Sunday, April 23, 2017

Riding Cunningham

I think my first trip around Cunningham Lake had to be circa 1995. Probably with Alan Sheppard and his then wife, Marilyn. Jimmy Johnson may have been with us, as may have been Walt Werre. It was a long time ago. I have shared those trails with many a dear friend and great horses. My kids, too, when they were riding we mostly rode there.

Today, I pull in the familiar drive and it's already a win. I've got Royal back there in the trailer. All by himself. We have the entire day to sort things out. I've never hauled him anywhere just for us to ride, alone. All by ourselves.

Cunningham Lake is a commitment ride. There's anywhere from 8 to over 10 miles of trails reaching all the way around. If you get started and suddenly realize you are not up for the whole deal there are certain mile markers (you have to have them in your head) and you can turn around, no harm no foul. Then, there's a time when you realize you have passed the point of no return. Further back the way you came then to press on the rest of the way. Might as well sit back, relax and ride your own ride.

The trails are multi use. Back when I fancied myself a horse trainer, I used to say a colt was good to go home if I could get it all the way around without serious incident. That meant confronting dogs, hikers, hidden fisher people that would spring up suddenly from the weeds, roller bladers (not so many of those these days) and the occasional skate board dude, passels of horsey horsey! screaming kids.  

The terrain is nice. It's a gem sitting on the northern edge of the Omaha Metro. You can follow close to the lake for the shortest trip or meander wooded trails that take you further afield. There are hills, some a little challenging for a green or out of condition horse (or rider.)

Unloading Royal, he was trembling as he edged his way determinedly out. I sigh. "Stay with me, buddy," I ask him. "Come on, you can do this."

He pauses, unsure. Do I blow out backwards freeing myself from this steel trap or do I steady up, hang with mom?

The habits of the past few years stayed with us. He hung steady. I stepped him forward a few steps, stopped him, rubbed his neck. He backed out soft and relaxed.

Wind ruffled the nearby lake into tiny whitecaps lapping against the rocks. Royal's eyes widened and I swear a jet of fire blasted from each wide velvet nostril. Oh boy.

My plan was to get us to the lake. Then, to take my time getting him cleaned up, saddled, do whatever groundwork I felt necessary before I stepped aboard. That's the beauty of going somewhere on your own. No people sitting around on their horses, waiting for you to quit dinking around with yours. I can't tell you how many times I've held my breath and climbed on just because I didn't want to inconvenience the ride. 

Swishy tail lashes from side to side. He swings his ass this way and that, trying to take in everything at once. He ignores my presence like he used to do on the daily. I scowl, smack him smartly on the offending ribcage. He barely notices.

"Dammit Royal!" I get him by the halter knot, giraffe head six feet in the air above. I ask him to step back, tuck his chin down and in. Come forward. Catch the foot . . . uh no, come on, pay attention!

It took a long time. Saddling him was like the old days when he was an eternally moving target.

I am thinking, who would ride this horse? Why on earth do I keep him, put up with all this nonsense!

The groundwork begins a disaster. He won't settle, won't circle around me. Gawks madly in all directions because he's never seen people before, apparently. Or vehicles or the lake. I snap the halter rope up under his chin. Back up. Look at me. Both ears, both eyes. This is an old fight and we both know it.

I do some other dumb stuff. Finally, and I mean, eventually, I think Oh. Get the feet. Oh yeah. Who cares what the ribcage is doing as long as I am not wearing it like a hat. 

I pay attention to the outside front foot keeping it on track, nice round circle. That's it. I won't let him cave in the middle, I ignore his antics. That foot. 

Now he's paying attention and softer. Holy cow, is it even the same day?

The time is right to mount. I know it is and my courage fails me. I miss the moment. I lead him up an down the grassy area we've been working in. Do I even really want to ride? Is this a good idea? I can't afford to get hurt.

He's as quiet as he's going to get. As I get him squared up and ready to mount, I see some riders across the way. They'll be at the trailhead in a few minutes . . . do I wait . . . 

