Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Damage Control

This video is not for those with weak stomachs. 
A fellow blogger sent it in, with the question, what do I do now?
She had been riding the horse with a mechanical hackamore, but wanted to advance her horsemanship beyond it.
The bits weren't working out at all, and then the vet found this...

His advice? Use whatever works.
Thanks, vet.

First of all, let's think about how this horse got where he is today.
I do believe he was a rope horse.
This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with that horrific injury, but the roping reins might.
Also, many rope horses are trained to rope and only rope.
They are one-leaded, their life involves standing tied, warming up and blasting out of the box.
The tie downs used for "balance" (don't get me going), create a horse who travels hollowed out and pulling with his front feet instead of with a rounded back and pushing with his hind legs.
This is WHY you see so many high-headed rope horses, complete with an over developed muscle along the bottom of the neck and none along the crest. The head set and neck are not a reason to need a tie-down as we are often led to believe, pushing against the tie-down creates the whole mess.
Not all rope horses are trained this way, the barn I keep my horses at has a roping trainer who makes an all around broke horse, then teaches it to rope.
All his horses know both leads, spin and stop. They go out on the trail. They don't wear tie-downs. He's got ropers flying in from all over the country to buy his horses and some absolutely gorgeous stock in training, so I'm thinking he's taking the right approach.

I'm not going to jump to the conclusion the horse with a damaged tongue was abused. It's tempting to go there, but probably not what happened. Not intentionally anyway.

I knew a young woman who had a nice all-around gelding she showed in IBHA. She had the horse for several years, loved him to death, took excellent care of him and showed primarily in halter, Western Pleasure, Horsemanship and so on.

One night she was doing a tune up on her trail work. She was riding in a snaffle and roping reins.She hopped down to change a few of her obstacles, leaving her good gelding standing in the middle of the arena, waiting patiently for her as he always did.

He lowered his head to the ground, the roping reins slid over his ears and he put a foot through them. He jumped back, but the rein was so short it yanked on his mouth and he panicked. By the time his owner got him undone the snaffle had severed his tongue. Not just cut it, but ripped it in two.

No one beat him or ripped at him with a big old western bit (a favorite reason from folks who know nothing about our bits). He was in an egg butt snaffle. The most damage I have ever seen done to  horses tongues has been with broken or chain mouthpieces.

If a horse in a shanked, broken mouthpiece bit and a tie-down, trips at a full run and piles into the dirt, he will try to regain his balance by slinging his head. He will be stopped by the tie-down and fall with the bit cranked across his tongue.  I've seen some pretty serious wounds happen to tongues this way. Then there's your basic, tie the horse with the bridle reins approach. My guess is this is the primary way these accidents happen.

From what I was told, he is afraid of ropes, so I'm going with an arena accident. A roper is not going to make a horse afraid of ropes through abuse or any other means, that would kind of defeat the purpose. You know, of roping stuff. But, if a horse ends up with a scarred tongue and a fear of ropes, no matter how it came about, it's a good way to end up being sent down the road.

So, our reader now has a tough, stiff riding horse with a severely damaged tongue. What should she do?

If she was going to trail ride, I'd say stay with the mechanical hackamore. I don't care for them, but a tool is only as dangerous as the hands using it.

The thing is, she wants to do lateral work, develop her hands and feel and get her horse working the way a good horse should. She's very aware this won't happen in a mechanical hackamore.

Personally, I don't think he should ever carry a bit again. I think the damage to his tongue is too severe for him to ever be comfortable in a bit, it could even be excruciating, which means dangerous.

So what's next?

Go all Parelli and ride him with a rope halter?

If that's what you want, go for it, you'll have lots of company. I'm more of a traditionalist. I want to actually do stuff, like ride.

So I did a little research and found some alternatives for this horse.

Here's what I came up with. I've used some of these tools and others I haven't tried...

Go Nekked - Let's get real here. Stacey did not start this horse bridleless. Riding like this is not for the faint of heart.

Neck rope - This is the step between bridle and bridleless. Again, not a method I suggest for most riders.

Tack rein: When I was a little horseless child in Boise Idaho, I ran with a kid named Tammy McClure. I do believe she's a pleasure horse trainer now. Anyway, she had horses and rode with a riding group, Ehcapa ( where they rode in the Rose Bowl Parade, jumped, did drills, and just about anything else you can think of bareback and bridleless. They all rode with a tack rein, a leather strap with studs in it that hung around the horse's neck.

