Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sonita Stories/Chapter 9 First Ride

"Could you help me for a minute?" Sharion was out of breath and pissed.
"I can't catch Nova no matter what I do."

Sharion had turned out her new, barely halter broke, yearling filly for a run in the outdoor arena. The filly had no intention of being caught ever again.

The typey, black filly was quick, smart and cutting bred. She was also proving herself entirely single-minded in her determination to stay away from Sharion and spend the rest of her life in the sandy arena.

"I've been trying to get her all afternoon. She'll work herself to death rather than get caught."
Sharion glared at me. "It's not funny, so stop laughing."

I have to admit, the better qualified a horseman is, the more I enjoy seeing a situation like this. Sharion is extremely qualified. There's something so satisfying in knowing a horse will embarrass everybody once in a while. Of course, it could be I'm just rotten.

"Maybe I can get her with another horse." I said.

The Big Kahuna wasn't adverse to working yearlings and two-year-olds off a horse when practice cattle were scarce. The end result was surprisingly well mannered youngsters who respected other horses and led like a dream. I had picked up the habit in my own little training business and had enjoyed quite a bit of success.

"I'll get Sonita."

"You can let her eat first, if you want. I don't care if Nova ever eats again."

I had never seen Sharion this close to losing her temper.

"Are you kidding? I love getting the chance to interrupt Sonita's dinner. Anything to rock her little world is OK with me."

Sonita wrinkled her nose and sighed when I came into her stall with a halter.

"C'mon cupcake, we've got work to do."

She shook her head and stomped when I saddled her. I couldn't blame her, she was tired. I had ridden her hard earlier in the afternoon. Other than rolling her eye at me, she accepted the inevitability of our upcoming ride.

As I led Sonita to the arena I took a look at the sky over Pikes Peak. The shadows were deeper and darker than the late afternoon warranted. A fist of thick black clouds had opened over the mountain's northwest shoulder. The cloud cover stretched long dark fingers east, fragmenting the bright fall sunlight .

In the distance, sheets of rain fell from the encroaching fingertips. A brisk wind stepped up, yanking at my faded, green King Ropes hat, and wrapped me in it's damp chill.

"I'd better get a move on, that weather isn't going to give me much time." I said.

"You'll be alright." Sharion replied.

"It just started coming down in the city. It shouldn't be here for another 45 minutes."

Sonita was energised by the upcoming weather and she shook her head at me, wanting to move. I put her right into a lope and she automatically went into a 60 foot circle. She rode easy on a loose rein, alternating between a series of soft bucks and striking out her front foot in play.

The black filly stood in the corner of the arena, watching us, her head flung high.

"Sonita's sure gassed up." Sharion said, laughing. "This could get interesting."

"She'll be fine, she's just happy. She knows somethings up."

Sonita gave me another set of easy bucks, making me laugh."You should try this some time, it's like riding a dolphin."
"Just go catch my filly."

Nova was meandering around the pen, looking over the fence and studiously ignoring us. I trotted over and pointed Sonita at her hip, she pinned her ears and went right to her. The filly skittered off and I sat back in my seat. Sonita stopped and rocked back on her hind legs, keeping her eyes on Nova.

I sent the filly out five or six times, stopping Sonita every time the filly moved off.
Nova got to where she would lope off and whirl to watch us as soon as we quit her.
Now that I had her attention, I put Sonita on her and drove her around the pen. I kept Nova as close on the rail as I could and just kept her moving.

Sonita was hot, she wanted to lean on the little black horse. She would swing her head and bare her teeth. I'd check her, Nova would speed up, the whole thing would fall apart and we'd lose her. I would spin Sonita in frustration and set her back on the filly. I set her up over and over again. The filly was determined to keep away from us, I couldn't blame her, Sonita was intent terrorizing her instead of quietly working her.

Things become much cleaner as the afternoon waned and the fading light enveloped our little trio. The edge was off both horses and Sonita finally let me lead the parade.

We found the perfect position to drive the filly around the arena and not lose her. Sonita kept my knee at Nova's hip bone and carried her head just about even with her second to last rib. We were close enough to her that I could have rubbed her shiny black coat without coming off the middle of my horse.

After a couple of laps I settled deep into my saddle, with my weight slightly on my outside seat bone and stirrup. Looking at the fence, just past Nova's nose, I clucked to Sonita and pushed with my seat, asking her to step past. She rocketed past the filly, looking her deep in the eye as we went by. Nova sat in the dirt, turned into the fence and shot off in the opposite direction. Sonita stayed hooked to her and whipped through her own turn, coming out in the driving position at Nova's hip.
We repeated this maneuver five or six times. The horses ran a synchronized ballet. Their breath whistled in unison, their legs pounded a rhythm into the dust. I pushed Nova into one more turn and pulled Sonita off. We stood in the middle of the arena, airing up. The two horses stood blowing, heads level with their withers, staring at each other.

"I think you're having too much fun." Sharion was leaning on the rail.

"She really doesn't want to get caught." I replied.

"You don't really want to catch her. Here's the halter, I'm going to finish up in the barn. Call me if you want help."

The rain started to fall as I went back to work. I was so intent on catching the renegade horse, I didn't feel the cold rain on my neck, or notice the deepening night. Sonita was immersed in the game. She loped steadily alongside the filly, I threw my reins loose and our communication came from a soft roll of my calf, or the merest shift of my weight. She would flick an ear at me and guide or turn, whatever we needed to stay in posistion.

The tough little filly danced with my mare, not quite giving up her freedom, but willing to lope and turn in the night.

The rain grew in intensity, and the last of the light dropped behind the Peak. I could barely see, so I dropped my hand and gave over my trust to my wacky, wild mare. Finally, for the first time, we were in complete sync. Sonita knew what I wanted and understood how to get the job done. I marveled at her quiet smoothness, the intensity and perfection of the way she worked the filly.

The tiring horses broke into a trot. I asked for a few more turns on the fence, and pushed Nova into the center of the pen. Sonita pushed her nose into the base of the filly's steaming black neck and we circled. I lifted my hand and Sonita checked back, switched sides and circled Nova the other way. We were magic.

Nova slowed to a stop. She stood leaning into my wonderful mare. I rubbed Nova's neck and shoulders as the rain poured down. After they caught their breath I rode to the rail, with Nova following obediently along. I found the halter and she stood while I tied it in place. The three of us stood quietly in the dark, I could feel Sonita's slowing heart beat against my legs. Nova slung her head across Sonita's withers and let me rub her forehead. The rain streamed against her face, and her quiet eye met mine.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Warp Drive!!!

The questions that came in seem to run on the same theme. I should be able to cover them in one post.
I have to stress, my advice on hot horses that are lugging and pulling, and sometimes bucking is be careful!
I know we're talking different levels of ability and experience here.

As a middle of the road trainer, I am given lots of hot horses to "fix". I've gotten pretty good at it, but as I have said before, I can't change who a horse is. I guess I can if I break them down, but I don't go there.
Riding a hot horse is a continual, ongoing thing. The horse will always have to be reminded that jiggling, jumping, speeding up, etc., is not what we're doing here.
I happen to like a lively horse. They're usually smart and engaging, and I like to ride a work in progress. Plus, it makes me look cool.
I am known for how quiet my horses are. Most of them are fair to middling hot potatoes. But they know the rules, I try really hard to be consistant, and I spend lots of quiet time with them. They appear really quiet.

So here we go.
I got a really nice horse in for an evaluation. Ted is a pretty, stout, put together bay. He came off of the BarJP Ranch, out of a dynamite stud, Little Dors Lena. If you want to check out a good site here it is,

The Big K had started him, and he had done a couple three year old futurities.
His latest owner, Lyn, had spent some pretty good dough for him.
Ted had a lot of training on him, but not a lot of time. And he was hot. Lyn soon had a rearing, bucking, charging mess. She couldn't even lead him, he would play and goof, and just cause trouble.
He had been to a NH guy who didn't ride him, but worked him in the round pen for 30 days. Ted thought that was great fun, did well, went home, and ate poor Lyn for lunch.
When I met her, she had him in for training at the Big K's. Another on site trainer (like me) had him for 60 days. He rode him, but Lyn still couldn't.
She switched to me because she noticed how quiet my horses were. And the fact that my daughter showed her how to slap Ted into shape when she led him. It took five minutes to get Ted leading around like he should.
Lyn said, "Where did you learn how to do that?"
"My mom taught me."
"Where's your Mom?"
I swear, I didn't steal her, she jumped ship. The other trainer forgave me eventually.
I asked her, "What do you want from this horse?"
"I just want to enjoy him. If I want to go trail riding with girlfriends, I think he should do that, and not act like a dumb ass the entire ride."
Lyn started lessons with me, and they were going pretty good. His ground manners improved, and she could walk, trot, lope, and not get massacred.
I liked Ted, to be honest, I thought he was funny. There was no meanness to him, just a lot of horse. His sense of humor was going to get him sent down the road though.
He really gave Lynn a rough time.
Finally she asked me to ride him.
"I'm going to be on vacation for two weeks. How about you ride him, decide if he's fixable, and when I get back, I'll come ride with you and we'll go from there."
So here came Ted.
I knew he could be good. He just needed new rules that made sense.

