsemanship demonstration. At one point they are trying to catch these unhandled young horses, and Ray remonstrates with a guy. "Wait for the horse," he tells him, "let him come to you." The guy leaves his hand available to the horse (all the while looking very doubtfully at Ray), and sure enough, the colt finally turns, LOOKS at the guy, noses the hand, and the fellow is able to catch and go on with him. It sets an entirely different stage for their process than another guy who ropes his, gets it caught and you later see that colt bucking it's head off, a little further into the process. Do they both get their colts rode? Probably. Which one would you rather buy, end of the day?

Wait for the horse. Fix it up and wait. It's taken me a long time to get a handle on this, more truthfully, it's taken a long time for me to have the patience to give it a try, and the willingness to believe it's worth the wait. I'd rather DO something to the horse to get the result . . . but a horse convinced against his will . . .

As far as the catching part goes, there are exercises to teach your horse to hook up with you. How well it goes is your report card for how well you communicated with your horse that being with you is better than not. For those of you who read my blog, you know that my Percheron/Arabian cross, Moonshine, has handed me steady D's in this department. At long last, in the SMALL pen, she watches me, ears up, the moment I come out of my door (and not always at feeding time), she will walk to the gate to meet me, and if I am going somewhere else, she walks along her side of the fence with me. This is nifty, but frankly, I have little hope it will stay with her, once out in bigger spaces, just yet. She has been through a series of trainers, over the years, that all attempted to put their ideas on top of hers, and she's having no part of it. I am making gains with this lovely mare. Once upon a time, as soon as she heard the door open, her ears swept back and she headed for the furtherest corner, back turned. 'Shine rides nice, and has a lot more faith in my leadership once I am on top than she does when it's time to leave the pasture and the herdmates. I will continue to move forward with her, and continue to wait for her and that's how we'll get there. It will occur to her that the things I do have meaning, and that I am a good, consistent and worthy leader, and she will look to me to take care of her when the wolves approach.

It's so not about the catching, the buddy sour, the barn sour, the trailer loading or any of the other symptoms that we run into that tell us the mind of the horse is not with us. A guy named Marty Marten has written a couple of really nice books, they are through Western Horseman, and are Problem Solving 1 and Problem Solving 2. In the first one, Marty gives all kinds of neat solutions to reach the feet of the horse, first from the ground and then the saddle. In Volume 2, he names a bunch of symptoms (in response to reader mail, I am sure . . . "this is good but my horse won't ____, what do I do about THAT?") Marty states, do exercise ______ as listed in Volume 1. If that doesn't work, try this, and then he'll give another nice alternative to go to . . .

Most of the horses (all of them?) on my place are here because they ran into trouble, somewhere else, to some degree or another. I get to see, first hand, what happens when a human tries to force a horse. I get to experience, first hand, how much longer it takes to fix them than it does to build them correctly from the ground up, in the first place, and unfortunately, how quickly the fix can be undone when the horse is placed back in circumstances that remind it of where it came from, in the first place. I have spent a lot of years rehabbing and selling saddle horses. It is a joy to me that on a lot of the rides I go to, events I attend, my alumni are there, and doing well so it is not all doom and gloom on my side of the river.

The ones that do not do well, break my heart. It's one of the reasons I have slowed WAY down on the outside training and trading business. I do absolutely understand that not everyone shares the passion for understanding the horse the same way I do. I really get that some people just want to get on and enjoy the ride. Horsemanship, like any sport, requires a certain amount of education, practice and discipline to get any kind of enjoyment, decent results and at a bare minimum, safety. I think there probably is an okay middle place between the person who saddles up their horse once a year for the big trail ride/social event, and those of us who spend most of our waking moments, thinking, breathing and dreaming about horses and why they do what they do. Darned hard for us humans to put down our ways of coloring everything we look at with our ideas about how they do or should respond to us, what they think of us, and who is going to WIN.

Working horses yesterday, I wanted to fight. My fabulous and wonderful Australian Shepard, Zan, was hit on the road a couple of days ago. One minute he was by the round pen, with me, the next he had run down, unbeknownst to me, to bark at the neighbor's truck as she made her way home. He was barely out of our drive (too much, off the property) but she was deep in her thoughts and did not see him until she hit him. He died upon impact. I wasn't going to share this but I am a writer and processing through my keyboard is what I do. The rage, the pain, the incredible sorrow at losing this dear friend of mine is lacerating my heart. When one of my mares, who is a saucy wench anyway, wanted to bow up and argue with me, I started to resort to the old "you will see it my way as I am kicking your fat butt all over this land" way of thinking that used to be so much a part of me. It lies under the surface, and when I am wrong in my spirit, comes leaping to the fore. As I felt Ginger's surprise at my harsh hands, giving her little opportunity to respond before twisting her some other way, I made myself let her soften. When I picked up my rein again, asking for her hip to move through indirect pressure and she did not do as I wish, I did not growl, or kick, I did not yank. I stayed methodical and even, until I got the response I desired. Thank God it was Ginger, who is not easily offended and is quick to forgive. Had I lost my temper with Moonshine, I imagine it would be a very long time before I got met at the gate again.

Ginger, being the great mare that she is, gave to me everything I asked for. I didn't cry into her mane, again, did the other day, as she wrapped her neck around me in what I think of as a hug, but I patted and stroked her neck and thanked her for being who she is and helping me remember who I am.

Rest in peace, mr. zan puppy. i will miss you forever. i am so sorry i did not keep you safe.

Friday, May 29, 2009

More Fun Than Ice Cream

. . . thinking about yesterday, I have a smile on my face and a glow in my heart. Day sure didn't start that way, as some of you know with the whole can't find my id for the Bomgaar's drug test thing. Did find an acceptable form of id and spent the entire afternoon at the clinic getting that deal taken care of. That part was not more fun than much of anything except I did get a wild walk down memory lane in my fruitless search for proof of birth and identification. (among other things, I found some photos of me from . . . 1984 . . . yeah baby. Nope, not gonna be seeing them, here you won't . . . )

Had all that crappy congestion in my chest again when I got home and went down for a quick nap before riding (where's the fun part, says you? This doesn't sound like fun . . . ) It all got better about 20 minutes later, dogs exploding in stranger danger warning . . . Not an axe murderer, turns out, just neighbor Teri come to see her filly work.

I rallied, like the noble get 'er done kinda gal I wish I were, and saddled Knosie and Ella.

