Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tally 4

The light in the arena was always beautiful in the early morning.

Cool white beams broke through the dirt encrusted, corrugated plastic windows high above me. Dust puffed in clouds around my feet as I crossed the sawdust floor to slide open the door. When I stomped the dust danced in the light high above my head. When I stepped as soft and careful as a Lakota scout it would still catch sparks of light as it puffed around each foot.

I coughed as I inhaled the first lungful of dust of the day. Fairy dust my ass.

I latched the end gate and leaned out into the cool air. The boss was singing a lonesome cowboy tune, the kind I liked, filled with vast empty plains, jingling spurs and good horses. I could just hear him over the Daewoo as he chugged down the row of corrals, tossing hay and feed to the boarded horses.

Goose pimples covered my legs and I wished I was wearing my jeans and boots instead of shorts and running shoes.

I left the big door open as I hooked up the sprinklers and started to water the arena. Tally watched every move I made, just as she did every morning, studying me between mouthfuls of hay.

Once the sprinklers were chugging away, in a vain attempt to beat down the dust, I crawled up the bars of Tally's pen and sat on top of the fence, right next to her feeder.

I opened my latest in the John Sandford "Prey" series and began to read out loud to her." 'We heard you found a whole bunch of skeletons.' Her jaw dropped open...." I hadn't enjoyed the series as much since Lucas had met Weather. What a cheesy name. But it was a pleasurable enough way to pass the time.

Tally spun away and stood in her corner with her face to the wall. Her feet no longer danced in terror and her head no longer lowered to the floor. Instead her heavy black tail twitched in irritation and she kept swinging her head around to glare at me, her nose wrinkled and her big doe eyes hard as marbles.

I kept reading aloud, gesturing and raising my voice in dread or excitement as the gooshy parts dictated.

"Your going to give the poor little thing nightmares," my boss's teasing voice broke into my one man show.

"Leave me be, I'm training here," I said, only half joking.

"Well, it's only been two months, and at least you've managed to piss her off, even if you can't touch her."

I shifted around until my back was to him and went back to reading.

He broke back into his song and headed into the barn to clean stalls.

After ten more minutes of fussing Tally sighed and came back to her feeder. In order to eat she had to put her head directly under my legs.

I immediately scooched away a few feet and quit reading out loud. We sat together in what I at least hoped was a companionable silence for another twenty minutes or so.

I finally climbed down the fence, and although she snorted and flipped her forelock, Tally didn't leave her hay.

Hmmm, progress, I thought as I went to turn off the water and close the big door.

I closed the door and leaned up against it. The only time I could really stare at Tally was from here, at the end of the arena.

She looked good. Her legs had healed and the scars were tight and clean. She was muscled and sleek from the regimen of good food and our early morning workouts. Her tangled and matted mane and tail made my fingers itch and her muscular back made me ache to ride her. I understood Bill's impatience. If I hadn't seen first hand what happened when Tally was forced I'd have been tempted to try the same.

I was at complete loss. My experience had not prepared me for a horse like this one. She kind of hurt my feelings. I was used to the horses I trained liking me. At least eventually. Tally continued to size me up like she was figuring the best place to plant a hoofprint.

I clung to one sentence I had been told by Ray Hunt. "If you have the feet, you have the horse."

In my mind everything I did with Tally was about gaining control of her feet. I was flying by the seat of my pants.

"Time to rock and roll," I said. Tally raised her head and looked straight at me.

I opened the gate to her pen and she flowed past me. Tally was able to go from head in the feeder to a full smooth gallop in two strides. Her little hammer head stayed level with her flat, meaty withers and her tail hung straight and heavy.

I stayed out of her way as she blew around, getting the kinks out. She whipped through the puddled water without missing a beat and snorted in play at the banners on the walls. She ran through the middle and switched leads without a ripple.

"You're killing me, mare," I called out in frustration and gathered up my longe whip to start another futile workout.

I walked just past the center of the arena and stood in the middle of my great big imaginary round pen.

Tally flicked an ear at me and blasted to the other end of the arena to stand by her pen.

I immediately charged her, screaming and yelling, brandishing my whip like a mad woman.

She waited until I had almost reached her and raced towards the other end of the arena.

She stopped and waited for me, her eyes sparkling. It totally pissed me off to see that Tally, did indeed, have a sense of fun. I still gave her a slow count of ten, willing her to understand the safe place was down at the end of the arena with me.

I walked back towards her, whip dragging behind me, my pace even and determined. I stayed a little to the left of her to give her a way to run away from me.

I had given Tally a vicious lesson about running past me. She could run away from me but never past. The mare was never going to run me over. She knew it and I knew it.

