Thursday, August 30, 2012


Heidi the Hick asked when I make contact with my bit.

I thought I'd just give you a break down of how I build my cues, from start, to somewhere down the road.
I'm not going into the "how." that would become a book....Hmmmm.
But here's my basics, on a baby, on a broke horse, it doesn't matter, I make sure they have this, in this progression, when I train.

My baby cues are very, very basic. Embarrassingly so.

Phase 1

Start with a relaxed rider, no contact, relaxed back,shoulders, legs.
two legs on = forward
guide left rein = turn left
guide right rein = turn right
two legs off, exhale = stop
back = two legs off, slowly lift reins until contact, pressure until I get a step
When I guide the nose I expect the front feet to follow
I release my rein pressure when the inside front foot steps off with my inside hand/rein

Phase 2

I don't start here until we have WTC at Phase 1
We're trotting into the lope, everything is sloppy and I don't care if we break gait
We do have our leads though

Add inside leg pressure (just before the back cinch) to my turns for hip control
Inside rein + inside leg
Every turn now has my leg pushing the hips to the outside at least a step
Add serpentines at the walk and trot, work on hip control with contact from your calf

Phase 3

Phase 2 is solid and I add shoulder control.

I ask for a turn with my inside rein
Place my inside leg, but hold instead of push,
drop weight back and to my outside seat bone,
place outside leg at cinch and push with calf
tighten outside rein enough to contain shoulder
horse steps through turn with shoulders instead of hindquarters

I expect more forward and ask for longer amounts of time at the lope

More serpentines

Phase 4 

Backing - moving hips and shoulders
Introduce lateral work
I want my horse to circle correctly and without stopping until I ask
I begin to lope squares and triangles, then straight lines
Trails or field work at the long trot for strength, agility, and a brain or two

Through all of this I work hard on being very clear on where my weight, legs and hand are and only getting contact with the bit one rein at a time, if I'm blocking with one rein or the other, I still start with my inside rein and don't bring the outside rein into play until the horse has stepped off with the inside foot and I'm pushing with my outside leg.

I only put even pressure on the reins to back my horses. They have learned to stop off my seat. As time goes on, every time I pick up my reins to stop my horse thinks "back up" and collects himself. I'm devious that way.

I only put even pressure with my calves to send them forward.

I do ride with my legs in contact, just no pressure, I don't want them over-reacting to leg pressure. When I take both legs off, it means stop, if they stay off it means back.

Contact comes when I'm getting collection through turns and transitions and need to step up into a more collected frame to increase maneuverability and refine the movement.

Usually I'm in my second year of riding them and we're in the hackamore.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stepping Stones II

So here we were, Odin and I, on day two of untying our knots.

It was early, so I could think while I rode. I might share the arena with the resident trainer, or Jay, but, we ride comfortably with each other, share ideas when asked and stay out of each others way. When I got out of the car, I got my friendly nicker from Madonna. Odin was watching me, but silent. When I walked up to his gate he turned his back and walked into to his shed. Where he stuck his head in the corner and presented his butt to me.

All righty then, he wasn't being subtle about how he was feeling. A little rope swinging and a swat on the rear got him to give it up and face the halter, but his tight little jaw and shark eyes let me know he hadn't changed his attitude.

Odin's grand daddy, River, was a big headed, long backed, butt-high, bundle of attitude. He had small, very expressive eyes. When he was mad, which was most of the time, they kind of shriveled up, sunk into his head and turned flat black, a virtual pit of hate. We called them shark eyes.

River's daughter, Loki, had a much sweeter temperament, but inherited his big head and small eye. She had a modified version of the long back, and was butt-high, but balanced it with strong loins, a deep stride and a good neck. She was afraid of cattle, which turned into some great cow work once she understood she could boss them around. She still had her moments, and it was easy to tell when one was coming on, because she turned from a cuddly sweetheart to a tense witch--with the flip of a switch and her daddy's soulless shark eye.

Loki's son, Odin, is prettier and better put together than either mom or granddad, still a little long backed, still a little butt-high, but has an even deeper stride than his mama, is amiable and kind, is loaded with cow, and is going to share the giant slide stop and seamless lead changes of both Loki and River. His big pretty eyes had just withered into hard, black, little marbles. I was Chief Brody, staring straight into the eyes of Jaws. Dang.

