Friday, March 30, 2012

There are Zen Days and there are . . .

days like yesterday. All good stories have a beginning, a middle and an ending. The middles are usually where the conflict develops, the interesting stuff that makes it worth staying with the story all the way through.

That is where I am at, with Riata. The middle. We had a wonderful beginning, kinda cool tale of picking up young horse at a sale, knowing full well there were mysteries behind her of breeding, handling, training that would never be solved and it didn’t matter. She had a kind eye, a long sweeping stride belying her tender age and her short stature and was wrapped in a neat if weird looking grulla-esque coat.

Love the relationship I had with her and I want it back.


The story went from unsolved mystery to love affair as the wary filly quickly hooked up, looking for a friend in her new life and I was happy to be one for her. All the initial stages went as clockwork, took her to a Kerry Kuhn clinic to get that first-to-me ride out of the way, and she came through, flying her colors all day long.

This filly originally took everything in stride with the best, easiest going attitude ever


All the riding went well, and then she got hurt. Not horribly, just put her on the sideline for awhile. Treatment didn’t bother her, she stayed quiet and gentle throughout. Healed up, it was time to saddle, and the first couple times of those went just fine too.

Healed up, great frame of mind, thought we would be back in business in no time

Healed up and ready to go to work!

And then the bucking started. I don’t know why. I am told it doesn’t matter but to me it does. I don’t know what set her off so I am slightly at a loss as to how to proceed to fix it.

Too big a saddle, this was the first time she expressed unhappiness at a saddle and boy, has it got worse from here!

Not yet, for the Crates

This brings us to the middle, the conflict, the “interesting stuff.” Me, I would be happy with a “she rides great, see ya on the trail” boring tale that no one would care to read. Instead, we have this.

As far as I can tell she had an allergic reaction to the neoprene cinch I used. I used it on her every single time I saddled her since I got her, no issues. She came home from both long clinics, friendly, willing, happy and we were eating progress like it was candy.

Working  under pressure with Peter, we both came through and got to better places!

Getting our lessons

Three days after bringing her home from the last one, I get a call from the barn asking me what the heck we did to that filly at the clinic, they couldn’t get near her, not even to feed her. Wtf??

I couldn’t get out there til the weekend, and sure enough she wanted none of me. Her girth area looked a little crusty, not red, not inflamed, not swollen, and it seemed maybe a little irritation had set in there.

From here is a series of letting it heal, saddling her up, fits getting more frequent, more explosive, me puzzled, wondering what the hell is causing us to be heading so far south, so quick and why can’t I see what is happening here?

I rode her out on the trail with friends, and basically stole a 7 mile ride and didn’t get killed in the doing of it. That is testament to the really good mind and nature of this young horse. She was so sore when I untacked her that she nearly buckled her knees when I released the girth. Shit.

Having an issue, but she came out of it without blowing up much to my relief.

Ri having an issue

It’s sinking in. It’s the cinch, stupid. Trina, if you are reading this, I wish to hell I would have listened to you on that. I took every other bit of advice that weekend that could sink through my skull but that piece I waved away. Had used them for years, long hours, lots of horses. No issue so why should it cause one now?  Did though.

Fast forward. My horse is cinchy. Bad. Claustrophobic. Doesn’t want caught, doesn’t trust me or want to be with me. My pocket pony who followed me around, now raises her head on full alert when she sees me even looking at her.

As I wrack my brain, as I will do, to figure this out, Colleen says “knock it the hell off,” or something to that effect “you are wasting time and energy on something that doesn’t matter anyway. Get in the moment and read your horse! What would you do if you had never seen this horse before? No idea of her history and you just have to start where you are. What would you do?”

Well, that’s where we came in, isn’t it . . .

Day before yesterday, everything worked. She got a little scared once, but it was further into the process than we have been for a long time.  I know it worked because she didn’t spin and bolt off when I let her loose, stayed with me and was the easiest to catch the next day that she has been in a long time. She told me I got better.

Still she’s almost never fully relaxed. She’s still not moving right, is still tight, bunchy, lopes like a little deer instead of the long sweepy stride that I fell in love with the first time I saw her move. So, I know, no matter how right I think we’ve got, we are not there yet, and I shouldn’t be taken by surprise when she blows and goes.

