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.


  1. Nice way to start a Thursday morning, mugwump. Thanks for that.

    Out of curiosity, how's Sonita doing now that you're retired from full-time training?

    Sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime horse.

  2. Can't tell. The story isn't over.

  3. Hi, long time reader, first time poster! Love your stories, but is is ever torture to wait for the next installment!!

    Keep 'em coming!!

  4. Wow. What a way to face your fear AND figure out your horse. There are some horses who happily let us direct their lives...then there are those like Sonita who won't give up their independence willingly. And those are the ones I prefer to have as a partner.

  5. Jamie C. said...

    Hi, long time reader, first time poster! Love your stories, but is is ever torture to wait for the next installment!!

    Keep 'em coming!!

    What she said!!!! LOL

  6. Wow, I gotta tell you. Having always lived in the suburban Midwest, I've always envied people with enough space to just let their horses go. There were several I've ridden that could benefit from a ride like that.

    Geez. I'm ready to go for a ride now! Thanks for that!

  7. Beautiful story. I have many trust issues myself with my horse so reading how you overcame yours gave me chills. Can't wait to read more!

  8. Oh Mugwump, this rings so true for me. So much of my journey with Bailey was so personal like that -- eventually, things came to the point that we needed to figure each other out. Just me and my horse on our own.

    I love reading this story.

  9. How old were YOU at this point? lol I can do so much with my crazy girl, but I don't know about being able to just hang on for the ride and let my horse make the decisions. I don't think she'd make bad ones, but I'm starting to be to the point where I think to myself, don't let anything happen to get hurt so that hinders things.

  10. How old were YOU at this point? lol I can do so much with my crazy girl, but I don't know about being able to just hang on for the ride and let my horse make the decisions. I don't think she'd make bad ones, but I'm starting to be to the point where I think to myself, don't let anything happen to get hurt so that hinders things.

  11. I admire your guts to just let go!!

    I'm not sure that I will be able to overcome my fear of just letting go and see what happens.

    It seams like if I don't have constant contact with the bit, he gets more nervous and starts to chew on the bit. Not sure if I will ever be able to just throw my reins away.

  12. Wow. What a thrill! That seems to be one of my biggest problems, being a perfectionist, is giving Blue room to breathe.
    Though, recently I did have to just push through the fear when we knocked the fences up a couple holes and did a course. The adrenaline is an amazing thing, but the sense of accomplishment is even better!

  13. I second the wow. What a great story. She was/is quite a horse. Its not all of them that could have done that--or would have done that. I've known some not so sure-footed, and some who would have relished the freedom to buck a little. Maybe you should add a "don't try this at home with your own little Sonita until you're truly ready" type warning. But what a way to confront your fears. Wonderful description of the conflict with Big K, as well--you show his stengths and weaknesses so that we can understand him--not an easy thing to do. You are an incredible writer. Really.

  14. Wow, best Sonita post by far!

    I had a moment like this though at the time I did not know what to make of it. You worded it so very well.

    Reading your posts makes me feel no so alone to be always riding the horses in hyperdrive wile everyone else plods around on ol trail plugs.

  15. What a great story! Ive got a little Sonita of my own and we had a very similar experince about a month ago. We were on a trail ride (to try to relax!)and my friends horse bolted. Never has before, never has since. Rather than blindly following, my little horse and I that usually argue every step of the way about slowing down, put his ear back and waited for me to give the OK. I could have jumped off and hugged him.

  16. I miss galloping the jumpers... thanks for bringing it back ;)

  17. "...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..."

    I had a similar moment with my mare, when she was MUCH younger (she's 27 now).
    I rarely had an opportunity to really let her loose. A decent stretch of good ground is hard to find.
    One day Kimfer & I were out riding and we found the perfect spot. We decided to run the horses, not lope, RUN.
    When Cessa realized that she could go as fast as she wanted she ran, the wind she created caused my eyes to stream. Then she noticed that she wasn't being asked to slow anytime and started that ear flicking. I just kept creeping my hand up her neck.
    When the end of the good ground was approaching I sat back, deep, in the seat and brought my hand back and she came right down.
    I was ecstatic... the thought of opening her up was a bit of a fear issue for me, she is an OTTB.
    That was one of the best moments, so far, in our 14 years together, knowing that we could trust each other.

