Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Right Track

There is a feeling that happens, a split second maybe, more if you are lucky, when the feet land just right. Mind, body, and spirit are connected, yours, his and you are not merely a passenger but a partner.

Those moments are what make it worth doing whatever you have to do to get there.  You won’t know what it is I am talking about until you felt it for yourself and, if you are a horseman, once you have felt it, nothing does until you can feel it again.  If you have not, but your spirit leaps a little at the idea, well, then, hang in there. It’s waiting for you.

I count among my many blessings the sure knowledge of what is out there, for me and my horse. The bliss of attaining pieces, here and there.

Okay, now that we have had the metaphysical ooh that’s awesome, how about the practical? Your horse (mine) is tossing his head restlessly, eye and ear rolling relentlessly in the direction of the barn, or his buddy,  disappearing over the hill in front of him. The mind has left and it’s not long before the feet make their attempt to follow.

We had that part  the other day. Royal was unenthused at going back to work after a nearly uninterrupted three weeks of bellying up to the round bale, with his best bud.  He was rude, I was rude in return. I asked for a foot, he gave me a finger.

When I pick up a rein, I want to move a foot. Not “left foot, right foot” but whatever foot I want. Peter has taught me if I want to go forward, shift the weight back, backwards, well vicey versa, right? I want one foot, not four, not twenty. It was not pretty last Saturday, but I hung in there, let my horse fuss, work at the wrong thing, and tried to be aware enough to pick up when his resistance turned to try. I am undoubtedly late on that. I can see it when you are. Just not as easy when it is me, up there.

A gal posted on the Peter Campbell Facebook group page that her horse will probably get easy in his skin when she does. I remarked it is well my horse is young. Easy in my skin, I am not.

I don’t have anymore on my plate than the next guy, less than many. My life is the calmest and best directed it’s been, maybe ever. I am still likely to look inward to a seething cauldron of simmering doubts, fears and what if’s. Finding that Zen place of oneness with myself and my horse? Takes some doing, let me tell you.

Windy day

Eventually it occurred to me to wonder if I quit picking at my horse, would he just settle down and ride? Turns out, yes. We had a good hour, head down, loose rein, settling for obstacles when I asked. I still didn’t dare get off to open the gate to the back 80, none too sure he would stand for me to mount again and knee too stiff to be confident of the attempt. Made note to self, you cannot avoid this issue forever.

Last night, it felt like a beginning, right here in the middle. He isn’t meeting me at the gate anymore and sniffed me skeptically when I asked  him to accept his halter. No lip games.

Saddled quietly, the dark of the yard peaceful, a warm light emanating from the office telling me Charlie hasn’t gone down the hill yet. I know he worries about me riding by myself. It feels good that someone cares, and I am sure to call before I leave to let him know we survived the experience.

I send Royal around me, letting him find where to place his feet. As he rounds, hip disengaging, I ask him to come back through. We do this a couple of times, just standing there, and then I walk in a straight line, sending him around me, asking him to keep his ribs out and away from me. It goes well enough, he stutters his hind a couple of times, but I don’t worry about it, just keep my ask quiet and let him figure things out.

Mounting, I get him ready. When the feet are set, I step up. As I do, he is in motion and I bend his head sharply. When the motion ceases I swing my leg up and settle. Royal wants to get going but I ask him to wait. Be still. Don’t hurry.

Down the lane to the other barn where the indoor lives, it is very dark. I smile at my horse’s cheerful willingness to make his way. We have ridden at night a ton, it is very natural to us.

A lot less scary than the lighted noisy indoor arena it turns out.  Birds flutter and squabble in the rafters. Horses, curious at the invasion, nose buckets, move restlessly in their stalls. Royal can’t see them, there is a wall that divides the stalls from the arena and he is very worried at all these goings on. Curly ears prick sharply here, there, nostrils flare suspiciously. The jump standards, what the heck are those?

Again, more groundwork. Thinking about the Foundation class , the changes made in our horses before we ever got on.

“You have got to get him to relax” Peter says to me, eyeing us both intently, “you are not going to get very far until you can do that.”

When Royal sends calmly without hesitation over the poles scattered here and there, I know it is time to ride.

I take him to the mounting block. It is awkwardly placed in a corner and neither of us like the squeeze. Making a hard thing harder was not my goal. I send him around it a few times and then start asking him to stop where it would be good to mount. Royal is uncomfortable with the situation and I can’t really blame him. He discovers a salt block setting down there (I don’t know why, but there it is) and I let him lick at it. I touch him, rub him, move the saddle, set his feet. The next time I bring him around, he stands.

First I walk him around the perimeter. I am looking for my purpose. There are things I want to do but I need to know where my horse is, so I can do my best to work forward from there.  It’s a heck of a lot easier to have him be straight with a rail, and I set us up for good corners instead of lallygagging through them any old way. “Your horse is moving like pony!” It’s Jose.  I nod. I tighten my legs and ask Royal to extend his walk. He says “jog?” No, buddy, walk out.

And that sets the course for us. Royal moves into a free long walk. What a difference from the tight pokey “I don’ wanna” walk or the tense jiggy “I wanna leave NOW”.  All I can do is continue to lay down these layers, build our trust and confidence in one another. You get to the mind through the feet. Get the mind and the body will follow.

We get a good working trot, there are those moments I was talking about in the first couple of paragraphs. Floating along, straight, balanced, each foot landing equally in space and time.  We squeeze some gaps, I am timing my turns, giving him room to make it. When my courage fails going between a couple deeply frightening jump standards, his does, as well. I don’t let him down the next time and he sails through.

As he tools along, I practice picking up diagonals, changing reins.  Occupy me, leave him alone to work.

I drop the dressage whip I had stuck in my back pocket, thinking it might be harder to extend that trot. Looking at my horse, he is not looking back at me. His eye is still  hard, stony, ears turned back to some noise outside. He is bothered.

I am thinking back again to the Foundation class, and yes, I have done this before too, and I ask Royal to lower his head. Softly. No demand. Easy. I stretch my own neck down. Relax. Breathe. Roll my shoulders, feeling tension I didn’t know was there. Deep breath in . . . out. His head dips quickly to the ground and back up again. Okay. How about just a little? Slowly, his neck settles down. I am waiting for the change. It has to happen. I have to wait . . .

. . . and eventually it does. Luckily for me, didn’t take til midnight.  The flick of the loosening ear, the softening of the gaze, a change in the breathing.

We ride back to the barnyard and the pen Royal lives in, both of us easier in our skins that we’ve been for awhile. There are no boogers worth mentioning, not even in the dubious rows of stark and shadowy round bales, that could have been hiding dragons, just the other day.

We didn’t leave our troubles far behind, I am sure they are following just behind like loyal dogs. Still, it was a good night for us.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Timing is everything. How many times have you heard that before? True, not only of horsemanship but pretty much just every little thing in life. But, especially in horsemanship.

My lovely spotted Arabian is making a change. I sit him, scowling. The calm, level headed animal I have been on the past hour is becoming anxious. He is bored, and things that didn’t bother him a bit 20 minutes ago are now worth a great degree of stimulation and interest. He is suddenly buddy sour.

I see the change taking place and I want to nip it in the bud. Anticipate what is going to happen before it happens so it doesn’t have to happen at all. Too late for that, I surmise as we are already full in progress.

There’s some nervous head tossing, rebellious bumping at the bit, back talk.  A certain slinging that can turn into crazy 8’s, a frantic figure 8 style movement that I am pretty sure could dislodge his brain right out his ears and my bridle with it.

I pick up my reins, timing my response so Royal runs into his bit, sharply. He doesn’t get annoyed, he quiets. Then his weight shifts, a foot leaves the ground restively.  I am late. I move the foot but a half dozen more unasked for steps follow that one. Damn it.

There is nothing like the joy, the smooth communication of picking up a rein and being attached to the foot you want it to be.  To complete a maneuver, have the horse land solidly square, waiting for his next instruction. It’s a subtler better communication than give and take, pressure and release. A true wordless commune between yourself and your horse.

I have felt this with Royal, with other horses, and once you know that kind of thing is possible, it’s frustrating to be in a different place.   I can get caught in my horse’s drama (quoting Susan) and let my emotions rise with his. I match his strong reactions with reactions of my own. The very word “reaction” tells you I am behind the situation and my timing is stinking.

