Sunday, March 24, 2013

. . . And Back Again

Student, teacher, and back again, but really . . . always student. Last weekend I had the pleasure of flying down to Georgia to visit my friend, Gretchen Ahrens Equestrian Director at the Calvin Center, my second home away from home.

Taught a couple clinics down there, put my first ACTHA ride under my belt. Met an 11 year old natural born horsewoman, watched people get in and out of the way of their learning as I am finding out it is our nature to do. Notes to self to work harder to stay out of my own way in like circumstances.

As I do in front of an exciting experience, I woke at 3 a.m. the morning before I traveled. Along with “remember your toothbrush and the brown boots that will look better with the brown breeches” and other such helpful middle of the night hints, an exercise came to me. I wanted people to understand why it matters to get to the feet.

During our morning talky-d00, I asked them to help me with something. “Place all your weight on your left foot,” I requested. “Hold your right foot up. If you have to balance the toe on the ground that’s okay, get it as weightless as you can.” I let them figure that out for a moment and then “Now. Please take your LEFT foot and stick it out in front of you as far as you can.”

Go ahead and try that, you at home, if you will. Let me know how it works out for you. Me and my students, we stood there, foot heavily weighted and unable to leave the ground. No one even tried to hop through it. (possible light bulb moment for you, here)

“Now, stand with both feet equally balanced, shift most of your weight to your right foot. Please now, place the left one out in front of you.” Easily managed, right? Was for us, too.

Then I related that task to riding my horse down the way, wanting a simple left turn. If I ask while the weight is coming down on the left front, going to be difficult for my horse to make that very basic maneuver. Horse gets off balance, they don’t like that. Resistance comes, brace happens, and next thing you know, my horse in my mind is a stubborn unathletic son of a gun who can’t get out of his own way, let alone mine. Fast forward to the flying lead changes everyone wants to work on . . . maybe later, huh?

Ask while the weight BEGINS to come off that foot, yes, you have to be aware of the footfalls and there is timing involved. Position for the transition. We’ve heard that before, right?

Yesterday I am attending Kip Fladland’s last clinic in the series of three one day events he did for us this winter. Kip rode for several years with Buck and is a very sweet hand with a horse. Kip and Peter both know exactly how to pick their battles. Kip would make a point, as I have seen Peter do, wait to see if the rider was going to pick up on it, move on to something else. Sometimes the student did, sometimes they did not. Things worked out both ways, some a little smoother than others.

I am sitting on Champ, 12 year old Appaloosa gelding, another rescue horse in the Nebraska Humane Society program. He’s had a handful of rides and I’ve been on him a couple times. When it didn’t look like there would be transportation for Royal, he seemed a good choice as replacement.

Funny how we think our horses are herd bound and barn sour, and rarely take into account those aspects of our own nature. We hang tight with the familiar.

Working with different horses will improve my horsemanship and was once  just a part of my life. Now, I have a comfort zone, odd one that it may be. I know my skitzy loopnut spotted Arabian. I know when the heart attack spooks take place, he is likely to be over and done with it before I even have time to react and when he leaves, somehow he always manages to take me with him. I was not sure Champ would be so generous.

I also know when upset, running through the outside shoulder was a high possibility. . . 

The groundwork went well, I saw that shoulder bleeding out, and what happens on the ground happens in the saddle, as a rule. Finding the right mix of bump on the halter (just enough to bring that outside front foot back on the circle, not so much to throw his hip away and end up, him looking me head on) and drive to keep the forward going, that got better.

Something else improved, too. Watching Kip and his mare, it came home to me how he, Peter, Buck, they never hurry unless they HAVE to and only as LONG as they have to. Once I start to hurry I tend to stay in hurry. My horse responds with more energy, which turns into rush, and it all gets pretty messy.  I can’t keep up with the transitions, my timing evaporates and feet. . .  they are lost and everywhere.

You might have figured this out, first time you watched those guys on You Tube. It happens to be my particular spot in the journey, this particular moment. I got particular. Precise. Asked Champ to come around in front of me. Changed hands at his ribcage. As he passed by, leading hand asks the hind to move over, brought my supporting hand up to encourage the outside eye to come across, bringing the shoulder through while I continue to walk forward in a straight line. As he comes around in front of me, I change hands at the rib cage.

Yes, there is a lot to it. Doing it that way, was plenty of time. It was exactly the same way I did this before. What changed was the timing, then the breathing. Everybody stayed calm.

