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.

One Right Way to Work A Horse, Day Two

You know, there is not much on earth more hard headed than a horsewoman who thinks she knows something. Add a little success to that experience and you REALLY have some layers to work through.

Before you think, well, who is SHE to talk, heck I will offer up my thick skull right alongside anyone’s. I just happened to be at the enviable position of dangling in despair at the end of my rope at this particular clinic. If what I knew was so hot, I would not have to be here in the first place. I might WANT to be, but I wouldn’t have to be, and I had to be there to save my horse. And, maybe myself.

What about the guys, you might ask? Well, I have hung on the fences at a lot of good clinics, and now ridden a couple and I have yet to see a man get as close minded and defensive as some of the gals. Maybe they do, on this inside, I don’t know, I can’t see that but not out front, arguing and then running off in tears or venomous anger to surface later in other places . . . haven’t seen a guy do that yet, but a certain amount of women.

Peter says that sometimes in order to drive a nail through steel, you have to heat the steel up a little in the process, get it a little softer and able to accept something different than itself. He’s heated me up a couple of times, that is for sure but mostly last Fall. I got called out, here and there, over the weekend for doing whatever goofball thing I should not be, and other than to be a little embarrassed as some of them were pretty horsey 101 and I feel I should have known better, my response was a big smile and a “thank you, Peter!”

I could recognize what an honor it is to have that man pay you some attention, to really care if you progress or not. The money is paid, it could be paint by numbers, he could crawl into his comfy living quarters (pretty sure it’s air conditioned) and not spend a dime more time with us than he absolutely has to. That is not Peter’s way, and I could not be more grateful. It’s why I will spend my hard earned dollars with him, why I will happily (well most of the time) swallow my pride and what I think I know and try to be open to making the kinds of changes in the horses I touch the way he makes changes in every single one that he does.

Peter has dinner with us every night, hangs out in the camp chairs and we have friendship. He makes it clear what happens in the clinic is horsemanship, but what we have after hours is friendship. He’s not kidding, I test him out a couple times here and there, little smart ass remarks designed to get a rise. He just grins and gives back as good as he gets. It’s one heck of a good time and I am thoroughly grateful to be in my chair and present.

Day two arrives. I get dressed, no knot in my stomach today. For one thing, I am pretty sure I am off the hook, we had agreed Riata could benefit from another untroubled ride by Steven. I was none too sure I could provide anything like that sweet, smooth feel that he offered her and she had accepted it with gratitude. I wanted more of that for my lovely grulla mare and I wanted to watch more, see how I can get there myself, as I doubt I will be taking Steven or Peter home with us, though we could sure use hands like them up here, full time!

I watched her all afternoon, Day One.  I could see her stall from the auditor’s chairs. Rather than slink back into the corner of the stall I had found her in, she was at the window, head up, eyes brightly but not fearfully watching the goings on. When the cattle came in, she really got interested. There was no sign of the sullen horse that had been breaking my heart just by the very sight of her. The changes were taking place.


I brush her up, tears in my eyes at her being willing to stand by me, no halter, just accepting a touch she has shuddered (and bolted) away from for the past several months. Her head comes up, still wary when I approach her ears. I shake my head. You would think I would have grabbed those things and hung on for the ride, and that has never ever even remotely taken place. I check my emotional response and go back to calmly rubbing on her, getting her ready.

“You don’t train horses” Peter says to us. “You get them ready. I would not know the first thing about training a horse. You want to mess up your horse? Send them to a trainer. You want to really make a mess of things? Send them to a PROFESSIONAL!” A lot of us wince, we are figuring out already that we are the problem, some of us are getting that glimmer anyway. The terrorists who accost our horses with the feel of a rattlesnake . . .

So, I am trying to get her ready.  Steven stops by, how’s she look today? I nod. It’s pretty good. I predict a little humpiness at first saddle, and then a smooth ride. We don’t even get the humpiness.

Let me say that a different person throwing that saddle, maybe me maybe not, might not have got that same response. Riata still shows some tension here and there. Steven rubs on her, and I watch her head sink to his knee, his hand casually resting on her neck behind those now not twitchy ears. I think hard about what I am seeing. There are some decisions to be made and I am getting myself ready as well.



