Monday, January 30, 2012

Mouthy Monday

Sillypony shares a great point about show ring perspective. Her outlook has certainly changed over the years, how about the rest of us?


I recently dug out the old box-o-home movies. When I was showing horses as a teenager we didn’t have Youtube. We didn’t even own a video camera. When I would get lucky enough to borrow one and beg my mom to tag along to a lesson or to a horse show, I would get a tape. An actual TAPE. If I wanted to show the video to anyone, I’d have to take it to someone’s house, or if it was one of those “convenient” mini-tapes, I’d have to take the whole video camera and a bag of obnoxious cables.

Of the eight or nine shows I did as a teenager I have only a few bits and pieces of footage. Don’t get me started about the one that was accidentally recorded over with hours of CNN and how I sat fast forwarding through the news, tears streaming down my face hoping in vain there was at least some of it left… Those recordings were precious, and they still are. But nearly 20 years later, watching those videos, I now understand why we didn’t win every class, but I sure didn’t at the time. I have the gift of perspective.

I lived in a small town and only did one or two shows a year; a small, saddle club open-show and the County Fair 4-H show. Most of the 4-H kids just learned from their parents or at the three or four open arena nights that the volunteers would host, having to explain that a curb bit needed a curb STRAP in order to actually work. There were a few of the better riders who would trailer their horses an hour or so away for a lesson or two. So the fact that I could get up to two lessons a day in the summers (in exchange for stall cleaning, lamb feeding, and whatever else I was told to do) made me feel like I knew a LOT about riding. I also read a lot of books since my interest/obsession in horses preceded my actual start of riding, by oh, say 13 years, give or take.

My first riding instructor was classically trained. She was sophisticated, elegant, and one of the kindest women I have ever met in my life. I will remember and cherish ALL of the lessons she gave me. She taught me well, but she was much more interested in making sure I was having a good time than anything. She was not at the forefront of the ins-and-outs of trends in horse shows, nor did she much care for them. She’d had her heyday 10-20 years earlier, and a successful heyday it was. We were relentless at begging her to ride in the “Over-the-Hill” class at the show. I still wish she had obliged.

“I only knew what you told me!” was my mother’s response when I joked with her about how the videos contained (in addition to my sub-standard riding) her whispered voice saying how I’d been “robbed” in certain classes, or quietly criticizing the other rider’s performances, even making comments that the Judge must be blind or “related” to the winning riders since the class was being judged so unfairly. We weren’t truly poor sports, mind you, just disappointed in the outcome because we didn’t really know what the judges were looking for. Yes, we, all of us, only know what we’ve been taught. I thought I was riding well, so Mom thought I was riding well. We didn’t understand that the judge was looking for something different. We thought the judge was wrong. And we might have been a little bit biased… I’m sure you never felt the same, right?

It was the mid-nineties in a small farm town. There was no Internet. Today if I want to know what’s winning at the big shows I go to Youtube and I watch the winning runs from Scottsdale, Congress or the WEG. The information is right there. Back then we only had books, the small shows we could get to, and whatever instruction we could find. BOOKS! I’m currently re-reading what my first instructor referred to as her bible: “Horsemastership” by Margaret Cabell Self. Though there is a terrifying suggestion of spreading used motor oil on the arenas to keep the dust down, there are no animations, no color photos, just detailed explanatory text, line drawings, and grainy black & white photos in the middle of the book with references to the pages of text on which they are discussed. Mrs. Self’s words give me sensory flashbacks to my lessons, which is somewhat delightful. It also brings into perspective how difficult it was once for people to get information. You had to GO to a trainer to get information, now you can buy their DVD’s. Books are made with huge colorful photos on every page. You don’t have to flip to the photo section and remember what plate was referenced. Text is shortened. The Internet is lightening fast. I own a late 80’s copy of “Show Grooming: The Look of a Winner” which mentions the difference between the West Coast style of western riding and the East Coast style. Now we see videos of people riding western pleasure Quarter Horses in Germany, and aside from the arena banners I can’t read, it could be any big breed show in the US. Our global perspective has created a narrowing of our knowledge as well as a broadening. Mrs. Self goes into great detail in her sections on training about the different methods used by the different Olympic competing nations. I wonder if they’re all as different now? And what I wouldn’t give to have video of the first years of QH Congress.

But, back to my home movies. I watched with some embarrassment how far forward I was leaning at the trot, practically resting my hands on the horse’s neck. My feet were stuck out in front of me at the walk. My free hand in Western classes was stuck out to the side of me at a 30 degree angle. Then there was “Nikki.” We never understood why she won all the classes on that slow and boring QH gelding she had. He had no animation. Did I mention I was showing Arabians in a ring full of pasture pets, Paints, and QHs? He was so slow and he never extended a trot when asked. How on earth was she winning!?! Now that I’ve moved into that world of AQHA an APHA I see what was happening. I know that flat topline the judge was looking for. I also see, when I really look, how our performance was far from perfect. Not only was my posture crap, my horse was a bit of a nutter. I thought they were prejudiced against Arabs. Now I realize they were prejudiced against inconsistent horses who break gait and weren’t as mannerly as those dumpy quarter horses. It seems I have a selective memory of those rides. I still don’t go in for the crippled-crab-stepping-four-beat-brain-dead-frightened-dog-tailed daisy pickers, but I now recognize that if I am going to these open shows, I need to understand what is expected. If you’re going to bother playing the game, learn the rules.

These days I have the convenience of a pocket-sized HD video camera and a tripod. I can record myself ride any time, plus usually a barn friend to hold it for me at shows. I can edit those videos down and upload them to my blog and to Youtube to share with anyone who wishes to watch. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have this ability when I was 16 as the Internet would be full of my uninformed riding and videos of my show chickens, but that’s fodder for another blog. It’s scary sharing that much information with the world. Someone is certain to look at my recent videos and think exactly what I think when watching those old VHS tapes. I only hope they are either kind, or silent. I can watch the winning Amateur runs at Congress, do the pattern myself and compare the two clips. It can be an excellent training tool. It can also be depressing, knowing just how good we’re NOT. But I can watch my own progress and that is encouraging.

Back in high school I thought I knew what I was doing. Now, with a few years of perspective I realize how little I knew, but I also realize that an additional 15+ years of equine learning hasn’t made me nearly as knowledgeable as I thought I was when I was 16. I am aware that I will never know enough, but I keep trying. I take as many lessons and clinics as I can afford. I keep reading, both the new shiny books AND the old ones without pictures.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Thoughts and Stuff - Bitting

I think a lot about fair treatment to animals. What is fair and reasonable care? When is abuse truly abuse and when is it a reaction to treatment that may not be understood?

A good example came from Flyin' Horse (FH) over at the Equine Mind Meld -

"Mugs can you talk about your ideas on bitting? It seems there is so much confusion out there about types of bits to use. I know you aren't supposed to use a 'bigger' bit to correct problems but what DO people use curb bits etc for? Why don't we continue to always ride in the lightest bits or even bitless if we can once the horse has been trained to it. What is the idea behind 'moving up' in bit type as the horse progresses in training?"

There is a huge misconception of what a "bigger" bit means. Bigger has to do with the horses ability to perform with less hold, less pull and more signal.

I have seen horrific damage done with snaffle bits, halters, hackamores, you name it. Strap it on a horse's head, involve a human and the potential for disaster is always there, depending on the ignorance of the user and the usee.

 It's not the equipment, it's the hands and education of the rider and the education of the horse that either causes pain or a beautiful ballet.

In order to have this conversation, I'm going to define the action behind three types of bits, the snaffle, the curb and the spade, or signal bit.

These are bits I'm comfortable discussing, but I think other riders in other disciplines can chime in here with explanations about the purpose of their bits.

If somebody wants to talk about double bitting in the dressage ring I'd love to learn.