Did Ella's groundwork out in the barnyard. This is a super quiet laid back filly and I'd like a little more impulsion in her gaits at this point. I don't want her hot and jumpy, that would definitely be a wrong result but she does need to move. I worked with her, getting her to reach equally with all four legs and lengthen her stride without speeding up the strides. This is hard, and she really didn't see the point, much. I have watched Buck and some others "drift the hind" while doing groundwork and under saddle. Watching Missy, she explained that the hind needs to travel on a slightly larger circle (I tend to get more bend through the ribs, and that's not wrong but more bend slows a horse rather than lengthens them, makes sense, huh) than the fore but all four legs should be reaching equally. This sounds more confusing than it is, when you can actually see it happen. Says me who was utterly confused by the concept until . . . I saw it happen. Now I get it.

The thing is, it's not only what happens in the body, as it relaxes, stretches and starts working properly, but the mind of the horse engages as well. I talk about how the mind can't work without some kind of physical manifestation, well, it goes the other way too. When the body is working properly, you have the mind. Through the feet, to the body to the brain. That's the way it works.

Ella's brain is not far away at the worst of times, I am not completely sure what her worst of times even look like. This is one of those once in a lifetime horses that wants to please from the tip of her nose to the end of her pretty long black tail. She is the easiest little horse I have ever ridden in my life. We were laughing about how young horses like this make a person want to go out and buy a truckload . . . kind of like having an easy baby first. You have another one with that false sense of security "what's so tough about this" and then hellspawn arrives.

Once I got a little more try and effort out of that sweet girl, I mounted up and rode around. We played on the hillside, letting her feel a rider's weight as she learns to negotiate up, down and sideways. Rode out in the pasture, headed toward the bridge, but I couldn't make up my mind if I wanted her to go by it or cross it, dunno, I was stuck in my head, it happens, and so we kind of stopped in front of it. She looked back at me like "if you are going to drive, please decide where the heck we are going!" Okay fine. We circled the bridge, came back at straight and with purpose, and over she goes. Stop in the middle, pet her, on again.

My life energy was pretty low, I was happier about being outside, but not feeling the best and she dogged out right along with me. We went into the round pen to open up a trot and get some life stirred in us, both. The round pen instead of staying outside because that is the most level spot with the good footing, and Ella doesn't need to lose her confidence slipping around on the grassy hillside while I try to wake her up. Counterproductive in spades, wouldn't you think?

She jogged around like a little pleasure horse wannabe, and nothing wrong with that if you are asking for that. I wanted forward motion. I want a horse to be able to reach out and really extend that trot. Then, when I want them to slow down, they need to be able to do that, too. I started asking for lateral flexion, moving her hip over and really asking her to power out of the turns so as to build the impulsion and movement. Ella felt a little off to me, we just had her trimmed last weekend, but I have never had a horse come sore after Scotty does his work (yes, I have forgiven Scotty, he is still the best traditional farrier I know for setting up a foot that isn't going to be shod). I stepped down and sent her around a little. She flew! Not listening to me one little bit. Apparently, I was not the only one frustrated with our process, she was just too polite to say so, until now!

When she could turn in, face me, and drop her pace back to a trot by listening to my body language on the ground, I could see her stride. There was something, maybe, but it was tiny. Teri and I both thought she could still work, as neither of us was even sure we were seeing anything at all. You know how it is when you have a really good horse, you DO want to take stock in the bubblewrap factory for fear of some small thing turning into that fatal big thing.

Riding her now is a lot more fun (yes we are getting to the more fun than ice cream part. I really do try to get back to the point of what I started. There are no guarantees and sometimes it's a circuitous route, but I do try). She trots out with a much longer stride, not dropping her shoulders, and keeping a decent, light flex to the inside. This is not just her nose pointed in or her neck bent that I am talking about but a flex all the way through her body. We have to pick it up, sometimes, and I might need to weight my outside stirrup a little to keep her rounded out but she has so much willingness, she follows as I lead. When I don't pay attention, she doesn't either, and that gets my head back where it belongs, on top and not off wandering. When the horse is not responding the way I want, the first thing I need to check is me. Am I asking the question correctly, and is it even the right question in the first place?? It's not the horse's idea to be out there, doing that work, so once again, it is my responsibility to carry the communication and be accountable for the results.

We are really enjoying ourselves now (both of us have ears up and smiles on our faces), but Knosie is saddled and waiting her turn. I ask Teri if she wants to ride the filly while I warm up the Knos. We have decided 30 days on Ella will be fine as Teri has another young horse she'd like some time on as well. I won't normally start a colt for 30 days anymore, it's hard to get enough done to make it stick when they go home if they need halter broke and the whole nine yards, in the beginning. So many owners are really not prepared to go on with their young horses after 30 days and can get in a lot of trouble if they don't have their education as well as the horse. This filly is a special case and Teri knows what she needs to do to follow up. I'll send her home with happy confidence and besides, I am right here when and if they need me.

Knosie isn't looking as happy and relaxed as I would like her to . . . but that changes quickly as her body warms up. She gets a little scared, doing her groundwork and is trying to back out of the pressure. I stay easy, go with her, and keep asking for forward motion. I step away from her as the direction she was backing, it presented a squeeze for her to have to move forward past me and she was very worried about that. Giving her a little more open space, without releasing the pressure to move forward, did the trick. When she found the right answer, moved forward, the pressure came off, and her ears went up. Nothing bad happened to her for giving me an answer I didn't want, I just kept asking til I got the one I did. Then came the release and the praise. Most young horses really need help to build their confidence. She's one, and her appreciation when you get there with her is really obvious.

While I started with the buckskin filly, Teri went on with Ella. We are building lateral movement, and had a few decent sidepass steps, using the fence as an aid. Teri calls for my attention, I look up and she and Ella take three very sweet, correct sidepass steps to the right, out in the middle of the pen, all by they onesies. I grin, ear to ear. That's awesome!! Teri says she thinks she skipped some steps, but I told her you know how you know if you do it right? It works!!

