Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hackamores

Glenatron said...
"I'd be interested to read a bit about your development with the Hackamore and where you are with it now."

I hope Glenatron's not the only one interested in this piece of the old west. I love the hackamore, it makes me train, there's no cheating in one of these bad boys, because a horse will run right through it if you hang on them, or hold too hard, for too long.

The hackamore I refer to is also known as a bosal. It is an indispensable part of the vaquero way of making a California reined horse.

The hackamore is in a teardrop shape and made of braided rawhide or leather over a rawhide core. The rounded top goes over the nose and the pointy end has a rawhide knot at the end which hangs below the jaw.

A single length of rein is knotted on the hackamore and called a mecate, (McCarty in hick speak). The knot is tied so there is a long, single rein, like a set of English reins, and a long free end that I use to lead my horse and for ground control. I keep the free end tucked into my belt. You'll see them tied to the horn, but that won't help much when I get tossed and don't have a hold of my horse. When the mecate is properly tied it adjusts the fit of the hackamore for proper communication between horse and rider.

My reins are made with braided horse hair, they are prickly and scratchy, but have a lovely feel after they've been broken in. Mecates are also made out of synthetic rope, but synthetics are not what I use by choice.

 The Persians in 500 BC were one of the first to use a thick plaited noseband to help the horse look and move in the same direction. This was called a Hakma. On this Hakma a third rein was added at the nose, which allowed the rider to achieve more power from the horse. Later the third rein moved from the top of the noseband to under the chin, and there it has stayed.

The hackamore used in the United States came from the Spanish vaqueros in California. From this, the American cowboy adopted two different uses, the "Buckaroo" tradition closely resembling that of the original Vaqueros and the "Texas" tradition which blended some Spanish techniques with methods from the eastern states. When it comes down to the hackamore itself, it is designed to make the horse look and guide in the same direction, same as back in the days of the Persians.

I'm more of a Texas tradition kind of trainer, I start my three-year-olds in a ring snaffle and don't move up to the hackamore until I am satisfied with my shoulder control.

Another reason to be riding a horse in a hackamore through his fourth and fifth year, is because of the dramatic changes happening with his teeth. The vaqueros didn't have any equine dentists available to grind all the enamel off their horse's teeth, so they simply stayed out of their mouths until they were able to carry a bit without pain. I love simple logic. 

Any collection during the snaffle bit phase comes laterally, I don't work on the nose or pushing my horse into the bridle with two legs and two hands, except for backing and stopping, until the horse is in the hackamore.

Once I'm in my hackamore and my horse is pretty soft, I feel I have control of his feet through my body language, and my hands have become a reminder rather than a control point.

The hackamore works on the nerves of the nose, sides of the face and chin. I'm sure there are those of you who have either seen raw, scraped skin on a horse in a hackamore.

Until you get the hang of the things it is easy enough to do, but I have found it's not necessary, as a matter of fact, if my snaffle bit work has been done properly, it never happens.

In the mean time, taping the hackamore with electrical tape will save your horse's face. Don't let anybody tell you, "it's a matter of toughening up the horse's face," if you use the damn thing right, nothing needs to be toughened up.

Don Murphy, the most knowledgeable and successful reined cowhorse trainer and hackamore man I know, gave me a very simple concept on hackamore use that structured my entire training method.

"Imagine the center of the nose piece is the only point of contact and it's very delicately balanced there. You can rattle it back and forth, pull back with one rein or the other, or very carefully hold it's position with two hands, but if you pull or yank you'll lose your balance point."

This comes from the same guy who told me he had known trainers who would push a screw through the middle of the nose piece, so the point was resting on the horse's nose, to show a horse which was pushing through the hackamore.

"After his ride he'll (the trainer) hop down and rub on his horse, then pull the screw before the bridle check. It sure makes the horse bridle up..."

I don't think he told me that story as a training tip, he was getting the point across that proper training creates a real hackamore horse, which is all about softness and suppleness.

Once I'm riding in the hackamore I begin working on collection and frame. Keep in my mind, my snaffle bitters are pretty darn handy. Before I even consider moving up my colts know where their feet are.

They can perform a solid reining pattern and are stood up between my reins on their circles, spins and stops. They can work a cow with confidence, out of the herd and down the fence.

Through each task my colts have their little nose sticking out and they aren't as underneath themselves as they will be, so I don't have the clean efficiency I'm building towards. They give their nose through their maneuvers as a result of raising their back when they deepen their stride through a turn.

