Monday, May 31, 2010

Helmets, Horsemanship & Other Developments

Before you think, oh please not another lecture on why I should wear a helmet, know that is not one. I am going to talk about some personal revelations and personal choices. This past week I have been at the Calvin Center, somewhere in Georgia, earning certification in the American Association For Horsemanship Safety. . This program is written by a pair of attorneys who specialize in Equine Law and it was an eye opener on many levels, from beginner to . . . well, I don't know where the end is, yet, but I am not there!

I have long espoused the view that horsemanship will save your life, long before a helmet does, and have given examples from my 35+ years of riding and training experiences of some of the rather spectacular near misses and hits that I have taken that a helmet not only would not have aided me but might even have hindered my instinctual ability to tuck, roll and protect my body. The helmets I have tried on and worn, over the years have felt obstructive, bulky and extremely uncomfortable. As a professional colt starter, I cannot afford equipment that compromises my ability to safely do my job.

Last week, I watched a video (Every Time, Every Ride, available thru AAHS) with a segment featuring a once-professional horse trainer, also who had ridden and trained from a very early age, struggle with rehab from the irreversible brain damage he had sustained in a fall. The man, still young had plenty of awareness of who he is, who he was, and what has happened to his life. There were tears in his eyes at the end of his statement as he wished he'd have strapped on a helmet the day that changed his life forever. There were tears in mine, as well. I am quite certain, the morning before his accident, his stories and statements about why he did not choose to wear a helmet would have been much like my own.

The other segments made me cry as well. Mothers talking about daughters no longer with them. Not one of those daughters were mounted on a risky horse, there were varying degrees of ability but none were beginners. One horse stumbled on a trail ride. That was it. There were some other stories of the near miss. I was happy to see them, but they did not stop my tears for the ones who have no second chance. All I could think was, not on my watch. Not if I can help it, will I have to be part of one of those stories. I can't even imagine the horror of knowing someone in my care is gone because we missed a piece of the prevention. I have difficulty even imaging waking up in a half life, not being able to do what I love, or even speak clearly, walk or move my body because of that one single, reasonably foreseeable, avoidable choice.

It is still a piece and only a piece. I still emphasize horsemanship education and practice. There was a young girl on the video who said she felt very safe when she wore her helmet. She and I would have to talk. I think of many riders I have known that chose helmets as an everyday part of riding apparel but were lackadaisacal about seeking education in their horsemanship. That, for me, is akin to having entry level driving skills, strapping on a seat belt and expecting the seat belt to save me from having a wreck. It will protect me in many cases but why not learn to drive, while I am at it?

So, okay, this is what I have to say on this subject. I wore a helmet all week. I have tried on many brands and types and hated them all until now. I have heard of the Tipperary helmet, it's constructed slightly differently than the others I have tried, and when I set one on my head, I said, "hmm, I might not hate this." And I don't. There was another, made ironically by a company called "Helmets R Us" that I also did not hate and it is a less expensive option. I will be purchasing a helmet for myself, and will have three sizes available for my lesson students. My son and husband are about to become helmet wearers, though they are unaware of this development at the time of this writing :-)

The clinic I rode in, which was seeking accreditation through the AAHS program, written and developed by a pair of attornies who specialize in Equine Law, was one of the most grueling, intensive experiences since my college days, and I am talking about the accelerated summer sessions, as opposed to regular semester studies! I went, wondering what five mere days could add to the value of so many years of education and experience. How much value could this accreditation, this set of initials really hold? I quickly gained respect, as I glanced through the daunting syllabus of reading and study assignments. I had no idea the real challenge would lie elsewhere, a place I am the most comfortable of anywhere in the world. The saddle.

Hosted by the Calvin Center, a truly class accommodation, we had motel style rooms and I was presented with a room mate. As you know, if you know me, I am a very private person and was not sure what I would think of the arrangement. Turns out, it was a blessing getting to know Karen, as well as the rest of this group of highly talented, driven, wonderful women I had the privilege of sharing the clinic with. I was determined to do well, and their equal dedication lent strength to my own.