A snaffle bit is a non-leverage bit. A ring on each side of a mouthpiece creates direct pressure from the reins to the riders hands.

A common misconception comes from thinking the broken mouthpiece, or single, double or triple-jointed mouth piece is what makes a bit a snaffle. It's not. It's all about the lack of a shank. So a mullen mouth or straight bar is still a snaffle, as long as it is on rings and not shanks.

A snaffle creates pressure on the tongue, bars, lips and sides of the mouth.

For every pound of  pressure exerted from the riders hand and equal amount of pressure goes straight to the horse's mouth. So the force ratio is 1:1.

Slap a thin, rough, twisted or wire mouthpiece between those rings and you can cause as much pain as anybody. Thinking of a snaffle as "mild" can get a rider into a lot of trouble. Even a simple, smooth, jointed snaffle can cause lots of problems.

The wonderful web site, Sustainable Dressage ( explains what can happen much better than I can.

"The bit folds in the mouth when you pull on both reins (as in heavy contact). It folds around the lower jaw. It acts as a nut cracker on the bones of the lower jaw. Not only that, the V-shape of the bit will cause it to go higher in the middle and cause the link to hit the horse in the palate. Now, if you thought the bars of the lower jaw were sensitive, the palate is even more so. And no tongue can protect it. Also, the more vertical (and beyond) the head, the more the V points into the palate. The firm Herman Sprenger in Germany, who specialise in horse bits, have recently studied the bit's placement in the mouth and concluded that there's not at all as much room in the mouth as previously thought."

On the flip side, a jointed mouth piece snaffle is a great communication tool. I'm talking to my horse straight from my hands to his mouth from hand to rein to the corresponding side of the bit. There's a lot to like.


A curb bit is a leverage bit.
There are two sets of shanks on a curb. The upper, short shank, where the curb strap attaches and the lower, long shanks where the reins attach.

Any bit with shanks, regardless of the mouthpiece, is a leverage bit.

Leverage is created from the shanks and the curb strap. The pounds of pressure ratio goes up depending on the length of the shank according to the following formula:
The pivot point where the reins attach to the shank are divided by the pivot point where the curb chain attaches to the short shank.

A curb with a 5" rein shank and a 1" curb shank will generate a force ratio of 5:1. So a 20 lb. pull on the rein will result in 100 lbs. of pressure from the curb's "vise grip" onto the horse's jaw.

A curb bit works on the bars tongue and roof of the mouth through the mouthpiece, the poll by way of the shanks, the chin groove through the curb strap and with a "loose jaw" shank, the sides of the mouth and jaw.

When used appropriately, a curb increases communication by taking less action from the rider to get a response. The longer the shank, the farther back the bit has to rotate before ANY contact is made, so the horse has more warning the pressure is coming. Ideally, again with the use of educated hands, the horse learns to respond BEFORE any pressure is pt on the bit.

How tight the chin strap is adjusted also increases the pressure from the bit.

So the longer the shank, the better the communication.

Of course, if you're an uneducated jackass the longer the shank the more excruciating the pain.

Different shanks and mouthpieces cause different responses.

A solid mouth piece, like a grazing bit, is made for a horse that neck reins. When the rein touches the outside of the neck the pressure from the bit causes the horse to move away from the rein. Traditionally, the bit was designed to allow the horse to comfortably graze. It rolls back before making contact so he can stuff himself. Of course we all no better than to let our little Schnookums to eat with his bit on, don't we?

A loose jaw bit swivels where the mouthpiece attaches to the shank. This allows a slight rotation before the bit engages and the shanks can be worked independently of each other. Increased communication or pain, your choice.

Jointed mouthpieces usually accompany loose jaw bit. These mouthpieces (here's where the "snaffle" mix-up happens) increase the pressure on the bars due to the nutcracker action of the mouthpiece. In addition, the joint angle is altered by the shank lever to tip the bit downward and into the tongue. These bits are a lot harder on a horse, again, in the wrong hands, than a curb with a simple, solid, ported mouthpiece.

The shanks themselves can be straight, S-shaped or curved. The straighter the shank, the less warning before the bit engages.

So a dressage horse, ridden with contact and his face on the vertical, will be ridden in a straighter shank, and a cutting horse, ridden with almost no contact at all, and with his nose extended, will have shanks with a curve or an S to give plenty of warning that a cue is on the way.


There's a world of difference between a leverage bit and a spade. A  leverage bit works mainly off pressure from the curb strap.The port is usually low and a chain is often used at varying degrees of tightness to increase pressure. The port size doesn't matter all that much since the pull of the reins on the shanks to the curb strap are what make things happen.

A horse in a leverage bit isn't taught to carry it. There's very little communication through the mouth, so it isn't necessary.

The old time cowboy needed to talk to his horse and use a rope, which is why riding one handed was so important.

The greater the horses ability to get in position quickly and correctly, the greater the chances of roping the cow, turning the herd or shooting his pistol in the air on Saturday night without nailing Miss Kitty.

All of the needed communication with the horse needed to come from tiny little adjustments in the reins, so the rope would stay neatly coiled, easy to get at, and keep every body safe in the mean time.

Small, tiny movements and pressures from the reins have to be taught, they can't be forced.This is where the spade bit came in.

The spade is considered a signal bit.The long (scary) tapering port, the spoon, roller and copper braces were all designed to encourage the horse to pick up his bit and carry it.

The seven or eight years needed to prepare a spade bit horse are intended to create a horse that NEVER gets yanked on.

We start our horses with the intention of making them communicate through whispers. The two-rein, the last phase before going into the full bridle, is where the horse has both a bosalito (1/4 or so inch hackamore) and the spade, so the rider has a place to go when the conversation needs to go above a whisper. If you need to yank, then get yourself to the bosalito.  The spade should NEVER EVER  be used as a punishing tool.

By the time a horse is ridden in just a spade the bit's only purpose is to receive signals from the riders hand. The horse responds to the signal, not pressure.

As far as I'm concerned, developing a spade bit horse is the most amazing, intriguing, complicated aspect of horsemanship I've ever gone for.

The reason I'm sitting out of the show pen during my five year wait to regain my amateur status is a simple one (well, other than the fact I'm really poor at the moment). I want to develop my bridle horse with no pressure on either of us. I want both of us to ride in the spade without fear and to achieve a lightness I've never created before.

This is why we go to a "bigger" bit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Bearable Lightness of Being III

horsegenes said: I am still out to lunch on whether this type of lightness is what I felt on Mikey. I don't have any connection with Mikey and he has been through several owners because frankly he can be kind of a butt head. He is not a super "honest" horse. I do believe that the connection is part of it. He understood my body language and what I wanted for sure. I think the other part of it is the horse's ability to move "lightly". His way of going, the length of his stride and how he uses his body. The difference between a football player and a ballerina. While a football player can be agile and athletic and perform ballet moves, he is never going to have look or feel of someone with a different body type.

Her point is valid. She was riding a horse she didn't have years or months of time on. She didn't know the horse's in and outs, the horse certainly didn't know hers.

This is where the next phase of lightness comes from. Training. Lightness comes from training our horses to respond to our cues immediately, softly and completely.

I was riding with a young trainer, Devon Warren, before I met K. The first time I went out to his place I went with a friend who took lessons with him. I just planned on watching, but he wasn't going to have that happen, so he put me on one of his horses.

I had much the experience horsegenes had. The horse was amazing and so lightening fast in his responses I couldn't begin to keep up with him. He was also a sad, angry, neurotic mess.

I left that day knowing two things. I wanted to be able to ride well enough to teach my horses to be like his. I didn't want to end up making them as miserable as the one I was on.

I would say that was the turning point for me and horse training. It began a passion, (maybe an obsession) that is still with me today.

