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.
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