No Photo Here, I am too busy hanging on to take pictures!

Burns on my fingers from yesterday will tell you that I am surprised. I stepped down off the fence yesterday after getting what I thought was past the point she blew up the day before, walk past her to lead her to the post to soak and be done. HRUMPH!! I spin, she’s in the air, bucking and leaping away from me. I am not ready, can’t get position and she pulls away and takes off. Dammit.

Here we go again. Yep, now it’s on, and she’s in full reaction mode. She gets stuck, won’t come forward and then when she does, it’s leaps, bucks, bounds. Pulls me off my feet a couple of times. Broke my favorite hat. Bitch. Now I want to kill her, and it’s time to find a place to quit so I don’t mess things up worse than they already are.

I can’t hold her when she goes, and I can’t have her continue to pull away. I tie her to her saddle, yep the old tie around, it’s a loose tie, if I were on her, all I would see is the corner of her eye when she gave. It’s enough to let her know something has her, not enough to not allow her some relief. This is NOT the best way to get a thing done but at this point, I had to have something that would not continue to reinforce her fight and flee responses, and I had to put myself in time out and leave her alone for a bit.

I go get on Royal, in a horrible frame of mind, telling him today is not the day for antics as I am thinking in terms of couch covers, and he takes me down the road and helps me get my mind right.

A wonderful ride on my bestie

During this process with Riata, I have worked on attaching feet to the reins. I have done the groundwork fast, done it slow, she can back a circle, chin tucked and moving freely.

Trust me, I know how fat she is and I know that is part of the problem.

Riate, doing her groundwork ok

She gets to where she sinks her head into my arms and her skin doesn’t quiver when I touch her. Next thing, I will put a hand on her, she tightens, jumps six inches.  It is not a good place. BUT as Colleen reminded me, it’s not the end, it’s just the middle. It’s a process and we will get there.

Not all days are full of Zen and butterflies. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Day In The Life . . .

of a retired horse trainer can be really full of horses and yes, horse training!  Of course, I AM a horse trainer and will be one to the day I pass this earth, there would be that . . .

Approaching the deep, sandy round pen at the ranch I work at part time, I smile as the Thoroughbred filly pricks her ears and strides directly to me in a happy “glad to see ya, bud” welcoming kind of way.  I brush some sand off of her pretty bay coat, and she snuffles me in greeting.

Today, I have my tools and we are going to work on those back feet. It’s a challenge, getting the feet on a young horse picked up in an open area when you don’t tie them, at all. Baby racehorses are protected from injury at all possible cost even to the extreme that while I teach them to release to pressure early on, we don’t tie them up for fear if they DID happen to get worried and pull back, the slightest injury to leg or vertebrae could cost them the split second of speed they will need for a successful racing career.


I don’t want a happy hoof popping me on the head in quick reaction either. I prepare the filly I am calling Kinzi (she doesn’t have a name yet) by getting her okay with touch all over her body. She started out very goosey and ticklish, when we first met. Everything bothered her and a touch to the girth area was worth feet flying and airs above ground. Would not want to be the farrier underneath all that! Not to mention, since it is ALL about riding, when time comes to saddle, it should be a non issue as we are taking care of the scary stuff early on. . .

We’ve been at this a few times now, and she shakes her pretty head at me and dances a little but it’s more play than fear or annoyance. I allow the play and bring her back to where I want her. Kinzi has not yet learned the value of conserving energy and I let her spend hers as she will. Standing still will become more attractive to her if she figures it out on her own rather than me trying to force it upon her.

I shake out my long rope with the big ring on the end. She carries it across her back, at first eyeing the snake like thing with suspicious, flirty eyes. “Oh my, what’s THAT!”

I am calm, my body language very casual, breathing deep and easy. In short order, she’s walking around me, head hanging softly at the end of her neck like an old cowpony at the end of a long day. She wears the big loop on her butt  and then I let her walk into it with one slender ankle.

