Friday, May 30, 2008

Colt Starting - Will I Ever Get A Handle On It?

I was reading an article in Performance Horse Magazine yesterday. It was part two of a series on colt starting, written by Clinton Anderson.

It was pretty good. Especially since his concepts dovetail pretty close to mine. I always like the ones that think like I do.

I don't know a lot about the guy. He's big on the RFD channel, but I don't have cable. A couple of my students went to one of his clinics, they thought he was wonderful. They each bought about 400 bucks of his stuff.

When one of these uber-clinicians market a huge line of junk at their clinics, I tend to lose interest. Maybe I'm missing a lot of good information, at least some honing of my marketing skills, but specialty mecates at double the going rate irk me to no end.

Anyway, I was reading with interest. He firmly believes in creating a colt's forward with a three step learning process. First step is your leg, followed by a more aggressive warning bump, and then over and under with your reins.

I learned the same method from a Monte Foreman trainer in the early 70's. I teach my students to give the cue you would like them to respond to, then follow with the same cue but stronger, and then make it happen.

It works if you are consistent. Which you should be.

Then Clint and I began to diverge.

He wants his youngsters to walk, trot, and lope right away. He feels that they need to feel comfortable in each gait as soon as possible. They need to git when he says git. This eliminates resistance farther down the road.

The Big Kahuna felt the same way. We got those wild little billy goats gassing around immediately. Trust me, they were comfortable packing us around at a lope by the end of day one.

My problem is that whipping around on a staggery little two year old that doesn't stop, or turn, is not my ideal way to spend a morning. It scares the poo out of me. A three, four, or five year old is worse, they're stronger.

I go the route of wanting them comfortable at the walk and trot before I'll try to lope. If they decide to lope off the first time I ride them I'll let them, but I still hate it.

I prefer a turn to the left and right, and a little bit of whoa first.

I also have a problem with a little bit of "stuck" in every horse I train. There is a brief hesitation in them before each maneuver. In some ways it's comforting. My horses are NEVER runaways. They don't squirt through lead changes, they rarely run off in their run downs, and if they do, they always come back to your hand.

If I have a discipline problem it tends to be a loss of forward.

It's something I mess with all the time.

My three year olds have it the worst. They lug on me, move as if we're dragging logs through the swamp. It takes forever to fix.

I know I create this, and I've always figured it was an annoying trade off for how calm and easy my young horses tend to be.

Until I read Clint's article. He goes on to say that he wants his horses to accept him flopping and rubbing them all over those first few rides.

"Can you imagine flopping all over Merry even now?" I asked my boss.

"You go right ahead." She answered.

"Not today." I said.

"Probably not tomorrow either." She said.

Merry is a very lively, talented four year old. She was a slow, careful start. She has tons of brain power, and so much physical ability she can't always control it. She's slowly growing into herself. She also is extremely reactive. I think she's going to be pretty darn handy.

But if I flopped around on her, I would become a lawn dart.

"This is the second part." Said the ever practical boss. "Maybe you should read part one."

So I did. AHA!

It turns out that Clint is a big believer in imprinting. His babies are halter broke and handled from day one.

I am not.

Imprinting might work if it's done differently than every imprinted horse I've ever come across.
The imprinted horses I have dealt with are pushy, rude, have no concept of personal space. They think I'm their friend.

If you watch a herd of horses the hierarchy is very clear.
There's boss mare #1. She sleeps when she wants. She eats where she wants. She periodically kicks the crap out of a random victim whenever she feels like it. Everybody wants to be her friend. Nobody can kick her bossy brat of a foal. Or her best friend...
Boss mare #2. She follows #1 around, babysits her kid, eats at the peripheral of the best grass, puts up with random bad tempered assaults, and is protected from the rest of the herd. She also gets to be mean to everybody else.
And so it goes, down the chain, until you get to the youngsters. The yearlings and two year olds swirl around fighting and playing with each other, and try to stay out of the boss mare's way.
Have you ever seen how two year olds treat their friends?
I do not want to be a friend.
I want to be boss mare#1.
I'm guessing Clinton Anderson does it right. I'll never know, because I prefer my youngsters to come to me with as little handling as possible.
Even if they've never been handled, I'm usually getting along with them within a few weeks.
If they've been mishandled it can take months to straighten them out enough to be useful.
Ideally I like them just halter broke. Barely.
What occurred to me was that Clint's colts are about broke before he ever gets on. Mine aren't even a little. I want them to feel broke. So I keep them slow. I create a hesitation because I am hesitant in how I start them.
So what's the answer?
We have six, two and three year olds that we are starting right now. I've been working one of the three year olds for over sixty days. He wants to skitter. That could turn into a bolt. So I've been easing into him day by day. Yesterday he sighed and relaxed when I stepped up. He'll be ready to ride in a day or two.
A two year old came in about three weeks ago. We're cruising around pretty good. She has been so easy and accepting it's been a cake walk.
So is there a middle ground? Is there a way to get that forward on command those first few rides and still feel safe?
I think it may be a matter of upping my expectations on the ground. I need to flop and bang and all that stuff before I get up on these babies.
Clint can ask it because he already knows they can take it.
I shouldn't get on until I'm confident I can ask for that forward and stay safe.
I want to be somewhere in the middle of Clint and the Big K. I'm going to play with these six and see if my theory is right. It seems so simple on paper. It only took me 30 some odd years and the willingness to read an article written by one of those damn clinicians to get there.
I truly am a mugwump.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What I Learned from Captain

Thanks for the input on the Regumate. I'm going to work with my hormonal little wack-job for the next few weeks. I'll take her to a day show this week-end, and to an AQHA show in June. If I haven't ironed things out by then I guess I'll cave to her owners and dose her back up.
It just tweaks me to think that the poor thing has been chemically altered since she was two. How can she cope with her emotional little self if she was never given a chance to learn? Isn't that like putting toddlers on Ritalin because they like to run around screaming? Oh yeah, I guess that happens.

What I Learned from Captain

1. Sometimes my ego gets in the way of my common sense.
Captain was dangerous. I have other horses to ride. A daughter to bring to adulthood. A family to make dinner for. A very healthy credit card bill that needs to be paid every single month.
I had no business riding that horse. He intrigued me. He was very engaging in a hopeless sort of way. I wanted to be the one who fixed him. I wanted to be right. It turned out I wasn't.

2. I need to trust my instincts.
I was afraid of Captain. I was working in an atmosphere that continually challenged every core belief I had about horse behavior and training. I felt incompetent because I couldn't get a handle on him.
Part of what makes me a strong trainer is the fact that I continually doubt my abilities. I constantly question every move I make, and worry that I could have tried one more thing and that would be the magic formula.
Part of what makes me a weak trainer is the fact that I continually doubt my abilities.
I should have listened to my gut. I was afraid of him for a reason.
Even when I had him riding well enough to let other people tool around on him, I never truly relaxed. In my heart I knew he wasn't right.

3. Not all horses deserve to be saved.
When a horse is willing to injure himself in order to escape what he perceives as a bad situation, his rider will NEVER be safe.
If he has no regard for himself, you can bet you will never cross his mind in a high stress situation.
The first horse I trained for Reined Cowhorse competition was more athlete than I was rider.
On one of our fence turns I lost my seat and started to come off. She stopped and waited for me to find my seat, and then continued down the fence. She was considered an extremely unreliable and rowdy horse. I trusted her implicitly. She always knew where her feet were. She always knew where I was.
Captain didn't know what planet he was on.
There are a lot of good minded horses that end up at the sales. There are too many people tying themselves to bad minded horses and losing out on the joys of owning a good horse. There are more horses than people who want them. You might as well go with a good one.

4. Horses can suffer from psychoses.
He tried to climb through a window with me on him. 'Nuff said.

5. All horses deserve a chance.
I believe this with all my heart. I will never regret riding Captain. My regret comes from letting it go on too long. Unfortunately I was really fond of the stupid bastard. I have notoriously bad taste in men too.

6. Just because I can ride them doesn't mean I have to.
Captain got me over (forever and ever) the notion that I had to ride every horse I have brought to me. I have finally learned to call the owners and say "Come pick them up." It took me years to get there. I even have a list of other trainers I'll send people to. I've lost a few customers that way, but none that I needed to keep.