I was so jealous I could spit. she was so amazingly cool it just killed me. Every once in a while I got to ride with her, all we had was the tack rein. It was awesome. The only reference I could find to the tack rein is here
I don't remember actual tacks in the rein. They were more like a round stud, or the dots on an old style western bridle and it was a simple leather strap.

Anyway, I haven't used one since way back then, but we were little kids tearing around and I had no experience at all. The horses were fine and nobody I'm wanting to rig one up. 

Grass hackamore: Also known as a loping hackamore, this is pretty much a bosal that works like a snaffle. Very gentle, very light, don't plan on much whoa, because there isn't any.Cutters often use them on their youngsters and there, they are an effective tool. They guide right to left without breaking the focus or frightening a young horse.

Bosal : One of my favorite training tools, it has taken me quite a few years to get a solid handle on it. The bosal works off the nose. The reins are attached under the chin. Steering and stopping are done mostly off weight aids and guiding the nose. I put my youngsters in a snaffle for a year or two before I go to the bosal. My personal philosophy is to get the shoulders with the snaffle and then the nose with the hackamore (bosal). The bosal works the opposite of a ring snaffle, with the pressure pushing against the outside of the face instead of pulling the inside. This gets them neck reining even though you're still riding two handed.

Sidepull: I have started many colts in a sidepull, the rein action is similar to a snaffle, and I have a little more oomph than in just a halter. It also works off the nose as well as the sides of the face. As long as the rider doesn't hang on a horse's face, this is a good tool. It consists of a headstall with a noseband made of leather, rope, or braided rawhide. The side pull has rings or loops on the sides of the noseband to connect the reins. Some sidepulls are simply a rope halter with rings tied into it. The reins apply direct contact to the side of the noseband giving considerable turning control but limited stopping.
I haven't used a an Indian hackamore, but I see the logic, it's close to a bitless bridle. If I wanted to mess around with one, I would try this one.

Scrawbrigs: This is an English version of the bitless bridle and I know nothing about it.These act on the nose and chin. The reins are attached to a strap which runs under the chin, and tightens when pressure is applied to the reins. Better brakes, but not very sensitive in the steering department.

Crosspull: The Crosspull is the official name for Dr. Cook's bitless bridle.This bridle acts by tightening at key pressure points on the horses head, dispersing pressure over the largest possible area. Unlike all other bitless bridles, this one pushes the horse into a turn, rather than pulling, which is how a bosal works. This would create a good base for neck reining. When pressure is applied to one rein, it is transferred to the opposite side of the horse's head. The most common one is the Dr Cook's, however there is also the Nurtural and the IV Horse Super Pro among others. Again, I only know about them by reading, studying, and not needing to try one for my particular purposes.

English Hackamore: A short shanked mechanical hackamore with lots of padding, it still has communication issues. Nope, haven't used this, if  I'm going to use a mechanical hackamore I'll buy one stateside.

German Hackamore: Same thing, longer shanks, much like our American ones. 
Meroth: The Meroth bridle is a crosspull that works on the chin groove. There is a nose band, but the majority of the pressure will come from underneath. Haven't tried it....

So how would I approach working a horse like this one, and which bitless bridle would I use? First off, I would get all my pity, angst and endless love under control by taking him out to graze and weeping softly into his mane. 

Then I would train him exactly the same way I would any other rope horse that I was transitioning over to a new discipline. I would start him over like he was a dewy eyed three-year-old. My only acknowledgement to his past would be going bitless. 

Before I go any farther I have a blanket statement to make about any piece of equipment we put on a horse's  head or around his neck, for that matter. None of them are natural. All of them can be painful or painless, DEPENDING ON THE HAND THAT IS GUIDING THEM. Please read my last sentence over and over until it is branded deep into your brain.

I may not be able to stop a runaway with a sidepull, but it doesn't mean I won't rub him bloody trying. The sidepull is not designed to stop a horse and it can sure as hell hurt one -- if I am frantically yanking on it trying to stop. I can tear a horse to pieces with a spade bit, but I won't ride my horse in one until she has had the five to seven years of education it takes for her to know how to use it. If she's not a good candidate for a spade, she won't ever go in one.