We rose early, for last minute study, before breakfast was served promptly at 8 a.m. Brian, the new chef, was worth the price of admission, all by himself. He greeted us every morning with a cheery grin and I swear, overcast or not, Brian brought out the sun. "Be sure and try the oatmeal," says he, "it tastes like Christmas!" And so it did. Brian does not fry, everything was seasoned, but healthy. I ate cookies for dessert at lunch, and some kind of miraculous culinary concoction at dinner and still managed to come home a pound lighter than when I arrived.

We had quizzes every day, and trust me, if you didn't know your stuff, the quiz knocked you for a loop. Many of us were like cocky young horses, certain we knew the lay of the land, and it was not long at all before our able Instructor, Brenda Hendrix, had our both ears, both eyes and complete attention!

After a wonderful lunch, again served promptly, at noon, we met at the barn at 1, would saddle our prospective mounts (I could write an entire blog on the wonderful Calvin Center horses, and may yet. I only wish I had taken my camera to the barn) and ride til dinner, at five. Once in awhile we would not make dinner and our gratitude that they held food for us was enormous. Some nights we returned back to the barn after dinner to work on riding exercises, and whether we did that or not, EVERY night saw us hitting the books, and studying til the wee hours.

Back to the afore-mentioned challenge . . . the saddle. First, I had decided to ride the clinic English, as I felt I would gain the most knowledge. I have ridden Western all my life, and have dabbled in English riding, with a few dressage lessons thrown into the mix, as I have dabbled in so many things. I even rode the riding test English, later wondering had I lost my entire mind, but that worked out. The rest of it, not as well.

We have discussed, on our chat list, an exercise known as 7-7-7. I am here to say, if you have not ridden the clinic, you don't know what it is. We thought we did, at least I sure thought I did. Seven strides at the trot, posting, sitting and standing each. How tough is that? Not so very . . . can do it with my eyes closed, and have. Then you add a piece called . . . alignment. Ohhh . . . I have long known I ride with a bracey, forward pointing leg. Years of riding colts and adding layer after layer of fear and defense has created a posture reinforced by muscle memory and tendon length.

Many of us know that to be properly aligned in the saddle, one draws a line through ear, shoulder point of hip and heel. Few of us, or so I believe, realize how important that line is for function, not merely form, at which I have always scoffed. Working to move my lower leg into a stable position, with heel landing naturally in plumb line caused me tears of frustration, pain in places I didn't know I had, and caused me to seriously doubt my ability to master those same simple skills that I thought I had, hands down, locked in, forever and unshakably.

Of the levels in which one can reach certification, I paid attention to only two. Top, which is Full, and the next one, Basic (which I thought would be a come down, and an expression of failure on my part, hah, little did I know!). What I know now, is that while I aced the study portion of the course, the years of riding in solitude and developing poor habits is not going to be overcome in a week. I recognized the problem, awhile back when I started taking dressage lessons with Missy Fladland. Those lessons and the Centered Riding group lesson I took with Brenda Messick, a few weeks ago are the only reasons I was even able to qualify as Basic. It's humbling, but not shattering. I know the further I get, in the horsemanship journey, the more doors open if I am willing to accept and undertake the challenge. To achieve Full certification, one must meet certain criteria for teaching, understanding the books and Secure Seat method, and then be able to perform the 7-7-7 indefinitely. This is impossible without mastering the first step, alignment.

My largest consolation is that I am among a group of women whose horsemanship I admire, as a body. We had Karen who teaches dressage and rides with beautiful form, Mona Lisa who had ridden one trotting horse a week previous in the past six years (she raises and shows gorgeous Tennessee Walkers, shows them barefoot and WINS, as a side note), Sonya who had taken over the family Trail Ride operation ( Check this out!) at the tender age of 14 (she's my age now) and is has a natural form and ability you would not believe for someone who has never taken a formal lesson. There was Jo and her daughter, Candace, who are at the beginning of their horsemanship education journey, and dug in and did just as well as the rest of us, for where they started. We had Marywill, a camp volunteer, whose abilities are far beyond her modest assessments of herself, and Alicia, a young camp volunteer who has the opportunity, with the education she is getting to come as far as she would like.