I back him up, reaching for the corner of his mouth with one rein, steadying him with the other. I don’t kick or brush with my spur.  As he backs the half circle, I feel Royal soften to my hand. His mind is back. The tractors, the crowds, the kids, lights and sounds, none of the bustle of a Friday night parking cars for Shady Lanes Ranch hayrack rides is a problem for him now. It comes and goes, that mind but I can see daylight and I know what to do. It’s the when of it requiring the work.

Day Three, back at the Peter Campbell clinic, the cattle come. They arrive in the morning and the little bay NHS horse, Duke, takes the newcomers completely in stride. He is interested, but not afraid. His life is good for him right now, and that is his response to most everything we are asking.  I have done the groundwork with everyone else. We are all bridled, as we  have been since Day One. They are riding.

I do a few more things. Blend with the Foundation class, me riding Duke from the ground, he sees horses around him, in front, coming up behind, doesn’t rattle him at all.  When I pick up a rein, touch the corner of his mouth, he sweetly softens, and moves whatever foot I ask him to. I glance at Peter, talking to Trina. He is paying no attention to me and what we are doing, or at least that is what I think.

Finally, as I am restlessly awaiting my next instruction, I walk up to the pair and ask Peter should I not be getting up in the stirrups, or something??

He glances at us. “Well yeah. Get on him, even. Ride him around a little.”

Heck yes I am ready to ride this horse! Duke has told me in no uncertain terms he is ready to be ridden and I am excited for this next step. Then, I realize, Peter had fixed it up and waited. On me. I grin a little. He’s pretty good. 

The riding goes well. We were ready.

That afternoon, I am a hairs breath from being late to class. I had put my phone away so no time piece and suddenly I realize the alleys are empty and quiet. Dammit!!

Royal and I head for the arena at the toppest speed I can gimpily manage. He is sky headed as we enter, planet sized eyes fixed on the horrendous beasts in the pen beside us.  Feet skitter everywhere.

No way am I climbing up on that.

I go to the far side of the cattle pen, put my back to them and send Royal back and forth around me. Approach, retreat. A steer moves and he levitates six feet sideways. Great.

We do this for awhile, it seems to get better but I have little confidence I can get him to stand at the block for me to mount. My knee is swollen and painful now and I can barely bend it enough to reach the stirrup.

“I advise you to get on your horse,” Trina enters the arena on the big gray warm blood mare she is riding for a client. I nod. I take a half hearted stab at getting him to the block. They want a steer out and we are in the way.

“Take him to the far end of the arena,” Peter. “Get on him there.”

I nod again and we head away from the ferocious Arabian devouring cows.

He is so high there is no keeping his feet still. I hop around after him, leg at  half mast nowhere near the damned stirrup. “Bend his head” instructs Peter. “Get up there beside him, get there! Come on! Get there!” I make a mental note to tell him about the accursed knee as soon as possible. Not fair to me and not fair to Peter, either.

I jam my foot in the stirrup, the horse jumps away from me. I spin, catch myself and at least avoid an ignominious tumble to the ground.

Now my knee hurts for real. I glare at my darling, fully ready to kick him square in his short ribs. He surges forward and I snap him back with a fierce yank on the reins. Respect that, bitch, I think furiously.

“Trina, you better hold that horse for her.” I know Peter can’t read my mind, but it’s probably pretty clear I am about to blow and absolutely zero good will come of that. I know that, but it isn’t going to stop it from happening, in front of God, Peter Campbell and everybody else. That damn horse is going to stand still.

Trina rides up, takes a hold and I get on. As usual, once I am up, Royal settles and calms beneath me.  I calm as well and turn my attention back to the matters at hand.

Before the day ends, my horse is following those cattle, level headed and on a loose rein.  We move them in pretty figure eights, to the rail, back off, circling and back.  I am working with Trina’s group, and she tails us, her clear quiet voice cutting through the rattle and hum in my brain. She gets me to trust my horse, slip him more rein than I want to. He gratefully lowers his head and relaxes.  I am so proud of him, I am, once again, about to cry.

“Now that you are finally riding it on a loose rein,” she says, “we can get something done.” 

Timing is everything.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The What

“What do I do????” It’s the question. I have asked it, been asked, heard it answered, provided answers all my life, about all kinds of different things.  Turns out, it’s not the “what” at all. It’s the how and when.

The devil is truly in the details. I could give you guys a blow by blow account of what we did during the four days of Peter’s clinic. Quite a few of you would wrinkle your brow, scrunch your face and say, well heck. I know how to do those things. Hell, Terri, YOU know how to do those things!” And that would be the end of your interest here.

When Peter started talking about how Tom said mechanics only work on about 90 % of all horses, that rang a big bell with me. I have lost some, and could not figure out what to do to make things different for  them. I have won some, in ways that defy description, horses that had very little hope of being anything but the supposed outlaws that they were and those things defied description as well.

It’s why when people ask me now about their horse, when the horse does X, what should I do, I smile and say, the horse is not here. How can we know what you should do with him when he is not even here?

We don’t know what led up to the horse behaving in whatever undesirable way is taking place. We don’t know what the person did, didn’t do, and most likely, they don’t either.  Without that crucial and pertinent information, any kind of  “what” answer I would give is almost certain to be inaccurate at best and frustrating, maybe, dangerous at worst.

Peter showed us how to make changes in our horses. I watched him relax Superman, and tried those things on Royal.  Starting the little bay horse was a highlight of my life with horses. It was FUN. At the end of the four days, that little horse rode around like we might both know what we were doing. He was cool, calm and completely relaxed with it all.  Four days. From first saddle to backing half circles, chin tucked, light feel, doing whatever the big boys were up to.

Let me make it clear that is not about me. Peter could have started that horse through anyone. Could have picked someone out of the stands and if they listened, paid attention, would have had the same result. I am just happy it got to be me.

Peter working with Duke

I did the best I could with Duke. I made choices to keep him quiet, unsure about letting him get too upset, and got his hind feet sticky as a result. Peter took him on Day Two and in about 10 minute, filled the holes I was leaving and set us both up for success.

Peter helping Duke

I stood up in the stirrups, “rode” him from the ground, used one rein, one corner of his mouth to direct his feet. I did these things at Peter’s direction, and again, it wasn’t the “what’ it was the when and the how that made the difference, both right and wrong for us.

Following a feel

Getting Duke ready to ride

This photo is at the end of day 1 and he was ready to ride at this point. I was not ready to ride him. Wasn’t about the horse but about the fears, misgivings and doubts that can get in a person’s way and cause them more trouble than any horse ever could. It got better.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


There are some moments that may live in my muscle memory for the rest of my days, should I be so lucky. Sending Royal forward after the steer, and having him surge forward, straight, balanced and with impulsion. Picking up a rein attached to the corner of a green gelding’s mouth, having him soften sweetly to it and back a lovely  half circle, setting the outside front leg in behind, each step carefully timed and executed.  The timing, the horse, the person, all in one place, all at the same magickal wonderful time.  There is nothing on earth like feeling at one with a horse.

Maybe from the moment I unloaded Royal and put him in his stall I had an inkling he would have been better served in the Foundation class. Beautiful head sky-high, big eyed, mind on anything but me. This was the crux of our matter, how to keep him from leaving mentally and perhaps physically when something more exciting than I am shows on the horizon.

Entering the arena, afternoon session, day 1, I use the block to mount. It’s a moving target, pausing briefly to allow my foot to reach the stirrup, and I am gathering rein to bring him to stop as I settle into the saddle. 

Horsemanship is for the better broke horses, or the people who have ridden a few times with Peter and want the next step. I was thinking I had Royal far enough along to be okay there, and  we were but my concerns about how he would hold up when the pressure showed proved to be valid. Riding alone, we get all kinds of things done. Gait transitions, soft, loose rein, follows my seat and leg.  Lope pretty circles, change leads, no problem.

Add 17 other horses and the story changes. My thought is if it works at home and falls apart in the world, we don’t have it. 

We all ride around the arena and I am happy for the company. My horse is excited but not out of control, this is exactly what we need.  He doesn’t like several things. Doesn’t want any part of the fence where the people are, doesn’t want the speakers in the sound system and pushes on my my leg, through my hands every time he thinks we are going to get close.

“Your horse must have the utmost respect for your leg and your reins.” I think I heard that 30.000 times that weekend, not all directed at me personally (I don’t think) but applicable each time.

