Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Excuse Me?

There has been some killer input on these posts. I'm going to weave some of these thoughts into where I'm heading with this.

First off, I had someone ask me if it was possible that Neil was stung by a bee. It made me pause, and the Boss and I went over her pretty good yesterday. No dice. BUT, she was beaten up pretty severely by the herd she runs with, the week before our train wreck.
We knew she was still muscle sore when we worked her that day. So it's possible that something hurt on Neil.
Here's where we get to my core belief on my relationships with horses.
I don't care why she did it.
If she was sore, she had other ways to tell us, that wouldn't involve turning my boss into a lawn dart.

I have spent a huge part of my life learning to read my horses so that I can tell if something is wrong. I can feel an off stride, a sore back, a hurting tooth. I care intensely about their well being. I work to give them the big four. Always.
I am not 100% on picking up their problems. I get caught up in my own program sometimes, and miss things that my horse might be just screaming about. It doesn't matter.
I can't help my horse if I'm worried about being catapulted into space.
My number one rule is, and always will be, My horses cannot hurt me.
There is absolutely no excuse, ever, for my horse to forget I'm on their back, on the end of their lead rope, or standing where they can hurt me.

I teach them where they can stand, how close they can come to me, how they can behave under saddle.
I am extremely consistent with my horses. They can rely on me to reward good behavior, crash down on rudeness, and for the most part, to be kind and tolerant.
I am patient. Watching me train is like watching paint dry. Or alfalfa grow during a drought. Or a crock pot make dinner.
I will take as long as a horse needs for every step we take in the training process.
I am proud of my track record with fearful horses.
I will kick any horse's ass if they are going to hurt me.

When I begin to train a horse the first thing I clear up is how I expect it to lead. Which is by following behind me, with plenty of slack in the lead rope.
Fluffy can't go past my shoulder.
Fluffy can't pull on the lead rope.
Fluffy can't touch me.
Pretty simple, huh?
You wouldn't believe how much trouble most of the little Fluffies get in that first few days.
I stick to my three step system in all of these matters.
1.I give the cue I would like Fluffy to respond to.
2. I give a stronger cue, the only warning they get.
3. I make it happen.
I do mean make it happen, by the way. I don't mean repeating the warning cue over and over, or starting over. I mean I get big, swing ropes, swat butts, get out a crop.....Whatever it takes to get Fluffy where I want her.
The instant Fluffy complies, I immediately relax, immediately assume Fluffy will be perfect forever and ever, amen, and continue on my merry way.
I rarely talk to them.
Horses are pretty nonverbal in their communication.
I try to be also.
You will never hear me say, "Fluffy, back. Aw, c'mon, back. Fluffy, back. Back. BACK! BACK!
Dammit Fluffy, I said BACK!"
If I am on the ground, I ask for my back by stepping into Fluffy's space, and putting my hand on her chest. That's step one.
Then I place my hand on her nose, push it toward her neck, and poke her in the chest with my other hand. That's her warning cue.
Then I grab her pretty hard by the nose, SHOVE her back, and kick her front hooves to unlock those sticky, stinking front legs. (Warning, careful how hard you kick, and only the hoof, not the legs) I make it happen. That's step three.

That's just an example. I don't believe you can create a gentle horse unless Fluffy knows there is a consequence to noncompliance.
I don't care what your method is. I don't care if the consequence is more work, or a slap on the butt. There does need to be a consequence that your horse understands.
Witholding your love, or carrots, isn't going to cut it.
Fluffy will just stomp over your love, and you, to get the carrot.
The Big K told me once, "The only gentle horse is the one you haven't made mad yet."
If Fluffy doesn't know that getting mad at you will get her in a deep pile of crap, then you are going to be the one dealing with the pile.
To my mind the equation I'm searching for is this
Clear, fair treatment, (including discipline) = Respect= Safety.
I worry about respect foremost. Interestingly enough, most of the horses I train always give me a friendly greeting when I see them again. Even years later. So we've become friends in spite of it all, or maybe because of it.
I hadn't gone through my ground stuff with Neil. I figured she was started, and would be OK. I assumed we would cover it as we worked her. Oops.
Now that she has our attention, I have been making sure Neil gets the concept of consequence. It hasn't been pretty. But the boss has had two successful rides on her.
I'm not sure that Neil completely gets it, but we sure have her thinking about it.
What I'm getting at is, I think it is vital to modify a horse's responses to outside stimulus to leave me feeling safe enough to read those responses. Am I making sense or am I babbling?
Now I'm late for my appointment with the warmblood stud colt......Sheesh. Later

Monday, July 28, 2008

Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming, Folks!

Someday, I'm going to open the helmet can of worms. But not today. I have an idea...let's make Fugs do it!
I will have to fill you in on my stud colt tomorrow, because I've wandered onto a slightly different section of trail here. Bear with me, I think we're on to something good, and I'll take pictures of the stud.....
A question popped up at me out of yesterdays comments.
How do I read my horse?
Basic, to the point, and vital.
Try to remember back to the days of your first exposure to a horse. If you were like me, you'll remember him in terms of friendship or love, his personality, if he was mad or happy, etc. Do you remember how their feet looked? Were they fat or thin? Were they hard mouthed or soft? How did your saddle fit? How did they carry their head? Did they swat their tail? Or did they ride with it quiet?
Who the hell knows?
When we first experience horses we personify them. Our perceptions tend to be based on how we personally see the world.
As we get sucked down into the the vortex of horses we learn to try to read the horse. We know that pinned ears mean get away. We will duck a raised foot. We find out that a fed horse is a happy horse. That shoes aren't cruel. That a lot of equipment is.
As time goes on, hopefully we learn that a joyful neigh in the morning actually means, "Where the hell is my breakfast?"
That a horse may stomp you, knock into you, or buck you off, but it's nothing personal.
Because they aren't people. They're horses.
So our journey continues.
I don't think we ever get it all. If we want to stay in this game, we have to keep learning.
If we are going to lower the odds of getting smashed up, we have to keep getting better at reading our situation.
"You can't teach feel."
This was a mantra I heard every day, at least once, the entire time I was training with the Big K.
He said it, his WWOTW said it, we all smugly echoed it, like good little robots.
I think that's a load of crap.
Some of us have a better natural sense than others. I will agree to that. It makes our life with animals much easier, and safer.
But everybody can work to heighten their awareness.
Everybody can work on their feel. Hell, I've taught architects and engineers how to ride. Talk about a brain not wired to "feel"!
What gets in the way of reading your horse?
1. A lack of sensitivity. Let's be real, we're not all horse whisperers. Some of us are about as in tune as a cinder block. It doesn't mean we can't work at it. Our spouse and kids will really appreciate it.
2. Ego. If I need to have all the answers before I've learned them, I should let it go now, or find another interest. Like Legos.
Seriously, I didn't start making much progress until I threw myself on the ground yelling, "I don't know nuthin'!" I meant it too. And I'd been training for a while.
3. A desire to be right. I fight this ALL the time. If I have to be right, especially in front of a group of fellow horse people, I can guarantee my horse will kindly step up and show me the error of my ways.
4.Anger. I am an angry person by nature, or nurture, whatever. I struggle with it all the time. "Go throw rocks." That's the best thing I've ever learned. I can't read anything, my horse, my student, or myself, if I'm angry. If I'm mad, I leave the situation, and throw rocks until I'm better. Thanks Big K.
4. Fear. This is the toughest. Fear will make you misinterpret, become angry, lock up your mind and body. Fear will kill you faster than anger.
How Do I Begin?
First, I don't care if you study with a pro, read books, listen to Grandpa, or clinic yourself into oblivion. Do whatever keeps you learning. Keep your eyes and ears open. Be as cynical as you possibly can. Don't be bullied, ever, by someone you are paying to help you.
Now here's a little home work.
1. Move Fluffy. On the ground. Move him away from you. Back him up, turn him around. How hard is this?
2. Take Fluffy away from his dinner. What happens?
3. Lead him down the road, without any barn buddies. What happens?
4. Turn Fluffy out in a arena or pen. Can you safely take off his halter and walk away? Do you feel safe standing in the middle of the arena while he plays?
5.Watch a group of horses interact. If you don't have a pasture full, then find one, park by the road, and watch.
Who's the boss? Who's getting picked on? Are there friends? Loners?
Feeding time with a herd is best. You'll get an eyeful.

None of this is about training. Just absorb, and see what happens.
See you manana.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mugwump/ How's Your Read?

I am really wrestling with a few issues here. Since I have developed a pretty open back and forth commentary with those of you that like my blog, I am counting on some good comments to help me organize my thoughts. Looking forward to it too.
I have been surrounded by horse wrecks in the last year. My friend Sharion, my good friend that rode the disaster Captain, and three, count them three, deaths in my immediate world of people that I didn't know intimately, but still knew.
I search and search my mind for reasons these accidents happened. I look for a common thread.
Not only is this getting me boogered, I keep hoping I can come up with at least something concrete that may help some horse people avoid getting hurt or killed. This is what's coming together for me.