They also travel often travel with their nose almost on the ground. This is the result of riding with a loose rein and their reaction to finding their own balance and drive from the hind legs. It is also how I develop a nice level head set without setting their head with my hands. This is a bit unnerving, it feels like riding a headless horse, but it's worth getting used to.

I now have a bold, willing horse who knows his job and likes it. These colts can generally place, often in the money, but I only win at the smaller venues or if everybody else falls of their horse.

Now I get to work on my favorite part. The hackamore.

There are varying sizes, from the big, heavy and stiff 7/8 hackamore on down to the soft and pliable 1/2 inch.

The bigger hackamores tend to be less "feely" but have more torque and clearer signals and the thinner, softer hackamores lend themselves to refining and cleaning up the more advanced maneuvers.

The 1/4 to 5/16 hackamores (sometimes called bosalitos, or bosal) are designed for the two-rein, when they are ridden in conjunction with a spade bit to aid the horse in learning to use the bit.

The tiniest of them all, the under bridle bosal, is never more than 1/4 inch and is used to tie the horse and the  sign of a finished bridle horse.

I work my horses with left, right pressure, urging them into the hackamore with my legs. The pressure points are opposite from the snaffle bit, when you guide to the left with your inside rein the pressure is on the outside of the colts face.While there is some initial confusion on the part of the colt, by the time you switch to a bridle your horse will neck rein beautifully

Always remembering the delicate balance between my horse's nose and the hackamore, I work on driving the legs underneath, rounding his back and picking up his shoulders. The low head set comes higher as he learns where to give at the poll (we don't all go for low heads) and he begins to "frame up" as he moves.

I ask for collection just a few strides at a time, then ask for more. I give a lot of pre-signals, so my hackamore horse eventually bridles or turns from hand position alone, with very minimal contact. This prepares him for the spade it. It also creates one helluva sweet ride.

So there you go. My hackamore talk....WAKE UP!!!












Monday, October 10, 2011

Guilty Pleasure

I have a confession to make.

I watched the National Reined Cow Horse Snaffle Bit Futurity live on my computer. Every second I could. I took my computer everywhere I had to go and spent hours glued to the live broadcast.

I got to watch old friends and fellow competitors do their thing and I have to admit, it made my heart ache in envy and flat out desire to just be there, caught up in the excitement of the competition.

It was amazing. It was incredible.

It was an astounding display of horsemanship and equine intelligence and athleticism.

It was also the epitome of every reason I couldn't continue on as a cowhorse trainer.

The horses I was so obsessively watching were only three years old.

They have had to learn three, grueling, sinew stretching, mind bending events in order to compete in the futurity. They cut, they rein and they go down the fence. All three events are incredibly taxing, both physically and mentally.

The good ones looked like they had been doing it for years.

The bad ones look like they are about to implode with anxiety.

The guys in the middle were a mixture of the two.

Futurity supporters tell me these events separate the golden grain from the chaff. If a three-year-old is made of the right stuff they not only handle the training, they relish it.

I can agree to a point. A good cow horse loves to work cattle. The reining (dry work), not so much, but when the reining training is used as a warm up for the cattle the horse learns they get the cow if they rein well.

A good cow horse loves its job. As it grows and develops it will develop an uncanny ability to read every move the cow makes and takes incredible delight in blocking the cow, driving the cow or stopping the cow. A three-year-old can certainly have the mental capacity to work a cow.

The problem comes with their underdeveloped legs, backs and minds. The physical and mental stress of reined cow horse events is high on adult horses, on babies it can be disastrous.

I watched a colt  lock up on his spins during the dry work portion of the open competition. He came into his stop, stood up, stuck his neck out and locked his jaw against his riders hand. The trainer tried various subtle and not-so-subtle, yet still legal, ways to unlock this horse's legs and jaw and get him into his spins. It wasn't going to happen. He finally gave up and whacked the colt into his spins, turned him around several times and zeroed his pattern.

Was the colt being bad? Not in my opinion. He locked against the turn in anticipation of a situation that probably caused him pain. The pain could have been from a sore back, or from getting in trouble more often than not, while being worked at home. Or he could have been afraid of trying the maneuver while out of balance, which would result in him kicking his own legs while he turned around.

It doesn't matter why he was doing it, because no matter what the reason, it was a product of rushed training on a horse, too young to do anything but cling to the only escape he had found from a situation he was consistently put in by his trainer.

This kind of problem comes up while training a young horse. It can be from bad training, or a single mistake on the part of the trainer during a session.

