My frustration level was through the roof. The Big Kahuna had taken my training ability and turned it into something I didn't think possible. My horses were getting a handle on them that was getting me a good reputation in the small circles I trained in, and I wasn't getting laughed out of the arena when I hung with the big guns. On the surface things couldn't have been better.
There were problems though. When the Big K had told me to learn to train by training Sonita I took his words to heart, as I did everything he said to me. I became obsessed with sorting her out. I knew my lack of knowledge in the sport we were tackling was hurting Sonita's progress. Cowhorse was so overwhelming. The better I got the more difficult it became.
With each leap forward in my understanding, I would see what I had been doing wrong before and want to backtrack to fix things. The Big K was not much of a teacher. He would struggle to answer the questions I asked, and we often ended up in some pretty heated arguments.
"Just get in there and go, you're over thinking this." He had developed this look of pained exasperation that irritated the crap out of me.
"How can I just get in there and go when I don't know where I should sit?"
"In the saddle comes to mind."
The harder the concept was to explain the easier it was to set him off. He was big on repeating a maneuver over and over until I got it right. I strongly felt that if I was doing the maneuver wrong, repetition would only ingrain the problem in me and my horse.
I wanted to break things down to the smallest step, he wanted me to figure it out on the go. Keep in mind most of this was happening at 30 plus miles an hour on my wackadoo Sonita and you can see my point.
Which took me to my next frustration. I was scared. Sonita scared the absolute bejeesus out of me.
I knew I had to let her go, but I was terrified of what she would do to me if I didn't hang on.
The Big K was tired of hitting that wall too.
"If you just let her be all our lives will get better."
"I know, you're right," was all I could come up with.
I could agree with the concept, but I just couldn't physically get there.
After the run down incident I had left The Big K completely demoralized. I was angry with his complete willingness to run my horse in the ground. I was angry with myself for allowing the whole thing to go so far. I was really sick of Sonita.
It was time for a break. I decided if I was going to cow I had to take control of my situation. I had to figure out what was going so wrong, fix it myself, and go back to the Big K when I had some results. I was just mad enough to not call him and tell him I was on hiatus. I won't admit the phrase "Go rot in Hell" crossed my mind, but I won't deny it either.
After a week of simply letting the whole mess simmer in the back of my mind I realized I had two separate issues. I didn't truly have the concept of collection. I had assumed that my fairly extensive background in Western Pleasure had covered that ground for me. I now understood the slow, steady, contained world of a pleasure horse had nothing to do with keeping my maniac in frame at a gallop.
On top of that, the Big K's concept of collection wasn't working for me. Don't get me wrong, it worked for him, I just didn't get it. I realized I had to find something that did work for me and my horse. The Big K could only give me what he had.
The second problem was my fear. I didn't trust my horse. I reached deep and really faced my fear. What was I afraid of?
Sonita was a nut job, but there were reasons I hung in there with her. She didn't buck, (much) rear or bite. She never left me. It might seem funny, but even though she did everything at 150 MPH or so, she never ran away with me. She always came back to me, always. When I was first going down the fence I would sometimes lose my balance on the fence turns. Sonita would check just long enough for me to get my seat back, and off we'd go. Believe me, not all cowhorses will wait for you.
So what was it? It occurred to me I was afraid of her power. She was stronger and faster than any horse I had ever ridden. She was more complex mentally than anything I had trained. I was afraid she was more horse than I could handle. I was afraid I would get killed before I figured her out.
I decided that the fear just had to go. I had to get comfortable with who my horse was. She was never going to trust me enough to become the horse I now understood was in there, unless I had confidence in her. The Big K couldn't teach that. It was between me and Sonita.
I solved the problem in one day. I got up early one morning and loaded up Sonita. I didn't tell anybody where I was going or what I had planned. The mind boggling stupidity of that choice occurs to me now, but at the time I felt it was important.
I hauled to The Garden of the Gods, an absolutely drop dead gorgeous park in Colorado Springs. The Garden is filled with steep rocky trails, beautiful open fields and all kinds of different terrain. There is an 11 mile trail that winds through the park.