Please don't let a sales ad or company spokesman talk you into a piece of equipment. Buy after educating yourself and truly understanding what your purchasing.

Another big pool of quicksand to duck is thinking the lighter the piece of equipment you use, the better horseman it makes you. 

There was a boarder at my first barn who liked to ride in the arena while I was giving lessons or showing a horse to clients. He wanted to be a trainer, actually, he wanted my job. He would ride around, doing exercises he had learned from his John Lyons video, riding his gelding in a rope halter with a lead rope, then eventually, taking off the halter and riding him bridleless.

It was all very impressive and to an educated horseman, extremely moronic behavior. I gritted my teeth and waited him out with a smile. My bosses were becoming infatuated with his deep understanding of horses. Lucky for me, the day his horse decided to come undone he was in the arena with the boss's son and their stud. The Lyons aficionado not only had no way to stop his
horse, but it had never been trained to understand who was actually in charge during a crisis. The wreck was astounding and educational, nobody got hurt and the wannabe was considered a total boob from that day forward. No horses were hurt, but there was a cracked elbow, lots of bruises and some torn out gates and fencing. Even riding a horse with nothing on his head can get him hurt if the rider is a dumbass. 

Just to be clear, I'm sure Mr. Lyons would have had a heart attack if he had witnessed this misinterpretation of his methods.

I haven't ever tried a crosspull bridle. I looked at them when they first became the rage. The first time I saw one was at a Horse Rescue I was trying to volunteer at. A brand new, never had a lesson, but adopted an angry, half-broke, three-quarter starved horse went by with a crosspull. She came back to the barn ten minutes later, at high speed, screaming and pulling on the angry horse's bridle with everything she had. 

The next time I saw her she was riding with a curb. Her horse was still angry (my guess is he was desperately wishing he had never been "rescued") but she could stop him.

Personally, I would start with a sidepull and move into a bosal, then stay there. I might play with the Indian hackamore. My reasons are pretty simple. I work off the nose and the other types get control from either the jaw or the entire head. The sidepull would educate my horse's shoulders and the bosal would educate the nose.

Anyway, I would start my rope horse with a side pull and lots of long trotting. I would ride two handed, and think about keeping a steady pace and turning lots and lots of gentle corners. Doing esses in the arena, thinking about hand and leg position, and cuing with your seat and calf will take you a long way towards beginning collection and flexing.

I would not try to stop my horse, or even slow him down, if he wanted to go, well then, we would go. the way to control your speed is with the size of your arena. Your horse will go much slower in a round pen than a rodeo arena.

I talk about all of this stuff in my colt training posts BTW.

My stops would come from my seat and a whoa, I wouldn't ask my horse to stop until he really, really wanted to. Again, my approach is somewhere in my past posts.

Active posting and keeping a horse forward though a turn will get him to pick up his back and flex at the poll. Trotting esses and zig-zags have done more to improve my horses frame than anything else I've ever done. 

Trotting is great for building muscle and balance, on horse and rider both. If you don't know how to post correctly, now is the time to learn.

I would squeeze my hands and release them in rhythm with my trot on our straightaways, along with a gentle squeeze and release from my calves. I'd be seeking a little flexion, not even asking really, just feeling around for it.

Where I would first feel some lift and flex would be through a turn. I'll relax my hands and my legs as a reward...

The give and take will never give my horse something to set against. He might flail around with his head, looking for his tiedown, but I'll be patient. Eventually he'll feel me and begin to work with me.

The rest...well that's your adventure, so get on with it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Real Life

This is what our horizon has looked like this past week.

This is what's is happening.

Black Forest, Colorado

2 lives and almost 500 homes lost.
This is what is left of  Lynn's house, my former student, client, trail buddy and these days, good  friend.

This is where Mort and I rode, trained, competed, and made friends of a lifetime.
This is where I spent many years as a trainer.

An area filled with livestock.

Many people barely had time to release their animals, they painted their phone numbers on them and wished them well.

Animals looking like this are finding their way out of the fire.

These are a few of our warriors.
One of my past students, Black Forest resident, and today, a firefighter. I am so proud to know her!
Tiffany, you rock! 

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Tim was a hurting unit.