In return I always gave her an escape. I knew I had to keep the feet moving. Which had led to our current conundrum.

As soon as I had reached the midpoint of my imaginary round pen Tally took off for the other end. I ran screaming and yelling at her again.

And so on. We kept this up and would only rest when I stood by her gate, hand on my knees, wheezing as the fast drying dust began to suffocate me. I pretended I was letting Tally air up in the safe spot.

Tally stood on the other end watching me. It cheered me to see she was covered with sweat and

I regrouped and we began again.

I stood tall and relaxed and headed toward my selected center.

She stood tensed and ready to go. As soon as I was even with her hip she began to trot off.

"Ahhhh!!!! You bitch!" I screamed and began my charge, wobbly knees and all.

Tally headed towards the gate but veered right and began to come around me.

I slammed my mouth shut and quickly went neutral. My war cry turned to a strangled gargle.

She trotted around me and stopped at the safe spot. I forced myself to breathe slow and even. I looked at the air in front of her, willing her to stay with me for a few more seconds.

Then carefully, I looked at her hip and followed by pointing my longe whip at her hip too. She trotted off, her ears flicking back and forth and her head raised.

I waited until her shoulders headed toward the gate and her ears left me to point to home.

"Hey!" I yelled and raised the whip.

Tally altered her course and came around me. She stopped in the safe spot and looked at me again.

I turned my back and gave her a release. I counted to ten, turned to face her and she waited until I looked at her hip and pointed the whip.

She trotted off. This time she kept her ears on me when she began to shear off toward her pen.

I whistled, sharp and short and she came around.

When she came to her safe spot I pointed the whip at her hip and she skittered a little as I pushed her through.

Her ears flicked and her eyes were bright. I wished she would relax the hard knot of her chin, but Tally was only thinking things through. She wasn't one to hand anything over.

She went around me at a slow and steady trot. Her head dropped back to level and we circled. Maybe not the eighty foot circle I envisioned, but it was pretty darn fine. I breathed deep trying to steady my pounding heart and shaking hands.

I dropped the whip, stepped to the left and turned my back to her.

I could feel her land in her safe spot, her breathing was up, but steady like a well exercised horse, not a frightened one.

I walked to her pen and opened her gate. Normally I would stand aside so she would feel safe enough to enter, but today was a whole new day. I had her feet.

Tally snorted a few times and kicked out a hind foot in irritation. I was breaking the rules.

"Do you want me to start reading again?" I asked her. "I've got all day."

She paced back and forth a few times and finally began to sidle up the long wall. I looked away, but kept my hand on the gate. As she walked past me into the pen my extended fingers just brushed her side.

Tally jumped into her pen and turned to face me. She extended her nose towards my face and I froze. She sniffed me slowly and carefully, my eyes, my ears, my hair. She sighed and went to her hay.

I went to my car and gathered my spurs and jeans. I walked down the barn aisle and picked up a bucket. I was sticky with sweat and dust and looked forward to an icy cold clean up before I got into my jeans. As I filled it with water the boss came by with his wheel barrow.

"Are you all right?" He asked. His face was puzzled and concerned.

"Couldn't be better," I answered and headed to the tack room with my wash water. Sometimes I just didn't get him.

When I looked in the dusty mirror I was confused to see tear tracks snaking their muddy way down my dust covered face. I had no clue I was crying.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mort and I

Bareback Anyone?

By Janet Huntington

My insides were shaking and my thoughts flying as I walked across the field to the little run down sheds and corrals built piecemeal with silvery gray boards. Mort snorted and began to trot around his corral. He bucked and spun as if spurred by my approaching energy. I grabbed his hackamore out of my shed and crawled between the poles of the corral.

He came to me and I leaned into him. His heady smell filled my nostrils and he curled his neck around me in his best Mort hug. The silky feel under my hand and the metallic shine of his coat couldn’t soothe me. Not today.

I slipped the hackamore over his nose and ears and flipped the reins over his neck. The ache was building and I swung up on his back with a single, fluid jump.

We were through the gates and out on the road at a high trot within minutes. We ignored the staccato beeps from the cars and held our trot across Academy in a careless game of chicken.

The long slow hill leading into the trees opened in front of us and Mort bolted. He was confident there would be no pull on the reins today.

I slid back and a little to the side, I wasn’t ready for his huge jump forward and the lightening fast speed of his surge, but Mort was right, there would be no pull from me today, I needed to fly.

I grabbed his mane and hoisted myself to the middle of his back.