7. If a vice has succeeded for a horse in the past, it can always rear it's ugly head again.
Captain was a bolter. Some will buck. Other's will rear or flip over. I have learned the hard way that you can think you have completely rid a horse of a vice. Captain had not bolted since the very first rides. Not once. Until he almost killed my friend.
If any horse feels their life is in danger, and if nothing else is going to make them safe, they will return to the behavior that they feel worked for them. I don't care if they haven't done that behavior for fifteen years. It's still there.
If you can't handle them at their worst, then you shouldn't kid yourself that you'll never see it again. Be honest with yourself and your horse.
Most horses don't bolt, rear, or flip over. Really evaluate if you can stay safe with one that does.

8. I can really stick a horse when I'm terrified.
Captain made me realize I'm a pretty gnarly rider. He tested levels of flexibility and balance that I hadn't tried for years. He pushed my patience to the limits, and made me stretch the boundaries of my training techniques. I still like to think he'll end up with the right rider some day. It's a shame to waste that floaty trot.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Captain three

I've got a mare in training that flunked out of the reining program of one of the big boys. The longer I have her the more I'm beginning to understand why. She's a fruit loop. A bonified idiot.
Her Shining Spark blood can't save her.
I just found out that this mare had been on Regumate since she was two. When she got tossed out of the program the owners took her home and bred her.(Of course) To a pleasure horse. Someone please explain that to me.....They brought her to me after they weaned.
I do not have her on Regumate. She is a blazing freak when she's cycling.
My question is this, did the steady diet Regumate screw up her hormones?
Or is it possible that since she has always been on it she has never been taught how to cope without it?
Or is she simply the PMS queen of the quarter horse set?
Is this a training issue or a chemical problem? Any thoughts?

Captain Three

Captain found he could handle me getting on. He would walk around a little as long as I didn't try to pick up a rein. Or move my legs. Or scratch my nose.
He was still absolutely phobic about any kind of containment.
I understood that my sitting on him was pushing him to the limits of his claustrophobia.
I figured we would add the elements of riding one step at a time.
I didn't figure that he wouldn't let me off.
But he wouldn't. The little pixie.

Forty minutes after I got on I was still trying to ease off.
Every time I shifted my weight, his skinny little neck would hoist that big old, bug eyed head even higher. His butt would sink and he would skitter forward a few steps, I'd shift back, and he'd relax
Talk about keeping to the middle!

I knew I could do an emergency dismount and get out of there.
I also knew it would scare the crap out of him.
He really was trying to be good.

The Big K stuck his head back through the window. "You're going to be riding colts 'til midnight at this rate. Isn't it broke yet?"
"No it is not broke. I might be if I can't get off it."
"Good grief, you are such a gunzel."
The Big K never swears, but he might as well. Gunzel my butt.
"Take a deep breath, make sure you have just your toe in the stirrup, and swing off from the middle. Don't let your weight shift." He said.
"I meant today!" He added.
That's a tall order for an old, sweaty, fat woman. Ever obedient I went for it.
I hit the ground on my feet, Captain launched into space, but turned and looked at me when he landed.
"Hmmm." I said.
Captain snorted.
I'll be darned. There's reasons I put up with the Big K.

Inch by inch Captain started to relax. We were walking around the indoor. I could guide him by lifting one rein at a time. I never gathered him up or tried to hold him. I kept my legs soft, an imaginary quarter inch of air between him and me. I stopped him by, well, waiting for him to stop.
Then I would sink my weight, pick up on my reins, (they only changed position, I never pulled) and say whoa.
It still took at least ten minutes to get off him.

I tried to respect his fear. In return he really tried to cope, and cooperate.
I realized Captain was eager to work every day. He had become interested in what we were doing
Score for me.

We began to trot. Lo and behold, it was the loveliest, floatiest trot I had ever ridden. The increased speed seemed to soothe him. I tentatively began to ride with my seat. He became willing to accept my gentle direction. He had a natural cadence and drive that made me think there might be something to this boy.
I finally added my legs, one at a time. I could rest my calves on his sides and get a response by just tightening my muscles.
He would stop when I exhaled and said whoa. I began to make light contact with the bit.
I had bitted him after the first ride. While I normally ride in a side pull for the first ten or so rides, Captain had made me pee myself, just a little, but still... I wanted a snaffle. I needed to know I had some potential torque whether I could use it or not.
It had only taken two days of him thrashing and banging his head against the tie rail to get him to accept it.

When it was time to lope I couldn't do it. I was just too afraid. The ramming into the wall had made more of an impression than I could admit.
Every time I would encourage Captain to transition up he would gather himself and start chugging almost in place. Remember, I had my reins thrown completely out. He felt like I was hanging on his face, and getting ready to blow.
I sucked up and asked one of the other apprentice trainers to do it. I have slowly watched my pride leach away over the years.The need for self preservation has overcome most of my stiff necked inclinations.
Lucky for me, the other junior trainer was only too happy to show me how much better he was than I. It always works for me when somebody's high self esteem is matched by an equally low I.Q.
I should be nice. He did get up there. He did get Captain to lope.
After they blew around the arena two or three times, and bounced off a few walls.
Once again, kudos to Jr. Big K. He hung in there. He helped me.
He wouldn't get on him again.

I called the Morgan trainer that had started him. I asked him how it had gone with Captain.
He wouldn't give me much, but I did find out that he had longed him in the full bitting rig they use to teach the Morgans that high, pulled back, head set.
He made him stand for hours in his stall bitted in that rig.

That made the light bulb go on.
When I was asking Captain to go forward he was expecting to hit the restraint of the rig.
My poor claustrophbic psychopath had spent five months in a straight jacket and a cell.

I continued to ride Captain with almost no contact. It's not that far a stretch from how I start them anyway. He just brought out the, "please, I want to curl up in a fetal position and grab on with everything I have" in me, so it was harder to do.
I would take him left or right with a single rein, or light pressure from my legs, but never both at the same time.
I stopped him with my seat. If he didn't stop I would wait until he did, then reinforce my relax, exhale, legs off , whoa cue.
I asked him for forward with my calves, and let him find his lope on his own time.
It was beautiful.

He wanted to lope with his nose almost to the ground. It was a little unnerving, but his back stayed relaxed, (even if mine didn't) so I let him have it. I have always figured he was playing with the freedom I gave his head. Or just messing with mine.

He began to back! I would ask with a tightening of my reins in a left, right motion, after he stopped, and he began to take a step or two.
It was my first attempt at containment with my reins, and he accepted it.

His owner called and asked if he had a good turn around.
I screamed something intelligible into the phone.
She added a nice bonus on my next paycheck.

Now that I had a handle on why he was so freaked by any kind of hold, I felt like I had a base to work with. I kept alternating my cues, but made them stronger and more definite. I expected him to respond to me, if he didn't whoa off my seat, I'd give him the back cue. Discipline! He accepted it with grace. We were on our way. I began to relax. Big mistake.

I had forgotten Captain was deranged from day one. I had been happily blaming the Morgan guy for all our problems. I had put Captain in a category, a slot, a place I felt safer in.I was trotting Captain along the arena wall. He was motoring along at a pretty good rate, he was soft in my hands, with light contact. I was drifting off, enjoying his wonderful trot.

There was a series of windows, about five feet off the ground, that went the length of the arena. There was a pen of horses outside windows. A horse stuck his inquiring nose through the window as we passed by. Captain looked at him, nickered, and tried to go through the window. He got his head and front legs through before I grabbed hold of the reins. I jerked hard with my outside rein and pulled him to the ground. Typical Captain, he didn't spook until he had all four back in the arena. Then he bolted.

That was the last straw. I was over it. I sat quiet for about four strides, and then pulled his head to the wall. I kicked hard with my wall side heel. He actually responded, disengaged, and did a respectable turn We did about six of those before he settled into a working lope. I let him have a few turns around the arena and asked for a whoa. He stopped, rocked back and ready, so I backed him five or six steps. Then I slid off. For once he didn't spook. I bent over, hands on my knees, and took some deep breaths. I felt him nibble lightly at my sweat slick T-shirt.

