Friday, January 30, 2009

I Run With Scissors With The Pointy Side Down

The first summer I was working for the Big K he sent me a new client. K got in the habit of passing off the clients he thought would irritate him once he was comfortable with my teaching style.

Michelle was an instructor, a trainer and a low key horse trader. She worked with one of the bigger 4-H clubs in the state. She wanted to bring a horse in for some reining training.

"I inherited this horse from my uncle. She's a cute little western horse and I need to sell her. I'd like you to teach both of us to rein," Michelle told me.

Michelle rode dressage.

K figured this woman would piss him off in no time, so he quickly let her know I was the one with the time and patience to start a newby reiner and her horse.

"You know she's going to come in here with all her notions about what's right and how she's going to do things," he told me.

"I'll just end up tossing her out on her ear. Have fun."

So with just a little trepidation I waited to meet my new client.

Michelle came piling in with a 10-year-old truck and a 20-year-old stock trailer. I felt better immediately. She unloaded a nicely built, plain-headed sorrel filly, already saddled with an old, serviceable western saddle. The filly was hairy, but well-groomed and the saddle was clean and well cared for. When she tied her up and walked towards me I noticed the filly stood quietly. She looked around the place with interest and a calm eye.

I was pleased enough to not worry about Michelle's impeccable riding tights, turtle-neck and Irish Wool sweater.

Her Ariats were scuffed and worn and her half chaps had seen better days. Michelle twirled her helmet by it's straps while we talked. It was the only sign of nerves I saw.

"I have to warn you, I don't have a clue what I'm doing. I ride well enough, but I need to help my 4-Her's with reining and I can't begin to show them what to do," she told me.

"You didn't pick the easiest way to learn," I warned her, "it would be easier to learn by riding a finished reiner."

"But this is the horse I have and I need to learn step-by-step. If I understand the process I'll do a better job with the kids."

I was liking this woman more and more with each passing minute.

"How broke is your filly?" I asked.

"She can walk, trot, canter. She's pretty one leaded and gets a little bucky, but it's just green stuff, she's fine."

"Well let's get started."

I saddled Loki, my seasoned, quiet mare and met Michelle at the gate of the outdoor.

The Big K sat in the sun on the bench outside the tack room, his arms folded behind his head and his big old feet stretched out in front of him. He grinned a smart-ass grin as I walked by.

"He doesn't look too busy to take on a new student to me," Michelle told me.

"Is that what he said?" I knew the Big K could hear every word we were saying.

"Yes, yes he did."

"He told me he thought you'd be a pain in the ass."

Michelle burst out laughing and K ducked into the tack room. I knew already this was going to be great.

It turned out Michelle was pretty comfortable in a western saddle. She had worked with her husband as an outfitter for several years in their family business. She handled her horse with a western sensibility which made me feel comfortable right away.

"I'm going to simply tell you how I do things," I started.
"I'd appreciate it if you would do as I ask first and then ask me why after the fact. I'll try to answer the best I can, although sometimes the answer is simply, because it works," I added.
"No problem," she said.
By the end of the lesson Michelle was a little bug-eyed.
"I can't believe you have us moving that fast."
"She's fine, once you relaxed and sat back she motored right along."
"She was fine, I'm the one who felt totally out of control."
"We can back off if you want," I told her.
"Are you kidding? I'm having a blast!"

So we began what turned out to be a solid friendship and an exchange of ideas. Michelle simply did what I said. She accepted our different approaches, did them herself and moved on. She was a great rider, had wonderful feel and really wanted to slide stop a horse. Our lead changes fascinated her.

She adopted all our cowboy habits, including the terrible inclination to hop on, trot out into the arena and start loping.
"Don't you walk and trot first?"
"Not unless they need it for their head."
"Aren't you afraid you'll hurt them?"
I shrugged."It's easier on them to just let them drag themselves along by their front end and lope easy, than getting pushed into frame in a trot. Plus, we only have a half hour to an hour for each horse, we gotta get going."
Michelle got into the habit of showing up early and warming up her horse the way she saw fit. She didn't argue or criticize, she just made it work.
I didn't feel the need to prove my point, so our relationship became that much smoother.
As time went on we got in the habit of visiting after each lesson. Then Michelle would talk about differences she saw in how I was teaching her and how it affected her riding.
"I'm slouchier when I ride with you. I ride less with my upper thigh muscle and more with my lower back. My seat is deeper. I get in trouble at my dressage lesson."
She switched to an O-ring snaffle like mine and got rid of her cavesson. She hung a loose leather curb strap off the rings behind the bit and in front of the reins. She got a pair of eight foot split reins.
She pointed out to me how much more effective the O-ring was than her D-ring when she handled the reins "western".
"You have her following my rein, encouraging her to move toward my hand, almost like I'm leading her from her back," Michelle said.
"Why would the O-ring make a difference?" I asked.
"I like the way it moves off her face when I bring my hand out."
So Michelle got out her English bridle, fit it on my bewildered Loki and had me try it out. Within minutes I was posting and driving Loki into my hands, my elbows close to my sides, my reins an extension of my hands. The D-ring gave me a solid feel of connection, it was kind of nice.

We realized our stirrup length and basic body position was the same. Michelle learned that our loose jointed way of riding didn't mean sloppy and I learned that the tidier dressage seat didn't mean tight. We discussed muscle use, leg and hand placement and balance.
I put Michelle into my custom cutting saddle and she loved the close contact feel. I let her learn to slide on Loki. She was rolling back on her "pockets" and rounding her lower back in no time.
Michelle let me spend a lesson in her dressage saddle. I loved the comfort and was surprised at how similar the look and feel was to my own saddle.

I had been stuck with a horse to sell. I had put several months training on her. She was a big-boned, rangy appendix mare. She was built all wrong for reining. She was never going to stop, she couldn't spin, it just wasn't going to happen. It also ended up the only way I was going to get paid was if I got her sold.
I asked Michelle if she would ride her and see if she had potential as an English horse. She had a lovely trot and a big strided canter. That's all I knew.
Michelle brought out her gear and tacked up my mare. She got on and began to ride. The longer she rode the bigger her smile grew. My gawky giraffe horse looked beautiful under her hands. I didn't know what they were doing but it sure looked good.
When Michelle was done she was pretty excited.
"Do you know the history on this mare?" Michelle asked.
"She was a trail horse until the gal who stuck me with her bought her."
"So you taught her this?"
"I didn't teach her what you were doing."
"Well you must have. I think I can sell her for you."
Within two weeks I had a woman come out and try my mare. She hauled her out to her dressage instructor. My Giraffe passed her level two dressage test and I got my full asking price. The woman who bought her was delighted, I guess she had a good chunk of her level three done too.
Michelle took her commission and put her little mare in training with me.
Michelle and I are still friends. We ride together now and no money changes hands. I've helped her students and she has helped mine. We have a free flow of thoughts and ideas. I have learned and taken on many of her "moves."
She has adopted many of mine.
I don't think we have ever said, "I'm right," to each other. We have said, "What if", "How about", and "What do you think".
Michelle's little sorrel filly has become a top notch pony clubber. To this day she will park it and slide on a whoa.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Barbie Don't Bend

Even if our mothers never understood, we all know why our Barbies lay in a sad pile, rigid limbs snarled together, forgotten in the corner of our room. Their blank blue eyes stared out from dirt smudged faces, doomed to an eternity of bad hair days.

We know why the only attention our Barbies ever got was from a curious G.I. Joe, puppeteered by our creepy younger brother.

It's because Barbie didn't bend. She refused to ride our trusty Breyers. So poor Barbie got kicked to the curb. Mattel could have cornered the mini horsaii market if only Barbie knew how to open her hip bones and bend her knees. I guess Ol' Joe would have been pretty happy too. Oh well, here's to lost opportunity.

Blues n' Jazz has been patiently waiting for some shoulder input from me for about a thousand years. So I'll leave off on unbendable Barbie and move on to unbendable horses.