Hmm, Ter? I say, do you care if I ride in there, with you? She didn't mind, and this is where the real fun begins. It's all good stuff, working with these young horses, putting the pieces of the puzzle together to help them find themselves and develop as willing partners, but me being as ADD as I am, I like to mix things up, keeps me entertained, and gets the horse trained as a by product. (well, glad you are enjoying yourself, says my clients, whose dollars are hard at work here . . . )

Ella is bottom on the totem pole and a couple of times that they've been together, Knosie has picked on her a little. Whenever we'd come by (Knosie mounted up and rode off like a saddle horse, geez, this is a nice filly!) she'd pin those little ears and look as defensively fierce as she possibly could. I am firmly of the belief a horse needs to depend on it's rider to protect it, not feel the need to use it's own hooves when under saddle and I asked Teri to correct the problem.

What to do? Well, as soon as those ears sweep back in that angry position, boot her. Thump her good. She isn't going to buck or bolt or do anything naughty and if she did, Teri knows how to take her hip away and shut her down. KEEP booting her until those ears pitch forward. Even one, even a little, then STOP. We did this for a few turns. I'd work small circles (asking for lateral flexion in motion, getting Knosie softer and more responsive in the bridle, powering out of the turns, keeping the shoulders upright, still doing my job on the horse I am on) and when we'd be on Ella's side, she go into defense mode, Teri'd do HER job, and Ella figured out a) she didn't NEED to take care of her own self, and b) Teri wasn't going to LET her either.

The trick, I tell my friend, once you cue for a response, do not quit til you get the try. Whatever you release to, that is the lesson learned whether you mean it to be or not. Don't wait until she has done something wrong to correct her, do it WHILE she is, don't wait to release her til AFTER she's done the right thing, release WHILE . . . it was darned cool watching them work things out. It really was not that long before Knos and I could trot by, fairly close and Ella would stay calm, relaxed, ears up while Teri praised and rubbed her.

We rode joyously until the dark almost caught us and Teri had to dash home to shower and get ready to go to work. There are days that take minutes off your life, and too many of them. Days like this give them back.

Ella is going to Stone Park next week for her graduation ride and Knosie is going to Turkey Creek the week after. This was excellent prep work for these young horses to understand there will be other horses with them, behind, in front and passing them, sometimes at different speeds than they themselves are going.

Today, it's pasture riding. I keep saying I am bringing in my saddle horses to pony from, and then other stuff comes up. Today is the day. Teri is husband free for the weekend and will be back over when she gets up (night nurse). I will have both fillies well warmed up and we will ride the pasture, and maybe the roads a little. We can trade off, one of us on a saddle horse, the other on a youngster and then back again.

This is the part that is more fun than ice cream and anyone who has ever met me, knows I love the good gooey stuff. Arron spent the evening raking and building our fire ring over where we took back the jungle by our bottom pen. We have some old hay, downed wood, all kinds of stuff to burn, and after dark fell, we sat in our lawn chairs, ate some cold dinner and watched the flames and the stars. The dogs thought this was a pretty good time as well, they chased imaginary dragons and then lay at our feet in happy exhaustion.

I am not sure it gets any better than this.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Particular, Precise, Patient and Persistent

Hah, you'd think I am channeling Pat P again with all the P words! It's what's been on my mind lately. to be particular without being critical, precise without nagging, patient without boring my horse to death with inattention, and persistent that I stay in the game and support my horse until his tries for an answer to my question hit home.

As usual, the stuff of my blog crosses over into other areas of my life as well. Any of you who live on an acreage know exactly what I am talking about when I say the amount of work to keep one functional is amazing, and to keep an acreage looking nice in the process can be staggering. I am one to ride when all else fails, or when nothing else fails, so it's mostly up to my husband (he volunteered for the job) to do the outside maintenance around here. After three and a half years, he has admitted he bit off way more than he knew what he was biting into and needs help. My first reaction was "hey, I told you I don't do yardwork (or windows, or dishes . . .the list could grow) from the very beginning." Then, I look at our beautiful place, slowly losing it's edges to the ever encroaching weeds (why can't the pasture grow even half that fast???) and I know it's time to pitch in and lend a hand.

Being all those P words, plus a little pissy, too, at the start, I manned the push mower whilst Arron mounted the rider (Chrissy, we still owe you for that darned thing and I want you to know that is not a forgotten debt although it must seem like it by now! Christmas is coming, hon). Why does he get the rider? Well, we can't have those money making tattoo machine running digits sore and swollen from bucking a resistant lawn mower taking on the mutant weed crop, now can we . . . I mowed the easy parts, the hard parts and the ridiculously hard parts. At one point, I am pushing that thing up the little hill by our drive and thought my feet might slip out from under me, and the thing roll back and chop me into pate. Well, just be quick about it, says a small voice, then I don't have to finish mowing (and he'll be sorry, too, won't he. . . scraping my icky bloody remains off the mower so HE can finish the job!!)

Okay, enough of all that, this is a horse training blog after all, not a whine about doing what I need to do blog. The benefit is, this morning (why I am awake so ungodly early, I have no idea but here I am, and no one to talk to but the dogs who are outside and you guys.) I am looking out my window at a lovely well manicured yard, even mowed up under the gorgeous white blossoming bushes, have no idea what they are, and my beloved lilacs which are making a good comeback from that early killing frost last year. It was well worth the effort.

Which brings us to horses (at last, says the ones of you still with me, thought I never would, huh). My two training fillies, Ella and Knosie, tops on the priority list. Due to a really awful cold (yes, I was thinking OMG, I have it, I have SWINE flu!! I didn't . . .) I spent a few days in bed and not in the saddle. Knosie was lukewarm about the riding thing, last effort, and sitting a few days could have no good effect, in my mind. One of the things she showed me when my son was on her is that her gangly three year old legs and body are still not real connected to the brain between her ears, and she gets stuck and unconfident relatively easy, even doing groundwork. It's a natural fact, then, that she would also get stuck, under saddle, and amp it up a little with some fear and confusion about that top heavy weight up there (easy, folks, I am on a diet, for heaven's sake, I am talking people are top heavy to horses, in general!).