It happened to me on my yellow mare when she was a three-year-old. I was working in our fairly small indoor and let the kidlette ride her. She was a little floaty through her shoulders and I would help her by picking her up with my legs and outside rein through the tough spots, then release her when she stood up.

Kidlette had loped her for me before, but only in our football field sized out door, so there wasn't as much precision involved in keeping her upright. I had a habit of assuming the kid would automatically know what to do, sometimes before she was technically there, and this was one of those situations.

Before I knew it, my filly had flopped her neck to the inside and run the kidlette into the arena wall. There was some yelling, a little crying and I turned my focus on showing my daughter how to ride through a situation like this one.

Part of what makes training babies so easy is their open minds. They are little sponges and can absorb incredible amounts of logical information. There is no junk in their little heads to work around and everything registers immediately. Unfortunately, this applies to both the good and bad.

My little three-year-old had learned that taking her shoulder and smashing a knee or two would very effectively get her out of working through her circle. She learned she got a rest while my daughter freaked, rubbed her knee and wailed about my stupid horse. She learned it was easier for her to over bend her neck and keep the rest of her body straight than to bend nose through tail.

It was a very effective learning experience and she locked it tight in her spongy little brain.

It took months to work out the aftershocks from one 30 second tsunami.

When training for a three-year-old futurity, months aren't available to work out trainer created tsunamis. This is where force, over-riding and physical and mental breakdowns occur.

Add to this, the young horse has to be physically able to handle the rigorous training and mentally able to absorb the fast pace. I watched and assisted in the development of several futurity prospects in the years before I retired.

The Big K always addressed my concerns by telling me if a 2-year-old was handled correctly they could deal with the training process. I saw that most of his did indeed physically and mentally absorb it all. He rode them for very short, very intense periods of time.

They were wild little billy goats, barely handled, and taught only the parts necessary to perform. He also simply did not try with prospects that weren't showing enough promise to become futurity horses. There was no reason to dance this delicate, dangerous dance with colts that wouldn't cut it.

His reasoning was not humanitarian, it was time and money oriented, but like most serious horsemen, it wouldn't help him to turn out mentally or physically ruined horses, so he did what he could to avoid it. The two-year-olds who had the hardest time were the ones being ridden and trained by owners or assistants (ahem). These colts would be ridden too much, to hard, too long. Not on purpose, but because of inexperience on the part of the rider. Like I said earlier, it takes along time to fix the mess left after a tsunami hits.

I was lucky. K had me ride different colts in bits and pieces. I wasn't given the responsibility of the whole horse until my feel had developed enough to not mess them up.

I came out of the entire experience convinced it was wrong to ride a two-year-old at all.

It was because of the ones who fell apart.  The ones who broke down. The little babies who had all the potential in the world, if they were just given time. Time they would never get.

I had developed the feel K wanted. This very feel he so carefully nurtured helped me know when my colts needed to stop. When they couldn't safely absorb any more. I could feel the strength in their back and legs, their coordination, their mental acuity.

I could feel their willingness to try beyond their ability. I could safely ride them and shape them into a competitive snaffle bitter. I could feel how wrong it was to be riding them. So I stopped.

I moved on to learning how to develop a bridle horse. This process takes five to seven years, and if done right, leaves plenty of room to compete through the different stages, even if the horse isn't started until he is three.

However, I still can't quit watching the futurity. It amazes me. The Big K didn't make the finals this year. He just missed them by a few points on a colt who is sound and sane and happy.

I feel like a total mugwump.If I hadn't explored riding those two-year-olds I wouldn't have the ability I have now. I wouldn't know without a doubt that I will wait until a horse feels ready before I take him to the next level.

Chicken and egg I guess.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mort, Me and the Upper Rio Grande 50 Miler

It was the night before the race. Cindy, her husband, and I had pulled into camp in the early afternoon. We tied the horses to the trailer, filled up hay bags and hauled buckets of water.

We pitched our tent and stored our food.

By the time we had our little camp set up the horses had eaten and emptied a bucket or two of water. I untied Mort and slipped on his bridle.

"I'm going to check out the camp," I told Cindy.


"Don't get lost," she told me. "There's a BBQ and trail meeting in an hour."

I swung up on Mort and rode off. I kept my mouth shut, but couldn't hide my scowl. I hated trail meetings. All they did was confuse me. By the time I yawned through the NATRC meetings I always felt like I needed a compass and a divining rod to survive the ride. I didn't see how it could matter anyway. I just let Mort follow the horse in front of him and when we were done we were done.
We jigged through the camp, Mort was feeling fine and wanted to strut his stuff a little. The horses were different than the ones I encountered on the endurance rides. They were mostly Arabs, but a lot of them were big and rangy. They were as skinny as Mort. They seemed calm and quiet.

