Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Babies . . .

The best part of what I do at the ranch, and there are a lot of good parts, is working with the baby Thoroughbreds. Race horses have a very dicey future, just the nature of their game and we could get into a whole pro and con discussion about that, but it's not the reason for this post. I take my job seriously and I very much believe if I get these babies as gentle as possible, teach them to release to pressure and to think their way out of a bind, it just heightens their odds of survival. I have been all about horse survival ever since I was realized that was not a given . . . 

Eight Belles




Charlie used to scoff at me, would try to tell me what to do, I would nod, turn down his offers of sending help, and he finally just let me be. The babies that are now coming two year olds were the easiest the trainer has ever started and he told Charlie so. After being out on pasture winter, they were easy to catch, halter and loaded right up on the noisy clanking stock trailer. No accident, that. They saddled without issue. No accident that either. I prepare those babies from the first touches across their backs, seeing things behind and over their heads. Easy when you are taller than they are, and I won't be that for long! I rub the ticklish little girth areas and during the halter breaking process, they will feel pressure around their middles, learn to pick up and hold up their tiny feet, learn to accept a human holding on to them. They learn to lead freely, first with and then away from mamma. Everything I do is built toward riding, and in their case, racing.

Today, Charlie laughs when I offer to send him a picture of this year's pride and joy, wearing her first halter. "I just want to see her on the track, racing!" he says, grinning. I tell him that first halter is an event and having it go well is an occasion worth celebrating. Suddenly serious, he says "Terri, it makes a difference. I didn't agree at first, but seeing those wild heathen yearlings (that's last years' crop, didn't do as much with them) halter up as gentle as they did, and having them walk right on the trailer, I believe it now."   He's as good an old style horseman as they come, and praise from him is not to be lightly dismissed.

I usually don’t use these bulky old nylon halters but my handy teensie little rope one was too far off to run get. I no longer believe it’s the tool, but what you do with it that matters, anyway, and we don’t leave them on, no matter.


This baby is only a couple of weeks old. I let her use her natural curiousness as to what the heck I was doing in there, petting her mamma. She finally got brave enough to come check me out. Then it was a matter of little touches, approach and retreat, letting her leave and making it feel safe for her to come back. Next thing you know I am rubbing her all over, and then I just stood there and put the halter on her like it was no big deal. So, it wasn't. Let the weight of the rope encourage her to turn towards me, then take a couple of steps to me. That's the beginning of halter broke.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Slightest Try

sometimes is not what I want it to be nor what I think it is going to be.

Couldn’t catch Riata at all yesterday. Could have if I had a rope, I suppose, I was close enough that even with my limited skills I would have managed that. I didn’t want to catch her that way, but it may turn out at some point it’s what happens.

Just absolutely was not having any of me touching her in any way. I was not going to have a repeat of the other night, of endlessly running her guts out until we were both numb with the effort. That hasn’t been a successful method for anyway. I have used running a horse to catch it on a ton of them and always had them decide being caught is a lot less trouble than avoiding being caught. Not her.

Watching her tense and raise her head when I would even look her way.  Turning my back to her and having her take cautious steps my way. She was trying.

I walked with her around the round pen. Her head at my shoulder or just behind. About a foot from her nose. Sometimes I would step in a little closer and she would stop, but then I noticed she had quit sucking back and would just stand there.

I rubbed her with my stick, sent the string over her neck and back. That was fine until the stick snagged on a mane hair, then it wasn’t, but we did it again and again. A couple of times, I held the long end of the string and slipped the outfit over her head. The first time, as soon as she felt it settle, she was out. I knew I couldn’t hold her like that and let go before she could pull away. The second time, she let me put a little pressure on it, but wasn’t going to hang around to be caught.

I have to be smarter than this. I have to figure this out. Chasing everyone else out of my head, as what they would do is not what I would do, at this point, I thought, she needs to catch me. She needs to want to be around. I can use force, all day long, I can MAKE this horse do anything I want but I can’t MAKE her be solid minded and willing about it, and if I can’t unlock the mental condition, I am not going to get much done with the physical problems. That’s been the case so far.

Some people say a horse does not remember what happens to it. I say that is a total crock. If that were the case, we’d never get any training done at all, right? How can a person say, oh they don’t remember . . . whatever. . . but yet they remember the training you gave them six months ago. I am not buying it. 