The trail flattened out parallel to Maizeland and we raced the cars up the hill. As we approached the trees Mort slowed to an extended trot. We zigged- zagged through the familiar twists and turns of the trail. A gentle touch of the reins sent us down the trail to the outer loop around the park.

He picked up speed as we came out in the open and we were soon in a full gallop.
I sat up straight as his pace evened out, finding my rhythm with each powerful stride. I let my legs swing free, balanced and easy in my seat.

The knot in my stomach began to loosen and waves of sadness began to flow over me. Anger soon followed and the weight of my out of control emotion sent my thoughts spiraling.

I asked Mort for more speed and he stretched out into the rough 1-2-3-4 of the full gallop. I clung to his mane until I found balance again. The trees whipped by in a blur and I felt everything slowly easing. My anger seeped away, I felt fearless and strong. But it still wasn’t enough.

I leaned forward and slid the hackamore off of Mort’s head. I slung the bridle over my shoulder and stroked his neck. I leaned back and lost myself in the freight train chug of Mort’s breathing.

I clung so tight to his mane I felt my nails cut into my palms. I forced myself to take first one hand and then the other from his mane. I flung my arms out and my head back and we ran.

One entity together, my stigmata marked palms faced up to the sun and I closed my eyes. As we pounded around the far end of the park I finally felt peace come through me. Mort slowed to a canter as I relaxed deeper into him. We were one, we were I, we were him.

This is what your kids do on their horses when you’re not looking folks.

As a teenager I had complete confidence in my horse and my balance. I trusted absolutely nothing else. I wasn’t the only nut job high school age girl out there either. There was a whole gang of us. I would say my friend Melinda and I were the most daring, but the rest of our group was pretty courageous.

Our parents had no clue. Not even an inkling.

Now I’m a grown up. I’m sane and sober and my mare has never been ridden bareback. She is well mannered and steady because I broke her and trained her to be that way.

But a funny thing happened to me last week. I felt sad and angry and scared all rolled into one. I needed to ride with a desperation that surprised me.

I met my friend Kathy at the barn. She had already gotten the horses out and had groomed them both. I got out of my car and realized I had forgotten the key to my tack room. My saddle and hackamore were locked up tight. I ran my hand over my mare’s back. She has a strong, sturdy back, well-rounded and cushy. My thoughts were racing.

“What are you doing?” Kathy asked me.

“Nothing, just thinking,” I told her.

I untied my mare and lined her up by my trailer fender. I put my leg on her back and she danced away, uneasy and confused.

“Have you ever ridden her bareback?” Kathy asked.

“No.” I replied.

“How long has it been since you’ve ridden bareback?” she pursued.

“Oh, probably 12 years or so,” I said.

My mare kept moving away and tossing her head. Clearly she agreed with Kathy, this was a bad idea.

Finally, sanity returned and I gave up. My muscles have tightened over the years and my bareback riding instinct has been buried deep by proper riding, correct horse training and age.

We took the horses back to their pen. Kathy assured me we would try to ride tomorrow.

My mare bucked and snorted around her pen as if spurred.

My restlessness is still here. I may have to bow to my years but I don’t have to give in. I’ve decided I’m going to ride bareback again, but I’ll do it right.

I’ll get on my mare bareback for the first time after we’ve ridden and she’s tired. I’ll ride with her hackamore, not her halter and I’ll begin by walking around the round pen. I have balance exercises I taught my students for years. I’ll use them myself and see if I can find my the muscle memory of days spent bareback on my horse. At least enough to keep me in the middle of my horse. My restlessness will just have to wait.

I had no idea retiring as a horse trainer was going to bring this back. I have to admit it’s going to be fun.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Down Under Horsemanship? - Buy Local

Here's this weeks column, this is definitely one I wanted to share with you guys.

Down Under Horsemanship ? – I’d Rather Buy Local
By Janet Huntington

When I was still in the horse training biz I had a client/student, Lyn, who was a huge Clinton Anderson fan.

She would call and cancel her lesson so she could go to his clinics.

The next week she would show up with a $40 dollar halter, $50 stick and $30 lead rope she had bought at the clinic.

“I just couldn’t help myself,” Lyn would say, “when I watch him I get so excited I just have to go buy his stuff.”

I would give Lyn a bleak glare and sigh.

Then she would hit me with the big one.

“He trains just like you do, it’s incredible, he explains things like you and everything.”

Ay Yi Yi. I would put my head in my hands.

“Lyn,” I would say, “if I train like this guy and explain things like this guy why didn’t you just come to your lesson?”

