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.


  1. I love the Mort stories! Thank you for sharing!
    I asked you for advice a few weeks ago on turning my green horse. He has been out due to injury for about 20 days and I just started back on him. I started to realize that the best way to turn him was to look where I wanted to go and he would go. This was only working for shallow turns so I tried a full cheek snaffle on him and it is like a whole new horse! I use my eyes and body for steering and the direct rein/full cheek opposition from the bit helps to reinforce my cues and get them a lot faster!
    Thanks and keep writing!

  2. I am a big fan of snaffles. I personally use an O-ring, but that's just me. All of my horses (even those in the full bridle) ride well in a snaffle.
    Did I answer your question? If I forgot remind me, I try to get to them all, really.

  3. Oh, and good for you for figuring things out!

  4. I have a vigilant mare sort of Sonita-like. She has loaded into larger trailers before I owned her but I need for her to get in a small two horse straight load. She will put her head inside but nothing else. Any trailer loading suggestions?

  5. Awesome.

    I tried some spooking suggestions and I'll be damned if I didn't have a good ride today IN THE WIND. Indigo is usually looking for any excuse to spook in the wind. Someone was hunting back in the bush and let off a shot that nearly deafened me but Indigo didn't even bat a lash. We did a lot of circles next to scary things she was looking at and she didn't even offer to jump ahead in a spook.

  6. another chapter of a great story. Mort must have been a happy guy when you started learning all of that stuff.

    I totally used to try and breeze my horse (pony). I loved the black stallion books! My 14hh appy/welsh pony cross mare was no speed demon, but both of us would love the feel of burning through the cornfields. At least she was black, I had that part right! :-)

  7. I love your stories.

    I learned to do small pull and releases, R calls them "touches" or "bumps", in the cart. All this is the secret to speed control, cadence and steering of the country pleasure driving horse. It's how I rated my hyped up buggy horse. I "touch" in time with the right front foot, double time bumps with a slight emphasis in the turning rein for turns. Instant release when he responds to my commands.

  8. Another great chapter in Mort's story. I can "see" what you type. It's awesomeness! I just put my horse back in an o ring snaffle. (little butt head bucked me off a month ago, must be feeling really good). My trainer said put him in the snaffle and work on my brakes. He's more attentive, and he gets that big ass underneath him once again when he stops. Loping takes off the edge and no more buckums for us. I hate bucking.

  9. Woohoo!

    I, being an english rider, am very fond of plain smooth snaffles. I hope I can always ride in one for all three phases -- I know many people switch to something a little sharper for XC because their horses just get too excited. We'll see.

    Mugs, I keep trying to think of a training question for you and I just can't come up with one. I'm kind of at a point where I know what I need to do to fix the problems I'm having, and I just need to DO it.

    I promise I will find a good one eventually, though.

  10. Great story. I agree with you that you're lucky you weren't killed. That "parking" Mort by turning him into rough country....oh, and bareback??!? I can't imagine doing anything like that even in my much rougher and tougher younger years. I can see where it would long as you didn't die trying. I think I'd add another "don't try this at home" warning. Or at least don't try it until you're sure you can handle it. That takes someone who can really ride.

  11. Well, no wonder you were so drawn to Sonita. Sounds like they were kindred spirits.

  12. I've been reading your horse stories out loud to my room mate. And she has to stop me every five seconds because he recognizes a name or a place. She's from Springs area.

  13. Yeap. Feel your pain. My first little POA/Welsh pony was a run away. Couldn't stop the little bugger for anything, so I found a spot that was kinda straight and kinda flat and really long and let him loose.

    He was also fat, so that worked to my advantage sice he would get tired much faster than if he were fit. LOL!