The next big jolt came after I had been riding with K for about a year. He had me ride a mare he had taken to the top 10 in AQHA Open Cowhorse at the Worlds (his first big win) and had coached his wife to ride and win the AQHA Amateur Cowhorse Worlds on the same horse, the same year.

The thing that blew me away was how straight and upright she was. When I sent her down a line she went like an arrow, in spite of me, not because of me. She knew to hold herself up, stay dead straight and hold her line through run downs, circles, stops and spins. It was astounding.

I wanted that feeling in my horses, that assurance of what to do and how to do it, no matter who was on them, including me.

"They have to know their job," K said. "If you go into the show pen and turn into a gunzel, the horse has to know its job so well it can cover for you."

I cover the road I meandered down to find these truths in my stories. So I won't drag you through each step. It has come down to a few very basic truths and the simplicity is almost ridiculous, but that's where the complexity falls in too. Because let's face it, as humans we can't ever be happy if things are too simple. We have to muddy them up.

1. Make sure your cues are accurate and honest..

Example: Keeping forward movement

Before you can ask your horse to move forward with lively movement and stay there you have to actually want it to happen.

This is an area I fail in repeatedly. While my horses do eventually weed through my unclear signals and start moving forward freely it takes me way too long to get the message across. Why? Because I'm chicken. Buck, buck, BAWK!

I first noticed it in my students and then, regrettably, in myself. If I ask for a horse to move freely with my body, but I'm actually thinking, please don't go, please don't go, then they don't go.

This is often the case with a student trying to lope and with me going down the fence or opening up across a field.

I might physically tell my horse, GIDDYUP, but my stiffness, rein grabbing, stomach clenching body language is saying, JUST KIDDING! MAYBE NEXT TIME.

This creates a horse that doubts your cues, which leads to all kinds of messy misinterpretations.

If you aren't ready to lope, then work on free forward movement at a trot.

Don't cover your nerves by bossing your horse around. Tie downs, heavier bits, tons of lateral work or stopping and backing don't create forward. They stop it.

The biggest culprit? Cuing a horse to go forward with your legs while simultaneously clutching the reins. This is the single biggest block I see in achieving lightness.

2. Understand each maneuver 100% before you try it on your horse.

   Example: Lope depart.

   In order to train for a lope depart, you and your horse have to understand and be able to achieve easily -both leads, free, forward movement, trot with even, steady cadence, leg yield at the trot, and having your horse wait to translate your cue change instead of getting upset or anticipating you.

  If you don't understand how to get these things it's your job to learn them, understand them, and then teach them to your horse.

3. Make sure your horse understands each maneuver 100% before you expect success

 Example: Run down

In cowhorse and reining one of our big fancy moves is the rundown, which ends in a long, beautiful slide stop.

The biggest mistake I see made is when horse and rider only think of the stop and not what it takes to get there.

The horse needs to know how to take the line she's put on and stay there. If you have to hold her straight through the entire maneuver then you will ball things up, trust me.

When I first start a young horse we work on going straight every bit as much as circles and lateral movement.

When she can hold the line she's put on (at a walk) then we start working on distance. When she will go the length of a field, or the arena then we move up to a trot.

When she can hold a straight line at the trot for as long as needed on a loose rein, without my legs holding her in place, then we move up to the lope.

I don't worry about building speed or heaven forbid, connecting the stop to the end of the line until I know 100% she can hold a straight line.

Then she is ready to learn to transition speed up and down on that line and I don't have to worry about her fading to the right or left.

When she understands the two concepts together I'll add the stop, which I've been working on separately.

4. Understand release as a reward.

    Example: opening or closing a gate

   We're going to get into the cookie giving, horse hugging argument here again, I can just feel it.
My biggest problem with giving a horse a cookie, a pat or a clicker as a reward for correct behavior is it stops all action (see #2) and takes the horse's mind off the job at hand.

Giving a release as a reward needs to become as natural to the rider as a squeeze to create action.
A release can be given in the middle of a rundown at 25 mph and your horse will feel it, get it and prepare for the next step in your plans, if she has been conditioned from day one to understand the release as a reward.

A release is the cessation of hold. The reins relax, the legs relax, the assistance you have been giving your horse to accomplish a maneuver ends, because the horse has done what you asked.

If the horse immediately quits the action you're rewarding then you guys have still have some work to do.

So, onto our gate.

Step one. Stand by the gate. Nothing else.
Position your horse, release your cues and expect the horse to relax. Right there. Not moving one foot.
This first step can take a while.
Position, release.
Step two. Get contact with your horse. Put hand on the gate. Release.
Step three. Contact. Unlatch gate. Release.
Step four.Contact.  Ask horse to side pass away and open gate. Release pressure for a split second but don't let go of contact.
Step  five. Move haunches around gate while your hand stays on said gate (I'll let the gate swing with babies, they wobble at first). Release pressure only.
Step six. Side pass to close gate. Release all cues.
Step seven. Get contact. Close gate. Release.
Step eight. (very important!) Stand and relax, horse completely released until she stands.
If the horse gets antsy repeat step one.

See what I mean? By making the release an understood reward you get the horse to break down the maneuver, understand the concept and take small steps.

5. Build your base

Example: Turn to the left or right

Lightness doesn't come right away with each maneuver. When we first start teaching our horses something it can feel a lot like towing a cinder block through a mud hole.

If I want to turn my horse to the left, I will set up my cue as clearly and simply as possible. For me, that means picking up my left rein and later a cue with a neck rein.

If you have a different plan, that's fine, just make sure the horse understands each aspect before you put it in place.

I simply pick up my directing rein, make enough contact to slightly turn the nose and wait.

Eventually the little slug will turn and go. I follow the first sign of forward movement to the left with a squeeze from both legs, then release my cues.

This is my base.

Every time I feel an improvement in response, that becomes my next expectation. So the base builds and lightness increases.

6. Be consistent with all cues.

example: Simple leg cues

This is much harder than it sounds. This means your body must repeat the cue the same every time.
Another reason to keep things simple.

My horses all know, without fail, that both legs on means go, one leg off means turn to the open leg, both legs off means stop and back until I rest my legs on them again.

Until these things are forever and ever embedded in their brains I don't add the subtleties of lift, lateral work or drive.

My leg cues are clear and concise, every time. Again, as time goes on we begin to read each other and add depth and nuance to my leg cues.

This can only happen if my horse truly understands what is going on with each cue.

Lightness comes from communication. If we learn to communicate clearly then the stress begins to fall away from both me and my horse and the lightness increases. You and yours too.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Mouthy Monday

I hope this story resonates with each and every one who reads this. It sure did me. We sometimes make terrible decisions or just get carried along into bad choices. The honesty and thought I read in Melissa's story is about acceptance and forgiveness. I am very impressed.
From what I remember the first year we had together was great. Shelly was 15.3 when I bought her and only 4 years old. Yes, that means we had started her over small fences at the age of 3. It was our second show season when things started to fall apart. I remember one of the first times she reared up with me. We were coming to a 3’6” fence, I’m sure I must have tensed up as I’ve always been scared of the bigger fences. Shelly came out of the corner stopped all forward motion and stood up straight on her hind legs. She landed and did it again, I remember looking back over my shoulder at the heavy wood fence rail that was just behind me. The trainer screamed at me “Don’t you dare protect yourself, this mare will never go over backwards with you, she is too smart for that. The worst thing that will happen is that you will slide off her back. DO NOT stop riding her!” At that point I wasn’t sure who I was more afraid of, my horse or the trainer. It was just a taste of things to come. Shelly and I did well, as long as the fences stayed under 3 which was my comfort zone. As soon as a 3’6” oxer was set in the arena, I would freeze up a few strides out and assume the fetal position. Shelly packed me over the big fences the first few times, but after getting hit in the mouth from me getting left behind, she was done with the freebies. It didn’t just happen at home; more often than not she would perform her airs above the ground at horse shows. What had started as rearing had now turned into a full blown rodeo routine. When Shelly’s front hooves would make contact with the ground she would launch into a series of bucks. To this day I have no idea how I stayed on her back. I supposed fear of death may have had something to do with it. A well-known trainer in the area approached me at a show; he asked me the breeding of my mare. When I told him the name of her sire, he was the one that told me of his reputation for throwing rank babies. He had one at his barn that even his Mexican groom who was a former bronc rider could not stay on.

