Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Seat bones and Trailering

I have had questions about seat bones and weight. How do I use them, when, where and why. I'm going to explain the best I can. I am aware there are different styles than mine. I have developed the way I use my seat from what works best for me within the confines of my sport.
I'd love to hear from everybody on the differences on how they ride. If you're going to share, please explain the purpose and how it works instead of just pointing out the differences. That way we all learn more.

I'll start with seat bones 101. If you're way past this bear with me, OK?

I will sit on my horse. My weight is balanced evenly in the middle of my horse. I try to ride with my ear, shoulder, hip and ankle aligned all of the time, unless I'm specifically moving something for a cue. You would be amazed if you could see what incredibly crappy posture it's possible to have and still maintain those points in a line. Think "cutters slump".

I'll take my feet out of the stirrups. I'll relax my legs. I'll raise my arms to the side to shoulder height. Now I'll turn my torso and twist to the left. I'll make sure my arms stay level, my head turns with my torso and I keep my chin up. I feel my left seat bone sink into my saddle.
Now I swing to the right and feel my right seat bone sink into the saddle.
Now that I've found them I'll walk around the arena and practice putting weight into my seat bones. First left, then right.
I always estimate about five pounds of pressure into my saddle. Think of adding a bag of Yukon Golds to each cheek.
I keep my shoulders level while I'm getting used to this feel.
When I get it right I'll be able to sink into my left seat bone and my horse will step to the left in an effort to rebalance me. Sink to the right and the horse will move to the right.
Once I'm solid in this concept I will play with my seat bones at the walk, trot and canter. I have found that my outside seat bone balances my horse and the inside creates a turn.
This is where it gets tricky.
All cowhorse maneuvers are based on drive coming from the haunches. The horse is crouched and rocked either back or balanced over her hocks through every stop, turn and spin. Most of what we do is at a fast clip with continually building speed, driving with every step.
If I create my turns by dropping my weight into my inside seat bone, the horse will be following my cue, or playing catch up. I will be in a position to fall to the inside and have to counter that with my rein drawn to my outside hipbone and my outside leg pushed into the back ribs of my horse. At 35 miles an hour on a cow that's a lot to think about and too many opportunities to fall out of position.
So instead I drive my horse with my outside seat bone and leg into my hands. My inside leg will catch her if she falls to the inside, but the only position I have to maintain is my outside hipbone into the corner of my saddle. I'm extremely solid and safe in that position.
I stay essentially in the middle of the horse and am driving her into my maneuvers, instead of her following the cue. Do you see the difference?
So in a lead change my weight stays to the outside of my circle. My outside leg drives the horse into the circle. When I change I simply shift my seat bones and my leg. I am able to stay centered and balanced without a lot of work or thought. (Important for those of us who "cowboy" their horses)
When I'm going down the fence after a cow my horse is on her fence (or off) side lead. My weight is on the outside corner and my shoulders are back over my hips. My cow side leg directs how close she is to the cow, my seat bones ask for speed.When my horse turns into the fence she'll slide and turn, I'll push with my calf through the turn, shift my weight as we straighten and be in position for the run the other way.
So that is why I use my weight the way I do. I hope it made some kind of sense.

Now on to trailer loading. I am pretty direct on how I load.
You guys might think I'm nuts, but I haven't hurt one yet. I've gotten them all loaded. And they all stay pretty good travelers when I'm done.
I never get mad.
I get it done.
Every time I load a horse I take it somewhere. Even if it's around the block. I want my horse to understand that I load them, we go somewhere, we're done.
If I load and reload 100 times it's only going to piss us both off.
So I load. We go somewhere. I unload. We're done.
This works with straight loads or slant loads.
I'll do this every day with a problem horse but only once a day.
I get out my 50 foot soft cotton rope and snap it to a very sturdy rope halter.
I run the rope through the front of the trailer and out the window.
I bring the end of the rope to the back of the trailer, so I have kind of a pulley.
If I have a helper it works best, but if I don't I can make it work.
The key here is the horse only gets a release for looking in the trailer.
He doesn't have to get in at first, but he has to look in.
I'll put pressure(by pulling) on the rope until he looks. As soon as he looks I release the pressure from the rope.
If he starts dragging me backwards I'll let him pull me, but I'll return the pressure until he's looking in the trailer. Sometimes I need all fifty feet of rope, but not usually.
I don't release for rearing, banging, hiding around the other side of the trailer, nothing except looking inside.
The key here is that while the horse is flailing around I am whacking him in the pasterns with a longe whip. Not killing them, not drawing blood, but consistently popping those pasterns until he moves his feet while looking in the trailer.
He doesn't have to get in, he just has to move his feet, look in the trailer and think about getting in.
This only works if you keep your pressure and release working.
Remember, if he's flying back, let him, just keep the pressure on the rope, keep flicking those pasterns and don't quit until he stops going back. Then stop everything. That will get the point across.
The longe whip keeps you out of kick range. The cotton rope keeps you out of the trailer. Remember that.
Once he's got the thought in his mind he'll get in there pretty quick.
I will give a release for one step.
I will let him smell the floor of the trailer as long as he wants.
I will let him paw with one foot and his head in the trailer as long as he wants.
I will let him step in and out as many times as he wants.
I will only apply pressure when he quits thinking about getting in the trailer. Then I'll pull and pop until he's thinking forward again.
Once he's in I let him stand there. I don't tie him or close the doors until he is quietly and happily standing in the trailer.
If I have to reload a time or two that's OK. Only if he gets out again on his own mind you. Once he's in and quiet we will go for a drive. Come home. Get out. Be done.
It works. I swear.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mort Stories