I'm big on shoulders. My cowhorses need to stay upright through their maneuvers, at the same time remaining loose and ready to change direction at a moment's notice. If my horse is heavy on the front end or doesn't follow her nose with her shoulders we aren't going to get the job done.

As you guys know, I have to develop self carriage in my horse as soon as possible. This creates a different way of going and direction than say, the dressage guys, because I don't support the shoulders with my rein or leg unless I'm correcting her. I want my horse to try to avoid (not by being afraid!) me bringing in a supportive rein.

Blues N Jazz talks about her horse taking her shoulder out of the circle and over bending her neck into the circle. It could be vice versa, but it doesn't really matter, because I'll cover both issues.

This problem starts when a horse doesn't follow her nose with her feet. Instinctively we pull harder in the direction we want the horse to go. With a young horse, who hasn't developed a lot of feel for your legs, this gets even bigger.
What happens when we pull harder is the nose flops to our knee and the horse realizes she doesn't have to go the direction we're pulling. Oops.

This is why I don't do two fairly standard western exercises.

The first is flexing the nose from side to side, bending the head and neck to my knee, without getting movement from the feet. My concept in flexibility comes from the relation between my horse and my hands, my legs and her body, creating motion. Not a floppy neck.

I teach my horses to follow my hand with their feet. When I take my hand to the right I want my horse to move to the right.
So with a baby I take her nose to the right and wait. When she takes a step toward my hand I release. Nothing else gets a release.
She has to turn her nose to the right with my hand and step with her right (inside foot) before I release. This gets my youngsters following their nose with the correct shoulder.

The second western standard that I skip is the one rein stop. I don't want to teach my horse to hang on my hand, sink her weight onto the front and stop. It goes against my concept of moving with my hand.

When my horse knows to follow my hand with her nose, then steps with the inside foot toward my rein hand, I am well on my way to instilling the desire to line up under me. In order to get a release from my pull she needs to get herself straight. This helps her understand she needs to keep her shoulders lined up.

So keeping my goals in mind, here's a few exercises to encourage a rotten ducking, diving mess.

If I am loping a circle I want my horse to just circle. I don't want to hold her up, fix her with my legs, remind her where to go, nothing. (Same for trotting or walking)
In order to get my horse to want the same thing I have to make my interference unwelcome.

Bear in mind a horse can run a perfect circle whenever they want. In the wild they travel in circles. In play they run beautiful circles. So in my mind, if I effectively stay out of their way, they should be able to run those perfect circles all day without my help. Know what? They can.

I'm going to start my circle by standing in the middle of the pen. I'll walk straight ahead two or three steps, then lope depart straight toward the fence. I'm going to get my lead first before I start to shape my circle. I don't want my horse to ever lean into her lead.

I'll start to shape my circle by looking in the direction I want to go, adding pressure with my outside leg first, then guiding with my reins. My weight stays balanced in the middle, with about five more pounds of pressure in my outside pocket than my inside. My inside leg is relaxed and slightly off my horse.

With a snaffle bitter my left and right hand are even. My horse is evenly spaced between my reins, with guiding pressure from my inside rein.

With a horse in a bridle I don't let my hand go past my horses inside ear. If she needs more than that my legs come into play.

Now we're circling, nice and pretty, right? Well, only if she's not floating out or diving in.

It's extremely important for me to keep looking in the direction we need to be going. I look about ten feet in front of my horse's desired path.

If my horse wants to dive in, no matter what, I wait until she really commits to her dive. I want her to clearly understand why I'm correcting her. Then I'll do one of two things.

If she's still learning and we have to clear up a misunderstanding then I will wait until she dives in, take hold and drive her across the middle of the circle. While I'm intersecting the circle I'll drive her forward and straight. My hands are rigid and even, my legs are demanding she straighten out and go forward. My outside hand pulls back toward my hip to straighten her. When we hit the other side of the circle I sharply put her back on it and then relax all my cues, sit back and wait for her to do it again.

What you're doing here is taking control of her direction, straightening her up, sending her forward and giving her the opportunity to find and maintain her circle.

If she's past baby, but still learning, I'll wait until she dives, stop and spin (this doesn't need to be a pretty spin, just hoist her around) her two or three times to the inside of her circle, put her back on the circle and try again on a relaxed rein.

This is what I do with the kidlets. I may have to do this a hundred gazillion times, but I don't care. I stop for the day after she carries herself for one full circle each way.

When I have an older, seasoned butthead I'm a little more aggressive.

I let him fall in and pull him into a spin to the outside of my circle. I don't warn him, say whoa, nothing, just haul his hiney around several times. Then I boot him back on his lead and send him out again. When he calms down (he'll be mad) relax your cues and offer to let him lope his circle like a nice boy.
Sometimes I spin him around to the outside several times, then boot him across the circle, then let him pick up the circle on the other side before I relax. Depends on how cranky he's making me.

If my horse floats out of the circle, with her head flopped in, I immediately make my hands rigid, pull my outside rein to my outside hip bone and direct her across the circle. I will kick her hip out (using my inside leg) and then drive her forward pretty hard with both legs until she's straight between my reins and legs again. I'll let her back on the circle and relax.

I work large circles when I have these issues, the smaller the circle the easier it is to get out of alignment.

If my horse isn't straight between my hands and legs by the time I hit my circle again I'll keep going, increasing my drive until she's straight. Then I turn around with energy and hustle her back to my circle path, intersect my circle again and pick up the other side.

1.The only place my horse gets relaxed hands and seat is when she is travelling around our circle.
2. I'm going to stay relaxed and let my horse be two or three strides into her error before I grab hold and start to hustle her.
3.When I decide to hustle, that's where we'll go until she's in the correct place doing the right thing. Period.
4. There isn't an almost. Don't cheat and help with your reins and legs, that's where all this leany junk started. Be clear.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Reviews and Memories

I had a question a while back, sorry I can't credit you, but it was too long ago. Somebody was asking about what created a "horse person." How does the willingness to bankrupt yourself over a 1200 pound, hay-burning, patience taxing, high maintenance animal who needs more sets of shoes in a year than the Duggar family ( come about?

Today is a good day to explore this, because my mind is still whirling from our collection and balance talks and I need to take a breath before we continue.

Horse crazy creeps up on us in more than one way. A lucky few get to grow up with horses. Be it a ranch kid, a show family, or the child of a breeder, some just grow into it. This explanation is a bit too simple, because I see too many horse oriented families with one or two kids sadly sitting at the side lines wishing desperately they were at the mall, a movie, digging trenches, drinking bleach, ANYTHING but spending one more day smelling, seeing and talking about horses.

I strongly believe most of us who follow the way of the horse, or "Horsaii" are born with a genetic pre-disposition to lose all sense of reality when around a horse.
I was born in Wisconsin to an upwardly mobile, born to live in suburbia, Catholic family with six kids. My father's job guaranteed we would move every few years. My family is, for the most part, bookish, intellectual, introspective and not particularly animal oriented. Not the kind of environment to create a horse maniac.

I showed up anyway.

I was dreaming of horses before I ever saw a real one. I galloped and whinnied, drew them , named them, planned for a stable in the garage. I talked horses day and night and rode them in my imagination everywhere I went.

My fascination with horses has never eased. I still burn with not just the need to be around them, but to understand them.

I am a huge believer in the benefit of horses for girls. Even today, young girls end up unsure of their place in the world. Statistically, beginning in junior high many girls experience a slump in their grades. They begin to withdraw from class participation and begin feeling less sure of their place in the world. For many reasons, right around puberty, girls begin to experience a gradual draining of self esteem and confidence.

We could debate all day on why this happens, but there does seem to be a general consensus that it does, indeed, happen.

Horse give a sense of power and strength to girls that I believe can't be equalled in any other way. (Of course, I'm a horsaii) This huge, powerful, complicated animal can not only be controlled, trained and competed on by a girl, but they return her affection, they are kind and gentle. They smell great. Without reserve a good horse will share his power with a girl. His strength and speed will become hers, in a world where she often feels no control. A car can't compete. A car doesn't love you back.