And of course, our own Brenda Messick. There were days, without her quiet encouragement, I might have hung up my stirrups and said, give me a Western saddle, I cannot do this and I cannot afford to fail. Brenda, though she says she had her struggles, never lost her cool, and always looked like she was mastering the task at hand. I really look forward to riding with you again, Brenda, and we will help keep each other on track! Full certification, here we come!!

There were so many unexpected gifts!! Seeing Gretchen ride her OTT, retired broodmare-now-turned-dressage horse, Rainbow again, brought tears to my eyes and a proud smile. Here is a student which is outgrowing my instruction, and it's beautiful to see. Getting to meet and ride with her dressage instructor, Susan Griesel (sp), was an honor, and added a few more tools to my bag of tricks. The women I rode with began some relationships I hope to hold on to, and getting to meet and begin a friendship with Brenda Hendrix, none of these things did I go looking for when I decided to add some marketable credentials to my resume.

Any of you who have taken my clinics will recognize these strengths and weaknesses. You saw me make changes in your horse that were undeniably visible and effecting, but then struggled to learn the methods that will allow you to make those changes yourself, at home, alone. I have learned to break things down into a step by step procedure, have learned to plan lessons through an established format that is centered upon student learning. As with everything else I have stumbled upon, I can't imagine why I could not figure out these things for myself, but these so very critical pieces of the puzzle, the human side, are here now, and I have a large project in front of me. I will be writing out my program, developing lesson series and curriculum's, that can then be broken down and individualized. This will revolutionize my teaching style, and hopefully, revolutionize the learning curve for those of you who ride with me, along the way.

I cannot say thank you enough to Gretchen, who encourage and then insisted I take this course. Without you, it could not and would not have taken place. I could not see that the means justified the end, and I was so wrong. I can't thank the Calvin Center volunteers enough. When I was there in October, the horses said many things were awry, and their futures as lesson and camp horses were in doubt. This year, the way the horses reacted to the simplest things, from catching, to tacking up, told me many good changes have been put in place. It was a joy working with them again, and the honor to be even a very small part of that wonderful program is huge. I know I have once again, produced a novel when maybe a short story would have been more in order. It was an incredible nine days, and there are more stories, yet to tell!

Contact me for info on lesson series, clinics and horse training. Thanks!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mocha Goes Home Today

and I am really going to miss her. Mocha is a four year old AQHA filly raised by Eric and Doats Norby at Broken Wheel Ranch, in Sioux City, IA. If you follow my blog, they raised my beloved Slippin and Knosie, a pair of fillies I put time on as two and three year olds. Mocha is by the Two Eyed Red Buck stud that they have and I think that stud must put an incredible mind on every baby he throws, if these three are any indication. Mocha started out with an issue or two, but what horse that comes to training doesn't?

Mocha had an injury when she was two that resulted in surgery on an infected tendon and quite a bit of time spent in a cast. Norby's brought her to my place to start, last Fall, just shortly before I fell victim to the plague and had to send all my training horses, jiggedy jig back home again. Throughout my barn misadventures when we moved to Omaha this winter, they have patiently waited for me to get myself settled, then they and a friend of theirs hauled all the way down to Plattsmouth so I could finish the job I had promised.

Mocha had been handled plenty, of course, during her rehabilitation, but there was no way she could be asked to move her feet, much and she really liked that status. When she did move them, she thought nothing at all of putting them wherever she wanted them to go, and if that was on top of you, well then, it made perfect sense to her that you should just get the heck out of the way.