"You want me to what?"
"Ride Mort in this ring snaffle," Mike Craig stood holding the bit and bridle in his hand.
My new instructor was young, friendly and confident. I was also sure he was planning to sacrifice me to the "Good Horsemen" gods as his first step in turning my horse and me into something usable.
"I can't control him as it is." I protested.
"That's right, so what's the difference?"
"You mean the difference between getting killed and living through the next ride? I'd say a big one."
I had grown into quite a smart-ass in my teen age years, as the nuns at Benet Hill could attest. I figured I was blowing any chance of this guy wanting to help me, but he was spelling out my doom, so what the hell.
"He runs off in everything you ride him in, so why not put him in something that won't make him bleed?"
He had me there. I loved my horse. More than anything in the world. It broke my heart every time I tore open the tender scar tissue under his chin, or added to the ever-growing lump that traveled across his nose.
"You have pretty much gotten your stop figured out," Mike went on, "you don't pull on him then do you?"
"No, I don't."
"The reason he has such a good stop on him is because he understands it. He's really willing once he knows what you want, don't you think?"
There was the crux of the matter.
Mike had showed me how to stop my horse with a mere touch on his neck. He taught me a simple three step process.
Step one: Focus on the strides my horse takes as he lopes. Get into the rhythm of the lope, paying attention to when my seat is rising out of the saddle, and when my seat is sliding down into the well of the saddle. He would have me call out "Now, now, now" with every rising stride.
Step two: On a rising stride say "Whoa" (instead of now) then push with my rein hand on the base of my horse's neck at the next stride.
Step three: Pull that bad boy into the stop.
What was important was that each cue was only given once. The Whoa came as I was in the air, which told him the stop was coming, the hand cue came as I slid down into the saddle, which is also when Mort would have both hind legs forward and underneath him, making it easy for him to stop, and the pull made it all happen.
Within one lesson he was parking it into a solid hard stop off just the "Whoa" and the hand. That was all the cue he needed and I didn't have to pull back. As my our timing improved so did our stops. Mort could slide. It was incredible.
Now Mike wanted this next terrifying step. Just a snaffle on my scarred, anxious, chronic run away horse.
He stood patiently and waited as I chewed on it. This young man had opened a door I didn't believe possible for me and my horse. Plus Mike was hot, which to a 15 year old girl is a deal breaker. I guessed it was time to step through it.
"OK, ring snaffle it is."
Mike gave me the bit to use until I could buy my own. He also let me try out a running martingale.
We spent the rest of that lesson focusing on left rein, right rein, push that hip, push this shoulder, anything that might unlock my bolty, rigid horse.
I left that day with my snaffle, my new resolve and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
"Remember, less is more."
Mike's parting words rung in my ears.
I supported my horse with my baby-sitting money. I was lucky if I could pay for a lesson a month. Now that I had to save for yet another bit and a martingale I didn't know when my next lesson with Mike would be.
But I took his "less is more" theory to heart.
I started riding Mort bareback. With just the snaffle. I was going to figure out that damn left right thing if it killed me. I'm lucky it didn't.
Mort loved the snaffle. He quickly realized he didn't have to pay attention to me in any way. I was no more than an irritating gnat. A little buzz in his ear. We were off to the races. Buzz buzz.
I stayed at my barn for days. I soon found that without a saddle I had no leverage. I couldn't force him to do anything. I could, however, coax him into a gentle, sweeping turn. He would guide in an acre size circle. I could point him somewhere, release and he would head in the new direction straight and true.
I found that with a series of gentle tugs and releases he would kind of, sort of, steer in smaller increments. If I got the least aggressive he would grab that bit, snarl at me with his nastiest growliest grunt and we'd be flying totally out of control. But now I could stop him. Every time I got scared I could touch his neck and Mort would lay some track. He would stand and air up. I would rethink the latest mistake I had made and we would try again.
I learned that a tired Mort was a thinking Mort. So I reached into my eternal training manual, Walter Farley's Black Stallion series, and decided to "breeze" him in the mornings before school. (C'mon, you guys all know you used old Walt's training tips) I would trot him over to a big wide drainage ditch that ran a quarter mile between Maizeland and Constitution Blvd. It was about 10 feet deep and 100 yards wide, level and filled with sand. Meant to be used for flood control, it was a perfect place to run my horse.
And run we did. We would pick our way down the steep trail into the ditch and Mort would snort and blow, playful instead of anxious. When he hit the sand he would fly. I grabbed a handful of mane and relaxed into him as the morning wind blasted my cheeks raw. I felt his muscles thrum as he blew through the sand and as I leaned into him he would go faster and faster. We were mustangs. We were tornadoes. We were free.
We would go full out until we came to the cement bridge at Constitution. I would carefully steer him around and we would head back towards home. Mort would only tolerate a touch through the turns for the first mile. By the second he would be slowing. For the rest of our run I would play with steering him. We would float to the left, then the right. I would play with a tug and release, or a steady pull. What worked better? How did it feel? What created tension, or instant responses, good or bad? I was really thinking about my hands. What worked and what didn't.
As I walked him home I would continue to play. Go left a few steps, go right. Turn a circle and go forward, turn again and release. It was fascinating. My horse was becoming soft in the bridle. A term I didn't even know.
In the afternoon we would hit the trail, still bareback. Mort would extend trot through the trails in Palmer Park all day. If we loped, or I tried to get him to walk he would take off. I still couldn't get him to rate even a little.
I started my own version of the one, two, three cues. I would check him once with my reins. If he ignored me or sped up, which he always did, I would bump him pretty good to the left and right with my hands. When he ignored that I would grab my left or right rein and hoist him into the nearest emergency road block I could find.
I would run him up a mountainside until he couldn't go any farther. Or ram him into the thickest scrub oak patch I could find. There was a field in Palmer Park we called Yucca Flats. Guess why? I would whack him through that field over and over, jumping and dodging yucca every step of the way until he SLOWED THE HELL DOWN.
I'll be damned if it didn't start to work.
I'd pick up my reins and ask him to slow, he'd tense up and start looking to see where I was going to park him and if it looked rough enough, Mort would actually slow down by the time I bumped his mouth.
I was no longer along for the ride, I was training.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Opinions and Noses-Everybody's got one

I was planning on a "Mort" story today, but I'm too cranked up to visit memory lane. I have another subject burning a hole in my brain.

Difference of opinion.

The horse world tends to be wildly opinionated. I have heard raging, screaming arguments about the best way to do everything from feeding them to catching them. Round pens and longe lines. Whispering and just getting her done. Grass Hay or Alfalfa. Grain, no grain, supplements or none. Blankets and no blankets. Western or English.

I'm sure we've all been caught up in the maelstrom of what's the right way to care, protect and ride the horses we love. I have developed my own ways and ideas over the years. I try to be open and listen to new concepts from anybody, no matter their background, no matter how long they've ridden.
I had a student once. She was timid. She consistently bought really bad horses. She had no riding ability whatsoever, natural or trained. She had only owned horses for two years when I met her.
I was telling her about a horse I had that was consistently a nut job in the trailer. (yes, it was Sonita) I had tried everything I could come up with, including lots of input from the Big K.

"Have you tried slowing down?" She asked.

"I drive like a Grandma. That can't be it."

"It doesn't matter, if it's the speed she's used to travelling at, it might still be scaring her. Maybe just slow down 5 miles an hour."

I'll be darned. I slowed down and the ruckus stopped. Which meant I drove up Ute Pass in the emergency lane with all my blinkers flashing, but it worked. It is a tip that I have used ever since. It still works.

I have learned that if I don't form an opinion too soon or snap to a judgement I may regret later, it always benefits my horse, myself and my clients.

My best example of learning by shutting the hell up comes in the form of a Morgan trainer I barn shared with once.
He trained the Morgans with the giant feet and set tails. His horses lived in dark stalls, (to keep their coats dark) spent half their life in training rigs that employed check reins to tie their heads up and back, and were exercised maybe 15 to 20 minutes at a time. His horses only had turnout in blankets, neck sweats and check reins.
He represented everything I hate about the professional horse world. Everything.
I also had to share a barn and arenas with him.

I thought long and hard and decided "Know thy enemy" was a better approach than "Vengeance is mine."
I started talking to him. Told him I knew nothing about his world. Explained mine a little.
We began to visit. We found we could share an arena just fine. I liked to work the middle, he liked the rail, it was all good. My horses learned to function with a foaming snorting train wreck dragging a carriage around. His learned to keep going when I slid my horses down his throat.
We began to relax and have fun with each other. I found I liked the guy. In many ways he was a smart and savvy horseman.

I learned why and how they shoe them the way they do. I learned about soring and ginger. I learned that when they retire these horses they have muscle deformities and weakness in their neck and tail they often never over come.
I never offered criticism, although sometimes I cried on my way home.

I learned that these people actually loved their horses. They truly didn't seem to get what they were doing. They asked me about my training methods. They watched me turn my horses out, leave them off when they were sore and develop the horses I had.
They asked about the mechanics of a spin, the hindquarters that create the best slide. They had me ride a "western" type Morgan that came in and teach him some basic reining maneuvers.
I let him ride one of my cowhorses. He let me ride ride a Country English (?) something or other. It was like going to a foreign country, but what a blast!
I learned a bunch about drive and forward from this guy. Things I still do today. I learned how to grow and preserve a long beautiful tail on my horses. I learned about the benefit of menthol braces. I learned that Morgans are a sweet, generous breed. I wouldn't mind having one some day.

He began turning his horses out twice a week without anything on them but their big happy expressions. If you saw how he would lean on the rail and watch them play you wouldn't have been able to hate him either. He began to see that a horse being "cowboyed" was something he should probably try once in a while. It turns out when I "cowboy" them they're pretty happy and healthy.

Now if I condemn any of these practices, and I do, I come from an educated background. I can rant about the injustice of treating a horse this way because I truly know the reasons and mechanics behind each cruel twist.
The Morgan Guy knows how I feel. He also knows that I like him. I was invited to his wedding. He told me that he has started a rehab program for retiring show horses to slowly decompress them, in hopes they can have a future as a saddle horse. He's making some serious money doing it and helping a lot of the horses he almost destroys during their show career.

