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.


  1. What a cool story!

    I finally have a friend like this. Not quite to the extent you do, as we're not trainers. I grew up with such animosity towards western riding, and vice versa. I'm glad to say I've grown out of most of it. My friend and I share stories and ideas. It's lovely to not be english vs. western riders, and just horse-people instead.

  2. I love this story, thanks for sharing what an open minded inter-disciplinary friendship can be like.

  3. Super lesson in communication and figuring out what works. And a great Friday afternoon feel-good - thanks!

  4. Thanks for this story. I've driven a pony sulkie, ridden saddleseat, western, dressage and hunter/jumper and I never understood the animosity between the styles. I like horses any way I can get at them!! And I like playing dress up so I like the costumes for all kinds of riding. The only thing I haven't gotten to try is an Arabian robe outfit, but I would love to! Anywho, funny you should talk about this today. Our local club voted to add a reining class this year. I was in there raising my hand and promising to enter the class in at least the first 5 shows. (Stupid hand, why was it up?) So, my question is, can you go over how to get the sliding stop again (bearing in mind right now I have a shuffle-to-a-stop kind of fellow) and also, do I need sliding shoes on the horse, or can we get a passable slide in regular shoes? If I put sliding shoes on him, would that make him slide and fall down doing barrels?

  5. And that's the way people SHOULD discuss and learn new things. Open minded and compare. Not yell and scream at whoever doesn't see sames the same EXACT way you do. I like that.

  6. redsmom-I wouldn't put sliders on your horse unless you are getting serious about reining, although I have done things you wouldn't believe in my sliders.
    For what you want to do you need to worry most about asking your horse to ride a straight line down the center of the arena on a loose rein.
    Then when you get to the end, say whoa. You want your horse to stop on a loose rein. Now.
    I'm sure there is a stopping post somewhere back there.The judge will be more concerned about a nice straight, relaxed lope, (don't go 100 MPH)good solid circles, clean lead changes and correct spins than long stops.Slide stops, like everything else, start slow and relaxed, then build.

  7. Thanks, Mugs! You are good at encouragement. You should know that I am inspired to try reining because of YOU. I tried to get them to add working cow horse, but they said getting cows there would be too expensive. Give me a few years and I bet I'll nag them into doing it. LOL. It just looks like such a blast. I'm all excited about the new show season, and and so am blathering non-stop. I got my daughter a new horse so I get to ride her old one this year. I'm so excited not to have to ride the Red bucking monster anymore!! Instead of worrying about not getting killed, I can now work on riding!!

  8. Great story! I've always felt wierd cuz I'm so neutral... I really have no bad feelings about any particular way of going - I think it's all pretty cool.

    I do what I do cuz it's the path I chose at the time and it worked for me at the time. I really enjoy it and I can't afford to get into the other things and do them well... time or money wise.

    Nice way to head into the weekend -Thanks!

  9. Oh, one more question. I guess they post the pattern you are supposed to do on the day of the show? As opposed to you demonstrating a pattern you have perfected at home? I found a link to NRHA patterns. Will it be one of these or could it be any pattern the judge dreams up?

  10. redsmom-it depends on the club. We NEVER practice an entire pattern. The horses learn them immediately and begin to anticipate. We only practice the pieces.
    In order to learn them for yourself practice them on foot or with a breyer on the floor. Both work really well and you get to play horse!
    This sounds like it needs a post....

  11. When I was younger and I knew I had a lot of patterns to memorize for a show (with 4-H in our area they sent out pattern packets a week or two ahead of time), I would set up an arena in the backyard with cones, and then trot and canter through my patterns on foot until I got them all right. It was seriously an awesome way to memorize them!

  12. Thanks, Janet. Didn't mean to highjack!!

  13. Sounds like a great friend to have!

  14. Great story!! I always take cones with me to shows to practice patterns both on foot and parts of the patterns on the horse.

  15. I love this too...I'm down the middle, liking both Western & English (have a saddle of each) and will throw whatever one on I feel like. My mare doesn't care, but it was funny when I threw my Western saddle on my step-horse...the 17 hand, only done jumping, DW...he couldn't figure out why the leg signals suddenly were very dull LOL!


  16. I wasn't able to get riding lessons until I was 12. That seemed like forever for a horse crazy kid. So by the time I finally had my butt in a saddle I didn't care that it was western. Yeah, I really wanted to jump but I was riding a horse.

    Maybe because of that, I have never really understood why people seem to have such blatant animosity towards the other disciplines.

    We are all working towards the same general goal right? Bettering ourselves and our horses? Who cares what the saddle looks like or how you decide to trot - you are still riding

  17. I'm pretty in the middle too, though I've never had a friend to really discuss training back and forth with. Sounds like it'd be pretty awesome though!

  18. I loved that story! It was so great to see someone come in without the "my way or the highway" attitude and really want to learn something new and different. But I am a Michelle...I would be aghasted at not properly warming up (15 min. walk before you even think about trotting) so I would be out there early, too. :-)

  19. Mugs, love the post title.

    I've been reading your blog for a while now and now, with this post, I feel compelled to say something I've been feeling for a while. I ride dressage. And now I really really really want to learn to do reining. (Is grammatically correct? I feel like an idiot...)

  20. That is awesome. It takes two to tango, but both of you benefited tremendously.

    Reining and barrel racing go hand in hand too. Since you cannot spend all of your riding time training a barrel horse on the barrel pattern, I focus on teaching them the basics of reining horse manuvers. And I expect a barrel prospect to be able to perform a reasonable enough reining pattern to at least place in an open show before or while I am seasoning them to run barrels.
    While I am not an experience english rider by any means, I am also fond of throwing my english saddle on the barrel horses, because I find that in an english saddle, I can get them to round better when long trotting for conditioning. Cavaletti's are next on the list to add for conditioning aids. I know I have at least two horses that would really benefit from them.