I feel the best horsaii experience comes from total immersion, riding, feeding, cleaning, grooming. Some of my best days as a teenager were spent cleaning my pen, grooming my horse and making my next piece of designer tack.

Intinctively, I think most girls know this, even if they aren't bonified horsaii, even if they're destined to grow out of their horse insanity (poor things). Most girls go through at least a horse crazy phase, I think it's the desire to gain some control, mixed with unconditional affection that pulls them in. I wish all horse-crazy girls could get at least a taste.

My first meeting with a real horse was as a kindergartner. We lived in Florissant (thanks C.H.!) Missouri. I was sitting on a rock, outside a barb wire fence. I reached out and touched a barb on the fence. It was sharp and left a rust stain on my finger.

Leaning forward, my hands clenched tight in my lap I was mesmerized by the herd of horses grazing in the sun. I was determined to honor the rules which allowed me this wild, unexpected privilege. No touching. Don't crawl under the fence. Don't move off the rock.

The warm rock pushed into the back of my thighs. I scratched and wiggled, aching to run out in the field.

Slowly, slowly a black horse with a white face ambled over to my perch. I froze, willing him to come near. He grazed along the fence in front of me. With a quick look over my shoulder I picked a bunch of long grass and threw it under the wire.

He stood right in front of me and ate his grass. I drank in the intoxicating smell of him, held my hand out and felt his warm breath on my fingers. Clumps of dried mud hung from the tangled hair on his fetlocks. His giant hooves were inches from my face.
One side of his face was white, the look he gave me from his red-rimmed eye seemed friendly and kind. I fell absolutely in love.

When I got home I drew my black horse with the white face over and over, burning every detail into my dreams.

Whatever creates a true "horsaii" I think I am one. I know I wouldn't change a single moment, a single wish, a single dream.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sonita and Reality Checks

Sonita hollered over the fence as I drove past. She shook her head and trotted up and down her run. She was agitated at the sight of my truck. She knew we were going somewhere.

I drove around back and hitched my trailer. Driving to the front of her pen and parking the truck and trailer revved her up. She squealed and bucked, pinning her ears at the horses on either side of her. Her stall mates, used to her temper, looked back at her mildly enough, but I noticed they stayed carefully out of her reach.

It was impossible not to take a minute to admire my cherry red monster. She had grown into such a beautiful, powerful animal. All solid muscle and beautiful action, her hot, high temperament suited her. I knew her well enough to know she was eager to go, looking forward to the hard workout ahead of us. So was I.

I loaded my tack into the trailer and ticked off the automatic check list in my head. Two bridles, a ring snaffle and my full bridle, two sets of romels, and extra set of split reins. My grooming tools, Sonita's protective boots and skid boots, my saddle pad and my saddle. Two heavy coolers. I remembered to grab a spare halter and lead rope and toss it into the truck.

With a horse like Sonita it paid to have spare equipment.

She waited in her run, looking into the stall with pricked ears and white-ringed eyes. She stomped to show her impatience, but didn't cross the threshold into the stall. I opened the door and went to her, knuckling her forehead and smoothing her forelock before I tied her halter.
Sonita sighed, tolerating my attention, her mind was in the alleyway behind me.

As we walked down the barn aisle Sonita alternately jumped and blew at shadows or squealed and threatened to kick at the other horses watching us from their stalls. She made sure to stay behind my shoulder, her striking feet never actually make contact with the walls and she was careful not to touch me with more than a whisper of breath. My lead rope stayed slack in my relaxed fingers, so I ignored her.

Sonita waited until I shut the trailer and was checking the air in my tires before her resounding kick vibrated through the air.
"Hey!" I yelled and slapped the trailer with my hand, she quieted and the trailer quit rocking.
I whistled my dogs and headed out to the Big K's.

Sonita stood quiet at the tie rail, ignoring the other horses tied on both sides of her. She knew I had left plenty of room, she couldn't reach them, so she stood content, waiting for me as I worked through my rides. She watched, interested and relaxed. It looked like she was enjoying the sun.

I tossed the saddle on her back, she pinned her ears, but looked away from me as I tightened her cinch. She kept her feet still as I put on her front boots, satisfied with lipping at my hair. I reached up and pushed at her nose, but she kept up until my braid was undone and she had grabbed my CRCA hat and tossed it to the ground.

When I came out of my tack compartment with my bridle Sonita was busy reaching with her hind foot, trying to drag my cap close enough to stomp it. I dropped her halter and lifted the bit to her face. She shifted a step and lipped at my nose. As usual I cracked up. I never understood her fascination and let her slobber up my nose and steam my glasses before I pushed her away. Happy, she dropped her head and carefully placed the big half-breed bit between her teeth.

We long trotted into the big outdoor, I ignored the Big K's amused, yet slightly disgusted look as I wiped the Sonita spit off my face.

"You took long enough."

"I'm hurrying."

"Get the edge off her and we'll work the buffs."

Wahoo, I thought. I was still a little afraid of cutting the buffalo, but Sonita loved it. They were as big as she was and twice as fast as the cows, smart and wily. I was in for an exciting afternoon.

I started loping my circles and Sonita bucked a little the first times through. Her feet never came off her directed path, so I enjoyed her play.
"Sometimes I think she understands what you say, " I called over to K. "look how happy she is!"

"She just smells them in the indoor, now quit messing around and kick her up!"
The Big K sounded cranky but I could see his grin. He liked seeing her fire up as much as I did.

Once we were warmed up and Sonita was quick enough off my leg to make the Big K happy, we went into the dim light of the indoor. Normally she would be jumping and spooking at the bars of afternoon light streaming across the dirt, but she knew important work was at hand. Her eyes drilled into the five buffalo standing in a group at the end of the arena. Her hind legs stepped deeper underneath me and her shoulders became light as she shook her bit and took tiny mincing steps with her front feet.

"Go ahead and cut you one. She doesn't need to wait," the Big K said.

When Sonita realized we were going into the herd her head dropped and she began to take slow, quiet strides. She gave a brief pause before each step, careful not to scatter them. I took a cue from my mare and relaxed, taking even deep breaths.
The buffs stared back, insolent. Unlike cows I could see the wise assessment in their eyes as they sized us up. They were as intent on the game as we were.

We sidled up the side of the arena and eased between the buffs and the back wall. They began to run and boiled around us, circling to get back to their turf. I stepped Sonita up and across, slowing their motion, watching, watching, until one of the buffs volunteered and veered away from the others.

In some ways the buffalo were easier than cattle. They didn't crowd or grow dull. They would turn away from Sonita instead of towards her, giving us a split second more time to read the turn. But they were so fast. They didn't quit. They relished the game and tried to fake and duck their way past.

We stepped up and began to cut, lightening fast with no respite.We got six, seven, eight turns with no break. Finally, the buff broke off.

"Good, good!" The Big K hollered.

I rode out and traded places, doing turn back for him while he worked his horse. We spent the afternoon cutting, resting talking. Sonita was solid, I was getting there.

We sat on our steaming horses, having our "good ride beer", watching the buffs mill around and lay in the dust, chewing their cud and glancing at us in the half-friendly, half sizing up way they had. The horses shifted their weight from one hind foot to the other, ready to rest, but breathing too hard to completely relax.

"You're going to make a go of the World Show at this rate."

"You think?"

"You're making me proud."

I fell silent under the rare praise.

"Do you know what you're going to ride next year?" The Big K asked.

The question had merit. As an up and coming trainer I needed to be showing more than just Sonita. My daughter had pretty much taken over my three-year-old. I didn't have a client base which could provide me with show horses, I kept attracting poor, earnest, hard-working people who loved their horses and wanted to show themselves. The Big K got the monied folks.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," I said, "I can't afford another horse, much less cover the show fees on three head."

"You know, you're sitting on your bank roll," The Big K's voice was soft, he kept looking over the buffs.


"Your mare, she's your bank roll. She's how you can afford your next horse."