  18. Stunning. I felt the wind.

    (If I wasn't on meds I think my eyes'd be streaming too.)

  19. Ah..
    You are back..writing is crisp. Clear..and just , well, terrific.
    Hang in with the new job and reach back to this blog. I am sure you can see by the comments, why.
    Well done. really enjoyed it.
    jane in virginia

  20. Oh, and I can so relate to the painted lines on pavement issue. The first time I tried to cross the busy road in front of my property to get to the trails, Plumber stopped right in the middle, unwilling to step over those awful white lines. We got across eventually (unscathed), but I sure felt stupid, stalled out like a sitting duck in the center lane on a boogery horse.

  21. The first time my pony seen them he insisted they were poles and jumped them for like a week. Not such a good thing when you are in a cart behind him lol!

  22. I third the WOW. You brought tears to my eyes. I want that too.

  23. I read all your posts, but I don't comment very often. I had a day like that with my big blue horse--I had to go with my husband to help him gather some *WILD* cattle at his uncle's place...think BIG rocks, STEEP creek banks that drop off 7 or 8 feet, lots of hills and gullies! I'm talking it get's western-if you aren't ready to sit in the middle and ride, you better stay at the pens on the top of the hill. Long story short, I was intimidated by this horse, he was 6 at the time, and full of life! LOL I hadn't rode much since I'd got married and had a baby, and was SCARED TO DEATH when I buckled my chinks that morning... I had to get over it pretty quick, lol, we had to turn 30 head of pissed off mama cows to keep them from getting to the creek! That was the day I got my groove back, and haven't looked back since.

  24. I remember bailing off the side of a hill to help my husband turn a *blind* calf, thinking "Man from Snowy River eat your heart out!"

  25. While I have enjoyed each installment, this is the first one that actually made me tear up.

  26. You are an amazing writer. I never thought this story would be so amazing. I can't wait to see where this story goes.

  27. First of all, this is an amazing story. As you write I can't help but wonder if I know the place you are talking about, and I think I might. I live in Colorado as well. If you don't mind me asking does the place you are talking about involve camels?

  28. jenn-to be honest, at this point in my life I like my horses to have a more compliant nature, what can I say?
    littlerunhard-Sonita was 5
    ezra-pandora-I was in my mid 40's
    rhinestone-same rush-different saddle
    laura crum-you do have a point. I would never reccomend this as a training method. I was trying to raise myself to the Big K's standard, and learn to ride Sonita flat out. My job in cowhorse competition was to be able to think wide open. That finally got me there. Of course I don't necessarily reccomend cowhorse as a hobby either.
    cdncowgirl-I think the big realization for me was that my perception of out of control and Sonita's were totally opposite. She was easy to manage when she ran, I lost control when my hands and legs did too much, or didn't make sense. Plus, it was really, really fun to run on Sonita.
    jane in virginia-I feel a descriptive paragraph coming on, you might want to skip the next installment
    laura and sydney-my yellow mare jumps telephone pole shadows...go figure
    barrelracer20x-you completely heard me. Isn't life grand?
    harlequinwings-yes, Garden of the Gods, you're thinking of Kissing Camels rock formation, which I have never understood, they look like kissing guinea pigs!

  29. What an amazing horse your Sonita was/is. I loved this installment so much. I've had very few of those flat out run moments. Breathtaking they are! (Your stories make me miss Colorado so much. I want to move back there. So much better than fake plastika california)

  30. Oh ya, heard ya loud and clear!
    By the time we got done that afternoon, the insides of my legs were numb from literally clinging to my saddle-I was afraid my husband was going to have to help me off, lol. Me and ol Smoke (the horse I was riding that day) get along famously now. He's got to where he's kind of a one woman horse-I love it!

  31. WOW!

    That brought tears to my eyes. I agree with a poster above.. I want that!

  32. I could cry that was so awesome.

    I've never had the ...nerve or the freedom to let a horse go like that. I felt like I was just there.