The owners were different than the horse people I was used to. There were very few cowboy hats or boots. I saw a lot of tennis shoes and English boots. The riders seemed as lean and muscled as their horses. They would glance up at me and give me the same dismissive look I got from the morning kids at the horse shows. My face turned red and Mort tossed his head and jigged sideways.

I figured we might have to go blow off a little steam before he whacked out on me and I was about sick of getting looked at. We headed out a promising looking dirt road. By the time we left sight of the camp he had kicked into his trot and when I found a hole in the fence line, we hopped over the bottom strand of barbwire and headed up a good hill at a run.

Mort chugged up the incline, weaving in and out of the trees at a good clip. When we hit the top he was calm and content to stand and breathe. The sweet, clean smell of the air mingled with the light sweat on Mort's neck. I peeled my sticky legs off his back one at a time and scooted back over his flanks to let him dry. He pulled at the bit, wanting to graze, and I let the reins slide through my fingers. I breathed in and out in unison with his slowing heartbeat and felt better than I had since we had gotten to camp.

On the way back I became a little confused. I couldn't remember which way to turn on the road to get back to camp. Mort, using his unerring sense of direction, tossed his head and chugged until I turned the right way and we headed back to our BBQ.

The BBQ was great. The meat was lean and the sauce was spicy. Instead of baked beans, potato salad and coleslaw there was green salad, fruit and vegetable trays. It was like eating at my house.
As I stood in line with my plate I watched a group of the "lean and mean" competitors load up on fruit and vegetables and take very little meat or bread. I did the same.

"I'm not too thrilled with the food," Cindy complained. "I don't know how we're supposed to get full on this stuff." She looked at the dusty broccoli and carrots with disdain.

"I don't know, " I answered, "anything tastes good with onion dip."

I didn't want to point out the riders around camp seemed as in shape as their horses. It was sure giving me something to think about.

The pre-ride meeting was about the same as the NATRC meetings. Maps I didn't understand were handed out. The trail was discussed and the boggy spots, and slidey places were explained. As usual, I figured if I ran out of markers I would have to back track. I zoned out and started to think about Mort and I on the trail. I wondered how fast we were really going to go.

When the meeting was over I went back to camp. I dug my book and a flashlight out of my duffel bag and took Mort out to graze in the field behind our tent. I settled against a tree and turned him loose with his lead rope dragging behind him. He settled into the grass and I settled into my book.
The camp became quiet as the stars came out. Horses stamped and snorted and an occasional plaintive whinny floated through the air. I let my book fall in my lap and turned off my light so I could see the stars hanging so close over my head. Mort was like a film negative, a pale shadow against the dark grass.

I closed my eyes and listened to the rhythmic chomp and tear as he tore off big mouthfuls of grass.
The moon was going down when I woke up cold and stiff. Mort stood close by, dozing, his head hanging low and one hip cocked. I got up and stood by him, wrapping my arms around his barrel and hugging him close, trying to warm up. He snorted and shook his head.

"Don't you dare," I felt his muscles bunch and I lunged for his lead rope. He took off across the field at a high trot, his short little tail held straight in the air and his smart-ass head waving back and forth.

With every stride his whole being said, "See you later sucker!"

By the time I finally caught him the warm smell of coffee was teasing me and my fellow competitors were feeding their horses. I was plenty warm though and ready to ride.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mort and Me - Segue

I have been suffering from writers block, sorry about the wait. I am trying to shake things up with a Mort story that is not other half of the endurance ride, that's the one I'm stuck on. This tale goes back to the first few months I owned Mort...


    The sun prickled hot through my jean jacket. An impatient yank pulled the arms inside out and the buttoned sleeves coiled tight around my bony wrists.  

     Mort began to jump when he felt the reins tangle and the jacket began flapping around his head. He shook his head in irritation and my dirty, tanned knees were flecked with pink foam.

    The scars across his tongue had opened again and remorse swept through the anger and deepened my frustration.

    He just wouldn’t stop. He jigged, he leapt from side to side, a growl rattled low in his chest and vibrated up to my clenched hands.

    Horses shouldn’t growl. Horses were supposed to nicker sweetly when you came to see them. They were supposed to be your friend, your best friend, not a quivering muscle mass of roaring, raging, lunacy, day after day.  

     This horse, this glowing, magnificent horse wanted nothing to do with my tentative gestures of friendship. He fought to run every time I was on him, he fought the bridle and he fought me.