So bring it on. Tell me about your dressage and jumping and pleasure horses. Talk about feed and blankets and breeds of horses. I promise I'll listen with respect. I may not agree, but it won't be from ignorance. If you think it is, feel free to call me on it. Any time.
Because I truly respect anybody who is trying to do their best by their horse. I love reading your stories and thoughts.
I'm done spouting for the day. I'll try to get back to Mort this week-end.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


I just got off the phone with Sharion. We had a fun conversation about nothing in particular. We planned a day to get out and visit some mutual friends. We talked about the cutting competition we watched last week-end and horses in general.
There was a span of months when I wondered if we would ever share an idle chat about nothing again. I watched Sharion claw up through the depths of a coma so deep there was doubt she would ever wake up. I sat with her while she struggled to recognize the people who loved her and tried again and again to find words to express her fear and confusion. I was the one without words the day she welcomed me with tears and open arms.
Sharion received a severe head injury while riding a horse. She was given a terrifying, grim prognosis. She defied all projections and her diagnosis by recovering at an incredible rate of speed. She was up walking and talking months before she was expected to wake up at all. She was released from the hospital, went home to her family and disappeared from my life.
Along with self awareness came the shock of understanding how her world had changed. Sharion was back, but not quite herself. The road to complete recovery is a long one. She may travel that road for the rest of her life. Sharion became shy and unsure of herself. She hid in her house and let the loving warmth of her family ease her into the realities of her new life.
She got used to a new routine. The routine of relearning so many skills she used take for granted. A new world where every day is a battle for the balance to walk her dogs, a search for simple descriptive words no longer within her grasp.
I got a message through, " Call me when you're ready."
I left things alone. Then just a few weeks ago I got a wonderful call. Sharion was ready to talk. I was finally able to visit with my friend. We sat at her kitchen table and caught up with our lives on a sunny afternoon. Her beautiful eyes snapped with frustration when she couldn't find the word she wanted, she vibrated with life and energy.
As we became comfortable with each other again the conversation flowed. Sharion was all the way back. She still had to fight for some things, but mentally my friend was ready and able. We made plans. To go out to lunch, go to a horse show, visit old friends. Plans I never thought we would make again. The afternoon sunlight spread across Sharion's kitchen table and warmed my arms. Her newly grown in curls were back lit by the fading sun and her wonderful laugh filled the air.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


On to my post for the day. I had a question about handling a bolter. I have to be honest. Bolters scare me more than any problem I have encountered. Horses come genetically wired with two automatic responses to danger. Fight or flight. Chronic bolters usually have a high flight reaction to begin with. Somewhere they have discovered that if they run hard enough they can solve any problem. If I am in front of them, on them, or interfering with the bolt it doesn't matter. I will either be mowed down or going along for the ride.
A bolting horse will lose awareness of their surroundings faster than any other vice. I have had runaways take me across interstates at rush hour, through scrub oak and wack me into trees. I have seen them jump fences, into rivers and straight through barbwire, all with a rider on board.
Something about the restraint of a rider makes them lose their minds. I think they begin running for their lives and we're perched on their back like a mountain lion ripping at their faces. A bolt may start as an act of rebellion, but then it evolves into pure out of control terror.
I also firmly believe that although bolting can be taught with poor riding, it is a genetic disposition that creates it. Bolting shows up as a behavior in young foals. The filly that is always racing around her mother or the other foals, usually without reason, is the one to watch.
There was a broodmare that was retired from the show pen because of an inclination to run straight into the wall instead of stopping at the end of her rundowns. This behavior was definitely created by the training program she was subjected to. No question. As a broodmare she was calm and affable. Her baby had never been mishandled, yet she was running into ponds, fences, the sides of buildings, you name it, from day one. She was almost impossible to catch and the last to make friends with her human caretakers.
Bolting can get you killed. If you are working with one please, please make sure you are a. capable of handling the horse, and b. the horse is worth the risk. I'm serious.
That being said, here's what I do when I have one on my hands.
Pulling won't stop them. Often you can't turn them either.
I spend a lot of time bringing their head to my knee and kicking the horses hip out. A bunch. Both ways. This is not a one rein stop, because I keep moving. Turn, go, turn, go. First one way then the other. One rein at a time.This isn't about pretty, this is about containing forward motion without creating a fight. I do it so often the horse's muscle memory will take over when I pull his face to me and I'll be able to kick out that hip. If you can disengage the hip you can stop the bolt. Notice I said if.
Now that I have my emergency brakes kind of sort of in place I get in a position where I'll just let that sucker bolt. I pick one of two places. A large, well fenced, good grounded arena, or 100 miles of back country dirt road on the open prairie. I do whatever it takes to get them to bolt and I let them go. I just point them down the road or around the arena and hang on. I don't say whoa, I don't try in any way to encourage or discourage them. Until they try to slow down. Then I over and under them with my reins, hard. And off we go. Every time the horse wants to quit, they don't get to. I will make him run until he can't. If we are on the dirt road then the horse gets to walk home. All the way home I keep my reins loose, and dare them to bolt again.
Sometimes they do, but not for long. Keep in mind I have been 30 + miles out before.
If I'm in an arena I do the same thing, just around and around. I stay on until they are completely recovered.
I will do this for days. Eventually the horse is begging to stop. Begging. Then I feel I have a start on things.
After we have reached this point I WTC and randomly disengage the hip. Over and over.
When I can turn that horse and slow him down anywhere anytime I will begin the stop, back drill that I discussed with Char. But only when I can offer the stop back as an alternative to running for two hours.
This is extreme I know. But there is nothing nice about the behavior. It can get you killed. Please think things through carefully before you commit to trying this on any horse.
I have gone through this more than once. Sometimes it cures them for good. Other times it only fixes them for me. Think "Captain" on this one.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Collecting My Thoughts/Sonita Chapter 12