Stepping into the saddle, my happiness went poof in a farty wind. I suddenly remember I have a VERY green horse that has never been in this kind of company before. We had 21 other horses in the arena with us (it’s huge, plenty of room). I was none too sure that a solid half of them might not come undone at any moment, and I became certain I was going to die.

I was stiff, tense in the saddle, that nasty familiar bitter taste of metal in my mouth. Trust me, I get as tired of experiencing this as you probably do, reading it.

I don’t have Colleen in the stands to hiss “Relax, Terri” but I do have her in my head. “When they get tight, you gotta turn loose of the head.” I know she’s right. I breathe deep, rolling my shoulders, and start feeding my horse some slack. I have no idea if he bolts and I try to bend his head to get to the hip that will happen or we will crash through the shoulder willy nilly into some unsuspecting rider.

Someone trots by me and Champ tucks his tail. That’s it, no mad dash not even a real grab. My stomach lurches anyway. Other people are trotting by me and I am scowling,  sending out  mental “stay the hell away from me” force fields backed up by a decimator ray.

During Kip’s talky-doo, in the question part, I make mention my horse has only had a few rides and PLEASE while I don’t expect people to ride my ride (and I don’t) try not to get me killed.

No one would mean to . . .

The riding went SUPER. There is no other word for it. As always, when I feel myself reaching for a foot and getting it, I relax. It took awhile for us to trust each other and come together but when we did, it was a thing of beauty inside my soul.

During the groundwork, Champ got a good hard look at the bucking chutes, the doorways that open into the pens and alley behind the arena. He saw the horses, the cattle and understood there were things back there that might move and make a sudden sound.

He did not spook even once at any of those things. We got a mini stutter spook when someone else’s horse on our outside did and jumped towards us. A half turn, my hand on the rein, on the way to a one rein stop, his hip came under him, he slowed, relaxed and we went on without having to stop our feet at all. How freaking sweet is that?

Quarter turn of the hip, end up facing the rail. Backing a quarter turn, set to go the other way. Sometimes we brought the shoulder through after rocking the weight off the front end. Peter would say “how the heck are you going to get forward if you don’t rock them back? How are you going to get backwards if you don’t rock them forward?”

Feet attached to the reins. So many more layers to riding than sitting up there, dragging them around by their mouths, thumping with a booted heel or spur for emphasis. Can be so quiet, so smooth, so subtle. Might have to firm up with a cue but so many places to go, first if you can only be aware.

A horse on his 16th ride, and another, earlier on his third, can float around so sweet you can’t pick him out of the horses with a hundred normal people hours on them. Rider has to get out of the way. First the mind, the ego and then the body. Probably cannot happen overnight unless you are an 11 year old wunderkind with an unbroke pony that you don’t know should not work out.

Got the 360. Take hindquarter full half turn to the right, lead shoulder full half turn to the left, face same direction you started. Walk on.

None of this is about me. That is such an important note for me to make here. What I have done is improve as a student and I have Peter Campbell to thank and none other. After that, and maybe before, Colleen.

Without those two, the pretty things that happen for me in my clinics and other people’s that I might ride?  They would not be taking place because the chatter of what I think I know was so very loud I could rarely hear above the din. Thanks guys.

Photos coming later, I hope!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sharpening, Softening

Juggling turns out to be a very important skill in horsemanship. Might be time, priorities of family, work, other interests for those who have other interests. Might be not dropping gear into eight inches of mud and water.

A light rain mists around us as I bring Royal up to my new to me Ford truck (oh yeah!). The four foot drift of snow and detritus melted away from the front of the hitching rail nearby now replaced by a vat of noxious looking water and ice.

I open both doors on the passenger side (picture my wide grin of delight at a truck with that many doors) and determine that saddling is going to have to take place right here. I drape the halter rope over my arm, asking Royal to shift his hip and make room for where I want to be. He complies nicely.  Stands square. Waits.

Good thing there was no one nearby for photo opping. I said juggling is a useful skill. I did not say I have mastered it, in any of the above ways though I am better than I used to be at all of them.

Job is done, mud in places I would rather there not be, but it is what it is.

Minimal prep and Royal stands to be mounted. I once would have thought our issue was over. I understand now that while my horse is learning to wait, which is improving EVERYTHING for us, the trick is in the getting ready and the not taking for granted. That is a big sentence right there. Might want to read it again.