Peter has me ride a circle around him, soft soft. Easy! I am not entirely sure what we are doing here but I follow directions as best we can and eventually it occurs to me it’s a kind of approach and retreat, allowing Royal to relax, approach the fence, get close and then leave again, without me forcing him to it. My attempt at establishing respect and not allowing him to run through my leg was making an unpleasant situation more unpleasant and it was escalating the tension in my horse, rather than abating.  I have been here before and it did not end well for Royal.

Peter asks me if this, then, is my horse. Yes. This is the one I am committed to, heart and soul. He doesn’t know me, really, Peter Campbell, but one thing he will find out is that while I do not make commitments easily or lightly, once I do, I am in it for the long haul. I am committed to his horsemanship and I am committed to one goofy, lovely spotted Arabian.

We do an exercise, lining up facing the short side of the arena, count off by two’s. Half of us leave, walking as straight as we can to the point directly across from us. We do this at the walk, the trot and then lope it, if we can. Royal gets to experience horses moving beside him, leaving him, and coming up beside him. It’s excellent and eventually he stops quitting six feet before we arrive. He trusts me and I trust him, trotting out on the long rein. It feels an auspicious beginning and I know we are going to get the help we came for.

There are cattle coming Days 3 & 4 for the afternoon group. Peter watches us ride around and allows as how before we work cattle, our horses have to be made ready to work cattle and not a one of ours are.  Days 1 & 2 are all about that getting ready.

The point of working cattle with Peter is not about the cattle, it’s not about chasing it, stopping or turning it, though we might do those things. It’s about becoming aware of where our horse’s feet fall, developing precision, straightness and balance.

“Bring your horse along the rail. Move the hind over an 8th and stop. Bring the front end around 7/8’s.  You can see if you brought them around a whole turn, you would end up crooked to the fence as you have already used an 8th of your circle.”

What!! MATH now?? Are you kidding me? I watch, scowling. I hate math. It makes sense to me though, we are stepping the hind over to make room for the front to come around.

“If you complete the maneuver and the horse’s head and neck are not level, you have succeeded in the operation but the patient is dead!”

Royal’s butt is all over the place. He is indeed a “slippery little bar of soap.” We are anything but straight and precise.  Our work on front and hind control is not for naught, I can feel him under me wanting to come through but that busy Arabian brain is in the way. I get it.

I don’t cry that afternoon, but I kind of want to . . .

Saturday, September 29, 2012

It Begins

“What the horse is offering you is bigger than you are.”

“Keep doing the same old thing you have been doing, you will keep getting the same old thing you have been getting.”

“Make the wrong thing difficult. Not impossible. Then, give it direction, not correction.”

“Mechanics work on 90% of horses.”

“You can’t bend the head if it’s not attached to the feet. If it’s attached to the feet, you don’t need to bend the head.”

“What will you get from this clinic? Discipline. For yourself and for your horse.”

“The horse must have the utmost respect for your rein and your leg”

“You cannot push 1000 pounds of animal.”

“Of course, there is only one right way to work a horse. Work from where he is.”

Colleen says to me “we (The Nebraska Humane Society Horse Rescue Program) still have a horse that could use to be in the clinic if you want to use him in the morning spot.” Peter has donated a free spot again this year and I can use it if I want to.

Another opportunity to ride with Peter? In Foundation? You bet, I am there with bells on. I don’t ask about the horse. It isn’t important. he will tell Peter who he is, what he needs and Peter will tell us.

I peer into the stall at the short stocky bay gelding. Cute. I nod, nice horse to start with, well worth the time and effort we are going to put into him.

We don’t think he’s ever been saddled before so I haul my gear, limping, into the arena and sling it over the fence. My twisted knee is pitching me the blues but I don’t tell Peter as I am worried he will tell me I can’t work the horse if I can’t keep up with it.  Note to self, next time, give the clinician pertinent information and let him make the choices.

I am not a great colt starter. I have got the job done with mixed results my whole life. I mostly began starting them as I felt better about dealing with my mistakes than someone else’s and it seems to me they get a little less screwed up with me than they do with some of the other folks out there doing this.   A whole lot of things have stood in the way of my being successful in that endeavor.  The four days to come shed more light on getting one started right than anything I have previously done, read, watched or tried over the past 35+ years, not to mention casting light on the cobwebs in me.

“Bump him! Get up to him! Get close! Bother him!” I have the heavy wool pad in one hand, the halter rope in the other. We are getting the little horse ready to saddle. I am to get him moving his feet and get control of the hind. Duke who does not have a program card, is all over the place. I keep trying to shift my weight off my knee and hop after him before he gets completely away from me. It’s not going super. The knee is in my way, but I am not real good at this anyway, or I probably could have overcome it with better timing.

I am puffing, panting, thinking damn, I am going to sweat! This is calling for a LOT of effort! First morning, not even my horse, I am out of breath and I am going to sweat! What have I gotten myself into?? Pretty sure the bay horse is thinking the same thing.  I want to quit right there, tell Peter I am not up for this, don’t want to risk blowing out my knee and not being able to ride my own horse (read don’t want to work this hard). I think about what’s available to me in this opportunity. Even though I don’t start colts for a living anymore, here is a chance to start one with arguably the best in the country. I am not passing this by, and little horse deserves better from me.  Sweat equity, here I come.

We get to a spot it’s acceptable to saddle and he moves around but it gets done. I had been told his eyesight may be impaired on his right side. There is a faint cloud in it, not much at all, and I watch to see if he reacts differently to stimulation over there. Spoiled a bit, and pushy on that side, but not different than any other horse. Most of them prefer to look at you on one side or the other. There is brace there but it’s not because of the way he sees.

Peter remembers me from Riata. He has doubts I will  hang on to the horse if things get western. I know I will, but I also know why he thinks he might not. I tie the knot in the end of the rope as he tells me to, and no matter what, Duke does not get away. He doesn’t try all that hard, either, he’s getting ready.

I ask Duke to move around me, all four corners moving equally, both directions.All I can think is that eventually Peter is going to ask me to get on the horse, My palms slick and my heart pounds in my ears. I know he won’t ask til the horse is ready. What I didn’t know is that he would wait til I was ready too.

I am moving the stirrup against the horse’s side, as I was instructed, every ounce of my attention is focused on the horse and what we are doing. "If you won’t listen, Terri, I am not going to waste my time talking to you.”

WHAT?? I look up to see Peter riding away. Damn it!! Where the hell did I just go? He was talking to me? Who knew?  Everyone else around us, that’s who knew. I follow him but there is a point to be make. Listen up, our time is short. If you won’t listen, I will spend time with people who will and when you come with your question, your opportunity has come and went.

I say I am sorry, I was lost in my thing. Peter hears that I was doing my own thing, and that really does not go over well. There is no way I think doing what I know is better than what he is going to teach me but that protective habit of tuning everything out around me, that is deep deep. “Do your own thing, then,” says he “don’t waste my time. Don’t get so close to me”  as I am following him, insisting I am ready to hear. I get a glint from the blue eye under the hat and I know he means it.

I am doing nothing now until I am instructed. No way. I go to the middle, out of the way and wait. Peter has made his point, he helps some folks, comes back around and tells me the next step.  All a piece of getting ready. You don’t do a thing with a horse, you get them ready, and then they take care of the doing. Turns out, works that way with people, too. Even hard headed ones. Halfway thru Day 1 . . .

Friday, September 28, 2012


The big gray mare lopes around the arena, her breath chuffing heavily in time with her footfalls.  She rounds the corner and the request for a lead change is coming up. We all know this because they have been working on it for awhile.  She doesn’t make the change, is late behind.  Awkward and difficult for her, she struggles with the request. They hang in there and they don’t quit. Eventually it comes together, the change takes place, smooth, sweet and easy.

For someone who went to Peter Campbell’s clinic last weekend with the goals of staying out of her own way and staying out of trouble, I failed miserably.

For a person who went to the clinic with the goal of gleaning every possible bit of available knowledge that I can access, for making whatever the next right change in life that’s in front of me, that I would have to call an unqualified success.

“What do I have to do to get you to understand this?” Peter is exasperated. It’s Day Four. I have been lost, wandering around, AGAIN, and the good looking little bay Nebraska Humane Society rescue horse I am on is feeling the pain of my not being able to get the point.  This horse cannot afford the holes I am going to put in him and Peter wants better than that for both of us.