I was still stewing. If I didn’t get Sonita collected I would never get anywhere.
My concept of collection came from a combination of my pleasure horse training and the bits and pieces of dressage I had played with over the years.
My basic premise asked for my horse to drive with her hind legs and push herself into a wall I created with my hands and the bit, encouraging her to lift her back and break at her poll.
Sonita was such an athlete she was in total control of her legs and where she chose to drive them from day one. She could travel a circle at an incredible rate of speed, her hind legs driving with such strength she felt as if she was pushing us up a hill.
Most of the time she accomplished this feat with her nose straight in the air, looking outside our circle, shoulders leaning in and her back hollowed.
She would search for her friends, check out the cattle pens, look for something cool to spook at, anything but focus on what I was asking for. Sonita was best at was hunting out the judges. She was as obsessive about finding the judges as I was about getting her to stay in frame.
Every time we had a hesitation in the middle of the show pen (on average you have at least one or two) Sonita would search the rails or the stands until she found them. Then she would stop, stare at them, blast a warning snort and jump.
Every single time.
As I asked for the lope depart she would slowly walk out a few steps, and lope off in as distracted and half assed a way as possible, bug eyes glued to them through our entire set of circles.
“There they are!” I could feel her almost screaming, “Those weird staring guys are perched up there again! We're going to die you dumb ass!”
The Big K didn’t believe me for the longest time.
“It’s you,” he insisted, “You tippy toe out there all scared and timid and look up at those judges. Sonita’s just reading off you. Get out there and stare those judges down like your going to eat them, not the other way around. Then we'll see if she still watches."
So I tried. I deliberately looked straight ahead on our way into the pen. I actually looked down the fence line away from the judges so The Big K couldn't argue that it was me.
Sonita leaped a good 10 feet. "AAAAHHHH! LOOK, LOOK, LOOK!" She was shouting, "THEY'RE UP THERE YOU MORON!"
The Big K decided maybe it wasn't me, and that we might want to focus on our collection issue.
The Big K is a man of few words. The best way to learn from him is to watch him work. I would tell him my problem and he would show me how he would handle it on his horse.
I watched him collect everything he had.
He came up with one creative drill after another, all done at high speed, each more aggressive than the other.
Sonita got higher, and nastier with each drill.
A few weeks before I stomped off on my "break" from the big wig trainer world I tried hard to explain my problem.
"I think she's confused. This is all too fast for her. She doesn't understand what I'm asking for." I said.
"You are making this too hard. You don't expect enough from her. You keep letting her draw you into a fight instead of staying focused and just getting it done." The Big K replied.
"Maybe I don't understand then. Maybe she's fighting because I'm not asking her the right questions."
"Maybe you need to stop asking and start telling."
This is where we squared off. I was discovering I could not demand anything from my horses, especially Sonita, unless I felt they completely understood what I was asking. In my mind, if I wasn't getting results, then either it was more than the horse was ready for, or I hadn't laid a proper base in my training for them to draw from.
The Big K felt that it was the horse's job to figure out what he wanted, as fast as it possibly could.
"Every day I to ride this baby (3 year old) like he was six. If I expect him to behave like a six year old then eventually he'll get there," he said.
"You can't put a toddler in high school K. He'll just pee his pants and not be able to reach the water fountain." I snapped back.
Needless to say, when I took my self imposed break, it was time.
After my wild ride in the park I had come to realize quite a few things. Sonita wasn't that hard to ride. She was the most agile, sure-footed horse I had ever been on. She would guide on a feather touch from my hand or leg, as long as I didn't try to drive her forward, or hold her back.
There was a huge hole in what she thought I was telling her compared to what I thought I was saying.
So in the peace and quiet of our arena at home I tried to sort things out again. At a walk.
I started on the rail on a loose rein. I made sure my weight was square in my saddle. As soon as Sonita was relaxed I rolled my calf muscles lightly into her, and began to bump her with every stride. She lengthened her steps and I captured her face with the bit.
Immediately her back hollowed, her head flew up and she began to jig.
I stayed quiet, kept holding, bumping with my legs and held her firmly enough to stop her from flying across the arena.
She jumped and fretted and kicked at my legs. We went around the arena once, twice. Sonita shook her head and struck out with her front legs. I kept holding and bumping. We went around again. Finally she dropped her head.
I resisted my impulse to immediately release her. After all that nonsense a head bob wasn't going to cut it. I held and bumped until she was soft and driving deep with her hind legs. I made her hold it for one, two, three strides. Then I released my legs, followed by my hands.
I kept it up for a couple of hours. We walked, I put my legs on her, asked her to go to my hands, we fought, she complied. I kept my temper. I made myself focus on the feel of her strides. I made myself think about the feel of her back rising, the lengthening of her strides, the straightness in my hands when she got it. I breathed.
By the end of our session she was driving forward into my hands with the softest of cues. Pure joy flooded through me as I felt her go to the bit with confidence and trust. I started to feel like I just might get this trainer gig down.
We worked at the walk for a week.
I put her in the trot for another week. When she was confident on the rail I added serpentines. I asked her to drive deep through her turns. She realized that she could drive her hind leg almost to the print of her inside front through those turns and it would keep her balanced and sure. It made her even more willing to come into my hands.
I began to make circles at the trot and spiral down. My goal was to make each new circle exactly two feet farther inside the one before. I would shift Sonita to the next circle by driving her outside hind all the way to the next line. She got so she could spiral down from a 50 foot circle to a beautiful spin and never break her cadence. Then we would spiral out and go the other way.
I came home one night to a message on the answering machine from the Big K.
"Are you all right?" He asked.
I emailed him back. "I'm still thinking."
I would fall asleep at night to the rhythm of a trotting horse running through my mind. I would wake up with the words, "Drive, drive, drive" tattooing a beat in my head. I started all my horses on a variation of the same program, according to their age and abilities. Yes. I'm a nutcase.
Sonita and I started loping. At first she panicked and fought me. Now I understood what I was looking for. I knew the feel I was seeking. I was patient. She calmed within minutes, and began to come to me. Collect, relax, collect, relax. We drove through corners. I made squares, rectangles, triangles anything I could think of. At each corner she would come to me, slow down, and gather herself. On the straight lines I would relax my rein.
Finally, I began loping straight lines, and randomly asking her to drive to my hand. She came to me, soft and confident. It was heaven.
Then we tackled the run downs. I was a little sick to my stomach the night before just thinking about it. I started by asking for a straight line up the middle. As she would gather to fly I sat back, bumped with my calves and picked up my hand. As clearly as possible I asked her to collect. Sonita threw it all away and took off. I could feel her panic and anger rising. I kept my cues the same, I didn't pull.
I wasn't afraid anymore. I breathed.
When we came to the end of the arena I didn't ask for a stop. I drove her into a tight u-turn. She brought her legs under her, rebalanced and we headed the other way.
The turn had slowed her, so I relaxed and released my legs and hand. We went up and down the arena probably ten times before she could run through a straight line steady and collected. I finally said "Whoa," and she slid.
We spun. We settled. I walked Sonita in a straight line and bumped with my legs. When she came to me I asked for a lope. When she panicked we just kept going until she felt better, then we stopped, spun, settled and tried again.
In three days she had it. Sonita understood what I was saying. She sought collection as a steadying comfort instead of an unfair restraint. I still let her ride on a loose rein most of the time. But anytime I wanted her to come to me she would, and she would stay there until I released her.
She had it. I had it. Now it was time to go do something about it.
I emailed the Big K. "See you on Tues."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tracking cattle and Restless Feet

Cdncowgirl has been patiently waiting for me to give her some help on practicing for cattle events when she doesn't have cattle. So I'll start with her.

I want my cowhorses to rock back on their hocks every time they stop. They need to be kind of perched back there waiting to turn, back, or go again, whatever I want, but they need to be ready. They need to turn through and go off in a straight line no matter where I send them. They need to accept me taking hold of them any time I need to.
I have sold more than one of my cowhorse prospects into the dressage world. There is a point in my training, usually the end of the first year I'm on them, when they pass a level II dressage test without batting an eye.
If I take them a few months past that point they're on the bit in a way that doesn't translate so easily anymore and it's more work for them to be a dressage prospect.
The only negative feed back I've had on those first year horses (from the dressage folk) is that my horses rock back off their hands when they halt. I guess it's a bitch to teach them to stop square and solid in the bridle after I've had them, because they want to rock back. Oh well, it can't be that bad because many of my horses that needed a different career path ended up as dressage horses.
Anyway, in order for Ol' Appy to have an easy time on the cows, he has to rock back on his hocks every single time he stops, forever and ever amen. I start this by backing my horse until he is backing free and easy with my rein hand raised, and very light contact with his mouth. I bump with my calves in rhythm with his backing steps. When I take my legs off and lower my hand he can stop. I do this every single time I stop. I do it every time I feel them pull on the bit. Every time.
After a while, when I sit back on my pockets and raise my rein hand my horse will rock back and prepare to back up. When he does that I'll relax my rein hand, sit back up, and not make him back. I do this every time he stops. If Ol' Appy leans on the bit at all, or tries to step forward before I tell him, I'll back him again until he's soft.
Once I have that down, I'll start walking down a fence line. I stop, rock back, roll back into the
fence and walk out the other way. I stop, rock back, roll back and go. Ol' Appy needs to be clean and comfortable doing this.
Then I move up to a trot, and then a lope.
Don't forget to rock back after you stop.
I have been forced to come up with creative ways to practice without cattle more than once. Any type of cow work involves the horse being able to select and track a cow. You need to teach yourself and your horse to do this. Lucky for us a horse will learn to track anything, dogs, chickens, goats, kids. Yes, I mean your children, although any family member will work. On foot works the best although I’ve had some fun with a mountain bike a time or two. The key is to give your horse plenty of rein and get him to follow your selected victim, don’t listen to all that whining and sniveling, just tell those kids to get trotting.
Step 1. Have the victim trot along a wall or fence, and get your horse to go along side. OlAppy can’t go past, if he does, then pull him in a circle, and point him back at Little Timmy. Hustle up when you do this, it isn't about pretty, it's a discipline. Get him immediately tracking Timmy again. Pretty soon he’ll go alongside on a loose rein. Don’t have Timmy turn until your horse has the idea.
Step 2. Have Little Timmy make a quick turn along the wall, and run the other way. If OlAppy is paying attention, he’ll turn with the child, and go along the new direction. If he doesn’t, make him. Immediately release the reins after the turn. Don’t turn him until he has trotted at least a horse length past Timmy. Then make that turn happen. This will help OlAppy understand that he’s got to stay with Timmy. Eventually, your horse will be turning on his own and Timmy will get himself a good nights sleep. This alone should get you started.

