Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mort, Me and the Upper Rio Grande 50 Miler

Mort liked to be in front.

He really, really liked to be in front. If he didn't get to lead on the trail he would jig, tossing his head hard enough to break my nose if I didn't pay attention. When that didn't work he would begin to canter, almost in place, an angry, rumbling growl rattling deep in his chest.

Here I was, riding with a group of women who rode these 50 milers "for fun" on a regular basis. Their horses were fit and shiny, their tack was clean and worn and they rode with an ease I hadn't seen in an adult rider before.

They were kind and friendly and tried to put me at ease, asking about my horse, my experience on the trail, if I showed at all or if I just rode, just about anything they could come up with to get me talking.

Fat chance.The best I could offer were grim, one word replies, made up for the most part of, "Yup," and "Nope," with a few "Maybes," thrown in for comic relief. I was embarrassed beyond belief. There was no way I could let him go in front. I was a guest of this group and they had actually read the map the night before the ride. I needed to ride alongside them in the open and behind them on the narrow trails that climbed high into the pines.

Mort decided to up the ante and added some foam slinging, head shaking to the mix. I hung on for dear life.When he started to show his heels every other stride Jenny decided it was time to step in.

"Gotta lotta horse there," she said.


"Is he always like this?"

"Pretty much."

"What happens if you let him go?"

"He'll go."

"Does that scare you?"

I just snorted. I was way too cool to bother answering that one.

"Then let him go."

Now she had my attention. Eyes bugged, mouth open, maybe a little drool in the corners, attention.

"I mean it, he'll really go." Maybe the sun was getting to her. Maybe she couldn't hear so good. Probably she was like every other adult in my life and just didn't believe me.

"I'm sure he will," she paused and waited while Mort bucked in a little circle. "If you can, just sit there. Don't try to stop him or steer him. See how far he takes you."

"OK," I said. I was wondering if she had bets with her buddies on how many tries it would take before she killed me, but I wasn't going to let her think I was chicken.

I let him go.

Mort hesitated for just a second before he shot ahead and down the trail. He was as surprised by the turn of events as I was. He blasted down a rocky incline, his ears flicking back and forth between me and the trail. I didn't lean forward and ask him to go, I didn't try to stop, hold or steer him. It made for a wild, unsettling ride.

Without our usual tension my balance was off. He popped over a log when the trail leveled off and I almost biffed it. I didn't know what to do with my hands, my legs were so tight I had two inches of air between me and my saddle. My stirrups slipped away from me, first one, then the other.

Mort was weaving and wobbling across the ground, his head was high and his feet unsure.What the crap was going on?

I never felt out of balance, even bareback I always had a seat like glue. It seemed like I was going to have plenty of time to figure it out though, my rowdy dun was showing no sign of slowing down. Mort launched off the trail and through the trees, I was suddenly getting slapped in the face by branches and ducking heavy limbs. This was getting nuts, I was going to have to pull him in before I got my head knocked off.

My seat suddenly showed up. One second I was stiff kneed and lurching from side to side and the next I was where I belonged. My shoulders loosened, my back relaxed and my legs let go so I could find my stirrups. As my seat deepened and steadied Mort began to find a rhythm. He curved back through the woods and found the trail.

He began to slow, still moving at a good clip, but easy and relaxed. This was getting fun. Finally he broke down to a trot. His breath was labored, his neck was lathered, but he trotted along the trail with his ears pricked and his tail waving a cheerful beat.

We heard a faint whinny far behind us. Mort stopped and spun around. He, like me, was too cool to answer. I stayed with him like I should and we both looked up the trail. We waited, a good fifteen or twenty minutes, before the women showed up. I sat on him, letting him graze, listening to his breathing slow and head back to normal.

Jenny broke into a wide smile when she came around the bend. She had been worried, I could tell. I was proud of staying with him and glad she realized I had meant it when I said, "He'll go."

"He really took off," she said.

"He's like that."

We headed out together and Mort didn't walk ten steps before he started to jig. I glanced at Jenny.

"Let him go."

I did and he did, but this time we didn't go nearly as fast or far.

The group caught up, we fell in and Mort stayed at a walk for a good five minutes before he tried to pass. It gave Jenny time to tell me what she was doing.

"All a horse really wants is to stay in his herd," she said. "Sometimes the pulling and jigging comes from not knowing his place and then it turns into a fight with you. If you don't pick a fight with him, maybe he'll quit trying to leave."

"I'm not trying to fight with him."

"I know, but think about it, when your horse puts his head up it's because he's nervous. If he puts his head up and you make your reins tighter, he can't relax. He thinks you're telling him not to."

I looked at the other horses ambling along, heads low, the whole group of women talking and looking around, with their horses on a loose rein.

"But he takes off."

Jenny laughed, a great big belly laugh, but it didn't make me feel embarrassed. "He certainly does."

About then Mort started making his move to the front. I kept my reins loose and looked back at Jenny.