  21. Thanks Mugs for another great story!
    I love this one because in my mind it relates to the Horsaii piece. When your truly love horses and want to be the best rider you can, all pride and preconceptions should go out the window. My friend and I are English riders, we are going to a western ranch in Montana this summer to learn some Western basics. I can't wait, I want to soak in whatever I can and become a better rider. I want to improve my seat and balance, have better hands, better understand my horse and how to communicate what I'm asking for. I feel that exposure to different disciplines will widen my understanding and that's what is important!

  22. "Do as I ask first..." Ok, trying for that elusive perfect circle on my young, silly, very fresh horse on a 20 degree day with the wind making the icicles in the trees rattle. My horse's 2nd favorite evasion is flinging his shoulders around (#1 is sucking back.) Circles are something we work up to doing. I use many different techniques to make my circles round.

    "Horses make perfect circles naturally." Focus on setting it up, asking the question, checking the response, correct as needed, let the horse be, just circle. Follow the instructions, ask questions later.

    And? A few false starts, a few straight-across corrections, a couple of spins...and voila! Perfect training level dressage circles with a steady rhythm, moving softly into a light contact, correct bend, his entire back swinging gently--with me sitting up there grinning and not doing much else! Wow! So simple when I get out of the way.

    More, please.

  23. This is such a great story, and one to which everyone with horses can relate. There always comes a time when you meet someone with whom you share nothing but the love of horses, and you are instantly on common ground.

  24. You know the funny thing is I started taking dressage lessons last fall, and I learned so much that I have incorporated into my western and gaited riding.

    I am a firm believer there is always something you can learn from other disciplines to improve your riding ability for the horses benefit

  25. Great topic! I think we can all learn from each other, my two best friends ride in other disciplines then I do, one rides Arabs saddleseat and the other is a hunt seat rider, both are trainers also. We love to pick each other's brains particularly my Arab buddy and I. We look at things differently and it has been beneficial on more then one occasion. Now if I could just convince them both that Pig is really not a people eater! LOL!

  26. One more thing, we all swap out tack and try new things....her Country English Pleasure horse has been a lovely western horse for me on more then one occasion.....

  27. the part about the mare. I have been wrestling with a similar issues of my own. Awhile back I posted a question about a horse that I was trying to make into a reiner. He is lazy and only wants to work when you are beating his ass constantly. A couple of weeks ago I went over to another barn to ride with a friend. She rode the A Circuit in the Bay Area and southern CA in her high school and college years and now just enjoys her big old 17.2 hand OTTB. She asked me if she could ride my boy english to see if he might work easier. Of course I am delighted when anyone wants to ride my horses, I take it as kind of compliment. She tacks my 15 hand quarter horse up in her jumping saddle and english bridle and off she goes. She liked the way he moved off her leg and how soft in the face he is. She commented on the fact that the basic manuvers for reining and dressage must be very similar because he was warming up like a dressage horse. He went over the cavaletti's like a pro so she set up a little (8 - 12 inch) jump and he went over like he had been doing it forever. I am sure that I was grinning from ear to ear. It was so nice to see him work willingly. My goal for all my horses is to see them be successful at something that they enjoy (besides eating and pooping). I am too old to start riding jumpers and my ass is too big for breeches. Your story gave me motivation to do what is right for him. Thanks.

    ps... I rode her OTTB western that day. what a hoot!

  28. Openminded horse people are the best! Great story. I have a diverse group of horse friends and it's rare to see trainers who do. However, it's really refreshing to see you do and how easily you exchange ideas. Very cool post.

  29. i love reading your stories mugs.. I also just wanted to check in and say that I havent been able to try any of your methods for the bulging shoulder. Here in Canada, my arena was frozen solid this weekend...sigh.. I will update the MINUTE I get to try though. Keep the Big K stories coming!

  30. This story pulled me out of hiding and has 'forced' me to comment. I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading it. I am a faithful reader of your blog, and absolutely love your training posts as much as your Big K stories.

    At risk of this comment being a little lengthly, I wanted to let you know why I like your blog so much. I love the fact that you are writing from knowledge based on actual experience. I love the fact that you have shown successfully, and are still willing to be honest and open about the not-so-good side of the horse industry. Most of all, I love the fact that your techniques fall directly in line with my Instructor/trainers (in Alberta, Canada) and by reading your explanation some of the excercises have become clearer, and and thus easier to execute.

    I think it is great when those of a specific disciplines are willing to try new ideas and thoughts. I mean not everthing is going to cross over, but good horsemanship always does. A trainer in Alberta whom I take clinics from on a regular basis has a few english riders that our repeat customers in his clinics. He is more than happy that they ride in an english sadde, but the split reins are not optional. I always think it's cute when I see their frusteration with trying to learn to manage split reins, but then during the occasional time i'm riding in an english bridle, I'm pretty sure they all think I'm a huge dork trying to short my reins up without having the bonus of a bridge in the middle to help pull them through and shorten them. :)

    Thanks for the great stories, and the super insite into your world. I may not comment, but you can be sure I am here reading. Sorry this got so long... it became a bit of a runaway train!

  31. I found your blog a week or so ago, set myself up to follow it and have just now got just get busy some times...You've stopped by my blog and left a lovely comment...thank you so much :)

    I truly enjoy reading your writing; you've got a lot of knowledge that I want to tap into. I sure wish you lived closer!!

    My goal it to read all of your don't be too surprised if you get questions and/or comments from your posts from months past!

  32. Great post! This is why I read your blog - I would love to try new things, but around here everybody rides English and mostly flatwork. At the moment I don't even have the chance to jump, let alone do anything more "outlandish". That may change though, and meanwhile, I'm enjoying your writing.