Not having had to do much she didn't want to, as was necessary to not upset her during that delicate healing time, it came as quite a shock to Mocha when so many things changed, and quickly at that. When I walked away and took the slack out of the lead, I expected her to step right up and follow, not pull the slack out and tow along behind like a barge stuck on sandbar. Being tied up didn't bother her one bit, but having to wear a saddle? THAT was seriously out of the question.

I did most of the warm up I normally do when I saddle for the first time. I make sure the young horse is as relaxed in their body as they can possibly be, teach them to disengage their hips over, bring their shoulders back through so I know I have at least a little control over them when I go to saddle. I desensitize around the girth and back cinch areas, hold the end of the lead around them. I release and present pressure with feel and timing to help the young horse not get troubled. I throw the rop over their backs, let them feel the saddle pad all over and see it on both sides. Mocha handled all of this okay, and setting the saddle up was not a big deal. It was not until she left and the pesky thing insisted on going with her that things got dusty.

She really didn't buck much, and not that hard either. I probably would have even stood a decent chance of riding it out, had it happened when I was on board though I am awfully glad I wasn't. Derek, who owns Log Barn Stable, and his hired hand, Jim, were watching, and their eyes were even bigger than the filly's. They thought she might present quite a handful. I laughed, and said, nope, she'll be fine. Seen a LOT worse than this!!

That idea of theirs was compounded a few days later when Mocha and I had a showdown about where the feet go. When I said, don't run into pressure, she said, okay, how about I run THROUGH it instead? I said, what a bad idea that is. She said, get out of my way, you silly insignificant human, I want to be somewhere else right now!

We went round and round. She'd run through her halter pressure, over and over again. I escalated to meet her resistance, and she escalated to meet mine. I turned her into the round pen panels and asked her to yield back a step or two. When she couldn't blow past me, she reared up, trying to swing her body over the top of me. That ran her into my stick pretty sharp, as my arm wasn't tall enough to reach that high but no way was she going to succeed in that manuever!

The hired guy had brought in some round bales and was watching this altercation with considerable interest. I am thinking to myself, holy cow, he is going to be thinking I am the meanest most abusive horse trainer ever (whack, do NOT try to run over me, WHACK do NOT rear up over the top of me, BACK UP!!). We were at this for awhile, and I am seriously questioning what I can do to help this filly figure things out. We are in the thick of it, and no way can I release pressure here, as where the release comes, so does the teaching and if you release in the middle of something that isn't going well, you'll teach that just as effectively as when you release at that perfect and proper moment.

Which . . . finally came. Almost by accident, Mocha suddenly threw her head down after running into my stick several times, and backed herself up. She is breathing heavily, eyes big and on me, ears straight forward. I throw down the rope (reminiscent of when I was working Jessica's Wildfire filly), spin around and walk away, releasing pressure in as large a picture as I possibly can. YES! THIS is the RIGHT answer!!

Mocha watches me intently to see what I will do next. As she relaxes and straightens her body position, I slowly approach. I make myself as friendly and non threatening in every aspect of my body language that I p0ssibly can. When I reach her, I hold out my hand, palm down in a cup shape I have heard called the "horseman's handshake." I let her reach out and touch me first, then I rub and rub her. She's sweaty and enjoys the contact and the reassurance.

We turned a corner that day. Still had things to work out, but she no longer dragged her feet on the halter rope, was no longer pushy and disregarding of my space. Jim said he was watching not to see if I was going to hurt the filly but if he needed to call 911 for me!! Aw heck, Jim, it wasn't all THAT bad, LOL! It's been fun, having those guys watch this filly progress into the nice horse I was very sure she would be, from the start, knowing her breeding and all.