Sonita had never been an easy horse to haul. She wasn't happy about being alone either. She had no clue where we were. I had set the whole thing up to stress both of us as much as possible. I knew the loop well and hoped the terrain would slow her down. I unloaded Sonita, saddled her white-eyed little self, checked my watch, threw out my reins and hit the trails. I swore I wouldn't pull back, not once.
The trail began through a popular off leash dog park. I never had to worry about dogs with Sonita. I'd turn her on over-zealous dogs and she'd work them like a cow. I had no doubt she would kill a dog that attacked her, and for some reason the dogs all seemed to pick right up on that.
She started off at a high trot, her head slung in the air and her ears rapid firing back and forth. Within 50 feet she was loping. I settled deep in my seat, ignored my flip-flopping stomach and hooked the thumb of my rein hand around my horn and wrapped my fingers in a death grip on the fork of my saddle. I was NOT going to pull on my reins.
Sonita flicked her ears again, waiting for some kind of cue from me.
"If you want to go, go on," I said.
Sonita thought my barely audible squeak was good enough, she didn't get that kind of encouragement from me very often.
The field opened in front of us and she flew. We were running as fast as I ever had and there was no slide stop coming to slow us down. Sonita flicked her ear back at me again.
I realized she was asking if I wanted more.
Two thoughts hit me.
"My God, there's more?" and "My God, she's asking?"
Before I could process either thought I realized the cross walk for the main entrance to the park was coming up really quick.
I exhaled, thought maybe I could pull just one time, and big surprise, Sonita stopped.
No, she wasn't turning into Wonder Girl. I had forgotten she was terrified of pavement. And white lines at crosswalks.
So many minutes later, we got across the death pavement and were on our way.
Sonita was sure footed and solid. I had always known that. Luckily, we had several miles to go before the next open space. She quickly decided that sliders and gravel loaded rocky trails took a little negotiation. We took the trails at an extend trot. When she began to trust I wouldn't pull back she began to leap up the embankments and lope on the flats. I stayed out of it, only interfering to steer.
As the trails disappeared behind us and the scrub oak whipped by, Sonita began to respond to me. She realized I was simply steering, not pulling, and she began to relinquish some of the battle for control. She became willing to slow down off my seat. I only asked her to slow in order to air up, or because the trail was getting freaky. She began to accept my judgement.
I began to appreciate the sense she used in negotiating the rugged terrain. As she calmed down Sonita began to pick the gait that suited the trail. She was never wrong. When she began to pick up speed it was always because it was a safe place to do so. I began to relax, and my body tuned into her rhythm. I became secure in my seat and as the tension left me I stayed in the middle of my horse. We were both having fun.
We came around the back of the Garden and a long open field spread in front of us. The trail climbed a gentle slope for about a quarter of a mile. Sonita was hot and tired. But there was none of the thick ropey nervous foam that usually covered her.
She began to speed up, again her ears flicked back to me.
I took a deep breath. "Go ahead," I said.
She flattened out and went. My eyes streaming, I realized we were going faster than I ever been before. She flicked her ear again. I couldn't believe she had more. And she was asking. I could feel it. "Wanna fly?" Sonita waited.
I slid my rein hand up her neck and she went.
We blew up that field. It was un-effing-believable. The first strides were rough and wild, she had never packed a rider at that speed. She quickly found her balance and we went like a dart, straight and true.
I put a leg on her and gently put a rein on one side of her neck, she swooped across the field like a hawk on a mouse, never a stumble or hesitation. I switched my leg and rein and we glided the other way. I sat up, dropped my reins and threw my arms back. Sonita stayed steady and guided with the softest touch of my leg. I couldn't help myself, I hollered in my best cowboy fashion as we raced from side to side through the field.
We crested the hill and Sonita slowed to a walk. She stayed in the walk, peaceful and quiet the rest of the way to the trailer. I checked my watch. In 54 minutes we had covered 11 miles. In 54 minutes we had started a partnership that lasted for years.