Scenario # 1
The day before yesterday, my boss, who is also an extremely good friend, got pile driven into the dirt. She is fine, except for some wicked leather burns on her hands. If she wasn't so hard headed, and would be willing to let go of the reins on a plunging, broncing, tank of a filly, she wouldn't have those.
This near miss of a train wreck is the last nail to be driven into the tracks my thoughts are travelling down.
We have been analyzing her wreck carefully, step by step, as we are prone to do in these situations. Why did it happen? What's going on in the Neil's head? What did we miss?
Neil is a big, strapping, Playboy's Buck Fever daughter. She is bred to the bone. She was started by another trainer that I know well enough to understand how he rides.
She was sold to us started, but not where she should be. That always makes me happy, because that means she hasn't been pushed too hard, too soon.
Neil is rough to ride, extremely heavy on her front end, and dead weight in your hands.
I know that the other trainer has hands and arms made out of rebar, so I wasn't surprised or concerned, I know how to fix that stuff.
She has a habit of crowding us, and feels free to whack us with her head. I know she was born and raised at the trainer's home. She was a treasured filly, his wife and daughter are notorious baby spoilers, so once again, I wasn't surprised.
When we would ask her to stop, we had nothing. Nada. Zip. That threw me, because stop is the first thing that goes into any cowhorse, no matter who starts it. Once again, I know how to fix that, so we just kept plugging along.
Finally, we had no turn to the left. The first thing the boss did was have her teeth done. One nasty wolf tooth later, and we had a little more give on the left side. She vetted sound in all other areas.
I would guesstimate that we have 20 or so rides on this filly. They have been peaceful enough. When we would first ride her she would skitter off before you got your leg thrown over. Since I don't play that game, we fixed that one first. She couldn't stand still. I fixed that second. She couldn't rate her speed on a loose rein. So I sorted out that one.
The boss finally got sick of my dinking, and started taking her down below.
Our big arena isn't fenced. It is a big, open, well groomed, good dirted, open space in the cow pasture.
I share space with the cattle, and for now, three broodies, and their totally rotten children.
Talk about getting your horse broke! Try loping circles with three little stinkers playing tag under your insulted horse's legs.
The filly had been down there at least three times. She had been worked and loped. She has been consistantly easy to get along with.
My boss and I were down in the arena together. I was on a fractious four-year-old, Merry, who had been off for a month. We were walking on a loose rein, waiting for Merry to decide to work for a living, for about twenty minutes.
Merry's brain finally kicked in, and we trotted off to opposite sides of the arena to work our horses. I saw the boss put Neil into a lope, they got in a couple of circles, and the next thing I know, they are bolting and pitching across the arena.
Neil went out of her flipping mind.
The boss stayed on for at least nine or ten horrific bucks, (I was impressed, believe me) Neil eased up, and the boss went to bring her head around.
Neil blew up again, yanked her head the other way, and pulled the boss right over her big muscley shoulder.
She bucked all the way back up to the gate.
When my extremely pissed off boss caught her, Neil immediately blew again.
I intervened as fast as I could between the two adrenaline charged maniacs, and hustled Neil up to our fenced, smaller arena.
She had lost her ever loving mind. She bolted, about undid my hands, and bucked and pitched for another ten minutes.
Long story short, it was a long effin' afternoon before I got that filly's mind back.
The boss sat in the shade and soaked her hands in a coffee can of cold water, muttering and cussing off and on.
So that's where we began questioning.
Here's what I'm beginning to find.
I know the original trainer does a lot of round pen work. I can tell he worked with Neil. Neil will physically give to me on the ground, but not mentally.
She will drop her head and submit when I called for a whoa. Except her hip is slightly towards me, and she will never stop clean. She'll creep forward a few steps no matter where I'm positioned.
She wants to crowd me. She continually steps into me, or leans her shoulder into me.
She won't give. Her front feet jam into the ground, and she refuses to yield to pressure, until I get pretty rough.
She's a rude, little bitch. Excuse me, a smart, rude, little bitch.
The boss accepts about 70% of the responsibility for that little episode. She loped her too big, too soon, and was not reading her.
I accept another 90% or so.
I accepted the history I was given on this filly.
I made assumptions and combined them with Neil's generally amiable personality.
I figured that just because this other trainer knew how to do ground work, he also knew how to read the results. I was mistaken.
Now before all you NH'ers get all excited, that figures heavy into his background. NH stuff.
He has learned that if you do step A, and then B, it will always equal C. That's what the books, tapes, and clinicians tell you.
I suspect he has forgotten to actually try to read the horse.
I suspect his riding approach is the same.
When things got scary for Neil, she had no confidence in her rider to bail her out. Why should she? How can she expect her rider to help her if she's been running the show all along? I don't think this horse had ever been correctly read, until these last few days.

Scenario #2
I've talked about Peg off and on in this blog. She spends a lot of time trying to understand her horse. I have just sent her home with B.O.B./Uma. B.O.B is the paint mare I've had this last month to evaluate for Peg.
B.O.B. has no time, or respect for NH type work. She is a "Quit screwing around, and let's get it done," kind of mare. She came to me a spooking, bucking, rotten apple, mess.
I got her message. We have been talking loud and clear for the past month.
She has quit yanking her head away when I halter or bridle her. Not because I worked carefully on a pressure and release system. B.O.B. let's me handle her head because until she does, she doesn't get turn-out, or food. She got it pretty fast.
She quit blowing and bucking when she was saddled or longed because I'd snap her frigging face off with the rope halter and bull snap every time she'd start in. She's a quick study, Ol' B.O.B. is.
She started to ride around quietly because that was the best part of the day. Give me a good ride, and it was bath, social hour at the tie rail, and dinner.
Give me crap, and we'd just start over.
She's turning into Uma.
Peg get's it. She got into B.O.B.'s face, made her mind, and watched her transform into Uma. Funny thing is, the mare is cuddly and sweet, if you don't muddle things with a lot of froo fraw.
I say, go Peg.

Scenario # 3
This is close to my heart. So if you want to argue with me, be kind on this one.
My friend Sharion is an ardent follower of a certain clinician. He encourages rubbing your young horse all over when you ride. Neck, butt, poll, crawl all over that sucker, and get him used to that sensation.
We even argued about it.
My instinct is to stay in the middle of my horse at all times. That's what I preach, and teach. I don't lean back, or forward, or side-to-side, for many, many rides; at least not enough to pull my center of balance out of the middle of my horse. As time goes on, the horse gets used to all kinds of external stimuli. If I have to put on a jacket while on a ride, I get down and get it. I slide said jacket all over my horse, and then put the now hair laden thing on.
Eventually my horse is so tired of me, it begs me to just put the damn jacket on. Then, I'll start putting it on while still in the saddle.
I'm the same about dragging stuff, opening gates, anything that pulls me out of the middle.
I approach each task in increments.
I am always aware when I'm giving up my core balance, and ready to grab it back.
I rub my horse, pound my horse, jiggle and jangle stuff, all while I'm on the ground.
My horses can count on me to stay in the middle while I ride.
Sharion would argue that you can't always stay balanced, that they have to be ready for unexpected bumps and bangs.
I agree, I just don't think they should come from me while I ride.
Keep in, mind my horses are known for being steady and quiet.
Sharion was coming down the hill, back to the trailers, at the end of a trail ride. She had just finished a successful first ride on a three year old gelding. She reached back to give him a congratulatory pat on the butt. Something she had done a thousand times before. She was off her center. That day, it spooked the young horse. That day, it put her in a coma. I can't get this out of my mind. I can't help but think that she was following a system, a well known ritual, and she wasn't reading her horse.

So there's my mugwumpness showing up yet again. Because I do believe in a pressure and release method of training. I always try to make the good things easy, and the wrong things hard. But I learned to read my horses from the original Anti-NH. I read my situation before I react, always. I am slowly learning to trust my gut.
So what's the answer?
I realize I have certain criteria I expect from my horses on the ground, before I ever get in the saddle. I have just begun to actually verbalize these expectations. Tomorrow, I'll tell you about a young stud colt I'm working with, and how teaching these criteria to his owners has made this whole train of thought start to gel.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Horse Stories/Sonita/Chapter7/Horse Shows

The Big K has a theory about learning to show your horse. In order to win, you have to show. As many shows as you can manage. He doesn't waste his time schooling at the local clubs, and he doesn't want you to either. He swears your horse knows the difference, and so do you. He schools at AQHA shows. He expects his clients to do the same.

"Showing isn't about money." He'll tell you. "It's about getting out there and letting everybody see your horse. It's about stepping up and showing what you can do.
The only way to become confident in the show pen is to spend time there."

Easy for him to say. He wasn't on Sonita. He wasn't me.

Of course, I was his client. I was showing in the open classes. Everybody knew I was riding with him. So I guess he had his own pressures. Sonita and I weren't exactly turning the show world on fire. By winning that is. We did draw a certain amount of attention.