Shelly had her brilliant moments as well. I will always remember a jumper derby that we rode in one hot July day. There were 40 horses in the class, the first round was rather technical and had some tight distances. On her good days Shelly was incredible to ride to a fence. I could take a 5 stride line and put 4,5,6 or 7 strides in whatever the trainer asked for. She was incredibly agile and could turn off one fence and be ready to jump the next from any spot I put her at. The potential was all there, and on that day I saw what she was capable of. Of the 40 horses only 8 made it clean to the second round. I remember a triple combination that was set up the middle of the arena. I’m pretty sure at one point I grabbed on, closed my eyes and just prayed. Shelly hit the back rail of the last oxer on the combination, it bounced out of the cup and landed back in. The announcer said “she’s clean, but just barely!” In the jump off we were one of only two horses that went clean, Shelly and I were a full second ahead of the other horse. That day I took home a $150 check, a new bridle and whole lot of pride. It would be one of the last good shows on Shelly.

As time went on her tantrums in front of fences got worse and worse. The fences only seemed to get bigger. At one point when I had to go back East for a family emergency the trainer rode Shelly for me. When I came back he continued to ride her, when he handed her back to me he said “If you ever get offered money for this mare, take it!” She was much better after her time in training and the fences were now at 4 foot. Shelly was jumping them with ease and we made plans to join the group on an annual trek to Canada for a show. Shelly and I were only jumping in the 3 foot ring, it should have been a piece of cake, but instead I couldn’t get her past the 3rd fence in every single one of my classes. She was back to her tantrums, I was finally done. At one point I seriously considered untacking her and just walking away right there in the middle of the jumper field. I was heartbroken, clearly I didn’t have what it took to do this.

When it came time to discuss selling Shelly the trainer pointed out that it would be a challenge. She had thrown her tantrums in show rings from Oregon to Canada. We decided to trade her for another horse. Shelly ended up in a sales barn in California, she was now 7 years old and pushing 17 hands. I was still only 5 feet tall and was lucky if I weighed 95 pounds.

It took me a few years and some distance to see my part to and to see what a disservice I had done to that beautiful mare. I’ve learned a few things along the way and am now able to see my past mistakes. Mistakes that I will not repeat with a horse again.

1. Shelly and I had no business jumping anything higher than cross rails. She was not broke and I did not have the foundation for it. I did not have the confidence for the bigger fences and Shelly knew that. I also lacked the confidence and wisdom to speak up for myself to say “I am not ready to do this”.

2. My saddle did not even come close to fitting Shelly. It was a Crosby PreDeNation that was built up in the back. The twist and pommel were very narrow and it must have sat on her withers like a vice. When I look back at pictures I can see where I did try to pad it out for her. I think the only reason I got away with it as long as I did was that I hardly weighed a thing.

3. I constantly put my agenda over my horse’s well-being. I was in a show barn and horses went to shows and jumped big fences. Shelly had a full brother that was showing Grand Prix, it was what she was supposed to do. I never slowed down to fix the situation at hand; I just kept pushing thinking that this next show will be the one where we get it together.

4. My pride got in the way. I wanted to quit, many times. I was sick to my stomach on my lesson days. I even considered selling Shelly a year before we traded her, but I was convinced that someone else would buy her and then beat me in the jumper ring. I wanted to be the one that took her to the top. The idea of someone else doing it was just more than I could take.

5. I should have sought the advice of people outside my circle. When my new gelding arrived and Shelly left, droves of people came up to me and told me how happy they were for me. Again and again people told me that they were afraid for my life when I rode Shelly. I’m talking 30 people in a 3 week time span told me this. Where were they before this? Would I have listened to them?

I believe that there are days that Grace is my apology to Shelly. Every time I step back from my agenda and do what is right by her, I carry with me my mistakes of the past. I take full responsibility for them and I only hope that Shelly was able to find a better life in California.

Melissa McDonald

Friday, January 20, 2012


I was riding a new horse.

It wasn't a matter of the way we got on together. We had been good for a long time.I backed off the strenuous work outs and simply wandered around the property for several days, letting her meander with minimal direction from me.

She was fun to play on. All of her fear and anger were man made. Out in the fields, left to our own devices she was calm, bold and willing.She would work her way down the creek embankment and into knee deep water without hesitation. We could scramble across a shale covered slope like a mountain goat. Blowing plastic, blaring car horns, rattling traffic signs and heavy traffic meant nothing to her. She would lope free and easy without a sign of bolting up the wide open fire trails in the National forest.

I was starting to get a glimmer.

It was about acceptance instead of tolerance.

We always seemed to share a non-stop silent conversation when we were training.

"Oh no you don't," Tally would say.

"Sure I do," I'd reply.

"Well, OK, but just this one thing, and only for you. I could change my mind any second."

"Great, now let's try the next thing."

"Oh no you don't."

I had been desensitizing her to frightening stimuli, building her trust through careful give and take and ya da da, ya da da. All the great stuff I'd been reading and learning had been working, or so I thought.

There was a trap in all of my gentle, intuitive, body language reading, open minded training. I got physical results, but I didn't truly have Tally's understanding. She had learned to tolerate touch, riding, training for maneuvers, but I hadn't gotten her to accept any of it as a way of life.

Tyler had got on and rode the tar out of her. It was simple as that. It wasn't about kindness or cruelty, reading the horse or not. It was about getting on and staying on until she accepted him as a fact in her life. Not somebody to tolerate today, but accepting the fact she would be ridden. Period.

It had worked too. She was calmer, happier and easier to ride. All her small resistances were gone. No more wild eyed jumps when I got out the same brush she had been groomed with every day. No more sucking back because I approached on her off side instead off her good side first. No more snorting, leaping jumps in the air when we crossed a shadow from the arena windows.

It occurred to me I had been catering to her quirks and fears, even if it was only to stop what I was planning in order to handle the problem she had just dumped in our way.

The Big K was eternally telling me to "Just go!" I was finally beginning to get his point.

By trying to explain every single step to Tally I had lost the original goal. To get on and ride.
Tyler had ignored the little stuff and focused on the primary. Tally had accepted the big fact that she could and would be ridden. The rest faded away.

On the flip side, I had made enormous headway with a horse deemed unrideable. Could she have come this far if she had started out with Tyler's (and by osmosis the Big K) simple, across the board training style?

When did finesse and careful thought need to be replaced with pure and simple riding?

I snapped out of my deep thoughts when Tally snorted at a nose full of No Seeums. I had more questions than answers, typical of my relationship with Tally, but I had a sudden flash of insight.

For the first time I had trusted her enough to let her go. I had become so lost in thought I'd forgotten I was even on her back. She hadn't let me down.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Bearable Lightness of Being II

So how do we blend the lightness we felt with our horses as children and the lightness we want in our training?

I think you guys hit it on the head in the comments when you talked about the companionship we felt with our horses as kids compared to the training goals we look for as adults.

Are the two really so different?

There was a key moment during my time with The Big K that started me on this line of thought, I've wrestled with it ever since.

For reasons I don't need to delve into here, I have some trouble getting on a horse. There is a split second when I'm getting mounted where I'm totally at the mercy of my horse. When you're working with unstarted colts and problem horses it's a little disconcerting to ever be at their mercy. Horses on the whole are a fairly narcissistic bunch. A snorty, broncy, spoiled brat or a half-wild pasture baby rarely feel the need to give their trainer a break.