From that day on I rode Captain like any other young horse. He was ready. Still really strange, but ready. I never let my guard down. He kept trying. He kept things interesting. At the end of 120 days he could ride inside or out. He stood tied. The farrier and vet could handle him. He knew his leads. He had a pretty decent turn around. We were down to only five minutes until I could dismount. I sent him home.

A year later his owner brought him back. Nobody would buy him. She had tried to keep him ridden, but was afraid of him."He's never actually done anything, but I never feel like he's all there. He won't let me dismount."

"Yup." I said.

So now I was supposed to tune him up, get him used to other people riding him, and keep him until sold. I had Captain all summer. I rode him. My daughter rode him. My upper level students rode him. My dressage buddy came and rode him. She loved his floaty gaits, said he was "feely". He made everybody a little nervous. Nobody bought him.

The owner took him home in the fall. He spent the winter tearing down fences. His owner spent the winter tearing out her hair. Nobody bought him.

She brought him back for one more shot. He nickered when he saw me. I rode him for a few weeks. He was actually pretty good.

She found a potential buyer. A way too green one in my opinion. I was testily informed that she worked with a trainer and would be fine. When she mounted she lugged herself up, and kneed him in the flank. Captain jumped, the potential buyer hit the dirt. I rode him until he was no longer white eyed. She wanted to try again. Captain wouldn't let her anywhere near. Smart Captain. I called a halt to that one.

A few weeks later the owner called to say she was bringing out somebody else. Their John Lyons certified trainer was coming with.

"That might work."I said.

The afternoon they were coming I got him out and took him through his paces. His ground work was solid. I rode him for about forty five minutes. It was all good. One of my best students was hanging out that day. She is one of my best friends, and a hand. She had ridden Captain before.

"Hop on him for a minute or two would you?" I asked. "I want to make sure he's over that spooking crap with other riders."

She got up without any trouble. She walked him around for about ten minutes. The farrier drove up.

"Just trot a circle and we'll make sure you can get dismounted." I said.

My student, my friend, clucked to Captain. He bolted. As he came through the corner he actually picked up more speed. He slung her into the iron rail of our arena. She ended up in ICU for several days. She had 6 broken ribs, a deflated lung, cracked vertebrae, a broken shoulder and clavicle. I called the owner and told her to get him off my place within the week. No one was to ride him. I didn't want him touched until he was loaded into the trailer.

She gave him to the John Lyons certified trainer. The trainer was sure any horse could be trained if approached the right way. She had a lot of confidence in her abilities.. She thought she was pretty hot stuff.

It turns out the John Lyons trainer was not quite certified. The first and only horse she had ever trained had come up lame before she finished. She planned on using Captain to finish her course.

Captain never made it. I heard stories about how smart he was. How quickly he picked up on his round pen work. (Well duh, he could lead change, half pass, stop and spin) Then nothing. The last I heard the new trainer tried to ride him. Once. Captain is now a pasture ornament. He is fat and shiny, and teases them as he races by with his fluid, beautiful gaits.

Score a big one for Captain.

I guess.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Captain two

Our last new baby was born yesterday. A beautiful, straight legged sorrel filly. We only had three this year. Boss is only breeding two mares this year. Our hay guy called and said the last time he had fuel delivered it was 5.00 a gallon. The market for horse sales is slightly up around here. I wonder if it will crash again when first cutting prices come out?
It seems that the higher priced horses are selling just fine. It's the lower end ones that are stalling out. I guess that means to buy and breed top quality, or stay out of the business.
So getting back to the lower end of the horse biz....

Captain two

I stood and watched as Captain circled me, doing his happy dinner dance. I could tell he felt we had gotten a lot done that day. He had almost broken through my barrier of resistance. He was sure I was ready to join up and board his Horse + Woman + Ship. With his help he knew I could find the way of the horse. One look in my eye and Captain was positive I was going to find true unity, understand him to the depths his very soul, and leave him the hell alone.
Something inside me snapped.
I turned around and took him back to his tie spot. I tied him up securely and left him. I listened to him scream and holler while I went to do my chores. I chewed on the situation while I put up my other horses and fed the stock.
When I came back to my special friend, I brought two water buckets, a full hay bag, and an extra halter. I tied up the hay bag and the water buckets ten feet down, and around the corner from his usual spot. Then I got Captain, put the second halter on top of the first, and tied him to his new feeding station.
Captain assessed his new situation, and promptly struck at water bucket #1. Water flew everywhere. He looked at me with flattened ears and pawed at bucket #2.
I knocked on the Big Kahuna's door, and told him what I was up to.
"Make sure I can see him from the window." He growled.
I'm not going to come out and check on him all night."
Then I went home. As I drove away Captain was knocking his hay bag around with his head.
The next morning my little buddy was wailing with everything he had.
His hay was scattered all around his feet. I don't think he got a single bite.
One of the halters was undone and laying on the ground. It gave me a moments pause when I realized it was the halter underneath, not the one on top. One of his lead ropes was chewed through.
I ignored it all, filled his bucket, and gave him fresh hay.
He very gratefully drank his fill of water, and then went on to quietly munch his hay.
Score one for me.
When he was done, I moved him over to his usual spot.
Captain was horrified. He sucked back, he jumped, he kicked.
I left and started getting out my string of horses to ride.
About noon the Big Kahuna, aka Mr. Communication, loped past and grunted, nodding towards Captain.
He was standing with his hip cocked, dozing in the sun. Silent. OMG!
I rode over to him, crawled over the fence, and took him to his feeding station. I let him tank up and gave him a little lunch.
When he was done I took him back to his tie spot. He sighed, and licked his chops. I scratched his butt and went back to work.
At dinner time he threw a monumental fit. I ignored him until all my chores were done and then put him back at his feed station. With two halters and three lead ropes, all slathered with Chew Stop.
When I left him, he was eating his hay, ears flat back, and his tail wringing, but he was eating.
The next morning he nickered a greeting. He still had half a bucket of water. There was no hay thrown on the ground. He ate his breakfast, ears and tail relaxed. He watched peacefully as I worked my line of babies.
When I took him to his tie spot he immediately cocked his hip, dropped his head and got ready to nap.
So I saddled him.
He tolerated the saddle pad after about ten tries. I was polite the first five tries. Then I just threw it on him.
When I could drag the pad all over him with only mild freak outs, I picked up my colt saddle.
One look and he threw himself on the ground.
I stood and waited.
Then I put my saddle down, sat on it, and waited.
Captain got up.
I put the pad back on him, and picked up my saddle. Captain went down.
After the third throw down he quit. I got the saddle on and cinched without more quivering than any other normal horse.
I left him saddled for the rest of the day.
He bucked in place for awhile. Pawed his excavation pit a bit bigger.
He didn't suck back, or throw himself. No wailing.
He spent most of the afternoon alternately kicking each stirrup and turning to watch them swing.
That night when I put my other horses up and fed, Captain watched. He pawed a little, but stayed quiet.
He was afraid when I unsaddled him, but handled it.
When I took him to his hay bags he dove in. No muss, no fuss. I scratched his butt and left.
The next morning he nickered again. Politely led back and forth to his tie spots.
He only threw himself once when I saddled him.
He was quiet all day.
That night I led him to his stall. He was quiet on the lead rope. He whinnied to his barn buddies as we came in, but didn't pull on me once.
Score two for me.
The next morning he was still in his stall. He nickered to me. Faced up and let me put his halter on. Led out the perfect gentleman.
Got saddled like a grown up, with a minimum of flinching.
Every day for a week he stood saddled, quiet and polite.
It was time to start riding.
With most horses I would be doing lots of ground work at this point. Remember, Captain had spent 5 months with the Morgan trainer.
I knew he had learned something, because he would do that weird Morgan stretch every time he was worried. (It took forever to get rid of that one.)
I felt like I had to use the momentum I had going.
And I was tired of getting razzed by the guys at the barn.
We're cowboys. I had been dinking with Captain for almost 60 days and still wasn't on him. That is not the cowboy way.
So I took him into the indoor, longed the stink off him, and started my "get on the first time" ritual.
I pulled on the stirrups. I swung them back and forth. I pulled the saddle back and forth. I patted his butt. I pulled on the back cinch. I made sure he had a little give to the right and left with the side pull.
I put a little weight in the stirrup. All systems were go. Don't get me wrong, Captain had done his fair share of jumping and spooking. But none of it was out of the realm of manageable.
I took a light hold of my inside rein and bounced up and down in the stirrup. I stood up.
Captain took off.
His head flopped to the side, he took his shoulder and bolted across the arena. We hit the arena wall.
Captain stopped. I stepped off.
We took a breath, I led him to the middle of the arena and tried again.
As soon as I stood up he bolted again. With his head flopped over he was running blind. I could have sworn I was on one of Parelli's finest.We hit the wall again.
I stepped off, and looked at Captain.
He looked at me. Hmmm.
The Big Kahuna leaned in through the arena window.
"You OK? There's an awful lot of banging going on in here."
"He's taking his shoulder and bolting when I stand up in the stirrup." I said.
"Well step off and whack him."
"He gets going too fast. I can't get off."
"Turn him."
He has his head flopped to my knee."
"You're pulling to hard, give him his head."
The Big Kahuna is big on giving them their head. No matter what they're doing.
"I am NOT pulling." I was getting exasperated.
"Show me."
Like I wanted to do that. Sigh.
So I led him to the middle of the arena and stood up in the stirrup.
You know the drill. BANG!
"Well at least he hits first." Says the Big K.
"That's not helping." I replied.
"Tie him up."
"I am not getting on him tied. He'll beat me to death on the walls."
"Don't get on him. What kind of a fool are you? Sheesh. He's afraid of you standing over his head. Just step up and down until he can deal."
"OK." I felt a little dubious, but The Big K is usually right in these matters. Plus I had to do what he said. Always.
"And hurry up, you're behind on your rides."
At least I knew he cared.
After 20 or so tries at stepping up and down on both sides, Captain decided I wasn't going to kill him.
I took him back to the middle of the arena and completely gave him his head.
I stood up in the stirrup.
He shifted around, and slung his head, but he didn't run.
I didn't puke all over my saddle. It was all good.
I got on.
He started to chug. Feet going, but not really moving anywhere.
I lightly picked up his rein and he skittered in a circle.
He stopped.
I tried to remember how to breathe.
He sighed and I felt his back relax.
I scratched his neck, and made myself relax too.
I didn't barf.
He didn't bolt.
Score Three.
This is getting longer than I planned, so I guess I have to go to part three. See you next post.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I have written quite a bit about the trainers I have ridden with, and the fact that I have a tendency to give Walter Farley the same weight as Monte Foreman when it comes to training tips.
My most influential teachers have been the horses I've been lucky enough to work with.
I've had the privilege of keeping a Grand Prix Dressage horse legged up while his owners were on vacation. (OK you dressage guys, I now get why you'll take 100 years to train your horse. He was the coolest thing ever. You should have seen his face when I plopped my beat up old cutting saddle on his giant WB self :)
I've also been handed some of the rankest, scabbiest, nastiest stuff you can imagine. These are always the ones that need to be finished reiners in thirty days or less. Don't get me wrong, I never promise that this can actually happen, although I have noticed the people who expect this usually can't ride well enough to tell what they've got when I'm done.
Once in a while even I get tired of my eternal, righteous yammering. So I thought I'd periodically share a story of different horses I've had come through my life. I'll try to keep a balance between my successes and my failures. The real force that has shaped me as a trainer.
If it's boring let me know. I plan on keeping up the Mort stories too.