Debbie says- ...Any other time, he prefers NOT to move his feet. He's usually very laid back and his favorite gait is standing. In an arena he's calm regardless of what other horses are doing. He's calm on trails and will go anywhere. I'm not worried about the "can't keep the feet still" but what he does when he can't. This may sound silly, but it almost feels like he doesn't really want to pop up, he just figure out what to do instead.

First off, I think your doing a wonderful job with your horse. He is going to be a dream. If I had the light feet syndrome going on I would be engaging his hindquarters more. A horse rears when it ceases motion. I usually find that engaging the hind end will do the trick. When he tenses and locks up that front end, but before he rears, do a few turns on the forehand (or a lot) until he loosens up. Then relax. Then turn his hind end again. That way you are putting his weight on the front end, and giving him movement at the same time. Try to have contact with just the inside rein while you're doing this if you can.
Other than that you're doing exactly what I would do, and I think your young horse is going to continue to bloom under your patient guidance. Good luck.

Char said-...She wants to go fast, Mom takes up the slack in the reins to slow her down, she shakes her head like a dog with a toy. To me, she just looks pissed, and throwing a temper-tantrum. Needless to say, Mom's rides are getting less and less fun when she has to deal with her mare being a royal bitch when she doesn't get her way.

If you skipped down to your problem, shame on you. Hustle back up to the top and look at my backing drill that I talked to cdncowgirl about. Because that's what your Mom needs to do with this mare. Make sure your mother practices in an arena, or stable yard, somewhere they both feel secure before you go back on the trail.
You're right, the mare is being a bitch. She might be getting her face held more than she likes. She might just know she's freaking your mom out. But we can get her.
When your mom practices the backing drill make sure her reins are loose before she stops and asks for the back. The sequence will be, walk on a loose rein, sit back on your pockets, pick up your reins and put the amount of pressure you hope she will listen to on the bit (or hack, or bitless wonder bra, whatever) and bump with your calves.
If she stops but won't back, bump harder until she does. If she walks through your hands, haul her back hard with your reins, no mister nice guy. As soon as you've dragged her back three or four steps, release, and relax.
Then try again, starting off by rocking back on your pockets, pick up your reins to the dream pressure and bump.
The mare can't move forward until your mom says so.
When you have a reliable, soft back, head out on the trail. You guys will be training, so no impatient people get to come. If it takes all day to go 100 yards, that's fine.
Anytime this mare puts pressure on the bit, I'm not talking head shaking, just pressure, back her up. Immediately release, hesitate, and go forward again. Don't wait for her to be bad, just wait for pressure on your hands. When she will reliably back and wait for you to signal her forward, then start doing this drill randomly, even when she isn't pulling. Do it because you're the boss, and you feel like it. It's an important message to get across.
This could take days. I'm not kidding. So patience is the key. Don't get mad. Don't beg, plead, yell, nothing. Just be matter of fact. Whatever you do, don't yell Whoa. If that was working we wouldn't be in this bind.
Next play leapfrog on the trail. (See my post about kicking, you'll get the idea)
Keep her feet busy. I'll steer around trees, rocks, wander left, right, just different things to keep a horse's mind occupied.
In between all this steering and backing, make sure you stay off her face. When she's quiet, the reins need to be relaxed. Always offer a loose rein, then get in and fix her, then offer that loose rein again.
If your mom can't do this herself, then you need to do it for her, then let her try. Although I always think it best if the rider resolves these issues themselves.
Stay off her face!
Good Luck

Friday, October 10, 2008

Me and the Big K

Even when we were at war, Sonita could still lay some track. Who looks the most pissed off, me or Sonita?

Me an the Big K

“Stay on her.”
“I have been on her all day. We've been around the track about 20 times. I walked through every barn on the place, we toured the grounds, I long trotted her for hours. This is not working.”
“Stay on her. I don’t want you to step off until you finish your last go.”
Broken Bow Nebraska is a beautiful place to be in the spring. Everything is lush and green, the air is crisp and clean. Unless of course it’s settled into the first monsoon of the year and you’re wrapped in humidity thick enough to choke on, wading through knee deep puddles and sliding through the Nebraska mud.
Sonita was soaked through. A steady trickle of yuk trickled down her flanks. She hated being wet. Hated stepping in water or mud. Sonita was pissed. She fully intended letting me know how she viewed the world by screwing me every step of the way through every reining class we were in, every day of the interminable NRCHA show.
The Big K was fed up with both of us. Sonita was working at home in a fairly steady and reliable manner. At shows she continued to be a tail- wringing, spit-slinging freakazoid during her reined (dry) work. I was nervous, whiny and sullen. His standard working theory was that both of us needed to be tired enough to quit caring. So if I wasn't riding another horse I was to be on Sonita. No eating, drinking or rest for either of us.
Pissy though I might have been, I still did what I was told. I was really ready to start placing. If that’s what it took, then that’s what I was going to do. I had been on Sonita just about every minute of every day for three days. I sat on her to coach my clients, I even had my daughter warm up my other rides so I could just dismount, show the other horse, come out and get back on the bitch.
I was tired. I had saddle sores. My feet hurt. I had been wet for 100 years. I really hated Sonita.
She was fresh as a daisy and just as crabby as I was.
There was never a horse that could drag a lead like Sonita. If she chose to change it was clean and correct. If she was busy looking around the arena at the judges, her buddies, the tarps or the sky, she would drag her lead.
A lead change needs to come from the hind legs to the front. A horse and rider will be hit a ½ point for being out of lead if they change late in the back legs. Then, for every quarter circle they travel without fixing that lead they’ll be hit another ½ point. If you make it back to the middle of your circle and the rat bastard horse still hasn't changed in the back you get a big fat zero.
If Sonita didn't change clean she would immediately lay on my leg, block me with her shoulder, and virtually insure that I wouldn't get her stinking hip pushed in until one stride before we zeroed.
Yes, I could have stopped her and started her again. Of course then we would earn a 2 point penalty for a break in gait. On a good day, Sonita could rack up 5 or 6 penalty points before we even got through our second lead change.
So far we had yet to have a clean lead change at this show. She had blown every pattern, every day. The Big K’s reaction was to sign us up for reining on the AQHA side, who was co-hosting the show. So we had managed to suck rocks for not just one organization, but two. Sonita was hotter and higher with every pattern. I guess in her own way, she was pretty reliable.
I had decided early on the last day that riding her to death was not the answer. There had to be some relief for both of us. I began riding her hard in the warm up pen for about 20 minutes before each scheduled break. When the arena was free for open riding I would take her in, have her stand in the middle and wait for her to relax. As soon as she dropped her head I would get down, loosen her cinch and take her for a short break in her stall. Then I would keep my eye peeled to make sure the Big K didn't catch me resting my horse and my tired achy butt. Sonita was walking to the center of the pen and standing quiet every time I rode her in by the end of the day. I upped the ante as the day wore on and would take her in and out of the arena at a walk several times, ending each session by standing in the middle, dismounting and loosening her cinch.
Our last class was going to be a late one. The show had started at 7 a.m. and it was now approaching midnight. We had 60 riders in the novice open ranch class. This was a wildly popular non-pointed class that offered cutting, reined work and a fence run for all horses, any age. It was chock full of ranchers and young trainers. Sonita and I had performed well in the cutting and fence work, but we still had the reined work to go. Shit.
We had a few bright spots. We had cleaned up in the cutting. She had a solid score on her fence work. So even though Sonita's dry work on previous days had driven me to contemplating shooting her right there in the arena, yanking my saddle and heading for home, I had managed to hold off.
The Big K was done with his show. He was wandering around, beer in hand, laid back and peaceful. He was beginning to think he was pretty damn funny.
“Looks like your going to be here until it’s time to load up in the morning,” he said.
“I’m not in the mood, K.” I replied.
“You don’t get to have a mood around me. What’s your draw?”
“43rd,” I tried not to snarl.
“You’ll be done around 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. That’s not too bad. Want a beer?”
“I’ll take that bottle when you’re done with it.”
“What do you need my beer bottle for?” The Big K looked a little glassy eyed and confused.
“I've had to go for about 3 hours. If I have to sit here until I show I’m going to need that bottle to pee in,” I said.
The Big K is an extremely modest man. My only weapon was often the fact that I could freak him out. Red faced he held Sonita while I hobbled off to the can. Then he took off to bed, too tired after his own show to stay with me. I snuck back to my stall and gave Sonita a drink.
I sat on her in an exhausted daze watching one reining pattern after another go by. She stood with her head down dozing. I was too tired to work her. Finally they called draw 35. I rode into the warm up pen and we jogged around to wake up. By the time they called us into the arena we were as ready to go as I could manage.
I walked into the arena. Sonita stayed steady and quiet under my hand. She walked to the center and stood solid and alert, but calm. When we loped off I knew we were golden. Sonita stayed with me through the entire pattern. She moved through her changes with hardly a ripple. She stopped solid, spun like a dream and never looked out of our circle, not even once. Half way through the pattern my beautiful silver path opened in front of us and we followed it to the end.
I dismounted at the end, loosened her cinch and headed back to her stall.
The Big K was standing by the gate, bleary eyed and smiling. I barely registered that he had gotten up to watch my go.
“How about that?” He said.
“How bout that,” I answered.
I tried to stay awake long enough to hear the results. I dozed off in a corner of Sonita’s stall.
“Hey, there’s stalls to get done.” The Big K’s voice cut through my dead sleep. I woke up with Sonita’s head in my lap.
I rubbed my eyes and crawled into the gray dawn covered in shavings. He handed me a cup of coffee and my check for fourth place.
“How bout that.” I wondered as I sipped the bitter coffee.
“I guess we could get breakfast to celebrate.” The Big K said.
I fed and watered my money earning mare and we headed toward the concession stand. I was still swiping away at the shavings clinging to my jeans.
“You know you’re buying,” he added.
“I figured.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Making A Good Thing Bad

