Sunday, November 2, 2008


I have always loved this shot. If you look close you can see the tip of the cow's nose right below Sonita's breast collar. The heifer's tail is curled right above hers. Sonita's next step is to turn the cow into the fence.

When the Colorado sun sets in June it gets cold. Even if it was 80+ degrees just a few short hours before. The arena lights shone through the silhouettes of cattle milling in the dust. Sonita snorted and pinned her ears as we rode by, baring her teeth at the restless heifers.
She was in a good mood. The cool evening breeze and a full belly had helped her shake off the heavy workout we had sweated our way through earlier in the day.
We were about two hours away from our go at the Sagebrush Slide and Cowhorse Classic. The biggest NRCHA show we had entered to date. We were entered in the Limited Open Bridle class. Which means that our class was closed to open (pro) riders that had earned over $10,000. No problem for Sonita and I. We had yet to break $250. That left plenty of open riders to compete with. Plenty.
I was my usual jittery pre-show self. I headed to the warm-up arena to begin the ridiculously long warm up Sonita required in order to wrestle her into the show pen. I started out with my usual twenty circles each way. I kept my reins relaxed for the first ten or so, letting her snort and play as her muscles began to relax. Sonita shook her head and let loose with a series of gentle bucks. I called them her dolphin bucks. It was always a good sign when she was willing to goof at a show. It meant she was looking forward to the ride.
When we had loped long enough to get a good sweat started I brought her down to a walk and wandered over to the show pen to watch a few rides. She stood with her head slung high in the air watching the action over the arena fence. When the gate opened and the cow ran into the arena, Sonitas nostrils whiffled. She stayed frozen, her white ringed eyes wide, watching the fence run. She was stone until the whistle blew. Then she started to paw the ground and the roller in her bit clattered until foam dripped to the ground.
The Big K rode up next to us.
"She wants to cow tonight," he said.
"Maybe," was the best I could come up with.
The Big K stretched his arms over his head and flashed his two beer grin at me.
"Are you going to have fun out there or are you going to waste this fine night in a fret?"
"I'll do my best."
He could charm when he wanted.
"To show I mean, not fret."
I shook my head and went back to go lope some more.
I had finally learned how to warm up my horse. That afternoon I had schooled her stops and spins. I had bent and limbered her, checked her rate and speed transitions and made sure every part of her was physically and mentally ready to go.
Then I had given her a bath and settled her in a clean stall deep with shavings. I filled her two yellow buckets with fresh water and a splash of Mountain Dew. The yellow because she wouldn't drink unless she could see the bottom of her bucket, the Mountain Dew because she didn't like the taste of the water in Pueblo. I piled as much clean hay as I thought she might amuse herself with and let her be until it was time to get ready for our class.
When I saddled her I groomed her from head to toe. Checked her feet and felt her legs for heat, probably the 100th time that day. I went over my pad, feeling for burrs. I checked my rigging, my bridle, my romels. I cinched her loose and put on her boots, my nervous fingers fumbling with the velcro. Sonita boogered my hair as I bent over her forelegs, guaranteeing I would look like a total hooligan in the arena.
I tightened my cinch. Then we loped. Loped until she was winded and would stand quiet to air up. Then we loped some more, I asked her to go into the bridle, hold it for a few strides and let her go. We would watch the show for a few minutes and lope again when Sonita got restless. The Big K let me be, at this point in the game I was just another competitor and he had his own horses to ride.
My class began. I was draw six. I got down, put on my chaps and fought down the panic when my zipper stuck. I put on her skid boots, tightened my cinch again and got on. My stomach was in knots, my legs began to quiver and I felt Sonita tighten. She kicked out at the skid boots, once twice and then settled.
We walked out to the arena. We were in the hole. I sat with my arms crossed and breathed. I relaxed my legs. Sonita rolled her bit in a frenzy, but her legs were still.
"Draw six, you're up," the gate man called. He smiled as we walked in, I realized I must look like I was about to barf on my saddle.
The gate closed behind us and my stomach settled. Our pattern was a run in.We would run down the center of the arena, slide stop at the end, spin two and a half times, settle briefly and come the other way. I hoped.
I didn't make Sonita wait. It was never wise to ask her to hold still too long when we were showing. When she began her rundown I knew we were going to be fine. She took off with a confident, even stride. When I put my legs on her and raised my hand she came to the bridle and began to build her speed into the stop.
Our stop was solid, she whipped through her spins.
I took a breath. Sonita's head was high, she was feeling nervy. I willed her with everything I had to step out at a walk. She took one step, two and I was able to re-collect her for her lope depart. She got a little fast on our second rundown. I let it go, hoping she wouldn't sling her head when she stopped.
"Whoa!" I snapped.
She slammed into the ground, short and hard like a roper. I resigned myself to a -1 on that stop, knowing I had earned it by barking at her.
"Let it go and get on with it."
I heard the Big K holler. He was right. I let her step into her spins and made myself relax into my saddle.
Our last stop and back went fine, a little fast, a little crooked, but better than I had hoped.
I picked my head up and Sonita and I stared at the judges together. She loped off quiet.
Sonita kept her focus through her circles, stayed in the bridle for the most part and only lagged a half step through one lead change.
My heart started to lift, for us to only pull a half point penalty through our circles was about a miracle.
We squared off around the end of the pen for our last run down and Sonita rated like a champ. She lined out for the final stop and we were golden.
Not bad, not bad at all.
We sat in the middle of the arena, waiting for our cow. I went through my nervous ritual. I pushed up my glasses, settled deep into my saddle and shoved my feet further into my stirrups.
I could feel Sonita's back muscles quiver through my saddle as she stood mesmerized, waiting for the gait to swing open.
I waved at the gate man and he opened the gate.
Our cow blew out, tail high.
Good, Sonita liked them gnarly.
I sent her forward at a fast trot. She homed in on the heifers head, her own head beginning to drop and her ears flattened.
The cow feinted to the left and Sonita went with it, driving it across the pen. The cow began to run, I sat back and let my mare go. She stepped past and turned it back across the pen. The cow pushed towards us, trying to get by to head to the safety of the holding pen behind us. Sonita crouched low on her front legs and cut back and forth, holding the dodging cow in position.
The cow broke and returned to the back fence .
I put Sonita on the cow's hip and we drove her through the corner and down the long side of the arena.
The cow ran, thinking it had found an escape from my raging horse. Sonita was with it stride for stride. My hand was forward, she was in total control of the show. We ran the length of the arena, I asked Sonita to step by the cow five strides before the penalty marker.
She slammed in front of the cow, cutting off it's retreat and sending it down the fence the other way. We were flying, we were working in complete sync, I yipped out of pure excitement. The judges, the Big K, everything faded into the beautiful night . Nothing mattered except pushing that cow off the fence and circling her to the left, to the right, never wanting to quit. When the judges whistle blew Sonita slowed, knowing we were done. Then she surged forward again, unwilling to give up the beautiful game. I sat back and let her take one more turn.
We won that night. I knew it when we circled our cow. I knew when I saw the Big K's grin. I knew it when Sonita strutted out of the arena, cool, calm and about as happy as I was.