“Did someone tell me that you were even teaching a clinic? YOU??” He shakes his head.  “I have been watching you all weekend and I have been thinking, how can that be?”

There’s more. Tears stream down my face, it hurts, but I take my licking. I have it coming. I don’t know why my brain locks up, checks out, does the things it does.  He tells a story about how Trina (his wife) at one point didn’t think she was qualified to teach a clinic. To him, it’s a funny story. Not so much to me.

I want to speak up, defend myself, say hey if people can get even a glimpse, a taste of what is available to them through this brand of horsemanship, maybe they will get interested enough to seek out the source. They have to start somewhere. I keep my mouth shut. I am painfully aware of my shortcomings and failings but this is not the time.

Later, Peter says do whatever on your own time, it matters not, but at least get it right, yes? Yes.

I have been in my own way all weekend long.  At one point while the heat was on, my mecate comes loose in my belt. I am fixing it and Peter says “Don’t you get off that horse. Don’t you do it.”

No way Peter. I am not going to quit. I am not quitting you, I am not quitting this horse and most of all, I am not quitting myself.  This is not the first time in life that I have run into trouble over not being able to maintain focus or gazing inward so hard I tune out everything around me, making mistakes all along the way. Not the first time things have become more difficult that I wanted to deal with. 

Some people come to Peter’s clinic just to ride their horse. That’s fine, not a thing wrong with it. I come to grow and right now that means getting through the next thing that I desperately want to say “This, I cannot do” over.

When a thing comes right, you can feel it. That is how Peter runs his clinics. He sets things up, over and over again, for you to get the opportunity to feel things come right between you and your horse.  When it’s wrong, you can feel that too, if you are awake enough.

That was my challenge , be awake enough. I had excuses. I always do and they seem pretty good to me at the time.  Day 1, I am tired, woke up too early, knee hurts, is in the brace, snags on the jeans, can’t hop around, can’t keep up with the horse . . . old, fat, tired, out of shape and whiny. I keep my mouth shut and I try but none of it comes easy.

Day 2 I know that excuses do not matter in light of what the moment needs. Do the job. If you can’t do the job, get out of the way and let someone else do the job. I want to do the job. This is me here, not Peter. I didn’t tell him about the knee til Day 4, might have been information that would have made things easier on us both.

Day 3 Things feel better, but that change, that gut wrenching process ending in bright understanding and relief  . . . that has not taken place, there is a bubble of pressure inside me growing and I hang in the balance of really wanting to quit and knowing I absolutely cannot.

Day 4 I get my bell rung. The steel gets heated with a blow torch so the nail can come through. It does, the change is made, things REALLY get good. Both my horses are happy, but not nearly as happy as I am.

You might shudder in horror, reading this. I don’t want THAT!!  Don’t worry, you will get what you come for. Peter will do his best to help you and your horse.  He will push you as far out of your comfort zone as he can to get you where you need to go, but not everybody needs  the clue-by-four that I do.  Don’t think he just rides around looking for places to climb on people.  Mostly, you will hear “yes, do that. Good. Nice. Doesn’t that feel better?”

Maybe you can set your ego, your habits of what you think you know aside more easily than I, can see through your own haze that much quicker, get through whatever the demons are that keep you from performing to your fullest potential.  Just depends on how much you want to take home from your experience and what Peter thinks you are ready to take. Peter will do as little as possible and as much as it takes to get the job done.

Maybe you will just ride around, pick up a few pointers, remain oblivious to what is really out there for you. Could be you will feel some heat, blow up, leave and think bad things about Peter, like it’s his fault you cannot get out of your own way. If you do, I  hope you come back.  It’s worth what you have to go through to get where you don’t even know you need to be until you get there.

As the message sinks through, he guides you. He allows  people and horses work at the wrong thing a little, so they know what that feels like and he stays with them, if they let him, til they get to the right thing so that when they go home, they know the difference and hopefully can continue in a good direction, not going back to the same old that brings them in the first place.

We started a little bay horse for the Nebraska Humane Society this weekend. Six, maybe seven year old stray stallion, they didn’t know much about him. NHS gelded him, fed him, fostered him to a gal that got him a little gentler and brought him to the clinic looking like a million bucks.  Through Peter’s coaching, we got the gelding ready to saddle, saddled, got him ready to ride, got me ready to ride him.  By day four, he blended into the woodwork, riding along with everyone else in the Foundation horsemanship clinic.  “Someone can probably get along with him now.” say Peter.

Once your head and your heart softens up, your ears open, his words are kind.  Good words from Peter, praise even, means a lot. He doesn’t say it if he doesn’t mean it. He told me later he was proud of me. Can you guess how much that meant to me?

I cried a lot. No, I don’t do that often. Yes, I think tears are healing and I will encourage you to cry as much as you need. I know it melts the ice around the soul, just something I am out of the habit of doing.  I cried in embarrassment and pain, I cried over unsaddling Duke for the last time, I cried over the comfort my friends gave me, and later I cried for my slinky black cat that passed over while I was away.

Again, you are saying, if crying is what you do, I am NEVER riding a Peter Campbell clinic!  Put that away, put it away right now. Crying is what I did, and melted off a ton of ice around my soul. I also laughed so hard I  . . . yeah. And hugged people. I used to be a hugger and now I am not. I hugged a lot of people. I hugged Peter twice.  I left that clinic a better person than I came there. Did I go to help my  horse? Ya, you betcha. Did that take place? Immeasurably, and we are just touching the tip of the iceberg of what this weekend might mean for Duke and Royal. More about that to follow . . . stay tuned race fans.

Portrait of Peter Campbell by Karen Johnson

Friday, September 21, 2012

Out of the Way

There is a reason smooth talking smiling, non smiling charlatans have been selling snake oil to a mostly really nice public since the dawn of time and snake oil. They will in some fashion reach into you, tell you what you want to hear. It is your fault, it is not your fault. Take this, buy that, follow me and you will be okay. Everyone wants to hear that they will be okay.  There are not too many that will look you dead in the eye and say, be quiet. Let me teach you or get on home and stop wasting both of our time.

Peter Campbell won’t say that either. Over the years I have watched him be ever patient, trying again and again to make a point that often flies right over the head of the person that is busy explaining to him, whatever it is. They are in the way. They can’t hear.

I woke up this morning at 3:45, these thoughts running through my brain. It is my goal this weekend to not be in the way. To be quiet and let Peter teach me whatever it is he sees that I need to learn.

Awful lot of faith in someone’s opinion, you might ask? You bet. I know because I can see a whole lot of what is going on between a horse and it’s person, seeing how they approach it, catch it, lead it, saddle it, etc. And I do not have the eyes, heart and mind that first Peter was born with and then was educated by Tom Dorrance.  Then, maybe there is the thousands of horses, people and situations that Peter has seen and dealt with over the years.  Yes, I trust his opinion.

You might remember a year ago this time, I didn’t necessarily feel this way. I had hung over the fence and watched, quite a few times. Him and Buck, both. Picked up some good stuff, went home, tried it out, got better results than I was getting before.

The real magic didn’t happen til I climbed in the saddle, in the arena.   Quite a bit of what happened last  September, I didn’t understand til this past May. So . . . what is in store for me and Royal T this weekend? I haven’t a clue, just want to stay out of the way and let it happen.  Stay tuned, there will be more . . .

Friday, June 29, 2012

Day 2 of First One Since . . .


Three quarters through Day 1, nobody likes me very much. It’s for all the right reasons.  People are struggling to absorb the information they can feel the impact of but not quite know how to get there for themselves.  There is the leveling of pride that takes place as a person starts to realize  the horse is saying it all. You can explain all you want about why a horse does or does not do a thing but the horse has already said and you may be unhappily surprised when you hear what that is.  Listen to the horse.  You can say it all day long and think you mean it but when it hits you in the guts as true, there is a solid thud.

Anthon Clinic

By the end of Day 1, people were making changes. They hung in through the hard parts. Asking for what they wanted from the horses and gaining understanding that they might have to wait on the horse giving up some answers other than what they were seeking. The horse might try a lot of things on the way to figuring out what the right answer is and that’s okay. When it came together, even if only for moments, I didn’t have to tell them about it, they felt it for themselves.