Yet for some reason, every horse I have ever worked with (as an adult) waits until I'm safely in the saddle, with both feet solidly in the stirrups, before they give me grief. I mean all of them, from the mean paint sucker with a history of dumping every rider, every time, to the boltiest, spookiest youngster, they stand rock solid until I'm in the saddle. Then they feel perfectly at ease dishing out whatever comes to mind.Weird huh?

"I don't get why they do that," I told K one afternoon.

I had just had a pretty skittery, bolty first ride on a 2-year-old and was letting both of us air up before I got down. K was used to my nervous babbling after I rode a tough one and he slid his weight into his off-side stirrup and settled in to chat.

"This colt stood soft as could be until I had both feet in the stirrups before he blew."

"It was your lucky day."

"But they always do it."

"Do what?"

"Wait for me."

"I guess they do."

"How come?"

"How come what?"

I absolutely hated it when K baited me, especially when I was still sweaty palmed and wild eyed from the previous fifteen minutes aboard the colt.

"C'mon, K," I said, "I'm serious here."

"Ooh, are we using the 'mother's' voice?"

"God K," I swung down off my colt, just mad enough to make the poor thing skitter. I waited until he settled and loosened his cinch.

"All right, all right, don't get all wound up. I wasn't trying to tease, I meant it, why do you think they wait for you?"

"I don't know, I can't figure it out."

"It's because you need them to."


"Somehow, you get across to the horses you work that you need them to be still. It's a clear, concise thought, the horse reads it and you get it from them."

"Then I muddy it up with all my junk and the rodeo starts."


"So how do I get the horse to work like that all the way through?"

"If we could figure that one out we could go on the road. All I know is that sometimes the horse completely gets us and when they do, they try to get along."

That conversation had me so lost in thought I walked into a hitching rail on my way to trade horses.

Over the years I have chewed on this ad nauseum. Pure expectation has given me moments with my horses, but my mind always starts jumping around and I lose it.

As a kid I expected my horse to let me ride him. I expected him to go where I pointed him. I expected him to nicker when he saw me and hug me when I needed it. He did all those things.

In return, he expected me to feed him. He expected me to know where he liked to be scratched.He expected me to listen and watch with him when he sensed a bad spot on the trail. he expected me to hang on tight and let him run when he really, really needed to. I did all those things.

Is it that simple? Does lightness come from mutual expectation, and crystal clear thought?

Following this idea has led me to ride with kind of a dual awareness. I need to know what I want, exactly how to get it and exactly how to explain it to my horse. My horse has the freedom to say, "What?" without me getting angry or unsure of myself. I need to be aware of her feet, of her breathing, of any tension or temper. She has to be able to think things through, give it a shot and immediately get a release and reward for trying.

We have to trust each other. So how do I get my horse to trust my training methods?

I've gotta stop here, my head is going to explode.

More later. Input much appreciated.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mouthy Monday

Here's an interesting tale about a girl's first horse. Talk about a diamond in the rough!

My first horse was a Polish bred Arabian gelding named Lorien Fire Flash. He came into my life when I was 12 and he was 14, and he was my best friend. He’d be 27 now, and I’m not sure if he is still alive. This picture was taken the day my parents bought him for me. I was 13.
I grew up in a small beachy suburb in Southern California; not exactly horse country, but there were five barns within fifteen minutes of my front door, and I consider myself lucky to have had horses that were accessible to me throughout my childhood.
When I was twelve, one of my friends who showed quarter horses bought herself a shiny new show horse, and cast her Arabian gelding to the side. He was 14, underweight, dull coated, and had a recurring colic problem but I loved him immediately. Because we were kids, my friend agreed to let me lease him for $25 a month as long as I promised to ride him at least 3 days a week. That moment was the moment I officially became a barn rat, and I was in absolute heaven.
Flash was the hardest horse I had ever tried to ride. He was ring sour, dead sided, hard mouthed, and had a bolting problem. He would throw his head up so hard and high, that he would often knock me in the face and give me a bloody nose, or knock me off balance and I would inevitably fall off. Since he was such a brat, my trainer would make me ride him in this awful gag bit, and because of that, because of me, he was impossible to bridle. He hated me so much those first few months, that he would run to the back of his stall and strike out at me so I couldn’t catch him. I think I went home crying almost every day.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, my friend put Flash up for sale and I was devastated. I told my parents of my plight, and pleaded with them to buy him, but they refused. Eventually they told me that someone else had bought him, and brought me to the barn to say goodbye. When we got there, I walked up to his stall already crying and threw my arms around his scrawny shoulders in despair, completely ignoring the huge poster that read “CONGRATULATIONS ERYN, HAPPY 8TH GRADE GRADUATION. FLASH IS YOURS.” One of my friends had to point it out to me, and of course I dissolved into a crying mess. so happy to finally have my own horse. That day is forever burned into my memory – one of the best days of my life.
Something between us changed after that. I’m not sure if it was because I felt like he was mine, or if it was because I had started high school and was lonely and consequently spent a lot of time at the barn, but I considered him my project and spent 99% of my time at the barn. The first two weeks I had him, I discarded the gag bit, and chose a nice, fat D-ring snaffle. I didn’t know how to slow him down or break him of his bolting problem, but I thought it would be a good idea if I wrapped his legs, and rode him down in the creek bed where the sand was deep. If I fell, I wouldn’t hurt myself and he could run right back up the hill to his stall.
I got up early on a Saturday and took the bus to the barn. No one was around, so I saddled up my boy, put on his medicine boots, threw the snaffle in his mouth, and we jigged all the way out to the wash. There are a lot of creek beds in California, and this one was similar to many that I have seen – a tiny trickling creek in the Summer, huge roaring river in the Winter, a sprinkling of eucalyptus and cicada, small scrubby brush, tumbleweeds, and various patches of deep, gritty sand. I found a spot big enough to lope a circle, pushed him up into a fast canter and waited for him to relax. It took two weeks of loping in the wash before I felt comfortable enough to ride him in the arena, but I have never seen a bigger change in a horse than I saw in Flash that summer.
He started to put weight on, and with the grain and supplements I was giving him, turned a fiery red in the sun. He had more energy, and his once dull eyes began to glisten. I started to see that he had a need to please personality, and that he was sometimes too smart for his own good.
To be honest, he was the smartest horse I’ve ever met and I taught him every trick I could think of. He could bow, hug, take carrots from pockets, kiss, smile, dance with me, do tempi changes (I didn’t ride dressage and I called it skipping haha), spin a circle all by himself if I said “circle” and wiggled my finger, and I could ride him bareback and bridleless. We did everything from Western Pleasure to 3′ oxers to reining patterns to team penning to gaming. He hated cows, and would pin his ears at them and snake his neck out to bite them, but his cow sense was awesome and he could cut just as good or better than any of the cutting horses at our barn. Everyone thought he was a really refined quarter horse, and when I told them he was an Arabian, they would laugh and wait for the punch line. Naturally, when it didn’t come, they would stare in disbelief saying, “Really? An Arab? REALLY?” And walk away shaking their heads and chuckling. My favorite thing to do was practice our reining pattern; I loved to go fast, and I think he did too. When it came time for the run-down, he would switch leads like a race horse, drop his head, and drive into the bit. I didn’t even have to pick up my reins to stop him, he would just sit his butt down on a low-pitched whoa, and slide through the dirt forever.
These are the things I dream about now – finding him somewhere, wherever he is, and bringing him home with me. I’ve had two other horses since then, and I have never met another with his courage and heart. Some have come close, but you know what they say – in your life you will have one horse that you know was made for you, and I know, deep down in my heart, that he will always be my one.

Friday, January 13, 2012


What in the world was I going to do with this horse?

The big dun mare had problems way beyond my experience. It was like she was a marionette with her strings cut.