Sonita went absolutely bat shit when I took her to a show. Head thrown high, eyes bulging, she'd stop and blow, and spin. She pin her ears and lunge at horses she deemed too close. She'd bolt and scatter when another horse came up behind her. That was just getting her out of the trailer.

One of our first shows was the Pre Denver in December. This is a large AQHA show held the week before the stock show. The classes tend to run bigger than the stock show itself, and you don't have to deal with the crowds of looky-loos from the stock show. They don't run cattle classes at the Pre Denver, so I was to show in reining. Probably a good thing, since I couldn't reliably fight my way through a pattern yet, much less get my horse down the fence.

I talked the woman trailering with me into coming to the show a day ahead of the rest of the Big K's barn. I wanted to give Sonita time to acclimate, and to work on my own case of nerves.

I am the kind of person who completely falls apart when put in any kind of public situation.
I come from a life of forgotten grade school reports, suddenly tangled fingers during flute solos in high school, and frozen, red faced, stuttering presentations in college.

Why did I pick a sport that put me alone in the arena with nobody but my whacked out horse and a judge? I haven't a clue. If you've got one, please share. I think it's probably some Catholic guilt thing. You know, public humiliation is good for the soul.
Sonita kindly kept me busy enough to keep my mind off my impending doom.

The Denver Horse Show Complex is an imposing beast. Echoing halls wind through what seem miles of stalls. Soft yellow lighting is diffused in drifting dust, keeping the horses in an artificial twilight 24 hours a day.
Row after row of slick, shining horses stood in the stalls. All covered in pricier clothes than I had ever been able to afford for myself, much less consider putting on Sonita. AQHA shows come with beautiful horses, and beautiful people. I was so intimidated by the wealth around me I could barely speak.

Except to yell, "Whoa Dammit!" as Sonita drug me, bucking and plunging down the aisle.

I managed to stuff her in her stall by backing her into a corner, and running for the door. I slammed it shut on her nose.

She spun in circles, squealed at the horse next to her, and bit the bars dividing them. The fact that the neighboring horse was her trailer buddy meant nothing, she was out of her mind. Her water buckets flew, and she ground her hay into her bedding.
I stood and watched, mouth open, looking every bit the Gomer I imagined myself to be, as Sonita raged for the next half hour.

She finally settled to a nervous pacing, her white rolling eyes glaring every time she passed me.
"What are you going to do?" My trailer partner asked.
"I guess I'll go ride her in the arenas. You want to come?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world."

There were only a few riders in the arena. For the most part, reining trainers, tuning their young horses. The majority of horses would arrive the next day. Sonita blew in at a high trot. Her head slung back and forth, as she tried to absorb the world I had plunged her in. A high ceiling decorated with hanging, streaming, glittery, banners arched over us. The stands on either side of us gaped empty, tier after tier. She slammed herself to a spraddle legged stop and stared, mesmerized by a lone janitor, mopping the upper level floors, high above her head.

I tried to keep my reins loose. I wanted to give her time to see, and file away, every bit of information she needed. I sat quiet as she looked around her, her eyes getting buggier with every passing second.
The other riders quietly loped by, eyes politely averted, faces expressionless. One thing I've learned to love about cowboys, they wait to mock you until they're out of the arena. Once they get to know you, they'll tease you to your face. Oddly enough, their mannerly colts all had the same look in their eyes.

Sonita eventually calmed enough to begin to lope some circles. Her circles were smaller than everybody else's, as she was too terrified of the white arena walls to come within fifty feet of
them. This was going to make our big, fast circles interesting on show day.
She loped with her head high, and her nose constantly pointed to the upper tiers. She had to keep watching for that scary janitor. But we were loping.

Sonita and I worked into the night. We loped big circles, and small. We aired up in the middle and I let her look around. We loped some more.
Finally, two hours in, she stood with her head level. She cocked a hip, and relaxed a little. Still alert, but she stood quiet.
I stepped down, loosened her cinch and took her back to her stall.
Sonita stood still at the wash rack, and enjoyed her late night bath. When I put her in the stall, she only lunged at the horse next to her once, before she settled into her hay.
As I walked down the aisle, towards my own hot shower and bed, I heard her kick the wall, once, twice, then silence.
I figured if the place was still standing in the morning I might be able to show her after all.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Just A Thought

I have been amazed at how many of you have met horses with split tongues like my Mort. Typical me, I spent a lot of time dwelling on the where's, when's and why's. It's how I while away the hours when I'm cleaning my stalls.
How old were you when you learned to not tie your horse with the reins? I can't tell you when I learned that one for sure, but I was pretty old.
The stable I learned to ride at kept all of their dudes bridled and tied with knotted split reins.
I did the same. So did everybody I knew. We were backed by the Cartwrights and John Wayne.
We had a tie rail in front of the house my parents moved to while I was in college. I would ride all morning, give Mort a drink, and leave him tied to the rail while I went in for lunch. He would spend all day in that bit.
I made sure it was a bridle with a brow band and throat latch, because he was an escape artist.
Is that how all those tongues got lacerated?
Watch a horse suck back, tied with a broken mouth piece, long shanked, heavily chained bit, and good quality leather reins. How do you think that story is going to play out?
I shudder at the stupid things we did, and still our horses and us survived.
You don't see those tortured tongues so much anymore because people have learned to only tie with a halter.
Could I be on to something?
My boss and I were talking about the Where Are All The Good Horses post. We came up with a few thoughts on that one. We both realized the horses we had as kids didn't know a damn thing. They couldn't take a lead off a cue if their life depended on it. They barely neck reined, they didn't back, I mean they knew nothing.
Except every single one of them would head down the road.
They were partners in our ignorance. They would walk, trot and lope. That was about it.
I think the priorities of what constituted a horse that was ready to sell were vastly different than they are today.
A horse needed to be tolerant. Remember sacking out? Rough maybe, but I never got tossed putting on my jacket by a horse that had been properly sacked out.
A horse needed to be willing to travel. Nobody I knew had an indoor arena. Hell, I had to ride a long ways to get to any kind of arena. Horse trailers were a luxury. Even the people that had them only put a horse in them if their destination was more than five miles away.
How many of you old folks (me included, ahem) remember how many people rode to the Friday Night Gymkhana?
There were lots.
They rode bareback, in poorly fitted saddles, saddle blankets optional, in halters, curbs, snaffles, whatever was available.
All of this was thrown at a horse before they ever thought of a roll back or a lead change.
We showed them all day at our local clubs, in every class, before we had even heard of a roll back.
We didn't play the 7 games, or waste space with a round pen. Clinics were where you went to get doctored after your horse pile drove you into the dirt.
We rode them first. Then we trained them.
I'm not nostalgic for the days bygone. I love the level I'm at with my riding ability. I want my tack to fit, and my horse to be safe. I can't imagine being responsible for one of those horrible split tongues. I'm aware of how lucky I am that I never seriously hurt myself, or my horse.
I like riding inside. A lot.
I love good dirt. So do my horses.
But somehow we've gotten off track. The whole point is to ride them, isn't it? I don't know about you, but I'm embarrassed when my yellow mare refuses to get mud on her feet. Don't get me started on crossing water.
She is a big, fat, arena baby sissy. I am about over it. I think we are doing thing backwards.
She should have spent the first few years of her riding life learning to go for a ride. Not getting ready for her big moment in the show pen. She is six now, and I'm just getting around to teaching her how to be broke. She's real well trained though.
I'm just saying.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Horse Stories/Mort/Chapter 3

