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


Michelle Julian said...


Anonymous said...

Very good stuff - I have an ultrasensitive gelding and got sideways with him last winter by getting too big with him. I've got him at my trainer's now, and she's been working with him and with me and I'm finally beginning to learn how to stay soft, and how to offer softness even when he's worried and braced - he always braces when he's worried. We're getting there, but you're so right that the change has to start with us.

Anonymous said...

God... you write good stuff. I actually read books now - well have them read to me on my iPod!! hehehe - you are better than any author I have ever read! I love horses, from afar, never had the money, time... passion, but I felt like I was in the ring with Ri... hell I felt like you were describing our family.... Do less... Pushing through a bad situation to make it better never works... these are life lessons... I firmly believe every creature was put here for a reason, and the story of you and Ri is God given proof! You shall make it through this with the passion and preservation that is you!! Don't wait too long for part 2... I'm waiting with bated breath!! I so would love to see you name on the back of a novel!! Hugs from OH!

Good Hands said...

You are making me cry, sis. Wish you were close enough to hug. These horsemanship lessons ARE life changing. I wish I had this stuff when I was raising the kids.

Part two coming in the morning. There are three more days of this . . .

Good Hands said...

You are making me cry, sis. Wish you were close enough to hug. These horsemanship lessons ARE life changing. I wish I had this stuff when I was raising the kids.

Part two coming in the morning. There are three more days of this . . .