My heart almost stopped. My hand flew to Sonita's neck.

"But she's finally getting good."

"That's right. You've proved yourself and the mare. Now's when you sell them, when they're good. It's how we move up to something better and hoist ourselves another step up the ladder."

"What about the Worlds?" I was breaking out in a sweat. I had never thought of selling her.

"A horse like Sonita isn't going to be easy to sell. You start talking about it now, it could take a year or more for someone to want her."

I must have looked like I was going to faint, or scream, or throw up.

The Big K's voice was still soft, but hurried, serious.

"I'm not going to tell you to sell your horse. If anybody has earned the right to hang onto their horse it's you," he said, "but you have to decide. Is this cowhorse thing a one horse deal to you? Or are you going to become a trainer? You're gonna have to think this through."

I couldn't think of anything to say. I just kept rubbing on Sonita's neck until she shook her head, annoyed.

"Do you want another beer?"

"I think I'd better go home. I've got to think."

"Janet, I'm not telling you to sell your horse. I'll never tell you that."

"I know."

Somehow his kind words just made everything worse.

Friday, January 16, 2009

More Collection

 A western horse is expected to carry himself in an effective manner which gets the job done. The job definition describes the level of collection and how we get it. I'm starting to see a light go on regarding some differences, don't you?
My horse's job is to do a decent reining pattern and work a cow. He can't be a completely fabulous reiner, because reining horses make every move according to the riders commands. Cowhorses are expected to be independent thinkers. A good cowhorse reads a cow much better and quicker than it's rider. So I have to trust my horse to make a split second decision and not wait for my thoughts on the matter. This gives the horse an opinion. Which hurts the dry work (reining) portion of our run. Because my horse is usually thinking ahead to the cow work and feels not a lot of obligation to think about me.
Which takes me to my version of self carriage and collection.
Remember. I am not saying I'm right, just what we work towards.
From the first day I want my youngster to be able to balance himself with me on his back. So I just sit there. I'm just a sack of potatoes. The first communication is forward. Walk, trot, canter without my involvement other than trying to stay out of his way. I ride with a halter or side pull, depending on the temperament of the colt and how brave I'm feeling on any given day.
This is also why I'm not a huge round pen or one rein stop fan. I feel like the round pen encourages my horse from the get go to fall into the center of his circles. A one rein stop teaches my colt to flop his head to my knee, dump his front end into the ground and hang on my hands. These two things create problems I have to train out of my horse before I can train the right things in. Which is confusing to me and goes against my basic premise. Self carriage.
When my colt can comfortably motor around with me I introduce my hands. Once we have right and left I'll begin to add my legs.
During this time I have been encouraging him to stop off my seat and an exhale, so I come in with hands on the Whoa to create a sharper stop and begin the back.
Here is where things will begin to go different directions.
Now is when a rope horse starts tracking cattle and a cutter starts single cow work.
Because the job of a western horse dictates the level of collection and how they use it.
To my mind, my responsibility to my horse is to teach them how to carry themselves in a way to keep us both safe and healthy.
Because we are working outside of our relationship (on cows) my goal isn't necessarily to reach great heights of communication, except in our work. We just need to get the job done and my horse will be judged on how much he does by himself.
So back to my colt. I need to take him further before he starts to work because of the reining aspect.
My goal is to have a horse who drives from the rear. I need intense bursts of speed and the ability to stop, turn and continue with fluidity and the same speed. He needs to carry me through this and to position me where I need to be at all times.
So my horse will travel with his back rounded, his hind legs driving forward, his neck level and his face soft, supple and carried on the vertical. His shoulders need to stay loose and upright. He needs to carry this with little to no contact on the reins. It's as if he is travelling along pushing an invisible elephant in front of him with his forehead.
If I rock back and push him with my right calf he should stop and roll back to the left. I should be able to remind him to collect by simply raising my hand so my reins make slight contact and by maintaining contact with my right calf through the turn and keeping my left leg open he should take his left lead.
My weight stays back with my ears, shoulders, hips and heels aligned.
We should start slow and have one to this level by the time they are six.
So let's chew on this awhile and I'll try to find some good youtube stuff.

Here's Shawn Flarida, I consider him the best at what he does. (reining)

Here's a friend and former peer of mine, Blue Allen, winning reserve champion at the 2008 NRCHA worlds. I have to admit, I struggle with this, there was a time I ran neck and neck with this guy, and now he's winning in the big time. While I sit here, fat and out of shape, spouting my theories. Sigh. Pity party at 6:00.

Check out the differences in the horses. Notice the formal wear of a cowhorse exhibitor (snort, we're all like that). I think you will see what I mean about independent thought.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


First-Ezra...How're things going? Let me know when you're getting the softened round feel both ways OK? Let me know if you're stuck too.

Second- Collection. Yikes. Let's all chime in on our interpretations of collection. What we look for, where we are with it, our personal definitions. Wanna? I'm hoping everybody will have something to say. Ask questions, make comments, learn the differences in how we approach things.Everybody promise not to get intimidated or defensive......

Horse of Course started everything a few days ago. I've added a few comments here and there, in green. She said...
Laura, thanks for your kind reply. Nice to hear.I have been thinking about what you wrote about collection. Your definition of collection is not the same as mine (as a dressage rider).So what do I mean?(Again, just my personal thoughts here)In the dressage world collection equals ability to engage the hind legs over time.When you start to ride a young horse, it’s rather on the forehand. Same for me. So you work to get a good, balanced working trot with a nice rhythm and contact, and you work to keep the balance in transitions and in change of directions. When this is coming on, you begin to work with the straightness in the horse. All horses are crooked, as well as us riders unfortunately.This is where I begin my straight line exercises. An example: most horses, when they canter/lope along the rail place the hind legs slightly to the inside. (Do you correct this in a western horse?)
I have seen WP horses dramatically driven with their hindquarters to the inside? outside? but they are extremely crooked, someone explain this to me....
So in this example we have to work to get the horse straight by placing the front of the horse slightly inwards from the rail.Why?In my world we believe that the hind legs are the motor of the horse (same for you?) so we always correct the front end in line with the motor. And we need full throttle on both propellers. If not, we will get irregularities in the gaits and problems to execute the movements later on. So the horse is to use both hind legs straight under, with equal force.The same “straightness” also is used to describe how the horse has to work correctly in corners and circles.
It should be in balance, with an even bend in the body that equals the circle, not leaning in, not putting the hind legs to the outside/inside, and not jack-knifing (falling out through the outer shoulder)This is a never ending job. (I believe that a good dressage rider should act like a physiotherapist to the horse :-) Away with stiffness, crookedness and work that body!) This is what we're working on Ezra!
Then you start to play with the impulsion and collection of the horse. The horse’s hind legs can either carry or push.In a TB race horse as an example, you have long, low, ground covering strides with a great ability to push. Cowhorses are supposed to move long and low, with lots of push.
A well educated dressage horse has a great ability to carry. All horses are constructed differently, and have more or less natural talent for what we call collection – but really it’s a question about building strength, over years.I’ll try a simplified explanation: what you do in the start is to put energy into the horse (back to the leg-discussion :-)) but when your horse answers with increased speed (which they do in the beginning) you balance it up with a soft closing of seat and hand, a half-halt, and ask it to bring the legs under instead. When the horse then happily turns off the engine instead (which they are likely to do in the beginning) you again ask for more energy and concentrate to keep the same rhythm.What we aim for is for the horse to be able to lengthen and shorten(collect) the stride keeping the same rhythm, keeping balance, keeping the outline and with a soft contact in the hand. Increased collection is actually increased ability to carry. The more you train, the stronger the horse gets. And with correct work, the ability to collect increases.
We don't want the lift you guys work towards, the high knee and hock action would interfere with our work, part of why our horses look heavy in the front to you, trust me, the good ones are not!
But it’s a long, difficult road, both for the horse and the rider.When a horse collects you can see that the moment of suspension gets longer, more ”air under the stomach”, the hind legs bend more in the hocks to get the legs more under the body, and the front of the horse elevates.I believe it is easiest to illustrate increasing degrees of collection with the different dressage movements in trot:Working trot – collected trot – passage – piaffe.Passage is what the dressage horse in the you-tube video executes when they come into the arena.Piaffe is when the horse “trots on the same spot”.I believe you all have been sitting on a horse when it sees something spooky? And felt the horse grow under you? Suddenly it’s two sizes larger than it was just a second ago.This is in a way the feeling you get when you sit on an educated dressage horse.It kind of turns your average Ford into a Ferrari. I love it. it, how we've been taught.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Let's Take a Break!

