Thursday, June 12, 2008

Me and the Big K

There was no wind. We sat our horses, letting them air up. The sun warmed through the back of our Carharts.
Steam rose off our horses flanks, and puffed a steady beat from their flared nostrils.
I scratched my horse's hip in idle synchronization. Salt quickly packed my fingernails.
"Look at her go to that mare." The Big K said.
I watched the young exchange student ride by. She pulled and tugged at the mouth of the struggling horse. Her spurs rolled up and down the heaving sides, asking for even more lift.
As soon as the young horse responded she called for an ill-timed whoa. The resulting mess ended in a lot of jerking and spurring on the part of the exchange student, and even more head flinging and tail wringing from the mare.
"They always go there." The Big K said.
"Go where?" I asked.
"They see me get after a horse and think, Aha! That's how he does it."
"Does what?"
The Big K looked at me and half grinned.
"Does what, she says. Train them. They think that's how I train them."
"What do you mean?"
The Big K leaned forward and ran a hand down his gray filly's neck.
"I get these new people in here. They follow me around, waiting to figure out THE BIG SECRET."
"Yeah, you're full of secrets."
I think I snorted a little.
"Any ways," he tried to look all mean, but he was about to crack up, "they come here and see me knocking a horse around, and they figure that's the trick. You have to start kicking them around."
The exchange student went burling past us, whaling away at that poor mare's face.
"What they never seem to see, is how much time I spend doing this."
Big K gave a vague wave toward his horse's ears.
"Doing what?" I asked.
"Well shoot, you're really good at it, I think you'd know. Doing nothing. Just sitting here."
"No. I mean it." He continued.
"I might get after them pretty good, but it's maybe ten percent of the time. The rest of the time I'm just sitting on them. Being quiet.
Nobody seems to see the ninety percent. They only pick up on the ten."
I leaned back against my cantle and pushed my weight into my stirrups. My bay colt cocked his hip and switched his tail in mild irritation.
"Why don't you tell them?" I asked.
"Seems to work better if I let them figure it out."
"What if they don't?"
"Then they'll give it up soon enough. I can't change a mind set better than a horse can."
"Isn't that hard on the horse?"
"You know I don't put the new ones on the good horses."
"When did I go through that?"
"Shoot, I'm still waiting on you."
"Say what?" Sometimes his cowboy ways can be a might wearing.
"I wish you'd get mad at them once in a while." He said.
"I get mad."
"Psssh. You only get mad at me and your dogs."
The Big Kahuna's gray filly started to paw at the dirt. He lifted his reins and looked towards the indoor arena. She immediately loped off, ears perked.
"C'mon", he said over his shoulder, "Those buffs aren't going to work any better if our horses are cold."
I looked over my shoulder before we stepped into the cold twilight of the indoor.
The exchange student had set her horse up for another rundown.


  1. Interesting approach to training the rider...but I could never do it that way.

    I'm too horse-centric. When I taught lessons, I warned people about that...I will not watch a horse suffer. If you are doing something to your horse that is making him or her unhappy, I will fix it. I will take away your reins and put you on a longe line without them if your hands are making him unhappy. Or I will take your horse's bridle away and make you ride in a halter. I'll be damned if I'm going to let people "figure it out" and potentially really F up a horse in the process. They can figure out instead that when they improve their riding, I'll give them back their reins.

    I also used to point out frequently that the mark of a good rider is that you cannot SEE the aids being applied. Sure, on a baby you may have to bump with your leg obviously, but on a made horse? Truly great riding is invisible. It looks like the person is just sitting there, and the horse just magically knows what to do. I love watching people who can ride like that.

    It's one reason I hate boarding. It just pains me to watch people F up nice horses with their bad tempers, inconsistent aids and generally crappy riding. I still want to write a book called "How Not To F Up Your First Horse," but I can't quite figure out which publisher I'll get it past with that title...

  2. Mugwup
    That is trully amazing. I, like VLC, would not be able to let the horse "teach" the rider like that.

    I've never trained or given lessons professionally, but whan I was being trained, my trainer would have literally walked over and jerked me off my horse if I were treating him like that. I was a hot-headed kid and had a quick temper, but she only had to threaten me with that ONCE...'cause I knew she'd do it.

    That threat and her one palamino mare, taught me to cool my temper. That mare was a refined reining horse and a half sister to my horse. All of these horses seem to be pretty sensitive and this mare would NOT tollerate a heavy handed, leg thumpin', grinding-seated rider. I was AFRAID to piss off that mare, not to mention she was my trainer's personal favorite mount. It was a great honor to be ALLOWED to ride that mare.

    I guess that mare would have taught well, but I don't think it would have been fair to her to expect her to.