It's time to get on. Foot in stirrup, I'm up. He's dancing. He's seen the other horses too and once again it's lightning from under his tail and fire in his eyes. 

I don't have my right stirrup. It's not scary though, not really. His angst is mostly stomp and blow as opposed to winding into real trouble. It could get that way if I let it but I don't. I bend him, wait til he can stop his feet. Stirrup. Tuck my mecate in my belt.

We do short serpentines as the riders get to their trailer. He's so freaked. Omigod, there are other HORSES in the WORLD. The same WORLD we are in. Who would BELIEVE such a thing.

I don't match his drama. I do realize he won't go forward if I don't allow it. It's tricky getting one step between the Christmas candy exercise and we are all over the place. I realize he's pretty straight and we head for the trail.

Somewhere between that active five minutes and the next, my saddle horse shows up. 

I hear Colleen, from a different ride. "What happens if you give him some rein?"

I die I say. She laughed, I don't think you will and I didn't. Big lesson learned that day.

I keep pushing him rein. Thou shalt not clutch is my mantra. You will not grab him by the mouth. Rub his neck. Let him know you are with him, not dropping him off a cliff on his own.

The curled neck stretches out, reaches. The footsteps are quick but it's a happy going somewhere cadence not clipped anxiety. I breathe. This might work out.

We take the first little path off into the woods. We find a jacket on the ground. OMIGOSH WHAT IS THAT??

Nothing you need to concern yourself with, buddy. 


There's a tarp thing. Yeah, who was it that says you will never need to cross a tarp on the trail? That's at least the second one I've encountered out and about. It's early in our ride and I just ask him to walk by calmly.

There's a clearing to the left and something in the grass . . . what the? Oh freaking cool! It's a walk through made of big landscape logs, a leftover trail obstacle. Sweet.

Forward first, no problem. Then, we reverse gears. The angles are sharp and that's trickier. We manage it just fine. I'm glowing My pony has his reins attached to his feet. His brain is attached in there, too. 

We wind through the trees. The tangled vines and old deadfalls are stark, old against the new green of returning life.

I have it in my head we might get to the bridge and turn around and come back. It's over halfway but at the end of the ride you have to cross the highway. I am not fond of that part. Lots of reasons.

We encounter about 90 dogs. They all had people but most were without leashes. That's deeply against park law and I have to hold up my ride while a girl circles around her young Lab who has zero recall. Why . . . ??

I smile. I am representing good neighborly use of the trails. Everyone is friendly. Royal is a great ambassador. He gets admired widely and one young guy asks nicely if he can take Royal's picture. Sure!

We chat for a minute. They are people of the frisbee and let me get on ahead of them as I think flying frisbees are more than we want to encounter on this adventurous day.

We run into a fisherman in the woods. He's coming though the dense trees at an angle to us carrying buckets, poles, nets. He does not look human. Royal doesn't think so either. I call out a cheery hello (please answer back, don't be a wraith of fisherman past). He calls back and Royal and I smile at him. Then we pick a different path.

We pick up a spanking trot. I let him extend. Lengthen buddy, not faster strides. I don't fuss with his face, I just want him to reach out. I remember to post.

Those canter transitions we've been practicing at dressage lessons? Pretty sweet to just sit, put your leg back and in a whisper you have a canter.

During some twisty parts, I abandon dressage and go full on CTR. I get up off his back and we fly through the trees, this way, that! I duck just in time and then not. I am swatted by Mother Nature and I giggle unrepentedly.

We meet so many challenges, it would be a book if I describe them all. Royal, throughout it all is for the most part game, cheerful and willing.

Then, we get to the bridge. Once our nemesis. I think it will probably be no big deal. I am wrong. Steps slow, nostrils flare. I ask him a few times. There's deep holes on either side that I do not like one bit.

I do it in the way that's right for me. I dismount, lead him over it. And back. And forth. A few times. At one point he heaves what seems a disgusted sigh. 

I said, hey! This is how this goes. This is what happens if you refuse a bridge. You get to walk over it about a hundred times until it's non issue.

I think that happened the time before last, he huffs, offended.