I saddled him up, and longed him. I am pretty strict about horses bucking under saddle.
If I don't tack them up, they can play, and buck and yahoo around.
Once they have a saddle on, we're at work.
Ted didn't agree with my plan. He took off, bucking and leaping, and dragging me around.
I got out one of my secret weapons, my big long rope.
It's fifty feet of thick, soft cotton rope.
I have a loop tied at one end.
I use it for a myriad of things, that day it was a bucking rope.
I put it around Ted, and ran one end through the loop. It made a loose noose that I slid behind the saddle, so it hung around his flanks.
I sent him out on the longe line, where of course, not appreciating the rope around his flanks, he proceeded to buck.
I pulled the bucking rope tight. Ted went a little nuts.
I hung on, the noose stayed tight, and I kept yanking on the longe line and the bucking rope.
This is easier in a round pen, but I don't have one, so we just wrestled around the arena.
As soon as Ted stopped to catch his breath, I loosened the noose.
He took off again, threw out a kick, and I pulled the noose tight.
Ted was fat, and smart. So he figured out that I was going to pull that noose tight every time he bucked. He really didn't want to work that hard, so he started to lope around nice and easy on the longe line.
My first point was well taken, no bucking under saddle.
Then I bridled the very foamy and wheezing Ted, and got on.
I put him on the rail, and threw out my reins. He immediately took off.
I pulled him into the rail and essentially did a roll back.
I didn't execute a proper roll back though. I just yanked him through it like a dude on a rent-a-plug.
As we turned the other way, he walked for a step or two. I made sure he was on a very loose rein, and that my body was relaxed and quiet.
He took off again, and I yanked him into the rail again, and released my rein as soon as he walked that step or two.
We did this for a while. Ted couldn't believe I wasn't hanging on his face. To him, a loose rein meant go.
I realized he expected me to work him hard, he had no idea his behavior was causing Lyn to hold him in all the time. He was worried. He had no clue what anybody wanted. He would gas up in anticipation of the tight hold he was normally ridden with.
So I kept it up. I can't give you an exact time frame,( training is usually as exciting as watching paint dry) but I probably did the loose rein thing for an hour or so before Ted was walking around the arena relaxed and happy.
Then I got off and gave him a bath.
The next day was the same schedule.
He started to buck on the longe line, I got out my rope, he gave two half hearted bucks and quit.
I got on, and in a few minutes he was walking around on a loose rein.
I put him up.
The next day he longed like an angel, and when I rode, I worked on walk, trot transitions. He got excited, and chargy, but I simply turned him into the fence, which brought him down to the walk, and started again. He got that one pretty quick.
I stayed at that step for a couple more rides. I wanted Ted to understand his job. Which was to calm down.
I hadn't pulled back on him once during this whole time. I just said "Whoa". I didn't try to stop him until he was really ready to quit.
When I turned him into the fence I just turned him, I didn't pull back. I also only pull one rein at a time.
I wanted Ted to take responsibility for his speed.
I ended every ride with a quiet, loose rein walk.
When he had his walk, trot, lope transitions solid (I transition up the same way I talked about in the last post, and come down with an exhale, a deepened seat, and a lift of my rein hand) I changed our routine.
We started the day in our big arena. I expected a walk around the perimeter on a loose rein. Then I would do my basic reining work out. Lots of circles on a loose rein, different sizes and speeds.
I worked Ted hard, but made sure my priority was his level of calm.
If he blew, which he did often, I would shag his little butt back up to the little arena and repeat our first workouts. Then Ted would still have to finish whatever work I had originally planned.
If he broke gait, up or down, I would haul him through a roll or two until he was walking and start again.
I was extremely consistent. My cues were clean and to the point. I spent a lot of time just standing. If he moved I would lope a few circles and then see if he wanted to be still.
I still hadn't pulled back on him. If he didn't rate off my seat we would rollback.
we started walking around the place for his cool down. If he got goofy, back to the arena we'd go for another little workout. Then we'd try to walk again.
By the time Lyn came back from vacation he was walking around the ranch like an old dude. He liked it too.
It took Lyn awhile to get the hang of a loose rein. So we stayed in the upper arena for awhile, and reinforced the initial walk, trot, lope cues.
Then I added a step. I had Lyn sit on Ted with a loose rein. She would begin to bump him with both legs. He would jump forward with every intention of taking off. I had Lyn pull him straight into a back. (Finally, he got a pull!)
Not a pretty back, just haul on him until he backed up.
Then Lyn would release, slow count to three, and do it again.
The result was Ted eventually began to take a cautious step forward, almost on tip toes, when Lyn bumped him. When he crept forward Lyn would relax, and let him walk out. If he took off she would haul him back.
I wanted to instill slow into his brain. He needed to quit reacting to every bump and thump that his rider gave him. I wanted Ted to think before he responded.
This is NOT an exercise to do on a fresh horse. This is an end of the ride thing. Ted got to where Lyn could lift her rein hand, and he would pause, and wait to see what Lyn wanted. Kind of a cowboy half halt. If he didn't pause, she would back him.
Then we began trail riding. If Ted would jig or start to pull I had Lynn zig-zag him. She would guide him left until his feet moved one or two steps left, then take him right.
I would continue on in front with my horse.
The more he jigged, the farther behind he got.
When he finally walked Lyn would release her reins, and relax.
Since this was a variation of our arena work, he picked it up quickly. He got further when he walked on a loose rein, he realized he could catch up to my horse when he walked quietly, in a straight line.
Once again, consistency was the key.
Lyn would make contact with Ted's mouth when she had something to say.
If he leaned on her hands she would back him.
If any of my horses pull against my contact, I back them. Just a step or two. But I always do it. I back with my legs by the way, I only pull if they resist me.
So Ted started waiting for Lyn.
That is the key to soothing a wound up horse. They have to learn to wait.
Ted and Lyn are happily riding all over the place. She takes him on cattle drives, and trail rides.
He rides alone, and in a group.
She still has to school on him fairly often, but she keeps it simple and clear. Lyn told me that the schooling sessions are getting shorter, and easier.
I consider them a success.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Two Good Questions

