Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mugwump Finds a Mission Statement

I'm going to be frank.

Having my life yanked out from under me, crumpled up like a piece of tin foil, run over by an eighteen-wheeler, and then handed back to me to flatten out best I can has been an education.

I've learned that life, although chock full of surprises, is definitely recyclable.

I used to joke that the only way I would ever finish a book, or seriously get back to my art would be to put me in prison, preferably solitary. Then, once the boredom, frustration and anger passed (because of course I'd be innocent), I would finally settle in and get to work.

I haven't been incarcerated, but I have been penned up, and it's not looking too good for parole.

I spend roughly 24 hours a day caring for my husband, who suffered two strokes during surgery for a blood clot going on four years ago. This happened about a year after I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and most of you know about the one armed thing.

Good grief, if my life isn't a country song, I don't know what is.

I get a break on most weekends. My step-kids come down to visit their Dad and I get a few hours furlough. On the days my body and the weather is cooperating I get in some horse time. It's kind of a crap shoot.

I get to work my dog with the Cool K9 crew on Sundays, which is a sanity saver and then some.

It's been hard to write, especially about horses and the life I built and lost. I still write my weekly food column, but struggle to meet dead lines. It's amazing how busy I can be within the confines of these walls. Mindless chores are exhausting, worry without answers is more so.

I haven't quit the horses though. I can't. They run through my dreams at night and their hoofbeats drum in the back of my mind during the day. In the half light of early morning I think about bending, flexing, hoof placement and how to get more, with less.

My thoughts spin and take me to further research, daydreaming and theory. I find myself questioning and challenging my thoughts and motivations when it comes to myself, my connections with people and for the most part, my philosophy about horses, training and how it shapes every nook and cranny of my ever changing position in this world.

It's pretty cool, this clarity of thought.

Today, I'm sharing it. It will probably morph some more,and some of you may find yourself scratching your head and thinking, "Well duh, isn't that what you've been saying all along?"

Buts it's new and clear and exciting to me, so shut up and let me lay this out.

First off, I need to set something straight. For myself as much as you guys.

I have always represented myself as a middle of the road horse trainer with moderate success in National Reined Cow Horse Association competition.

The moderate success in the NRCHA is true. I earned enough money as an open (professional) competitor to knock me out of a bunch of the fun stuff as an amateur. I did not earn enough to make much of a stamp in the record books, or hire barn help.

I am, however, a damn fine horse trainer. I worked hard,  studied hard and  rode with an open mind. I thought long and hard on the best way to educate the horses and riders who passed through my care. I developed some kick ass feel and learned to create well mannered, well balanced horses with a light handle and reliable behavior. Some of those horses were really rank bastards, some were physically, mentally (or both) inferior to the tasks set before them, but I got the job done. Shit guys, I know stuff.

Unfortunately, I had a blind spot that truly crippled me as a pro.

I'll have to go with example here.

"Ol' Spanky has a crappy lead change. He can do everything else, the slide is awesome, spins are right there, he really looks at a cow, but I can't count on the change. I've taken him to trainers X, Y and Z, they all told me to sell him."

There I'd be, looking at some bony, wormy poorly bred piece of ...well, you know, and my brain would click in one one solitary thought. The horse needs to change leads.

I would begin. The bigger the mess the more excited I got. I would work and experiment and breakdown each movement. Sticky stifle? Club footed? Out of balance? Draggy hind end? I'd find it and work on it. Most of the time, I'd get it done too.

Then I'd start in on the client. I was always surprised and a little sad if they weren't as excited as I was. I'd drill 'em, and balance 'em, give them exercises both on and off the horse, make sure they understood rhythm, collection, leg sequence, front end vs. back...Most of the time, they'd get it too.

Then we would head for the show pen.

Most times, they'd get through. A shout would go up from those who knew of this horse's struggles with his lead change, a few of my fellow trainers would give me a "good job" head nod, my client would beam and complete their pattern. The score would be well out of the money,but by God, the damn leads got changed.


When the pressure was on, Ol' Spanky would fall back to his old ways, dump his inside shoulder to the north, hollow out his back and swing his hindquarters due south. He'd fling his head, snap his tail and show the world a mouth full of yellow teeth and a waggling tongue. For some reason, the client would panic, forget to hold him up with the inside leg while adding gentle intermittent pressure with the outside leg, hold the reins with just enough pressure to offer support, but not so much to slow down the horse, drive with both legs to encourage collection and ....

You guessed it. Said client would grab the horn with one hand, start to jerk the crap out of Spanky, drop their weight to the inside stirrup to make it easier to spur the shit out of the squalling bolting mess on the outside and go to town.

Either way, there were two end results.

 The client would sign on with another trainer. A much more savvy trainer. Kind words would be said about the kick ass job I had done getting Spanky to change leads.The new and improved Spanky would be sold for a good price. My ex-client would buy a very nice horse from the new trainer, one with a point and shoot lead change. The trainer would get a commission for selling Spanky, a commission for finding the new horse and charge my ex-client $200 a month more for training. Client would go on to win stuff and I would have yet another horse I trained making big wins an the local riding club.