Three Things

My horse wouldn't stop. Ever. We jigged sideways from the second I crawled up, his head tossing, his tail wringing, until I would give up and let him go. Then we flew.
I could steer him, but there was no slowing him down. He would whiplash his head like a coyote in a trap,and growl low in his chest at the least pull on his reins.
My father had taken pity on me, and borrowed a saddle. It was a huge, heavy 1890's beast, with a deep seat and a cantle high enough to whack me in the small of my back when Mort bolted into the blue. I was embarrassed by it's old, out of date look, and comforted by the deep security of a saddle made to really ride in.
I felt the same way about my horse. He was the most beautiful horse in the world. We ran across the fields, and through the trees like Flicka, or Fury. Mort was everything I ever hoped for in a horse and more. I felt wild and free riding him, I was happy. The three things I had been chasing my entire life. The three things I am still always on the hunt for.
Until I tried to stop him. We stopped when Mort felt like it. My best friend Karen's house, the boarding stable in the park, the arena where we held our club's gymkhanas, and back at our barn, that was about it.
I would take off from my barn on an early Saturday morning, riding the 7 miles to drill team practice. By the time we crested the hill at the big arena Mort would be leaping and straining against the pull of my hands on that brutal chain mechanical hackamore. We would blast past the girls in the drill team, their horses standing quietly, companionably, in a well behaved group, waiting to start practice.
I would set my feet in my giant stirrups, yank desperately at one rein, and slowly start to turn him as we disappeared down the trail. Finally, after lining him out, we would charge past again. Usually on the third or fourth pass, he would stop.
I was horrified. And angry.
The girls in the drill team never said much, they would sneak secret looks to each other, at my foaming, bloody chinned horse, my ancient saddle.
I would glare at them, wild eyed, manure stained from cleaning my stall before I came, my crazy hair blowing around my head. I hated their clean clothes, their horse trailers, their well behaved horses. I hated their silent opinion of my horse.
I was the only one who knew how sure and strong he flew down the rocky trails of the park. He never missed a step, never stumbled or hesitated. I was the only one who understood how safe I was on his back. I was the only one who knew how he hated the restraint of the reins. He didn't want to be bad. I didn't know how to make him be good.
Their smug smiles stopped me from asking for help.
Our drill team leader, Mark, was an old, world weary cowboy. He was a retired rancher who owned the boarding and rental stables in the park. He bred fine appaloosa horses, and was an important man in our community. He had been there, done that. He had taught me to ride.
He had never said a word about my choice in a horse.
He took me aside for a minute at the end of drill practice.
"Having a little trouble keeping Dunny reined in there."
I stared down at my saddle horn. I wanted to tell him I was doing just fine thanks. Having spent our hour long drill practice controlling Mort by jamming his head into the butt of the horse in front of me made me hold my smart mouth tongue.
"Might want to put a bit in his mouth."
"I can't. He's all scarred."
My secret was out. Mort's tongue had a healed tear that went clear across his tongue. It was deep enough to fit my pinkie finger. He had thin white scars on the corners of his mouth. They ran back almost a half inch on both sides. The inside of his mouth was lumpy with scar tissue.
He had scars on his nose, and poll, and jaw.
My hackamore was continually opening up the damaged tissue on his jaw.
I couldn't stand the thought of being laughed at for buying this damaged mess. I couldn't bear the weight of somebody telling me my horse wasn't repairable.
I dropped my head further between my tight shoulders. I clenched my fists, and got ready to fly away into the park.
"Why don't you come to the stable after supper. We'll see what we can rig up for this boy."
That night I made it back to the stables before dark.
Mark helped me fit Mort with a solid, medium port bit with a roller.
The port gave him tongue relief, the roller gave him a way to vent his anxiety, the solid shanks gave me something to hang on to.
He wrapped a leather chin strap with some electrical tape, to ease his raw jaw, and showed me how to properly fit it.
There was no judgement in his eyes, no lectures, no extra advice.
"Thank you." I managed.
"See you Saturday." He said.
We flew home on our fourth 7 mile trip that day. I still couldn't stop him.
He didn't toss his head. He didn't growl. He came down from his usual dead run to a ground covering lope. The cool evening air blew through my sweat crusted hair. I sat back in my saddle, safe between the high cantle and swells. Something had shifted. We were free. We were not quite as wild. We were happy.
It was a start.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Went to see Sharion today. She is way ahead of schedule. She fought the induced coma so hard, they've let her begin to come up. The respirator is out, she still has a trach tube but is breathing on her own.
She opens her eyes. They roll around the room, but settle on me once in a while, and focus with beautiful intent. I told her husband I would come shave her legs and do her toenails. Sharion is a freak about remaining hairless, and I know that stubble is bugging her. Her eyes looked straight into mine, and she gave me a little twitch of a smile.
If you had ever seen the erratic forestation on my legs you'd get how funny that offer is. Sharion got it. She can give a little squeeze with her left hand.
I told her how hard it has been to throw a leg over the colts the last several days. Tears rolled down her face.
The little things give me joy and hope. The big picture breaks my heart. Thanks so much for your thoughts and prayers. Please keep them coming.

Where Have All The Good Horses Gone?

When I was a kid, there was a group of girls from my neighborhood, that all had a horse. Our ages ran between 12 and 15. We came from the vast sprawl of a suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of town, that had a lot of little stables close by.
Most of us showed in the local day shows, and belonged to the riding clubs in the area.
For the most part, we hung out, rode in the near by park, and out in the prairie, and spent a lot of time goofing around.
We would get together with the girls from the next neighborhood over, and ride with them. They kept their horses at their homes on little 2 acre lots. Us neighborhood girls were wildly jealous of them.
Some of these horses were registered, some not. Most of them were kinda, sorta, quarter horses.
I'm not sure how old they were, but the younger the horse you rode, the higher your coolness factor.
Prices ran from $100.00 to $500.00. Cheap enough that I could save up for my wonderful Mort by babysitting.
Lots and lots of Fuglies.
What stays foremost in my memory, is that these horses were broke. All of them. We didn't get hurt, they packed us around, went where we wanted them to go. Which believe me, when you're talking about a bunch of loose teenage girls, can get pretty dang inventive.
They were only trained to do what we taught them. It was a rare deal when one of our group got to ride with a trainer. If she did, that lucky soul rode her own horse, she didn't send him off to get fixed.
Most of us kept the horse we started with. I can only remember one or two people that sold horses in order to upgrade, and then they passed on a nice horse that had been out grown. They weren't dumping something they couldn't cope with.
Where did these horses come from?
They were gentle enough to be ridden by a bunch of unsupervised kids. They were broke enough that we all had a blast across the boards.
We bought them out of the paper, from sales, from other kids. Some came from local breeders.
There were lots of these horses. The classes at our little shows often had thirty or forty kids, in each age group.
Accidents were rare. If we fell off, it was usually because we were hanging upside down under their neck, or trying a flying mount, or dismount at a dead run down some dirt road.
Who trained these horses?
They rode in halters, grazing bits, and mechanical hackamores. They pretty much rode in what we had. Macrame bridles and string bits were a fad for a while. (Yes, I'm a 70's girl) Anybody remember a tack rein? It was a leather strap with studs in it that sat at the base of ol' Blossom's neck. Those worked pretty good.
My point is Ol' Blossom came that way.
Now I stay busy with horses that aren't broke, even a little. They buck, and bolt. They run over their owners, they don't load. I mean, my goodness, we jammed our horses into those tiny, straight loads, or the back of a friends pickup truck (shudder) and took them all over the place.
They should have been bucking and bolting. They should have been running for the hills.
But they didn't.
They dealt with the hand given them, or we dealt with them.
I'm not saying they were perfect. My own Mort was a shining example of imperfection. But his problems had been created by an uneducated first owner. Mort was basically a kind, good minded animal. He had started life as a well broke horse.
On my way to work, there is an endless sea of 5 acre lots with a couple of horses in each corral. I never see a rider on them. Local clubs have five or six entries in each class. Most of these are people schooling for the upper level shows.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Trained isn't broke. I turn out a pretty nice horse. But it won't be broke unless the owner rides it.
A lot. For many years.
So who was making these horses when I was a kid? Somebody was making sure even the fuglies were broke enough to ride around on.
Is it that our society is too busy to ride horses any more? Is it the disappearance of big ranches?
What about the east coast? There weren't many ranches out there, but my cousin had no trouble finding her pony club mounts. Sound, sane, broke little ponies.
Is it the over structuring, and over scheduling of our kids?
Do they not have time to really ride their horse?
I don't know the answer. But I think it plays a big part in the flood of unwanted animals hitting the rescues and sales.
Where's the guy who turned out all those broke horses?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Horse Stories/Sonita/Chapter6

Never Buy A Horse That Looks Up

Sonita was progressing as fast as she could with me as her rider. The idea of learning a sport as complex as Reined Cowhorse while training my first cowhorse was crazy.
I was competing in a sport where my fellow trainers and competitors had been working cattle as long as they had been riding.
I, on the other hand, spent my formative riding years goofing through suburban parks bareback with my girlfriends. I honed my horsemanship skills by tying my horse in front of Seven Eleven to buy a Slurpee and trying to score a pack of Marlboroughs.
They had kept busy apprenticing with cow horse trainers. Or reining or cutting trainers. Or growing up on ranches, working cows as part of their everyday life.
I had my work cut out for me.

And then there was Sonita.
Wild, raging, intense, hysterical. She was all of that and more before breakfast.
She was hyper sensitive to every scent on the breeze, every sound that didn't ring true. Every scrap of blowing anything within a two mile radius was enough to send her to the moon.
She was an absolute bug eyed freak, twenty four seven.
Trying to keep her attention was almost impossible. She was bored in an instant, always ready to move on. She felt no need to actually learn anything before she felt it was time to get on with the program.
Sonita had astounding strength and speed. She was perfectly willing to use it against me anytime, anywhere.