I have been told the learning does not happen at a clinic, that is where the teaching takes place. Learning comes when you go home and try to recreate what happened at the clinic. That is why it is so necessary a person becomes aware of what the right things feel like. It’s unmistakable.




A lady came with her rock star spotted Mo Fox Trotter. This horse was kind, gentle and knew everything. I told her she was in the cat bird’s seat for a horsemanship journey with a horse that will tell you just as soon as you get a thing right.  She was actually there, more to get an answer for her husband’s horsemanship than for her own. End of Day Two, I think she had those answers though they were not maybe the ones she thought she would come for, and hopefully, some of her own, as well.


I loved how the morning of Day Two saw people moving with purpose and determination. Day One, no one seemed to care much about when we got started but of course, they had no idea what was about to happen to them Smile

Day Two, horses and people stepped into the arena, new life in their feet and faces.  That black gelding? Owner reports he awaited her at the gate. They both had such happy and peaceful looks on their faces. Later on, I reminded her that old habits will die hard for them both, but they can remember this, and always start over . . . always.



I went around and worked with each person on their groundwork. I wanted them to see their horse, reaching equally in a circle with all four feet, how that outside hind tracks out a little and the inside hind tracks to the outside fore with a gentle bend to the entire body. Once the horse is there, it’s an easy matter to ask them to take the hip over. Once that happens, it’s an easy matter to tip the nose back the other way, shaping them to bring the front end through. Easy, right?



Well, easier than the day before, that is for sure. They had performed this maneuver more successfully under saddle in the afternoon. The idea came alive these maneuvers can be accomplished not only in the saddle but on the ground and vice versa depending on where the need was at, for the horse, for the moment. Or for us.

The last horse to play with before I turned to Slippin, who was quietly waiting at the wall (we had discussed the change in her from the previous day) was the green filly who hadn’t been ridden yet. The day before, she had struggled with being asked to move whether she really wanted to or not, hadn’t known how to release to pressure, thought as most young horses do that going through it to escape was her best plan.

Without having to get ugly with her, I got across how simple it could be. I pick up a line, you feel something on your face. Let me direct your feet. I promise, I will allow you to go when I send you, I will stop cuing when you are trying, I will release pressure when I have said stop, and you do that. Even if you just try, I will give back to you.


Her eyes were brightly alert, no fear in them, but the life was there. Can’t train a horse if you cannot move it’s feet. She moved forward softly and sweetly off the line. Handled the flag, handled everything. It was time to ride.

We had a big open arena, no round pen. I am pretty sure a person could have just climbed up on her, asked her for some simple things and rode her around. I was not going to risk being wrong. Not for myself or for her owners.

We had Doats step up, standing in the stirrups, doing all the stuff the filly was already accustomed to. She’d been sat upon, but not asked to move with the rider aboard, and moving can change a lot of things.

Filly was dead comfortable with the entire process. She’s never been hurt or overly troubled her whole life and it made for a simple process here. I kept her on a 22 ft line. We moved her hip over so she could feel Doats up there. Had the filly get a good look out of both eyes.

Sent her around in some untroubled circles. Doats started adding the gas pedal, and then after a few revolutions, she picked up her line, moved the hip over and took the horse through the other way.  They are off to a nice start with Feisty and I think they have a decent notion of how to keep on going with her.

It was the coolest thing ever watching people ride, faces serious but not stressed. Horses focused but not upset.


Slippin had made changes over night, as well. She rode nicely in the arena, we found some of her buttons, moving her hip around in a nice turn on the forehand, she grew ever more light and athletic under me.



It wasn’t til we left the arena for a wind up trail ride that she and I found trouble again. That we did, but we survived it and both of us got our brains through moving her feet. The group and I waded the creek, stepped off banks and scrambled up same. Climbed hills, slid down slopes, weaved trees, played the arena games on the trail and had the very best of times. The black horse that I was the most concerned about stayed the happiest.  My horse began the trip anxious and came back a trooper. All of these wonderful photographs are courtesy of Dorrine “Doats” Norby. My only sorrow is that we don’t have more of her and her lovely buckskin mare, Knosie.


It doesn’t get much better than this. Until next time.





Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The First One Since The Last One . . .

Last weekend I had the honor of being invited up by Sioux City to teach a horsemanship clinic. A small group of friends had got together amongst themselves and decided an informal camp/trail ride/horsemanship clinic sounded like a good idea. They each had some questions, things they wanted to work on with their horses. By the end of day two, I think all those questions were replaced with different ones . . .

This is the first clinic I have taught since riding with Peter Campbell.  I started auditing him years ago (and Buck too) but the life changing stuff didn’t take place ‘til I entered the arena. I drove north, dog in the front, saddle in the back. I was quietly joyous to be on my way.

The setting was bucolic. Ranch homestead nestled in lush meadows, big sweepy trees around, layered hills in the background. Good looking horses dotted the landscape and it was rustic glory. I was to be put up in the bunkhouse. Turned out to be a darned nice doublewide, electricity, AIR CONDITIONING and a shower! Yeah baby!

Day 1 Good looking crew

My friend, Doats Norby, had put the clinic together. She and her husband were at the very first one I taught, a few years back. I mostly remember red tired faces, high winds, a faulty microphone and wondering if I should EVER try anything like that again. I am happy, Doats tells me she did pick up some good stuff  so not a waste!

Saturday morning comes with rain. Instead of a 9 a.m. start, we  lollygagged around a bit, and then everyone brought their bridles into the trailer for a discussion on the physics of bits.

I teach my clinics, preferably with horses in rope halters and snaffle bits when they ride. One of the themes of the weekend was “a mind convinced against it’s will is of the same opinion still.” I knew this would be no different. Oh yeah, and no tie downs.

We looked at the bits, the action they would take when rein pressure was applied and it became clear why the laterally constructed snaffle bit is for foundation work and the nice evenly balanced leverage bits they had were going to be fabulous when they could get to a point where the slack rarely came out of the reins . . . neck reining being about a horse not even so much following leg and weight cues as something even subtler than that . . . We discussed how both horse and rider have to be educated to a fairly high degree before a leverage bit is going to do much more than cause them pain, frustration and misery. Hmm, they said. 

People dug and rummaged, came up with snaffles and we made do with what we had. I fully believe you can accomplish just about any task with a horse with just about any tool but the right tool sure makes the job easier on all concerned.

Mostly, it was philosophy.  WHAT you do with the horse is not nearly as important as HOW you go about it.  Being able to read your horse, reward the response when the horse is THINKING about responding . . . How it doesn’t matter what has gone on before (you guys reading this know I have struggled with this idea but I am solid in it now).Give the horse what they need, here in the moment.

Before we headed to the arena, I asked one gal if I could help her catch her horse. Nope, I can do it myself, says she. I smile, okay then, no problem. That gal made the most important change then that I think set up her entire weekend. “Well wait a minute. Maybe it won’t hurt if you do.”

Her horse was hard to catch. Good looking black gelding, he said “here’s to you” with his tail every chance he could. I did not play predator/prey dodgy games, just walked with him wherever he went, turning away when he would accidentally face me, releasing pressure whenever I could. Surprised he was when he ended up in a corner with me right there with him. Defiantly, he walks quickly straight at me. Can’t go around you, I’ma comin’ through!

I put my hand out, stiff fingers poke him in the chest. He stops, fades back. I let him go, smiling again. You are not no bad boy, you big bluffer.

He watches me curiously as I approach, halter out openly, yes I am coming for you, and I know you know that. I will not insult your dignity by trying to hide this from you.

Gelding stands like a rock. I pet his neck and he eyes me, softly. Offer him the halter and it’s good to go.

Later I am saddling him, as he has some issues there too, and I use him to demo some foot moving thing, I don’t even remember what. It was an excuse to move that horse’s feet around, to promise him some consistency, and he heard me loud and clear. He saddled easy, feet square and still. Owner was a little surprised, I don’t guess it always goes that way.

Those two were a super neat pair, the horse stayed quiet and got softer and more relaxed as time went on.

Day 1 Partners

There were no miracles, he still has brace, she still  has habits to become aware of and work through but there was admirable try in that whole group and it lasted all weekend long through heat, dust, sweat and mud.