When I was a kid we had a Golden Retriever. This was in the 60's when they were relatively unknown field dogs. My Dad can really train a hunting dog. He chose a Golden because they were smart, capable hunting dogs and had the gentle nature needed for a good family dog. He felt that Labs were over-bred and Chesapeake's too aggressive for a house filled with wild children.
Our dog Jud was fantastic. We taught him tricks like High Ho Silver, play dead, GI Joe, any dumb thing kids can think to teach a dog. We used him to tow our sled up the hills for us in the winter, and he would run down the hill with us 20, 30, 40 times in order to "fetch" that sled back up the hill. He was a vigilant guardian and loyal companion. He had a wicked sense of humor and a huge grin.
He also would cover a field in any direction my father would send him with only hand signals and an occasional whistle from my Dad. He would sit and watch patiently as Dad threw up to 10 white painted wood blocks (numbered with pen) out into the long grass, and on command retrieve them in order, from the last one handled to the first. (No shit)
He would dive off a dock, out of a boat, or into the rapids of a mountain river to retrieve whatever he was put on.
Jud weighed maybe 55 lbs. and was dark red, almost the color of an Irish Setter. He had a medium length soft coat and feathering.
I grew up thinking Golden Retrievers were possibly the best dog anybody could own.
Twenty years after Jud, Dad retired and searched for two or three years to find another field quality Golden. He finally found Jody and started her training.
Jody was a lovely dog. Sweet and willing, smart and loyal. She wouldn't carry a bird. She couldn't tolerate the feel of the feathers in her mouth. Jody became a beloved family pet and my Dad decided he was done with hunting dogs.
Because they were no longer being bred for their intended purpose. Golden Retrievers were becoming yuppie suburban show pieces, and paying a high price for their popularity.
The Golden Retrievers I meet now weigh between 75 and 100 lbs. Their hair is a luxuriant high maintenance mess. They are almost white. (Read Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin if you want a wake up call on breeding for the white gene.) They are exquisite. They have a myriad of genetic disorders including a high incidence of cancer.They are dumber than rocks.
They still have the funny wiggle walk I remember so well, a gentle nature and a big smile. I could cry when I meet them.The irony is that their popularity took off when they began winning the obedience competitions at AKC shows. It was the breeds death knell.
The border collie is next. I see them all over my decidedly yuppie Colorado Springs neighborhood, leaping and bounding, gagging at the end of their extendo leashes and wondering where the hell the sheep are. I think as soon as a breed starts showing up wearing a bandanna at the dog parks you can just about guarantee they're going to be ruined as a breed.
Which brings me to the very interesting fuglyhorseoftheday.blogspot.com post on Tues. of this week. Fugs was talking about the importance of buying a quality animal and the need for people to quit over breeding crap. Obviously I agree with these thoughts. Heartily. It was her choice of examples that got a lot of people fired up, which always makes things fun. Especially since I come from the short, stocky ranch horse camp.
I have to be honest. I liked the look of the babies at rockintquarterhorses.com. They were short, compact little boogers, with nice butts and pretty faces. Definitely something I would stop and look at if I was passing by. They looked round, happy and healthy. I liked that they were running wild, I don't want my babies coming to me tame. I didn't care for their breeding, but that's because I'm not a roper. They were foundation lines that the ropers gobble up.
I agree that there were too many. I am all over that. But I would still look.
I didn't like the $15,000 black thing. Only because that's not where my interest lies. To my mind that colt was already over handled, too big and pleasure bred. Not my cup of tea. I have no problem with it being somebody elses cup of tea though.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I realize I might seem a little naive when it comes to blogging. I am a newbie after all. I still can't figure out the ads, and the follower thing has me flummoxed. (but thanks to those who are)

But I absolutely love the thought of talking horses to people in different countries. It just astounds me that "talking horses" is basically the same, no matter where we live, the discipline we follow, or the saddle we choose to park ourselves on. I want to hear more about the differences in what we deal with. And Lasting Light brought my thoughts on this right out. So here's my input on those debates. Then I'll drift back to Sonita.

Here at the Southern tip of Africa my favourite horsey forum recently had heated debates about the virtues of letting horses live out 24/7 vs stabling them at night, blanketing vs not blanket, riding with a bit vs bitless etc.

Stabling: I have kept horses in stalls, stalls with runs, pastures, pens with sheds, and any variation in between. Currently I have two kept close to me at a big pen and shed type facility, and three, including the love of my life, running like lunatics on 80 acres.

Stalls have a purpose. They keep a horse safe. They keep a horse clean. They keep a horse convenient to my needs.
I have used stalls to my benefit to teach a horse patience. A horse in a stall has to wait. They wait for food, water, exercise, companionship, sunshine and cleanliness. (Who remembers the big 4?)
They become patient. Or crazy. Usually a little of both.
Horses who accept stalls are easier to haul, load, show and take to the vet.
So if possible, I like all my horses to learn to live in a stall. Then I try not to ever do it to them again.

Horses are prey animals. In order to feel safe and secure they need to be in a group, in the open and able to see with those beautiful, wide set, giant eyes.

Horses in stalls can't see anything but walls, are totally alone, and can't feel the wind or smell the night air.
Stalled horses are the horses who crib, wind suck, weave, pace, chew, get cast.......you get my drift.