My poor client would catch the fever from me, and head back to the drawing board, as hooked with my obsession to take Spanky farther than  life or Mother Nature had ever intended him to go. Those were the clients I kept for years.

I never learned what the more successful trainers in my field already knew. A bad-leaded horse can learn to change leads but they will still be bad-leaded. In the cow horse world this creates more work for the rider, who will have to carry the horse through his changes forever. Unless the run is flawless, you're looking at point hits every time.

A bad-leaded horse is going to have other problems, from a creating a rough picture, to a potential safety hazard. When I'm doing a fence run or changing directions while circling my cow, I don't want to be wondering where Ol' Sparky's feet are.

While my peers worked with the knowledge that to have a healthy forest you have to trim some saplings, I was so focused on that single tree, I ended up carving a totem pole.

But I'll tell you what, I can teach just about anything to change leads.

Guess the Mission Statement will have to continue tomorrow.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Draw Reins and Dressage - Who'd a Thunk It?

 This picture is from the FEI World Cup Dressage Final for Young Riders Show, Frankfurt, Germany Dec. 2010. Yes, this is a class. OK, very minimal research tells me this must be the warm-up arena. My first clue would be the fact that dressage is not a group class, the second would be the leg wraps and the third (I hope) is the butt-load of crap hanging off the horses head.

From what I understand, these are junior riders actually competing in a class. Not your neighborhood 4H, either (which of course would never allow their youth riders to compete IN DRAW REINS), but the FEI World Cup for Young Riders.

The next time somebody tells me about a horse that's been "cowboyed," I'm sending them this.
Better cowboyed than dressaged I'm thinking.

Truth? There are stupid people in every discipline. It isn't the saddle that makes the horseman.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Brockle Grows Up.

I was given a surprise hour of freedom yesterday.

There wasn't enough time to run errands, besides, the dogs were with me and it was too hot for them to wait in the car.

Instead, I took my unplanned gift and stopped at a city park, thick with shade trees and quiet. I leashed up Charlie and Brockle, grabbed my bag and headed for the trail along Fountain Creek. It's narrow and rutted, and weaves in and out of the thick willows and gnarled cotton woods that hold the creek.  The trail is not officially part of the park, it's a highway for urban wildlife, an efficient cross-city path for those who prefer to travel on foot and out of the cities eye, and a great unofficial off-leash area.

We settled on a sunny bank dotted with boulders. I gathered a small pile of sticks, found a comfortable perch and pulled my Kindle out of my bag. I was lost in my latest read, throwing sticks out into the current for Brockle, keeping half an eye on Charlie as he hunted through the rocks, and still just about wiggling in the delight of the day. Talk about your multi-tasking.

The dogs were in high spirits. Brockle would abandon his stick to the current and jump on Charlie, teasing him into a rage. Charlie would snarl, go for his throat and within seconds, they were rolling around in the shallow water, putting on a dog reenactment of a battle to the death.

Charlie tried to stay properly outraged, but once they broke apart and stood panting in the cool water, he couldn't hide his grin.

The dogs and I looked north at the exact same moment. Two men were approaching. They had the unsteady gait of the drunk or high, and the wind-burned, dusty look of our local homeless. I called the dogs and leashed them, then calculated the steep embankment between me and the jogging path above me. I figured a surge of adrenalin would could me get up there if needed and relaxed.

They picked up their pace as they drew close. There was no communication between them  that I could see, but they moved with a sudden fluidity and purpose. There is a look that men on the hunt share, a certain stillness, a mutual gleam of mischief and excitement.

They had zeroed in on my bag. I knew better. Normally, I never bring it with me when I'm out walking. But I had needed my phone, my Kindle, my water bottle and treats for the dogs. I had set aside my own rule of never carrying something worth stealing when I was out on the trail and here we were.  Son of a bitch.

I stood and got ready to run.

Before I had slung the offending bag over my shoulder Brockle stepped in front of me. I barely had time to get my feet planted before he hit the end of the leash. He barked once at the men and when they kept coming he strained against the leash and cut loose with a volley of deep, cadenced barks. There was no yelping, no high pitched yaps, just a booming bass of serious warning while he lunged across the arc created by my restraint.

Charlie joined in, all twenty pounds of him ready to take those bastards on.

"Good dog, Brockle, good dog."

I could feel his tension through the leash and see strings of slobber slinging from his jaws. I would have loved to see his face, it must have been awesome, because the men turned in unison and bolted back the way they came.

 Brockle watched  until they were a hundred yards away, then snorted, peed and kicked up a small dust storm  with his hind feet.

I settled him with a few obedience reps and then threw a stick in the water. He ran to it, picked it up and faced the direction the men had gone. His eyes were sharp and I could hear him growling. The stick fell into the water and escaped downstream.

On the way back to the car Brockle stayed close, his shoulder at my thigh, and touched my hand with his nose every few feet.

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