Well okay, says me. I mount up, and yep, we cross it back and forth. No sweat, no drama, kicking, spurring whipping any of that bullshit. Just a calm, happy horse who needed a little help.

Now I am thinking the unknown ahead of me is preferable to running back into what we've left behind. The frisbee kids will be in full swing. The dogs. The latest, a big pretty German Shepherd that got her leash off again as soon as I was just a few feet ahead. . . no, we'll take what's ahead.

So much pretty country. I thought I didn't care for that side of the lake. I was wrong again. 

A heavy bodied owl flaps into the woods. I watch her go, Royal doesn't.

We come to the place where you used to have to go up on a road, cross a bridge and come in through a entrance that has a dicey reputation for unsavory goings on.  There's an option now. Just a little stream coursing merrily through the bottom of is.

It will require a little jump but not a mighty leap. Uh, Royal? Do you know the difference? 

I ready myself in case he doesn't. Of course I do, as he sanely jumps just enough to get us over the ditch and clear the mud.

Should I mention now how much I love this horse, that can go from fire breathing dragon to magical Pegasus in the course of a couple hoofbeats?

So many memories. That's the place Sarah jumped their pony out from under her brother who was on back. I didn't find out right away as I was up ahead. Then we had to go back for the little guy who got to ride in front after that.

There's where that same pony dragged Sarah on a different day. He's jumped sideways at something and she was clinging for dear life to his side as he sped off. She lost her grip but her foot stuck in the stirrup. I get queasy just thinking about it. She was so lucky. Shook up, a little bruised. I sold that pony.

We are at the highway and I glare at it. I force myself to breathe normally so I don't upset Royal. 

A friend of mine got killed there back in the mid 90's. She was riding the horse I'd sold her. It was a fluke accident. She'd come off, hung on to the reins so her beloved mare wouldn't get loose on the nearby fast moving road.

The mare took a bad step, crushed her chest. My friend didn't survive.  

Nothing will ever make me okay with that spot. It wasn't anybody's fault but I hate the place anyway. 

We get past it. I point Royal at the highway in a long break between traffic. He trots across, brave and bold.

That's my boy.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Smarter Not Tougher Or Sam Goes To School

Thump! My entire leg, calf down bounces off Sam's ribcage inspiring absolutely zero response from my horse. I am on a 1200 pound Mack truck, stiff as a board with no power steering and manual brakes. It's already been a very long day for us both.

Getting to Kip Fladland's January Winter Clinic had turned out to be harrowing. I recently bought a new truck and a different trailer. Any time there's a new rig, there's tires to consider, lights to check out all that stuff. I don't buy new so it's never a matter of plugging my 7 round trailer plug into my 7 round truck receptor. There's always an adapter involved.

Pulling into the gas station to air up my tires, black smoke rolls out from under the trailer. The adapter hadn't fit right which was fortunate as when it did engage, it caused the brakes to seize and they were HOT.

No horses were aboard and I scowled at the thing. It's Friday night. Horses need to be delivered to the Event Center. My husband is there, and we go back, sans lights. He follows me. We load, take the back roads and make the trip. It's been a long time since I have run outlaw and I have no taste for it anymore. I knew the problem would be easily solved the next day with the correct adapter but it was not an enjoyable ride.

Saturday morning, Sam greets me calmly. Unlike Royal, he has no problem staying in a stall. He'd drank well. One bucket mostly down and had gone through half of the hydration hay bucket. All was well until we entered the hub of activity.

Sam is an honest 16 hands. Walking into the arena I swear he was closer to 19. Eyes wide, head up he was the high horse I'd glimpsed for a few terrifying moments last year on our first trail ride when several riders took off directly in front of us. We'd survived that and I found myself grateful I wasn't in the saddle for this one

I'd really thought this was going to be a fairly laid back experience for both of us. Learning, bonding, a day of helping Sam find the softness I have not taken the time and put in the effort to give him. Fire breathing dragon on the end of my rope said it might be lessons of a different sort.

One day clinics like this usually offer a morning of groundwork with riding in the afternoon Plenty of time to work the bugs out and get you and your horse ready. I had no doubt this would be different. It wasn't like I didn't ride this horse, after all.