Pretty much by accident, shortly after we moved here, I discovered working horses on an incline affected miracles in some of the broncy ones. That is when I started paying more attention to why they were bucking in the first place. They'd get off balance, get stuck in their minds, get scared and buck out of it. Working on the hillside helped them collect themselves, use their bodies better and they gained confidence. Can't take credit for the idea, as I have few flat places to ride here and was mostly wishing for a nice level arena at the time, and would never have learned this valuable lesson, so good thing it wasn't up to me ;=)

So, Knosie did her groundwork on the hillside. I wanted proper circles, her not pulling me off center or causing me to travel around after her, an even cadence to her gait, proper arc to her body, the whole nine yards. I asked her to do the job, at an easy jog to start (this is not new for her, we walked at the very beginning) and once her lopsided ovals smoothed out, and she tired of running into her own resistance when her nose would get off track, I asked her to pick up the pace. This was much harder for her, but she tried, and we gained. Meantime I watch her eyes soften, she isn't wanting to leave, is looking into me, asking what comes next. I don't nag her to death with my requests, I tell her, set her to her job and leave her alone to get it done. (wow, wish I'd known this stuff when I was raising kids. It DOES work on my husband, by the by, don't tell him I told you! ;-)

I used some other exercises in the round pen that Sherry Jarvis introduced her colt starting students to, a different sort of synchronized riding from the ground than I use, and I like the sound of it and the results one gets. Starting from Knos's left stirrup, I bring up the energy in my body and ask her to move forward, as if I were in the saddle. She has NO idea what I want. A light touch with the training stick I am carrying that acts as my leg on her side and we move forward. We had some figuring out to do, to make this work, and it was an excellent preview of what the ride would be like. She was predictably jumpy on the right side, and when it smoothed out from the ground, it was smooth from the saddle as well. I asked her to keep pace with me, not run ahead or lag behind, to walk when I did, stop when I did and back up when I did. Again, all those P words. It was not terribly long, before all this was happening and she went from a tight, turned off worried look on her face to ears forward, open expression happy and interested, the same transformation I saw last Fall, and I was sure happy to see it arrive.

Riding was fun. I passenger rode her at first, asking only that she continue in the same direction we started. I didn't care if she walked or trotted, and she walked out with a fine, swinging pace but didn't volunteer anything faster. I changed sides and it was non eventful. Picked up a trot, also easy peasey. Had to ask a little and she was a little slower and hesitant at first, but lengthened her stride, of her own accord and felt really super, under me. I started picking up the reins and putting my legs on her, moving her hip out of the way on the turns This is where we had finished up last year, moving hip over to the left and then leading the shoulder through to the right, and vice versa. She got pretty light and supple, was following her cues like she did this yesterday instead of what, October? Stopped on one rein, then weight pressure, then with two reins, and asked for the back up . . . left rein, left front, right rein, right front. I was just delighted to see that these things still had meaning for her. We quit there, and she really make me smile when I dismounted. She turned her head to me and softly put it against my stomach. We stood there for a little bit, I petted her neck and told her I absolutely remember why I loved her so much last year. I am thinking we'll get some really nice stuff accomplished from here!

This had started out, in my mind as more of a Jack blog, but then it's all of a piece. I am being particular with him as well. Fixing as I am finding. We do a lot of this, he gets really afraid coming through gates (can you blame him?) and I am sending him through a lot of gates. I've done this from the beginning, and the improvements are there, but small and odd. At one point, when he'd get scared enough and not want to back through, he'd rear and strike a little. Not the slicing gonna cleave my enemy kind of a thing, but a timid "will this make you please stop asking me this??" No, it didn't. I have learned to pay attention to the behavior I want, and not get derailed with that kind of distraction. He might have to move his feet, not as punishment but to unlock his brain with motion and then back to the gate, and he'd always go through. Now, I almost never see that rear, but did yesterday evening when he got upset over the line pitched over his back and couldn't back out of the pressure. He rears about six inches off the ground, front feet carefully curled under him. Now, don't think I am an idiot and not aware those feet can come uncurled faster than I can see it done, I am fully aware, it's just a difference, and one, now that I think about it, has been in place for awhile.

Also. NO STRESS FACES yesterday. That's a first since rodeo day, and before that, too, but particularly since then as I have been asking more of Jack to build that emotional stability. I didn't even realize that until I was laying in bed, going over the day in my mind. No stress faces. Wow. We did some stressful things. I am asking him to back softly from halter pressure, nose down, chin in as he ought to. This is very difficult for our Jack, and he has to dive out the back often before he can settle and try again. A step in the right direction, right arc to the body, right softness in the face gets release. Nothing else does. I don't increase pressure, or do anything to make it harder for him. I just patiently persist and if he needs to run into his own resistance, I allow him to do that, just as I allow him to release himself when he comes off of it.

I have watched a lot of people work their horses, and they are doing way more work than the horse is, people's bodies are moving all over the place while the horse watches in bemused confusion and kind of moves to get out of the way. The more I learn, the less I move, and the more my horse does, and the more he moves, without me having to, the softer it all gets.

End of the day, I turn him into his pen and he leaves me before I can leave him. This will not do. I step to his side (I am about 15 feet away), kiss to get his attention, and step back. I have taught him to come to me with this set of cues. Jack stares at me with questioning surprise. He thought we were done! Nope, done when I say done, my fined hoovied friend. He does quite nicely take several strides my direction, starts to waver, looks away (when I lose his eye, I make noise to stimulate him and get him back. If he'd have to leave, that's okay, I'd help him go, then I'd help him come back again.) He chooses to come in the rest of the way. I stand, back mostly to him as he walks slowly up to me, nose out and friendly. I do nothing, let him acknowledge me, I smile and walk away. Jack stares after me, like okay what the heck was the purpose of THAT exercise . . . his ears are up and he watches me all the down the drive to where my husband smiles too. Get used to it, Jack, he says, if you aren't by now, she does things like that.

I really am having doubts at this point that Jack will ever be mentally healthy enough to have a job in the world, other than the one he has right now. He is teaching me to observe and pay attention. To stick to principles he can't survive without, and that other horses (and mebbe some people) will benefit from even more. He's teaching me the value and the reward of doing something without a real goal or agenda attached to the end of it, the joy of a successful moment. I don't know what the end of his story will be, well, I guess I couldn't, not without dusting off my trusty crystal ball and I don't know what box that's still packed in . . . I can't know the ending to any of our tales, but I can refer back to success being the quality of the journey, can't I. A well cut lawn and soft eyed horses may be the measure of no one else's success but my own . . . but hey, I'm the one writing the story!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sometimes Things Don't Go As Planned . . .

There are no photos to go with this blog. I had my hands WAY too full to worry about where the camera was. Had I had it, I'd probably have some award winning action shots, or possibly a broken camera . . .

