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.


  1. I always dread getting to the bottom of the blog because then I know it's over... keep writing, I'm so intrigued!!

  2. Fantastic! Don't wait so long for the next installment!!

  3. I ... third selle francais and loneplainsman!!!

  4. mugwump, I know I've said this before, but I'm a professional writer (people pay me for horse stories--can you believe it?) and in my "professional" opinion, you are really talented. What a great piece. Of all your blogs, I like the Sonita stories the best. They just really resonate for me. This one reminds me of the day that the reining horse trainer I worked for sent me down the fence with a cow on an extremely catty, sudden mare I'd never ridden before. He just sat there grinning, waiting for me to fall off. (He wasn't as nice as your trainer in the story, believe me.) I didn't fall off, but it was close. Biggest thrill I'd had horseback to that point, and yeah, I thought I might barf when I stepped off that little mare.

  5. That is really, wicked cool.

    You're making me want to go chase cows!

    I agree with laura crum -- I think you need to keep writing and start selling it. I love reading the stories about your horses, especially.

  6. mugwump:

    What does this really mean?

    "I had not yet learned to get on a horse and get it moving right away."

    Most trainers say, when starting a horse to get on and wait, do a little giving to the bit and so on, so that the horse doesn't learn that mounting means move forward and that they don't anticipate moving forward and doing so before you're aboard. But...reading your stuff, I know for sure there's a reason and a rhyme for what you said, and I don't really know it. Of course, if Sonita's story explains this, and this is only the teaser for the future, then I'll wait patiently to read more :).

    Also, about "NH" is it really so that NH means only these mega clinicians or is it really something else? I mean Tom and Bill Dorrance weren't mega clincians, made their own tack, and were excelent horsemen with feel. I would say they used NH, but of course that is different than Parelli or Monty (Hall? haha).

  7. laura crum-wait til you get to know the Big K better...nice isn't in the description!
    austriancurls-I have learned it is best to let the youngsters pick their own speed on my first few rides. If they walk off, that's what we do, if they scoot, I do my best to stay out of their way and let them scoot. Since I've started doing this I've had almost no bucking, sulling up, bolting, or steering issues. It's hard to just sit there, but it really makes a difference.
    As far as mounting, they have to stand still, I'm too old, fat, and slow to just jump up and go..

  8. Believe me, Tom Dorrance would roll in his grave if he heard you put him in the NH category.
    He was a horseman. Not a showman.

  9. Ah wow. You really are a good storyteller you know?

    I've never sat a cow-horse in my life, but you did a damn good job of making me relate that feeling to the OMFG-I'm-just-a-passenger-here-oh-WOW feeling that I had at 15 when an acquaintance put me up on her 4* event horse and sent me off schooling on him... him schooling me mind, not the other way round.

    mugwump'll correct me I'm sure, but I'd say that she meant that the first few times with babies, you do what what they need to do to cope with and explore the experience?

    Or maybe that some horses you need to get on and get them moving, too busy to think against you, just about what's coming next...

  10. fd- you got it- the less I do those first few rides, the better.I know a lot of you will think I'm nuts, but I'm ususlly at least trotting for several days before I teach the whoa. I just relax, drop my weight into my seat and stirrups, and wait for them to stop. Then I take my legs off and say Whoa. I don't ask them to stop until I'm ready for them to back.
    It works for me...

  11. Mugwump, you truly are a gifted writer. Thank you for sharing your stories! I'm addicted.

  12. Dang, I was just getting into it...... reminds me of when I was buying "The Green Mile" in installments. Looking forward to more.

  13. mugwump, I knew Tom Dorrance and also practiced and showed cutting horses with and against his wife, Margaret, and I agree with your point. Tom Dorrance would be aghast at most of this NH stuff. I have to say that in my opinion Tom was a good horseman who paid attention to what a horse was trying to communicate and had spent a lifetime at it--such a person can seem to be working magic for sure. But in general, his methods didn't make for winning horses in the cutting pen--at least not at a very high level. I think you will understand this--what it takes to win at a high level in that sport can not be acieved by any "horse centered" methods (this is not a criticism of horse centered methods). I think you've referenced this point already in your blog when you say that your horses are "behind the industry standards" A great deal of the reason that I got disenchanted with both cutting and reining (at least the way the industry practices these events) has to do with the pressure put on 3 yr olds to win fururities, but that's a whole nother story.

  14. laura crum- I never got to meet Tom Dorrance, I got to be yelled at by Ray Hunt at a clinic though.(my daughter was cutting up)
    I just know the term NH came later, an advertising term.
    And your right, the "horse cenered approach does not a competitor make.
    I love to compete, and I love to win. I love my horses. I have to train because I won't let anyone else train them.
    I'll never have what it takes to go all the way to the top, and only part of it is because I argue the training methods.
    I love trying though.