  14. texasmissy-I'll put you in a post
    jhatchett-please keep writing about driving, I know there are a few of you out there and I would love to learn more about it.
    laura crum- of course it was crazy! Haven't you guys figured out I was as wild as my horse? I'll tell you though, all that bareback riding taught me to find my center, way before I knew I was supposed to.These are not training tips, just an idea what happens when parents don't know what their kids are up to!
    sos- The first time my mother saw Sonita (she is a very non horse person) she said, "Oh Janet, she's a girl Mort,"

  15. Such a great story!

    We had a runaway TB mare years ago that we got cheap. I decided to ride her in a sidepull, reasoning that if the mouth was gone, we would use the nose. Everybody thought I was insane but it worked great. We found out later she'd had a broken jaw from being pulled on that hard. No wonder she responded better in the sidepull!

    I miss being young, I rode my crazy first horse everywhere in a halter and two lead ropes, too. He spun and bolted all the time. I laughed. Youth is wasted on the young...

  16. Texasmissy - My best trick: Load her pasture buddy first. Even if you have to load it, load her and then take it out because it's not going where you're going, that works on some of the hardest cases I've had to deal with. They see that the scary 2 horse did not eat their buddy and it encourages them to give it a try.

  17. I rode my hard mouthed first pony in a fulmer snaffle, the steering definitely helped. We then were able to downgrade to a sweet iron or a happy mouth/nathe loose ring which actually made him mouth the bit and be much more willing to soften. I've also had success with a filet baucher - hanging snaffle, with a plate middle, not just a nutcracker joint, which just gives a bit more leverage and steering.

    youth isn't wasted on ALL youngsters!

  18. following on from that: it's just a shame not all children get a pony they need to figure outwhen they're young. There're too many push button ponies out there, in jumping and showing circles, where all the hard work's been done, and little darling can just get on and start winning, regardless of their ability. Maybe cause I never had one, I feel resentful, but whilst maybe at times i'd have loved a schoolmaster - anything other than being bolted with or eliminated at a water jump AGAIN - I learnt and enjoyed so much more for not being given a perfect pony. It's much more fun to do it yourself :)

  19. You mean you don't drive mugs?! You should it's very refreshing.

    I've taken horses from every riding background imaginable: ottb, reining horses, cow horses, dressage, jumpers you name it I've trained them and driven them. I find that horses that had very little go or breaks riding get a new lease on being worked and have a really good gas pedal and breaks when I am done with them.
    The funniest was the reining horse. I had to be careful about how I said woah. We got a pretty dramatic stop a time or two from that mare. She went on to drive in Qh shows and racked up quite the few points.
    My friends TB/cross has a few back problems. When the saddle is on and weight is placed in it it really hurts her something bad so she can't really be ridden. She had herself adjusted and the vet said she would be pasture sound if best. A year later shes driving and has a new purpose.

  20. Mugs - You know it is ok to love the horses with a few screws loose. Those are really my favorite to work with because they are such puzzles. The rehab horses that I work with are most always more than a little spazztastic.

    In the end I learn more about patience and how to be a better horseperson from those horses; and they learn that not all people are bad, horse eating manics, with steel hands.

  21. soshorses-
    That is so true. It is the tough ones we learn from. I am learning a TON from my new Arab gelding. He has taught me about pulling back, rearing, not wanting to be tied... generally not wanting to be confined and reacting with rearing/flipping. I have really had to work hard with him. I think our next biggie will be trailer loading, as he is so claustrophobic. He has been trailered twice since I got him and both were terrifying for both of us. Anyone ever seen a horse TURN AROUND in a two horse straight load? Not a pretty picture.
    I am rambling, but the point is that these horses have so much to teach. You learn that everything is a process and that every situation must be approached with an open mind and new way.

  22. Mugwump,
    Yes, you did give advice on Sabumi's turning issues. I had been relying on the rein cues followed by my legs. You suggested reversing that. He is still figuring out that I have legs and what they mean, but things are much better since I have started using body control and then direct rein cues. I switched from an egg butt snaffle to a copper mouth full cheek.

  23. I rode bareback non-stop through my teens, and I agree with you, it gives you a good seat like nothing else can. In my twenties and thirties I could still look pretty graceful riding my horses bareback, but I fear those days are gone.