Day 1 Vicki and Chief the rockstar

I saddle my demo horse, Slippin and feel tension oozing out of her. She’s tight and tense. I smile again. On the wall she goes and I flag her. The first couple of times, she jumps hard, finding the end of the lead and the end of her nose. Then she slows down and searches for the right answers. The clinic watches and when she does change and get softer, they can see that and why you might want such a thing before you climb up, depending on how much sand you have in your pants that particular day.

We did the ground work to learn how to watch the feet. To learn that when the hind feet hit the ground right, everything else comes along. I showed them that outside hind foot, moving away to make room for the inside hind to come across. How when that happens a horse can and will give his hip with ease. And then, later, how that maneuver shapes them up for coming back through with the front end.  Do Less. You know I said that. A lot.

Day 1 Setting the hind

We discuss how you don’t do a thing with a horse, you get the horse ready and the horse does the thing. I needed to get Slippin ready to ride. I talked about having a horse change it’s eyes, how suspicious it is for a horse to have a thing on one side and then suddenly it appears on the other (such as leg coming across the saddle . . .)

I used the flag on Slippin as a demo and she was a very good student, not terribly concerned but gave us enough “before and after” for people to see what we are looking for. Great spook therapy, this is not just for young colts.

Day 1 Changing eyes part 2

Day 1 Changing eyes with the flag

Day 1 Changing eyes 3

Our guy participant brought a young filly he’s raised and has been working with. She is under saddle but hadn’t been backed yet. Having ridden a few of their horses and knowing what kind of minds they have, I thought it not impossible we might get her rode before it was all said and done and so we did. First things came first though.

Day 1 Eric & Feisty

Her feet were STUCK. The footing was pretty deep, new arena, new sand, and we were asking some very new things of her. She would lock up and then jump forward to get clear of the deep sand. All in all, she got a little more excited than I had hoped she would but it stayed at a dull roar, she never bucked and before we quit, she had a different look on her face, and on her feet. The next morning, she was a different horse and I watched her owner handle his handfuls of rope and stick with competence and grace. Making himself ready before he got his horse ready. Making a plan.

Day 1 Eric making his plan

All this time, I am showing them things and I know it’s high time I get them feeling them for themselves. ‘That is what the rest of the clinic was all about, other people’s lightbulbs. Again, these are not my stories to tell, but I watched soft feels happen when people were pretty sure they wouldn’t . . . watched people learn how that once the jaw is unlocked, it’s a heck of a lot easier to move the body, that once the hip gets under, the front can come through pretty nice. The difference in cuing one or the other.



We talked about how sending a horse builds it’s ability to go forward, and that is necessary, once you have sent, to ALLOW your horse to go!

Day 1, the send

Day 1 Allowing

We played some arena games, getting the horses used to the idea horses can come at them, leave them, travel by on either side, and that they could lead, follow or be in the middle  without trouble.

Getting on Slippin went okay at first, but she got increasingly anxious at not being able to join the horses on the rail. I ended up putting her back on the wall until I could give her my undivided attention. We found a little trouble, but I did not correct her. I made the wrong thing not impossible, but difficult, let her run into her bit when she wanted to run off then gave her direction. Thank you, Peter Smile

Day 1 In trouble with Slippin

Day 1 Mind through the feet

Day 1 Out of trouble and on

I could see the people making changes, but for me, I was learning all the things I was teaching all over again. I did too much, a bunch of times, got the horse back by doing less, each time. Went through something mildly bad, trying to get to something good. Next time, I didn’t go through the bad, just rode on and started over. It got easier and easier to get straight to the good.

And that was Day One. Smile

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Where The Horse Is . . .

I shorten my reins, send energy into my legs and seat . . . Royal picks up a trot, exactly what I am asking him to do. Disappointing, his head raises and he loses the soft feel we have been hold the past several yards. I frown . . . what am I doing . . .

Suddenly I become aware that yes, his head is up, but his mouth is quiet. No anxious champing of the bit, no rebellious bobbing of the jaw, no jerking, no pulling.

Flashback to Riata, third day of the clinic, anxious champing, bobbing, jerking, pulling . . . flash forward to a few rides ago on Royal . . . same. Light bulb. Two horses, same issue, not the horse, eh?

Without giving it a ton of importance in my mind, I have been working on not giving Royal an opportunity to pull on me. The resounding impact of what that would mean to my horse missed me completely. I was on my way to holding that soft feel at the trot.

Peter Campbell says there is only one right way to work at horse (yes, you are going to be hearing a LOT of Peter Campbell quotes, and whatever my current understanding of what those mean), and that is to work from where the horse is.

Pretty simple statement really. Except it turns out not to be, at all. Discovering where my horse is often turns out to be somewhere far other than where I think we are, or where we are going but it’s working out pretty darned okay.

My horse is quiet in his mind. Maybe I should capitalize and bold that statement. All I want is a frame at a faster gait, and somehow, we have found this . . .

I check my position as we are trotting along. Am I dropping that right shoulder and collapsing my ribs on that side AGAIN? Yes. I breathe, feeling my “center”, dropping it low and back, pulling that nasty arch out of my back and relaxing deep into my saddle. Royal rounds, his stride lengthens and like magic, we are in frame with a gorgeous reaching stride. There.

Can’t hold it real long. Might be my attention span. We got it though, and it was a combination of lovely things . . .  Being where the horse is, fixing my position in the saddle, breathing,, relaxing . . . riding.

We did so many cool things yesterday. Royal negotiated the steep descents, carefully placing his feet, no fear, no rushing. Ups, downs, he felt solid and mature, enormous changes from not very long ago at all!

Stopped and settled when I asked. Stepped front feet one at a time over a small fallen log, stopped, settled. Sidepassed to the right off the log, stopped. Sidepassed back, stopped. Up a rather large log that sets on a bank. Started to rush it., let me stop, settle him and then we proceeded over, no grunts, no grabbing leather.

Every so often, I ask him as we are walking forward to step his hind over, and then I bring the front around. Royal anticipates, so again, it’s stop, settle, wait for me. I work to become aware of when it’s appropriate to ask the feet to move. He’s pretty sharp, not wallering through the turns.

Stop on soft feel. Back up, being aware that too much pressure before his feet are ready to move causes him to kink up and squirt out to the side. We get straight soft steps, coming forward improves.

Waves of delight wash over me. His neck is long and level in front of me. When I pick up the soft feel, I get this deep pretty Arabian arch. Royal takes my breath away and not in the omg I am going to die kind of fashion we used to find at least twice on every ride. It really does not matter what we are doing . . . we are BOTH quiet in our minds, I keep myself in the moment, the goal is to get him ready for whatever it is I am going to ask for and I giggle like a little girl when it works so sweetly for us. When I can do it, that is.

Arena work comes next. Straightness is a real challenge for us. The footing in the arena is deep sand, and it’s wet on the bottom from the recent rains. We work slow, looking for the perfect circle. We make funky egg shapes, shoulder falling in, hind flooping out . . . outside hind  . . . Inside rein to outside leg . . .lift MY shoulder AGAIN, we have the circle.

Do a little forward spin work . . .  I want him so broke we can show English, Western whatever, reining, trail, won’t matter. I want us respectable on trail rides, not ever having to be the lunatic carousel horse, ever again.

The layers of the onion continue to peel. My understandings of what I have learned from Missy, Peter, Matt McL, Jose, Susan and so many good teachers continue to light up bulbs around my head. The inner peace I found at Peter’s last clinic, the biggest light bulb of all, does not stay with me all the time, but I felt it once, therefore I can feel it again, when it happens and when I feel it, I can begin to understand it. Pretty much the point of the entire deal.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bringing It Home To Royal

First order of business. Click this link and check out 15 things you should give up to be happy. Quite a list.

Number One is give up your need to be right. Wow. It goes on to suggest releasing the need to control, blame, criticize, resistance to change, fears, and well, however many more to make 15.

There is a purity underneath these ideals. In my search for better horsemanship, I can feel these layers peeling away gunk that stands not only between me and my fellow man but me and my horse.

Since leaving Riata in Missouri after the clinic, I have been working hard to stay true to what I have learned. Not merely the mechanics of lift a rein here, shift a foot there, and just to let you know, Peter does not teach mechanics, that is my term. But what he does teach is getting a person to think, to get out of their heads beyond the limiting beliefs that they already know what to do. Be true to the  horse in the moment you are with your horse. Give them what they need for where they are at . . . right now.