First things first, I took him to the round pen and sent him around, watching for an off stride, wringing tail, crooked head, whatever. Everything seemed fine and free moving, except for the rigid glare I was getting.

Next I checked his back, his legs, his poll, loins and neck, nada. I felt around in his mouth, maybe a few points, nothing spectacular though.

I saddled and we headed to the arena. Walked him out, checked my cues and his responses, there was nothing we didn't clear up in a few seconds and Odin relaxed into his usual, striding out, tail swinging to the beat, cheerful self.

I was doing my best not to over think this thing, just trying to feel and absorb what was going on. Trot work went well, he flexed and extended as requested, so maybe we were done with it.

We loped off and BAM, off like a freaking rocket. No buck, just speed and complete, anticipating, stiff-necked resistance to the bit. When I asked him to get his legs under him he stuck his head in the air and scattered.

What the hell? Back into the fence we went. This time around I wasn't as off guard, so I absorbed as much as I could while we duked things out. If I set him up to circle we were OK, he was rougher to the right than the left, but he's a lefty, that was an issue we've been working on since day one.

When I let him go down the rail was when we got in trouble. He would get heavy on the front end, drop his head, extend his neck (peanut roller, anyone?) lay on the bit and take off. On the left lead, he would stop, kind of,  on the right he would speed up as soon as I asked him to gather up. On this day though, I got a lot more try, had a much smaller fight and we were back to communicating in fifteen minutes or so. So I quit and rode him over to the creek so he could splash around for a bit and then put him up

Now was the time to question the kidlet. At first she got extremely defensive, why would I think she would do anything to Odin? I reminded her I was there, when at fourteen, she got busted racing show horses on the back roads with the other barn kids (some of you would call them working students), and even though she's a mature (I swear, I didn't snort) twenty-one now, memories die hard. .

She realized I wasn't mad or accusing, and earnestly told me she hadn't had a problem with him at all and she had only loped in the arena to warm him up, then they had walked the entire time on the trail. I believed her. She is pretty responsible now, at least while horseback.

So I asked her what she thought was going on. We discussed the differences in how we ride, there really aren't many, and started talking about triggers. Was there a trigger she set off, just by handling him a little differently? We didn't find an answer, but it was a good line of thought, so I left it to simmer.

The next day I let Odin work cattle. I don't discipline my horses when they're on cows. I want them to always enjoy it, think independently, and not worry about repercussions. If they misbehave they get taken off the cattle, and we try another day.

He had tried hard the day before and had two tough rides, and I wanted to see if he'd run off with me on the cows. He was very good. But when at his first left turn, we shot straight past our cow. He had been hooked, had just made a lovely right turn and was reading his cow perfectly, all the way up to the left turn.

If a horse doesn't lope well to the right, their weaker turn is to the left, and vice versa. Normally, a horse has a tighter, less giving set of muscles on one side, and looser, stretchier muscles on the other. There are different theories as to why, how the foal is curled in utero, which side the mare prefers to let them nurse on, etc. I don't really care why, I just know it is, and work to stretch the tight side and tighten the loose one as I ride.

The tightness blocks them while loping and stops them from flowing into their turn the opposite way. Odin wasn't flowing, he was bolting in anticipation of his turn.

I stopped him, backed a few steps, turned him, and went back to the cow, letting his eagerness to work draw him back in. We did this a few times until he willingly made his left turn and I put him up.

More simmering.
His mama, Loki, had severe competition anxiety, which got so bad we retired her to saddle horse status. She would fall apart in anticipation of her spins and her turns on the fence. She never had a decent spin either.
Odin had some of the same awkwardness, but not the anxiety.Yet here it was. I'm a better trainer now than I was then and I was determined to do a better job teaching Odin to work with his weak spots.
More simmering.

The next day was another early a.m. ride. Odin and I were doing some tussling, but nothing major, I had spent a good amount of time working his hips, ribs and shoulders at the walk and trot, just limbering and thinking and he was doing OK.

It occurred to me that the kidlet rides with more support on her snaffle bitters than I do. Not heavy handed mind you, but she uses more contact than I do. My next thought was, I had been using hardly any contact on Odin. So there was a possible trigger. Not using any contact at all is a big fat mistake. I used some on Odin, but not enough. He is young and butt high.