Captain was different the day he was born. His mother was a beloved pet. His sire a well bred cowhorse. Captain hit the ground running like a mustang. He was wild eyed at the sight of anything remotely human.
As the days went by he displayed no curiosity towards the quiet, friendly people that worked around him. His mother was relaxed and mild, perfectly willing to let people see her baby. Captain was not.
His first vet visit was wild and out of control. The vet, a well seasoned and kindly horse specialist, ended up with a little tiny hoof print in his forehead.
"You're going to have fun with that one." He told the owner.
Captain and his mother were moved out to live with a broodmare band on plenty of acreage. He ran like crazy, but never socialized with the rest of the foals.
His mother was dominant in the herd, but Captain never took advantage of her status. He continued to hide from potential friends, both human and equine.
At ninety days his increasingly nervous owner asked for help getting a halter on him. The struggle that ensued became an epic tale that still resounds across the eastern Colorado plains today. There was blood. Lots. None of it on, or from, Captain.
Once the halter was finally buckled on his head he flipped over backwards, three times in succession. Keep in mind, there was no restraint, no lead ropes. Nobody was trying to hold him. Just a freaking halter.
Fast forward three years later. I got a phone call from his very weary owner. Captain was still with her. He had gotten over his fear of people. He would happily mow anybody down to say hi. As long as he wasn't tied. As long as nobody tried to catch him. Or saddle him. Or trim his feet. Or vet him.
He had gotten over his fear of other horses. He would regularly rear up and hook his front legs over the top rail of his run to say hi to the horse next to him. He was extremely studdy, even though he had been gelded as a yearling.
He had spent five months with a Morgan trainer. A trainer I knew to be a good hand. He came back to the owner unridden. He was easier to catch, and he would lead, kind of. The trainer didn't want him back.
"Please see what you can do." The owner begged. "I want to sell him, but I can't like this."
She was willing to give me 120 days to get him ridden. She was trying to give this wacky horse a fair shake.
At that time I was sure that any horse could be trained if it was approached in the right way. I had a lot of confidence in my abilities. I thought I was pretty hot stuff.
I warned her that I was going to be tough on the horse. I was going to insist that he accept each step of his training. I was sure he just needed my guidance and he would be fine.
Captain had grown into a tall, weedy, big headed bay. His chest was so narrow it looked like both front legs came out of the same hole. He was weak loined, and narrow rumped. If ever a horse need to be well broke and sociable, it was him.
The first week I had him I tried to do some basic ground work. He would run and charge over me like I wasn't there. I would snap the lead rope as discipline and he would fly into a wild panic.
Our own version of "Airs Above The Ground" would follow.
I tried some simple, free longe, NH stuff in the round pen. Captain had been there ... wouldn't do it. He just threw himself at the round pen walls with no regard to where I was.
I tried to pony him off another horse. At the first hint of pressure he freaked and threw himself on the ground. Where he commenced to lay there groaning. The groaning grew to astounding wails that I had never heard come out of a horse.
I soon grew used to Captain's weird wailing. He did it every time he felt a need to comment on anything I did to him.
At the end of the day he would go happily to his stall for dinner. Every morning he would greet me, forelegs over the stall door, stretching out his neck to nicker a friendly "Hey, how ya doin'?"
I spent a lot of time rounding him up. He kept crawling over the five foot gate at the front of his stall.
I was getting the idea that Captain had some issues with confinement. That was the base of all his troubles. I'm a little slow sometimes, but when I get it, by jingo, I'm on it.
Every morning I began wrestling him out to an isolated spot on our arena rail. I would tie him and leave.
Captain would spend the day throwing himself to the ground. Trying to jump the rail. Digging giant holes. Rearing, bucking, and of course, filling the air with his weird wailing. I kept half an eye on him, but went about my day as if he was fine.
At the end of the day I would go to untie him. Every day he was white eyed, covered in sweat, and shaking. Every day he would spook and blow as I approached him. I ignored all of it. Talked to him cheerfully as I took him back to his stall.
As soon as I put him up he would relax, take a drink, and grab a mouthful of hay. He would turn and look at me, friendly and calm as could be.
The next day we would start again. This went on for thirty days.
I noticed that Captain was never hurt in any way. With all his flinging around he never had a mark on him.
No scrapes, no bumps, no sore spots. I on the other hand was pretty dang black and blue. Hmmmm.
At the beginning of our second month Captain decided to up the ante. He started rearing high enough to get his forelegs over the top rail of the arena. Then he would climb the fence with his hind legs and flip over to the other side.
The wailing would begin. And he was in our way.
After the third time I had to untie the still unscathed Captain and take him back around to his tie spot, I made my first big mistake.
I decided to tie him to the middle rail so he couldn't get his head over the fence.
I was working another horse when my mentor came riding up to me.
"Look at your little buddy." The Big Kahuna said.
"Oh hell." Was all I could come up with.
Captain had managed to get his front legs over the top rail. His head was still tied to the middle rail. He had tried to climb the fence with his hind legs, and they had slipped through the first and second rail.
He was hung like a Salem witch in the stocks. Wailing.
The Big Kahuna and I just sat our horses, staring at my little train wreck.
"How am I going to get that undone without killing him or me?" I asked my role model, my mentor, The Big Kahuna.
"Beats me." He shrugged, and went back to loping.
Big sigh from me.
I rode over to him. I looked him in the eye. He looked back at me, not as scared as I felt he should be.
I leaned down and started working on my very tight quick release knot. Eventually I was able to quick release his head.
As soon as he felt the rope loosen he started to flail like a maniac.
He managed to pull his front legs off the fence and crashed to the ground.
I hung on to the rope, and retied him as soon as he stood up, this time back to the top rail.
Captain hit the end of the rope and started slamming against the fence.
I rode away and didn't even look at him.
When it was time to put him up I went over him carefully. He had two slight scrapes on the back of his forelegs. He felt frisky enough to buck a circle around me. That night I changed my tactics.
I'll finish this up tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