I've got two good questions to answer today. One on saddle fit, and one about perking up a waaay too mellow horse.
I'll start with the pluggy horse.
I was working a slow, plodding, resentful, burned out pleasure horse. You can imagine how exciting it is to get one of these when you work at a cowhorse training facility.
My job was to get him to respond. He would no longer move beyond a poky little walk without a lot of whacking.
The second I released my death grip with my legs he would slide right back into that stuck in the mud walk.
"What's wrong?" The Big K asked me. "You look irate."
"This horse sucks."
"You have a habit of doing things in reverse."
Great. I was already sulky because I was stuck riding this broken down ode to the slow lane, and now I was going to get a lecture about my shortcomings. It wasn't like I could get busy and start loping circles. I resigned myself to my fate.
The Big K loped his colt around my Rosinante as he continued. "You need to ride a lively horse with a lot of action. You need to whoop and holler, and jump and slide around until that jumpy little critter doesn't care anymore."
"I don't think he cares anymore." I said.
The Big K did a few run downs in the time it took us to get half way around the pen.
"Really, I think he's got the not jumping part figured out." I added.
He had this Cheshire Cat way of grinning at me when he knew I was getting cranky. He flipped one at me as he roll-backed his colt into the fence right in front of Rosinante's unimpressed nose.
"Am I right?" He said.
"Whatever." I replied.
"I said, am I right?"
"Then would it make sense that you should ride a dead-head horse with a whisper?"
He left the arena to go change horses, and let me chew on that one for awhile.
When The Big K dropped that kind of load on me, he was done talking. I was supposed to figure out what he meant, and get it done in short order.
I had plenty of time to think as I plodded around the arena.
I thought back to my Balanced Ride training, ala Monte Foreman, from the early 70's. One of the first things I learned was how to cue my horse.
The first cue is what you wished the horse would respond to.
The second cue was a direct command.
The third cue was when you made it happen.
A very simple method. It worked for flighty horses, it worked for dogs.
The trick was the amount of intensity you used when you got to step three.
So I relaxed completely. Rosinante slowed down even more.
I rolled my calves into him, and gave him a light flex.
Nothing from Rosinante.
I made myself wait for the count of three, and then I gave him a sharp kick.
One more three count and then I went to over and under with the reins, until he loped.
I sat completely quiet, and let him fall back to the walk when he wanted. Which he did the second I quit spanking him.That was OK. We were talking about responding to my cues, not continuing on.
I let him meander along for about ten strides until I cued him with the roll and flex of my calf.
He flicked an ear at me, but that was it.
I did my three count and gave him a kick. He tossed his head, and pinned his ears, but didn't increase his speed even a little.
Count to three, and Whap! with the reins.
Rosinante went into the lope a little quicker than the first time, and went back to the walk the second I relaxed my reins.
He was a little more agitated now, but I kept walking him until he relaxed.
Then I gave him the roll, flex.
He tossed his head and rung his tail.
Counted to three and gave him a kick. He crow hopped.
I counted to three, lifted my rein to spank him, and off we went, before I laid leather on him.
I put down the rein and let him come back to a walk on his own.
We walked long enough to let him calm down, and think a little, and then began again.
I won't say this was quick. But at the end of that day, Rosinante had started to trot with a kick.
The next day, he would trot at a squeeze.
By the end of the week he would walk, trot, lope, and stop with the Big K required whisper.
Here's why it worked.
I kept it simple.
I never varied the chain of cues.
When I got to the Make Him Do It cue, I did.
I didn't make Rosinante maintain the gait I put him in. That wasn't what I was asking. I was asking him to go forward. Now. So that's where I kept my focus.
I stayed quiet.
I didn't cluck, kiss, beg, cry, cajole.
I gave him the cue I wanted.
I showed him I meant it.
I made it happen.
I made him lope when all I really wanted was a trot.
If he ignored me, I insisted on even more effort than he would have had to give, if he had done what I asked.
So if he listened to the nice cue, then he only had to trot.
If he didn't, he had to get a move on.
When he did trot, I sat relaxed and quiet. I wanted the best part of the ride to be when he was showing a little energy. No squeezing, no kissing, not a single giddyup.
I only gave each cue once. This is extremely important. If I consistently ask ten 10 times before
I give the next cue, then Rosinante will only respond after I ask ten times. It's the nature of the beast.
Once I had a good walk, trot, walk sequence, I asked him to stay in the trot. I caught him before he walked, gave the roll, flex squeeze, and expected him to keep trotting. If he didn't, he got the sharp kick, if that didn't work, the reins came into play.
Same set of cues, same sequence.
It didn't take long, and he held his trot as long as I wanted.
I didn't control his speed, he could trot as fast or slow as he wanted. That wasn't what I was asking.
Then we moved onto the lope. Same sequence.
He was all over the whoa. That was his favorite part.
At first, I only asked for one improvement per ride. He got that too.
Before Rosinante left he would transition up or down, and do a respectable reining pattern, all with the softest whisper.

On to the back cinch.
In that picture of Mort and me, I noticed my saddle is quite a bit more forward than I ride them at now. There should be three or four fingers between the cinch and his elbow. My stirrups are a little longer than I ride now too. I also notice that the saddle seat is quite a bit smaller. Sigh.
Sonita was getting a sore back after fence run practice.
I was worried that she had strained her back, or my saddle wasn't fitting right.
I usually worried about these things out loud about two beers into evening.
"I wouldn't call the vet just yet." The Big K said.
I'm a notorious, call the vet over everything, kind of person. On the flip side of the coin, The Big K keeps a pair of pliers in the tack room so he can pull his colt's wolf teeth. Then he hops on and rides them.
"What do you think's wrong?"
"I think you need to tighten down all three of your cinches."
He meant my front cinch, my back cinch, and my breast collar.
"Why? My saddle doesn't slide."
"Well, slide over to the fridge and get another beer."
Keeping that golden nugget of advice in mind, I made sure my cinches were snug the next time we worked cattle.
No more sore back.
When I'm going down the fence at 30 miles an hour and make a slamming turn into my cow, only to get back up to thirty miles an hour going the other way, my weight can't yank the saddle around. If my cinches are tight, my horse can hoist me through that turn, I can rebalance, and we're both good.
If the cinches are loose, at the worst, I'll fall off and die, at the least, my saddle will bang around, and make my horse sore.
Same for trail, barrels, anything that a western horse does with that big old saddle on his back.
I'm going to go make dinner. Catch you guys later.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mort/Chapter 4

Mort Hugs
It was hard to see in the near light just before dawn. Dead weeds poked through the snow, breaking up the stark, gray on gray horizon.
Squinting into the shadows of Mort's shed, nothing moved. No hungry nicker greeted me. No sign of his fuzzy black face hanging over the top rail. The gate to his corral yawned open. So was the gate of the horse who lived next to him.
I stumped through the snow to the back pasture fence. The barbed wire gate lay flopped in the snow. Two sets of tracks headed in a straight northeast line. Mort had escaped again. As usual, he had taken his best friend Sandy with him.
Settling my wool hat snugly over my ears, and grateful for it's itchy warmth in the snot freezing cold, I headed back to the barn for a halter, Mort's bridle, and a can of grain. With luck, they would have stopped to ravage a suburban rose bed along the way. They might still be close enough to catch before my parents noticed I wasn't back in time for school.
If not, the horses would already be at Mort's favorite hangout. The drive-in at Barnes road. That would mean a five mile tromp through the snow. Or sitting in the car with my silent, stewing father. It was never a good idea to make Dad late for work, especially when I was late for school too. His frosty malevolence made a five mile hike in sub zero temperatures seem absolutely heart warming. Invigorating, even.
I had found out the hard way why Mort was kept in a six foot, padlocked run, at the boarding barn I had originally kept him at. He could get out of anything. He could open latches, undo wire, push out corral boards. He would gleefully jump over anything under five feet, and crawl under anything over three. He could untie knots with abandon, and whip through every snap known to man. He would lean on T-posts, tip toe through downed wire, and roll under anything but a five strand fence. If all else failed, he would simply kick things down.
A nearby family had let me board Mort at their barn. A few sheds, some haphazard corrals, and ten acres of field, were mine to share with another girl from my neighborhood. We paid a whopping $5.00 a month for the privilege of keeping our horses within walking distance of our houses. It was great, but it was impossible to convince Mort to stay there.
Not that he wanted to go back to his old stable, mind you. He seemed perfectly content with his little shed, a pasture buddy, and plenty of room to run. He just liked to cruise the neighborhood. Usually in the wee hours of the morning, with friends. Mort wasn't content to simply let himself out. He would let out whatever horse he was currently living with also.
A two a.m. phone call from the local police let me know I had bought the next Houdini within a week after moving to our new barn. I got to know the late night CSPD well that summer. I spent a lot of my riding time replanting flower beds and tamping down divots in the neighbors lawns. Mort became infamous within weeks.
This time I was a mile down the road when my Dad pulled up along side me.
"Lose something?"
"I'm following their tracks." I kept my head down and studied the trail like Dan'l Boone.
"Get in." Dad said. "I think we can still hunt them down from the car."
The sarcasm was hard to miss. The snow was at least a foot deep, and the renegade hoof prints were about jumping out and tripping me.
Once again, we found the horses at the Barnes Road drive-in. Mort had a fascination with the horses that lived in the pasture behind it. It had become enough of a routine that the owner had caught them for me, and had coffee waiting for both me and my Dad.
Mort hollered when he saw me, and as mad as I was, my heart lifted to see him. He was a study in contrasts. His white star shone out of his black face. His woolly dun body was zebra striped, across his shoulders, down his back, up his legs. He looked glorious against the snow.
I went up to him, and he wrapped his neck around me, in his "Mort hug". I buried my frozen fingers in his shaggy coat and leaned into his warmth.
The thin, cold sunlight was creeping across the fields when I swung up on him bareback. We started across the prairie in Mort's huge extended trot, back towards the barn with Sandy towing like a tug boat.
"Hurry up, you won't have time for a shower before I take you to school!" Dad shouted after me. "I'm not giving you an excuse for being tardy either!"
Great. Sister Mary Pious was going to have a field day with this one. One more day being late, smelling like horse, and having hay in my hair. Detention city, here I come.
But the prairie skies were open in front of me, my horse was snorting like a happy freight train, and I was riding, instead of going to History class. The world fell away.
Sandy gave me a yank, and as I turned to pull her back, I saw my Dad and the owner of the pasture standing in the snow laughing. My Dad shook his head, and the steam from his refilled coffee curled around his hands.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Spoiled Rotten Babies