 I overcame the same problem with his mother by teaching her to use her bit and my hands for support, so she could drive up and lift her shoulders. At the same time, I screwed up Loki's turns by over riding her. She couldn't pick up speed with me guiding her every step, couldn't create her own style and efficiency, and couldn't learn to balance herself because I was compensating for (and hiding) each wrong move.

Now here I was, going too far the other way, just throwing the poor little sucker out there and leaving him to wallow around on his own.

So was it me? Was I the trigger?

I  went back to walking and trotting Odin around. I would drive him with my legs into the bridle, he moved up, lifting his back and breaking nicely at the poll in a stride or two. He didn't want to carry himself for more than three or four strides, but that's where we're at. We picked up our lope, he would drive up OK in a circle, but I lost him again on the straight away.
Hmm. Back to the circle, had him, straight away, lost him.

I stopped to ruminate and air up my tired little horse. The trainer was in the arena by now and we went to visiting. I told him what was going on. He hadnoticed he got heavy on the long side of the arena and asked if I had considered going to a martingale and just fixing him.

"I'm not saying I won't end up there," I said, "but I'm not in a hurry. If I can figure out what's going on with his feet, the shoulders and head should follow."

What I didn't say was, I don't use martingales, don't believe in them, and felt all that it would do was dump my already heavy horse even further on his front end, and make him break over in the middle of his neck instead of at his poll. I must be mellowing in my old age.

"I'm not a quick study," I said instead, "I'd just end up masking the problem and still never actually figure out what was going on. More loping will help both of us."

"That's probably the best thing, he's pretty off balance."

Oh damn. It hit me. I have a tendency to "help" my horses through their problems. I'll hold them through a wobble, guide them through their weaknesses, offer a crutch through my hands and legs without knowing it. I thought I had quit that particular vice.

1. If I had been holding Odin up while on his right lead with my inside leg ...
2. while leaving his head free...
3. he would begin to fall forward on the straightaway...
4. because I couldn't effectively (or sub-consciously) support him on the inside...

1. Clare wouldn't have supported Odin sub-consciously with her inside leg, because she's not used to riding him...
2.she would have corrected him by lifting him with her inside leg, then driving him into contact with the bit and relaxing once he was upright, offering him self-carriage, but ready to correct him again...
3. because he was new to her and she wouldn't be anticipating his weak spots...

1. Odin was OK through his circles because I was automatically holding him up...
2. Falling forward on the straight away because I wasn't supporting him and Clare had taught him to search for the bit for support...
3. he didn't find it...
4. anticipated a train wreck...


Yesterday's ride: I carefully let Odin make his mistakes, picked him up, drove him to the bit, waited until he re-balanced and let him go again. He's trying hard to sort things out and there was a huge improvement.
He has now learned to evade unpleasantries by hollowing out and bolting so I am firmly, and without mercy, reminding him that all feet must stop moving when I say WHOA, no matter how out of balance he is - even though it's my fault he learned the evasion.

I will continue to let people I trust ride my horses. Some big fat holes in my training appeared because of this incident. If I had stuck with my first reaction, "Stay off my horse!" my weaknesses would have only gotten weaker, our holes deeper, and eventually I would have had a huge mess on my hands.

Odin nickered to me when I drove up.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stepping Stones

I've had an interesting progression through my thoughts on horses and horse training lately.

At least it's been interesting to me. That's the only warning you're getting here.

My young horse Odin has entered the phase of training I like best. He can WTC, take his leads, stop, go left go right, back, and understands there are different parts of him I like to move at different times, and they all translate to where and how he moves his feet. He is calm and friendly, I feel secure and solid every time I get in the saddle, but he still has enough sass to keep me on my toes.

Odin has begun to enjoy the training process too. He's more interested than resistant when we work on advancing his arena skills and he likes cows. When I drive up to the barn he nickers, just like Madonna, as I get out of the car. It makes me feel good, since I don't feed him, or give treats beyond a good rub on the neck, to hear the welcome. It tells me we get along and he enjoys the work.

This is my favorite time with a youngster. His brain is like a sponge, he's ready and willing to solve every riddle I put in front of him. We don't have to mess with the basics much, I can hone those as we go along, so the riding is more fun for me too.

When the kidlet called and asked to borrow him for a trail ride, I said sure. It's good for him to get out and I like to hear from my child how she thinks he's coming along. I figured everything must have gone all right because she didn't call to tell me he was a lunkhead, so I didn't think much about it until the next time I rode him.