I have what I think is a great idea. But I'm on pain killers. Go Lightly pointed out that she is a menopausal red-head, subject to hot flashes of temper and hormones which can effect her relationships with horses and bloggers alike.
Me too. Except the red hair is only in my mind.
I have a feeling a bunch of us can go there. If not, I know you've been influenced in some way by an out of control hormonal old horsewoman.
So let's tell stories on ourselves.
I'll start.
First....I LOVE the discussions starting to surface up here. I hope nobody thought I was shutting them down when I asked Ezra to focus on me while I walking her through the lead deal. I just don't want her to get tied up with too much information. I'm planning on storing a bunch of this for myself and she could too. Except plan on using it later, when we've gotten through the initial situation.
I also know I've stomped on a few toes in this blog. The times I get my back up are when I hear the words, "You're wrong, you're ignorant, you've got to train the way I do to be right". I will always tell you guys how I train. I will always listen to how you train. Let's just leave out the right and wrong portion of it. You don't have to ride like me, just don't assume I'm wrong. I know I don't have to ride like you, but I also want to understand what you do and why so I can learn. Does that make sense?
If I think something is cruel I'll say something, other than that I don't care.
And I do reserve the right to have opinions, I'm not all that huggy and peaceful in real life. And I can't help being a smart ass.
So on to the menopause stories.
I trained for a few years out of a wonderful facility. We had a competition sized indoor arena, a rodeo arena outside, hot water at our wash racks and indoor plumbing. It was heaven. I barn shared with a few trainers and we all got along. Then a Hunter Jumper trainer moved in. This woman was really busy. She filled the barn the rest of the way and soon made it very clear she intended to take over the barn. Management was going with the money so I knew my days were numbered.
As you guys know, there is often an attitude between western and english riders. This HJ trainer had an extremely healthy self esteem (to put it mildly).
She felt her rules were the important ones and felt no obligation to try to get along with trainers of different disciplines. Her many, many clients felt the same.
As a rule, I just ignored the lot of them and did my thing.
Unfortunately my silence was mistaken for being a wienie.
So I kept getting pushed.
One winter morning I came to work. It was extremely cold. I was hot-flashing like a maniac. So as I cleaned my stalls I kept shedding clothes. With every stall I would be wearing one less item. First my coat, then my cover-alls. Then my gloves. Then my hat. I kept getting redder and sweatier anyway.
I also found with each stall I cleaned, there was one more very large warmblood cross-tied in the alleyway.
Now I know not all HJ's feel manners are unimportant. But I also know this particular group felt no need to police the behavior of their horses, their dogs, their children or themselves.
So with each horse I had to deal with horse and rider alike who wouldn't move, or had a red ribbon in their tail, or was taking a steamy dump in the aisle to be left for me to step in etc.
I kept getting hotter. And redder.
My hair started working out of it's braid.
I have crazy hair anyway. So pretty soon I was covered with sweaty, sticky, kinky snarls.
Now I was spitting hair out of my mouth as I troddled through the sleek and fancy horses. I knew just how sleek they were because their owners kept dropping horse blankets in my path. So I could admire their sleek and shiny horses every time I hooked a spur in a blanket.
I was in my T-shirt and jeans by the time I finished my stalls. It was about 20 degrees in the barn and I was still sweating.
I started to lead the first of my small, hairy string of horses to my tack room. There were at least 10 giant horses between me and my saddles. Most of them with wringing tails and pinned ears.
I asked the trainer how long she would be.
She stood, looking cool , relaxed and expensive in her cool relaxed, expensive HJ clothes and stared at me like I had a bug in my hair.
I tried to smooth back my hair and snagged what turned out to be some frozen horse slobber (see, no bugs!). My T-shirt was sticking to my back and chest. I could see frost forming in the shape of my jog bra.
"Why don't you just go around," she suggested as she patted her perfect chignon.
I stomped out to arena to unlock the doors and turn on the lights, thinking I might give them time to finish tacking up.
The arena was full of jumps. Again. Even though the rules stated they be taken down on open riding days. (The days I rode)
When I got back all of the horses were still cross-tied in the aisle. There wasn't an owner in sight. It seems they were all in the lounge having hot chocolate before their lesson.
I had a full blown menopausal break down.
I went down to my stalls, got two of my horses out and started down the alleyway. As I walked down I unclipped one side of every cross-tie. Each horse swung away from my wild haired, eye rolling, steam-coming-out-of-my-ears-self and I made my way to my tack room.
I tacked up and headed for the arena.
I tied my horses to the rail and went over to the first jump.
I grabbed a rail and slung it out the arena door into the snow.
I could hear the ruckus in the barn as the HJ horses, still tied with only one rope, realized they could reach each other, the tack boxes, the blankets on the floor, you get my drift.
I laughed (a little maniacally) when I heard the HJ's screaming. I kept dumping jump parts out the arena door. The HJ trainer came flying into the arena just as I was getting up on my first ride of the day. All of the jumps were piled into a big jumble in the snowdrift outside the arena.
"What are you doing?" She screamed.
I smiled. I was at peace. I was Buddha.
"Could you hand me my coat?" I asked.
"I'm feeling a little chilly."

Now it's your turn.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back to Ezra

Now I'm taking for granted that Ezra and her mare are happily walking around in their 10 to 12 foot circles. The mare will drop her head and relax into Ezra's legs.

Now I would start walking this mare in a series of lines the length of the arena. We're back to the "check out the horse and rider at the same time exercises".

Look straight ahead, make sure you're balanced evenly on your seat bones, and your shoulders are even. Your riding two-handed, your hands are relaxed, soft and maintain very light contact with your mare. My definition of contact is when you can just feel the horses mouth at the end of your reins. Your mare has an equal amount of space on both sides of her neck between her and the reins.

Your legs are relaxed and neutral. The mid-point of my calves lightly touch the sides of my horse when I'm relaxed.

Don't be in a hurry to here. Instead, experiment a little. Drop your weight onto your left seat bone. Simply wait and see what happens, keep looking straight ahead.
What I'm thinking will happen is she will attempt to reposition herself evenly under you. Her shoulder will come to the left and realign her. Immediately rebalance your weight evenly on your seat bones.
Play with this a little. Keep looking straight ahead and drop your right seat bone. She should drift, shoulder first to the right in an attempt to get under you again. Make sure you rebalance as soon as she steps over so she will understand that's what you want.
Wander up and down the arena, (off the rail) dropping the left seat bone, then the right.
Think about how she moves, were your legs fall, how your shoulders shift. Make sure you're not leaning right or left, just dropping about five pounds of weight into that seat bone to get her to move left and right.
Keep your hands out of this. The challenge is to get her to move without your hands turning her.