Riding down the wide dirt hayrack road at the ranch, Royal is fussing. He is champing the bit, head up and tense. I am working my fingers, attempting to have a discussion . . . No. Wait. I am pulling on him. I am giving him opportunity to pull on me. The soft Zen feel we had at the walk is gone. I am stiff, standing in my stirrups, bracing for the prop n stop that can come at any moment.

I slow us back to the walk, find the softness again. I can feel the difference in my body, I am relaxed and easy, and so is my horse. Deep breaths, see how little it takes to roll him into a trot. See if you can not upset your horse while asking for that soft feel. Widen your hands. I try to get my body to remember what it felt like at the walk, the easy way of moving with my horse, staying out of his way . . .

We trot a loop over and over again. Sometimes he gets it, sometimes I do, sometimes we both lose it. The gait goes from choppy, struggling to him reaching through, big strides getting long under me, back to choppy again. 

The weight I have gained this past year is in my way. It’s hard to stay consistent when you are not in the best of shape but I am damned if I am getting off my horse for six weeks while I hit the gym.  Still, the never ending battle with middle aged spread must be renewed once more.

We are long and soft. I sit back and down, he walks, on a soft feel.  We head into the trees, the deeper, steeper interior trails that offer banks to climb, logs to practice stepping over a foot, two . . . side pass off, trees to back thru . . .oh nope, not yet that.

Royal is not confident, either descending or ascending. I think back to the first few weeks, riding him parking cars, him leaping wildly both up and down the hills. Doubt he’d ever been on anything but arena ground with a rider aboard previous to this, and it was a hell of an introduction.

Now it’s time to go back and do it right. I point him up a two foot bank and he jumps to the top of it. I grunt, avoiding the saddle horn and pull him up before we launch into the ravine beside us. Not as good. Going down, he flies off, and a couple exuberant bounds rock me a little before I get that collected. Ergh.

This is for the birds. I get off, and send him. You figure out how to set your feet, just you, and then when you are good with that, we will add me. Takes a few times and even the Arabian learns that setting his feet carefully conserves more energy and feels better balanced than the mad scramble.

Different trip this time. We climb up, he is listening to me and lets me place his feet. Coming down, no issue and off we go. We ride for a couple of hours, my focus is on not fighting with him, but bringing him around to my way of thinking, as smooth, as soft as I can get him there. Whip smart, he anticipates and I have to change up our routine, turning him a quarter into the bank, he wants to swing around and take off the other way before I can set him up for the transition. Result, muddy. Stop. Slow down. Think. That is for both of us.

Building confidence in each other, building respect for one another. There can be no short cuts here. Regardless of where I think we want to be, we are where we are, and the sooner I can learn to work from there . . . well, the sooner we will be someplace else!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Split Personalities Don’t Exist

in horsemanship. You cannot be one person at home and another at the barn. I have been chewing on that quote and what it means for a long time.

This is an article I wrote for my long neglected website, quite a few years ago, reflecting on some of the principles I was just starting to really delve into. Years later, I am still delving . . .

"If you face your fears, swallow your pride, and are willing to work at it, you'll learn lessons in courage, commitment, and compassion, in addition to basic survival skills. You'll discover just how hard you're willing to work toward a goal, how little you know, and how much you have to learn.  And, while some people think the horse "does all the work," you'll be challenged physically as well as mentally. Your horse may humble you completely. Or, you may find that sitting on his back is the closest you'll get to heaven."

I was planning to write an article on some of the techniques I use to assess a horse for suitability in my sales and trade program. However, this paragraph showed up in a post on one of the lists I am on and it really struck a chord with me, so that other one will have to wait!  Those first two sentences can be applied to any endeavor in life.  In fact, many of the lessons I have learned about handling horses make me a better wife, friend, parent and human being in general.

I didn't create or come up with a single one of the principles that follow, but they have had a huge impact on my training, horse handling and people skills, in general.  My biggest talent is magpie, pick up the coolest, shiniest things I can find, and create a beautiful nest!

"Be particular but not critical"  - Parelli's

"Be as gentle as possible but as firm as necessary" Clinton Anderson

"Reward the slightest try" - a whole lot of good folk out there!

"Be smooth in your handling and don't make a big deal of things" paraphrased from Buck Brannaman

"Fix it up and wait" - Ray Hunt

Had I known these principles as a younger woman, my horses, my family and my friends would definitely have benefitted!  Knowing them now, I apply them as best I can, in all situations, and when I am making a big deal of something (someone else smarter than me said "never sweat the small stuff, and it's almost all small stuff) I go back to the above and try to pick a different path.  The horses appreciate it and I am sure my husband and kids do, too!

These days, I have narrowed down the shiny from what I believe to be truly gold . . . That which trickles down straight from Tom Dorrance, who says everything he knows about horses, he learned straight from the horse.


I am looking hard at the defects of character which have stood between me, and success in many areas of my life, not only my horsemanship. On to the next level of the journey.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

One Right Way to Work a Horse–Day Three

I stare blankly, horrified, at the beautiful grulla filly in front of me. She is unhappily, magically changing shape. The head is raising, again. The neck is tight, muscles bunched there and in her rump. She doesn’t look like a carousel horse yet but she is on her way.

Day three- I wake before the alarm, as I have every day this weekend. This day, though, my heart is pounding with joy and anticipation. It is MY turn to ride my filly!! My turn to feel the wonder of making those gorgeous changes that I have been watching Steven make with her the past couple of days. I can do it! I know I can! Do Less! It’s there in my head like a mantra. Outside hind foot!

Once she is truly balanced, through moving her feet in the right way, she will feel better, be relaxed and we will ride off into happy clinic sunset together.

I check with Peter. Saddle her on the wall? Yep. That is what I do and it goes pretty good. She’s not quite as easy in her skin as I would like her to be but it’s light years away from the LAST time I threw that chunk of wood and dead leather up there . . .

Steven has a different horse this morning, a rescued OTTB named Shaun. That horse has a really amazing story all of his own.  I highly recommend taking the time to check it out. Heartwarming to say the least.

After saddling, I respectfully ask Peter what next. He says to move her around some, over there on the wall. Okay.

Steven hands me a flag, as I don’t  have one of my own, and I do that. A few times. She moves over pretty freely, and I think she looks fine. I glance over, Peter is in conversation with someone else. I am a tryer, and I figure, what the heck, I think she’s ready and I take her off the wall to continue on with my brand new program.

Except. I can’t think of a single new thing to do. My mind is blank, except for “do less.” So I send her around me, looking for all four parts to be reaching equal, and I think about doing less. I do not, apparently, do that. She is worried, and gets increasingly so as we progress.

I used the flag, ground to shoulder, tap the top of the saddle to see how concerned she might be about someone stepping up into the stirrup, how she feels about noise and movement up there behind her head. She is not happy, but I don’t get the feeling it’s the flag that is the problem and I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT.

Photo by Debbie Johnson

Riata and I, day three by Debbie Johnson

Steven glances at me, “how are you feeling about her, Ter?” I think I'm okay, I answer . . . She seems more or less all right . . . She doesn’t. He knows she doesn’t, I know she doesn’t but I am stuck. Trapped in my head and I can’t seem to find a way out . . .

Peter cuts the music he starts our day with each morning and we stop doing whatever it is we are about and turn to pay attention to the morning “get ready” talk.

Suddenly, he’s saying “if you ask me a question, and then you go ahead and do something else, next time you ask me a question, I might just turn around and walk away. If you do the same old shit, you will get the same old result. Don’t waste my time . . .”

there is more, but all I can do is stand there and will the ground to open up and swallow me. Now there may have been more than one of us who asked him how to proceed and then did what we thought we should do instead, I cannot speak to that. I damn sure knew he was at least talking to me, and I was sick inside. Do the same old shit, you will get the same old result.

That was the last thing that I wanted but it was the first thing that I did. He continues to address us about different parts of horsemanship, it’s everything I have come there to learn and it’s washing over me in waves. My brain is getting numb and I am having difficulty focusing. I am on overload. So unhappy with myself, I can hardly get out of my own way to keep listening.

Then it is “lady with the grulla horse! Yes, YOU. You tell me she bucks and runs off right?” I nod numbly, “well put your lead rope in BOTH hands how about, so she doesn’t do that right this minute, okay!”