His wreck with Tally had left him with a cracked head, broken ribs and a bruised ego.

He was conflicted and saddened by the whole train wreck. The hardest part about the whole mess was where it put him emotionally.

We met at the barn for a talk and some tactical planning. As I pulled in, it was a relief to see Tim had haltered Tally and led her out to graze in the deep grass around the wash racks. At least he wasn't avoiding her.

"I just don't understand why she did it," he said.

"A slipped saddle is a nightmare for a horse like Tally," I told him. "She needs to be able to count on things and incident free riding needs to be a pretty high on the list. Your job is to create the incident free ride."

"You make it sound like this was my fault. How am I supposed to help her when she explodes every time something goes wrong? I've been working so hard on developing a bond with her, I'm starting to think she doesn't really like me."

It is your fault, I thought.

The phrase "developing a bond" had long been a pain in my butt. I kept running into this line from more and more of my customers. For the most part, I heard it from new horse owners who thought it would be a good idea to buy a two-year-old for their pre-teen daughter, so they could grow up together, or from total green-horns, who were convinced, after watching a few GaWaNi Pony Boy videos, they could start a colt by themselves, as long as they properly bonded with their horse's spirit. Then they would adopt a mustang. Then, there were my favorites, the "I'm too afraid to ride, so I'll bond instead," folks.
Most of these situations only meant I had a steady paycheck, because somebody had to straighten these messes out, but this was more. I liked Tally a bunch and I liked Tim too. I wanted them to make it.

His sad and angry face told me he had fallen into this trap. He felt he had done everything he could to open his heart to his horse, he was sure Tally loved him, yet here she was, splattering him all over the arena fence. He looked very much like a man who discovered his girlfriend at the firing range using a picture of his face as a target.

I took a deep breath, reached for some empathy and tried to verbalize my thoughts.

"Where we get in trouble with our horses is when we assume they react and think like we do. We're being unfair to them when we mix up our translation of love with theirs. The concept of bonding is a prime example. It's pretty clear to me Tally thinks you're one of the best people she ever met. She also knows that's exactly what you are, people, and that she is a horse. She will never, ever be confused on this issue.

"I don't treat her like she's human," Tim said. His annoyance rang clear as a school bell.

"I'm glad to hear it," I said.

 "All of the stuff I worried about when you asked to buy her is coming up. She's green, she was a bitch to get started, she has a huge flight reaction to things she thinks might hurt her. You're a good rider Tim, but I'm not sure you've sorted out what it takes to own a horse like this.
"If Tally feels her life is in danger she's going to try to run, and run hard, we talked this to death before you bought her. As far as I'm concerned, what you get when you have a "bond" is a horse that likes hanging out with you, but it doesn't translate to the saddle."

"She doesn't even try to bolt with you," Tim said. "It's like she's tricking me, she likes you better. Tally wants to be your horse."

This was the crux of the issue. Something I ran into often, that I had felt, understood in my gut, but never had tried to completely sort out in my thoughts, much less talk through with someone.

We stood in silence, with me leaning against the wash rack, studying the rut I was digging in the gravel with the rowel of my spur.Tim dragged his fingers through Tally's long mane. She lipped his shirt, with sleepy eyes and a hip cocked, her heavy tail twitched slowly at an occasional fly.

"With me and Tally, it isn't about like or love, I finally said. "It's trust. Some of the things I've done to her wouldn't hold up to your idea of kindness. They certainly didn't seem kind to Tally's way of thinking."

Tim gave me a sharp look and flattened his hand against Tally's neck. I smiled at his mamma bear reaction.

"The thing is, everything I did with her and to her had a purpose. She came out of each session unhurt and with a little more understanding of what was expected.

"As time went on, Tally started to get me. She knew there was a trade-off. If she did what I wanted, then she was given what she wanted, which at first, was being left alone. She had no use for people, she wanted to be turned out and let be, but if I was going to insist on messing with her, she could get me to back off if she cooperated.

"The important thing to remember here, Tim, is I never worried about whether or not she liked me. That wasn't what our deal was. She did start to trust me. She could trust me to keep her safe, to get her through everything I wanted of her, without getting her hurt.

"I made mistakes, but I didn't make them twice," I looked steadily at him. When his face turned red and he looked at the ground I knew he was thinking of the twice rolled saddle as much as I was.