But I love her!

There are lots of horses needing homes. Lots. I often get going on what not to do as a horse owner. I work hard at being the best horse woman I can be, and try to land on the side of the horse as often as possible. I feel I set a pretty high standard as to what an owner needs to accomplish to deserve the hayburner in the back yard.
I know I push myself, and my students pretty hard with my expectations. I lost a potentially very big money client this year. I did it by challenging their motivation for owning a horse at all. Now another trainer has them that is better at making them feel good about what they're doing.
I could rant about the injustice of them not listening to me, or be angry at the clients for going where they can hear what they want to hear. I could be mad at the other trainer for playing their game.
Instead I'm evaluating what makes a person a good horse owner. I'm evaluating whether my standards are actually serving the horses, or my ego.
I have heard two truths over the years that base my core belief in how I need to manage my life with horses.
The first came from a very wise and realistic trainer early on in my open riding years.
The horse I was showing was a very stressed, over trained, ulcer ridden stud with no manners. In those days I was still thinking I had to prove myself. Which meant I would crawl on anything with hair. I automatically assumed anything that went awry was my fault, even though I had inherited this horse from another training barn.
During this five day show I had endured him dragging me across the arena, after a mare, when I dropped his bridle for a bit check. I was saved when a fellow exhibitor left his horse and helped me tackle him.
Throwing a hysterical fit and kicking a trail course to smithereens.
Mounting a mare WHO WAS BEING RIDDEN while his owner was warming him up for their non-pro pleasure class.
Bucking through every lead change on a riding control course.
I was sitting on him that night, watching the rest of the show, which was going quite smoothly without us, by the way. We were both too wiped out to fight, so I guess you could say we were in a peaceful place.
I was talking about him to another trainer, and was struggling to say something positive.
"He's just so stressed by all this commotion." I started.
"Stressed my ass." The other trainer said.
"This is how I see it. We feed them, vet them, float their teeth, groom them, and protect them from the elements." she added.
"We buy every gadget known to man kind for their comfort.
We have extended their live expectancy 15 to 20 years past what it would be in the wild.
If I decide I need them to go to a horse show and show for eight or nine hours because I'm an idiot, then they can damn well do it."
I never forgot that.
The other was from a client who had tipped a few too many one night at another show, many years later.
"This show stuff is just nuts." He said.
"We talk about horses that want to show, or like the spot light. Who are we kidding?
You know what a horse wants out of life?
Four things.
They want to eat, sleep in the sun, run on a windy day, and take as many big healthy dumps as they can possibly fit in."
I never forgot that one either. I call them the big four.
So what makes a good owner? In my mind it's one that gives their horse the big four as often as possible.
So a lot can be forgiven. Stupid mistakes. Bad decisions. Poor riding.
Remember, your horse will forgive it all if it has plenty to eat and drink.
I have a client who refuses to take a lesson. I have no idea why.
She has had me train every horse she has.
I have advanced each of them to a much higher level then she can ever hope to ride to. Only because she won't come learn how to ride them.
This used to drive me absolutely nuts.
It finally occurred to me that her horses could care less.
They happily sink to her level and motor her around where she pleases.
She will not extend one iota of effort to improve her skills.
She enjoys riding fancy horses.
She loves them, gives them plenty of the big four, and brags on them endlessly. They stay with her forever.
I consider her an excellent owner.
I have worked with owners who knew nothing about horses but still owned at least one . They usually show up, flustered, scared, and pretty belligerent. Their horse is almost invariably, long footed, thin and pissed off. I had one show up once with the halter on upside down. No joke.
I used to cop a pretty officious attitude. I shamed them, and made them feel like they didn't deserve to ride a tricycle, much less a horse.
Good for my ego, bad for business.
Bad for the horse.
Now I thank them. Ask them what their goals are. Gently start guiding them to giving their horse the big four. I try to remember, that no matter how difficult they are, they came for help.
I consider them excellent horse owners.
I had a client. The daughter owned a very talented, very fried little cowhorse mare. She was bought from another young girl that had won a lot on her, fried her brain, and proceeded to dump her on the clients.
They knew the horse was fried. They bought her because they loved her. They were going to give her a forever home.
I knew all this because they told me this repeatedly.
They decided to make her a versatility horse.
Makes sense doesn't it? She's too fried to compete in cowhorse, so let's add three or four more events. That should calm her down.
Their trainer tried to slow them down. She worked on their horsemanship. She put the horse in a softer bit. She did what she could.
I met them when they came to a cowhorse clinic I was the clinician for.
Their trainer recommended they bring me the horse. I got the mare for thirty days. They were very worried. They had never let one of their babies go to a trainer before.
They loved her so.
They brought the horse with an astounding number of supplements.
Blankets. Instructions. So many instructions.
I stressed the importance of them coming out at least twice a week during the thirty days. I felt it was vital the young girl learned to ride the mare as I worked with her.
We made out a schedule.
They cried when they left her. They loved her so much.
The next time I saw them was three weeks later.
They couldn't believe how calm she was.
"I've never seen her so happy!" Mom kept saying over and over.
I was a little confused. This mare was pretty dang grumpy.
We squeezed in two good lessons on her in the next week.
The mare worked well and the daughter was an excellent rider.
They took her home a week early because Christmas was coming and they wanted to make sure she got her Christmas Carrots. They loved her so.
The next time I saw them Mom was saying, "We could barely get her in the trailer. She hid in the barn when we pulled up. She chases us out of her pen. I hate that bitch. If you can't fix this she's going down the road."
Guess what?
I'm not thinking they're going to pick up on the big four.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Surely, This Mess Can't Be My Fault?