I don't have time to post today. But I have to add this to yesterday's very interesting discussion. My daughter and Loki grew up together. I didn't pay much for the coarse headed, foundation bred filly. She was bred by the color breeder I worked for at the time. As you can see, I didn't buy her for her color. I liked her shoulder, her good feet, and her mother. I still do.
We did just about everything wrong with Loki.
I pretty much turned my little girl loose with her. It kept my daughter busy while I worked.
We can go on for days about the stupid things I let go. Like the time I found my little girl standing on two-year-old Loki's back, changing a light bulb.
The folks that bred Loki had given all three of their granddaughters a foal also. So I had a barn full of little girls roaring around with their babies. Once again, I could go on.
When Loki was two she was playing broom ball with her brothers and sisters. My daughter and her barn buddies were screaming and shrieking bareback, waving their brooms over their horses heads.
At three, we had moved on to another barn, and I started training Loki for cowhorse.
By four, my daughter and I shared Loki in competition. The photo you see is from a shoot we were doing for the NRCHA magazine. My daughter was the only snafflebitter in the Youth Limited Finals at the NRCHA World Show. She placed fifth at the world show, and stood fifth in the national standings.
My point is, (other than bragging on my girls) we made a lot of mistakes on Loki. The end result was a lovely horse that was successful in youth and open competition.
We were always well intentioned with Loki. We never hurt, or frightened her, (on purpose anyway) dumb bunnies though we may have been.
Horses are amazing in their forgiveness.
They will overcome our most bumbling errors. As long as they trust us.
I guess what I'm getting at is, don't be afraid to mess with your horse. Try new things, relearn old things, your horse won't care. As long as it's delivered with thought, and kindness, your horse will be open to just about anything.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Zen and Colt Starting

This is going to be short. I'm going to be tied up (snark) until Sunday. It seems there's a question about when is the best time to halter break a young horse. All I can give you is my thoughts on this. I have done it both ways. My daughter's horse, Loki, was halter broke as a weanling. My daughter led her all over the place as a little tiny thing. The kids at the barn had a "dress-up-your-horse day, and Loki paraded around in a feather boa and tiara. She was a yearling. Loki and my daughter both survived, and are both industrious contributers to the planet today. So I guess I'm not going to come down hard on when this should be done.
The first Mustang I ever started came straight off the prairie. As soon as she figured out that all she could eat hay, and a roof, came with people, we started to get on. She learned quickly, and was incredibly responsive.
Up until then I had only started colts that were about broke before you ever got on them.
I didn't put it together until I worked with The Big Kahuna.
The easiest babies to train were the ones we got right out of the field. The earliest performers were always the ones that were at the very most, halter broke.
The dullest ones came from overly attentive owners.
"I've done all the ground work and saddling, now all you have to do is ride them."
That was a statement guaranteed to make us cringe. I also knew that would be the one I'd be on.
It became obvious that the babies that had been handled the most, also had time to pick up the most vices.
Simply leaning into the left, when I'm on that side, can cause all sorts of little problems. A horse that has been worked with from early on, often has lost a lot of respect for people, usually is fairly pushy, and just generally tunes out a bunch of signals I wish they didn't. They also have developed responses I wish they didn't have.
Other horses teach a young horse how to behave. If a broodmare respects me, I don't have to teach her baby much. Lil Honeybuns will respect me too.
If the babies get to run and play and be hooligans together, they'll grow strong and good winded.
If they act like little maniacs in a herd, they'll get some respect knocked into them. By their herd mates, as it should be.
If they grow up in a pen, they'll be much weaker, and way too comfortable around me.
A weanling is fragile, physically and mentally. It's so easy for them to get hurt. I'd rather watch them play.
They learn I bring food.
They learn I'll pop them if they kick.
They learn they can sniff my sleeves or jeans if they are respectful.
That's all I need.
Usually, I'm giving them a little scratch before too long. But I stop there.
As yearlings I'll halter break them, especially if they are to be sold. If the buyer wants, I'll teach them to stand tied. I teach them to behave for the shoer. They need to be good for shots and worming. That's about it.
As two-year-olds they accept the training I put on them pretty easily. They are light and responsive. Since I don't like to really get into riding them until they are three it all works for the best.
I want them to be just horses for as long as they can. It makes for a mentally and physically stronger animal.
We kid ourselves if we think our interference is for their own good. The longer they can live without us, the better I think they are.
I have a little yearling colt. I was supposed to sell him, but I can't. So now I get to start him like I want to. Right now, you can halter him if your quiet and easy. Same for his feet.
When he's gelded he will go live with a herd on 80 acres. I'll pick him up next fall and put 30 to 60 days on him. How long depends on how tough he is. When he can walk, trot, canter, whoa and back, he'll go back to the 80 acres until he's three. Then we'll get busy.
Even though I handle them a little, that's for my own convenience. The best ones to start are still the untouched ones. I think it's because then, every move you make has meaning.
I have a good friend, Michelle. She's a dressage nut. She once told me that she read somewhere, (we're thinking some Greek, or Spanish philosopher) that pure, perfect training happens when each maneuver has to be taught only once.
If you think about it, if you broke down each maneuver to it's very simplest form, and your horse was unsullied by any previous human intervention, you might be able to do it.
The closest I've ever come is with that mustang.
Oooh, how zen is that?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bits and Pieces

I love blogging. I have had more fun writing this thing, and it tickles me the way it has evolved.
The best part has been being able to talk about horses. I can always talk about horses.
I had no idea I would be led down this path. I started Mugwump Chronicles as a therapeutic way to sort out my very mixed emotions about horse training.
I picked a blog because I've never been consistant with journaling, and I love writing. I hoped a few people would start reading it, and that would keep me going.
Wow. Talk about meeting new people.

I love the anonymity of blog writing. We present the front we choose. Everybody who participates shares only what they feel comfortable giving away. Since we all write about horses on this one, we share only that. Our love for horses. Perfect.

I try my best to be dead on with my stories. To keep it simple, I only write about events I can verify.
This approach has helped me see how the horses I have been lucky enough to ride, have truly shaped who I am as a person.

I have gotten to know some of you through your writing too. It makes for great reading. I get to see the joy of training through the eyes of a young, up and coming eventer. I have grudgingly begun to respect a NH'er from South Dakota. I still think it's time for her to leave the affected trappings she's been loaded with and start thinking for herself, but that's part of the fun.
And then there's Fugs. Blazing hot, passionate, pretty pissy, and out there. A much needed voice for the protection of the animals we love so much. I wouldn't miss her for the world.

Sucking Back, Rotten Little Monsters.

I have had an inquiry about horses that pull back, and won't stand tied. This is a nasty, wicked habit, that drives me crazy.
I use a sturdy rope halter, and a lead without a snap, so it won't break. I also make sure my safety knot will release, even if the horse is flopped on the ground. I keep a pocket knife with me, in case everything goes straight to hell, and I have to cut Fluffy, or Princess loose.

To my mind, there are two types of lead rope busters.
1. This type of horse is frantic about being tied, period. This usually starts when the horse is initially tied. She fights the rope, the halter or lead rope breaks, and Bingo!, little Fluffy is free.
When the rope breaks, Fluffy usually falls over backwards, and is hurt. So, of course, being a horse, Fluffy connects the pain with being tied, not behaving like a bonehead. The problem escalates, and pretty soon, you have a horse terrified of being tied. Every time they break a halter or lead rope, it encourages them to fight even harder the next time.

2. This horse is OK until you try to do something. Saddling, picking up a foot, putting on a bridle, etc. The added confinement starts the reaction, and pretty soon Princess is flailing at the end of the rope. Soon, Princess associates the activity with the pain of fighting the rope, and once again feels blameless in causing the commotion.

I have a few ways I handle this.
Horse # 1, Fluffy, needs to learn to accept restraint
First I make sure Fluffy will give to pressure when I move or lead him. I pull, Fluffy gives, I release, you know the drill.
I have a big, soft 40 foot rope I use on horses that don't tie or load. I tie it on my rope halter. I lead Fluffy to a tall fence, and wrap the rope around the rail once. Fluffy has about 6 feet of give.
The rest of the rope is on the other side of the rail.
The rail needs to be sturdy enough to hold the horse no matter what.
The rope is not tied, only wrapped once.
When Fluffy hits the end of the rope and sucks back, I'll let him. I won't holler whoa. I don't pet them, or soothe them. Ever. I'll do that after Fluffy stands tied.
I'll let the rope play out. Remember, there's another 30 feet or so of rope to play with.
I have never had a horse run out of rope. He's always stopped after 15 or 20 feet.
Then I reel Fluffy back in, and wait.
When Fluffy stands without flipping out for a few minutes, I quit for the day.
Eventually, Fluffy quits sucking back.
Then I actually tie them, and walk away.
I leave them tied until they are quiet, then I put them up.
I haven't killed one, and they've all learned to stand tied.
But, they will pitch a fit. If you can't handle this, get help.