“I’ll tie you a knotty rope halter, make you a lead rope out of climbing rope with a carabiner on it and everything. Shoot, I’ll cut you a stick too. I’ll charge you $40 for the whole mess and still be about $35 ahead,” I would add.

Lyn would laugh and say, “Your right, but he’s just so cool.”

She did this to me a couple times a year.

She took evil delight in showing me her new Clinton Anderson toys and wearing her Clinton Anderson baseball cap to her lessons.

Lyn was also one of my favorite students and her burly bay quarter horse Ted was one of the neatest horses on the planet. So there you go. I put up with the Clinton Anderson moments from Lyn.

I have absolutely nothing against clinicians. These are horse people who have figured out how to make a living and for the most part help people along the way. I tip my hat to them.

I have studied Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and John Lyons and learned tons from all of them. Through their books, tapes and clinics I became a better horseman. I refined some of my methods, dropped others and learned a whole new approach to working with my horses. So you sure aren’t going to hear me tell anybody not to attend a clinic.

The thing is, after I went to enough of these clinics and read through a bunch of books I realized something. All of these guys were singing a variation of the same song. You can get pulled into huge arguments about who started this training style, but to me it doesn’t matter, it’s still pretty much the same approach for all of them.

Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.

Release as a reward.

Approach and retreat.

All of them preach it and every horse person on the planet needs to use it.

The thing is, that’s all they teach. Everything else is just molasses on the oats.

My first apprenticeship was with a young cow horse trainer from Calhan.

“Horse trainer” had been the only job description on my tax returns for about five years and I considered myself pretty handy.

In the five years I was under the Big K's mentorship my horsemanship and training skills soared. I was pulled into a world way over my head and floundered around for an awfully long time before I began to place in the NRCHA (National Reined Cow Horse Association) and AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) horse shows.

I’m telling you, these people could ride. The horse trainers I got to rub elbows with could get more out of, not just their horses, but themselves, than anybody I had ever had the honor to meet. I busted my butt to learn how to train my horses.

Every horse I came across in my new world already did everything I had seen on my tapes. They learned the majority of this stuff in the first 30 days of training, the rest they picked along the way.

Pretty soon mine did too.

K became one of the top money earning trainers in the country.

He was right here in Calhan.

There are trainers available in Colorado who can teach you anything you want to learn with your horse. I can guarantee all of them know the ins and outs of what the clinicians teach. If a trainer is worth his or her salt this basic horse training has been learned first off. Then they go on to the good stuff. And they’re right here, waiting to share it with you.

I went to the Clinton Anderson Walkabout Tour last weekend.

The guy can work a horse and a crowd. He is engaging, funny and full of common sense. Most of his work was on the ground, but when he rode, he rode well.

He has a great Australian accent.

He covered many of the fundamentals a horse and horse owner should know.

I didn’t disagree with a single thing he said. Because Lyn is right. He trains pretty much like I do.

He also trains pretty much like every decent trainer I know. I assume when he goes home he works on some of the other stuff. Mr. Anderson seems like a good hand.

But it costs $4000 to attend one of his clinics. For 10 days.

That’s the equivalent of 40 lessons by a local trainer. One on one, just you, your horse and the trainer.

It’s the equivalent of 6 months of full time training for your horse with lessons thrown in. With a local trainer who can teach you all of the stuff the clinicians teach plus how to work a cow, show in a horsemanship class, run barrels or compete in Western Versatility classes.

I don’t think my ticket was wasted at the Walkabout Tour. I picked up a couple of things I could add to my repertoire and learned a bunch about how to talk to clients.

Even though I’ve retired as a trainer, Anderson’s P.R. skills are phenomenal and could certainly help me as a writer.

He created enthusiasm and desire to take his techniques and apply them to the horses at home. He has rabid fans who pay to belong to his club and buy incredible amounts of his products.

He is offering clear examples of how to apply tried and true examples of horse training. He goes a long way towards demystifying getting your horse to do what we need them to do.

It wouldn’t hurt many of the trainers I know to go watch this man in action. He is kind, funny and most of all he can explain things in a clear and concise way. Many local trainers could polish up their communication skills. Ahem.

I think everybody should go watch a clinician or two. It will help you at home with your horse and give you a clear idea of where you want to go.

Then you need to find a trainer who can teach you what you and your horse need and go for it. Here. In Colorado. Buy local, save a horse trainer. I think Clinton would agree.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

My Horse Is A Sissy.

My riding skills are being sorely tested.

My yellow mare has been earning her nickname. A name that my sometimes rotten, always loved daughter gave her.
She calls her Pretty Polly Pocket Princess (4P).
If you knew my family you would understand the many levels of insult buried in this nickname.