On a list serv I am on, we are talking about training methods and what happens when you tie something to the saddle of a horse, and they cannot get away from it. The approach and retreat is gone, no way for a horse to get release. Can set the stage for some horrible, dreadful events. Still, there is a place in time when a thing must be tied to a horse, it's his saddle. One would think, with that proper preparation that prevents piss poor performance, and getting the horse ready to saddle before he ever wears one, that would be a non event, and normally it is . . . but not always.

I have seen people create horrible fears and pull back problems in their horses, releasing at the wrong moments, when the horse is scared and having a problem. In a perfect world, we'd never blow through a threshold, never get our horses to this place. I don't know a horse person or trainer alive, and I know some pretty darned good ones, that have not found themselves with more on their hands than what they bargained for when they step across those lines, usually by accident but sometimes you have to take a horse to the hard places in order to ever get to the good ones. Once there, it's pretty darned important to work through the problem. A horse left in doubt today is a horse convinced tomorrow and probably not of a darned thing we want him to be . . .

This brings us to yesterday, the events that unfolded and the reason for this post:

Jack stood tied to the tree just fine, that's a non issue for him now, it would seem. He digests information in very small doses, but when it does get through, it seems to stick. I have done saddle prep with him several times, including holding a rope around his girth to let him feel that. Took him into the round pen yesterday, worked circles with him. His forward motion is pretty broken, he'd learned when he ran, he got tripped and when he gets worried he really doesn't want to move. This is foreshadowing, folks, and is telling you what happened, later on. Sticky go means sticky whoa. That might be the most important thing you learn today. It was the most important thing I learned AGAIN, yesterday.

He did pretty good. Not perfect. My agenda was to see him saddled. Yes, I said agenda. These are important things to pay attention to. I knew that if I ran into trouble in the process, I'd need to readdress my goals but that's where I wanted to be, watching Jack with a saddle on. In my prep to saddle work, I accustom a horse to things going over his back, banging on his sides, noise and clatter. I use that string of milk jugs to start with and with some approach, retreat and release, he carried them around, slung over his bareback with a fair amount of calm. Set the heavy bouy's up there, no problem. Got the saddle blanket, he's used to that.

Now it's time to introduce the saddle. All this time, it's been in the middle of the round pen. He has thoroughly checked it out, acknowledged it, smelled it up and down. Approaching him with it in my arms got a big eye, but he sniffed again and stood calm when I set it up on him. For a horse like this, I pick up my off stirrup and cinches as to not freak him out with a sudden bang on that off side. I have no wish to wear 1000 lbs of scared horse like an unwieldy hooved hat.

He looked at it on the near side and I let it sit there, took it off, walked away with it, came back, set it up again. Had him acknowledge on the far side. Let the stirrup and cinches down. This got a little flinch, but he'd been thoroughly rubbed, down his sides and legs and a little touch there and some noise was no big deal. He was soft eyed, at this point, and the process looked good.

Now we come to the point. The point of no return where the cinch is drawn up and fastened. TONS of approach and retreat, letting him feel the cinch, a soft fat neoprene, touch his belly, little pressure, release it when he breaths, relaxes, and then up again a little. When that touch was no big deal, a little more . . .

Here's what I did NOT do, at this point. I didn't move him around, just holding the latigo on the cinch to make sure he could handle it with movement. I did that before with the rope, but not just then with the saddle. Saddles feel a LOT different than a rope does. A normal horse rarely needs this particular breakdown, but this is not a normal horse and I know that there is no such thing as too many steps for Jack. This might have saved us the wreck that followed, might have got my head kicked off my shoulders.

Fastened the latigo, just snug enough to keep the saddle on. Fastened the back cinch though a little voice in my head told me not to. Didn't do the breast collar as that same voice, louder now, says you might want to have as little to undo as possible if you need to get this off this horse in a hurry. Let him stand, feel the saddle, breathe. Sent him off at a walk. He walks a couple of steps, pulls a bow in his back and hunches. I gently ask him to move on. He BLOWS! That 14' lead is NOT even close to long enough. I drop it and get the hell out of the way.

He bucks around me for awhile, kicking and crashing into the panels. My heart sinks, he's totally out of control, and anything can happen now. He shuts down, stands, comes out of it, freaks and blows several more times. Breaks a panel, which now has dangerous points coming off of it. I have got to get my hands on him before he kills himself.

I run to the barn, get my 22' foot lead. Aren't you thinking I should have started with that? I sure was . . .

He does let me approach him, unfasten the 14', and fasten the 22'. Would you have tried to unsaddle him, just then? The thought occurred, but a) I didn't want to pull it off of him with him hating it the way he was, no way was he done with wanting that thing off of him, and b) I did not want one of those flying cowkicks to rearrange my smile and possibly my thought process. I want to keep my horses safe, but keeping me safe is number one.

I let him stand and blow. He looks better so I ask him to move forward again. He backs into the pressure. I ask him to move forward again, and now he's backing and kicking at me, with some pretty good intent and energy. Well, okay. Let's go backwards then. Didn't do that enough. Don't know why my brain was so stuck on forward, but it was. He'd move forward, blow, buck, run like crazy. He let me keep him away from the broken panel so I knew he wasn't totally insane and he even let me shut him down a few times when I grabbed the rope that burned through my ungloved hands more than twice.

Biggest error of a day full of them, towards the end, I had him trotting around, big progress and instead of hanging there, and letting him trot the bunchiness out of his back (there are some of you out there still reading that have heard me say trot the buck out, a few times, no a LOT of times). I really wanted those feet to loosen up, stuck feet are a stuck mind, and I wanted him free. Well, he got free all right.

In that last explosion, he did blow through the broken panel (the top rail ended up in the pasture on the other side). Now I think he will go through a very near by fence that still has some barbed wire on it, hate that stuff and we replace it as we can . . . He doesn't, turns sharply and dashes madly toward the back fence of the property. This is not much to speak of, strand of barbed, and a hot wire . . . I figure he is in it, or over it, through the plowed field and be headed for the highway. Nope, he turns at that, too, and blows down toward the neighbors. That fence is really good, cable and hot wire, I figure we are okay there, and we are. Now he's coming up through the trees, still bucking mind you, he's got some determination, that horse, and some "athletic ability." Horse sellers terms meaning that horse can REALLY buck . . . if anyone tells you a horse can't run at close to top speed and still buck PRCA proud, I invite them to come watch this one . . .