The other gentleman I ride with, Peter Campbell, talks about letting the horse learn where the end of the halter rope is, how important it is to be consistent for them. I thought I'd given Sam a pretty good idea of what that was about. As his weight hit the end of the rope time after jolting time I realized no. If it only works at home and falls apart in the world, you don't have what you think you do.

We did circles. Sam's rib cage bulged to the inside and I put my flag to work. The first of many times, I missed Royal and wished I'd brought him instead. Royal can lose his brain in unhappy ways but in general he will operate on that cushion of air, end of the lead or moving off your leg. Did it happen overnight? Heck no. Years. Countless hours. Now I have a very green horse who hasn't the slightest inclination to move his ribcage over and bend just because I am telling him to.

Sam gets irritated with my insistence and jumps around a little. The arena is crowded, there's 20 something of us in there but suddenly I have plenty of room. I remember my days of early Royal and people scattering. Sigh. It won't always be this way.

I do what I have to do to get results. I firm up, insisting he bend and hanging in through the storm until he does, at least a little. Can't get a soft feel if they can't bend. Can't do much of anything without a soft feel.

Sam is wearing his saddle. We usually start with Kip in the raw but lots of people were saddled and I thought Sam would benefit from doing the work that way. One less thing to worry about when time to ride. He's got a big hair coat, unusual for a Southern boy race horse and he's sweaty. I am too. No hair coat but plenty of layers and some of them gotta go.

Backing him up from in front of him, moving the rope up and down no big deal. He understands that. Sam is the kind of horse if he understands what you want, he will give it to you generously. If he doesn't, his go to is ignore, hope you go away. If not, he will push on you. If that doesn't work, he gets sully and angry.

I ran into that part on the second back up exercise where you hold the knot under the chin and run the noseband back and forth. You don't pull the head down, don't push them backwards. The goal is that the horse tucks his chin and steps back in a smooth two beat trotting cadence. It's where the soft feel starts.

That was NOT happening. Sam's response to pressure on his noseband was to shove his head out and back up as quick as he could to evade the pressure. Had he been stuck and unable to move back, the motion alone would have been acceptable. As that is not the case, it was not.

He threw his neck and shoulder into me to shove my pissant self out of his way. I block with my elbow and his offended head goes skyward. I go to Kip, tattling. He won't act right!

I know getting my horse further upset is not the way to go and it is without doubt the road we are on.

Kip says, okay, let's see what you've got. I begin from the left. Sam softens a little and steps back a few feet. "What's wrong with that?" Kip asks. "I'd have stopped sooner and released when he was doing it right, too" Yep, I was so sure Sam would do it wrong, I missed the right.

Watch from the other side, please. I've worked Sam on the right more than the left as racehorses are only handled on the left as a rule. He's pretty good over there until he's upset. It's on his right he's trying to turn me into a rag doll.

I move Sam to put me on his right side. He allows this willingly. I grasp the fiador knot, gently slide it back and forth, timing my breath with the movement. Sam softens his chin nicely and steps back. That time I catch the release and shake my  head, All it takes is for the teacher to be watching.

We back up a third way which is like riding. I can see Sam is making progress and I am not hard on him, here.

We do the half circle exercise, I use my flag to keep him round. I get him wound up a few times and I am having trouble finding the balance of doing enough to get a reaction and not doing so much to send him off the ground. A few times the big horse got handy and found his feet. Most of the time it was a clumsy mess trying not to run into the other participants. He is respectful of my hand and moves away when I put down my flag. Success there.

I am scowling at myself. I have tired quickly and my timing is off. I can't be unhappy with my horse when I know I am not directing him well.

After lunch, my heart is in my throat. He's still pretty high about all the other horses moving around the arena. I step up on the mounting block and my trepidation lightens as he moves in politely to pick me up. All those layers under my chaps and my knees are stiff and the left one is already swelling in it's brace. Dammit. I can do this. I am up, reaching for my right stirrup. He's moving and I'd prefer him not to be, didn't wait for me. It's not turning into a disaster and I gratefully find my stirrup and we go see what we can see.