Stalls with runs: A little better, but still more of the same.
I like the concept of horses in at night and out during the day. It's a trade off between my needs and theirs. I sleep better knowing they are as safe as I can make them. They still learn to behave in a stall. They get to run and be horses during the day.
Pastured horses get kicked, bitten, stuck in the fence, escape, let out, are far away and can be harder to catch.
When I go to visit my yellow mare I stand on the top of the hill entering into her pasture. I holler and she comes running hard (if she feels like it), her herd mates in tow. She is banged up, yet fit and content. When I see her run with the gang, her tail flagged, kicking up her heels, pounding through gulley's and up hills, I know she's in the right place. She hasn't been out with other horses since she was a year and a half. She is calmer, more physically fit (interesting since I rode the crap out of her) and obviously happy.
Yet the risk I take turning her out lays heavy in my mind. I also like to weigh how bad the bugs and predators are before I leave them out 24/7.
Blankets. I hate them. They are a pain. I get their purpose. Once again, for our convenience. If we need to keep them clipped or under lights, they have to be blanketed.
Horses with healthy winter coats never need a blanket. The winter hair stands up and traps air and heat to warm the horse. Blankets flatten hair. So a horse with a winter coat is colder in a blanket than without it. I'm serious, ask your vet.
If we turn them out with dried sweat flattening their hair they'll get cold. Which is why I'm a big fan of coolers. And curry combs.
I will blanket a horse if they are sick. Clipped. Kept under lights. Extremely thin. That's about it.
Bitless vs. bridleless
Obviously I am a bit fan, since I ride bridle horses. I love the science, timing and development that goes into a bridle horse.
My biggest concern about any horse in my care is that they have the highest chance of survival if they go out into the world tomorrow. I don't kid myself that I can guarantee they get to stay with me forever. I don't know what life has planned for me.
Each one of my horses rides in a snaffle, then a hackamore (bosal) and if they're with me long enough, they go into the two rein and then the full bridle. Every horse I ride( even Sonita) will happily tool down the road in a ring snaffle, even if they've been in the bridle for years. Not a one of them needs any kind of special equipment, riding method, or a deep understanding of their little horsey psyche in order to ride them. That's my way of ensuring they have a good shot at a great home.
So that's my input. Later gators.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Fear/Part 2

OK, I'm back. Nice quiet ride on Pete. He's a nice kid.

Fear. We talk about it here, we talk about it on Fugly Horse of the Day, it buries some of us. I have had a couple people ask me how they can work on their nerves.

It kicks our butts, doesn't it? The biggest jolt I had was when I realized it had a lot to do with age. Up until a month ago I rode day in, day out, horses of different kinds and ages, year after year.

Guess what? Every year my gut level fear gets a little higher. I have always had a little rumble in my stomach before the first ride on a young one. Now that I've hit my fifties its a friggin' avalanche. Same for getting on problem horses. It gets tougher and tougher.

So what's going on?

Well for one thing, I'm smarter than I used to be, I bet a lot of you older riders are too. I have seen wrecks and crashes and disasters. I have lived through the same. I know what can happen now. Not just on a horse, but in a car, going for a run in the park, living on a flood plain, you name it. Life gets scarier as we age.

So then we add horses to it.

I think fear is a reality and we have to accept it in our aging bones.

So what do we do about it?

I am a little bit of a maniac on my horses. I feel safe doing stuff that a lot of people don't.

I am also accepting of my limitations, (or learning to) and am trying to embrace them.

I have given myself permission to NOT do a bunch of things that were a constant in my life just a few weeks ago.

I'm not starting colts anymore. My daughter is going to start our colt next fall. I'll take over when he's going along, and I feel comfortable.

I'm not riding crap anymore.

We have to be realistic. Poorly bred horses with bad conformation add a whole new level of risk to the situation. Ewe necks, thick throatlatches, weak stifles, weak loins, cow hocks, bad minds, slow reflexes, lack of physical ability, all of this and more can add danger to my ride.

I like nice horses that are bred and built the way they should be. Even though you can have problems on any horse, it's the Fugly's that adds that extra dose of danger.

I'd be fine with owning a Fugly that somebody else proved to be a nice horse, it's just not going to be me anymore.

I'll ask for help, even if I have to admit I'm afraid. I'm old enough that I can let my pride go now.

I'm just riding my horses from now on. I know them, I feel safe on them, so I'm staying there.

That's some of how I'm handling my own fear.

I do have a basic point or two I'd like to make.

First about fear of riding itself.

We just have to ride. If I'm so scared all I can do is sit on my horse for a minute, then that's what I'll do. Every day I will get my horse out, saddle up and sit on her. Eventually I will take a step.

Scared or not I will do a little as often as possible. Eventually I'll be able to do more.

Remember Peg? My scaredy cat/brave woman who has worked so hard to overcome her fear? She called the other day. She was at a Ranch Versatility Clinic. She took her horse, loped after a cow, and roped it. Son of a bitch. I am so proud. We started working together over seven years ago. She would walk, me at her side, clutching the horn and shaking. Now she's on a Ranch Versatility Team.

Guess what? Every day she does as much as she can. The next day she does the same.

You just have to get out there, even if all you can do is get them out and brush them. That's more than the day before.

Second, fear of showing.

Now there's a can of worms. Showing is a scary, scary thing. I used to throw up before my class. I used to be so scared I couldn't think at all, I couldn't remember my patterns, I couldn't focus on the cow, I was just a mess.

Eventually I realized a few things.

One: Nobody really pays much attention to you. The only people who watch are the ones rooting for you, so why worry about them?

Two: You are paying the judge to watch you ride. The Big K used to make me ride into the arena, look the judge in the eye, smile and then ride. In my mind I had to be shouting, "Look at my horse, it's the best horse you've ever seen!" He wanted me to send that message to the judge with my eyes.Riding Sonita made that a tough enough deal believe me, but it works.

Three: SLOW DOWN. Slow your thoughts, your movements, your breathing, your horse, your mind. Breath deep, slow, and steady.

Four: Show a lot. Small shows, local shows, whatever. Just get in the ring in front of a judge and go. It gets a little easier every time. I promise.

Five: Realize you are not showing against your fellow competitors, but with them. Everybody is in the same boat. It really comes down to you and your horse. Showing off what you've been working so hard on....so have fun. Really, I mean it, have fun damn it.So there's my thoughts on fear. I have one more thing to bring up.

Lasting Light said: Would you consider writing about horsey topics other than training? Here at the Southern tip of Africa my favourite horsey forum recently had heated debates about the virtues of letting horses live out 24/7 vs stabling them at night, blanketing vs not blanket, riding with a bit vs bitless etc. I love the way you think things through and apply your years of experience, so would rather like to hear your thoughts on these topics. And of course the thoughts of other readers too! How do you do things where you live?

Africa? How cool is that? I would love to get a reader input thing going on some of these topics. What do you guys think? I've got opinions on all of the subjects mentioned above, and I'd love to dive in. Let me know.

Fear and Other Thoughts

Worldshowbound says-
My problem is that she won't pick her feet up and tends to trip - a lot. A couple of times we almost went to her knees and would have if I hadn't basically caught her and brought her back. I'm starting to have nightmares of us going down and me being seriously injured. Any suggestions?

I already kinda sorta answered this on the comments. But it stayed on my mind, so I want to go a little farther. I have had horses trip in the front that were simply heavy on the forehand. Almost always it was because they had been consistently ridden with too much rein and not enough leg. They would lean on my hands, and not pay attention to their feet. So I would suggest checking how you're riding her first. Do you need to loosen your reins?
I also emailed mrs mom who writes the horsefeathers blog. She has a lot of interesting insights on feet. Here's what she says:
Six yr old under saddle and tripping:Could be heel pain, BUT... first I would take a look at some side views, comparisons of front legs, and look from the ground up at the feet (make sure the hoof capsule is not way out in front of the horse, like Sonny's tend to be,) and look overall at the conformation of the horse. Most times in tripping, when you add a rider into the equation with hoof capsule that is out of place (ie: too far forward,) you get incidents of tripping. *IF* the horse is built well, and his feet are UNDER him as they should be, and you still have tripping, its time to check balance of the hoof, and for heel pain. I know this is not a whole lot, but just taking a guess is tough. Pictures can help you a LOT with questions like this one, and give you room to advise a bit more. Hope that helps, and this gets through this time!Take care and have a great weekend-Mrs Mom and the Insanity Crew at Command Central

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Hope this helps, I'm gonna go ride, but I'll post again later today. See Ya!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sonita/Chapter 11

My frustration level was through the roof. The Big Kahuna had taken my training ability and turned it into something I didn't think possible. My horses were getting a handle on them that was getting me a good reputation in the small circles I trained in, and I wasn't getting laughed out of the arena when I hung with the big guns. On the surface things couldn't have been better.