He flies past the barn and through the open gates into the safety of his pen. I shut that gate, but this is not a huge improvement. My place is so not set up for rank broncs. That pen is wire panels, hot wire . . . and t-posts. Most of them have plastic protector tops, but a couple are missing. I am pretty sure I am going to see my horse impaled, after all we've been though, as he continues to buck and bolt, up and down the pen. Donovan, on the other side, cuts him like a cow. Even in my adrenaline drenched mental state, I notice him flatten his ears and threaten Jack, every time it looked like he might come through the fence. I think Donovan was scared that maniac might attack him but he kept him off the fence, nonetheless. Eventually the stirrup caught on a post, the billet broke and he jumped through the back cinch like a lion through a burning hoop.

Far from done, he's still trailing the 22' foot lead and kicking the snot out of it any time it touches him, he continues to run. Finally, the rope snags under the empty plastic tub I keep their loose salt in. It's on it's side and doesn't weigh more than a few pounds, but he yields to the pressure and circles the tub. He's kicking air now, sometimes the fence behind him and sometimes the nearby innocent water tank (don't you put a hole in that, damn it!) and as disturbed as I have ever seen him. This goes on for a long time. I wonder how badly he's hurt himself, he has some minor scrapes on his legs from the panels, and I can see blood on one front leg too. He's standing sound, and doesn't seem to be in too bad a shape as long as he's not injured internally from the saddle pulling on him before the billet broke.

Long enough story short, he's okay. I eventually went in (had other horses to work and it didn't hurt either one of us to take some cool down time from each other) picked up his rope and asked him to talk to me. All during his melt down, he would look for me and want to come to me. No way do bucking, freaking horses get to sit in my lap and I would not let him. Now, he was unsure. I got to pet him but he was bunchy and tense. Frightened horses are dangerous horses. I pulled the back cinch off the saddle, better late than never, right, and folded it in half. I used that to rub the sweat off his bowed up neck, and got him to relax some. Worked him in some circles, there in his pen, hey his forward motion is much better, sigh. Been nice to have started with that. Fortunately we both get to live and learn.

I thought a lot about this situation, as of course, I would. To do over? I'd have much, much better forward motion established. I'd have him better able to handle his emotional stability under pressure. How to do that, you have to put more pressure on them. I thought I'd put enough, but obviously not, when push came to shove. I'd have him fluidly working over the obstacles, like I do just about every other single horse that comes to me in training. I took longer putting saddles on my colts last year than I did Jack, yesterday.

Will Jack ever be a saddle horse? Who knows. It's back to the steps above . . . Am I putting both of us in danger, continuing his training? That is the question I am asking myself, right this very minute.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Then to Now

Success is in the quality of the journey. That's not a new thought for most of us, but it's what I have been focusing on, lately. Not just for me, but for the horses I ride, the clients I teach and the friends with which I am fortunate enough to share the trip.

As a lot of you know, I received my first pony, Ringo Star, for Christmas the year I would turn three, he was six months old. We "grew up together" and I still carry some of the scars, and a heartful of memories. When I was 9, my folks (who could not have liked me much) gave me a buttermilk buckskin two year old filly for my birthday. She was a "cheap kid horse." Have some scars from her, too. One sunny day, some years later, a big ole truck n stock trailer comes winding up our narrow County country lane, a horse trader who'd heard there might be some stock for sale up that way.

That day, I acquired Cisco, a grade sorrel gelding, flax mane, tail, all the chrome. That is a tale all of it's own, but I'll tell you in this one that trader drove away scratching his head that he was leaving with less money than he wanted to, none of the horses he came to see and a 13 year old girl was walking away with the horse he'd had on his trailer. It was my first unassisted trade, with many to follow. I was thoroughly bitten.

We had, besides that bunch, a motley collection of saddle horses, one of which was a tall black bay Thoroughbred mare with a bad temper at shoeing time, and a tendency run off with whatever hapless rider was up, the bigger the bit the better, she said. That was the dam of my barrel racing horse, who inherited her temper, and her speed. He was the first horse born on the place and we made all the mistakes with him we could think. At five he was considered an unbreakable outlaw, couldn't sell him, wasn't ready to eat him. I started riding him secretly in a back pasture and he became one of my first "miracles." A few more of those to follow too but not so much thanks to me as to the teachers that started showing up.

What I had was a burning desire to have something better with my horses than I had. We showed in our local saddle club shows and play days, I had shelves of trophies, and an unquenchable urge to be first, whatever the cost. I had to whip and spur my game horse, Cisco (who knew so much more than I did, to this day, I wonder what we really could have done, had I a clue) to get him into the arena, once there, he'd blast out, do his job and get out again, as quick as he could.

My hard to catch barrel horse had only one speed, and that was fly. I had no idea that you should gain control of your horse before you introduced speed. What a concept. Didn't know how to rate his gaits, didn't know much of anything except charge through the gates, kill the barrels (or poles) as fast as you can and hope to survive the trip. On the days we were not lapping the arena, we were highly competitive . . . til we wrecked pretty bad, whacking his head on the side of a barrel as he went down in the muddy slop too deep and treacherous for our form of the game and neither he or I saw much fun in that, ever again.

What happened that really started to make a difference, although that difference would not show up for many, many years later (sorry Reb) was a gal named Sally somebody that some "progressive" members of our saddle club brought to our small town to do a "clinic." They said, bring your worst of the worst and this gal can fix 'em. So we did. We brought the Thoroughbred mare, Pretty Girl (RIP, sweetheart) and I saw a collection of horses and people I had known all my life. Broncs, runaways, committed biters, kickers, you name it, we brought them. This was in 1975 (I think) which would have me at 15 years of age, just ripe for knowing everything there is to know about horses and any other subject you'd want to bring up.

They said she was a student of some guy that lived central of us (I grew up in Northern California, Pat Parelli used to rodeo on our circuit though none of us cared about that, at the time.) Sally took these horses and through what was revolutionary to us all, softened bracey jaws, introduced us to the ideas of approach and retreat (she used a garden hose and a stream of water on our mare, who never had to be thrown to shoe again in her life) and just a ton of stuff that I don't know if anyone else even listened to, but it changed my life, and subsequently the lives of more than I can count horses in the years to come.