I insisted on an evaluation from the vet.

He had me trot her around (I use the word trot very loosely) until I was as wobbly as she was.

DixieAnne wasn't lame. She wasn't sore. Her feet actually wore evenly. She didn't seem to be progressing, so he ruled out most illness. She was bright, alert and pretty happy. He finally came down to "undiagnosed neurological issues, probably due to injury."

Now there's a big fat heap of nothing.

We discussed her breeding. She was heavily line bred back to Poco Bueno. He was known to produce a lot of pacing quarter horses. Te vet wondered if this was part of her problem.

"This is not what I would call pacing," I pointed out.

"Mmmmm, no, me neither. There seems to be kind of a pace in there somewhere though."

"You know, if we're going to blame this on breeding we could go way back."

"What do you mean?" the vet asked.

"From what I understand some of the dinosaurs were so big they had more than one brain distributed in various parts of their bodies. So one brain could work one part and the other would work another."

"Uh, I'm not getting your point."

"DixieAnne might have more than one brain rolling around in there."

"I see," he began to laugh.

"...and they're fighting."

"It's as good as anything I've got, good luck with this one."

If that was all he had then I guess it was time to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

The first few weeks I planned to just ride around on her, thinking, feeling and generally being very confused. I tried to figure out what was actually happening with her. Which led us directly into teaching her some manners.

DixieAnne was a big galoot and had no interest in personal space. She was easy enough to catch, I have to give her that. I would walk into the broodmare pen and she would come shuffling, waddling, swaying over to me, on me, over me. All I had to do was stick out the halter and she would slap her face in it. Then the music would start and I'd start doing a pretty fancy impersonation of a clogger trying to keep my feet clear while I buckled her in.

DixieAnne would push into her halter, shoving at me with her head and cuddling up as close as she could. Her tongue would begin to wag, foam would start flying and she would lip me in wild affection. During the entire display of undying love she would wing those wonking feet in closer and closer to my own.

"She sure likes you," Marilee said.

Maybe so, but I felt more like the poor weenie guy that gets picked on by the outlaws in a spaghetti western than Roy and Trigger.

"C'mon little feller," DixieAnne seemed to say. "Ah think it's time for you to dance." Her feet were every bit as effective as any bad man's Winchester.

I ended up doing sort of a reverse Ray Hunt. I didn't teach her to join up, I took my longe whip with me and taught her to join the hell OFF.

I would go to her pen and drive her away from me. When she moved off a few feet I'd relax the pressure. When she moved in I put it back on her. There could be no steady pressure with Miss Dixie, she would immediately lean into it. I had to flick my whip, tap my fingers, kick her in the butt (very short kicks mind you), anything but give her a place to lean.

When I haltered her I would send her off the second I felt weight in my hands. When I saddled her I would move her three or four steps away from me every time she leaned into the pressure of the cinch. As I swung on board I would hang on her side and bump with my knee until she curled her ribs away and stepped away agin.

It took the butt of a crop to get her to truly understand that when I said off, I meant OFF! Always an optimist, I would give her the gentle touch I wanted her to respond to, followed with a firm bump with the end of the crop, followed with a steady poke, poke, poke until she would finally shift away.

As long as I never let her slide and always made her move at least three or four steps from me, things progressed slowly. If I let her go even an inch, it was like we were starting completely over.

When I rode her it was more of the same. Nothing worked on DixieAnne the way it should. Her head bobbed up and down and to the side. She shuffled, she jerked, she popped in the air. She couldn't hold a line or a circle. She was amazing.

One afternoon we were wandering around the arena. I would lift one rein and wait to see what happened. Bump, bump, bump, eventually she would turn and her nose would drop a bit. I switched to my leg. Bump, bump, bump, she didn't respond. Bump, bump, bump. She stepped in, she stepped out, she came into my leg and then tripped as she stepped out.

I had felt something though. I emptied my mind, and deepened my seat. I stated relaxed and simply focused on her crazy movement. I went back to bumping between hand and leg.

There. I felt it again.

DixieAnne had two, separate, different responses between shoulders and hind. She wasn't one crazy unit. She was two off balance ones. I shook my head. She really was a dinosaur. It certainly seemed DixieAnne was working off two brains.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Bearable Lightness of Being

There have been some interesting points brought up here and over on the Equine Mind Meld page, about lightness in our horses.

I'm talking about how they ride, not how much they weigh BTW. Or how much I weigh, either. For me lightness comes through the entire horse, through all of me, and joins into an instantaneous awareness and response to each other.

This is the goal I work towards, with every horse, on every ride.

My thoughts about lightness started back with my first horse Mort. He wasn't all that well trained, I didn't know what I was doing and he didn't feel obligated to tell me much. What we did have was time. Endless hours and years of experience together. I rode bareback most of the time and got tough enough to spend all day in the hills and not start to ache until the sun began to sink behind Pikes Peak.

We swam, we jumped, we ran, we walked (once in a while) and the togetherness, combined with our breakneck approach, combined to create a rhythm between us. One that kept me firmly anchored on his back and Mort able to tell the difference between a squeeze from my calf to make a turn and a grab from my legs to keep myself astride.

I certainly never thought about our relationship as one of lightness. If you ever tried to hang onto Mort in the spring when his blood was up you'd understand. It was a lot like water skiing behind a barge. There were plenty of waves to knock me over, enough power to about rip my arms out and absolutely no control of direction.

We still had lightness. He would always stand stock still while I lit a cigarette (please don't tell my mom). He would trot and lope with, what I swear was, just a thought from me. We could be flying through a field and I could guide him through rocks or trees with barely a shift o my weight. I could feel where he was going by a muscle twitch and tell what was coming by the flick of his ear. This, to me, is lightness.

As an adult I went and got all trainerly. I learned to expect a response to each action, I learned to create action, where my seat bones should be place, what parts of the horse separate parts of my body controlled.

I walked into a world where I could take my horsemanship and the horses I rode further than I had ever imagined possible.

I also became clunky and unsure of myself. I had to relearn timing, find a new feel, everything was new and awkward.

My horses eventually became loaded with tricks and buttons, but none of them had the instinctive lightness I had shared with Mort.

As the years went by and I became more technically advanced I kept going back to the feel of Mort.
Sonita, bless her non - conforming heart, and I eventually got there. It was through her I started to really think about training horses. Why was I doing it? What did I want for me and the horses I rode? I wanted to compete. I wanted knowledge. Most of all I wanted the lightness I felt with Mort in all aspects of riding. Not just once in a while, not at my horse's whim, but I wanted that near mind reading experience at all phases.

So, I started looking for it. I'm beginning to think I'm closing in on it.

I know developing extreme lightness takes time.

It takes practice and deep thinking.

It takes dissecting what we learn and truly understanding the purpose behind it. Then strategically using what works.

I'll be exploring this over the next few posts, I'm going deep on this one. After our story telling of course.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Trail Ride

There's a few things you can see in here.

One: How I check and release as I ride. When you see my hand come up I am making contact with my hackamore and sending her forward with my legs. It's a reminder I'm there, asking her to move forward, gather herself, or all three.
When my hand drops I've gone neutral, although sometimes I'm still giving her leg.

When we're moving forward without hesitation I take leg pressure off too.

Two: You can see how crooked I can get, any time Modonna goes to the left of the screen it's because I'm leaning right. I've got a lot of leaning in my post and sitting the lope to work on, but it's better than last summer. At least I'm finding my center again instead of just hanging out there.

She bucks in here....can you find it?

I'll post again in a month or so and see if I'm any straighter.

I promise I'll eventually upload some decent music.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mouthy Monday

Beckee shared one of those great moments we all hope to have with our horses. It seems to me it's these pictures we hold close, much more than ribbins, buckles or trophies.