  3. I thought that would get you guys going. There's lots of reasons I'm on my own now.

  4. All round nasty! Bad for the poor "not so good" horse used to "train" the student. Bad for the unsuspecting owner of the horse sent in for training but deemed not really good enough to protect from this kind of learning experience.

    Then you wonder why some horses just don't seem to progress in training or have bad attitudes when they come home!

    Somehow alot of this just rings of big ego on the part of the head guy. Enjoying with amusement as he sees people trying to copy him over and over -- but not caring enough about the poor horse who suffers in the mena time?

  5. Have to agree with Fugs and Char here. And I literally HAVE jerked a rider off of a horse for picking at them. ;) In my diffense, it was my daughter, and it has taken her to 18 yoa to develop that feeling for the horse that I was so mad at her for not having at 10 yoa. I actually hadn't tried to work with her in a couple of years, we kinda of gave up on each other (you know that momma can't tell you anything), but she still rode socially, and this week she has wanted to ride my show horse some, and I hung out watching her, and keeping my mouth shut. The little punk can RIDE. She was doing all the drills that I work carfully on him with, but bareback! It was amazing, and when I rode Wednesday, the horse was the better for it. :D

    Now, mug, how to teach a 17 year old WP horse (to whom whoa is a favorite gait) to do lead changes?

  6. Wow what perfect timing for this post. I always love listening to what you have to say. It reminds me so much of a dear friend of mine that passed away last summer.

    I was preaching yesterday as I sat on a horse saddled and mounted for the first time that you don't want to use gas unless you have breaks in a car, how different is a horse? Not. Same stop and go theory.
    You also wouldn't want to work on a cars engine with it in drive, you have to have a parking break. Same thing applies for a horse, no fun if a horse won't stand.

    There are horses that are experts in teaching riders to get off their sides and mouthes. I recall watching a video of a girls riding lesson. This horse was well trained, they jumped, she hung on his mouth and as soon as they landed the jump he put his breaks on momentarily enough to let the rider learn what hard ground feels like. I guess this horse does this unless you release right. Good horse.

  7. I'm going against the tide here, I think. There are some butt-headed horses (guess which QH bloodlines I'm thinking of?) for whom such treatment isn't necessarily always an invitation to ruin. They're going to be buttheads and tough-minded whether they have a tactful hand or a ham-fisted hand on them--self-protective sorts of horses that no matter what, you're going be struggling with.

    In the long run, they end up being good schoolmasters for just that sort of rider.

    The good schoolmaster horse will not tolerate such treatment, and the horse's own reaction is often more edifying than anything an instructor can do. I rode one Lipizzan-QH cross mare who would get spooky and jumpy if you got into her mouth too much and, if you got into her sides too much, would literally stop and pull your leg off of her side with her teeth (I didn't experience this, I was told about it by the instructor, as she commented on how calm the mare was under me).

    I've seen other schoolies whose reactions would be "you want a fight? Fine, I'll give it to you!" if you got too strong on them but would be an entirely different horse with tactful riding.

    That said, you have to manage the situation well. And to do that sort of thing with a green horse and a rider trying to learn to be a trainer requires a bit more cynicism than I have--but that's why I'm the ammy and my trainer's the trainer. That, plus I've had to be encouraged to get after a horse sometimes, rather than dialed down from it. I'm much more pushy with a horse on the ground than I am in the saddle.

  8. Ah, that reminds me. I saw a rider once being "trained" by a red roan 15 3 bitchy bitchy mare. This guy (god's gift to horsemanship in general, to hear him tell it. So GGH I guess,) thought that warming up should be done on an absurdly tight rein. This mare thought he should go to hell. He set his hands and asked her to walk, tail swish. He set his hands and asked harder, head toss. He set his hands and thumped hard on her sides with his legs, up she went. Most horses rear, they push up from their shoulders. This horse did a levade, she rocked back on her hind end, sat there for a second or two and then came back down. GGH rode it well, his body was like a plumb line to the ground through the whole thing. No one ever called him a fast learner though. He set his hands and whomped on her again. Up she goes, pause there, back down. I laughed, he ignored me, I suggested warming her up on a loose rein, he ignored me.

    Who broke first? You'd better believe that horse has never warmed up on anything other than a lose rein, and probably never will! GGH told me afterward in an informative voice (you know, should I ever have a similar problem...) "I discovered that what she wants is to warm up on a loose rein before going to work."

    He tried to make her go down a creek bank in a tight frame also. By the time he figured that out, she wasn't going down there anyway, just to spite him. He gave up and they went home. Reward. For the record, that horse loves water.

  9. Cathy wrote:
    I still want to write a book called "How Not To F Up Your First Horse," but I can't quite figure out which publisher I'll get it past with that title...