I'm on a reprieve. I was supposed to show a horse to a client today, and she called in sick. I guess that's OK. It's not like I need the dough or anything. (grumble, whine)
It's all good, because this client falls into the category of a topic that's I keep chewing on.
She's responsible, educated, and loves her horses. She has developed a working relationship with me that is based on trust.
I keep thinking about all the other brand new, about to be horse owners out there.
Who's responsibility does the welfare of our horses come down to?
The buyer? The seller? The owner, or trainer?
We are a society that loves to blame somebody else for our whoas. (I know I'm misspelling woe, you good grammar cops you! I'm trying to be funny.)
I do my fair share of vilifying slimy horse traders, greedy trainers, and self serving clinicians.
Today I'm after the owner.
I'm after the parents who buy their kid a horse, and never look again, except to sign checks and bitch about vet bills.
I'm after the kids who ride their horse into the ground because they don't know any better.
I'm after the 40 year old woman who buys the horse she's dreamed of since she was a little girl, and finds out it wants to kick her teeth in rather then be caught, AFTER she brings it home.
Every one of these scenarios leads to horses at a sale. Horses that get picked up by the killers.
I'll start with the parents.
MOM!!! DAD!!! WAKE UP!!!!
Would you buy little Morgan a car and hand her the keys, just because she's driven her friend Buffy's car around the block a few times?
Would you buy her the cheapest car possible, and never hire a mechanic to look at the tires, or under the hood, especially if you knew nothing about cars?
Would you never check to see who she was driving with, where she was driving, or how she drove the car she was given?
Would you cut corners on maintenance and repairs on that piece of crap car because you didn't realize how expensive it would be?
Is anybody that stupid?
OK. Maybe you are, but I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt.
A horse is not a car.
It is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling being that has been dumped on your mercy. Not little Morgan's. Yours.
If you are too stupid to educate yourself on the reality of horse ownership, and all the inherent responsibility that comes with it, then your daughter will be too.
If you don't help her learn to be a kind, loving , and thinking horse owner, than she will be dumping the horse as soon as it hurts her, (it will) isn't competitive enough, (it won't be) or is permanently injured through ignorant use. (I guarantee that one)
If your actions teach her that you don't care enough about her to keep her safe, or that her horse is a throwaway, how's it going to go for your grand kids?
Now I'm after the kids.
Please, please, work as hard at learning about your horse as you worked your parents to buy the horse in the first place.
This is your horse. He depends on you for everything. He will give you everything he has in return for a fair shake.
Read books. Watch videos.
Now is the time and place for NH clinics. There's a few I wish you wouldn't go to, but any of them are better than none at all.
Take some basic dressage lessons. Even if you want to chase cans.
Learn how a horse thinks. How he works. How much joy there is in becoming his buddy. In understanding his body language.
Talk to your vet about nutrition. Feet. I can't say enough about feet. I'm big on asking vets for recommendations on everything from farriers to riding instruction. They know who's safe. They know who's honest. TRUST YOUR VET.
If you only want to ride then go to a riding stable. Ride a friends horse. Don't buy one.
If you only want to ride, you don't really want a horse.
Last but not least, I'm on to the 40 somethings that bought their dream horse and suddenly went Uh Oh.
I love you guys. You are my bread and butter. I am happy you have your horse. Now read all of the above and call me. Quick. I mean it. Hurry. And get out your check book.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Bravest Person I Know

We talk about bravery. Forcing ourselves to take the next step. Conquering the next phase step in our horse's training. I've been following some lively discussions over at Fuglyhorseoftheday on confronting our fears.
It always sends me around to one of my students, who I now look at as a good friend.
"Peg" is one of the bravest people I know. She is fun, intelligent, and diligent in her work with her horses. She has a soft spot for horses that need a helping hand. She is also terrified of them down to her deepest, darkest, unfathomable pits of dysfunction.
She intellectually knows that her fears are unreasonable. She knows that fear is what make her unsafe, not the horses themselves. She knows that her lack of leadership makes her horses challenge her.
Every day she faces her terror. As the years have gone by she has fought day by day, fear by fear. She is slowly winning her battle.
About three years ago,I was sitting around with my mentor's wife and her sister. I was reluctant to leave the shade and get back to work. We were all idly watching another of my students warm up her horse for our lesson.
"Look at that thing move. What a mess." Wicked Wife of the West said.
"She does run like a little sewing machine." I admitted.
"That woman has absolutely no feel." WWOTW said.
"She's working on it."
"You can't teach feel."
"She finally knows which lead she's on, and has gotten her lead changes the last couple of weeks.
I call that feel."
"How many years have you been wasting on her?"
I stood up, not feeling particularly cool in the shade anymore.
"I don't know why you bother with those kind of people." She said. " That horse is trash and she can't ride it."
WWOTHW was in all her glory now.
"She loves her horse, and she loves to ride." I replied and walked off to work with my student.
I owe WWOFTW thanks. She helped me clarify why I teach.
In a world of $50,000 show horses that live with their trainers, I work with people that keep their horses as close to them as possible and ride when they can. Surrounded by riders that come on week-ends (if that) to take instruction on horses that are ridden daily by professionals, my students may appear pretty raw.
The woman they were making fun of had been riding with me since her first horse. Basic horsemanship on an appendix OT mare with only one good leg. She learned to handle her horse, ride through all the terrain Colorado has to offer, and compete with success in some small day shows. She also learned a lot about nursing a troubled, not particularly sound horse.
The horse they were making fun of was a very cute foundation bred mare that is a half sister to my daughter's show horse. That horse was a multiple National Champion in youth AND open with the NRCHA. Not exactly what I call trash.
My student had bought her mare as a weanling. She showed her in halter as a yearling. With my help she broke the horse herself. She went through all the joys and frustrations of training a youngster.
As a five year old this little mare could do an extremely respectable reining pattern, and wanted to cow like no body's business. Her owner has been faithful to her lessons, works hard on her own riding and her mare's skills . Twice over the years she has saved up enough money to put 30 days on her with me. Both times were to tighten up specific maneuvers. The horse was mannerly and willing to learn. From riding her horse, I would say this woman has plenty of feel.
The mare is now eight. She is calm, cheerful, well loved and sound. I consider this one of my great success stories.
Peg is another. When I first started with her she was taking lessons from me at a local riding stable. She came out every week to ride our "dudes". I found out that she had three horses at home that she was afraid to ride.
She had fallen into the trap many new horses do.
She thought, Hmmmm. I love horses. I'll buy horses. OMG they're big. I'm thinking this one might just kill me. I wish I knew something about horses.
Unlike many, she started taking lessons. She stuck with the lessons, and her horses at home. She read everything she could get her hands on. She worked on getting them haltered. Getting them into a trailer. Getting them to me.
Her horses were very tough. Peg had ended up with abuse cases that didn't want anything to do with anybody.
Slowly we started to work on her riding. We walked and trotted for years. Every foot stomp, every spook, every head shake sent her into a well of panic that she had a terrible time pulling out of.
I talked her into selling a horse that was never going to calm down enough for her. She finally placed him with a teen age girl that loved his rowdy self. Peg cried when she let him go. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I found her a lovely, smart, and kind ranch gelding. She avoided riding him for years because he was cold backed. He had to be longed or he would buck.
She kept improving. Her skills and confidence kept coming.
We've been working together for eight years. She started to lope this winter. I saw her ride a buck on one of her rescues that would have drilled me into the dirt.
Some days Peg is so afraid we just walk and talk.
Some days I have to walk next to her, just gabbing, not mentioning her shaking hands, frozen back, or her drawn face.
I have ridden Peg's horses. They have become soft, quiet, and steady. They are smooth between my hands and knees. Rarely does a shoulder or rib poke out. She has done an excellent job.
This past year she has started going on group rides at a local arena. She lopes with them. A lot. She has shown in Western Pleasure at a day show. Her first time in she placed fourth. She loped.
She smiled.
The other day she went loping by me on her ranch horse. She was laughing and waving at me.
(I used to make her "queen wave" to get her to let go of the horn)
We are working towards ranch horse competition.
She has taught me the benefit of chiropractic for my horses.
If I need to know about the benefits of any type of feed or supplement I ask Peg.
She continues to gently push me to read stuff like the Zen of Mind Melding with your horse.
She loves her ground work. She's really good at it.
I see the love that shines in her eyes when she looks at her horses.
I see the triumph when she gets to the next step.
I know why I ride with those kinds of people.
Peg is the bravest person I know.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mugwump again