The first time I got on her, she was very unsure and tense. I let her move around until she relaxed, didn't ask much of her and got down. I fixed some more things from the ground. Another colt starter might have just ridden her through and been fine. I do what I do, and it seems to turn out okay. Rode her again, a few days later with MUCH better result. In the meantime, I have been working on keeping her balanced in her movement, watching for all four corners to be reaching equally, walk, trot and canter on the 12 foot line. We work circles (I never lunge, hate seeing horses run around in mindless circles that are not teaching them anything), and I bump her if she pulls on me, continuing to reinforce the idea of being light and responsive on the line, just like I am soon going to want her to be light and responsive on the rein. I send her over the bridge, help her gain confidence by using my plastic sacks on the end of a stick. I bring them from the ground, straight up the shoulder, a tip I got from my good friend, Colleen Hamer. I run it over the side of the saddle so she can see it from the eye on the side I am not on. I run it over her rump, down her legs, as if something is falling off the saddle. She gets calm and good with all of this. Time to ride.

A young gal is also training out at Log Barn, Miss Jesse James, from out the wild west, Broken Bow, NE way. I enlist her aid, and ask her if she wouldn't mind being a passenger for me while I send the filly around and get all three gaits. She says sure (oh for the courage of youth!!), I get on Mocha first (oh wait, maybe I don't that night, but had been on her before, and was very sure we'd not run into problems.) I give Jesse a line from the halter, we make a game plan in case things don't go well, and I send them off at a walk. We pick up the trot, and eventually get the canter, going that way. I think we got Mocha tired, in the deep sand, as we got the trot the other way, but she was straining pretty hard when I asked for the lope and I didn't push it. I really like having someone to passenger while I am the gas pedal. It makes things easier all the way around.

After that, it's just been a matter of getting the rides on and the teaching commenced. We've ridden in the arena, rode over the bridge, which of course she had no problem with, been down the road a little and she got hauled over to Chance Ridge Event Center when I rode a group lesson with Brenda Messick who is introducing some really cool concepts with Centered Riding.

The Event Center is a wonderful place to ride. The arena is huge, nicely footed, there are roping boxes, bucking chutes and always something going on in the back alley where the livestock lives, oh yeah, and a tarp covered mechanical bull in another corner! My broke mare, Ginger, looked askance at a couple of things. Not Mocha. First, I ponied her around to give her a good look at her surroundings, and when I got on, I dropped the reins and let her go see whatever she needed a second take on. She makes a beeline for the alley that goes in back to the cattle pens. Not one bit afraid, Mocha drinks in the sights and sounds of cattle. Wow, she's neat!

Riding there went well, and I love how solid and confident this horse feels under me. She's not a spook, has her brain firmly between her ears at all times, and just does not seem to get rattled by much of anything. The other night, Jesse rode Mocha and I rode Two Sox, a gelding I have in training, and we just played around in my big dry lot. It was about riding up and down steep little hills, stopping, turning, backing, going where WE wanted to go, even though it was their home and the other horses were happily munching at the round bale while they had to work. Neither colt got at all worried or troubled, which was nice to see.

Yesterday, Derek took some moments from his busy day and shot a few photos for me. I have a few from the very early days when Corie came over to watch Soxie, and now these. The filly has come a long way, which of course, is always the goal. I think she can go home and do a good job for my friends, whether it's trail riding, gathering cattle or maybe finding a new home in the world to please the next set of owners. She needs her continuing education, but I couldn't be happier with the start. Only 30 days, and that, a broke horse does not make, but she handles nicely, gives to her bit, and when you ask something with a rein, she understands it means for a foot to move, whether it's forward, backward or laterally.

Now for the commercial. I am accepting limited bookings for June, July and August. I am only taking on three outside horses, as I am going to concentrate on lessons and clinics. This week, I'll be traveling to Georgia and riding in a five day clinic to get an accreditation as Riding Instructor with the American Association of Horsemanship Safety. I am very excited about this new direction in my life. My first love will always be helping horses, but unless I can help the people, it truly is not as good.

Contact me for more info on this stuff if you are interested. I need five paid in advance riders to host a clinic and we can do it at Log Barn Stables or your facility if you choose!

Thanks and happy trails!!