Nothing came easily for us. He ignored my leg, stiffened his head and neck against my request for a soft feel. It was one of the toughest clinics I have ever ridden. I couldn't find a way to communicate with him. I took a firm hold and got him mad enough, he did that sideways crooked backwards slink that says you keep that up, I might just flop over on my side.

Okay, that's not successful. He's too green to wear spurs and my legs were wearing out hammering on his side. I go back to Kip. He won't move off my leg, I want to go get my spurs.

Kip looks up. Uh uh, he says. You can do that at home but you are not riding him with spurs here.

I know he's right. The horse isn't ready and being sully is not when you pick up the bigger bit, the tougher gadget. If I get him really mad, I imagine I'll see more movement out of him than I can handle. Kip knows that and I know it too

I go back to work. I take my foot out of the stirrup. BAM! I said move over, you sonofagun, THUMP!

My fellow riders are once again giving us plenty of room and I imagine they are thinking things like "why the heck is she kicking on that nice horse like that". I am determined I am going to get something out of this day, this horse. I'm a little judgy, myself of the ones letting their horses just slump around. I stop it. They are there on a cold winter day, riding their horses. We are all on the journey.

Sam sulkily shifts his hip. I stop banging on him. I realize I have completely abandoned the concept of start slow and build up. I am so sure he is going to continue to ignore the good deal, I barely offer one before I get heavy.

Royal would have sent me flying.

Sam continues to passively resist me and I finally realized I have to get smarter. If it were your horse I was riding I'd have been busy searching for the tiniest of tries, the smallest change. My horse, I am impatient. I want big changes and I want them right now.

We do some trotting. He is expressing his doubts in a tiny tight trot that is rough and hard to ride. I can almost not post. My leg muscles are cooked and I darned sure can't sit this. Two laps around and I am so disgusted with both of us. I do catch a glimmer of "Terri. You are trotting your Thoroughbred in a mess of 24 other horses." Sam would pin his ears defensively when someone got close but he let me direct him out of trouble without incident.

Kip was loping circles on his mare and I think it freaked me out more than it did Sam when he passed by in closer increments. Sam was insecure but not reactive. He's coming along just fine.

During our slowdowns, we are walking out on a loose rein. I have been pestering Sam for his big walk all afternoon. Like pushing a sulky teenage to do the dishes. Now, I pitch the reins, our crowd angst long past both of us. We walk along and some of our bad attitude lifts. I rub his neck.

We back some arcs and even though we have the barest beginning of softness, we are still getting something done. I am lightening up in my demands, giving Sam a minute to figure out what I want. He doesn't process like Royal does, why would he? The speed I have to go to keep Royal interested is overwhelming for Sam. I have deep habits to overcome to be successful with the kind young horse and he deserves me to do the work. He shifts his hindquarters awkwardly away from my leg but no reins and no thumping. Just ask.

As Kip speaks to us about goals, progress, things to think about, I bring Sam's head around laterally and rub his sweaty face. We are still friends, buddy. Rough day for both of us.

The last thing we do is a counting down exercise. Ten steps forward, ten back, nine forward, nine back and so on. Right around 8, Sam tucks his chin and softens his poll joint. He steps back hesitantly, is this right, under me. I rub his neck enthusiastically. YES! Sam Bones, this is it! The Grail!

We do the countdown. It's easy to keep him straight and on track. Straightness is a trial with Royal T to this very day.

At the end, you sit and rock without feet moving. His foot shifted occasionally and I did not care one whit. I asked softly, quietly, he responded in kind.

That's what we came for.

Very end of the day, I load horses in a trailer with working lights and functioning brakes. I am so tired I can hardly think and I know I have to do something about this. No more lip service to physical fitness. I have two grand horses to ride and I need to be in shape to get it done.

Through darkness, I last my own personal storm of frustration, doubt, fear and anger. Peter says, what I feel my horse felt first. I believe that. I hope with all my heart that the pride, the joy and the love I felt at the end also echoed through from my good Sam.