Something has happened with this horse that has caused her to change from friendly, personable, RIDEABLE to a spooky freak that will bail out of a round pen before she will give in and let someone catch her. She hasn’t bailed on me but if I pressured her hard enough, I am sure she would. And for her, that pressure might not be hard at all, in my opinion but it’s hers that counts.  My not being able to figure this out is causing us to run backwards at light speeds I have never before encountered in all my years of training and being around horses. Figuring it out damn well matters as since I don’t know what’s causing things to go wrong, I am having a damn sure hard time causing things to get back right again. Pretty depressing as this was supposed to be my last one, my EASY one.

What I was going to do. Leave her in the round pen. I can come out once a day with food and water. She will figure out she needs me to survive. It’s not the best. If I lived there, I would offer at least twice a day, but it’s a long drive and once is what will happen.

I watch her watching me. I watch her try to come through. She is taking steady forward steps, to me and with me. Her ears and eyes are on me, not in full alert, just trying. Her jaw works. Whether it’s digesting thoughts, releasing stress, I don’t care what you call it, when I see a horse doing this, they are making mental changes. I have seen it happen in hundreds of them and the scoffers can scoff all they want, I am done with listening to that.

She is trying. Is the reward for that to leave her, lonely, hungry, thirsty? My guts tell me no, and it’s about time I started listening to them on this horse instead of the crowded voices in my head. Still, though, we have to do something to end this.

I send her pasture mates out of the lot into the pasture. I am curious to see how upset Riata will become. She doesn’t, watches them, looks at me curiously, walks towards me. I hang on the fence, she stops a few feet away and a light bulb comes on for me. She needs to catch me. That is what needs to happen for Riata to get released from the round pen.

I open the gate some and position myself in the gap. I don’t look at her except from under my brows. She needs to figure this out for herself, no pressure or help from me.

There’s a lot of approach and retreat on her part. She gets closer and stands closer to me than she has for awhile. I have put myself close to her and she has tolerated it, but this is her,coming though and coming forward.

At no point does she leave me and go to the part of the pen that is closest to her buddies. We are doing something here, and I am not entirely sure what, but she is participating, of her own accord.

Her head stretches down and she stands. Usually this would be where I would approach her, and she’d allow herself haltered. Nope, I am done trying to catch you, it’s your turn.

Then the yawning starts. Yawning is what happens when a horse releases adrenalin that has come up and been stored in the brain. It’s what happens when they release their stress.

She changes. Her eye is soft, her body is relaxed. I don’t know what would have happened, had I reached my hand up, but I didn’t. That was not the bargain.

She puts her nose on the gate beside my hand. This has been a stock answer for her. You want me to touch that? How about this? It’s close. . .


I feel her breath on my fingers but not a touch. She leaves, makes a small circle, comes back from the other side, closer to my body, not keeping the gate between us.

A whisker brushes my other hand. Does that count? While I am deciding, a nostril gently rubs across my hand and she looks at me calmly.

That counts. I pull the gate open, moving myself back. I don’t want to see her bolt through, that would tell me I have been totally smoking crack with my horse whispery theories, and I hate when that happens.

She walks through, slow and calm. Easier about it than when I was sending her though, little scoots and fast feet. She does not look at me warily, just walks on.  There is no bolt to the pasture, just a level topline leaving.

We will see what today brings.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Night With Riata

Was not my plan yesterday when I drove south. My plan was to see what kind of mental condition she was in, as my partner, Walt, was telling me he had a hard time getting near her and only at all on the right side. He was thinking even getting a halter on her was going to be a trick. Didn’t turn out to be, at all but then there was more . . .

The horses were out to pasture upon my arrival. Shiny chestnut and grulla coats gleamed against the bright green backdrop, framed by the Spring bright trees along the fenceline. Pretty sight. Almost as pretty as when they came in on the gallop when I called for them, led by Jewel, the old retiree who knows what’s up and that people are good. 

I close off the pasture gate keeping them in the dry lot at the barn. As always, it is spotless, Walt is amazing about that. I have never seen such clean horse pens in my life! Riata looks at me, more friendly than not, and I think hmm. Rather than try to catch her in the lot, I halter up her buddy, Junie, and we walk into the round pen. I head straight to the far side, Riata pausing for a moment at the gate and here she comes. Good deal. Junie is out, Ri is in.