  1. Wow. I could tell from reading the warmup that you had atleast for the most part figured her out and were going to start smokin' your competition.

    Mugs- We REALLY need more Sonita/Mort/Training stories more often! It's killing me! I eat chocolate more often than new readings! And chocolate is my "Special" food!

  2. I love your stories. The patterns you do before the cow comes in, is that the Western equivalent of dressage?

  3. Wow.

    I got the feeling this was going to be a story of success, powerful and controlled. I look forward to what comes next.

  4. Awesome Mugs. Everything just clicked and for once, it was beautiful. I was there with you, or so it seemed.



  5. BEAUTIFUL - love Sonita stories she's so exciting!

  6. WOW!! I love it, I just LOVE IT. Oh what I would give to ride like that! It really must feel like flying.

    Janet, I envy you very much.

  7. :D Good way to start my week.

    Actually had a good weekend riding too. My trainer was having the week from hell so I told her we were okay for another week. We were actually way more than okay. I decided out to be more comfy on the trails trotting/cantering I need to go ride him in the big fields - they're are fenced so there's that little comfort but while I know the footing is safe, it's defitely not 'arena perfect'. There is room to let him go (the ring is pretty small). I let him get fast and only slowed him with my seat and turning. I never wanted to throw up on his neck. The deer were out and moving and we didn't care. We're going to do more of this for awhile. It was the perfect interum.

    I had a blast and he had fun too. I thought you might like to know I felt like I had a little victory with my own nerves, which I had asked for help with. :)

  8. heila-The dressage folk get their hackles up when we compare our patterns to theirs. The reining and cowhorse patterns are made up of maneuvers we would use working a cow. Fancier of course, but essentially an emulation of the dance between horse, rider and cow.
    Autumnblaze- good for you.It was fun wasn't it?

  9. God, you're an awesome writer.

    I was so stressed out as you were getting ready to show... you really put your feelings across to the reader.

  10. Awesome mugs, write another please? Soon!

    What about a spin? What on earth would a spin be used for? Whirl around in circles and confuse the hell out of the cow? No seriously I never thought of that before and I have ridden many a reiner.

  11. c'mon Sydney, you know as well as I do some things happen just because they're cool.