Odin felt a little off during our warm-up. He was edgy and high headed, not his usual M.O. I wasn't too worried about it, he has certainly been that way before, I thought we might be looking at a little bucking, but he's not very good at it. So I settled in my seat and got ready for a surprise or three, and asked him to lope off. He was sloppy and leany, and while his lope departure isn't clean yet, he was wanting to trot way beyond reason before he found his feet.

Again, I wasn't too worried, I just brought him down, adjusted his legs and we went again. Within four strides I was on a runaway.

Hmmm. This was new. I picked up the outside rein to take him off course and he flopped his head like an over-Parellied horse and kept on running. Hmmm. I gave him back his head and thought about things while we whipped around the arena for a lap or so. He was just waiting for me to try to pull him down. I could feel it in his shoulders and neck, in the strung out way he was moving, in the tension in his jaw. None of this was adding up.

Kathy was up ahead of us, loping circles and I hollered at her to hold up. She stopped and Odin veered toward Rosie. I thought he might stop next to her, but we shot on past, I had about enough and ran him into the fence. That stopped him. I backed him, um, let's say with enthusiasm, turned and loped off again. He ran off with me. I ran him into the fence again. This time, I was a little cranky, so I kept kicking him into the fence while he crawled up it, jumped sideways, flailed around and finally, finally, gathered himself, got his feet under him and backed off the fence, straight and correct. Then we rested.

"What's going on?" Kathy asked.

"Somebody else has been riding my horse." I said.

Before she could respond, Odin and I loped off again and went back at it.

I'm not one to let a rotten horse rest. Trust me, he was rotten. He would gather up and lope along for a bit, then string out and take off. I really am not a fan of running into a fence to stop my horse, so I spent the next twenty minutes or so starting him off, letting him go for ten to twenty steps, asking for a whoa before he could set himself up against me, and pulling him into the ground hard if he didn't respond. Sometimes I'd back him into a rollback, sometimes we'd head straight out, I didn't worry about whether or not he was trotting or loping, or what lead he was on, it was just stop and go, stop and go until he stopped on a whoa and rocked back a few steps, just like he's supposed to.

Once we were both on the same plane, I got off, loosened his cinch and went to switch horses.

"I guess you won't be letting the kidlet ride Odin anymore," Kathy said.

"It doesn't make sense though," I said. "She wouldn't do anything stupid on him and she would have told me if something had gone wrong. I hate it when somebody else rides my horse, I just hate it."

Whomping on a stupid acting colt becomes second nature after you've ridden enough of them, so I had plenty of time to do some thinking while Odin and I were coming to terms. Our barn owner, Jay, has been in the horse business his entire life, his father was a rancher and a horse trader, and so is he. He's an interesting man, a combination of old time cowboy and a thinking, thoughtful person who actually likes his horses. We have begun to have some really interesting conversations.

One afternoon we were discussing the pros and cons of letting somebody else ride your horse.

"I can't believe how long it took me to figure it out, but my horses always end up better after I let somebody else ride them for awhile. A lot of these guys (ropers and trainers) won't let a young girl up on their horses, but I love the results. It always makes them better when I ride them, it doesn't seem to matter if their particularly good riders or not either, they're just different," Jay said. "Different seems to be the key."

I thought about that while Odin and I were tearing around the pen and knew the key word was "different."

"Kidlet rides different than I do, that has to be the key, something got triggered here, I just don't know what," I told Kathy. She looked doubtful, she assumed I was defending the kidlet, but I wasn't. I was simply, for the first time ever, not having a knee jerk response to a problem in my horse after someone else rode him.

"I'll have plenty of time to sort this out, I have a feeling Odin and I will be discussing 'Stop moving your damn feet when I say stop,' for a few more days," I said.

Kathy still had that 'You are so full of it,' look on her face, but I didn't mind, she keeps me honest, one of the many reasons she's been such a good friend over the years.

More on this tomorrow.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Why We Give Our Children Horses

She sits with one bare ankle across her knee, and her foot jiggles to the beat of an invisible rhythm. Her arm dangles out the window, letting the hot, dry, air play through her slim, elegant fingers. Her seat belt is jerked loose and useless, it’s hard not to reach out and adjust it.