Get the hindquarters, Peter says.

On the way to the clinic, Colleen, Karen and I are enthusiastically discussing what we had seen the day before, and again, I am realizing what a gift it is to have a friend that has ridden with Peter for eleven years. She has been using stuff I am just starting to become aware of, for a long time. It shows in how much smoother her colts have become, the successes she has had, and they are darned well deserved.

We are talking about some maneuvers Peter had people do in the afternoon class, Horsemanship 1. There were quite a few folks there that had never ridden with Peter before and for whatever reason, they had elected for the more advanced class than Foundation, in the morning. He had heated them up pretty good. I am thinking, yep, can’t fill a cup that is already full, can’t introduce ideas into brains that already have more internal chatter than they can hear over.

“You must get to the feet, without force, without fear.” “Reins attached to the feet!”I am frowning with concentration, yes, I know this in some ways but how to do it? Maybe I don’t know that, after all. I sure don’t know it like this. Without force, without fear. I thought I did, but Riata told me different, Royal has and maybe every horse I have ever rode has tried but I was busy telling, not listening.

“Don’t tell me about your horse” Peter says to me that first day when I try to explain some who knows what. “Your horse already told me the truth. What you are telling me now is only your opinion!” Well, that’s right enough. I shut up and try to stay that way.

“You try not to upset your  horse. He might get upset, but you don’t try to upset him. You try not to scare him. Easy!” He flashes a look to someone who’s horse is getting it’s head in the air, a sure indication that it’s feet are stuck and that likely, the person is doing too much.

Steven and I look at each other at one point, lightbulbs flashing over our heads. Outside hind foot. Step that thing over, get it out of the way and the rest of the feet can fall into place and do their job. Made all the difference in the world.  Wow!

Peter uses working cattle to help people learn to handle hindquarters and front end. This is Roxanne Fountain Hill and her wonderful little High Brow Cat bred filly, who shows her breeding in every inch of her.

Using the steer to learn to step the hind over and bring the front end around

Star Zizza, working on getting the hind to step over

Get the hind

In the truck, we talk about the same thing, that outside hind foot and how tremendously important it is. Who the heck knew that?? Well, Tom Dorrance did, and he taught Peter and now Peter is doing his level best to try to teach us, even though we argue, talk back, try to explain why what we do is plenty good in some circles. Sheesh.

I watch because that is what I am doing, watching, so I might as well be good at it, and horses are starting to make changes already, they are trying to come through. Toplines are leveling out, as Peter keeps saying, over and over, “get your hands down!” “Don’t pull!” “You don’t make a turn with your horse, you get them ready and then the horse makes the turn.” Or whatever it is you are doing. Get the horse ready, shape them up, and then THEY do the job.

A lot of us don’t know how to shape a horse. Peter helps with the flag.

Peter has his flag

Hindquarters, front end, hindquarters, front end. From my position in the cat bird’s seat of unexpected open mindedness, I can see how free the horse can move when the hind does what it is supposed to be (don’t be asking me a bunch of questions about how to do it, I can’t tell you. For one thing, the horse is not here, so other than reporting what I have already seen, I can’t tell you a thing about it.)

Working with Cyndi Ragland and her great looking grulla gelding, La Doux.

Working with the flag

Backing up is like pushing on a chain. Push too hard, your chain gets crooked. If the feet can’t move, the chain gets crooked. I think of Royal who evades pressure like a noodle. OH! I am doing too much there, too! Go figure. Good thing I don’t have to pay an electric bill for all those light bulbs flashing around my head but boy, doesn’t a person wish they would have figured this out, a long time ago? Better late than never, sunshine.

Steve is on Riata, and while I am still not seeing the big change, the huge letting down of a tense little mare, I am seeing one that is willing, trying, cruising around on a mostly loose rein. She argues a little when he asks for a soft feel, there is tightness in there but it’s not exploding in rebellion. The ride looks fine they get along and I am pretty sure I know what I have to do. More about that later.

Outside hind foot.