Horse #2. Princess actually has an issue with me doing stuff while she's tied. So I'll teach her to saddle, bridle, etc., while untied. Then I tie her. Eventually, I'll tie her first, and then do whatever is bothering her.

As always, this is how I would handle it. I learned my techniques from horses I've ridden, trainers I've worked with, books I've read, and lots of thinking.
Good luck, and get help if you need it. Go Slow. Be smart.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Me And The Big K/Chapter 3

Sonita and I came out of the arena and into the damp, blowing wind. Steam swirled away into the gray sky. She jigged and danced nervous circles around me.
I jerked her reins and stomped off towards the stalls.
She stood quiet for the brief moment it took to drop her bridle and slip on her halter. Then she began her mindless dance, her anxious whinny blasted in my ear.
Her coat was wringing wet, the red winter hair curled like a 4H steer. Sweat trickled in a steady stream off her belly and down her legs. I'd be lucky to get her cooled out before our next set of classes in the evening.
I sat down on a hay bale and leaned against the stained, white, shed row wall.
A heavy mist melded with gray skies, and blurred the edges of the dirty, shabby, buildings. Amarillo in February pretty much matched my mood.
Sonita pawed the ground and kicked at her belly.
I pulled my hat over my eyes, and slumped into my own personal pity party.
The Big K led his horse down the row. I didn't have to raise my head to recognize the muffled clink of his spurs.
The jingle paused in front of me. Still surly, I tried to sink farther down into my Carhart. Sonita nickered softly at his horse, and the Big K's steps faded as he continued down to his stalls.
I peeked out from under the brim of my hat. The Big K had loosened Sonita's cinch.
Embarrassed, I got up and began fussing with my stall. My butt was wet from the damp hay.
It occurred to me that I should help him get his next horse ready.
Instead, I grabbed a fork and began sifting through the already clean shavings.
He was back within minutes, his three-year-old relaxed and confident, trailing at the end of his reins. I took my imaginary cleaning to the darkest corner of the stall, hoping he would keep on going.
"Come on out here." He said.
I walked out into the alley.
"What's going on?"
"I think I'm done." I replied.
"With what?"
"That psychotic horse." The dam broke.
"She's a freak! Did you see that mess? She looked like frigging Rudolph launching into those run downs! Do you realize I had 16 penalty points before I even did my first lope depart? What the hell! She's nuts. I'm selling the stupid bitch. I can't do this any more."
He leaned across Sonita's saddle, and idly picked at the saddle strings. She quieted under his weight.
"She looked pretty good on her cow."
"She bit the cow! How is that pretty good?"
"She was on it though." I swear he was trying not to laugh.
"You aren't hearing me! I'm about done!"
"You're being about stupid." He wasn't laughing now.
The Big K is pretty scary when he gets mad. His normal, easy going slouch disappears, and his eyes do this steely, John Wayne thing. It's easy to remember that he's not particularly well-broke.
I felt my anger fading, but my resolve was still strong.
"She's making me look like an idiot."
"Do you want to be a trainer? Or do you want to win?"
"Do you want to be a trainer? Or do you want to win?"
"Can't I do both?"
"Sure, once you train this horse."
"She's too much for me. I can't get her done."
"If you want to win, then go ahead and sell her. I'll find something nice and sweet, and we'll get you a bunch of ribbons."
The sarcasm dripped like the rain running off the roof.
The Big K came further across Sonita's back, and looked straight into my eyes.
"Train this horse. This is the horse that will turn you into a trainer."
He accented each point with a stroke down Sonita's croup.
"Quit being such a cry baby. Figure out this mare. Be a trainer.
Now get her settled, and come watch the rest of our class. Hold your head up, and support the rest of the riders. Watch the other runs, and learn something."
He mounted up, and headed back to the show pen.
I stood, leaning on my fork, turning his words over in my head.
Sonita began to buck in place, worrying over The Big K's retreating colt.
His last shot floated through the fog. "I mean it, train that horse!"
I sighed, and went to dig out Sonita's heavy cooler.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Good Day Showing

I spent the day at an AQHA show yesterday. My yellow mare picked up another, ever elusive, point in open working cowhorse. My boss/client/friend picked up points in amateur cowhorse and reining. I managed to soundly beat a talented rival who regularly takes my business. He had six head to show. I had one. It didn't help him a bit. My boss trounced the rivals non pros. Luckily it's a friendly rivalry.
I made a statement in my last post about a trainer not being able to change who a horse is. A spook will always be a spook being the most arguable point.
My show experience might explain my point a little better.
My yellow mare is a spooking, goofing, arrogant prima donna.
Yesterday she was hot, and tired, and not in the mood to show.
She explained this to me by deciding she was terrified of the tarps on the arena rails.
It is in my mare's nature to be a spook.
She also uses it to her strategic advantage when she doesn't feel like earning her keep.
As we began our cow work, she thought she might blow up at the tarps flapping in the wind.
I picked up my rein. I very firmly put my spurs to her, hoisted her up, and put her on the cow.
I wasn't nice.
I didn't think through her childhood, and why she might be the way she is.
I didn't help her little self by leading her through 29 steps of anti-spooking techniques.
I let her know that if she didn't knock it off NOW I would kick her ass in front of God and the judge.
She scored a 143.
If you have competed in cowhorse you will understand what a flipping wonderful score that is.
If I spent two years teaching her not to spook it would have saved me some dough. I wouldn't have to increase my insurance on my seriously competitive horse. I wouldn't have to find the money to enter the World Show.
Because she wouldn't be competitive. She would simply be easier to ride in the park.
No thanks.
By the way, when we finished our run I rode her behind the arena, and tied her to the fence that held the blowing tarps.
I loosened her cinch, and let her cool out, alone, tied to the damn tarps. When she was quiet I took her back to the trailer, and her friends, gave her a drink, a bath, and some lunch.
By the time we started cutting that night, she didn't even look at the tarps. Hmmmm.
I'm always this pissy after a show by the way. Get used to it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Why We Might Need A Trainer

I love this picture. My girl is stepping through
a wonderful spin. Her pivot foot is buried, and
she's showing all her wonderful Hollywood Jac 86
flexibility. She's the best. I wish I hadn't dropped
my inside shoulder, but what the hell. She showed
through it.

MugWump on Trainers

I know. I said I hate them. I do. I hate Lima beans too. Nasty, slimy, slippery things. And then there's the lima beans.

But sometimes we need a little more fiber. I will still go to trainers for help with the horses I ride. I ask my questions, I ride my own horse, I absorb as much as I can.

The reality is that a steadily employed trainer knows a lot of good stuff. He will ride several horses in a day, usually working with each horse at varying levels, all towards a specific goal.
My cowhorses may be at different stages, but I want them all to become cowhorses. So I have the advantage of trying to achieve the same goal in many different kinds of horses. I try to solve different issues with each horse. I figure out how to get a frightened horse to look at a cow. I think about creating a hesitation in an aggressive horse. How to develop softness in a dull horse, or ease a nervous one. It gives me a ton of good information to share.

I'd like to share how I would look for a trainer. I have to be honest, it would be hard to get me to leave one of my horses with anyone. Not necessarily because I don't trust them, but I know how I want my horses managed. I don't feel it's OK to demand that somebody that I trust enough to train my horse, still has to abide by my perception of horse care.
I would look at the horses in training carefully. At most of the barns I have ridden at, the horses are very quiet. Until I worked for the Big K for several months, I couldn't tell if the horses had been fed or not, when I came in. Even if they were hungry they would all stand quietly, ears politely pricked forward, and wait to be fed. That's also how they looked when you walked into the barn, anytime of the day.
I had never witnessed that level of discipline. It amazed me, and was a little unnerving.
If I had prejudged the situation, I never would have learned how to maintain that much order in a barn.
When I pick a trainer, I come for lessons once a week, or twice a month. I bring my horse. I open my mind to what they are saying, and absorb everything I possibly can. I try not to judge. I never tell them they are wrong. I have to know them extremely well before I argue. I will try anything they show me. I get value from learning what not to do, as much as what to do.
I keep my opinions to myself, ask as many questions as possible, and then go home and practice. I chew on what I've learned until the next time I see the trainer.
As time goes on I watch the how the trainer rides. I will try to emulate him, absorb his hands on the reins, the slump of his shoulders.
I watch the horse he rides. I try to figure out what he expects from his horse and how he gets what he wants.
Is the horse happy and willing? Is the horse afraid?
Even if the horses are afraid, I'll hang in there, to see if they cheer up as time passes.
Trust me, a bunch of the horses that come through my barn aren't real fond of me for the first few weeks.
I want to know how to train my horse. I want to know how to guide them through each maneuver. I want to win.
If I was a non-pro looking to send my horse in for training, I'd approach things the same way.
I would take my horse as far as I could on my own before I even started looking, then I'd want to ride with them before I made a decision.
If my lessons went well, and I felt comfortable with the trainer, then I would consider leaving my horse.
I would take lessons on my horse at least once a week.
I would probably volunteer to clean or groom in order to observe.
I would keep my mouth shut.
And I would yank my horse faster than you can holler "Aunt Greta" if I wasn't happy.
Remember, a trainer can't change who your horse is. If your horse is a dumb ass, it will still be one when you get it back. If it's a spook, it will always be one. If it has no talent, the trainer can't give it any.
That's why I would always be hands on in any training process. I would want to know how to deal with the quirks of my horse. I would want the trainer to teach me how.
It won't do me a damn bit of good if the trainer can ride my horse and I can't.