  24. Here here Laura Crum-It would take several Margaritas to talk me into riding bareback these days.

  25. Heather,

    Try working with him on a lunge making him pass between you and a solid object like a wall or the arena fence. Get him to walk between you and the object without rushing. Progress from a wide opening (like 10 ft) down to just enough room between you and the wall for him to walk, he should become less and less concerned about the tight spaces. Then when you get ready to load him he won't worry about the walls as much. Also, you can make the step up into the trailer lower by parking the trailer in front of a rise. This way when he has to back off the trailer, the step down isn't so scary. He won't feel like he is backing off a cliff. After one or two times he will feel more confident that the ground will be there and he doesn't have to freak out about it.

  26. You know what, mugwump, I take that back. I haven't ridden bareback in a year, but a couple of years ago when my son had his pony, Toby, I rode that thirteen hand critter bareback all the time. Toby could pack a 5 foot 2 adult no problem, and he tended to need regular schooling rides. He was easy to get on from the ground (thank God) and my saddle didn't fit him so I rode him bareback. Fortunately he had a flat back and smooth gaits. Now that I think about it, it was great fun to lope him up our long hill and around the ring bareback. Really brought back my lost youth. But hey, all I was doing was schooling a kid's pony. For anything more than that, I'd be on the margarita incentive program, too.

  27. Ahhh run aways.... I had one whos 'owner' rode him in a twisted wire gag and couldnt stop him. His trick was to run for the fences and jump them full out intill you either fell off or chose to get off.

    I rode him in a 50 acre hay field and let him run... you could stear him just no stop... so if you saw the fence comming and did a turn you were ok but if you just pulled back.... Anyways eventuly you could ride him in a snaffle with no contact and do just fine. but he would just run though contact.

  28. I used to feel kinda ripped off in my youth, because I always got the green/ half broke/ unruly/ half dead horses, and had to learn everything the hard way.

    I'd hear of these kids who somehow managed to get good horses and just feel so jealous... they didn't have to work as hard as I did just to go for a ride, they didn't hit the dirt as much as I did, blah blah blah.

    It took me a few years to get the difference. Some kids like horses. Some can get thrown over and over by the most naughty horses and still go back for more. It wouldn't have changed a thing if I'd had "good" horses back then. I loved the ones I had!

    I have a LOT of bad riding habits built up over my life but at least now I know how much I have to learn. I'll never run out!

    I love hearing about Mort, because that naughty little horse set you up for the challenges you'd face later on. I also love your descriptions of getting the feel for riding. I'm still working on that. Just this year I've been trying to figure out where my horses legs are when I'm on his back. I'm finally not just hanging on for dear life anymore!

  29. >>Here here Laura Crum-It would take several Margaritas to talk me into riding bareback these days<<

    Come ride the VLC bareback. I will buy the margaritas. :-)

    He's so easy, you couldn't even fall off of him drunk. He'd probably catch you with his nose, he's such a sweetheart.

    I will ride him bareback, but not the crazy ones anymore!

  30. I used to request the difficult horses for my lessons. I learned a lot about communicating with each one - and, of course, my lessons were more challenging mentally and often, physically. But, they were also extremely rewarding when I had a breakthrough moment.

  31. Mugs, Big R used to do dressage, first level, schooling at second level. He had to stop because his back was so bad. He had always used cart pulling as a way to help build up a horses hind end and teach them to use it rather than their forehand. It was nice because it wasn't quite as tiring as riding, and maybe a little faster to build muscle. Anyway, he switched to cart full time and he trains mini's all the way to draft horses to go in the cart. (A paired set of minis might be the cutest thing in the world, btw.)

    Anyway, if an old "farmer" (thats how he thinks of himself) with a bad back can do it you definitely could.

    You might like the gambler's choice competitions. There are a bunch of obstacles worth so many points each, you get two minutes to get as many points as you can. So you can be flying around cones or barrels, driving and putting a wheel through a two inch (or less) channel without touching the sides, all sorts of fun stuff.