    Who needs a publisher when you can SELF PUBLISH and get a decent part of the proceeds maybe! And have full creative control!!! I can see a FHOTD blog book coming! Let me know if you want some design help on that. ;)


    And Mugwumps, I think a blog book would be a good idea for you, too!

  10. One more thing...I don’t board. Hopefully I never ever have to either!

    I have found that one of my biggest problems is finding an arena to haul-in to that doesn’t have some idiot yay-hoo wailing on a horse or riding with an inappropriate bit for the level of education of the horse.

    The worst one was a “winning” reined cowhorse trainer here in my area. My horse got really bothered just being in the presence of the dude before he even started working with the horse he brought into the arena that day. Nice looking bit in the horse’s mouth, but used as a pure torture device in addition to the nasty spur-roweling he gave that poor horse for the next hour. I can’t even remember the number of times that poor horse grunted and reared up to get away form the pain. He was in a full lather by the time he was done and the only thing I truly remember about what he was saying to the asshat student (older man) that he was teaching while he trained on that horse was that he was “Going to win.” And unfortunately, I bet he did win in competition with that horse. And probably made some money, too.

    To top it off, out back there was at least one horse with his head tied around to the saddle. And while I was trying to ride that day, this dude’s “assistant” turned another horse loose in the arena with me with his head tied down (like draw reins with along-shanked broken mouthpiece bit) after he removed the drenched horse from the arena. The horse came over to Buena and I looking for some support. I literally told the horse that I was so sorry. He tried following us around the arena while we worked.

    The horses certainly weren’t ever winners. I haven’t been back to that arena since. The poor poor horses.

  11. ew ew ew. Why do people tie their horses heads to other parts of the horse?! There is a trainer in my barn who I saw tying this pony mare's head to her tail. I seriously dont understand what this is supposed to teach them. To bend better? To give to pressure? Surely its not just for cruel entertainment purposes, what do they want to accomplish?

  12. While I don't like the idea of a horse getting wallupped because the trainer is doing something wrong, I prefer learning through experience to instruction.

    I took lessons for most of my early riding career... 9 years or so. I had a lesson twice a week with a good trainer and I did some light riding in between if I could (this was all before I was old enough to drive, so I was dependent on parents for rides.) I idolized my trainer and she had some great things to say. I rode well and progressed through my lessons extremely quickly. But I never actually learned anything. Except to listen. And obey.

    If I did something wrong, she told me how to fix it right away. Just like that. So I obeyed and things went perfectly. But after my accident, and I sold that horse and moved away from English riding (or riding at all, for that matter) I realized that I didn't know shit.

    When I started riding again, it was like starting from scratch. I knew how to "sit" but I didn't know how to balance. I knew how to "ride" but I didn't know how to teach. Without someone there micromanaging me, I was lost. My journey since my fall has been very slow.. but everything I know now I've learned from experience and I actually KNOW. I own my knowledge now, I don't just rent it for $20 an hour from my instructor.

    Now, is that the best thing for my horse? Probably not. But he's not a sensitive fairy who's going to be killed by it. In fact, he's a fantastic teacher. I'm boring him? Buck. I'm not balancning correctly? Duck. I'm not set up for that X? Prop. Fly. Crash. I'm a slow learner. I've got some learn burns. I don't have all the answers, but I always try it a few different ways before asking for help. And more often than not, I can fix the problem myself.

    And what's interesting is that I know more after 4 years (including two where I didn't ride) of owning this horse than I did after 9 years of taking lessons.

    Is the the solution for those people wanting to show or progress quickly? No. But, then, I'm not one of those people. I just want to be good at horses. That's it. And I don't care how long that takes me.

    Besides, my horse is the best teacher I could ever find. And he doesn't charge a thing.

  13. loneplainsman- Guess what? You're a trainer.

  14. The idea behind tying their head around is makes them loosen their rib, soften their shoulder, and follow their nose.
    You can get on a colt and turn it left or right. It doesn't create the dreaded Parelli rubber neck.
    It also makes them submissive. Same as laying them down.
    It's a harsh short cut, albeit an effective one.
    You can teach them the same thing with careful groundwork.
    You can also teach respect without fear on the ground.
    Tying their head around is demoralizing, and I have known of a colt that was killed from it.
    Even the Big K abolished the practice at his place.

  15. Belive me somtimes horses can teach things that no human 'coach' ever could. We have a wonderful mare at my coaches place that has a line. You stay on her side, she is one of the top WP horses around. Boss her, use your spurs too much, hell even breath wrong some times and she'll have you off.