So is going to a trainer worth it? In my mind, yes. I can teach wonderful things to my horses. The very best came from the very best trainers I could find.
I guess it all depends on what you want.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why I Hate Trainers

I can't believe Fugs post today. It comes up after a long drive home through a wicked rain storm, with me chewing my lip, wishing I still smoked, and cussing the horse training world. I hate horse trainers, by the way.
Yes, I am one. I still hate them all.
I have written about a Shining Spark mare, Daisy, in the past. She came to me as a fix-em-up project. She had failed in a well known reining trainer's program. She was taken home, bred, produced a lovely baby, and put into training with me. I was supposed to get her in shape, try to pick up a few points on her, and sell her.
The first time I rode her she loped around in a cramped, head between her front legs, imitation of an 80's pleasure horse.
She was so behind the bit I couldn't get any kind of contact at all. I asked for a stop and got a stiff legged, head tossing jolt, into a bumbling halt.
I asked for spin and had nothing. Zero. Zip.
This horse had been in very expensive training for a year and a half.
I should have had some wide open, quick snapping, gorgeous stuff out of this horse.
I called the owners and tried to get some feedback.

"Has she ever been hurt?" I asked.
"Not that we know of."
"Why did she flunk out?"
"He said she could do all the maneuvers, but she couldn't hold it together mentally."
"Did she have a behavior problem, or fear, or....?"
"We never really understood it. He showed her once at the stock show, she was 15th out of 60 riders. We were really pleased. The next day she wasn't as good.
She was never shown again, he sent her home in March. He said the problem is between her ears."

With that under my belt, I went to work. First we went to just riding around. Lots of long trotting, lots of easy loping on a loose rein. I put her in a hackamore (bosal) to take even more pressure off her. After 60 days she would transition up and down, give me some gas when I asked, and lost the weird crab imitation.
I went to a reining trainer that I respect, for some input. I am eternally insecure, and was afraid I wasn't riding her right. I kept thinking that there was a magic button that I would find that would get this mare going. I was told that I was doing everything right, but I need to push harder. Something I am told often.
I started hauling her to some day shows.
She was a mess.
Frantic pawing, pacing, hollering, the whole gamut of behavior I consider unacceptable.
She was decent in the show ring, but I couldn't get her placed. Also unacceptable.
So I spent a couple more months teaching her the rudimentary stuff. Stand tied, leave your buddies, ya da da.
Where did all this anxiety come from?
Why didn't she know how to behave?
If it was a mental problem, I'm a horse shrink. Daisy learned to stand tied. She learned to be in the arena alone. She learned to behave whether she wanted to or not.
All this is stuff that should have come with a showable broke reiner.
I was reconstructing her spins. Why?
She couldn't get through a roll back with any snap if her life depended on it. Why?
She has the most gorgeous circles and lead changes I have ever had the privelege to ride.
Somebody put some quality time on her.
Her back was beginning to bother her.
I questioned the owners more.
They remembered a back problem when she was two. They thought it had been resolved.
We called the chiro.
In two sessions she was greatly improved.
I still couldn't place her.
She felt like she was going through her patterns anticipating great pain. She felt like she was trying her best.
So I pushed the owners a little more, and we have a vet come do a soundness exam. She passed.
Back to the reining trainer.
He reiterates that I'm not pushing hard enough.
I reiterate that there something that doesn't feel right.
I could go on.
Instead, we'll shoot straight to the end.
I talked them into another vet exam. She passed the basic soundness exam. I asked for more. This vet listened to me. Really listened. His name is Dr. Unruh. Good guy and then some.
He dug in deeper, and we found it.
Something in her back legs. She can't step through her turns correctly. She has trouble walking down hill. Trust me, this is slight, but it's there.
This mare has had something wrong with her her whole life. It was blamed on Daisy's attitude.
I am her third trainer.
More than likely trainer #1 did it to her.
Trainer number two #2 was too busy to do anything but dump her when she didn't pan out.
Chances are he had an assistant riding her, one who didn't know enough to diagnose anything.
Daisy's pattern is one of good behavior, then a melt down.
It explains why he would think she was mentally unstable.
If he had bothered to ride her I know he would have figured this out. Hell, I did, and I'm nobody.

The folks that own her have been taken for a ride.
These are conscientious people who love their horses. They come to see them ridden. They drop in once in a while unannounced. They trust their trainers to do right by them. Big, fat, mistake.
Daisy has gone home. The search for exactly what is wrong goes on.
Hopefully, Dr. Unruh will find it.
Lucky for Daisy she is owned by the people who have her.
They'll do what they can.
My next reason for hating trainers is Neil.
She's our big, fancy, bucking, broncing three year old.
We rode her for 30 days before she came uncorked. We have been working hard to sort out what's up with her.
I come to find that the trainer who sold her keeps asking questions about her.
"How's she doing?"
"Is she OK?"
"Have they been riding her?"
He doesn't call and ask me, or the boss, mind you.
Not being new to the trainer game, I put a strict moratorium on talking about our whoas with Neil.
If anybody asked about her, we just said, "She's fine."
The trainer who sold us Neil keeps pushing. So one of my well-trained clients pushed back.
"Why are you asking?"
"Well, you know, sometimes horses behave differently with other people."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm just wondering how she's being with them. I don't want anybody hurt."
"Why would they get hurt?"
"Oh, I'm not saying that, I'm just wondering how it's going."
That rat bastard sold us a bronc. He knew it. Now I know it.
I hate trainers. All of them.
Defend yourselves from us.
We suck.
Gotta go train stuff. Later.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Horse Stories/Sonita/Chapter 8

Here's my question of the day. If I tried to write a book, what should it be about? Let me know what you think...

Warm up pens can be a complex, scary puzzle. I have always felt that if you can survive the warm up pen at a big horse show, you can take on just about anything. There are unspoken rules that guarantee your survival in the pen. The uninitiated are soon terrorized out of the arena and back to their stalls.
Luckily, the Big K had prepared me well.
The warm up pen for cowhorse, or reining competition, splits off into two sets of circles. One set lopes left, the other right. You can practice your spins in the middle of those circles. If you are feeling bold, you can practice your rundowns through the two sets of circles. Circles always have the right away. Straight lines, and spins have to yield to the circles. If you rest your horse, you can move him slightly to the left or right of the center of the two circles. Or stand in a quiet spot on the rail.
One by one, the riders will stand their horses along both of the short walls. Your horse airs up, and everybody visits a bit. Eventually, the pen is empty in the middle, and everybody is in two lines, facing each other across the length of the arena. Then the serious run down practice begins. Each rider runs long straight lines. Some slide into the walls, some stop short. Everybody clips right along. It looks like an old time, U.S. Calvary verses the Indians charge, or a barn dance. Do Si Do.

Nobody will explain the rules to you. They are simply understood.There is a lot of trust in the warm up pen. There has to be, at any given time 30 or 40 horses can be warming up. Each rider is responsible for the behavior of their horse. You will never see someone with a red ribbon in their horse's tail. Riders have to count on your resting horse to stand quietly as they pass. They trust you to yield your horse to the right away, every time. You are counted on to lope left with the people loping left, and right with the people loping right. Remember the rattly old merry go round, in the park you hung out in, as a kid? Did you ever try to jump on or off while it was moving? Add another one spinning the other way, some other kids randomly running across both of them, and you'll get the picture.
Intimidation is at it's highest in the open warm up. Trainers will roar past you at an alarming clip, play chicken during rundowns, slide stop right in your face.
"Don't get bullied out there." The Big K told me. "Look them in the eye and keep going. You'll be fine."
Yeah, right.
I came out into the pen to practice in the morning. Sonita was so gassed up I could only lope circles. Miles and miles of circles. She shook her head, she fought the snaffle. Yes, I was hanging on her face. I was freaking. People gave us a wide berth.Nobody talked to me. She wouldn't stand, she would try to kick at the passing horses. When I held her in she would crow hop. I felt like an idiot.
"What do I do?" I asked the Big K.
"Keep loping. Don't quit riding until you show. Calm down, take a breath, and get back in there."
"I don't show until tonight."
"I said, don't get down until you've shown. Now go."
Yikes. I was learning that the Big K didn't play nice at horse shows. So I dove back in and started to lope.
Six hours.That would be six, long, hot hours.
Did I mention I was in the pen for six hours before I finally showed?
Class after class went by us. Sonita was exhausted. I was whipped. She slowly, ever so slowly, began to come down. She quit lunging at horses going by. She stood quiet when other riders whizzed past us. She let a few sympathetic riders stop and visit with us, without snaking at their horse. I was able to loosen my reins and breathe. I guess there's a reason he's the Big Kahuna.