    I can't wait to ride this weekend!

  33. I agree with everyone here Mugs. I'm hoping to be able to find that with my new horse eventually.

    (I went early and I brought home the Zippo bred gelding we discussed on another blog. He's wonderful and just about everything I was looking for. If you took the VTA's personality and put it in a quarter horse, that's my Casey. Thanks for all the discussion about horse buying. It restored my confidence in myself.)

  34. Another first time poster longtime reader. YOU GO, GIRL! Wish I could do that. No space here. :( Wonderful writing and congrats on the new job - you deserve it!

  35. Wow. And wow again. I hope that one day I will have the nerve to do something similar. Although my horse might go: "You want me to what?"

    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?

  36. Incredible job here Mugs. Just incredible. I can't help but hope that this is the start of a very long writing career for you, and that one day, all of us who read here, can look back at this blog and say, "We knew Mugs then!"

    You have given so many of us information, and a desire to learn more, ride more, and BE more for our horses. You have helped a lot of us realize that we are never too old to learn those skills. And I suspect you have been an inspiration for quite a few folks too.

    Keep them coming Mugs, and know that you have a crowd of folks here, eagerly awaiting the next installment!

    Oh- by the way- did that email get through OK the second time? I don't know what is up with that...

  37. Wow...this is great! I had been thinking my mare was starting to ask for things, and now I am clear. I rode her today, and the gate was open, and she asked if she could go out by taking a small half-step towards it and flicking her ears (of course, we went out..there is only about 300 feet to the main road, but we rode in my yard next to it..and she got used to the trucks/cars flying by).

    I really love your knowledge and how you impart easy to take what you tell and bring it to our situations!

    So, I just got very lucky...I am boarding a retire (20-something) schoolmaster hunter/jumper and probably 1st level dressage 17 hand!! Warmblood. He's been shown for the last 10 years straight, took 2 kids and a woman to championships, and is now burned out. He's here because (get this, sometimes owners do the right thing!) he's so arthritic he can't jump anymore (you should see the lumps and bumps on his legs), and I am going to just do light riding and learning from him, and in exchange he stays here for cheap (I am not a stable, just had an extra stall and it worked out for all involved). He was leased out, and the owner saw him at a show, and was appalled by his condition, so yanked him and he's now here to get fat and chill. I rode him today for a few minutes, and I *am* so lucky to have this big guy to learn from...I am off balance due to being dumped by my mare two weeks ago and wacking my head hard on the ground (Yes, had on a Helmet!) and probably had a mild concussion, and hip brusing, and it was so nice to have him adjust to my clumsyness (my mare is not there yet..she just slows down to compensate).

    His only vice is that when you saddle him, he bites the air, the crossties, and has gotten the fool person who gets to close. We will work on that...but with kindness instead of harshness, as I think it's pain related (you can't brush where they spurred him it's so tender). He's quite dramatic, but stops when he sees I am just standing and watching him. I'll have to figure him out...but one thing I have been told is that he's never actually had anyone who *likes* him...he's always been just used for his talent, and never allowed to be a horse. He now gets at least 12 hours of turnout, and will be with my mare as his companion, and I think that alone will help with his attitude (plus I will not be working him hard at all, so he will learn riding can be easy and fun, too). Of course, any advice will help with this :)

    Funniest thing is that he is marked almost exactly like my 17 hands and one barely 33 inches..that is a photo shoot in itself! Mini-paint and Maxi-paint!!!

  38. be politically correct...

    Mini-pinto and Maxi-pinto!!!

  39. wowzers!

    i read this a few days ago but haven't had the opportunity to comment until now. trust is my issue as well, and the faster i'm going, the less control my legs seem to have so i'm constantly sucking back.

    once, a long time ago when i still had the nerve, i had the chance of letting my racing bred App mare loose on a racetrack (designed for trotters, but it worked) and it took my breath away. i didn't push her to the limit, but we were going pretty damn fast and i knew there was more in her.

  40. Nice post! Was just at Garden of the Gods last weekend with my sister. I love that place, too bad it's so far from home to haul my own horse.