   I finally untangled my hands and slung my battered jacket over the barbwire fence. Mort jumped sideways, with the twist of a cat falling from a roof. I slid to the side and grabbed his mane to keep myself seated. By the time I found a precarious balance we were running flat out.

   Fine. Let him run. We were headed away from the barn and I would just keep it that way until he was tired enough to walk, then we would come back.

     Mort flew across the field, the pounding of his hooves dulled on the mat of dry prairie grass. I leaned back as far as I dared and watched the brilliant blue October sky flash overhead.  The rows of suburban houses lined up next to the field blurred into the silhouette of a rocky canyon wall in a black and white western. I was an Indian, racing after the buffalo herd, a pony express rider trying to deliver the mail on time, Alias Smith, trying to find Jones, to tell him a posse was hot on our trail.

     Mort relaxed and leveled out. He chugged like a freight train and the heady smell of his sweaty coat made me lean into his neck. His wet sides grabbed my legs and glued me to him. I urged him around the edge of the development and into the open fields between Academy Boulevard and us.

   If we circled the huge field a few times he might come back to me and we could head home, if not, then we would go east into miles of undeveloped prairie. I’d ride him to Falcon if I had to.

     Mort felt the tug of a rein as I tried to ease him into a big circle. He shook his head and jumped in the air. My seat suddenly didn’t feel so secure and I grabbed a bigger handful of mane with one hand and gave a savage pull on the reins with the other.

     His angry growl turned into a roar and he jumped again before yanking his head forward and bolting. A huge surge of power from his haunches shot us forward and we were flying. I pulled at him again and he picked up speed, straight as an arrow, straight at the Boulevard.

   What was he doing? Home was the other way. It was rush hour with the road packed with commuters burning along at 55 mph. They were never going to see us, they would think I would stop, if only he would stop.

   We were headed in a straight line to my friend, Karen’s, barn. Oh god, oh God, we were moving so fast. Mort had abandoned all thoughts of home and was running to horses he knew, friends he could trust. I was not his friend.

     The bumper-to-bumper traffic was coming at us with terrifying speed. I pulled again and got nothing but more speed. I had never gone this fast on a horse before and through my terror a flicker of excitement began. If I could control this, it would be like riding a dust devil, a hurricane.

   We were going to cross Academy, that was a given. We were going to be smashed flat, I was sure of that too. Maybe, just maybe, the traffic would slow for a loose horse.

     The ground raced by underneath us and my stomach flipped when I looked down. This was really going to hurt. One deep breath and I slid my leg over the side. I clung to him for a few seconds until the tip of my bare foot caught the ground.

    A bolt of pain shot up my leg and I was jerked to the ground. I rolled and the world tumbled by, first the sky, then grass, then a glimpse of my horse disappearing from sight. My head slammed into the rock hard earth, the coarse grass scratched my face, a stone bruised my shoulder. I felt blood running down my legs and a stick poked a good hole in my side.

    I finally stopped and lay flat in the grass, gulping and grabbing for air. With a pounding head and a crushing pain in my ribs I tried to sit up but I still couldn’t find any air. Was I just going to die here in this field?  The sky spun in circles over my head and nausea rolled in like waves on a lake. I struggled to my knees and threw up in the grass.

   The smell of my own vomit made me stand up and stagger after my horse. My nose was swelling and my knees and elbows were a bloody mess. A sharp, painful poke in my side let me know a rib or two were no longer where they belonged.

     I limped to the side of Academy and waited until a gap gave me time to stagger across and made my way down the long dirt road to Karen’s stable.

     Mort stood flirting over the fence with Karen’s mares. He waited while I gathered up his reins and was quiet when I leaned into his shoulder. I hated him. What was I going to do? He was way too much for me to handle. It had taken so long to get my horse and I had ended up with this one.

     He wrapped his neck around me in a warm horse hug. I stepped back and stroked the perfect diamond on his forehead. His eyes were warm and soft and he gently lipped my bloody, scratched arm.

    “Do you get it?” He seemed to say. “Do you understand?”

     I didn’t. The ache from not knowing was so much bigger than the cuts and bruises all over my body. I wiped my bloody, snot-filled nose on his bright dun coat.

     “There,” I told him, “war paint.”  

     I gingerly prodded my swelling face and wondered how I was going to explain this one at home. My parents could never know Mort had done it, not in a million years. They’d freak.

     Mort followed willingly down the road towards home. It made sense to wait to get back on after we crossed Academy. I leaned on him to support my shaky legs and he slowed his steps to match mine.  

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