I just visited Beckee's blog and it absolutely broke my heart. Everybody needs to go read this. She is Horsaii to the max, that's all I can say.

Connecting with Nature

by Beckee Milton

My horse moved from a suburban boarding stable to rural Coolville, OH when I came to Ohio University. It was new world for us. We had an enclosed arena like we had known for years, but now we had over 1000 acres (some fenced and some open) that we were permitted to explore. There were trails in some places, many wooded areas, and plenty of open fields for running. I’d had my ten year old gelding since he was two. I broke Alibi myself and taught him everything since I was 14. It was a green horse/green rider situation, but we were lucky to have flourished with each other.
Alibi is a true Quarter Horse with an athletic body, elegant head and neck, and plenty of heart. He is bred for Reined Cowhorse, but with bloodlines that don’t lend him to being a top horse. He is so much talent and athleticism that I wish a better trainer could have had owned him and done more with him in a specialized discipline. Together we’d gotten AQHA points in Western Pleasure, Hunter Under Saddle, Reining, Showmanship, Halter. Him and I have done A-rated Hunter/Equitation, he jumps up to 4’6, and we’ve competed through Second Level Dressage. I couldn’t have asked for a better horse as my partner. He’s always been so willing to listen and learn, although he is more than happy to show me his sassy side when he isn’t enjoying his job.

He is an arena baby to say the least, but definitely not barn sour or arena sour. I am a strict mom with many rules, but Alibi knows if he follows the rules that he gets privileges other horses don’t. For example, he is permitted to be loose in the aisleway if he stays out of the way, doesn’t bother the other horses, and doesn’t wander far from the loose hay. He knows that if he is easy to catch, he is allowed to graze in areas that aren’t fenced in. I think that it is because of the things I taught him and my strict but nurturing love that he is very attached to me.

Before moving to this new barn, Alibi had never been on a trail ride. At least not one that meant I couldn’t see the barn. He was scared of every little thing the first couple of times we went out. He’d spook if the wind blew too hard or a shadow changed unexpectedly. The cows were an endless source of spooking, bolting, and bucking. It was all very frustrating for me and I had trouble being strict while letting him explore and learn.

It was our seventh ride alone on the trails. Alibi was excited to be going out, his head was up and he was walking briskly. It was early May; warm enough for a t-shirt, but the mud was just a little too slick for a full out gallop in the open areas. Alibi was awake, but listening for the first time when I asked him to pay attention. We had been going for about six miles, just wandering and only staying on the trail when the hills were too steep to climb or descend without assistance. I was in an area I had never explored before, but I trusted my horse and he was relaxed and looking around at his surroundings. I let him pick his path through the woods, ducking under low branches and generally just trying to remember where I was in relation to the barn so that I could eventually get back.

I was daydreaming about my classes, stressing about finals and all my work when suddenly I realized that Alibi seemed to be heading in a specific direction, picking his way precisely to some location unknown to me. We were deep in the woods, no sunlight through the trees in front or behind me, but the creek was running about thirty yards to my left. Alibi would stop, listen, and then step carefully forward for a few yards. I sat quietly and let him figure out where he was going. He stopped one last time, surged ahead and we broke through a thick group of trees into a small clearing where he finally stopped for good.

Brush had grown up around the clearing and the creek, previously thirty yards my left, ran through the edge of the clearing. However, that isn’t what had drawn my horse to this place. Grazing in the clearing were a doe and two quite young fawns. The mother stopped grazing and looked at us as we broke through the woods, uncertain whether to shepherd her children away. As we stood, still and quiet, the doe gave us one last glance and resumed grazing. I gave my horse his rein and let him start grazing too; as he went, he inched closer to the fawns. He has always been fascinated by other animals and eventually was within range to be noticed by the fawns. They didn’t even hesitate once they noticed us and came running, bucking, and ready to play with my horse. He was overjoyed and spun around to leap and play with them as well. I found myself clutching my saddle to stay on as he played. The doe immediately noticed my horse’s behavior, squealed and ran the fawns off in huge bounds through the woods. I sat in stunned silence while my horse looked longingly after the deer family. Eventually he walked to the creek, took a drink, and then turned and walked back the way we had come.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Mort, Me and the Upper Rio Grande 50 Miler

I stood off to the side and stayed out of the way while Cindy fretted over her gelding.

I wanted to be consumed with concern over the Saddlebred, but my thoughts weren't much under control.

SHE was supposed to know what was going on. SHE was supposed to have the mega-trail horse. Mort might be skinny but it wasn't MY horse standing in the creek with his eyes shut, his lower lip sagging and his respiration out of control. MY horse was chewing on my hair and looking at me with that, "C,mon. let's go see what's around the corner!" look in his eyes.

I turned my back so Cindy couldn't see my face. My eyes burned and my teeth squeaked with the effort it took to hide my anger. I didn't want to hurt her anymore than the day already had.

We ate lunch in silence, both sunk deep in our respective gloom. After lunch I saw Cindy go check her horse and then speak briefly with the veterinarian. He gestured to a group of riders sitting together on a log, deep in an animated conversation punctuated with occasional outbursts of laughter.

Cindy headed over and was soon deep in conversation with a deeply tanned woman in a baseball cap. The woman looked over at me and then scrutinized Mort. She got up, stretched and then sauntered over to the vet. He flipped through his clipboard and showed her one of the  pages. They both turned and stared at my horse again. My stomach flipped and I put a protective hand on Mort's neck.

It was bad enough I was done with the ride, but now somebody was going to yell at me, I just knew it.
By the time the woman walked up to me I was stiff with righteous anger. Endurance races stunk. It wasn't my fault Cindy's stupid horse couldn't hang. Now I was going to get chewed out for something. Somehow her horse going belly up was my fault.

"Are you Janet?" The woman asked me.

Her voice was kind and even, so I risked a quick look and peered up through my bangs at her. Her face was brown and white squint lines streamed from the corners of her friendly brown eyes. She looked pretty old, maybe not as old as my mom, but at least 40. I gave her a quick nod.

"I hear your sponsor had to pull from the ride," she said. "If you want, you can come along with me. You and your horse look pretty fit, and the vet said he has a heart beat as slow as an elephant's."

"Is that a good thing?" I asked her.

"What, riding with me or a heart like an elephant?"

"Both I guess."

"If all these horses had a heart rate like yours we wouldn't need vet checks. As far as riding with me, well, you'll just have to find out. I'm about to head out, so if your break is up why don't you saddle up and come on over."

   I saddled up Mort and noticed my hands were shaking. Was it excitement? Maybe. This lady was riding with a small group of riders that seemed to know their stuff. I was going to look like such an idiot. Mort was skinnier than any of their horses. He would easily be the rowdiest. I was going to start hearing all kinds of comments about how bad he was, I was sure. But I really, really wanted to finish the ride.

I decided to put on my "polite for the nuns" school face and ride it out. If they didn't decide I was completely useless maybe I could hang until the end of the ride.

Mort thumped me a good one with his head and jolted me awake. I was standing there daydreaming and my new sponsor and her friends were all mounted and staring at me in a friendly/impatient/puzzled kind of way. My face flamed red and I swung into the saddle and trotted over to them.

"I'm Jenny," the woman who had taken me on said and leaned over to shake my hand.

Each of the ladies introduced themselves. They were relaxed and goofing with each other. Their horses ranged from Arabs to Quarter Horses to varying mixes between the two breeds. They didn't seem to be in much of a hurry but they sure were having a good time. I didn't understand how they could be so relaxed. this was a race wasn't it? Maybe it was because they were so old.

I fell in with this odd assortment of riders and caught on pretty darn quick they had been riding together for years. Feeling very much the outsider I steered my jiggy horse to the outside and resigned myself to a long, slow afternoon.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


The exchange in the comments over Alexis' look back at the horses who had influenced her past seems to have struck a nerve, or two, or three, or six.