The key had to be keeping her interest.
I am a fan of trail riding as a training aid. I can work on maneuvers as easily in the trees as I can in an arena. When your horse can look ahead it will try harder than one that is eternally going around in circles.
The trick was, trying to get Sonita to look ahead. She was too busy blowing up at tree stumps, rocks, or the sun dappled patterns on the ground.
She wouldn't step over a fallen tree, no matter how small. Instead we would blast into the air, and clear whatever twig or tree limb in front of us, by at least three feet higher than called for.
There was a steep trail straight up the mountain behind our stable. Fairly technical, I hoped it would keep her busy little brain engaged. Sonita and I headed up it, with a good friend, on a pretty fall morning.
As usual, my friend Chris was ahead on her good horse James. Sonita was boogering along in the back, soaked in sweat, slinging foam from her snaffle. She was terrified of taking the lead on a trail ride. The world was too much for her as it was, she couldn't be in front and freak at the same time. Chris took James down a steep gully, a sit on your butt and slide kind of gully. It was only about five feet deep, then leveled out for a stride or two before it continued back up the mountainside.
I stayed back on Sonita, giving Chris plenty of room to negotiate the trail. Besides, it was a chance for Sonita and I to practice standing quiet on a loose rein.
I took my legs off her, deepened my seat, dropped my reins, and said "Whoaaa."
She hesitated for a nanosecond and tried to dive into the gully.
I caught her up, backed her several steps with a lot of kicking and cussing, took off my legs, dropped my reins, "Whoaaa....
Dammit, get back here.
"Snort." Stamp, paw, head shake, said Sonita.
When James clambered up the other side Chris kept up her easy, steady pace and turned around the bend.
I kept my reins loose, my legs relaxed, and my seat deep. I leaned back over her haunches, and got ready to ease her down the gully.
Sonita threw her head high, staring at the spot she had last seen James.
From a complete standstill she jumped the entire stinking gully.
"Auk." I said.
We landed about a foot behind James' tail. I was still on, kind of, when James spooked. Chris squeaked, and Sonita spooked and spun towards home. I had just enough time to gather up my reins and stop her from jumping back across.
We rode back up later with a carpenter's measure, and measured across the gully. From hoof print to hoof print, Sonita had jumped a little over 12 feet. I am not petite. She was packing me and a western saddle. Good Grief.
Sonita was terrified of being left alone anywhere, not just on the trail. Every time I hauled her somewhere she would become hysterical. She would systematically begin tearing apart whatever portion of the trailer she could get at. Tying her alone was a guaranteed nightmare.
I finally tackled this by leading her to the trailer parking area at our stable. It was over a hill and out of sight of the barn and other horses. There I tied her to a very large, stout tree and left her.
For three days she spent my entire work day tied to the tree.
The first day she hollered and shrieked all day long. When I went to get her that evening she had skinned up both her knees, and her nose, whacking at the bark of the tree.
The second day there was a little less noise. When I went to get her I realized it was because she couldn't whinny around a mouthful of tree. The lower branches were shredded and pounded into the dirt. Long, raw scrapes from her teeth wrapped around the trunk of the poor beleaguered tree. She pinned her ears and shook her head at me. I brushed the chewed bark off my shirt, and led her back for dinner.
She spent the third day peacefully dozing in the shade. Not a peep out of her. My guess is, she was finally tired. A soft, friendly nicker greeted me as I came down the hill. The tree and I heaved a sigh of relief.
Sonita never fussed about being tied again.
That was her saving grace. She could, and would learn. If she was interested, or if I could make her.
"Big K, check this out."
Sonita was staring up into the sky. A flock of geese, in a perfect vee, was flying overhead. She stood, head flung as high as she could, fascinated. Her ears swiveled to their honks, and she watched, enraptured, until they disappeared over the horizon.
"She does that all the time. Airplanes, hawks, herons, anything bigger than a duck will catch her eye."
"Do they ever spook her?" The Big K asked.
"Not if it makes sense to her. She just likes to watch."
"If it don't make sense?"
"You mean like a roofing crew?" I laughed a little. "Then God help me."
"Look at my horse." The Big K waved at the neck of his mare.
"Now I would qualify this mare as pretty hot."
Having just watched him spend twenty minutes wrestling her into some kind of mood to cooperate, I had to agree.
"She didn't so much as flick an ear at those geese."
"Maybe she didn't see them."
"She knew they were there. She just didn't need to see them.
You're mare needs to process way more information than other horses. For some reason she's got to look at everything. I'd say that has to be hard on a horse."
"Why is it?"
"'Cause you know how to pick 'em." The Big K liked to think he was funny.
"Any thoughts on how I should handle this?"
"Let her look if it doesn't change what you need to do, and make her listen if she's pulling you off track."
"Easy for you to say."
"That's correct."

The Big K is a genius when he's training a horse. Unfortunately he has the communication skills of a goat.
One Baaaa, and then all he has left is a head butt.
Which is what Sonita and I continued to do.
Until one day my sister told me about a book she thought I should read. It was called "The Highly Sensitive Person" by Elaine N. Aron PHD.
In it she discusses the different roles animals play in herd or pack behavior. Some animals are the sentinels, or watchers. Their role is to stay apart, and read the input that swirls around the group, so that the group itself can relax and get on with their lives.
The idea intrigued me. I researched feral horse herd behavior. This is what I found.
The lead mare runs the herd. She decides where they go, what they eat, when they drink. She maintains peace, and the hierarchy. She also decides if the stud du jour is acceptable as a herd sire.
She is the most valuable member of the herd. She lives in the safety of the middle of the herd, with the babies and the other dominant mares. The perimeters are filled with yearlings, two-year-olds that haven't been booted out yet, old and sick horses, and the stallion.
On the very outer rim of this nexus live the watchers. Nervous, wired, disposable. They hear every sound, watch the entire world around them, live on the verge of total panic all the time.
When the wind picks up or the grass rustles they bolt.
The lead mare raises her head, assesses the situation, and decides what to do. Which is usually going back to grazing.
The watcher circles the herd, snatches a bite of grass, and spins to focus on a distant howl.
The lead mare might pay attention this time. She may decide to move the herd away from the sound.
The watcher stays on the periphery, too reactive to function in the confines of the herd, vigilant enough to be a reliable alarm. They stay alone by choice, genetically wired to shun the safety of the herd. Their sole function is as an alarm.
Meet Sonita.
I told The Big K about my thoughts.
"It sounds a little like me and you. We're outsiders." He said.
"Maybe, but we can cope with it. How do I help my horse?"
"Be the lead mare I guess."

I started my poor, mental case, horse's therapy by trying to respect her reactions.
Normally I ignore my horses when they spook. I'll just ride them through the scary spot without any fanfare. They learn that if I ignore it, then they can too.
I started to look at everything Sonita jumped at. When she was spraddle legged blowing at some bag stuck in a bush, I'd give it a good look too.
I'd take a deep breath, and then look to where we should be headed.
No petting, careful not to encourage her behavior, just a brief glance where she wanted me to look.
"I see it you nincompoop." I'd say in my sweetest, lowest,calmest voice.
"Now let's try that slide stop again."
It worked. Not completely, but pretty much. The poor thing had been screaming for my attention since the first time I stepped up in the stirrup. She had finally gotten it.
I paid attention to her need for space. When I took her to shows I tied her alone on one side of the trailer. I made sure she could watch the comings and goings of the show. In the barn, I blocked off the view of the horses stalled next to her. She finally could eat in peace. It seemed to satisfy her need to be separate, but together.
I changed her water buckets from dark to light colors. She drank deeply for the first time in her life with me, once she could see the bottom of her bucket.
I fed her hay spread loose on the ground, so she wouldn't have to stick her nose in the bars of the feeder. I talked the barn owner into giving her lunch to occupy her mind, and ease her nervous stomach.
The world began to change for me and the freckly red filly. She started to feel better. I felt safer now that I had an idea why she was such a wack job. I was learning to analyze instead of trying to ram my point home. Sonita was calming enough to pay attention to me for longer and longer spurts. I was getting a handle on the girl.
Beware! I feel a rant coming.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Why I Eat Beef, and Other Idle, Combative, Thoughts

Why I Eat Cow
There was a point in my life when I thought I might become a vegetarian. I'm very fond of most animals, I thought all of them. My horses like it better when my breath smells vegan than they do when I smell carnivore.
Then I met cattle. I have to admit the first time I worked them I couldn't tell which side was head, and which was butt. I've been at this reined cowhorse thing for a while though. I won't call myself an expert, but I'm not totally in the dark anymore either.
Cattle aren't much more than hamburger on the hoof.
They are stupid. They are canny. It shouldn't be that way but it is.
Have you ever watched Night of the Living Dead? Or Shaun of the Dead? Look at the crowds of zombies. Look at a herd of cattle. Look at their eyes. Same deal. Stupid, but canny.
Cows can projectile poop on you when you run them through a shoot. And they do.
When you work a cow they drool, poop and pee at the same time. Every orifice is oozing on a cow at once, most of the time.
I saw a giant abscess on a cow's butt once. Right at the base of her tail. I swear it was bigger than my head. I wear an 8 1/4 hat too.
Another cow bumped into that abscess at the feeder.
It exploded. Mightily.
Cow goo shot across the whole herd. Green stuff was dripping off ears, tails and heads. It was smeared on their sides, it was running down their legs.
Not one of them lifted their head out of the feeder. Including the one with the big popped zit.