"If I had some independent thoughts on training her I ran them by the Big K, I didn't hide them from him or try out the advice of somebody else without checking in. With a horse this tricky I knew I needed the input of the person I trust the most when it comes to training. I owed it to Tally to be as honest and fair as I could, my ego couldn't be a part of working with her."

Tim's face sulled up and his shoulders started to stiffen. I needed to back off.

"I have horses who like me," I said. "Sonita does, but have you ever seen me assume our friendship will save my ass if she's in a mood?"

Tim shook his head, but I got a smile out of him.

"If I took it personal when she blows up at a tractor, well, that just means I'm trying to make her a person. She's a horse. Liking or not liking me means nothing to her when she thinks she might get eaten by the feed cart.

"At the same time, Sonita trusts me to get her by the tractor. I've done it hundreds of times, she knows we always survive, so she doesn't completely unload on me. I had her trust way before I had her friendship.

"If a herd of horses is grazing in a field, they'll stay close to their friends. They groom and play with each other, join forces to take the best grass away from weaker horses, keep watch over each other's babies, all kinds of things that make it clear they are friends.Then, when a plane flies low overhead or a pack of dogs starts harassing them, what do they do?"

I waited while Tim worked through things.

"Well, they run," he finally said.

"Do they hang around and wait to see how their friends are doing?"

"I don't know, he answered.

"They run like hell. Tails in the air, every man for themselves. Horses trust their speed and the power of the group.This is why I asked you to spend time watching a group of broodmares on pasture. If Tally blows, she's getting out of Dodge. If she thinks of you at all, she's thinking, 'Run Tim run!'" She is not worrying about whether you ride well enough to stay on. If you had seen a herd in a full run you might understand it better."

"I did watch them!" Tim protested.

"You drove out to the pasture I told you about and watched the horses?"

"Well, no, I watched the dudes in the big corral, they said it was the same."

"Who exactly, is they?" I started, then I caught myself. "Don't tell me, there's no point. The behavior of a dozen 100-year-old dudes and a herd of broodies with their foals on two hundred acres is not the same. If you trusted me, you'd get that by now, because you would have seen the difference yourself."

"It's not that I don't trust you," Tim protested, "it's just that..." He shut his mouth, there really wasn't a good response here.

"I treat you like I do my horses," I said, "I don't ask you to do things to make nice, I'm trying my damnedest to help you survive your mare."

There was a long, very awkward pause. I waited.

"What's next?" Tim finally asked.

I had to give him points, he wasn't throwing in the towel.

"We saddle Tally and then I ride her," I answered.

"Nobody can get her saddled," Tim said, he was distraught enough for me to see there were some more going on's Tim hadn't felt like sharing.

I shoved my anger and frustration somewhere deep inside, then added the cold fear coiled in my stomach.
Tally was going to take a big dose of calm and I knew she trusted me to give it to her. I found the calm I needed and let it wash over me.

"She'll be fine," I said, "let's go get saddled."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Questions, Answers and Clinics

Time To Commit to the Clinic!

We have had a few horse and rider cancellations for our Ride with The Big K and Mugs clinic in Roundup Montana - July 26, 27 and 28 and we're looking for riders!

Here's a shot of the ranch and one of our planned activities, gathering cattle. There will be lots of information -- Tim and I love the sound of our own voices-- and one on one time with Janet (Mugs), Tim (Big K) or both. You can ride where you're the most comfortable. English, Western, all levels welcome, there is something and someone for everybody,every horse. You'd be amazed how those big Warmbloods turn on to a cow!

 Tim and Dawn Unzicker's Valley Spring Ranch is set upon 186 acres of heaven, located in the scenic Bull Mountains of Musselshell County. He is about one hour north of Billings, and 3 hours south of Great Falls. 

There is a 200 x 400 outdoor arena pad, 80 x 60 indoor arena, 100 ft round pen waiting for you to work and play in.

It won't be all work and no play either, look forward to an old time campfire with dinner, music (bring your instrument!) and some out-west partying. An afternoon riding in the mountains will give us a break and offer some great training conversation.

Write me at or Dawn at

Ride shares 
Laura, from Western WA. is looking for a fellow rider to share fuel expenses with.
Contact Laura at :