On older horses, I would not have anything on the head, the rope is long enough they can have the circumference of the round pen and not get in trouble with it. If they need to run or be upset, they can, I have control of the direction they travel before I do this, and I don’t let  them get tangled. Worse to worse, if things went really south, I can drop my end and pick it up again when things are back level again. The big ring keeps the rope from biting and locking against the ankle and the smooth weave keeps it from burning. I would not do this with just any old rope I had laying around . . . oh yeah, and no gloves. Too much pressure will ruin this deal and who I learned it from says if I have to wear gloves to get it done, I am already applying too much . . .

On the baby racehorse, again, think THOUSANDS of dollars already invested, just getting her on the ground and alive this long, I keep her halter on and control of her head. It actually interferes in the process and makes it take longer, but there is no way I am going to let anything look remotely like the filly could be harmed in the process that I can possibly avoid.

One of the owners pulls up on the Gator and is watching curiously. They don’t question much of what I do with the babies, anymore. The results, two  years running, have been very clear to them. Her brow wrinkles though, in concern.

“Can’t that piss a colt off and make it want to fire?”

I shrug, “yeah, probably, but not more than the farrier trying to grab a hold and better she kick the rope, that won’t hurt her but she can’t get away from than taking out your man, or pissing HIM off so that he whacks her one.”  She nods, she’s a horseperson and she gets this in it’s entirety.

There are no full blown panics, no pyrotechnics. Before I advance to this step I have picked up all four feet, first using my stick and string, holding the end of the string so that if a horse does get really worried, none of us are locked in a wreck. Persistence, timing and feel always pay off. When Kinz first felt pressure from the string on her ankle, she set her weight against it, sinking the hoof into the ground. All I do is wait. Exasperated, she picks the foot up to get away from the pesky tension. I release. Light bulb for the horse IF my timing is where it needs to be . . .

That’s how it starts. Then I ask the foot to come up higher. Then, to hang there and wait.  Why even go to the rope then, a person might justifiably ask? Because I can’t tie her up, and I have no holder. I have to be SURE she is okay with hanging that back foot in the air, before I reach down there, exposing my head and spinal column to a possibly dancing set of hooves.

We do the deal, she does fire a few times, telling me she does not HAVE to pick up or hold up her foot if she does not WISH to.  Again, more shrugging from me. Whatever, Kinz. Bet you do.

Then the foot can be moved. Can be picked up and extended back or to the side. She can be led by the hind foot. I reach down, running my hand down an unflinching hind leg and pick up her foot. I remove the rope. That’s the key, they gotta be gentle enough I feel okay to do that last step. Once we are there, it’s golden.

I have used this method on the babiest of babies, so easy, and some pretty tough rank older horses that would take aim when they saw you coming.  To date, result has been the same. Reach down unflinching hind leg, quietly pick up foot (they often begin to offer it, not the same at all as lifting to whack you, be sure you know the difference if you try this out) and remove the rope.

I first saw this done on one of Buck’s colt starting video’s. He talked about the mental change that takes place as a horse learns to surrender the freedom of it’s feet to a human. It’s huge.

There was a whole lot more yesterday, but this is enough story for one blog Smile.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Making Changes

Not flying ones, not yet, but yesterday was a fantastic day of riding, horse training and hanging out with the best of friends. Days like that are nothing but good for the soul . . .

Year before last, I started a sweet little black horse for my friend, Corie. He’s the one pictured going through the noodle obstacle at the end of his 60 days with me.  Soxie is one of the good ones, kind, calm, steady, built in his nature to be more of a thinker than a reactor.  The flipside to that nature is a more confident type of horse that will push on you, lean on you and slowly but surely start telling you how he thinks things will be.  Then, if things go south, you have a horse that’s entirely willing to take matters into their own hooves and are not looking to their rider for their solutions.

That said, he’s pretty low key about the whole thing, our major complaint with him is that he has always been heavy in the bridle and was getting more so. Time to add another piece to the puzzle.

One of the big pieces I brought home from the Peter Campbell clinic is to get the feet in motion. Do it right, have them land in the right places but keeping it slow all the time just makes things fall apart when you ask for more. I would have argued that to my death prior to that clinic but I saw for myself, both with my own horse that DID fall apart when asked for more, and other’s, equally green who were handling themselves much better. Doesn’t mean to get rammy with your horse. I DID that, misinterpreting my instructions and was called out for it. “We do NOT harpoon our horse with our spurs!”  We do NOT accost our horses with the bit!”  Smooth, quiet but get in there, ask and get it done and keep the feet correct.