I can’t even begin to tell you how important that piece is.

But I will, tomorrow. Or the next day.

Monday, May 7, 2012

One Right Way to Work a Horse

“You have to start where the horse is.”  Peter Campbell


Peter, photo by Debbie Johnson

Soft breath brushes against my arm. My horse is reaching for me. Reaching to me. She’s been voting with her feet to get the hell out of Dodge for months, at any cost, and now she’s reaching for me.

I shift the rope in my hand (both hands, yep, won’t make that mistake again! maybe, you know I have a certain amount of sloppy habits I am just becoming aware of. . .) she shifts her weight back, I am almost releasing, the thought is in my mind but it doesn’t get to my hand until her foot leaves the ground. Still, pretty sweet though. . .

Peter rides by. “When do you think you release to a horse when you have given them a cue?” He asks the group, his hat brim tips down, and there’s a twinkling blue eyed wink. “Is it when the horse does what you ask? Is that when?”

“N0! You release when the horse is THINKING ABOUT doing what you asked. If you wait, you are too late! You might think your timing is good and you are smooth, but try to get it when your horse is THINKING about it, instead of waiting.” 

There is more and he explains how releasing at the wrong moment tells the horse something other than what we mean and we often end up putting brace into the horse instead of our goal of softness.

Nope, this is not brand new information, not to me and probably not to you. I heard it again, though, right when I needed to. I hear him. DON’T SETTLE. Do the best you can! I told more than one person this weekend that the good is the enemy of the best, and it is as true for me as anyone on this planet.

Next time she sidled up, I breathed life into my fingers and waited. Nothing. I focused a little harder, closed my fingers on the line, a little (do less). Sure enough, she shifts her weight back. I exhale, open my fingers, sure she will suck forward again. Her feet move back, just exactly the few inches I had in mind.

If they hadn’t, what then? Nothing. Just do it again.

This is day four and I am ahead of my story.

Karen Johnson, who some of you know, was riding with Colleen and I to be our clinic photog as well as further her own horsemanship journey, and one of many unexpected blessings from the trip,  we all found we have a lot of things in common, some wonderful, some just damn funny and the bonds of new friendship and old were strengthened.

Getting Riata to the clinic was the first challenge. Filly was relatively easy to catch, since she’d been carrying that drag rope from her halter for a week and half. Rubbed a little hair off her face but that was the least of my worries.

I hand Colleen the lead as we approach the trailer. I already know I am stiff, jerky and out of sorts with this horse and the likelihood is stronger that I will upset her rather than load her. Upsetting her is what I have become extremely accomplished at, and really, not even knowing how or why. She loads up without hesitation. Okay then, off we go.

Upon arrival, she says no, I am in this trailer and I am staying here. We wait on her a bit, try some things, fall out of patience and get rough with her.  I had thoughts in my head of getting her to at least try, and then I would stop knocking on her but that really wasn’t what was taking place.

Donnie Chalufas, whose wonderful facility is where the clinic is being hosted (yes, I did threaten to move in, stall #8 to be exact) has graciously stepped in to help, is pretty disgusted, and says, let’s just open the center divide and let her turn around, right?

I am thinking she should back out, after all, not the first time she’s been asked . . . blah blah blah

We get the center open, she whirls and blasts out of there. I luckily snag the rope as she flies by and she luckily agrees to stop, hang out and not drag me across the barn yard.

Off to a great start but this is why we are here.

I am under tremendous pressure at home from many different directions to dump this mare.  She’s dangerous. She’s unpredictable. She has a screw loose. She will never be reliable . . .

One voice of reason says “Terri, you might be able to do it, I don’t know, but a horse like this needs TIME. Where are you going to find THAT? And, if you get hurt, who does your job for you, who rides your good horse, who lives your life, if you are not here to do it”

I keep saying, she WASN’T a nutball. AT ALL. She was great! Something happened with us, made a bad change and we have been chasing it down hill ever since.

I have been around horses all my life, rode my first pony for money when I was ten years old. Been studying every piece of horsemanship philosophy I could get my hands on since I was old enough to read. 