She taught my best friend and I some subtleties of communication with our horses, she showed us how to "rock" them, refining our requests for motion to tiny shifts of weight, forward, backwards and sideways. We went from mostly out of control speed queens to spending hours, standing in fields, rocking our horses and giggling our silly butts off. We also collected a lot more high point trophies as we found we could do more than dash madly about the place. I got to use some of that early eduation this weekend, playing with my wonderful Donovan, rocking on the teeter totter at the Trail Clinic we attended. We went from having to take a step or two to just standing in the middle, rocking it, back and forth. I was having more fun than he was, though, and when I caught it was beginning to worry him, we stepped down, I quit showing off and went and did some other thing. Man, that was FUN though!

Coming forward about a hundred light years, I started, in the mid 90's, riding a sour, sullen colt my business partner Walt Werre had picked up while I was out of town on a business trip. I was there when the colt came to the barn, a good looking coming two year old, barely halter broke, and then I got to watch a series of wannabe trainers (mostly girls the barn owner wanted to sleep with) put that horse through misery and torture. One chick, I threatened to yank her off of him, as she careened into the wallful of horses I had tied waiting for some sane arena time. They pissed him off and taught him to buck like a banshee. I wanted no part of him, though my heart broke every time I passed his stall. He'd stand, pretty head tucked in the furtherest corner, ears back, eyes dead and angry, butt to the door, it was a tragedy and now, my partner owns him. Great, what were you thinking about? Some pleasure horse guy had been riding the colt and apparently got the buck out, so they said. We had this one and a real good looking bay to bring along, sell and move on to the next set.

In bringing Rebel back to life, I found a partner I didn't know I was looking for. Crooked legged in front, he was one of the smoothest riding Quarter Horses I have ever sat on. As he found out he could trust me some, not always, that temper my childhood horses had came from somewhere and it was still very much alive and present in me, he got softer and sweeter. I bought him.

Reb was my guinea pig as Natural Horsemanship exploded onto the equine scene. I'd watch a video, think, hmm, that's cool, think I will try that. I'd go to the barn and do to Reb what I thought I saw on the screen. I had zero idea of the underpinnings of the what's, the why's, and more specifically, the when's. It did not always work out for us, and least of all for my poor confused horse.

Now, mind you, I'd been riding horses professionally for quite a few years by now. I'd worked for horse traders, bought and sold quite a few of my own, and had worked for a well known Arabian trainer for awhile, I was no newcomer to the deal, and two minutes of conversation with me, I'd let you know that. This was the period of time I started having wrecks, as I replaced parts of my training program with other things, not really understanding the big picture yet, but using stuff I thought looked good and would be good for my horses. It took quite awhile for my hard head to figure out it was going to have to be A thru Z to get results, not A, E, maybe W and then some Z.

I always was interested in building relationships with my horses, I started my colts slow, did groundwork, drove them from the ground before I rode them and turned out some decent, usable saddle stock. The good is the enemy of the best, and my horses were good, but there were many, many that were better. I wanted to improve and this was all part of my learning curve, which got real steep, right in here, as I tried to figure things out.

Lucky for me, the one thing I did understand was that the Natural Horsemanship stuff I was watching DID work and that the part that was not working was me. I don't know why I was blessed with that particular lightbulb but there it was. I knew the problem was not the snaffle bit, it was my lack of understanding in how to use it correctly, my instinct to yank, pull with both reins with all my might and muscle my horse into biding my wishes if I couldn't get them there, nicely. I wanted zero to 60, just like I'd always wanted everything else, my entire life. Collection, NOW, thank you, and where did I put those draw reins? Or, go for my favorite tool, the training fork, I understood that needed be correctly fitted to reach the throat latch, so as to only be in effect when the head was raised and had some pretty good results with that. Giving up that last crutch was hard to do!

The concept that a horse collects by pushing from behind and rounding his back, therefore creating that pretty headset and fluid broken poll was a ways away for me, and when I found out it took hours of hard work, I went back looking for the side and draw reins again. Faster, easier way has always been my first route of choice. I created horses that looked kind of right, except they weren't breaking at the poll but a few vertabraes down the neck, backs were hollow, they'd tend to drag themselves in front and follow along in back as best they could. My horses were heavy on the forehand and I'd study Reb's broad chest and think well, he's just too stocky in front to turn around right, it's the way he's built. And then I'd stick spurs in him to try to lift him, get out the leverage bits to keep his nose in . . . They were innocent, ignorant mistakes. I loved my horse, but he paid the price for my lack of understanding.

Still, as time went on, I studied the Parelli's and did a lot of cool stuff with Reb. We got to where we could do anything we could do with a bridle, without one, including spins (as best I knew how to set them up) sidepass, lope circles and barrel patterns and we were competitive in every Trail class I took him to, except when my own nerves would go to hell and take him right along with me. A course of human events, a series of financial disasters and Reb had to find a new home as he was the only thing on the place worth enough to save it. Life on life's terms, as I understand, brings a series of lessons to the table and you can learn them now or later but the stakes get higher as you wait, and some of the lessons I'd put off cost me my horse. Chin up, figure it out, move on.

I study horses. That's what I do. I have become very picky about who my human teachers are but I learn from every horse I come across. I love my Buck Brannaman video's and get more out of them every time I watch them and I bought them three years ago. I watched with envy, my friend Colleen ride clinics and her horsemanship improved leaps and bounds, every year that she did. We are lucky to have clinicians like Buck and Peter Campbell coming to our area and my priorities are shifting from being content to watching them work with other people to overcoming my fierce stagefright and insecurities (I know, you're saying, WHAT stagefright . . . trust me, it's there) and getting out and riding with these guys. I have taken lessons from a gal named Missy Fladland when she comes up here to Sioux City, and as my friend Annette says, she's the goods. Missy is an accomplished dressage rider, and she approaches it from the natural foundation that I want to preserve in my horses. I understand the language she speaks, she teaches me things I don't know to fill in the many holes in my ADD approach to education and reinforces my commitment to what I do understand. Sherry Jarvis and Kelli Paulsen are also holding clinics and teaching these approaches and last year I took a stab at teaching a couple clinics my own self. Sherry has worked very, very hard on her clinical approach and has a very effective method of getting her message across to her people, Kelli has built a facility that is worth the trip, in and of itself and teaches the same good stuff. Me? Well, I have got a pretty good foundation in what the horse needs, now it's my challenge, if I am going to stand up with those other two and continue to teach people, to be able to give that information to the humans as effectively as I can to their equine partners.