So, yesterday, as best I could, I did that with Sox. From the moment I haltered him, I started letting him know what was up.  You will move your feet, you will not hang and drag on me.  The little black horse was rattled at the change in the rules, and got a little mad at me.  He sulled up and wouldn’t give his hip. He was stuck in his body and his brain.  Concerned that I was going to push him into a wreck, trust me, I do NOT have Peter’s sense of timing and feel for how far to push a horse and when to step back, so I stepped back probably a little late but there I was.

I would lift the rein, step into his hip, and ask that hip to move. He would tighten, and lean back into me, pushing back. Swish with the dressage whip, and the hip would stutter over, head hanging heavily on the rein. No release there.

I know I was not that smooth in what I was up to, as it took too long before he was stepping through calmly. I analyze these things not at all to beat myself  when something isn’t as good or sound my own horn when things go well.  I look things over carefully to see what I can improve on, the next time, so that things are better for the horse.

Back on, I took a Matt McLaughlin mane hold.  Short outside rein, hand locked in the mane to keep him from rooting them out of my hands. Inside rein almost as short, but live in my hand. Matt and some others have taught me, rather than throw the whole thing away when the horse gets it right, it’s in the little releases from the fingers on the inside hand. Pitching the reins to the horse to release (something I do still teach to beginners who are just learning their timing, feel and what release really consists of) causes the movement to fall apart, the horse loses it’s way, and while I am busy congratulating myself that I got some thing right, my horse is now all strung out, lost and I have to put him back where we started from. Not efficient or effective, it turns out for either of us.

Soxie leaned heavily into my hands, weighting me, thinking surely I would carry his head for him as he likes to have his rider do.  He champs, fusses, is unhappy. That’s fine, Soxie, I want you happy but you will  have to go through this to get to the really right places, where you are soft, pliant and carry your own darned head, and the rest of you too!

I sit quietly, encouraging him to move forward into the pressure. He doesn’t give at all to it, yet, is still struggling with trying to figure out what to do to get it gone.  Matt had me work in a smaller circle at first, keeping my horse as straight on the arc as possible. It’s easier for the horse to get soft, if the circle is right, as that inside hind HAS to come up under, causing the belly to raise (thanks, Colleen for reminding me about that step in the process) the back to raise and round, the neck follows suit, the poll joint softens and the horse can give to the bit, and the jaw relaxes as the mind realizes it all feels so much better that way than flomping around in a nose out, strung out, rear end 100 miles behind the rest kind of fashion. That is not a balanced way for a horse to move, and they HATE being out of balance. Causes most of the grief I run into with a horse and see around me.

We work both ways. I am explaining to Corie as I ride, how I keep the inside shoulder from collapsing in, the ribs from cutting across, the hip from swaying out. It is a combination of seat and leg cues. my reins are essentially in place, with my fingers beginning to have conversation with Soxie’s mouth. He is starting to ask questions, is moving beyond the bully stage and we are getting somewhere.

We rode out 11.50 miles yesterday, working on that communication for much of it. There are so many things a person can do, outside of the arena to improve their communication with their horse. It’s easier to learn this stuff in an enclosed area but once I have  an idea of how to get it done, I take it out in the world. More fun for me, and I think for the horse too.

Soxie and I progressed from tug, pull, drag (him, me holding and waiting) to a place that I could tighten my fingers on one hand, get a soft little dip from him WITHOUT him immediately taking his head back. In between times of me asking for different things, when we would hit a  pretty sweet spot, I would throw him slack, allow him to stretch his head and neck down, which stretches and relaxes the back as well. Like any kind of muscular development and exercise, you have to give a horse a break or you will make them so darned sore, they will hate you for it and never want to try again.  Several miles from home, I pretty much left him alone to soak. He was quiet, compliant, and had a lot to think about. We had cantered with balance and the beginning of collection, he was riding on a loose rein but was alive in my hands.

I know of MANY horses that the riders think are soft in the bridle because they ride them with long loose reins. It’s not that which makes the case but what happens when you pick those reins up and ask for that soft feel . . . what is the answer that you get?