  15. Agree 100% with Laura Crum. It's sorta sad, isn't it?

    Mugwump, I'd love to hear you talk about what you do when it comes to bits and bitting. On your younglings and your more finished horses. I'm sure you have fantastic hands and haven't ruined any horse's mouths lately [;)] but I'm curious to know if you've ever gotten hard mouthed horses and what you do for them??

    That is, if you have the time to talk about it!

  16. Wow! I love your stories. Thank you for posting them.

  17. You're an excellent storyteller!

    I know that feel of a whole-lotta-horse, too. Nothing like it in the world.

  18. I love this story because it reminds me of my favorite mare of all time, Harmony. I still own her. She's 28 this year. She lives in luxury in Tennessee, on retirement board.

    Harmony was like Sonita in that she had to have a job that she loved and had to focus on that...or she was a flippin' idiot. We got her cheap because she had just broken someone's collarbone. The first time I ever saw her, she was bucking off my not-yet-then-my-boyfriend into a mud puddle - and he was a damn good rider so that gives you an idea of her natural talents. She had been bred for polo, the daughter of a very expensive imported Argetine polo mare. But she just didn't want to get with the program. She bucked, she spooked, she propped on her front legs a whole lot.

    I have never, before or since, hit it off with a horse the way I did with Harmony. When we met, I was 17 and she was 5. I figured out about a week in that she needed to be BUSY. If we were shortworking (cantering down the rail with frequent rollbacks), she was fine. If we were hitting the ball around, she was fine. Try to trot or canter on a loose rein and just exercise her? She was batshit crazy. She did things like jump the bar of sunlight on the arena floor.

    So I did all kinds of stuff to keep her from being bored. She did play polo, and a few years later was good at it (although much to my GREAT amusement, she still gave my by-then-my-boyfriend major grief, did things like rear if he tried to take a neckshot and cheat violently when he was hitting on the nearside...she did none of this with me, it was hilarious). She also jumped. She ran barrels. She ran poles. She turned out freakin' excellent, never took a lame step and retired sound. Almost lost her to a bad colic at 8 but I stayed up with her all night, walking, and she pulled through.

    Something about those tough ones...if you can just CHANNEL it, if you can find out the magic solution, the thing that makes them happy, you wind up with the best damn horse in the world. For Sonita it was cows and she's very lucky you gave her the chance to discover what she was good at instead of "sending her down the road."

    P.S. I really believe the twisted wire snaffle should be illegal to manufacture. How many horses has it contributed to ruining? A LOT.

  19. Holy Cow! (LOL) Can't wait to read more.

  20. What an excellent story. Can't wait for the next chapter.

  21. mugwump:

    Thanks for answering my question, you explained it very well for me and I can picture it. I wonder if I can even do that now. Although, I must say I've never had a horse move out like that. So far they've all been very timid about moving. I use a bit of leg and wait for movement then release. After the release they often just stop, and then I press and release when they move. I have two mares to start, I'll try to test this out.

  22. I have a confession to make:
    I have this system of looking at websites/blogs. First i check out Fugly, then Training the VLC, then TB Friends, then Mugwump, then a few others. Well today, I just skipped ahead to Mugwump. I just love your stories. I'm not turning my back on Fugly by any means, I think I just wanted to read something a bit more, I don't know, literary. Your stories are inspiring. I'm not a proper trainer other than teaching my own boys, but I have worked with trainers in the past that didn't show half of the understanding and patience that you have.

    I have a big ole soft spot for those horses that tend to test your last nerve and when you're nearly at your breaking point, they turn around an absolutely amaze you. Makes all the sweat and tears you've put into them mean so much more when you've helped them to find their niche. I rescued a TB/Draft that I intended to use for low-level jumping, and he just wouldn't have anything to do with it. He was clumsy in the arena, or would get lazy, overreach and pull off a shoe or just start being unruly. He would stop paying attention and one day I just had it. I rode him straight out of the arena and into the trails to get his mind in gear. He came alive. Out on the trail he's as sure-footed as a mountain goat, eyes wide, one ear always on me the other listening intently forward. There's no happier horse than Excell when he's out in the woods and he's incredibly aware at all times that I'm on him, he takes great care of me because he knows I'll unleash him on the open areas and let him go to his heart's content. But god forbid you try to do anything with him in the arena, he just hates it in there. He's the most content and responsive in the countryside and that's where I now intend to use him.
    Just like Sonita, when I found what he enjoyed, what he was good at, he gives me 150% every time.

    I'll be sitting here waiting 'patiently' for the next installment :) Now that you've found Sonita's niche I can't wait to see her fly.

  23. I don't feel that a twisted wire snaffle should get a bad rap all by itself. Just like a gun (or a knife, or a baseball bat) its a tool in one hand, an instrument of abuse in another. I LOVED the part about "just pitch her away and let her do her thing." (I'm paraphrasing) I bet you were scared silly, but this time she had something to concentrate all that enegry on....your description of it was awesome.

  24. MORE...MORE...MORE

    Also please a pic of this Mare of yours!

  25. This was my favorite installment of the story yet! I can't wait to hear the rest of Sonita's story.