Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Help Is All Around You

This is my column from last week. But I have to add a little here. You guys are going to say HA! And I deserve it. When I brought my yellow mare in from pasture my pattern with her changed. I will get her out and groom her sometimes, just to take a break from work. There are days when I just let her graze. It's a completely new phase in our relationship.

The first time I got out my favorite rubber curry and began giving her a good rub down she almost came undone. Not in a bad way, mind you, I swear she was almost orgasmic.

Madonna groaned and worked her mouth and stretched out. She kept looking at me in complete amazement.

It suddenly hit me. I had never really groomed her before. She is 7 years old, I've owned her for the last 5 1/2 years and she's never been just brushed down.

Madonna grew up as part of my line up while I was training. My grooming was extremely functional. I took off their blankets, threw on a saddle and rode. Afterwards they were bathed, blanketed and put in their stall.

I felt like a total schmuck.

So now my horse is enjoying her full share of spa days. And she nickers when she sees me. She nuzzles my face and gently sniffs my hands. It's great. You guys tried to tell me.

Here's my article.....

I was grooming my mare yesterday and had the chance to observe a fellow boarder work his young colt. The sorrel gelding was moving comfortably around the pen at a jog. His owner was doing some bending and flexing exercises, his light hands and subtle sense of timing were what drew my eye.

The colt was relaxed under saddle and perfectly willing to bend and give where his owner wanted him to.

I was thinking how nice it is to watch a colt being given a good start in life. He was happy in his work, his tail swung in an easy rhythm and his eyes were bright and cheerful. The horse was being ridden exactly the way I like to see a young horse go, exactly the way I strive to start my horses. I can only hope mine look as congenial and forward as this one did.

His nose followed the riders hands, his ribs lined up as the riders legs asked, and his hip stayed lively and mobile.

The rider took the colt out in our big arena and loped him out. There was no panic, no skittering, no nonsense. Just an even, relaxed cadence on a loose rein.

What drew my eye was the quality of riding. This guy can handle a colt. I would let him start one of mine, which is not something I say very often.

Here’s the kicker. This guy is a roper. His real job is horse shoing.

He rides completely different than I do, from the length of his stirrups to where he sits in the saddle. His sport is completely different than mine. The propulsion, balance points and way of going are completely different than the ones I’ve learned.

But when it comes to how he starts his colt on life’s path, it’s all the same.

This tells me two things.

I can find quality riders in every aspect of horsemanship.

I know what I want and can recognize it when I see it.

The first point is one I’ve brought up before and probably will again. I have found I can learn something from everyone I meet. This is especially true in the horse world.

I learned a lot about forward and how to grow a tail on a horse from a Morgan trainer I barn shared with. I’m talking about the kind of Morgans that have their heads cranked high in the air, their feet are kept so long you can’t figure out how they move, and they spend their lives in box stalls wearing neck sweats and cruppers.

This is not a discipline I understand, or, I’m afraid, approve of. I hated the way the horses were kept. I hate the bitting rigs, the feet and their life of imprisonment.

I had a problem with the spoiled brat owners, the snotty little girls in their really expensive riding togs, and the concept of money winning everything.

Because I had to barn share with the guy I kept my mouth shut. He was equally wary of me, I can’t imagine what kinds of crazy heathen he thought I was.

One afternoon I was watching him work a horse on the rail in our indoor arena. His assistant was shooting off a cap gun as the horse would pass. The young gelding would drive even harder, his legs would snap higher and he would get even more air between strides. His eyes were rolling in terror and he was soaked in hot, foamy sweat.

I tried to figure out what the hell they were doing to the poor horse.

When he had finished and handed off the colt to his assistant I went over to talk to him.

“Could you explain what you were doing to me?” I asked.

The Morgan trainer was immediately on the defensive. “What are you talking about?”

“I was watching how much forward your horse has,” I hurried to explain,” and even when he knew you were going to shoot off the cap gun he just pushed harder into the bridle instead of shying away.”

The trainer relaxed and explained the idea behind it. The cap guns were to get a higher level of animation out of the horse. The horses were taught from day one they would get a release from pressure by driving themselves straight and forward. As their hind legs drove forward they met the bit and went higher, driving themselves as if they were climbing a hill. It created the flashy look the Morgan show ring required.

Don’t get me wrong here. I hate, hate, hate the unnatural way these horses were treated. I can’t condone it. I am well aware there are many who can’t condone the way I do things either. So instead of screaming from the roof tops how right I am, I try to glean something useful from everybody I come across. I had all kinds of thinking to do about drive and how to get it from my conversations with the Morgan trainer.

I learned that the snooty little girls were just as anxious about winning, losing, looking stupid or making a mistake as my students were. I also saw the horses showered with love and affection and realized Morgan’s were pretty athletic, kind, and social. Spoiled brat owners? Well, they come at all levels, what can I say. The Morgan guy taught me how to grow out a tail with a minimum of fuss.

My second point revolves around being able to recognize good training. I developed my point of view over a lot of years. From the people who helped or hindered when I was kid, to the trainers I rubbed elbows with as I progressed through the professional world, I learned to recognize what was effective handling and what wasn’t.