I wasn't going to post today, I'm behind on my horses. On the other hand, it's wet and rainy, there's one more cup in the pot, and I've got some questions rattling around in my head.
Yesterday my boss and I went to a local reining trainer for a tune-up.
I'm a big believer in getting outside help. Too many of us trainer folk get caught up in our own mystique. We start thinking we know it all. We worry that our clients will question our ability if we don't know all the answers. The most dangerous trainers I know are the ones that truly think they can solve it all.
In reined cowhorse we show three events. We have herd work, dry work, and fence work.
The herd work is our bastardized version of cutting. We know better then to call it cutting. Mainly because the cutters mock us. As they should.
Our herd work is mainly done on our futurity and derby horses. (Don't yell at me, I don't believe in futurities) We ride two handed. We steer. Our horses often use their inside hind leg to turn, a huge faux pas with the cutter guys.
Our dry work consists of a modified reining pattern. Slightly shorter in length, the horses are allowed a little more leeway in how each maneuver is executed. To my mind our dry work is a little freer, more forward than a reiner. The real reiners would tell you we're wild and half way out of control. Hey, talk to the horse. Our patterns are designed to emulate the moves a cowhorse makes while working a cow. Cowhorses are much more opinionated than a finished reiner, it shows in our work.
The fence work is all ours, baby. It is about control of the cow. Driving the cow forward instead of holding it in position, as in cutting. A good fence run is pure ballet. The horse is scored on how much work he does on his own, how complete is the control of the cow. Horse and rider need to be a team, show trust in each other, a willingness to relinquish control, or take it back, all while travelling up to 35 MPH down the fence. A good cowhorse is only going as fast as the situation dictates. A good score often comes from smart thinking, not crazy speed. If you have to hold your horse back on your run you need to go home and think a little bit.
The popular belief for a long time was that if you were fairly competent in all three events you would succeed. And you could. Then guys like Todd Bergen and Bob Avila started showing up.
Needless to say the bar was raised.
I have come to believe that the only way to succeed in this sport is to learn to cut like a cutter, and rein like a reiner, keep getting help on the fence, keep my mind open and my mouth shut. Except here. Where I can be as opinionated as I want.
In my quest for the perfect go I have gotten to peek into a lot of different worlds. In each and every one I keep seeing lame horses. Injected, drugged, stomachs churning with ulcers, horses.
Reiners with hocks so stiff their legs drag at the trot. They still slide with perfection. Time after time.
Cutters who can't even lope anymore, still eagerly going into the herd.
Cowhorses fried out of their minds, still bringing in the dough.
Where do we place the blame? The owners? The trainers? The sport standards?
I know the pleasure and all-around horses have the same problems.
What about you dressage guys? Am I right in thinking you have levels of competition designed for the age and ability of the horse?
What happens when you add a wealthy, inexperienced client that demands more?
Do dressage trainers have the same pressure to over train?
I started four horses for a veterinarian a couple of winters ago. She had a strong background in dressage. She came to me on a referral, plus I was close enough for her to keep an eye on me. I was trainer number four. This was not an easy deal.
I think she was taken aback when I asked her for some lessons. She happily complied. I got some wonderful input. She loved the rate of speed I train at. I'm considered slow by most, but fairly quick by her. She was happy, I was happy. It was a good winter.
So any dressage people who want to jump in here, please do. I know just enough to get in trouble. I still use what I learned about balance to this day. I also found out that my position in my cutting saddle is identical to a correct dressage seat. How cool is that? Except for my cutters slump of course. The vet kept begging me to sit up.
How about jumpers? Endurance riders?
Is it possible to attain the highest level of success in any equestrian sport and still have a horse sound in mind and body?
My personal horse is 6. She is just starting to be consistently competitive. I still show her lightly.
I am no longer considered a handy class stuffer, because I can occasionally bump the bubble. I am not yet taken seriously. My horse is still sound and reliable. I fight the feeling that I can never truly get to the top every day.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Horse Stories/Mort

I loved the responses from you guys on my last post. Thanks. I had a hard time writing that one. I feel guilty on many levels for going public with that stuff. But my guilt is for another day.
I need to leave the dark side for a while. I'm thinking I'll intersperse these tales of whoa with some favorite horse stories. Here's my first.

Mort/Chapter 1

Mort may have been the love of my life. Tall and handsome, volatile, funny and totally unpredictable. He was ill-mannered, wild, and lived fast. The first time he leaned over the fence and blew into my nostrils I was gone.
I was a lot like Mort. Not as tall, definitely not as good looking, but the rest pretty much fit.
One look into his big golden brown eyes and I was ready to follow him anywhere.
My parents, in a somewhat desperate attempt to help me find some balance in my life, were letting me buy a horse.
This horse would come with strings. I had to support him myself and keep him in a self-care facility. Good behavior on my part equalled keeping him.
Entering the horse world meant I had to take on the work and expense myself. They figured this would prove soon enough if I really wanted a horse. Eternal poverty, here I come. I never looked back.
I knew absolutely nothing about what I was getting into.
My experience consisted of a few years of riding lessons at the neighborhood riding stable and a close friend who owned horses.
I watched a lot of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Bonanza.
Bring em' on.
My poor parents were even more naive than I was.
When I tried Mort out the owner was waiting for my dad and me. He held the pretty dun, already saddled, his hand wrapped tight in the bridle. I got on, he handed me the reins and backed away. We headed into the city park at an extended trot. By the time we hit the trees we were at a fast lope. As we rounded the first bend in the trail we were at a dead run. I might have figured out he was running away with me if I had ever tried to stop him, but my reins stayed slack. I only steered, and he always went where I pointed him.
This was how John, Roy, Little Joe, and now I rode.
When we blew into the barn an hour later I knew we were meant to be.
"I love him!" I shouted as I swung down, already showing my developing prowess as a horse trader.
"Really?" The owner said, his eyebrows shot up high enough to make his Made in China, wool felt hat almost slide off his head. "Er, that's great."
As soon as it could happen I was the proud owner of Charro, soon to be known as Mort, a registered grandson of Poco Bueno.
Already in love, I failed to notice a few warning signs that a more seasoned horse woman might have picked up on.
The fact that he was the only horse at the boarding stable kept in a padlocked, six foot high run.
His scarred and lacerated tongue.
The two inch scars on both corners of his mouth.
The mechanical hackamore with a rubber covered, bicycle chain nose piece, that came with the horse.
The constant toss of his head that only subsided when he was running flat out.
The wicked glint in his eye. (OK, I saw that.)
I did notice the only things that mattered to me.
His big cheeked, heart stopping face.
The perfect diamond on his forehead.
The way his muzzle fit in my hand.
His blazing speed.
The power he was willing to share with me.
The way he laid his head on my shoulder, for just a second, after I dismounted from the first of thousands of rides.
It was all I needed to know.

Monday, May 12, 2008

What's in your Trainer's Tack Box?

We all have them. Tack boxes that have stuff in them that nobody but us needs to see. Tools that we have used in the past that would make a NH rider faint dead away. I'm talking about us trainers. Those evil minded, money grubbing, horse abusing maniacs that everybody ends up needing, at least once in awhile.
Some of us are truly invested in turning out the best horses and riders we can. We aren't evil. Really. We are under tons of pressure, from owners, time, each other. Our short cuts are stashed away in the back of the tack room. The stuff we want you to see will be hanging up in plain sight. The other stuff is in our tack box, pushed behind the saddle racks.
I was sitting around with a bunch of trainers after a 2 day clinic with one of our gods. If you want have some fun, try to watch or attend an open rider only clinic. The gloves are off man. There are no niceties, no feelings spared. Your guts are ripped out, and everybody rides over them.
At the end of the day , every concept you ever held true is ground to dust, your pride is shattered beyond hope. Then we all sit around with our clinician, the beer flowing free, talking into the night.
I heard of one trainer who will drive a screw through the balance point of his hackamore (bosal) and warm up before a class that way. He takes it out right before he shows. This way he can get his horses soft without soring their face.
I heard of another who won the NRHA snaffle bit futurity. His colt was a terrible gaper. He fixed it by drilling a hole through his horse's back molars. He had a wire back there that he could latch with his fingers when he bridled his horse. That held the horses mouth shut.
When they checked his bit at the end of his winning run he unlatched the wire as he removed the bit, and no one was the wiser.
A common practice is to use a logging chain wrapped in vet wrap to ride hackamore prospects. It keeps the nerves on their face sore without leaving a mark.
Another trainer covers the sores on his paint horses with white house paint. When it dries the paint is stiff enough to cover the spur marks and mouth sores "even if they're still bleeding." You learn a lot by sitting quietly in a corner.
The clinician, our god, noticed I was getting visibly upset. He changed the subject to which of the big name trainers are gay. (I'm telling you, the gossip is amazing at these things!)
The next morning, as we were warming up for our next day of abuse (that would be to us trainers, not our horses:>), the clinician pulled me aside. He said, "I can see that you are a very gentle rider."
Ever on the defensive, I replied,"I know I have to step up, I'm sorry."
"That's not what I'm saying" He said.
"There is a place for riders like you in this business. Your technical, and thorough. I like that. "
He then rode with me for half an hour, and gave me tips on the old fashioned development of a bridle horse.
He told me to keep my filly in the hackamore for two years. He said if I had a problem with her to work through my issues, instead of the standard practice of alternating between the bit and the hackamore. He gave me exercises and drills to soften her and drive her without scaring her into running through my hackamore. (Which is how the screw on the nose comes about) He told me if I did that I would develop in to a true hackamore horseman.
Then he winked and said, "Let's keep all this between us, we're driving those guys nuts."
Of course the rest of the day was filled with yelling and hollering, but I was on cloud nine all day.
My tack box doesn't have much in it. I have held true to the advice I was given and work hard to explore developing a true bridle horse. I've gotten pretty damn good with a hackamore.
My methods are simple. My training philosophy stays on the premise that if my horses doesn't understand something, I have to backtrack and start again until they do.
If they are pulling through my hands I go to less bit, not more.
I am quiet on a dull horse, and am active on a sensitive one.
If you are going to a new trainer, cruise through their barn. Be careful, we're a touchy, cranky breed, don't judge or comment, just look.
Look at their bits. Look at their spurs. Find their devices.
Check out the horses. Not just their weight. Are they happy and alert? Or do they stand with their head in the corner, listless and dull? Do they push at you, invade your space? Are the sides of their mouth raw? Are there spur marks on their sides?
You won't find the tack box, I can guarantee that. But we all have them. If the training equipment you see makes you nervous, remember there is stuff you don't see that is much harder. Be aware. Be responsible. Choose a trainer you can live with morally, not just the guy that can keep you in the ribbons.
Gotta go, the morning is beautiful and the wind hasn't started blowing yet.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Trained, or Broke?