They finally called my name. I was in the hole. I would be first in after the drag. If they were going to drag, that meant the tractor was going to be in the arena. Sonita had a thing about tractors. She had been fed by them, she had seen them working industriously around her barn her entire life. It didn't matter. Tractors were horse eating beasts no matter what I tried to tell her. The sound of one starting up, the sight of one coming towards her, would send her into a blind, flying panic. She would leap, and buck, and twist to get away from them. We had successfully avoided the drag all day, by sneaking outside every time they were ready to fire the tractor up. I felt like I had pulled a fast one on the Big K. He was big on confronting issues. I was big on surviving the damn show.
Now here I was, the tractor was chugging through the arena, and the gateman wanted me standing in the alley, ready to go. My poor, exhausted, sweat streaked Sonita began to wake up. She stood mesmerized by the tractor. Her head began to go higher and higher as she focused on her dreaded enemy. I could feel her shaking through my saddle.
The tractor clanked through the end gate on the opposite side of the arena. For some horrible reason, it stopped as soon as they closed the gate, squatting right in our future line of travel. It continued it's malicious chugging. The gateman swung open our gate.
"C'mon, you're up."
"The tractor hasn't left." I pointed weakly across the arena.
"Don't keep the judge waiting, now git."
So we git.
It was a run in pattern. Which means we were supposed to start with a run down and slide stop at the end of the arena. A slide stop right up the butt of the still running tractor.
I took a deep breath, held it, and we ran into the arena.
We covered about twenty feet, just far enough for the judges to know we had begun our run. Sonita skidded to a stop, spun around, and bolted back into the alley way.
Right into the Big K."Turn around and get back in there!"
"I can't, the judges saw me!"
"I don't care, get that horse in the arena!"
I gathered my eight foot reins, dropped any smidgeon of pride I might have hoped to hang on to, and over and undered Sonita in fine Matt Dillon style. We shot back into the arena.
Have you ever seen the Warner brother cartoons where a character sees something really scary? They fly into the air, all four legs blow out every which way,and a giant AAOOOGA! sounds as their eyes telescope out of their heads.
That was me and Sonita, roughly every ten feet. AAOOGA! I'd whip her towards that tractor. AAOOGA! We'd go again.
She'd buck. She squalled.
But dammit she was going down that arena. She might of been facing death by a tractor, but the Big K was in the alleyway watching.
Why the judges didn't whistle us, I'll never know. Maybe they were amusing themselves. Maybe they had gone out for Starbucks. What I know is, it took about a hundred years to finish that first rundown. And about two seconds to finish the one on the way back. Luckily the gate was closed by the time we came screeching into our second stop.
We finished that damn pattern, Sonita and I. Step by tortuous step. I dismounted, loosened her cinch in the middle of the arena, and headed back to the stalls.
"There you go." The Big Kahuna said as we staggered past.
Only three more show days left. Yippy Skippy.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Staying Safe/On The Ground

Here goes. This is where I've been heading with the last several posts.
The accidents have rattled me. I want to share what I feel a horse needs as a base on the ground. This leads to my feeling safe in the saddle. If I don't feel safe, I spend too much time worrying about my impending doom, and am not fair in how I approach my training.
Each step on the ground adds to the horse accepting me crawling around on his back.
Keep in mind, my goal is to ride them.
If I have a horse that handles well, and gives me the right vibes, I'll get on in a day or two. Sometimes it takes weeks.

I want to share the goals and expectations I have, in order to feel relatively safe with the horse I want to ride.
I'll tell you how I get there, but that's just my way of doing things. I have no problem with how you accomplish these tasks. It's accomplishing the tasks themselves that leads to a safe horse.
By the way, we have completely restarted Neil from scratch. We found that she was fast tracked to get her sold. She has huge holes in her training. She also has problems being ridden when she cycles. But I digress.

My sample horse is a 2 year old Hanovarian stud.
Bruce is his owner. Bruce is a little over 6 feet tall. As you can see, the colt is a beast. Fobby is pretty fancy. He has a brand that he had to pass a test to get.
Can you imagine?
"Oh Louise, you got an A on your Math test, let me burn this big old brand into your hip. Congratulations!"
Sounds like a Catholic school awards ceremony to me.
I guess you can tell I don't know much about the dressage world.
I wasn't hired to work this colt for my dressage knowledge.

"When we've gone to watch the reining and cowhorse events, we noticed that almost everybody rides a stud." Bruce said.
"There are more studs than brains." I agreed.
"My point is, they all just stand around behaving themselves."
"That's true."
"At the last dressage show we went to, we knew a stud was going to be shown when this woman came plowing by us screaming, Get out of the way!!!! This is a stallion!!! Get out of the way!!!"
"Sounds attractive." I replied.
"We want our stud to behave like cowhorse studs."
There's a reason I like these people.
Fobby is already well over 16 hands. He's as ugly as a mule, even though I've been told by his owners that he's gorgeous. Bruce's daughter is an assistant trainer at a pretty ritzy dressage barn in Washington. This is going to be her dream horse in a few more years.
Her parents get to play with him until she can start him.
The good part is that they haven't ruined him. He was getting big enough and aggresive enough to start freaking them out, so they called me. Smart folks.

He's a good example of what I do when I'm being thorough on the ground. Bruce is doing the training, I'm just showing him how.
I start by explaining how I behave around a horse.
First off. I never pet a stud below the eyes.
I will rub his ears, I will pet his neck. I'm big on scratching a horse on the withers. I only touch a stud below his eyes when I need to handle his head, bit him, halter him, etc.
Studs bite to play, bite to initiate sex, and bite to fight. I am not interested in participating in any of those activities.
I make it clear to a stud that I'm not going to handle his face unless I need it for a specific purpose. Therefore he can keep his big goobery face away from me, always.
It saves a lot of stress on the stud if I keep it that simple.
This works on all mouthy horses, by the way.

Second. I never hand feed treats. Ever.
Watch a herd of horses. The only horse that walks away and gives up his feed is the one that everybody can beat up.
A horse will sometimes choose to leave it's feed. Usually to go take someone elses. Then another horse can go and eat the food that was left.
Sometimes they will share. That's so sweet. I don't share.
In my mind, feeding cookies is like saying, "Here I am, come take my food! I'm just a wimp you can push around, really, just shove you're big old head at me and grab that carrot."
The most dangerous horses I've ever worked are the ones that looked at people as nothing but animated bags of feed.
I also understand that you can teach them to be nice about treats. It just seems like a lot of extra work to me, work that could be applied to something constructive.

Third I have an invisible circle around me. It's called personal space. My horses can't cross it. Ever.
I can break it if I choose.
That means they can't rub on me. C'mon people, how disrespectful do you want them to be. We are not trees!
With studs, that circle is pretty big.

Fourth. I will touch them all over, whenever I feel like it. I mean everywhere. My horses are not allowed to have personal space. That may seem contradictory to my second step. But I handle their faces when I need to. Which leads into my next rule.

KISS. Keep it simple stupid.
Especially for studs, but it helps all horses.
Studs are essentially 13 year old boys trapped in an 1100 lb. body. They are horny, hungry, horny, tired, horny, confused, and horny. They are easier to freak out than mares and geldings, they are way more insecure. They are quicker to anger.
So take it easy on them. Don't muddy the waters.

Fobby started out as a nippy, playful, pushy little brat. Not too bad, but lots of spastic jumping around, and some border line aggresive nipping.
The first day I had Bruce declare his personal space. It took a crop, and a lot of horrified screaming and rearing from Fobby to get the point across.
I had Bruce teach him to back away and stand politely in the corner of his pen until Bruce approached him to put on his halter.
Fobby could leave, and run to his pasture any time he wanted. It's important to give a horse plenty of room to get away from you when you're whacking him on the chest with a crop. I would have Bruce wait until he came back, and we'd start again. Fobby always came back, because he really wanted to play. It took about twenty minutes to get him to stand without shoving or nipping.
Then I had Bruce show me how he led him.
Fobby would charge and buck and roar around like a wild burro. He would rear and strike and buck. None of this was aggressive. He just figured being led was playtime.
Bruce was hanging on his head, with a stud chain wrapped around his nose. It was ugly.