If we didn't eat cattle they would end as a species. If we turned them loose they'd just follow us around, waiting to be fed, goo oozing out of them. At least when they're penned up, I'm prepared to skate through the slimy piles of stuff that they leave behind. When I use them, I feel it's an even trade for keeping them alive.
There are only a few species of truly wild cattle,
The Gaur, the Banteng, and the Kouprey. They hang mostly in Asia, and there aren't many left.
Definitely not enough to knock some sense into our domesticated version. Our cattle have been bred to have the I.Q. of your average potato. They also taste great when served with said potato.
Personally, I can't feel responsible for the end of a species. So I eat cow.

Why I Wear Spurs

I like the way they jingle when I walk down the aisle in Whole Foods. It's the only thing that differentiates me from Moe, the Bridge Guy.
I like the way they make a point to my horse without making my legs tired.
I know that spurs don't make a horse go faster. They make a horse pick her back up. I am prepared to deal with just how high that back is going to go.
If I need spurs to make my horse go faster, I'll take them off and learn to ride.
My spurs are not Rock Grinders, but they are serious. I have learned how to use them, and I do. If my horse is afraid of my spur I need to take them off and learn to ride.
My spurs make this old suburban girl feel like a cowboy.

Why I Hate Box Stalls

In my business box stalls are a necessary evil. They allow more horses in a small space. They make the horses I train dependent on me for everything they need. Food, water, exercise, sun, fresh air, companionship. Horses in box stalls get the big picture much faster than horses that can run from me.
Horses don't want blankets, bedding, four walls, and closed doors.
Their muscles ache for room to run, when they can't see the open prairie, their minds close, and create behaviors that help them cope with the unending boredom of a stall. Naturally claustrophobic, a stall has to be the stuff of nightmares for a horse.
They are made to run, and fight, and play in a group. They need to bump back and forth, groom each other, lean against one another when they're
frightened. Out in all weather, shiny and fat in the summer, stuffing themselves as fast as they can, so they'll be ready to be hairy and thin in the winter.
I trade freedom for good behavior. Horses that work with me get turn out. They get time with friends. They get to roll and be muddy.
They eat and drink in their stalls. The hardest horse to catch is the last one let in to eat. If they want dinner, they put on that halter.
In reverse, they don't get out of their stall until they put their head in the halter.
Isolation makes them welcome my touch, my hand on their neck replaces a friendly nuzzle from a herd mate.
Boredom makes them desperate for mental stimulation. They'll grab at the training process in order to have something, anything to think about.
My training eases their anxiety. Anxiety that I create.
I use the hated stall to my advantage. It makes me sick sometimes.
All my personal horses learn to live in a stall. I get them out as soon as I can. I know it stays in the back of their mind. I know it helps me control them.
Spurs and reins are claws. Halters, ropes around their necks, only the wolf snapping at their nose to cut off precious air, and pull them into the pack. Our saddles, and our bodies on their backs, the lion in position to kill. The barn is a trap for the predator to pin them in.
We kid ourselves if we think it's anything less.
What amazes me, every day, every minute I spend with horses, is that they accept us. Not just as master, but as a friend. Horses are willing partners in this game we play. They get it. Way beyond our understanding of our own rules. It blows me away. I'm grateful for it.
Now I'm getting sappy. Gotta go.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Me and The Big K /2

We had a good lesson.Sonita had gone hard enough that she was willing to stand quiet. She still had enough gas to jingle her snaffle, her lips made a goofy flapping sound in time with her heaving flanks.
"She's not done yet." The Big K said.
"Her feet are quiet." I replied.
"You could make her stop clanking that bit if you wanted to."
"Her feet are quiet."
We sat in a silence that stretched away into the grey afternoon. I knew the Big K was trying to decide whether to get about my back talk, or be pleased that I was using my head.
A snowflake settled on my neck and instantly melted, even colder than the cooling sweat trickling between my shoulder blades.
"You circled up pretty good today."
I warmed at the rare praise. "I've been working at them."
"I could tell. What are you looking at when you run your circles?"
"What do you mean?"
"You aren't staring at her shoulders anymore. You were looking in front of you. What do you see?"
I was getting uncomfortable. "I'm not looking at anything."
The Big K shifted around on his horse to look at me. A warm smile invited me to share. C'mon, cough it up, what do you see?"
"This is kinda weird You'll think I'm nuts." I picked at the loose stitching on my saddle horn. My fingers were numb enough to not quite grab the rawhide lacing.
"I know you're nuts. Tell."
"It happened earlier in the week. I was working Sonita in the field out front of the barn."
"Why weren't you in the arena?"
"I needed to feel the circle. I thought the rails might be a crutch."
"Did it work?"
"Not at first. We were erratic and wobbly. Stupid head Sonita wouldn't settle, she was blowing all over." I pushed my stiff fingers under Sonita's red blond mane, her warmth curled through my hand. The snow fell like a steady rain. I settled deeper into my coat.
"I started to focus on a pop bottle laying in the grass. If we passed over the same spot each time around I knew we were on track.
She started to smooth out. I found other markers in the grass. A piece of trash, or a stick. Pretty soon we were clocking around pretty good. I was hitting all my markers every time around."
The Big K leaned back in his saddle and pushed his hands into his coat pockets. The horses let their heads drop, and cocked a hip. The steam rose from their haunches, as the snow soaked through their heavy winter hair.
"So what did you see?"
"This is embarrassing."
"What did you see?"
"I was staring pretty hard about 10 feet in front of us. I was trying to only look ahead, not really hunt out the trash.
A sort of path opened in front of us. It was like a track. It ran from under Sonita's
feet to about ten feet ahead of us. As long as I stayed focused, and followed that track, our circles were about perfect. You know, I think Sonita saw it too. If I got excited or distracted it would disappear, and Sonita would skitter."
"What did you do when you lost it?"
I looked at the Big K out of the corner of my eye. He wasn't making fun. His eyes were intent, his face serious.
"I would concentrate really hard, and it would just show up." I said. "I'm getting to where I can throw it out 25 or 30 feet ahead."
"What color is yours?"
"What do you mean?"
"What color is your track?"
I blew out an exasperated breath. "I guess it was silver."
"Your's would be silver. Probably all sparkly too." The Big K snorted."Mine's black, like a new tarred road."
"You see one?" He had my attention now. "It's not just me?"
"I could tell by the way you were riding today that you found one. I could see you watching it. Can you manipulate yours?"
"I told you I could throw it out ahead of me."
"No, I mean, could you follow one through a pattern?" He shifted around again. His colt picked up his head and snorted. He pawed at the icy mud, and leaned towards the warmth of his stall. The Big K gathered his reins for a brief second, and then dropped them loose on the colts neck. The colt sighed deep, and settled back again.
"I don't know, like at a show?" I said.
"If you can hold your focus long enough, you won't see nothing but the track. All you have to do is point your horse at it. She'll go right to it."
"Is that how it is for you?"
His eyes glowed in his wind burned face. "When I win it is."
"Does everybody find that track?" I couldn't believe I was sitting in the fading light, freezing my butt off, and talking zen with this cowboy.
"I don't know, you're the only other person I've ever talked to about this. It was just so obvious you were following that track around today. Anybody else'd think I was crazy."
He started his colt back to the warm yellow light of the barn.
I sat and stared at his broad back receding into the swirling snow.
"C'mon," the Big K called back to me, "It's gotta be beer thirty by now."

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Horse Stories/ Sonita / Chapter 5

I know, I know, let go of her face.