OK! Enough of that.
Now we're going to start to push your mare into a turn.
Walk about ten feet off the rail. As you reach a corner you will stop. Rock back on your pockets. (preferably Wranglers) Your outside (wall-side) leg will come off your mare. Your inside leg will slide back 6-10 inches and you will push with your calf.
Your mare should move her hindquarters towards the wall and into your opening leg in a turn on the forehand..
You will probably have to steady her with your hands on the reins to stop her forward motion.
Do a quarter turn and walk to the next wall.
I'm on drugs today BTW, so I'm not sure I'm making any sense.
Essentially I want you to walk down each wall, stop, do 1/4 turn on the forehand with the haunches moving toward the wall and then continue on.
Both directions please. Think about getting your desired response with your legs first, only using her reins to help balance her. Her head should stay fairly straight.
If your mare needs to bend her neck and nose to do a turn on the forehand then practice until she can move her haunches and keep her head and neck straight.
Once again, think about what's happening here.
In the first exercise she is moving into your dropped weight.
In the next she is moving away from your dropped weight.
The last exercise for the day is to walk random straight lines around the arena. Stop, do a 360 turn on the forehand and move off in the next direction.Turn left and right until she will softly turn for you without a lot of fuss.
Think about your balance. Be conscious of your weight at all times. Have fun, really!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

This is the Best!

Be warned. I absolutely loved reading the dialogue that got going without me. I think I'm going to do this once in a while. I liked the free flow of ideas without me butting in. Of course now I'm butting in.....
Back to Ezra's horse. We're going to look at this as a decent minded horse and rider team who are learning together. This can be tough, but not insurmountable. Ezra is not in a hurry and in my opinion will learn so much about shaping up her horse and develop so much feel it will be worth the frustration.
The colt I wrote about was physically crooked. He stood with his head turned, his spine curved and his tail cocked to the side all the time if you let him, whether you were on him or not. He is better now, but not ever going to be much more than a nice trail horse. Which is fine, his family knows his limitations and is fine with them.
We know Ezra has had her horse worked on by the chiro and is healthy. So I'm not going to worry about the mare being crooked. If it was a problem the chiro would have seen it.
I'm also going to assume Ezra rides well enough to handle this. She can lope around on her fine, just isn't getting the lead she wants, so in my mind she rides well enough for what I'm thinking.
I'm also going to have her ride Western, since that's what I know. In spirit if not in saddle!
Heila- You're right, most western riders don't wear helmets. Why? Because we are dumb asses. I'm sorry, but there's no other explanation. I don't wear one either. I look too good in my hat.
Back to Ezra...Congratulations on that lope! You're on your way!
So, let's start with getting rid of the lope for awhile.
I want you to do some work with yourself and your mare on feel. Do you ever ride bareback? If you don't that's OK, but if you do, ride her at a walk in your arena for awhile. Please ride in a ring snaffle or side pull for now. If you know this stuff be patient, I'm just going through each step. Make sure you know the feel of each foot leaving the ground. Get to where you can call out each foot in whatever order you feel like. Then get there saddled.
Once again, if you are comfortable bareback, start there, if not just do the same in the saddle.
Walk on the rail in your arena. (Don't tell your trainer!) In each corner guide her nose using your inside rein just enough to get her to do a circle, 10-12 feet should be good, make at least one full circle in each corner so you don't change direction. I want you to ride the circle to the inside. Don't use anything but your hands to shape your circle. Your inside hand is the only hand doing anything, it's your guiding hand. Your guiding hand will be out from your body, kind of like you are leading her, try not to hold your arm in tight against your body. Sit up and keep your shoulders level, don't lean in.
As you start your circle, don't worry about whether your mare is correct or not. Your just checking for holes. (I love holes by the way, filling them is how we end up with a trained horse)
Does her nose follow the guidance of your hand softly and easily? Does her neck stiffen up and she swings her hips out or leans into the circle? Don't worry about any of this, just note it. Think about how it feels, and what's what.
You want your mare to softly move through each circle holding her body in the shape of a "C" that matches the path of the circle. From the tip of her nose to the base of her tail, she needs to form a "C".
Don't try to force a shape here, just know that's where your headed.
Go both directions, checking her circles each way. Know in your mind what the issues are and where she tenses up.
Now you're going to check yourself out. Saddle is fine, bareback if you can. Sit square on your horse with your legs relaxed and free. If you're in your saddle take your feet out of your stirrups.
Sit up straight, shoulders back and find your seat bones. Basically your weight will be balanced on three points. When your neutral you will feel all three points of contact. When you rock back you will feel the back two seat bones. Let me know if you need clarification here.
Now go back to walking around the arena and making your circles in the corners. This time as you bring your inside hand up and out to guide her nose rock back and drop your weight onto your inside seat bone.
Think about what happens and how she responds. Does she make a sharper turn? Does she toss her head or turn it out or sideways in one direction? Once again don't correct her just analyze the feel. What happens to your seat, the placement of your legs? Don't let your shoulders fall in!
Now we'll add some leg. Think of your inside leg as a post your mare can turn around. It will fall at the cinch. Your thigh is relaxed, your toes are turned slightly out so you can have your calf pushed against your mare's ribs as the post.
Your outside leg is back about 6-10 inches behind your cinch and helping shape her into the "C". (Wherever you need to place it to get some bend.)
Remember to keep sitting up with your shoulders level.
Keep taking her through the corners and asking for a circle or two.
Now you've been doing this for a while. I will be very surprised if at this point she hasn't started to relax into your hands and is walking with her head low and relaxed and a lot of the tension is leaving her, even the bad way.
At this point you will come into your circle and keep circling her until she drops her head, relaxes her ribs and makes her "C". Then you can let her out and walk to the next point. When you are on your straight line make sure your reins are relaxed, you're breathing evenly and your seats relaxed. That is her reward for trying to shape into the circle. Make sure you go both directions.
So at this point you are taking your mare through some simple 10-12 foot circles in the corners of your arena in order to really analyze her areas of stiffness and to check your riding form.
1. You'll guide her by her nose with only your inside hand first.
2. You'll check the effect of your seat bones and add weight dropped on the inside seat bone during her turn.
3. You'll add the inside leg placed as a post on the cinch area.
4. You'll add the outside leg 6 to 12 inches behind the cinch as a guide for shaping your mare.
5. You will look for a perfect "C" shape with a lowered, relaxed head before you let her out of the circle.
6. You'll really think about each phase, how your mare reacts, if you have a tendency to tip to the right or left, and where your seat bones are.
Even if you know this stuff do it again, following the steps and analyzing your mare. I do this with every horse I ride.....
Then you'll let me know where we're at.
I have a few questions.
Do you ride western or English?
Does your mare ride in a ring snaffle?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Herd Aggression

This is an abreviated version of a question that I thought needed to be addressed. It sounded potentially dangerous in too many directions to let it lie. Ezra, I swear, I'm working on your lead deal.

Jonas said>> I have a question about my mare. She doesn't go into heat often, though people do say she is “mareish”. She has a terrible attitude towards other horses.
She likes having a herd, but she hates other horses. She charges through the fence at them and throws up a ruckus if I give other horses attention.
She acts bossy with people, too. She struck at me once, I backed her down the driveway, which is quite long and she is respectful with me. But she still is crazy when it comes to other horses. She also seems to have an influence on other horses, after they are kept with her they lose all their manners and are aggressive toward other horses.
She never used to be like this. I don't understand why she is so "mareish" now. It's all the time and she has no respect for anyone but me.
So if you have any suggestions on how to deal with her behavioral/jealousy issues, I'd love to hear them.<<

And people think studs are tough! In a natural herd situation there is always the “boss” mare. Sometimes they’re called the “alpha” mare or the “bell” mare.

The boss mare is vital to the survival of the herd. She will tell the herd where to go, when to eat and drink, when to run, in general tell them what to do all the time. She gets to decide when to accept a new herd member or when to run somebody off. In exchange for this privilege she gets to eat the best grass, drink the freshest water and live in the middle of the herd where it’s safest. Her babies get the privilege of her status, so they grow up safe and strong.
This is a coveted position in the herd. The way horses work is the boss mare stays in charge, her second-in-command (and favorite herd buddy) gets to help her boss the other horses around, then there’s third, fourth and so on down to the last sorry little horse that’s the bottom of the heap.

The boss mare is savvy and aggressive. She becomes boss by beating the crap out of everybody beneath her. It’s vital to the safety of the herd.

Jonas, I’m sorry, but you have a boss mare. Unfortunately she is not in a natural setting. She can’t get at the horses on the other side of the fence to prove her dominance. She feels they are a threat to her herd, even if her herd consists of you and a goat. So she lives in perpetual agitation, thinking she has to resolve the situation.