Soxie, one tired little black horse

Soxie after a long, hot ride. He worked hard!

Axel, one tired little blue dog

Axel is out of shape too, and his poor paws got awfully sore. Dang it!


Went on to work with my beloved Riata, Made great changes and I have high hopes we are back on track. That’s a whole another story.

I wouldn’t call her svelte just yet, but Junebug is showing some conditioning! And yes, that’s Riata, standing quietly saddled back there!

The crew

Rode Junebug, the Quarter Pony. Our big breakthrough was that I asked for a lope and for the first time since I have been riding her, she gave it to me happily. Her tack fits her now and she’s getting into a little better condition, could have a lot to do with it.

Royal got his turn as well. Also happy in his properly fitted saddle, but WHY O WHY do I wait to ride the TALL (for me) horse last??  He was full of spunk and vinegar as has had a few weeks off. Fine, says me, we will use that energy big boy, We got the best trots maybe ever, and there are moments where I feel that extension and it feels like flying! 

My lovely boy!

Royal gets a turn today

His ear and eye kept flickering to the girls at the barn. My dog sored his paws on the long ride (dammit, sorry Axel) so we stayed close to home for these legs.  Fine, says me, run to the barn, go for it. He did and once there, we loped circle after circle. These were not the pretty little 8.2 mph hour show lopes but really stretching out and moving. I love the Longhorn Cutter saddle too, and the borrowed fleece tush cush may be just what the doctored ordered for my tender derriere. I know, you wouldn’t think it would be . . .

Lope circles, ride away to rest, lope circles, ride away to rest . . . doggone hard to wear out an Arabian with an agenda! I ended up changing my tactic as I was running out of time and didn’t want to leave him with the wrong idea stuck in his head . . . where you quit what you are doing, that is where you teach the lesson!

Riding away from the barn I would let him turn us around and as soon as he would pick up speed, I would not shut him down but picked up my inside rein and deflect us into a small circle. He was fairly surprised to find himself trotting like mad and not getting any closer to the barn! Did this a few more times, found a place where I could ride him away from the barn, ears up, straight and pointed forward. That was the place to stop and so we did! Love love love my spotted goofy NSH!!

Anyway, there were tangible changes made in all the horses, and I felt the good juju flowing from my fingertips once again.  There is a rightness to the world for me when I am teaching people who want to learn, helping horses figure out just what the heck we are asking from them, and a certain harmony to my soul when this all comes together that I am pretty darned sure, life would not be worth living without . . .

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Yay Spring!

Spent most of the morning inside at the Horse Fair. Really enjoyed watching the dressage demo. The clinician, Reese somebody or other, knows her stuff. There is a very solid foundation to the very best horsemanship, and regardless of the gear on the horse, it all stems from the same type of philosophy. It's what I had discovered when I first went to audit a day clinic with Missy Fladland, butterflies in my stomach, sure that the "cowgirl" would be massively out of place amongst the dressage queens.

What I discovered was that the good horsemanship I had been studying over the years from the Dorrances on down, all translated. I had a lot of work to do in the new discipline, of course, but I could speak the language.

Yesterday, my friend, Colleen Hamer, rode her 6 year old very green gelding in the demo. Ringo is by her now gelded foundation bred AQHA buckskin horse, Smore. Just breeding alone would put him close to a person’s heart, but he stands there on his own merit. Things being what they are, he has not had a ton of riding (prolly less than 60 days over the past couple of years!) and we all giggled in the stands when the clinician made note as Ringo picked up leg yield very prettily, what a well trained horse he must be. Just goes to show, when the work is done right, you don’t need to drill and grind them to death to get the job done. Too bad more “trainers” out there do not know this or how to get it accomplished.

The demo reminded me how very important those basics are, rhythm, relaxation and straightness. I talk a lot about straightness and I work for that, but I am not always as dedicated to the other two steps which makes it almost impossible to achieve the third one. Just keeping it real, folks!