I next do something I have not done in years. I go get a bucket with a little feed in it. Riata has to come to me for her bites and she does so easily. Hmm, again, not looking so bad. Her stitches look fine, the cut on her face is healing nicely. I am not going into detail how that happened, I was not there, didn’t see it, just the aftermath. Wish it would not have happened, but it’s really not affecting her much as far as I can tell.  The halter will sit well up above the wound and I  have no problem touching her neck, rubbing her a little and she halters up without a problem.

Riata is quiet, very relaxed and easy in her skin. She looks like the horse I used to ride. I regard her some, thinking hard. What to do next? I want to keep this frame of mind for her, so bad, but I have a hard time believing the issues have suddenly, magickally, disappeared. Nope, they haven’t, but I find that out later.

We do stuff in and out of the round pen. She is alert, moves out briskly but not nervously. Her feet land where I think they ought to, and she does everything I ask. I think, okay, I am going to saddle, can see no reason why not.

That goes just fine, I saddle in the round pen, and she is unconcerned.  Until I tighten the cinch. Head is up, muscles tense, eyes go flat and dark. I get the back cinch but leave the breast collar off as when she bucks, she pulls the saddle up, and I want it in the middle.

And she does buck.  I have the halter rope and I keep her feet moving.  When she gets to bucking, I go the hindquarter, sending it around until she quits and can come forward. All around the round pen, steps, ugh, leap, jump, hairpin back bowed. Going past me, she looks like a school of porpoises cutting through the water, up down, up down. Get, Riata, Get! I am right there with her, and she comes through and settles. 

Still with me

Makes the change. She is quiet, her eye is right and when I touch her, there is no electric shock flinch through her body, no leaving the country in double bounds.

Easy Riata

So, I pull the wood, congratulating both of us on a good night’s work. Except, no. I don’t. I think, just one more thing. Plenty of daylight, and my hubby is out of town for the weekend so I can stay out late and hang with my horse as looonnng as I want. I ended up staying much longer.

Flipping the end of the lead rope up over a saddle is standard op procedure on starting a colt for me. If they can’t handle the rope coming up and across, seeing it come down out of the other eye, and feeling it touch the body over there, I doubt my leg is going to be much better for them when I go to mount up.  She is fine for awhile so I increase the noise and movement some. This worries her, but I cannot have a “hi bob” horse. A horse that you keep your arms tightly to your body because if you reach up and wave at Bob, they are going to buck your ass off. So far, that is exactly what I have.

Something in that process spooks her and she is off again, this time not just bucking, but leaping in the air, full blown panic and fighting to get away. I can’t get to the hind and get away she does.

Flight Riata

Then, it is hours of me trying everything I know to get this horse to let me catch, hell, put a HAND on her again. I run her. I turn her. I walk her down, speaking gently, not speaking at all. I drop my shoulder when I catch her eye and turn away, inviting her to come in with me. I even go back to the bucket of grain. She is having none of any of it. I can get close enough to touch her, occasionally, but when I do, she leaps in the air and blows out, bucking. To her credit, she does not kick my head off or my guts out when she does this, and she could have, multiple times. There was no safe place to be, except maybe somewhere else, and that crossed my mind. My place, she would have spent the night out there, and I would have checked her emotional temp in the morning. Not my place, and brand new saddle up there I’d just as soon not find hanging from her belly in pieces, that was not going to be an option.

She is steaming, fog rolling off of her, backlit by the barn lights, only a silhouette for me now. I want her willing cooperation. I want her to say, Okay, Terri, I am coming with you and being with you is better than being out here, running my lungs out. I can see that when she is running from me, her adrenalin is up and it’s impossible for her to stay. Turn, face up, nostrils blowing like bellows, sweat slick shiny and running down her legs, eyes white ringed and terrified. I don’t’ like it.

When she leaves, I don’t chase her this time. I don’t help her go. It’s not helping either of us, I don’t think, though I am fat and burning some calories in this endeavor, for sure. I get in front of her motion and she is chasing me now. The shoulder drop works this time and she comes in closer. I stay in front of her. Ri, you want me to leave you alone and not chase you, then you better get in line and chase me.

She follows closely, but I can’t touch her, still. We do this for a long time. She needs cooling out anyway, and I need to think. It’s cold, it’s dark, and I have to work in the morning.  I really cannot stay out there til the sun comes up so we need a resolution.