It's been a really cool journey, and as I watch my 40's fade, I turn from that half of my life and can only wonder what the next half will bring. My horses and I will be better for it, I am sure, and maybe some other folks will be too.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

My Horse HATES Big Groups!!

This started off in response to a friend of mine's question about a big ride that's coming up and her horse that gets antsy in these big groups. As I wrote the response, I got to thinking I know lots of people who feel this way about their horses, and maybe this could be of some help to them too. My thoughts and answers are not the only ones out there, by any means but here is some stuff that works for me.

I always have a game plan in mind when I head out on the trail rides. Sometimes I have to adapt as the horse that shows up isn't always the one I wrote the plan in my head for, LOL! But here's the basics, I like a strong foundation in response on a horse that gets excited in groups. What I really notice more and more though, is that the horse that rides quietly in a smaller group but not in the larger is usually following owner anxiety. They might be a little high, upon arrival and feeling the activity and amplified excitement, but then, inside the owner says "oh no, here we go again." Stomach tightens, nerves tense and the horse really reacts to that and escalates, things rarely improve from this place for either one!

I am human and when my horse's head reaches for the stars, eyes are bright and dilated, snorts start rolling like thunder, I say OH NO, here we go again, and then I have to really work on finding some calm because no way can I lead my horse to peace of mind if I don't have it. That's the first part of my game plan, calm myself. I might need to do some deep breathing, send my horse around in circles from the ground, do some simple stuff that he's done a million times at home, his response to that calms both of us. Once the horse feels good to get on, head will lower, have some licking and chewing, eyes on me, I get on and again do the simple stuff, hip over, shoulder through, lateral flexion in motion (this is easier on an anxious horse than asking them to stand and flex.) Might do a one rein stop or two, just to practice and get us right. I make sure the hip steps over, and if the horse bends, and comes to a stop, but that hip is still out there, I will step it over before I release. It's really best to have my preflight check a habit for me and my horse before taking on the big ride. Then, it doesn't have to take 20 minutes to settle my horse, he knows the routine and so do I. Pat P says "proper preparation prevents piss poor performance" and I could not agree with him more on this one.

Building good habits at home is going to be the recipe for success out in the world If you haven't done so, and you find yourself at a ride with a horse that doesn't look safe and doesn't want to mentally join up with you, this might not be the day to tackle the big ride. Hoping for the best works out for some of the people some of the time, but when it doesn't, that hit to the confidence can take a long time to heal. Stay at the trailer, work with your horse, maybe ask a couple of friends to stay and take a smaller ride with you, once both you and your horse are emotionally in a place to be able to do that.

Usually by now, we are okay and ready to ride. Once in awhile, we still have jiggy feet here and there. When I feel the energy come up in the horse, I make sure I have room around and behind me, and I'll serpentine a little, step the hip over, then the shoulder, but always continuing forward. I pick up a rein and ask for a little give, get a step and release. If I have to hold it for a few steps, okay. I just want to see my horse's eyeball a little, I am not cranking that rein around to cause him to change direction or head off into a circle. Then, I'll pick up the other one, put my foot back on the offside and ask the hip to come over. Just a step is all I am asking for, and while it may take more steps to get there, it gives us something to do and something for me reward the tries rather than get mad at my "damn stupid horse that doesn't like big trail rides." :-)) again. If I really had a horse trying to get out of control, I'd probably get off, rather than try a one rein stop on a narrow trail with people around to crash into if he really resisted. More groundwork, back on, and we try again. There are some cool exercises to step the hip over, bring the shoulder through, that uses the horse's energy and they learn it's a lot easier to just walk down the trail than to have to work that hard.

I like to practice all this stuff first, in smaller groups, plus I like to have friends "leap frog" with me, which is my horse goes ahead, then theirs, then mine, until all the horses are comfortable in any position in the ride and gets them comfortable both passing and being passed by other horses. We also play follow the leader, winding around trees, going over small logs, whatever, this gives both me and my horse a bigger job to do than following the tail in front of us, which bores and frustrates a lot of horses (and riders!). If no one wants to play with me :-) I play these games on my own. Sometimes I will rate my horse's walk, ask for a faster walk without breaking gait, then a slooower one. All of this stuff keeps my horse's brain engaged, and helps him stay more in tune with me than if I am daydreaming or lollygagging along down the trail. There are some rides, I like to do THAT too, but I better pick a horse that's good with my wandering attention instead of one who will find something else to occupy his attention if I am not doing it.

The biggest thing is to catch things when they are small. Feel the energy rise in your horse and put him to work then. Don't wait til the head is in the sky, he's whinnying and yelling for his new best friend that he may have never even met before, but doggone it they are up ahead and I WANNA GO THERE! I see riders wait all the time til their horses are nearly frantic before they start trying to do anything about it, and then they usually whip the head to the side, which really pisses a horse off, when he wants to move his feet. I say, you want to move, well, cool, let's do that, but we are going to do it my way. And then you balance the release and the reward with your directions so the horse doesn't need to be angry or afraid of you.

Lots of work? Can be, but it smooths out, and the difficult trail ride this day turns into lots of easy ones as you stay consistent, your horse learns he can trust you to lead and make sense in ALL situations, and we get the benefit of learning to handle our own emotional responses a little better. THAT comes in handy, all over the place :-)

I am riding in a true snaffle at this point. Rather than go into all the reasons a tom thumb or long shanked snaffle is not going to be a good bet as a training bit, here is a link to a Mark Rashid article on the subject. Hope that helps.

Posting some photographs from our trail ride at Southwoods Park, Smithland, IA with the Shady Brady Saddle Club. Estimated ride count was 21, it was Moonshine's second trail ride in life. We started out slow (had a regressive hard to bridle moment at the beginning that really had my attention), and other than some big eyes here and there, lots of stuff she's never seen before, we had a great ride. I took time to ride her the night before, warm her up in the round pen that morning, and we never needed most of the steps I listed above. She's a really level natured mare and is going to be a ton of fun. The horse I am riding on the Friday Before Mother's Day Ride, Oak Creek Trail this Friday ( for more info) is a little different story, but hoping for equally nice results.

Thanks for reading, SOOO glad the good weather is here!!! If you love to trail ride and want some friends to go with, check out the Platte River Riders group that rides out every Wednesday evening from points North, Omaha, Lincoln and Central Nebraska. A lot of us ride on weekends too!

Happy trails, all!