I have a bag of tricks that is wide and deep and there have not been a lot of horses I could not figure out and get somewhere with. There have been some, though, and they stand out, thorns in my pride and also . . . something deeper. I failed them. Cost at least one of them his life. I am not going to fail Riata. One way or another.

That bag of tricks is exhausted and empty, except for the really hard core stuff, and God willing, I will never go to those extremes with a horse, ever again, in my life. What I have been doing is plenty extreme enough. Just ask Riata.

Do Less, Peter says, as he is talking to us. When you are getting into trouble with your horse, you have probably been doing too much, and you need to do less.

I nod. This makes sense. I bet I can do this.

Don’t go through something bad to try to get to something good. It will never happen. It will never work out.

I frown. I heard this last fall, and I really liked it. Time and time again, though, I find myself dead in the middle of stuff that is really bad and I don’t know any other way but through, and he’s right, it never works out. Not really, though some horses have taken pity on me, Riata does not.  I don’t know how to get out of the bad places, once I am there. Turns out, I don’t know how to do less either but I don’t know that, yet.

Just stop, he says. Stop and start again. I have a lot of “yeah buts” in my head but rather wisely and out of character, keep my mouth shut. I learned that last Fall, too.

He starts with Riata. I have told him she goes to bucking and gets away from me. He works her from his horse, and she tries to get away, and then, she just tries. He has me put her on the wall and saddle.

Get a coffee, he says. You are done for awhile.

She stays on the wall, gets tight, he moves her from his horse with the flag. She does not disappoint. Bucks, jumps around, does what she does.  Then she seems to get quiet.

The handsome young cowboy sitting beside me nudges me. Your horse is making a good change.

Don’t be fooled for a minute, says me. I have seen this before. Wait til you take her off the wall. (not thinking HE is going to be the one that does it, but turns out, he is).

“Steven? Do you have your saddle here?” He doesn’t but it’s close.

They go to take Ri out of the arena to switch tack, and sure enough, she leaps in the air, thinking to escape.  Cowboy is surprised, she doesn’t get away though, he’s a good hand and gets around in front of the action, snapping her around so that her feet land in the right places as she comes down.

Riata says, well heck, I guess I will just go with you then, looks like you are not going to get upset and want to eat me, so all right, Steven, here I am, and off they go.

Peter talks about how it is not the horse, but the human that has to make the change.  The softness has to come from inside your heart and reach to the horse, and then come back to you from the horse, how most people never get to that last part.

Horsemanship is DIRECTION not CORRECTION. You don’t make the wrong thing impossible but you make it difficult and then you give it DIRECTION so it can do the right thing.

I keep hearing, do less, do less, do less, and I am resolved to do just that, when it’s my turn.

Day one goes pretty good for the rest of the clinic. One cute little gal gets bucked off her blue roan filly, not a thing that usually happens at Peter’s clinics. She’s a heck of a good hand but her horse got excited and got away, a little. She gets back up, Peter helps her, and you would not believe what she and that horse looked like, either, on Day Four . . . but again, that’s getting ahead of the story . . .

Colleen is there with the black colt, who I notice she has christened Long Rider. Good name for him.  There is an arena full of neat horses and people I have grown to care about in a very short order. I cannot tell their stories, for one thing, I could not do them justice, outside looking in, and for another, it’s just not right.

Colleen Hamer and Long Rider

photo by me

Colleen and Long Rider

Group photo by Debbie Johnson this is actually Day Two photo but I like it and it fit here)

Good Morning, Peter by Debbie Johnson

Let’s just say, Day One, we have a LOT of work to do.

Riata? Oh yeah, cowboy does some nice groundwork, Peter directs, but the guy knows what he is doing and Peter mostly leaves him to it. When he steps in the saddle, I know I am holding my breath. No one has been on her since she started breaking in half and I had no idea what would take place . . . She rode off. Not untroubled, but not kicking holes in the sky, either.

Steve and Riata, Day One, photo by Colleen Hamer

Steve and Riata, Day One

It’s a beginning. Stay tuned.

Getting a well deserved bath, Day One by Colleen Hamer