Claustrophobic, which is where the cinchiness comes from, or causes, I dunno,chicken n egg at this point. I get that when I am close enough to touch her, she feels trapped and has to blow. I go get my stick, maybe a little distance will do us good. Takes awhle before I can touch her with that, and I pick up the loop of the halter rope that is ran back to the saddle horn. Good thing I didn’t pull the halter as I usually do, or we’d probably still be there.

Takes a few tries for that too, and finally I get the rope off the saddle horn and it’s in my hand.  She is just as tense, just as goosey, and I turn and walk away from her, letting her fall in behind as we have been doing. I turn, putting tension on the rope and she knows I have her. She’s not happy, but doesn’t blow.

It takes again, way more time than I would have thought, to be able to touch her without flinches and puffs of alarmed air. I can finally unsaddle and now her head is down, again. She will touch me and there is life in her eyes.

I don’t know if cinching her actually causes her pain or if she just thinks it does. Whatever the case, it’s bad news bears, and she has got to get over it. We will see what today brings.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Natural Horsemanship, really?

Here lately I have been following a blog that I really like, The Mugwump Chronicles. If you haven’t read this gal, I highly recommend it. First thing I am going to say is I like what I have read of not only her writing skills but her considerable horsemanship skills as well. We part company on the “Natural Horsemanship” thing. Sort of.

Once upon a time, I loved hearing that someone was studying Clinton, Parelli, Mr Hunt, and a bunch’a others in search of  bettering their relationships and their abilities with their horses.  I have become a little more jaded as the years have gone by as I discover there are many different ways to interpret what those guys teach and some of those interpretations leave me scratching my head, while others make me completely understand why that phrase has such a bad reputation in so many good horsemen’s circles.

There have been two schools of horse training really probably since man first decided to try taming one instead of eating it. One is the try to get to the mind, and then the body, the other is get on, hang on and go. They both have their place. 

Done correctly, the “cowboy” thing turns out a quiet responsive horse who has a job to do and suits up to get it done. Incorrectly, you have a jumpy, goosey broncy beast that the average nowaday Joe Public absolutely cannot ride and get along with.

Done correctly, the “get to the body through the mind” or Natural Horsemanship as the phrase has been coined, turns out a quiet, responsive horse who has a job to do and suits up to get it done. Incorrectly, you have your 1000 lbs of spoiled pushy brat, probably 10 years old or better and never had a rider and at this rate, never will.

I was one of those kids that “grew up with my horses.” I had a young pony as a really little kid, and was given a very green broke two year old as a preteen. Both of those critters taught me I have no talent or taste for riding broncs. That kind of let out the cowboy way for me.


I have watched countless people working horses and have a pretty good idea of what I like and am constantly seeking to learn the very best ways to get it accomplished. The guys on the “thinking” side have me at hello.

Peter Campbell Clinic 2011

I am working Riata in our new round pen today. Everything I do with her is oriented to me getting on her back and riding her. I have no interest in “pony tricks” but some of the things I do might look like those to someone who didn’t know what my purpose is, behind the maneuver.

Pony tricks

I do have her put her nose on a couple of things. The intent is to improve her forward motion, getting her looking to me for direction and willing to take it. The by product is when I go to load her in a trailer, I point and send. That’s all there will be to it.

New Round Pen

Working her in circles, (I don’t like the term lunging, makes me think of horses running mindlessly in circles doing nothing more than building their wind) I want to see her arced correctly, reaching with the inside front to the line of the circle she in on, inside hind reaching to the outside fore. If I were up above her, her poll, neck and spine would be a gentle C shape. She can’t move like this unless she is balanced. To balance, she has to be relaxed and release tension.  This took us awhile, she is tight.

I pick up her feet before I saddle her. Not a pony trick, you might say, doesn’t everyone clean feet before they ride? Well, I don’t, and that’s not what this is for. She snaps her foot up and tucks it under her body, leaning heavily toward me. Not ON me, I would never tolerate that but this won’t do, either. I work the foot and leg until she will stand on it with her full weight. When I pick it up, I want her to shift softly over, and lift lightly into my hand. I am okay with her picking it up and handing it to me, just not snapping it up to her belly and hiding from me!