If I am given 90 days to start a colt, this is what ideally happens.
In the first 30 days the horse will learn to be responsive and respectful on the ground. He will be comfortable carrying a saddle, work easily on a longe line, stand tied alone or in a group. He will stand for the farrier or vet. I'll get on him. We will walk, sometimes trot, and he'll stop off my seat. He will rock back a step or two when I ask.
The next 30 days will be a continuation of the first, building on what he's learned. We learn to serpentine and circle, and align his hips to his head through his turns, with help from my inside leg. He will be comfortable doing this at a walk and trot.
I add outside leg pressure. I begin to balance him between my hands and legs. His shoulders begin to line up and shift from the pressure of my outside leg.
We add the lope.
He becomes comfortable on both leads. We start going in a large, loose circle.
He will back five or six steps softly and easily.
The last 30 days I begin to work in straight lines. I work in squares and triangles. The control between my hand and leg increases. My stops start to become slides. The shoulder control develops into the beginning of a spin. We start to track cattle. The colt usually begins to soften at the poll, lift his back and increase his drive. The circles become more even and sure. His back picks up speed and cadence.
When all of that is done I feel that I have a good start on the training of a young horse. I have entered his mind. I've changed his way of looking at the world, prepared him to accept the life ahead of him.


A broke horse will walk off down the trail happy and interested. He doesn't need his buddies, doesn't rear and try to head back to the barn.
A broke horse won't explode and buck you off when a road grader goes by.
He doesn't bolt when a horse comes up behind him, or he sees other horses running in a field.
He doesn't spook when a plastic bag rolls by, or at arena doors banging in the wind.
A broke horse goes left when you point it that way. Same for the right.
He stands when you hoist yourself up in the stirrup, lose your balance, and fall on your ass under his belly.
You don't get to take points off if he turns and looks at you like your a moron.
I worked for a trainer that strongly felt that as the horse continued his training he would become broke. He simply got on and started riding.
When I had to lope his colts it went something like this.
First I caught them by backing them into a corner of their stall.
Then I led a leaping, bucking, quivering mess to the tie rail.
Imagine saddling a wild billy goat, or an antelope. That would be me and these colts. Leave the halter on, slide the bit in quick, and get them out to the middle of the pen.
When I put my foot in the stirrup I had to swing up quick, because they were humped up and jumping, which believe me, is hard on an old fat woman.
Then off we'd go. Now. Fast.
And we'd be loping a perfect, quiet, evenly cadenced circle on a thrown out rein.
Amazing. Beautiful.
Scared the crap out of me.
I know a 15 year old horse from his barn that is still campaigning. He has an AQHA World championship, his ROMs in reining and cowhorse, his superior in cowhorse.
He also sucks backs at the drop of a hat, will buck when he's annoyed, spooks at kids, dogs, the wind blowing, anything outside of the arena. He has single handedly taken apart more than one trailer.
He is still not broke.
A broke horse may not know how to slide stop, work a cow, or change leads. He has something that no arena baby will ever have, no matter how much training it comes with.
Time. Hours in the saddle. Years of sensible riding.
One of the most successful non-pro horses I know came off of a ranch. He is big and pretty. He was broke. The woman who bought him didn't pay much considering what a cowhorse costs these days.
She bought a broke, sound horse. Then she got him the training they needed. They are a steady winning, confident team. The horse takes on each horse show as another day at the ranch. They are unstoppable.
Which do you want?
Broke or trained?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Been to the Horse Show

I spent the last three days at a horse show. AQHA with one day of NRCHA classes thrown in.
We had to drive back and forth each day instead of staying because we had a mare about to foal and a precious package of fancy sperm held up in Tennessee.
I had two horses to school in reining, and my bosses brought a couple of theirs. They rode the stud that stands at the ranch, and an out of shape, but very hot and physical mare, that was just starting to compete again after two years off.
Since all of us were going to school our horses, the pressure was off and we could really enjoy ourselves. It didn't hurt that the weather was beautiful and we were at my favorite arena.
These are some of the things I saw.
Lots of colored horses. If you think you're adding to the value of your horse by breeding for color, forget it. Shining Spark and Hollywood Dunnit have dumped TONS of color into the show pen. Their talent is what made them leading sires. Their color has flooded the reining and cowhorse world. A blood bay is a rare delight.
I saw my first cremello competing in an AQHA show. He sucked. His hind legs were so bowed I can guarantee he'll have soundness issues. Of course he was a stud.
Lots of cowboys riding around in the warm up pen with their babies (as in the fruit of their loins) tucked in between them and the saddle horn. Cute look Dads, but a REALLY stupid trend. Cow horses are notoriously hot. There are SO MANY THINGS WRONG with this my head spins.
Moms, I don't care if it's the only way you can get them to babysit, make them stop.
Some beautiful, wonderful runs. There is a mare I admire greatly. Her name is Tsunami Lena.
She was in the middle of her spins, and with each rotation she would prick her ears and try to peek into the cow pen. How cool is that.
I counted five extremely lame horses that were competing. Only one was whistled off. When the horse and rider exited the arena I heard the rider say, "That's what I get for forgetting my spurs."
I stopped and watched a halter class for awhile. I actually saw some halter horses that looked like they could do something useful. Is this a sign?
An idiot on a very tiny two year old. He was riding it in the warm up pen. A cowhorse warm up pen is very fast and intense. The two year old was skittering all over in a mad panic. Of course he had great big spurs, a very heavy saddle, and the horse was bitted, so he smashed it into compliance in no time. This is how cowboys get a bad name. That man was not a cowboy. He was a dumb ass.
A lively Kentucky Derby party turned to dead silence. The show announcer let everyone know that Eight Belles had died. There were a lot of cowboy hats doffed in respect. There were some tears.
Beautiful horses, beautiful rides.
An old rancher showing in cowhorse. His horses were hairy and lean. He wasn't polished or slick, didn't have a chance in hell of placing, but man, could he ride.
Anyway, our schooling was quiet, calm successful.
I had a wonderful reining pattern the last day. My mare was everything I could have hoped for. We flew through our pattern sure and true. The arena faded away, the judge was gone, my fellow competitors a distant thought. Each maneuver was magic, the pattern was a world in itself.
I realize I have a great horse. The best I have ridden. She is sound. She is sane. We are partners on this show scene. She reminds me why I show. Why I train. Who I am.