Okay. I want to say something like, she isn’t going to, she’s fine, she’s content, but I know better than to voice my “opinion.” And then, I think of all the times she has taken me by surprise, when I think things are fine, and WHOOPS they sure the heck are not, and dammit there she goes again.

Here I am, listening intently but about to rightfully get in trouble. Photo by Karen Johnson

Getting places with Riata

I put my rope correctly into both hands. I nod my head and smile grimly. Thank you, Peter!

Photo by Karen Johnson


Time to ride. I look at her warily. Moment of truth. I gather up my gear, keeping my mecate and my rein in my left hand, and bend her a little to get on her. If she leaves, I still want to know what direction she is going to be headed . . . or so I think.

She tolerates me getting up there, and I feel her a little tight but not bad. I step her off and we both relax. A little. Breathe, Terri.

Peter has us head off to the right of the arena. We fall into place and I am feeling better about things. I messed up the groundwork boy howdy, but I can learn, I will learn and I didn’t set her back too far because I am up here and she is not trying to kill me.  Things are looking a little brighter.

I STILL cannot seem to remember to keep my lead rope in both hands! I am so glad Peter was somewhere else . . . or maybe he just tired of saying the same old thing, over and over again to unlistening ears . . .

Day Three, my turn to ride and I am so excited about the changes my horse is making by Colleen Hamer

Riata has been fighting contact all weekend. She never used to but she never used to do a lot of the stuff that caused us to make an emergency run to Archie Mo and Mr. Campbell.

I pride myself on my ability to soften a horse. I pride myself on my ability to bring a horse down and get them to relax. Soft and quiet, that is what I am known for. . . my mind skips quickly to Royal, who is neither except when he chooses to be,  to Soxie who is quiet but hangs 500 lbs of head and neck onto your hands any time you will let him . . . Focus Terri, better ride the one you are on and worry about those others a different day . . .

I attempt to have a discussion with her, not an argument but asking her to give lightly to the feel of the bit in her mouth, my hands taking contact to bump her a little as she pushes through it. Angry head tossing is the answer I get. That quarter inch of slack only shows up on the downward bounce and it is quickly gone again.

I breathe. I loosen my hips and move with my horse. At least I am riding her loosely, I think, not all tight, like Colleen was worried I would . . . I think this with my biceps and lower arms stiff as a board and I know the look of concentration on my face probably made most people think I was mad as hell. I wasn’t. I was upset with myself that I could not get through to my horse in the meaningful way I had been dead sure that I would.

Riata really does pretty well through all this. She’s not about to give me a soft feel, except every once in awhile, and we lose it fast. She pushes on me and is crooked in her stops, like Steven warned me she would be, after watching her be crooked in our groundwork. I saw it too, but had zero idea what to do about it, as every method, every touch on the halter rope, every attempt to time the cue to the footfall made things worse instead of better. I was lost.

“Relax!” Steven whispers as he rides by on the big bay Thoroughbred. Shaun has spent most of the morning in the middle as apparently his race horse training did not do much to prepare him for life as a western saddle horse. The fact that his last ride was his last RACE back in ‘07 might have had something to do with that as well.

Shaun, first time feeling a western saddle. Photo by Debbie Johnson

The OTTB, by Debbie Johnson

Peter has worked his magic through Steven’s willing and capable hands and now they are riding into the mix with the rest of us. “Relax” he says “You are doing okay, you guys are okay.”

I nod stiffly. I AM relaxed, dammit!

She pulled on me. She trotted through my hands. She did not explode and buck me into pieces. My sole goal that morning had been to survive the ride and not get into too much trouble. I managed the first part but it was time to set some different goals.

A certain part of the deal was the emotional turmoil I was carrying in my heart and in my stomach. The decision had been made. Riata was going to stay with Steven in Kansas instead of coming back to Nebraska with me. I think Peter thought I was bailing on the horse until I explained things a little to him in a private conversation.

It was nothing of the sort. I live 25 miles away from where this horse is boarded. I work two jobs and one of them is at a ranch 12 miles from me where my other horse is recuperating from an injury and he will probably stay there the better part of the summer til my job there is done.

Peter had mentioned I would be fine with the filly if I just took her home and rode her, but not to ride when no one else was around. It was fairly normal for me to be alone with her down there, and the hours I work and travel make it very difficult to get anything like consistency with her. I am well aware I am responsible for the choice I am about to make next. “I had to, I had no choice” does not live in my vocabulary.

There are a lot of things I would have to do to make things work for Riata. Move her closer. Sell my other horse to free up more time, things that were just not going to happen. I talk to Steven as I am solid in my belief even at my best he will do more and go further with her than I would, the deal is struck and what is done is done. Doesn’t make it easy, doesn’t make me not want to break down and cry every time I look at her, and now I am on her, and I still feel like I am failing her, and myself.

All this is rolling through my mind and my guts and it’s really no wonder our ride was not much good. We did some things, got along a little but again, that big change I was hoping to see in my horse? Far from it.

Until you feel it, you cannot understand it. You won’t.” Peter is talking about the changes that happen in the horse, in the human, the deep and internal changes we make when we follow this horsemanship in it’s truest form. I get that. At least the not understanding part. I get the “you will understand it when you feel it” too. I HAVE actually felt some of these things before, had glimpses of it last Fall, Riata moving free and willing under me, laughing as Peter calls 911 jokingly (I think) into his mic when I go loping off across the arena for our photographer. The joy, the lightness of being, I have been somewhere at least in the neighborhood of all that!

This is Riata and I, riding in Horsemanship 1, last Fall in Elkhorn NE.  We felt fabulous together and it was our last truly good ride

Photo by Steadman Ulrich

Ri and I, better days


I am troubled and disturbed. Steven tries to talk to me about what he saw go on. I think he saw the wall behind my eyes and gave it up as a bad job. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to hear him, wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted to make a good ride on Riata, I damn sure did, both of those things, but I was stuck . . .

I need to mention that at these clinics, I am in the company of some of the most quality horse people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. I am still completely grateful that some of them took the time to talk to me, to try to help me come through.

One of these was Donnie Eastwood. One of the “Donnies.” I sat by him during the afternoon session. Steven was back out there, on Shaun, and when he first rode out to take his turn at hindquarter, front end with the cow I had to look twice to see what the heck horse is he on NOW. It was that beautiful TB, finding a soft feel and looking fabulous.

Shaun and Steve, a mere few hours into his first ride in years. Photo by Debbie Johnson


“Do you notice,” Donnie says “that Steven never gives that horse a chance to pull on him? Never gives him an opportunity to get upset. Some other person might get on that horse and get to” he picks up both hands and mimics a rider working the bit  . . . hmm, that looked familiar . . . oohhhh. I nod. I do notice, and I watch close. Donnie continues to once in awhile gently make a comment, and I am pretty sure he is directly addressing my less than successful attempt with Riata.

Can I tell you how amazingly fortunate I feel that he took that time? I listened and I listened hard.

Later on, while dumping the wheelie barrow, the other Donnie took some time too. I mention that I am NOT bailing on my horse and he gives me a quizzical look. “Never thought that” he says, “not all horses are for all people.” I want to explain, that no, she is for me, plenty all right, but you know circumstances and yah yah. I mention my other horse and allow as he needs all the time I can give him, no gentle flower, he either, but so far, I can stick with whatever he’s thrown at me and I am not afraid to go on with him.

Donnie turns. He says something I don’t quite hear, and I nod anyway, as I will do sometimes when that happens, rather than admit the noise in my head is loud and sometimes I cannot hear over the clatter. Finally as he is obviously waiting for a more intelligent response, I say, “I am sorry, what?”

And he says “then maybe what you need to do is figure out what to do so that that horse doesn’t ever need to act like that, ever again. Maybe you will have better success with him. If you’d thought like that, maybe you would have had better success with this one.” He smiles kindly and is off to his host duties.

Donnie Chalufas and PreacherDonnie Chalufas and Preacher

photo by Karen Johnson

I am standing there dumbfounded. Well yeah. . . obviously right? No. Not obvious to me, not at all. I am all about CORRECTING BEHAVIOR AFTER IT HAPPENS, NOT EVEN THINKING IN TERMS OF DIRECTING . . .

I did not know that. I swear as the day is long if you would have asked me I would have told you a lie about that and not known I was telling it.

I had a lot to think about. And that was Day Three.