I have some adult ADD and I ride a horse that certainly does. Between the two of us, it is little wonder that Royal and I struggle for all three! Lately, as my excitement with his wonderfulness grows, we have developed some pretty interesting “gaits.” Quotes because, well, they are not. Royal, as all sensitive responsive horses will do, reads my body language, and picks up immediately on my lack of commitment to doing one thing or another. So, he creates his own . . .  One is a mixture of “I don’t want to extend my trot, how about I lope, look how pretty . . . no? Can’t lope? How about I gait then? No, that’s hard, trot again!” All in about five steps, we can go through this repertoire, and then I am not excited but exasperated and so is Royal.

Focus starts with me.  I’ll get there.  Reese gave me a really good tip. I had asked her how to work on the problem of straightness with skitzy loopnut “look! A butterfly!” Royal. She said not too much work on the wall. Well, we work in a field. Oh! Then find a wall or essentially something he can rely on a little to help him get the idea. That makes sense to me. I have been trying to get it all done in the field, figuring not giving him a rail to rely on would make it even better, but might be premature. We will ride in the pasture next time and use the fence. I don’t really miss having an arena but sometimes they are handy!

Watched Ken McNabb yesterday work a horse that had not been saddled in five years. I didn’t get the back story, no idea if the horse was really broke before that, evergreen or what. Ken also reminded me of the good basics. The very best one, for me, that I took away was that there is nothing so important to rush a horse for . . . not saddling because you have Derby miles to grab, not anything.  I needed to hear that.

The other piece I got from him was a little twist on something I have been talking about for a few years now. We all got real excited over “suppling” our horses. From the ground, in the saddle, taking the head around, side to side, thinking we were getting them super soft and responsive to the bit. Actually what we were doing was disconnecting the head from the feet, bending the neck without a purpose. Ken took the horse’s head around to help the horse understand what that pressure on the bit meant.  BUT instead of just letting the horse have his head back, he had him straighten his body by moving the hindquarter over. NICE!

Ken talked too, about how that thing we think is suppling has taught a lot of horses to flop their head over to the side, run straight through their shoulder and just keep on trucking in time of trouble. I know about a young girl, got herself killed taking her horse’s head away, he went through the shoulder, rolled over on her. Bad bad business.

We want soft and supple, you bet. He says that, I say that, don’t know anyone who does not want that. When Missy, not a ton of years ago, pointed out to me what I was doing when I was warming up for a lesson, the light bulb totally went on for me. Ken said “I NEVER bend my horse’s neck without moving a major muscle mass.”

I like it.

Picked up the Dakota saddle from Jim at Bronco Billy’s (it flunked for Royal but fit Riata beautifully and she needs one, too . . .) and headed for the barn to play with horses.

GORGEOUS Spring day, one of the top ten days we continue to hang out in this part of the country in hopes of experiencing.

I took my time saddling Riata. I prepared her for the experience as best I could. She is so goosey and jumpy. It just kills me that this change has been made. I have ideas but I really don’t know why my gentle friendly girl now has so much distrust and unhappiness in her eyes and her tense, stiff body.

Rubbing her neck, static electricity sends a trail of sparks between my hand and her neck. You would have thought I just sunk my teeth into her throat.

She no longer wants her ears touched. If I didn’t know better, I would swear to God that someone has grabbed those ears and try to manhandle her down. I have owned her a year now and she didn’t come with this. Dunno.

I will say she did not buck.  There would be some people all jumping up and down, thinking they really got something done. I don’t think that. We are FAR from out of the woods, but at least, she didn’t buck yesterday. First time in awhile, for that.  I am in this for the long haul and we will get there. Shaking my head that we are in this place at all and I don’t know how we got here.

Riata in her new Dakota saddle

Rode the Quarter Pony mare, Junebug.  This is her year to get her education. I promised my old partner when I moved the horses over there that I would ride her for him, and ride her I will. We worked for almost an hour and the poor fat thing was puffing her guts out. She’s a classy little unit and is going to be a super nice little horse when all is said and done.

Junebug in her Bronco Billy roper

Royal? He wore his new, nicely fitted Longhorn Cutter and slept against a post. No derby miles for him, yesterday, but that’s okay. I needed some reminders of what I need to be doing, and it feels good to be back on track.

Baby Thoroughbreds are beginning to hatch and the yearlings need my attention. Shady Lanes Ranch is also coming back to life, after the winter and there will soon be all kinds of activity going on, over there.

I’ll say one thing about this life I lead, I am NEVER bored! Smile