"This time, as soon as he passes Meg bump him with your calves and keep at it until he lopes off, once he gets going, relax again."

I did what I was told and as soon as I quit bumping him, Mort stopped and waited for the group, not twenty feet behind us.

Pretty soon Jenny had me bump him up before he passed Meg, the lead rider.

He barely broke into a trot.

Before we got to the next vet check I was walking with my group, my horse on a loose rein, satisfied with being a horse or two behind. If he sped up, I would squeeze him forward a few steps, relax, and he would drop back to a walk.

I had a lot to think about. Why had I lost my balance when I first let him go?
Why was he slowing down when I asked him to go forward and why did he speed up when I pulled on the reins?

These thoughts were completely crowded out of my head by the biggest question of the day.

Why were the insides of my knees starting to feel so raw?

I looked down at my cords and saw dark, damp dots starting to seep through the fabric. I rubbed my fingers across them and the skin at the bend in my knee immediately began to burn. I looked at my fingertips and saw pale red stains. I had started to bleed right through my corduroys.This couldn't be good.


KD said...


foxtrotter said...

well that gives me a lot to think on.

Anonymous said...

I was waiting and waiting and waiting....... its a good one!

SweetPea said...

Oh man... this took me back to the first time I was told to do something similar.

I had a horse that would go really slow away from the arena gate and then speed up and start bucking and try to duck out when coming to the gate. A trainer friend of mine told me to drop the reins and let him go where he wanted at whatever speed he wanted, but that when he started to get antsy and try to duck and buck to put him in a hard gallop but not to touch the reins.

After a few rounds, the trainer told me to stop cuing him and ask for whoa with my seat when we were away from the gate. If he stayed relaxed he didn't have to work. If he repeated the bad behavior he had to run.

It was the most enlightening lesson... and has served me well ever sense.

redhorse said...

Too cool. One of your best.

Becky said...

You wore CORDUROYS on a long distance ride?!


RHF said...

Ok.. this is my new favorite. Please tell me this isn't the end.. yep that's right, I'm hoping for another cliff hanger! What's happening to me??

Jill said...

ouchie! were you in a western saddle? Gripping hard or just the distance?

Sounds like a breakthrough. Good Mort!

Susan said...

It always amazes me that sometimes I can't find my seat and I think I'm relaxed. I'm glad you found yours that day.

mugwump said...

Becky - Nobody said I was the sharpest tool in the shed.

Jill- yep, all 45 pounds of that puppy.

susan - just in the nick of time

Horsez-R-Us said...

Oh wow what a story! You did much better then I would have. I can't wait until I'm experienced to do something like that one day (and hopefully minus the taking off).

I have used that kind of technique in a round about way before, but not under saddle. There was this mare that would never let anyone catch her on the first try. But I found out that when she walked off, I would make her trot away. She wasn't going to get off easy. Then after a few strides I'd stop and when she looked at me I would approach her, if she walked off again I repeated the process. Eventually that habit was broke.

Again great job!! :)

mysanity said...

Great story of trust.

Slippin said...

Great post! Makes me also think of the time my gelding wanted to go(but we were in the arena)I was having a hard time controlling him. All he wanted to do was RUN, so my trainer said,"Put your hand down like your working a cow and kick the snot out of him!" I am sure my eyes just about bugged out of my head, because when I kicked him, my trainer said, "NO kick him HARDER!" So I got braver and did. I tried to steer him, but again was told to leave the reins alone. We galloped around that arena about 10 times when my gelding finally started to slow down and then wanted to stop...but I caught on to what we were doing and I kicked him and made him run. He wanted to stop so bad, but my trainer said, "Make him BEG You to let him stop." SO I kept after him and after that, I didn't have any problems asking him to stop. All I had to do was lift up the reins lightly and he would park his butt like he was supposed to. As far as I remember, I never really had that problem again either..LOL

Anonymous said...

hmm, wonder if this would work with a horse I've been riding? He's fine on the trail til we get away from the barn then he gets extremely anxious. I'm sure he'd go back to the barn if I let him go. Do you think letting him go and then taking back on the trail every time we get back to the barn would work? I've even tried taking the edge off before we leave and working him hard at the barn then taking him on the trail. Same thing every time.

Francis said...

I am thinking that I like Jenny.. great post.. been there/done that!

Taterz said...

I was training for a 50 in jeans and had something similar happened. Part of my leg looked like bloody hamburger meat. I think I was about the same pipsqueak age as you were when that happened. My mama yelled at me about that one.

Great post! Want more!!

Whywudyabreedit said...

I really did not want to get out of bed this morning, this was a very nice surprise!

lytha said...

this is the first post you've written where i felt you were talking directly to me about my horse.

redhorse said...

Oh, I forgot, my comment on the last "Mort" story was right, those old ladies kicked your little whipper-snapper butt. But, I think you helped with the corduroys.

nagonmom said...