“You know, I kept skipping this class at first, I was so mad every time I thought about taking it,” she says. “Now, I’m starting to really like it. Shawn, our counselor, has so much to say, and I’m learning a lot.”

I glance at her, judging her mood, and catch her watching me, doing the same. We laugh a little; our eyes pull out of their clinch and slide back to their corners. We aren’t used to this sharing, it’s new and a little frightening, talking to each other like grown-ups, letting go of our sparring.

“Do you want to know the biggest thing I’ve learned?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I don’t belong there. I’m not like everybody else in the group.”

My mind jumps, I put down the sarcasm, the judgment, and try to weigh my words carefully. “How so?”

“They’re all so messed up, they’re crack heads, or alcoholics, or both. Some of them are younger than me and have two or three kids. None of them have jobs, some of them have never worked.”

I nod, buying myself some time. I feel protective of these other kids, their lives so close to ruined; afraid her opinions could be their last straw, after all, her clear eyed beauty and easy self confidence have unsettled me since the day she was born, and, unlike them, I know it’s only a mask she hides behind.

The other side of me wants to crawl over her, hide her in the shelter of my body and take these hits for her, like I’ve done her entire life. My scabs and scars have given me rhino hide, I could protect her shiny view of what life has to offer, help her shoulder the weight of growing up and the prices she’ll pay for the privilege. I don’t though, not anymore. I try to step back and let her find her own steel, hope I’ve done enough, given enough, and not marked her with too many of my own scars in the process.

“Yet there you are, taking the same drug and alcohol class as the rest of them.” It’s the best I can do. I struggle to keep the bite from my tone, but she flinches, feeling the edge.

“Oh, I know, it’s embarrassing. When we’re in group, they talk about selling their food cards to buy meth, or getting beaten by their parents, their boyfriends, the police, it seems like everybody wants to beat them. Like it’s the way to fix them.”

“And this embarrasses you how?” I feel my anger rise. What did I do to create such a selfish little shit?

“When it’s my turn to talk, all I’ve got is how worried I am about juggling everything. How I can’t figure a way to keep my horse. How frustrating it is to work two jobs and still try to find time to ride, for the band, for just about everything. I feel like a spoiled brat whining about my white girl problems. I mean, they’ve got real problems, they’re in group because it could be the only shot they have at getting on their feet.”

My anger recedes and now I’m the one who’s embarrassed. Thank God I didn’t open my mouth and step in it, get the barely cracked door slammed in my face before I got even a peek at the light coming through.

“It makes me see how lucky I’ve been, how easy it is to end up in their shit. At the same time, I think, hey, I’m paying for this class, this is my time too, so they can just deal.” She smiles at the joke of the thing.

“How do they react? Do they resent you?”

“No Mom, you wouldn’t believe it.” She twists around in her seat to face me, pulling at her lap belt until it sags almost to her knees. “They stare, and listen to every word. Then they ask questions and they’re all about Toby. ‘You have a horse? Where do you ride? Do you run him?’ They completely forget whatever we were talking about and want to hear about riding, and horse shows, and trail rides, all of it. It’s like it makes them hungry, you know?”

“I do know. Horses do that to people. It’s why I raised you there, in the horse world, it was the only way I knew to give you power.”

“The thing is, I want to give them horses somehow. They could help them see there’s more out there than the little tiny world they’re trapped in. Just petting them could help.”

“Petting a horse fixes a lot of problems,” I say, and smile.

“I was thinking,” her eyes light up and she runs her fingers through her tangled hair, twisting it into a knot and away from her face. “Maybe I could open a school, or a youth camp, something like that, where people from my group could come and pet a horse. Then if they wanted, they could learn to care for them, ride them. They could find out how it feels to run.”

“You could.” I stomp down the dire warnings that leap to the surface of my thoughts, resist reviewing bad decisions, make sure the phrase ‘You should…’ is nowhere on my face.

“I talked to Shawn about it and she thinks it’s a great idea. I’d have to go back to school. I’m thinking a business degree with a minor in psychology would be enough. I’d hire a shrink for the kids, I don’t want to go there. I just want to plant the seed, you know?”

I watch her while she rattles on, her plans and ideas growing by the second. Long limbed, tattooed, nose rings and a face without makeup. She looks the part of a lost and wandering soul, but the horses, they keep shining through.

She sits back and looks out the window. A smile plays across her face as she loses herself in her daydream. She reaches up and tightens her seatbelt.