    I spent 3 months riding her. 2 of the months I never got to ride her without her bucking and trying to get me off. Ya know what? When I figured out I was holding too much with my left thigh, that I was sitting deaper in my right hip, and that I needed to keep my right sholder back, she stoped bucking. All of a sudden I had a fantastic horse. And now I have supper equation. :)

    Its a fine line between letting someone f#$% a horse up, and alowing somone to make mistakes. Have you seen a rank begginer ride?? hands too quick, legs kicking when they shouldnt not kicking when they should.... Its not that different... the person in charge needs to pick the correct horse that will fix the problem.

  16. On tieing around---I'm usually called overly easy on a horse, but I do tie a youngster around, AFTER finding that they won't give to my requests. I'm NOT going to fight them to give to me, but if he wants to fight his own tail, go ahead. Now I don't leave them all day, maybe 15 minutes, rarely longer. My last colt, a completely tough minded 3 year old, with both parents who are hugely sensitive seemed to get to spend most of every ride tied around for a while. I see it as sort of like tieing them out, gives them something to think about for a while.

  17. I tied lots of horses the late 80s and early 90s, when I worked at AQHA barns, when I was way too impressed with people just because they showed at the big shows and won, when I thought I was young and dumb and should just do what my employers told me to do...

    And then I grew up.

  18. (Here via VLC btw.)

    Huh. Interesting.

    You know, I totally get what he was doing there... and again I don't, quite.

    I've done it myself, even, if I read that aright.
    Some people do just have learn, not be taught. But there's a line - I mean at the end of the day, they are paying me, and if I can short-circuit the learning process for them , then I will. Providing it's not one of those lessons that you have to learn, if you don't come with it pre-installed. Like, "the horse is not a machine." I've had to sit back and let a few teenage boys,(and a girl or two, but mostly boys) learn that one from experience.

    At the end of the day, while your job as a trainer is to put things in a frame of reference that your pupil (be it equine or human) can understand, you can only teach what the pupil is willing to learn. And sometimes as a trainer less is more. As loneplainsman's example shows, too much interventionism in a trainer can actually result in the pupil not learning anything, much less the lesson intended.

    I liken it to the hot stove scenario, in a way.
    As trainer, you gotta judge: will the resulting scorch result in a scar or a small transitory red reminder?
    I admit, in this litigious age, I err on the side of caution mostly.

  19. Very, very, very nice writing.

    I don't like the idea of the "not so good" horse getting the not so good student-trainer, just to get the student-trainer to learn.

    But, hell, I've been through medical school. You gotta learn somewhere, sometimes. Experience is part of learning.

    But I've also been through adult education crap in my pre-med days. A lot of it was fluff and nonsense and fad, but some of it rings true.

    If you let someone practice something the wrong way, it's harder to redirect them. Tell them the right way to do it the first time, it's the best way.

    Doesn't always work, if they aren't listening, though.

    VLC, I wish you would write something about how to not f' up your first horse. That's the very core of my late-rider fears. I paid a lot for this horse. She's a lot more than I ought to be able to handle. I don't want to screw it up... and that, RIGHT THERE, is what almost keeps me out of the saddle some days.

  20. serensk-your horse will not get effed up if you are kind, consistant and fair. If you don't know how to ride it, go work with someone who will show you how.
    Your horse will NOT forget it's training. It will go to your current level, and rise again to it's highest level of training as you learn to ask for it.
    That's why finished,retired, reining horses are best for newbie reiners. Or retired upper level dressage horses who train lower level riders.
    As long as you work to learn about your horse all that knowledge will be waiting for you when your ready.

  21. Thanks mugwump. I'd feel better if my horse was a made horse, like the others I've puttered around on and clearly never screwed up. My fears center around the fact that my own horse and I are a green+green combo, very light shades of green but still green on both counts. She doesn't have any training to forget, because we're learning together -- my first half-halt was her first half-halt. Yesterday, I rode a gallop for the first time in over 15 years and it was her first gallop under saddle. It shouldn't be this easy and I know that, which is why I always feel disaster is just around the corner.

    I have a brilliant coach who makes a world of difference. But he's not always there... you can see why I'm afraid of screwing it up!

  22. serensk- I trained my first cowhorse under the tutelage of the man who was to become my mentor.
    I was brand new to the sport.
    Very green horse. Lots of wacky talent....she's going to be one of my stories.
    It worked. Truly.
    Your horse wants good care and consistancy in it's life.It could care less about the other stuff. That's for you.
    So go for it. You'll ride better if you quit worrying about it.
    And stick with good instruction!

  23. Serensk - you are way above the level I'd be writing that book for. My book would talk about things like why it is a bad idea to tie your horse to a vehicle bumper, why the horse won't get in the trailer while you're standing there facing him trying to pull him in by his face, and why your horse misbehaves - i.e. it is not personal, it is not because you don't have a "bond," it is because he can because your riding isn't sufficiently consistent to prevent him from doing so.