Unfortunately my little mare goes to great lengths to prove that not only should she be called 4P, it should probably be her registered name.

Don’t get me wrong; when Madonna’s in the arena she’s all business. Well, most of the time anyway.

Of course the kidlette will tell you it feeds into the reason behind the name. The horse wants to be in the show ring. She becomes animated, almost taller. She just loves to have people look at her. I wish I could say she does all of this stuff because she wants to work a cow, but she just “getserdun” when we’re not in front of an audience.

She also spends a lot of time flipping her forelock, stomping her feet, chewing her bit, whatever it takes to get some attention.

This is hard on me. I’m the kind of person who wears black and brown show clothes. Maybe I’ll go crazy and add a touch of ecru once in a while. Only if I’m feeling particularly wacky.

I prefer to blend into the crowd.

These days it’s not a concern. I’m not showing. I work in the arena only 1 out of every 4 rides. Madonna is barefoot, so there’s no slide stops at the moment.

In the arena I stick to some pretty boring schoolwork.

We are working on a clean, solid lope depart, with plenty of drive and level carriage. We are cleaning up some messy balance issues that have led to tail snapping lead changes.

None of these are being worked on by changing leads or lope departs BTW. If you want I’ll actually explain what I’m doing and the thoughts behind it, but that’s for another day. Today you get to listen to me whine….

4P has never liked getting her feet dirty. It’s one of the fusses that can become downright pathological in a horse kept in a box stall.

The hardest emotional challenge for 4P as she switched from stall horse under blankets and lights to mustang in a field was having dirty feet.

I wish you could have seen her picking her way across a field after it rained. Her pasture mates would be already at the hayrack and she would be a quarter mile out tiptoeing around the icky parts, hollering her batty little head off the whole way.

She seemed to get over it. I mean she was out on pasture for a year and a half. So she learned to slog through the snow and mud of the changing seasons.

4P has been brought into town though. Her new stable has a shed, company and a large pen. I think she’s the happiest she’s ever been. She has people around all of the time to tell her she’s pretty, is back under saddle and she can stay out of the mud.

Yes, she’s back to dodging mud.

Which means we argue constantly as we head out on the trail.

She’s OK with crossing water as long as there’s no mud.

There is always mud.

Can you hear me sigh?

Which brings me back to my original point.

Ben Cartwright’s horse never fussed at mud.

So mine’s not going to either.

Trail riding is proving really, really good for all of us. As in me, my friend and riding buddy Kathy, and our horses.

Kathy’s Rosie will go through anything. She loves water and mud, so Kathy gets to make fun of 4P and me all day long.

Because good old OCD me has been finding as many water crossings as possible on our rides.

It goes like this.

“Do you want me to cross first?” Kathy asks, barely hiding her smirky little tone.

“No, she needs to cross,” I growl.

4P lowers her head, sniffs the mud, wrinkles her dainty little nose and rollbacks away like I wish she would in the showpen.

“Oof!” I say as a whack my gut on my cutting saddle's extremely high, skinny saddle horn.

Kathy sits comfortably on Miss Perfect Rosie Pants and waits.

Here’s where my method of keeping my reins loose and guiding with my legs frustrates me. Just a tad.

So I line her up again, give her plenty of rein and shove her forward with my calves.

4P tiptoes up to the water, sniffs the edge and gathers herself to jump.

“Oh no you don’t!” I say.

I gather her up and angle her a little to get rid of the urge to jump.

I release and she spins.


Kathy and Perfect Pants begin to laugh.

Finally I say, “Go ahead and go first.”

The Perfect Pair cross without issue.

4P stares at them, stares at the water, stares at them, stares at the mud…..and crosses.

So we continue on until the next crossing. Sigh.

I know we’ll get it. I’ve done it with many, many horses. But both 4P and I are such arena babies.

I have created a monster and I no longer seem to have my trail riding chops.

Loping across a field is totally different than the control and ground that comes with an arena.

Keeping my horse’s mind while allowing her to think through problems is an entirely different challenge now that we’re out.

The balance issues we are working on in the arena? I found them on the trail. They are mine and I’ve given the problem to my horse.

I have lost the natural glue that kept me in the saddle as a kid. I don’t think it’s gone forever.

Kathy and I are already braver and rowdier on the trail than we were even a few months ago.

We go for a comfortable canter when we see a good spot.

We’re working on going on uncomfortable canters in tough spots.

This makes me see why I have had problems with confidence in the show pen.

I don’t trust my seat.

The only way I know how to fix it is to ride. Like Ben Cartwright. Even if I’m on Pretty Polly Pocket Princess.