"Let her go!"
"Loosen your reins!"
Those words drummed through my head. When I rode my other horses at work, while I did my chores, at night in my sleep.
My first lesson with the Big K made it clear Sonita and I weren't going to see a cow anytime soon.
I had been riding with a young trainer who specialized in western pleasure and reining. His philosophy revolved around rigid control, high levels of collection demanded immediately from his young horses, and continual contact with our legs. Every muscle, every step, every thought, was constantly controlled, in both horse and rider.
The Big K soon made it clear that I was going to have to throw it all away if I was going to ride with him.
Not a problem, since I had thrown away everything I thought I knew when I started with the WP guy.
"You ride pretty enough." The Big K told me.
I gave myself an internal pat on the back.
"So that's the first thing that has to go."
Say what?
"You sit too straight, too rigid. You might be in the middle, but you're not really there. Know what I mean?"
No. I didn't.
"Look at me."
I looked at him.
Shoulders curled, back slumped, legs loose and relaxed in surprisingly short stirrups.
It wasn't pretty. It was slouchy and loose.
His rolled shoulders were lined up over his hip bones, which were lined up over his ankle bones.
A perfectly straight, balanced, vertical line from shoulders to boots.
Sally Swift would have been proud.
"You can't ride natural if you're holding yourself so tight."
If you're that tight in the saddle you're going to fight for your balance all the time, I'd want to spend more time paying attention to that horse of yours."
So I made myself relax. I slumped my shoulders, and felt my and lower back loosen.
I shook loose my legs, and they fell naturally into position.
I relaxed my hands, loosened my reins, and Sonita licked her lips.
Then she left.
Sonita didn't exactly bolt. She started out with a big high-headed trot.
"Let her go!" Hollered the Big K. "Just circle her up, one rein at a time. Use about half the arena. Don't pull her up!"
The Big K had an outdoor arena approximately the size of a football field.
My arena at home would have fit in it at least four times.
Sonita was in heaven. By the time we finished our first circle she was going faster than I had ever let her go.
"Don't worry. She'll slow herself down when she get's tired." The Big K assured me as we flew past him the sixth or seventh time.
The Big K didn't know my girl.
She kept picking up speed with each lap.
"Sit back! Relax! Don't lean into your circle!"
We ran 10, 12, 15 circles.
I wanted to curl my knees to my ears, I wanted to pull her with everything I had.
Instead I sat back, relaxed my back and legs, and sank deeper into my seat. I'll be darned. I felt safe, and comfortable.This was getting kind of fun.
The Big K sat in the middle of our circle. I swear, he was laughing.
"She's going to hurt herself before she quits!" I yelled as we whipped past.
"OK. Give her a whoa. Don't pull!"
"Whoaaaaaa." I said , steady and low. I took my legs completely off, settled my weight in the back of my saddle ... and Sonita sped up.
She had finally gotten me the hell off her face, she wasn't going to give it up anytime soon.
Ahh, music to my ears. I grabbed hold of her and planted her red little kiester in the dirt.
Sonita and I stood, wheezing in unison, both of us blinking sweat out of our eyes, noses dripping.
"She hasn't got a lot of rate, does she?" The Big K asked.
"I guess you could say that."
"We've got to get her circling with some sense."
"What do you mean?"
"She needs to be circling with a purpose, not just flying around. It needs to be a job. You've got to get a handle on that."
"You won't let me take hold of her."
"She's never going to listen to you if you keep hanging on her."
"So what do I do?"
"I'd suggest you take her out and lope the other way."
I stared at the Big K.
He looked back at me, a mild look in his eyes, and a smart ass grin on his face.
It would appear the bastard wanted me to think. Fine.
The gloves were off.
I picked up my reins and Sonita eagerly launched into her next set of circles.
"Relax! Let go of her!"

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hanging In There

My friend is still hanging on. After a successful emergency brain surgery, she has shown movement on both sides of her body. Sharion's eyes opened briefly, and she was tracking her husbands face during that time.
I get to visit her tonight. It's frightening, and exciting.
The hope is that she can hear us, and will know I am coming to be with her.
I am the master of idle chit chat, so I should be able to think of plenty to tell her.

One bright note. I went to work with a client yesterday. The plan was to work with her and Jerry, the mare I talked about a few posts back. Also, I was going to get her grand daughter working with Sissy, her OTTB mare. I put 90 days on Sissy last year.
I'm happy to say that Jerry is saddling without issue.
Sissy hasn't been ridden since last summer.
Last week I longed her, saddled her, and stood up and down in the stirrup a few times. I banged on her butt with my knee. She was fine.
The plan yesterday was to repeat the longing, saddling, and knee bumping, and maybe let the grandkid ride.
I forget sometimes that 14 year old girls who know they can ride, sometimes disagree with my plodding, methodical ways.
While I was helping Sharon wrestle with the complexities of the half pass, I asked the grand kid to saddle up Sissy, the OTTB.
We became preoccupied. OK, I was laughing at Sharon's leg. Every time she would try to bump Jerry with her left leg, her right would just twitch and bump all on it's own.
Jerry wasn't particularly inspired to do anything more than wander around with her head in a Parelli-esque flop to Sharon's knee. I found it highly amusing. Sharon was contemplating mowing me down with Jerry.
I'm not sure why she has a problem being mocked by the person she pays to help her. Touchy, touchy.
Anyway, the next thing I know, there goes Grand kid, riding by on the OTTB mare, with a smug grin on her face.
Sissy was happily, quietly, walking along the rail. Sometimes, things just work out. I'm going to hold on to that thought through the day.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


My friend Sharion lies in a hospital bed. She is buried in tubes. Machines clink and hiss, feeding her, monitoring her, breathing for her. They keep her tied to the passing hours, the rising and setting sun, tied to us.
A quick jump from a young horse, and the rare instance of an unbalanced seat, has put her here.
Her family waits in quiet fear. They try to be gentle with one another, old transgressions set aside. For now at least, only tomorrow matters. The next day, the next hour, the next minute, each passing second is celebrated. Each moment that passes is another they still share as a complete family.
The weight of the future is settling on their shoulders. A volatile mixture of hope, anger, terror, and sorrow combine into a daily companion they will become uneasily accustomed to. New routines are becoming established. Routines that revolve around hospitals, doctors, life sustaining machines, a mother and wife.
As friends, we can only wait, hoping to hear that all is well, Sharion is hanging in there, things are going OK. For now, we are barred from seeing her, touching her hand, knowing for ourselves how things are.
We meet in a restaurant, shaken, and talk in low voices. Our fears and speculations whispered between us. Something this awful cannot be talked about in normal tones, our dark fears can't be released into the cheerful conversation flowing around us.
I first met Sharion when I brought my small training business to a boarding stable in eastern Colorado.
She was the barn manager. She was pleasant and efficient, and we took an instant liking to each other. We had a lot in common, we both earned our living with horses. We had given lessons at the same place, worked for some of the same people.
We both had three-year-old fillies we were getting ready for competition. I was teaching and training, Sharion had given it up to become a barn manager, and earn back her non-pro status.
We got along.
We took our fillies out on a gorgeous fall afternoon. Students, work schedules, and demanding clients fell far behind as we trotted through the golden prairie grass.
"Let's kick it up a little." I said.
Sharion grinned and pushed her little bay into a lope.
Our horses were happy to be out, and got caught up in the lure of the open fields ahead of us.
My filly snorted, and crow hopped, striking out with her forefoot in play.
Sharion's horse picked up the invitation and began to buck.
"Whoop!" Sharion hollered."Whoo Hoo!"
She burst out laughing as we reined in our rowdy horses.
"Aren't these little ones fun?" She was still giggling as she soothed her excited horse.
We put the horses back into the lope and took off across the prairie.
Sharion was a hand. She soon became my friend.
She turned me on to the world of cutting horses.
I showed her my life with reined cowhorses.
Our differences were small, and we found ourselves more alike as our friendship grew.
We admire each other for our toughness.
Both of us are frustrated artists, both too emotionally involved in our horses to become truly competent in professional competition.
Her kids are grown, my daughter is on her way.
We are goofy over our dogs.
Our husbands are long suffering, and do their best to be patient with our horse crazy world.
We both appreciate a good Margarita, and each other.
Now I wait, hoping to hear a good word to pass along the phone tree.
I think about her pretty, infectious laugh. Sharion is truly delighted by the world. It often makes her burst out laughing during the day.
She loves her family.
She loves her horses and dogs.
She was thrown from a horse, trail riding with friends on a beautiful day. Her favorite thing to be doing, her favorite place to be.
Sharion will remain in an induced coma for at least a month.
If all goes well, she is facing at least a six month stay in the hospital.
I hope the coma lets her dream. I hope her senses are filled with the smell of a breeze through the pine trees, and sweat soaked saddle blankets. I hope she's riding her favorite roan mare, and can feel the steady push of her strong legs on the trail. I hope she sees the dust pooling around each hoof, as the horse in front of her presses it's eager way home. I hope she can hear the happy snorts of a well ridden horse, the creaking of her cutting saddle, and the silly jokes of her friends.
I hope she slowly, steadily, works her way back up the trail, back to the family that loves her.
I hope she rides back to us, her friends, who ache to hear her laugh.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Horse Stories/Sonita/Chapter 4

Sonita's leg was healed well. The huge hole filled with granulated tissue, became smaller and smaller, eventually closing up. The dent where her forearm used to be filled with fluid, stretching the newly healed skin.. It actually stood out farther than her healthy leg.
The next time the vet checked her he was impressed. The scar was soft, flat, and slid freely with the skin in her leg. She was completely sound.
"Should we drain that fluid?" I asked.
"It's there for a reason." Doc replied. "If we drain it, her leg will look withered. There really isn't much under there but bone. That fluid is providing a cushion, I'd let it be."
That leg never slowed her down.
It might have helped me if it had.
Sonita was a force to be reckoned with.
Wild and extreme in everything she did.
She would spook hard and often at absolutely nothing. She zigged and zagged and leaped through every ride.
I had not yet learned to get on a horse and get it moving right away. I was still pretty much starting my youngsters by the seat of my pants.
I would longe them under saddle until they were comfortable.
I would get them used to a snaffle bit.
I would step up and down a few times, and get on.
I would walk until I felt safe, then trot, and so on.
Sonita and I walked a lot.
She was a ball of eager energy. I could feel her back muscles quivering through the saddle, her legs gathered under me. She carried me around from day one without a misstep.
All power, complete confidence, and fluid grace, until she spooked at something.
Then she would leap. Really, really high. When she landed, she would go again. Sometimes sideways, sometimes forward, always high in the air.
Sonita spooked at dogs, kids, other horses, wind, stuff sliding on the roof, dust, and air.
She spooked at my feet moving, my weight shifting, a lift in the rein, me scratching my nose, or wiping the terror induced sweat off my glasses.
Her strength was mind boggling.
I was freaked out of my skull.
I would find myself riding in a semi-fetal position, reins clutched in white-knuckled fists, every muscle as tight as Sonita's. It was not going well.
We walked.
We trotted a little.
We jumped around a lot.
I kept reading.
"Stay loose." The wise sages in my books advised.
"Let them have their head."
Obviously they hadn't met my little fruit loop.
I went back to the ground, and began an intensive "despooking" program.
I was following the program the local mounted police used to train their horses.
I waved bags, rolled balls, hung banners, laid tarps, and patiently, kindly desensitized Sonita.
She became completely calm with that ball, that bag, and that tarp.
The next one she saw would send us to the moon.
She was incredibly aggressive with other horses. She would kick, strike, and squeal if they broke into her rather large sense of personal space.
She was also herd bound beyond reason.
The first time I hauled her I took her to a local day show with some students. I planned on leaving her tied at the trailer, maybe leading her around a little.
When her trailer buddies left her she became frantic.
The ever white rimmed eyes rolling , her manic screams filling the air, she sucked back and threw herself around until she had scraped up her knees, head, and shoulders against the ground and trailer.
When we brought the horses back she swung around and kicked at them, ears flat.
I was completely flummoxed.