  12. mugs - Absolutely! Oh and by the way this was a great Sonita installment. I should have said more about it. :) And thanks for your thoughts, your readers thoughts and giving me a place to vent a little.

  13. Wow--that was fun. Took me right back to my showing days, which are about twenty years in the past. Only I was never that good.

    I have one little point for you--just for fun. That short hard stop..."like a roper". Actually, though some rope horses do stop like this, we tended to train ours to do what I call a "shuffle stop", sort of melt into the ground and shuffle their back feet down, rather than slide or park it. It worked out a lot better, overall. Easier on horse, cow and rider. Of course, we were all a bunch of jackpot ropers, not competing in the big time...not at rodeos, where you really need to be quick. Consistency over the average was the goal.

    Yes, couldn't you write a Sonita/Mort story a day? You know we want/need a fix. (Just kidding--I for sure know what it takes to turn those out. They're beautifully written.) Good more than one way.

  14. I am a dressage rider and I must say that your "cowhorse" patterns scare the crap out of me. Dressage may do fancy foot work, but cowhorse patterns definitely have the "need for speed" on their side.

    One thing that never changes regardless of the riding style, "The harmony between horse and rider". When you achieve that, everyday becomes a success story on horseback.

  15. I'd love to see two separate books from you, one about Mort and one about Sonita, so I could read their stories from beginning to end. Another great chapter. Like some others said, you have such a way with expressing what you were feeling at the time. i love your stories!

  16. Oh well, I'm a beginner dressage rider so I still have an open mind!

  17. Oh, and great photo. Sonita's expression (and your posture) are so expressive. I bet it was a wonderful turn.

  18. ANOTHER great Sonita installment.. Brings goosebumps to my body! I cant wait until I can actually write of MY experience with my version of "sonita!"

  19. Well actually I'm a dressage rider and I hardly think I'm arrogant enough to get my hackles up comparing that to dressage, thanks. I find it very similar, essentially, and I've always wanted to try it.

    I love reading your stories; keep up the great work.

  20. That was great to read. I was totally there with you!

    Your stories do make me want a cow horse...too bad I'm at capacity!

  21. I just spent the last two weeks reading your blog from the beginning! I'm HOOKED!

    Reading your posts, and your answers to questions, gave me a new perspective on how I want to ride my horses! It also made we wish you were still training, I lived closer, and I had the money to pay for it. *sigh*

    I was inspired to climb on my fat, out of shape, ADD appy mare and goof off in the arena. She was finished out as a WP horse when I bought, and though I've ruined her for THAT discipline, she still remembers the basics. She moves wonderfully off my leg and seat and we had a blast!

    I would LOVE to put her on cows. Her sire competed in cutting in Texas. However, she afraid of cows.. Just my luck!

  22. Some of the best cow horses are the ones that are afraid. Although the easiest to train are the ones who go right to them, if you take your time and let a fearful horse find out they can control a cow, they are often the best. It's the indifferent ones I'd rather not mess with.

  23. I don't even know if I should admit this...

    The closest I ever got was the day a groundhog ventured across the pasture. My hyper-attentive little half-Arab gelding locked onto it and I let him go after it. Whooo freakin hoooo It was fun but at the same time I felt so damn silly!!! Honestly though, every time the rodent veered off in a different direction, he was right there.

    So yeah... that was my big moment. I never did get to try him on cattle.

    Mugwump, all of your Sonita stories have blown me away. This one almost made me weep. And that's impressive because the meds I'm on have dried up my tears.

    (thanks for the link too!)

  24. "heila-The dressage folk get their hackles up when we compare our patterns to theirs. The reining and cowhorse patterns are made up of maneuvers we would use working a cow. Fancier of course, but essentially an emulation of the dance between horse, rider and cow.
    Autumnblaze- good for you.It was fun wasn't it?"

    Well, the dressage folks are fools. I'm from an english riding background, however I had exposure to a couple of people who rode ropers in the NZ rodeo circut and reiners. Dressage translates to "training" and I have seen western horses working their patterns with more true collection and impulsion than a lot of "dressage" riders will ever get, and some of their horses enjoy it more! I learnt from teh western riders how to neck rein better - then used to stun the "dressage riders" at how eaisly I taught my horses to do some basic dressage moves - neck reining helps alot - and for showjumping and eventing - So I nearly lost my reins over a drop... I can still ride with my seat and neck rein while holding the buckle of the reins to make my horse change direction.

  25. I just started reading your blog and I LOVE your stories! I read all the Mort stories yesterday (was sad when I got to the last one) and now am at the end of these. *sigh I was never good at being patient, but I guess I'll have to.

    Oh- just so you know, I love the ENTIRE blog- I've read it all. Every spare second of yesterday and today was spent catching up, and now I'm sad I'm all current! More please! :)