You can’t change who she is. You can change her understanding of how she should behave.
You already have made a good start by making her respect you. If I was in this situation I would want to take it a step farther. I would want my mare to understand she can’t behave aggressively towards other horses when I’m around. I would regularly go out into the pasture and drive my mare away from the rest of the herd. I’d do this by swinging a lead rope at her haunches until she skittered off. If I had to whack her a few times I would. If I had to really thump on her I would. I would do this over and over until she understood I had sent her away. Eventually she would stand away from the group, staring at me with her ears pricked. She would probably look sad and confused, but I’d stay tough and ignore her crybaby little self. I would pet the other horses. I would stand in the middle of the group and make her stay out.

Eventually my aggressive mare will begin to graze and act like she’s ignoring me. Then I would relax and let her wander back into the group.

What would happen is I would shift the dynamics of the herd. The other horses would understand I can drive the boss mare away. They would understand I was her boss. She would quit trying to attack them while I was out there.

When I had this mare out to ride or anywhere she is under my control I would discipline her for aggression towards other horses as if she was being aggressive towards me. I would be fair and consistent, but I would make sure she understood I am the one in charge.

You can’t change who your mare is, but you can change how she treats horses around you. She will still be boss mare when you aren’t there, but once a mare proves her dominance things usually settle down.
I hope this helps. Be careful, be firm.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ranto-rama 2

I keep wondering how the horse world has changed enough to even have the subject of actually riding our horses come up. The entire bond between human and equine sprung from the relationship between horse and rider after all. If somebody hadn't realized horses were the happening mode of transportation, our equine friends would be grouped with cattle, sheep and hogs. You know, meat.
Somewhere, somehow the horse has been elevated to the status of a spiritual being. A companion animal, a best friend, a confidant.
In the course of this transformation we have changed the role of our horses from a service animal to an animal we bend over backwards to accommodate. We shelter them in barns more secure than our own homes, we blanket them, we feed them expensive mixes of feed and supplements. I know for a fact my horses get better dental care than I do and they definitely get more pairs of shoes every year.
We spend thousands of dollars learning how they think, move and react. We sacrifice our money, time and relationships to secure their well-being.
Is there irony here? Big time in my book. Since a horse allowed to choose it's life will be out in the winds in the open prairie, safe from the confines of a barn or any other cave-like structure. As a matter of fact, if they can make a choice, they'll be running with their buds, giving us a dismissive flick of the ear as they fly by.

A horse's digestive system is designed to continually have high fiber, low-protein grasses travelling through it most of the time, yet we colic the horses we love so much, stuffing them with rich grains and hay, carefully doled out in a few feedings a day. We clip the protective hair from their ears and legs, keep them blanketed and under lights so they can't grow protective hair. We breed them to have big bodies and small feet, or tiny with birdy bones to make them quick and fast.
What has happened here? It seems to me we are still treating our horses as a service animal, it's just that our expectations of service have changed. We still keep our own needs foremost, but we wrap ourselves up in a fog of "Horsenality" which will let us pretend we're looking out for our horse's best interest.

I am not accusing here. I am as guilty as the rest. I love my horses. I have altered their nature to the point where my favorite horse will gladly abandon her herd mates to spend time with me. It makes me feel wonderful.

I first learned to truly study a horse's body language to achieve a better relationship with them through John Lyons. Then I found Ray Hunt. My life with horses changed dramatically. I learned to love them even more through understanding. Training became easier, kinder, faster.

It was just short of miraculous.

When I started training horses who were going to perform in the upper level shows my understanding helped make my job easier. It also ended up making me really question the ethics of what I was doing. I still wrestle with this every day.

Part of my thinking revolves around where the role of horses fits in my life. As a show horse there is no question they continue the role of service animal. The industry molds them and throws them away as needed. The same industry creates the fancy breeding I'm so fond of.

I have accepted this and am trying to decide if I can balance what is expected in order to win in the show pen and my desire to keep my companions happy and sound.

So here comes my next point. I think we got in a heap of trouble when the movie "The Horse Whisperer" came out. Soft lighting and Robert Redford created a tidal wave of people with nothing more than a romantic mental image of horses ready to wade in and learn how to be one with a horse.

Anybody can attend a few clinics, put a round pen up on their five acre ranchette and adopt a mustang or two. This idea of training has been encouraged by countless clinicians who are ready to sell you a few tapes, sign you up for their 20 step program, take your money and declare you a trainer. All without ever getting on the damn thing. If you understand how to turn them in a pen by pointing your finger or get them to follow you around your corral without a halter, well then, you're a horseman.

The horse population peaked in the ten years following the "The Horse Whisperer". Baby boomers started buying, breeding and training their own horses at an unprecedented rate. The big ranches which used to produce the riding horses we knew disappeared as 5, 10, 20 and 40 acre lots took over the ranch properties.

The terms back-yard breeder, rescue and NH'er became part of our horse speak. How are these all connected? I think we have to accept some responsibility here.

I understand most of the big-name clinicians offer programs which will eventually get you on your horse. I also think they have to be very careful not to get somebody killed. Because they are extremely aware that most of their clients are women over 40, with little or no previous experience with horses, with a horse they can't cope with. Usually a youngster, barely started or not started at all. So they get heavily into the ground work. They teach you to go back to the ground work every time something goes wrong. You are encouraged to learn to read every ear-flick, tail swat or wrinkled nostril. You are taught to make sure each step is completely taught and understood on both sides before you dare proceed to the next.

Believe me, this is pretty practical advice if you're an under-trained, naive horse owner who can't ride. Because if you haven't put in your time on the back of a horse, you shouldn't be messing with a young one. But I don't see many well broke twelve-year-old geldings in the round pen.

I guess what I wish is we could be calling the kettle black here. I don't really care if you want to spend all your time with your horse on the ground. If you get satisfaction from carrot sticks and clickers I'm fine with it. Because personal satisfaction is what owning a horse is all about isn't it? I also feel the horse in this situation is every bit as much a service animal as the aging ranch horse who is run through a local production sale.

I think our horses should be rideable in case something happens to us and end up being sold. If they can be ridden they have a much higher chance of survival than a horse who will put his nose on a cone when we click our clicker.

Other than being broke enough to ride down the trail I think we should do what we want. I also think we should start to be honest about our motives. Are we endlessly working on the ground because we're too scared to ride? I'm sorry guys, the only way to conquer our fear is by riding. For hours and hours. If we could be honest about why we do things maybe we would quit saddling ourselves with horses we can't ride. Maybe we would quit pointing fingers at others who do thing differently than ourselves. Maybe we could pool knowledge and get to be where we truly want to be. Riding. Because I don't know about you, but when I finally realized my childhood dreams of owning a horse, the picture in my mind was all about running my horse, my friend, my companion, across a field. With me on his back.

Friday, January 2, 2009


I have been chewing, (stewing?) on this subject for a while now. The longer I blog the more alternative opinions I run into. I try to be open in my thoughts, I really do. I have been given some interesting things to think about and have learned a bunch.
There has been one subject which keeps looming larger and higher in the horizon and is about to drive me crazy. It has to do with ground work and riding. How much is good? How much will keep me safe? How can I guarantee I've done enough? I think groundwork is becoming an excuse not to get up and ride. I see a tendency to stay on the ground longer and longer and spend more time avoiding getting into the saddle.
My horses have some basic groundwork I want them to have.
1.They have to lead. I mean freely and willingly walk with me on a relaxed lead rope.
2.My horses must stand tied. Alone and in groups. They don't have to like it, but they have to do it.
3.My horses must be respectful of my space. This is at all times. They can't bang into me, rub on me, or kick me in the heels when I'm leading them. This is when they are loose or tied, in the stall or out in a field. When I walk towards them I expect them to look at me with a pleasant expression and clear their hip away from me. Always.
4.My horses must stand quietly while I tack them up. This is when I saddle them or am just catching them in a field. They must keep their feet still while I tighten their cinch, clean their feet, or anything that makes me drop my head below their chest level.
5. My horses must stand quietly for the vet and farrier. They don't get to rear, kick, wiggle or goof.
6. My horses learn to longe. They walk, trot when I cluck and lope when I kiss. They take their leads in each direction. They stop when I say whoa. I don't worry about transitioning down.
7.Round Pen...see 6.