I survey the yard. Giant towering ruts etch it from the tractors, moving hay, spreading manure,  doing the farm jobs. Does not bode well for footing up top. Ever hopeful, we steer through the muck up the road past the big shed. Royal spooks there regularly. I am not completely sure what demon abides here but it happens. One of these days I will be ready and help him not do that.

He doesn’t fall down and I think maybe we can ride the trails after all. 20 feet later of deep mud that both sucks and slides out from under us, this is a no go. We turn and head for the outdoor arena.

I have indoor arena privileges but it’s been a wearing week at work and I am done with walls.  There are also two brand new baby racehorses in the barn part and it would be the worst if the moms got excited at the sound and smell of a different horse and hurt a baby in the process. Happened to us last year, someone spooked one of the dams, she stepped on her sleeping foal.  It lived but it was all bad from there.  Not happening on my watch.

GPS only works outside and if I am riding in the rain, I damn sure want my miles for it. Distance Derby, ya know. Not on the top of the list I am juggling but it’s in there.

First challenge, Royal grabs his butt as we pass the big caterpillar, tarped down and chattering in the breeze. Fear factor on the right, Royal tucks his nose to the left, not wanting to have to view the awful thing.

Last September Peter was readying the group for working cattle. He positioned himself off the rail about 15 feet, flag in hand. We were to ride into the gap, stop, have our horse look at the flag, steady and ride on. Royal couldn’t stand it at first and Peter noted how fear could be turned into respect if handled properly. We got it done then, not perfect but acceptable in the small change, the slight try which was actually enormous on my horse’s part, and went on.

I do that now when we are confronted with terrifying objects. I have long thought it ridiculous that people make their horse put their nose on the scary thing. Such a waste of time when there might be a job to be done and what I really want is for my horse to be calm and keep it’s focus on me. There is a place in training to send a horse to an object, and put it’s nose there but it is about forward, direction and communication.

Royal gives the big Cat both ears and both eyes. He studies it a bit. The wind obliging picks up and the tarp flaps harder, daring my horse to stand his ground. He is brave now and says, bring it you big sucker. I am over you. That’s my boy. We ride on.

Past the stack of round bales (could be absolutely ANYTHING in there. I look them over warily, Royal doesn’t care.) Past the sheds waiting to find a home somewhere, and to the heavy steel gate.

Here is a challenge all of it’s own. I am NOT getting off my horse again. Opening gates requires patience, finesse and the ability to wait. None of the above have been our strong suits.

Oh yes, and moving hips, quarters, sidepassing to the proper spot, all that we can do with our hooves tied behind our backs. It’s the waiting that gets us every time.

And the rattles of the noisy things.

We position and I smile again at how easily I can think my thoughts down my reins to Royal’s feet and we get where we need to be. It’s isn’t always, this,  but it’s in here. I rattle the gate and he doesn’t want to look at it. So, we know what to do first. Just a tip of the nose, I can see his right eye, he sees the gate. I feel him settle. He is ready for the next step.

This is the first ten minutes of our ride.

I want to tell you about the passenger riding, the trust it required for me to throw deep slack into my reins and ask my horse to become emotionally responsible for himself.  I want to write about picking up a rein, figuring out what angle helped Royal best understand what foot needed to move where, feeling brace melt into form.

We rode circles, not allowing a barn sour drift and then asking for an entirely different one, speeding up the hind while slowing down the front.

Circles where I eye the pattern on the ground and insist we stay on it. No bulging ribs, no pushy dropping shoulder, no flailing hip. Stay on my outside rein, Royal. Encouraging that with inside leg.

There were transitions. Sloooow walk. Reverse. Walk. Softness. Trot-stop from my seat so I am not ambushing your face-reverse. Snappiness. Even got a little slide going on as Royal tucked his butt sweetly under us.

Always asking for the softness. It’s not what you do, it’s how and when and when you stop doing it. Pick up a rein, where is that soft give? Bouncy nose, inside out neck, saw all that. Held my ground and waited. Set it up and let it work.

Back in the days when I sold horses for a living, I thoroughly assessed every single one of them. In that, I looked for a certain solid feeling under me. A broke horse is one that will reliably, consistently respond  to a properly given cue. There are not as many out there as you might think. Royal is not there yet, but I felt that feeling last night and I know we are on our way.

It was heaven on horseback. Rain and all.