There were problems though. When the Big K had told me to learn to train by training Sonita I took his words to heart, as I did everything he said to me. I became obsessed with sorting her out. I knew my lack of knowledge in the sport we were tackling was hurting Sonita's progress. Cowhorse was so overwhelming. The better I got the more difficult it became.

With each leap forward in my understanding, I would see what I had been doing wrong before and want to backtrack to fix things. The Big K was not much of a teacher. He would struggle to answer the questions I asked, and we often ended up in some pretty heated arguments.

"Just get in there and go, you're over thinking this." He had developed this look of pained exasperation that irritated the crap out of me.
"How can I just get in there and go when I don't know where I should sit?"
"In the saddle comes to mind."

The harder the concept was to explain the easier it was to set him off. He was big on repeating a maneuver over and over until I got it right. I strongly felt that if I was doing the maneuver wrong, repetition would only ingrain the problem in me and my horse.

I wanted to break things down to the smallest step, he wanted me to figure it out on the go. Keep in mind most of this was happening at 30 plus miles an hour on my wackadoo Sonita and you can see my point.
Which took me to my next frustration. I was scared. Sonita scared the absolute bejeesus out of me.
I knew I had to let her go, but I was terrified of what she would do to me if I didn't hang on.
The Big K was tired of hitting that wall too.
"If you just let her be all our lives will get better."
"I know, you're right," was all I could come up with.
I could agree with the concept, but I just couldn't physically get there.

After the run down incident I had left The Big K completely demoralized. I was angry with his complete willingness to run my horse in the ground. I was angry with myself for allowing the whole thing to go so far. I was really sick of Sonita.
It was time for a break. I decided if I was going to cow I had to take control of my situation. I had to figure out what was going so wrong, fix it myself, and go back to the Big K when I had some results. I was just mad enough to not call him and tell him I was on hiatus. I won't admit the phrase "Go rot in Hell" crossed my mind, but I won't deny it either.

After a week of simply letting the whole mess simmer in the back of my mind I realized I had two separate issues. I didn't truly have the concept of collection. I had assumed that my fairly extensive background in Western Pleasure had covered that ground for me. I now understood the slow, steady, contained world of a pleasure horse had nothing to do with keeping my maniac in frame at a gallop.
On top of that, the Big K's concept of collection wasn't working for me. Don't get me wrong, it worked for him, I just didn't get it. I realized I had to find something that did work for me and my horse. The Big K could only give me what he had.
The second problem was my fear. I didn't trust my horse. I reached deep and really faced my fear. What was I afraid of?
Sonita was a nut job, but there were reasons I hung in there with her. She didn't buck, (much) rear or bite. She never left me. It might seem funny, but even though she did everything at 150 MPH or so, she never ran away with me. She always came back to me, always. When I was first going down the fence I would sometimes lose my balance on the fence turns. Sonita would check just long enough for me to get my seat back, and off we'd go. Believe me, not all cowhorses will wait for you.
So what was it? It occurred to me I was afraid of her power. She was stronger and faster than any horse I had ever ridden. She was more complex mentally than anything I had trained. I was afraid she was more horse than I could handle. I was afraid I would get killed before I figured her out.

I decided that the fear just had to go. I had to get comfortable with who my horse was. She was never going to trust me enough to become the horse I now understood was in there, unless I had confidence in her. The Big K couldn't teach that. It was between me and Sonita.

I solved the problem in one day. I got up early one morning and loaded up Sonita. I didn't tell anybody where I was going or what I had planned. The mind boggling stupidity of that choice occurs to me now, but at the time I felt it was important.

I hauled to The Garden of the Gods, an absolutely drop dead gorgeous park in Colorado Springs. The Garden is filled with steep rocky trails, beautiful open fields and all kinds of different terrain. There is an 11 mile trail that winds through the park.
Sonita had never been an easy horse to haul. She wasn't happy about being alone either. She had no clue where we were. I had set the whole thing up to stress both of us as much as possible. I knew the loop well and hoped the terrain would slow her down. I unloaded Sonita, saddled her white-eyed little self, checked my watch, threw out my reins and hit the trails. I swore I wouldn't pull back, not once.

The trail began through a popular off leash dog park. I never had to worry about dogs with Sonita. I'd turn her on over-zealous dogs and she'd work them like a cow. I had no doubt she would kill a dog that attacked her, and for some reason the dogs all seemed to pick right up on that.
She started off at a high trot, her head slung in the air and her ears rapid firing back and forth. Within 50 feet she was loping. I settled deep in my seat, ignored my flip-flopping stomach and hooked the thumb of my rein hand around my horn and wrapped my fingers in a death grip on the fork of my saddle. I was NOT going to pull on my reins.
Sonita flicked her ears again, waiting for some kind of cue from me.
"If you want to go, go on," I said.
Sonita thought my barely audible squeak was good enough, she didn't get that kind of encouragement from me very often.
The field opened in front of us and she flew. We were running as fast as I ever had and there was no slide stop coming to slow us down. Sonita flicked her ear back at me again.
I realized she was asking if I wanted more.
Two thoughts hit me.
"My God, there's more?" and "My God, she's asking?"
Before I could process either thought I realized the cross walk for the main entrance to the park was coming up really quick.
"Oh shit!"
I exhaled, thought maybe I could pull just one time, and big surprise, Sonita stopped.
No, she wasn't turning into Wonder Girl. I had forgotten she was terrified of pavement. And white lines at crosswalks.
So many minutes later, we got across the death pavement and were on our way.
Sonita was sure footed and solid. I had always known that. Luckily, we had several miles to go before the next open space. She quickly decided that sliders and gravel loaded rocky trails took a little negotiation. We took the trails at an extend trot. When she began to trust I wouldn't pull back she began to leap up the embankments and lope on the flats. I stayed out of it, only interfering to steer.
As the trails disappeared behind us and the scrub oak whipped by, Sonita began to respond to me. She realized I was simply steering, not pulling, and she began to relinquish some of the battle for control. She became willing to slow down off my seat. I only asked her to slow in order to air up, or because the trail was getting freaky. She began to accept my judgement.
I began to appreciate the sense she used in negotiating the rugged terrain. As she calmed down Sonita began to pick the gait that suited the trail. She was never wrong. When she began to pick up speed it was always because it was a safe place to do so. I began to relax, and my body tuned into her rhythm. I became secure in my seat and as the tension left me I stayed in the middle of my horse. We were both having fun.
We came around the back of the Garden and a long open field spread in front of us. The trail climbed a gentle slope for about a quarter of a mile. Sonita was hot and tired. But there was none of the thick ropey nervous foam that usually covered her.
She began to speed up, again her ears flicked back to me.
I took a deep breath. "Go ahead," I said.
She flattened out and went. My eyes streaming, I realized we were going faster than I ever been before. She flicked her ear again. I couldn't believe she had more. And she was asking. I could feel it. "Wanna fly?" Sonita waited.
I slid my rein hand up her neck and she went.
We blew up that field. It was un-effing-believable. The first strides were rough and wild, she had never packed a rider at that speed. She quickly found her balance and we went like a dart, straight and true.
I put a leg on her and gently put a rein on one side of her neck, she swooped across the field like a hawk on a mouse, never a stumble or hesitation. I switched my leg and rein and we glided the other way. I sat up, dropped my reins and threw my arms back. Sonita stayed steady and guided with the softest touch of my leg. I couldn't help myself, I hollered in my best cowboy fashion as we raced from side to side through the field.
We crested the hill and Sonita slowed to a walk. She stayed in the walk, peaceful and quiet the rest of the way to the trailer. I checked my watch. In 54 minutes we had covered 11 miles. In 54 minutes we had started a partnership that lasted for years.