The first thing we did was reiterate the personal space. I had Bruce crack him back pretty aggressively, until Fobby didn't think he was at summer camp any more.
When Bruce had his attention, I let them both air up.
Bruce is really good at letting go of any anger, and started back with a clean slate. Which is vital.
Fobby would stand, but pretty soon his attention would wander, and he would start looking around. I simply had Bruce pull his head back to him, every time.

"You'll do this for the rest of his life. Let him look, and then bring his attention back to you within two or three seconds. Always let him look. As time goes on you'll feel his attention leave you, give him a little twitch of a rein, and he'll come back. (Good example of learning feel) For now, you'll do whatever it takes to refocus him, and then let him go."

Then we tried leading again.
"Leading is about you, the horse's feet, and where you want them to be. Not the lead rope." I said. "His feet need to go where you want them, because you said so, not because you've got a stud chain and a death grip."
So I had Bruce let out a bunch of slack, and walk off with authority.
Of course Fobby took off past him, blowing and squirreling around.
When Fobby hit the end of the slack, I had Bruce set his heels, and flop him around like a fish. He still had his chain in place, so it was pretty effective. Then Fobby got jerked around again.
As soon as Fobby was looking at Bruce in absolute horror, I had him walk off again. This time Fobby dug in and refused to go. So I helped him change his mind with a pop of my lead rope.
He charged past Bruce, and they went at it again.

I need to make two points here. First, I would prefer to not be doing this with a stud chain. But that is what both Fobby and Bruce are used to. Bruce had to feel safe enough to work the horse, and the only authority Fobby recognised was the chain. Eventually, we will shift to a rope halter, and then, a standard leather halter. But not until it's safe for both of them.
Second, I have a little exercise for you. You need to do this with a friend. Take a lead rope. Each of you grab on with about a foot of rope between you. Now brace your feet and tell your friend to move you. You will get about jerked off your feet when they go to pulling. Now play out 6 feet or so of lead rope. Brace yourself, and tell your friend to try to pull you off balance. They won't be able to do it.
That's why I keep my lead rope loose.
When Fobby follows Bruce like he should, he can hold the rope wherever he wants.

I will let a horse walk about where they want, as long as I can see them out of the corner of my eye, they don't cross a line past my shoulder, and they don't pull on me, the tiniest little bit.
You have to react hard and strong if they break any of those rules. Leave it up to them to find out where you want them, and stay there. As time goes on, you'll be able to feel them shifting, and correct them with a twitch of the rope. (another way of developing feel)
Once Fobby was getting the idea, I had Bruce start changing direction, stopping and starting, whatever he could come up with.

Fobby was following him like a border collie on a cow when they were done. He was also relaxed, calm, and happy. Bruce felt confident, and safe.
That was the end of our first session.
I told Bruce to practice, and I'd see him the next week.
I hope you can see all the slack in the lead rope in this picture.

I was pleased to see that Bruce and Fobby could lead all over, on a loose rope, the next time I came out. His nipping was about gone, because nobody was touching his face. If he nipped, he was breaking into Bruce's personal space, a boundary Fobby understood. So there was no question in his mind what rule was being broken.

We moved on to fly spray. I now have great respect for well bred Hanovarians. That colt is the most flexible beast I have ever seen. When he kicks at a fly, he easily reaches the midpoint of his shoulder with his hind foot. In the blink of an eye
Without intent, he could take off Bruce's head. Add that to the fact that he is extremely gangly, and has no control of his limbs, and we were looking at a potential train wreck.
"Fobby doesn't do fly spray." Bruce told me.
"Not yet." I replied.
We filled a spray bottle with water and began. I had Bruce walk up to the colt and begin spraying his lower legs, the sprayer in one hand, and the lead rope in the other. Of course Fobby jumped, and bucked, and snorted, trying to get away. Because Fobby knew to keep the rope slack, and to honor Bruce's personal space, he didn't drag or pull. He just did some incredibly acrobatic maneuvers trying to stay out of spray range.
I had Bruce keep spraying until Fobby paused, and then he'd quit. After a short breather Bruce would start again. It took awhile, but two bottles of water later, Bruce got the fly spray on, while Fobby stood quietly.
Bruce was really tired, so we didn't start to longe until the next week. Fobby was fine.

Because I'm evil minded, I wanted Bruce to longe Fobby in the open. So we longed in the pasture, with various horses wandering through. Bwah ha ha ha. I want both of them to understand that Fobby is to do what Bruce wants. Getting rid of a fence helps keep it clear,
and builds on the colts respect for Bruce, space he chooses to maintain, and the behavior he demands. KISS.

Of course Fobby was sure what I really meant was that we would have a free-for-all and drag Bruce all over creation.
I would have Bruce pull him into him, regain control, and send him out again.
Every time Fobby bolted, drug him into the trees, or whatever, Bruce would pull him to him, and start again.
Eventually Fobby was blowing around in a wild ass circle.
Every time Fobby pulled on Bruce at all, I would have him pull his face towards him, slow the motion and then release him forward again. This took awhile, because Bruce was juggling Fobby dragging him towards a wandering mare, a longe whip, and lots of line. Eventually they figured it out and things got smoother.

Bruce finally collapsed and lay on the ground wheezing. Fobby was standing near by, respecting his space.
"Keep up the good work! I'll see you next week!" I headed for home.

The next week I was really impressed with their progress. Fobby was sprayed, and longing beautifully. He doesn't have the walk, trot, canter commands yet, I really don't care. What I needed to see, and did, was him quietly loping around Bruce on a relaxed line. No pulling. It was relaxed, well behaved, and safe. KISS
Now we had to begin physically handling Fobby. He doesn't want his feet touched. He doesn't like having his fly sheet taken on and off.
Because he is so freaking limber, we began by teaching him to stand with both near legs quiet, whichever side we are on.
That's pretty easy to do. I had Bruce take his tail and pull it towards him while holding his head.
When Fobbly would drop his weight into his legs he would release.

It didn't take Fobby long to pick that one up. Now Bruce can just touch his tail and he'll be still.
Next I wanted Fobby to move whatever body part Bruce chose away from him. when he touches that part.
I had Bruce place his hand on his face and push his nose to his chest. We taught him to back away from the pressure. This was easy, because that concept had been started on the first day when he was taught not to crowd, and followed through with every exercise after.
Then I had Bruce take his face, and push his hip away.
I always had him start with a touch, follow with a tap, and then make it happen.

After he could point, and Fobby moved from his hand, I had Bruce do the same with his rib cage, and shoulder.
I am compulsive about shoulder control.
I pay more attention to where my horse's shoulder is leaning than any other part.
Ray Hunt will tell you to get the feet, then you'll have the head. I agree 100%.
I also think if you control the shoulder, you have the feet.
After you get your horse guiding freely and easily this way, start watching how moving the feet effects the shoulders. If the right front foot stalls out, look to see where the shoulder is.

After awhile you will start to anticipate resistance by where the shoulder is. (Another good way to develop feel)

At this point in time, Bruce is beginning to work with Fobby's feet. Because his kick and strike range is way beyond your average bear, we started with a rope.
I had Bruce pick up each foot with a soft cotten rope looped around his pastern. As Fobby kicked and pulled, Bruce simply held on until he relaxed. Then he set the foot down. Once again, space is clearly understood, keeping the lead rope loose is the norm, and Fobby trusts that we aren't going to hurt him. We were handling all four feet within 30 minutes.
This young horse has come a long way. We have a ways to go, but I'm not worried, or in a hurry.
I've had Bruce build up the rules one by one. We kept the lessons simple, and made sure each one was clear in everybody's mind before we moved on.
Fobby is learning to be mannerly and calm.
He will have these lessons carefully instilled and built on, each new session relating to the one before, until muscle memory will make good behavior an automatic response.
Bruce will have practiced each maneuver until Fobby's responses are second nature to him
So this is how I build feel, and a sense of safety in my horses and students.
Neither have to be a natural. Repetition helps build response, the correct response develops feel. If everybody stays focused, I'm sure we'll have the dressage stud behaving like a cowhorse stud long before his intensive training begins.
As always, this stuff is a combination of what I've learned from other trainers, reading a lot, riding a lot, and most of all, thinking.
I hope my spelling is OK, the stinking spell-check wouldn't work.
Now I'm going to go play for awhile.