I went out to the WP trainer I was riding with.
I took Sonita.
I rode with him for an hour.
He put my filly in a twisted wire and german martingale.
She almost came over backwards.
We were standing side by side, watching her climb up and down the rails of the trainer's arena walls. Sonita stood, her front legs balanced on the front rails, looking at us, comfortably chewing up the end of her lead rope.
"Send her down the road." Was what he came up with. "As fast as you possibly can."
I left knowing that Sonita sure as hell wasn't carrying that twisted wire bit or the german martingale ever again. I also knew that I was done with the WP trainer. I just didn't know what to do with my little red filly.
Send her down the road?
It wasn't the first time I had heard that.
But I had never ridden an athlete like Sonita. That cat like power, the incredible energy, it terrified and amazed me. I wanted to be able to ride her. I wanted to be good enough to train her.
She would nicker when she heard my car drive up to the barn.
She would pace in her pen, eager to start every day. She was always bright eyed, and ready to try whatever I came up with in my quest to figure her out.
She never tried to kick, bite, or bump me.
She learned at lightening speed, when it was something she could grasp.
When she was focused, she was the most exciting thing I had ever ridden.
I was addicted to the puzzle.
She wasn't quite three.
There was no way I could give her up. Not yet.

I heard of a small one day clinic being held east of town. It was on reining and working cowhorse.
I had only watched the cowhorse class at a couple of AQHA shows.
It had given me a thrill, and a sense of yearning I never felt in the pleasure horse world.
I went to watch with a friend of mine.
I was so excited, that by noon I talked my friend into going home and picking up a couple of her horses so we could ride in the afternoon.
I worked my first cow on an APHA pleasure champion. Luckily the cow was old, and sick, one eyed, and three legged. I was able to work it at .02 miles per hour on that very confused rail horse.
I signed up for the next clinic, to be given in a month.
I brought Sonita.

The clinic had several riders. It seemed like most of them knew what they were doing. None of their horses looked as bug eyed as Sonita.
None of the riders were as bug eyed as me.
We started with reining.
The clinician was kind, took time with every rider, and tried to get a handle on what each horse was about.
When he came to Sonita he looked us up and down. As usual, she was soaked in sweat, picking up her feet one at a time in a nervous dance.
He had us lope a few circles. I did my best to not let him see that I had never loped her anywhere but in our indoor at home.
Sonita was unusually calm. She liked being outside. She liked riding alone in the arena.
"She's a handful isn't she?"
"That's why I'm here. I'm not quite sure what to do with her."
"I like her."
"Say what?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"I can't wait to see if she'll cow." He truly seemed to like my filly.
I couldn't wait to see if I'd live through the afternoon.
We were pretty much all newbies when it came to working cows.
The clinician had us each follow, or track, a single cow around the arena, one at a time.
"Just toss out your reins, and let 'em follow that cow around. Do your best to stay up with it, and whatever you do, don't pull!"
Don't pull? Toss out my what? I was going to die.
When my turn came I was determined not to look like a complete ass.
"She gets a little gassed up sometimes." I said.
"That's OK. Just hang on." He replied.
Easy for him to say.
I took a deep breath, and trotted out after my cow. Sonita's head came up, she zeroed in on the cow and made a beeline to it.
The cow zigged left, so did we, it zagged right, us too.
She lowered her head, pinned her ears, and sped up.
"Hang on!" I heard somewhere behind me.
I shortened up my reins, and grabbed hold of her face.
All four of Sonita's feet shot straight into the air.
A loud "Woop whoop!" came floating to me.
That's his answer? A lousy whoop whoop?
Sonita hit the ground, and spun around, hunting her cow. I tried to stop her, and we were air born again.
"Let her go! Let her go!" The clinician was shouting, a note of panic in his voice.
I grabbed the horn, threw out my reins, and swallowed hard enough to get my stomach back in place.
Sonita shook her head in frustration, and launched after the cow.
We zipped around the arena, her head low, ears flattened, her nose getting up front and personal with that cow's rear end.
I kept my reins loose, and could feel the tension leave her. I like to tell myself the tension was leaving me, but I felt like I was trapped in a pinball game gone bad.
Finally I heard, "OK, pull her off."
I gently said "Whoaaaa...."
Sonita stopped square, and blew.
She was shaking with excitement.
I was trying not to barf.
The clinician rode up next to me and grinned.
"What a horse." His smile got even wider. "What a horse."
"What have you got there?"
"Will you help me? Can we take some lessons?" I couldn't believe I was saying it.
"I can't wait." He answered.
Sonita and I had just finished our first ride with the Big Kahuna.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Go Ahead, Make My Day

I only have a few minutes today.
I also have a lot on my mind.
I have had it pointed out to me that I remind some folks of different NH trainers that they know.
Loneplainsman isn't the first to bring this up to me.
This bugs me.
A bunch.
So I've been really trying to think why. I was up into the wee hours sorting it out.
Thanks guys. I don't need sleep, really.
I come from a background of not much money.
I supported my horse by babysitting, and then giving lessons and riding for people.
When I needed a piece of extra equipment I made it.
You wouldn't believe what I can build with baling twine.
The first trainer I had the pleasure to ride with was impressed with the running martingale I made with curtain rings and an old set of reins.
It never occurred to him to say, "You have to have the "Sooper Dooper Mothers Milk Hackamore" to succeed. Because I thought of it, it's just triple what it costs at the tack store "
If that had been a requirement I could not have afforded to learn what I did.
Most of the people I have ridden with over the years have been generous with their time and information.
Many of the trainers I go to now don't charge me at all. Trainers share with each other.
I have been able to take a lesson here and there, once in a while, my whole life.
I could never invest the equivalent of my college education to become "certified".
I am a master at picking up information from random conversations, or a few hours with a good horseman.
I listen to everybody.
I weed out the bad, and absorb the good.
I don't have the time, patience, or money to go through levels, channels, phases, or journeys with somebody who I feel is only after my money.
I try to respect my clients. I listen and learn from them. I am working really hard at not thinking I'm always right. I try to be as economical with my clients as I am with myself.
I am generous with my time and input.
The equipment I use is basic.
I have a taste for good bits, hand braided rawhide, and custom saddles.
I don't require my students and clients to share that taste with me.
I will teach them why I like those things.
Maybe that explains a little why I have trouble being compared to a NH clinician.
The concepts aren't theirs.
They've been around forever.
They don't come with mecates, or orange flags, or parachute chord anything.
A good horseman works the horse, not the crowd.
I'll leave working the crowd to P.T. Barnam.

Uma is doing great.
We had a repeat of the first day, except that the arguments were not as fierce.
I started out with my pulling, yanking, harassing monkey routine, instead of waiting for her to initiate the argument.
Uma thinks I'm an idiot, but she was caught, and bridled with a minimum of nonsense.
After I longed her, and explained to her that the bucking thing was still a no no, I got on.
We rode around for about 20 minutes or so.
She's a throw the reins out, and go down the road kind of gal.
When we were done I got off, loosened my cinch, and led her to the tie rail.
I got a friendly sniff at my elbow from Uma.
I didn't pet her, praise her, or give her a treat.
I just tied her up and went on with my day.
When I put her up she was brighter eyed and more relaxed than she's been since I got her.
I think Peg will do fine with this mare, if she's the kind of horse she wants.
Peg did let me know that she can catch her and longe her with no problem at this point in time.
So Uma/B.O.B. was trying her stuff out on me.
The key is that Peg doesn't feel safe riding her.
I get that.
Uma is tolerating Peg. But she still thinks she's in charge.
Peg has the ability to ride this mare.
It will come down to if she wants to. It will be interesting to see how things change through the 30 days I'll be working with them.