Good thing you didn't have to pass the vet check! Great story, as usual.

Heidi the Hick said...

You know, I read this and I think I'm way too chicken to run like that. And I don't have a good enough seat. And the longest day I've ever been on horseback was a 6 hour trail ride which really isn't that long compared to endurance riding.

I had a couple of great mentors though. I value those two women to this day even though we haven't ridden together in years.

...Champ loved being out front too. I figured running him out was futile cuz that little A Rab could run all day - it fueled him. So I spent a few rides spinning little circles beside the trail. Seemed to do the trick. I don't know. We survived and had fun.

Helen said...

Mort was very lucky to have you as his human.

Was this where you got the idea to just let Sonita go - that time when you took her to the Garden of the Gods and just went for it?

mugwump said...

Heidi - my approach is much calmer now, but Jenny sure got me thinking.

Helen - it was the start of a lot of thinking on my part of letting my horse go and creating a desire for them to stay with me.

Judi said...

Once again, the parallels to training my (first and so far only) stockdog jump out at me. When my dog gets insecure about whether or not she's controlling her stock, she tends to try to dive in to grip. I get flustered, we fight over whether or not she has to lie down when I say so, and then I stop the action by putting her on lead. My instructor told me to keep her working. Block her access so she can't grip when she goes in, but make her keep on working without a break. Once she realized she would keep her stock as long as she was well-behaved with them *and* she needed to save some energy for the longer time, she slowed down and started to work really nicely.

I hope you and all your horsaii here are okay with me commenting on the comparison to stockdog training.

Kel said...

Judi: I find the parallels fascinating. Though I have to ask, what is "grip"?

So what are the appropriate pants for long saddle hours? Obviously something without an inner leg seam, but is there even such a thing outside of English riding gear?

And grr arg! Another cliffhanger!

mugwump said...

Judi - I am very much a dog person - I love hearing about your dogs.

mugwump said...

Kel - I can live in the saddle in a pair of well worn Wranglers.

Scamp said...

I love the Mort stories! He sounds like the kind of horse my friends and I loved.

Definitely brings back memories of my misspent youth too. :) I got the scars on the inside of my knees a little later, since most of my earlier riding days were bareback by dictate of the man who owned the horses ("When you fall off, I'm not gonna have you get dragged!")

My grey horse likes to go fast, (when his favorite gait isn't "whoa" - he's a bit schizophrenic :)) but after him flipping over onto his back and launching me like a dart head first into the dirt, I'm a bit hesitant about really letting him go. We were cantering in an indoor at the time and had a disagreement about whether to turn to the left or go straight (towards his stall where he knew there was hay) and he tangled up his front legs and went ass over teakettle. He's also tripped and gone down to his knees on small tufts of grass outside - granted, not recently... but it is enough to make an older, wiser (I hope) me think twice. I've only let him go a few times since. :)

Judi said...

Thanks for accepting the dog stories, too!

Kel, a grip is a bite. I'm not sure why we call it a grip since the ideal bite is pretty much duck down low, get in, bite the desired leg or nose, and get out fast before the stock can land a kick. Holding on is generally dangerous. I suspect it's partially to obfuscate the fact that the little mean doggies are biting the big, sweet cows.

Peanut said...

Mugwump said:
"creating a desire for them to stay with me."

I occasionally get small tastes of this with my mare, but I want more...

scsarah said...

Gawd I love Mort.....

Those women who your were riding with sure knew about teachin' without all the preachin'. The BEST way for a teenager to learn. And I have found horses are very much the same way.

I sense from your story that they also treated you as a young adult (despite the yeps and nopes......*winks*), and not some 'stupid kid.' And that made a difference in how you responded to them... you started to interact with them.

I loved the story and hope I did not read to much into it.....I am always being told I can be over analytical.

Helen said...

Pantyhose can be worn under jeans if you're not a regular rider to prevent the knee blisters. I'm told some grizzled old cowboys (stockmen in Australia) have been known to do this. :-D

Bailey said...

I love your Mort stories! I am very interested in hearing more about how you got Mort to relax on the trail. I currently have a horse that does great if I ride him "on the buckle" but if he decides he's done with the ride he keeps speeding up toward home. As soon as I pick up the reins, he gets even more "up" and things escalate quickly. He is a foxtrotter, and I have a feeling that he was shown in the past and that the person who trained him expected this kind of...umm...animation...when the reins were picked up. Anyway I'm trying to figure out how I can ride him with some contact without making him so excited. Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated.

Kel said...

Helen: knee-high nylons under sports socks works pretty well for breaking in new boots/sneakers without causing too many blisters. Also good for keeping your feet toasty in riding boots during the winter. Not too great in the summer though....

Hannah said...

My best riding buddy (one of those 40-something "old" ladies) is also a competitive trail rider (and rides Arabs). Her favorite saying is "Nobody drug tests the riders!"

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