That's it. My concept of groundwork. The kicker here is, I consider all of this stuff a work in progress. An ongoing project, along with what I mainly do with my horse, which is ride her.
My whole goal with a horse has always been and always will be to ride. Not to spend days analyzing them at a walk or occasional trot as they go around a round pen or a longe line.
I have made sure I'm educated enough to know if my horse is lame. Or has a sore back.
Other than that, I'm going to ride. Period. I'm going to work on the ground stuff at the same time I'm working on my riding stuff.
I don't need my horse to learn to stand on a box, in a box or by a box. Unless I'm on her and want her in a box.
The only despooking I'm going to do is to make sure she doesn't buck me off when I put on my rain slicker. Which I do by rubbing her all over with said slicker until she doesn't care anymore. Then I get on her and take my slicker on and off. Then I hang my slicker on a fence and off a fence and sling it around. You know when I do this the first time? When it's going to rain and I need my slicker. It takes about ten minutes. If it takes longer I get wet.
As my life goes on with a horse I'm riding, things come up. I need to pull a kid on a sled? Well I guess we learn to pull. Going on a trail ride with 11 water crossings? I bet she'll be broke to cross water when we're done. Need to reach my Diet Pepsi off a fence post? We learn to get things off the fence post. See what I mean?
I'm a big believer in addressing things as they come up. As time goes by my horse gets better and better at doing what I ask. Because every ride entails successfully, or not so successfully, taking on a new challenge.
If it doesn't work out there's always tomorrow. The key point here is I'm riding my horse. I'm not getting hung up on the what ifs. The reality is if you don't just ride you won't ever get anything done. I'll work on my ground work as I catch him, saddle him and ride him. If I don't know how to do something I'll find a way to learn it, while riding my horse. She'll learn it when I do. In the mean time we'll be working on what we do know.
I feel the same way about bad attitudes, crooked ways of going, inability to take a lead etc. It's all stuff I have to work on, but I work on it while I'm riding. I don't feel a need to fix it on the ground first.
I had a horse come in for sixty days. He was a cute little paint colt. As I worked him I noticed he was curved to the right. He moved around like he was being set up to take his left lead. Which he did. All the time. He would pin his ears and wring his tail if we tried to move him around to the left on the longe. He obviously was uncomfortable.
I was still training out of the Big K's place at the time, so I asked him about it.
Keep in mind we knew the horse was sound and healthy.
"I've seen horses like this before," he said, "I've heard it's how they lay in the womb.
"I've always thought it could be as simple as the mare nursing them in a cramped stall, or they have a water bucket set funny. But I wouldn't worry about it, keep it in the back of your mind and make sure you have control of his ribs before you lope him."
So I didn't worry about it. What I did do was start him under saddle right away so I could start shaping his body with my legs as he travelled.
I long trotted the little paint a bunch. I focused on helping him travel straight lines and following his nose. I spiraled him up and down, at the trot, about 70% to the left. My reasoning was he needed to tighten the muscles on the left side of his body and loosen the ones on the right.
I taught him to trot deep with his head down and his nose extended, (think cowboy "chewy stretchy"). We worked on 90 degree turns, square corners and maintaining speed. I loped him, but I didn't ask for a lead at first. I simply got him to lope when I kissed. I ignored his slinging head and grumpy attitude. He never became lame or sore, but bending to the left felt completely wrong to him.
When we finally got around to the right lead I had control of his feet and shoulders. I stayed off his face, kept my inside leg at the cinch for support and my outside leg pushed his hip into the right lead. His head slung to the outside, he missed it a few times and then picked up his lead. By the time his owner took him home he was still crooked, but could WTC, was happy and responsive and knew his leads. Because of the consistent exercise, while I rode him, he became comfortable travelling to the left. As the years have gone by he has gotten better and better. But he will always be crooked and his owners will always have to work to keep him balanced. By riding him.
I am crooked. I have mild scoliosis and horrifying posture from an inbred "dowagers" hump. Gotta love that description. I look a little like a Turkey vulture with a list to the right. When things get bad I have to go in for some serious physical therapy. How does my therapist approach this? With strengthening. He gives me exercises which stretch my muscles on the right and strengthen the muscles on the left. Hmmmm.
I will always be crooked. I am achy. I limp when I first get up in the morning. I pin my ears and wring my tail until I get at least two cups of coffee. But as soon as I quit forcing myself to move I'll be done in. I have started running with my dogs. It sucks, but I refuse to lose any more of the mobility I started to lose as soon as I got chained to my desk. I have to keep riding. I don't want to have to stay on the ground. So I run. I stretch. I exercise. I can't imagine not doing the same for my horses.
There's a part two to this rant-o-rama. But I would like to get some input and thoughts.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

What are your New Year's resolutions for you and your equine friends? Is it as simple as adding one more ride a week? Or finally making the commitment to buy the horse of your dreams?
Some of us will try to advance in our chosen discipline. Some will try to learn a new one. Maybe it’s time to suck it up and lope those first steps, or enter a new class at your local club.

If you have questions about the best way to feed your horse, now is a good time to learn about the nutritional needs of horses in the area you live in. I know that on the prairies of Colorado we need at least five acres of ground per head to sustain a horse. From what I've seen, it should be ten. Even though I love my “feed store guy”, I’m going to talk to my vet to learn the best way to keep my horse happy and healthy.

If you have always wanted a horse, maybe this is the year to take riding lessons or volunteer at your favorite rescue (or both). You can learn to ride, shovel and feed. What better way to make sure you understand what you’re getting into before you buy an animal which could easily live for the next 30 years?

I have several plans for the upcoming year. Most of them involve absorbing the shock of working in an office all day and finding a way to still enjoy my horses. I have learned that if you are chained to a desk 40 hours a week, 5 horses are 4 too many. Well, maybe three. Or two.

I also have been invited to become a regular contributor on I haven't learned all the rules and regulations yet, but I do believe I post on Saturdays, or every other. I'm going to try to change up on the things I write about over there. Maybe talk about the pain of trying to get published, finding a niche in the equine writer's market, learning to improve my writing skills, what's happening at the newspaper...see? My mind is already clicking along.

Anyway, here’s some of my thoughts and aspirations for 2009.

1. I will learn to cut. This is my priority. As a Reined Cowhorse competitor I cut to a limited extent. Although we call it herd work. Which is a good thing, because cutting is a complex entity unto itself and what we do in cowhorse really isn’t cutting. The more I learn about cutting the more I realize how hard it is. It fascinates me. So I am going to work and compete in cutting events to the best of my ability in 2009.
2. I will get all of my horses broke to a rope. I can’t rope. So I use it as an excuse not to have my horses comfortable with a lasso. I realize the world expects a western horse to be able to have a rope slung off it. So mine will.
3. I’ll compete in an endurance ride. Just one. NATRC hosts a beautiful ride at the Air Force Academy. The last time I rode in a NATRC ride was 35 years ago. It’s time to expand my horizons.
4. I’m going to go through each of my horses from the ground up. I’m going to check their manners (I know of a certain yellow horse who is in for a rude awakening), their responses on the ground. Then I’m going to ride and take each horse through his or her paces. Any time I find a hitch in their git-along I’m going to fix it. In other words I’m going to give each horse the time it deserves.
5. I’m going to enjoy my time in the saddle. For the rest of my life I get to ride because I want to. I get to ride because I love horses. I’m going to remember this every time I throw a leg over.

Happy New Year's guys. You are all a wonderful addition to my life. Thanks for reading. What are you doing with your horses in 2009?