The back feet are tougher. We do the deal with the long rope. She's tough about this and the skin missing from the inside of my left pinky will tell you I don’t have Buck’s finesse of feel and timing, just yet! Too much pressure from my end makes it harder for her to come through on hers. Just the way it was.  We do get to where I can put the foot forward or back, and she leaves it resting on her toe when I ask her too. I pick the foot up and remove the rope. The leg is stiff and trembles with tension. I work it up and down, she will pop it into the ground. I pick it up again, keeping my body well forward in case she can’t handle the ask and fires at me. She never does but if you push a horse past what they can take, you will get what you get. I was close but needed to get through this. Finally, the leg relaxes.

I don’t know about you but I am not climbing up on a horse whose body is so stiff and full of tension you can’t pick up a foot. Just not gonna.

Now we saddle. She’s already hot and wet and so am I, but this is where we are. She still gooses as I approach her from the right side to let down the cinches. I am thinking, Riata, don’t you knock that new saddle into the dirt, you will still make a nice couch cover!

I do up her cinches, knowing she is still  pretty tight. I move her off into a small circle. Psst, I hiss at her, she jumps in the air. I turn her, and she wheels over her hindquarters and leaps forward, thinking maybe to get away. I turn her back, never giving her the opportunity to get that hind toward me and the head away. CanNOT hold on to that, and we are done with the escaping thing.

She jumps around, wild eyes staring at me, I just keep moving her.  She has to learn that this pressure is not killing her and that all her antics are just costing her energy.

That gets smooth but the tension is still there,bubbling under the surface. NO place to quit unless I want it confirmed for her that she is correct in her fears. More groundwork. Getting the feet right, working the goose out . . . the cinchiness that causes her to grunt and jump when I touch her elbow with the off stirrup . . .

I keep her moving around me, waiting for the walk to slow, the neck to level out, the eye to soften. We get there, maybe because we are both getting too tired and hot to care much.

When I ask her to come thru the gate, I send her. Again, practice for trailer loading, and help for the claustrophobia. We are at it, yielding the hip over as she comes through, bringing the shoulder back around, until she comes through, quiet and easy.

We sidepass up and down the corral panels. I couldn’t care less if she ever “looks cool” doing this. What I care about is that moving laterally causes a horse’s ribcage to expand and contract. She feels that cinch take hold and release, and it doesn’t kill her either, though a couple of times, she thinks it might. I do this on colts for that reason, it also works on the spoiled brats, teaching them to move their quarters respectfully out of my way, and helps every single one of them get their feet and balance right.

By no means, am I saying these are the only ways to get this done. I don’t do it all the time, even. When I have a particular issue, these are some of the methods I reach for to find a solution and help the horse get to a place where they can handle a rider. The by product, again to most of this stuff, it gets them soft on the halter rope, teaches them to follow a feel, move away and into pressure, depending on what they are being asked to do. That all translates to a horse that has an easier time being ridden, knowing those things than one that doesn’t.

fun collage

I will set up barrels, laying them on their sides. I am NOT big on jumping colts over barrels. I think it’s hard on them. I did that a few times and didn’t like how I felt about it so I stopped. I do get that when a horse jumps, again, it feels the cinch and saddle in a whole new way and if they are going to be prone to bucking, you might see it there. I usually know, without having to do this . . .

What I DO like is to put them a few inches apart and send a horse through there. Most of them have concern or a downright issue about that at first. They learn to think their way through rather than plunging through an obstacle.

Preparing to ride

Third ride

I cross them over tarps. I never stake down the tarp, I don’t care if it comes up and snags on a hoof (no shoes here, please, that’s a whole ‘nuther rodeo) or leg,  and my colts almost never booger when out in the world for the first time and maybe they run into some clingy vines or branches. Stuff grabbing their legs is old news and I like it like that.


So, anyway, there are more groundwork techniques that I like, and am running out of blog room (and reader interest, prolly) so won’t go into here. I play another type of barrel game, that really seems to help the anxious ones (I need my barrels now for Ri) and the by product again, softness on the halter rope, feet attached to the reins.

Working out the feel

Bottom line, every single piece I do from the ground has to do with some kind of aspect of riding. I get that the term “Natural Horsemanship” is really a misnomer. What is natural to the horse is what they are doing, right now, that I am miles away. They are eating, hanging out, swishing flies and pooping when they feel the need. What we do is far from natural to them, my reasoning for hanging on to the term is that I try my best to communicate with my horses in ways that make sense to THEM, make it as easy as possible for them to see what it is  I want from them. The great gift we humans get is that for some reason unknown to us, it is the nature of the horse to try to get along.  The only natural part about it, really. 

Thundering in