I’m one of those people who will watch an entire horse show. After I’ve ridden an my horse is put up I still go to the stands and watch until the end.

I watch my fellow competitors from the warm-up to their go in the arena. I watch the interaction between trainers and their clients. I watch the horses, study their build, their legs, their headset. At the breed shows I watch at least part of the other classes, from halter to western riding. I do a lot of deliberate thinking about what I would like to be able to do and how I would go about doing it.

Again, my obsessive nature is probably showing, but I can’t help it. I study the cowboys on their horses in the old Westerns the same way. How do they ride, how does the horse go, what kind of gear are they using?

So now, I’m retired, my horses are pretty much as good as they’re going to get and I’m still watching and learning. Like the roper on his colt. He got me thinking. Is my colt wrapping around my leg as light as the little sorrel colt? Is he moving out as free and easy? I can’t wait to go check myself and my little colt out.


  1. Really appreciated this post. Both the beginning - and remembering to spend all sorts of time with our horses - and the rest - remembering to be looking and seeing what others do and being open to understanding their purpose and method. So much of life is better when we can really ask out of curiosity rather than judgement.

  2. The beginning made me laugh out loud. Feels good to be more than just business partners, doesn't it?

  3. Now when she lets her yellow mare groom her back...then I'll know she's come over totally to this side LOL!:)

    I really think my mare works harder for me because I do take the time to baby her and bond with her. My newest mini rescue, a 20 year old stallion(okay, ex as of yesterday) was not handled properly for years, and after having him here 10 weeks (and going from a body scale of 2 to about a 4), loves to be groomed - the minute I start, he's chewing away. He's still got a "wild" streak, but works right through it in seconds because he just loves the attention!

    Enjoy your new relationship with your mare!


  4. Never, ever, ever do we stop learning from one another.

    At least, I hope not.

    Everybody needs a spa day now and again.

  5. Thanks for this post. It brings up a lot of "stuff" for me. I am recently retired, and my first priority in my new life is getting my 4 yr old gelding well broke. I had started him last year, but got off track because of work etc...

    The first thing I decided, was to have a younger person ride him and get him going forward. It's the best decision I've made in years. I found a very young and very talented girl who rides the way I wish I could. It really humbled me to admit that I am the student and she's the teacher. But I think my horse will be better for it, and that's the important thing.

    It's also helped me relax a lot around my colt. I'm more relaxed now when I do ride him, and because I'm able to be around when she rides him, I've noticed that he really sees me as his "safe" place.

  6. Hi Mugs! I have a favour - could you share with us the way to grow tails you learnt? I have two Morgans (not part of that how scene, we don't have that in Oz) and while they certainly don't need it now they may in the future.
    Pretty please? Also if you have any hints for manes - my Welshie mare has rubbed a huge chunk outta hers!!

  7. You have forgotten more about riding and training horses than I will ever know. But I had to smile as one who has long known about the joys of just "being" with my horses. Spa days are such a joy for both them and me, and now you know it, too. I'm happy for you.

  8. Oh Mugs just wait untill she stops when your walking one day with googley eyes and looking at the itchy spot on her belly.

    And just wait untill the day you actually stop and itch it for her.

    Yeah, she'll have you broke then :)

    Its nice having a horse friend, you'll love it :)

  9. Thanks for this post :)

    Ditto what HorsesandTurbos said... my guy (thoroughly) grooms me back. He doesn't have another horse to groom with and it seems so appreciative that I have to let him :)

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. It can be so much easier to just condemn people who do things differently, but I know that if I change my attitude, I can learn from them instead.

  11. I second the request for growing out a tail!! Happy Thanksgiving!

  12. A bunch of us were watching the Mustang Challenge for a local rescue. Some of the horses were quite a bit more skittery than the others. One of the trainers, a jumper/dressage guy had a horse that was obviously terrified to be in the big arena with bunches of people watching and other horses doing stuff around it. When the guy asked his horse to step over the 4" high 'bridge', the horse refused and squirmed about two or three times. This was being judged for a cash prize. So he got off, petted his horse and led her across the bridge a couple of times like I'm sure he did at home. He was so kind and calm that we started clapping for him. So I totally agree that there are good (and not so good) people in every discipline. Guess that's kind of a 'duh!' statement, but oh well.

    Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving! I'm thankful for Mugs who is so generous in sharing her knowledge so people like me can be a better horseman.

  13. Hi Mugs -

    I've been lurking along through your archives. I love LOVE love your blog and can't believe I haven't found it sooner. I just want to say that I think you're a wonderful write, horsewoman and teacher...I have always found it difficult to read and understand horse advice, but with your way of writing and putting things, I feel I've learned quite a lot.

    On another note, for 19 years I've owned, ridden and shown Morgan horses. Yes, the saddle seat thing is a part of our show world, I don't like it much either, but I hope you know that the majority of our Morgan owners and exhibitors ride hunt and western...also Dressage, reining and cowy stuff too!! I myself am a western pleasure gal, though you make me wanna get a Morgan in a cattle pen! (is that phrased right)? LOL