I have to be honest, I was torn.

Our story sharing is important to me and I love the acceptance we give each other. By being open to different outlooks and not slamming each we have gotten some incredible input and the ability to peek into each others lives.

Here comes the "but..." you knew it was on the way, I'm not called Mugwmp for nothing.

I have to admit, I cringed and said "ouch" when I first started reading Alexis' post. I felt, at first, it was very anti-trainer. As you guys know, I, um, am one of those,uh, er, trainers.

As I kept reading I realized she was simply talking about how she learned and the strengths she developed from having to do things on her own. Alexis made it clear she did the best she could with the tools she had.

Her story was a good reminder to me how important it is to have to figure things out for yourself and "just ride." Trainer dependency can be extremely destructive. It can close our minds to new and different ways to do things and make us distrust ourselves and our horsemanship. It can undercut the very reason so many of us began riding in the first place, to be free on an animal we admire and love.

I spent the majority of my life on horseback just figuring things out. I had no money for lessons, I barely had enough money for hay. I supported Mort completely off my babysitting earnings. I get poor, trust me.

I also had a fierce desire to compete. Can't help it, it's hard wired into me. I started with gymkhanas and then was snagged by the lure of the "morning events" at the day shows. Trying to break into that world on my whack-a-do gelding was almost impossible.

Enter trainers. I never sent a horse out for training. Because I "just rode" the idea was a crazy one as far as I was concerned. To be honest, I still feel that way. I want my life with horses to entail me taking us as far as we can go together.

But I sure couldn't learn how to compete where I wanted to without help. I needed the help of trainers. I write about the trainers in my life pretty extensively on this blog and I wouldn't be where I am, good and bad, without them.

Which brings me back, in my very windy way, to the comments following Alex's post.

One of the many things I learned over at FHOTD was to appreciate a good argument. I hated the meanness, the personal attacks, the insults, it drove me crazy. I had no idea there were so many miserable people in the world.

What I did enjoy was the thread of discussion I could pick out of the childishness.

There was some spirited discussion that went on, the arguments challenged the posters and myself, brought in new thought and got people thinking. Well, got some thinking, there was a lot of wasted space over there too.

I would love to see some of that over here. We could skip the nastiness and get right into the challenges.

How do we do that without stomping on each other?

I don't think Aegle was trying to cause problems, just start some back and forth. The kind of back and forth that could make this blog a lot more fun if we keep it honest and kind.

I sure don't want to run off potential new readers by slamming them into the ground.

I really would appreciate some feedback here. How do we invite discussion without getting hurt feelings?

Could it be as simple as..."That seemed insulting," or ,"are you bashing me or asking a legitimate question?"

How about, "Ouch, that was hurtful, did you mean it that way?"

We could counter each other by asking questions. How about, "Did you ever wish you could spend time with a trainer?"

I would love to ban any sentence that begins with "You should have...."

Instead try sharing experience, "For me, going to a trainer helped me speed things up."

Am I on the right track here?

Let me know. Say what you think. No swearing, preaching or attacking. Can we handle it?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mouthy Monday

Alexis shared a glimpse into three horses which shaped her life in the horse world.

I spend most of my days chasing my two kids, trying to take care of all of our animals, making my best attempt to be a good mother and a good wife. I try not to let my mind wander away from the everyday routine, but once in awhile I catch myself drifting off into a memory. My memories of horses long gone, of horses that taught me more than any book or video ever could have.

 Yes, there's something to be said about learning techniques from a more experienced trainer, but there's nothing in the world that can replace learning things first hand through trial and error. It gives you a better feel for your horse, not to mention strengthens your own reflexes and timing. There are some things that can't be taught--only learned. That sounds paradoxical, but it's true.

A long bodied, fat paint gelding taught me to FEEL the difference in a right lead and a left lead. He was a heel horse, he was supposed to go in his left lead, it was ideal for a team roping horse. I was 9. I wanted to run turn the first barrel on the right side of the pattern and be quick, a horse needs to be in his right lead. It wasn't easy, and even as young as I was, I did get frustrated. But through several summers of riding bareback, just spending time on my horse, I figured it out. It wasn't something that someone showed me, or anything that someone told me either. It just **clicked** one afternoon.

A long legged, long headed sorrel gelding taught me how to be humble. I was riding horses for a good friend of mine, a gal with the trucks, trailers, horses and everything else I could only dream of.
I was mounted on horses that cost over five figures almost daily( a fortune to me!), I was in heaven!

A girl came by one day to show her string of barrel horses to the boss lady, and the boss lady wanted me to take a few of them through. She'd hurt her back recently, which was the cause for my present employment. I'd been there early that afternoon, and had looked through most of what had been brought in. There were only 4, and one stood out to me. He packed a famous brand on his left hip, it was known throughout the barrel racing world as the mark of a mouth watered. I already knew I wanted him for me, but didn't think there was any way my parents could afford him.

 One by one, I took the horses through the pattern, boss lady watched, asked what I thought, then visited with their seller. We saved the one with the brand for last, I could feel my palms getting damp as I walked up to slip his bridle on. He was above and beyond anything I'd ever ridden; at least in my mind he was. Sort of like going from driving a go cart at home, to going to a big track and getting behind the wheel of a Nascar stock car. He was quiet, calm, everything felt good. He warmed up easy, went through the pattern as quiet as a lamb, then took my breath away when I took him through full speed. He was my dream horse...and then the other boot dropped. He had egg bar shoes on, was rumored to have navicular, and would occasionally duck the first barrel.

My parents did manage to buy him for me, and I never had a bigger reality check than I did after we owned him. I worked my butt off to get him in shape, to keep him sound, rode several hours a day, never left the barn it seemed. But when you have damaged goods to start with, it's hard to piece it back together. We'd do great for a few runs, then it would all fall apart again. His mind and his body had been pushed far beyond what he deserved. He tried, Lord knows he gave me what he could. I learned to recognize what was fair to ask of him, and what was just out of the question. He eventually went on to become a trail horse, then a kid's horse, both of which amazed me to no end. He was the definitive "point" in my life, the horse that taught me to step up and RIDE. Not train, not pick and pull and over analyze, but to swing a leg over and screw down...or get left behind.

A little blue blooded sorrel mare taught me one simple lesson....I don't get along with mares. End of story. Hers was another story of being exceptional, then being punished as a result of her excellence. When a previous owner realized they couldn't ride her, and couldn't sell her because of the issues they'd given her, they did something deplorable. The insured her sky high, tied her solid in a ramshackle trailer, then did their best to end her life. How she lived through it, heaven only knows. Live through it she did, despite their efforts.

She was distrustful, gorgeous, bred to the hilt, and a walking time bomb. The slightest things would set her off, she'd fly backwards and do her best to escape her present situation, no matter who or what was around. My dad and I managed to get past most of the snarls in her mind, I was able to compete on her a little. She just couldn't handle the pressures of hauling, no matter how careful we were she had a meltdown every trip. We sold her to a girl who was desperate to use her as a broodmare, only to find out a year later that she died in the process of foaling. It seemed like a cheated end for such a talented horse, but then again she was happier in that last year than she'd ever been. Turned out to pasture, no riding, no hauling, no fear. She taught me what type of horses I wanted to make, and reinforced the things I didn't want to put a horse through.

Those three horses are etched into my memory, they made me who I am today. My kids may never spend hours and hours in the barn the way that I did, it's their choice if they choose to or not. If I have to go to baseball or soccer games instead of rodeos, I'm OK with that. I will always hope in the back of my mind that they'll put down the ball or bat, and go pick up a halter instead. Dedication, perserverance, sure, sports can teach those things. Things that any kid can learn through trial and error on any given day.

The lessons learned from asking an 1100 pound animal to trust you implicitly, and being honored by earning that trust....that's something a kid can't learn from a ball.