Wisdom Isn’t Popular

IMG_0690(Fuzzy Rascal, late winter 2014)

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Leadership. Respect. Alpha. These are buzzwords in most “natural” horse training circles today. I get that some people struggle more than others to understand these concepts and how they apply to horses, but having grown up around farm animals I’ve grappled a bit less with this. That said, I’ve found it hard to verbalize my idea of a harmonious equine connection, and to be more specific, how one achieves that with a horse. Until now. Finally, a trainer and clinician I’ve been reading for a few years has eloquently (and simply) explained this nebulous relationship.

Clarity. it’s a beautiful thing!

Throwback

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It never ceases to amaze me how some horses are much less domesticated than others. Why? What is it that determines just how much fight or flight instinct gets tucked into a horse’s DNA?

Take Bullet for example. He’s generally a very laid-back gelding. Like any equine, he’s always watchful, but his inclination to bolt at the faintest rustle of a leaf is pretty limited to maybe taking a step or two in the opposite direction if need be. More often than not it’s likely he’ll raise his head, plant his feet, swivel his ears toward the sound in question and take a “Wait and see” attitude. He’s not much of an alarmist in his usual environment and I might even go so far as to call him brave.

Bullet will also always choose to withstand the harshest elements rather than be indoors. Our small barn has two comfy side-by-side stalls and two loafing sheds that are attached to opposite sides of the barn. One stall opens out into one of the loafing sheds and has a little paddock of it’s own while the other stall opens out directly into the larger paddock. The most protected loafing shed has a large central hay rack and metal corner hay racks in opposite ends of the shed. It’s also where our large (heated) water tank is housed in an insulated, semi- enclosed bin.

When we got our first two horses we would leave the stall doors open 24/7 and the two Arabs never had any issues over which stall belonged to whom. They came and went as they pleased and there was plenty of shelter to go around. We didn’t have to separate them when they ate because neither horse was ever a threat to the other. They lived in perfect harmony and balance. We decided early on that our horses didn’t need to be shut in at night and in fact, they showed us that they had a preference for that arrangement. It didn’t take long to realize that it was a waste of shavings and money to keep stalls made up for horses who would rather live outside and would only come inside to use the shavings to poop and pee. We eventually closed the stall doors and from that point on, the only time the horses came inside was to be tacked up to ride or if there was a medical problem. Basically, their care was easy and straightforward, just the way we liked it.

But because humans can never leave well enough alone, things changed when a third horse came into the picture. Now there was always an odd man out. A third wheel. A bridesmaid. The two Arabs had to come inside to eat grain or someone would inevitably end up shortchanged. Once grain was finished they’d be let out for hay, but both Arabians were quick to stake their claim at a corner rack in the loafing shed. Bullet would ultimately end up standing 3/4 outside the shed and eat from the rack in the center. We also have a large hay rack out in the middle of the pasture that we use on days when the weather is good, but on days when it was nasty out the two Arabs were always warm and dry while Bullet was (mostly) rain soaked or covered in frozen snow. This really bugged me.

No matter what I tried, Bullet was always the third wheel. I put piles of hay in the loafing shed on the opposite side of the barn, but Bullet would still insist on standing half in the elements, eating whatever scraps the two Arabs allowed him to eat. As I grew increasingly frustrated I’d end up putting hay everywhere, which to my dismay, Bullet would ignore in favor of groveling at the Arab’s feet for leftovers. Neither Arab was actually MEAN to Bullet, they just didn’t let him share very much of the bounty or shelter. No matter, Bullet was always just happy to bask in their shadow, stand mostly outside and eat whatever he could. Fortunately, he was an easy keeper and his condition never suffered.

When winter came the two Arabs huddled inside the shed, hogging the hay racks and sipping slightly warmed water while Bullet stood sentry in the snowfall, covered head to tail in ice. If he couldn’t get access to the water tank Bullet was more than happy to just eat snow. We blanketed him a few times, but he was miserable, rubbing woefully against any solid object he could reach. Bullet hates his winter blanket and so we rarely use it. Again, it pained me to go out on wet winter mornings and find both Arabs high and dry while Bullet was covered in snow, icicles dangling in his mane and clinging to his whiskers and eyelashes. But Bullet never seemed to care. He has other options available … he knows that, but he still chooses to stand out in the elements.

Bullet’s developed a very good sense of survival. When it gets cold, he likes to snooze in the manure pile. Gross as that seems, compost is very, very warm. Being no dummy, Bullet knows this is actually a good place to lay down. Soft and warm, and somewhat aromatic, Bullet prefers the manure pile over laying on rubber flooring and shavings. Which brings me to another Bullet oddity. Bullet hates peeing on hard surfaces. I guess the splash factor bugs him, so once again he’d rather climb into the manure pile to pee rather than risk splashing his legs by peeing on the ground.

Now that we only have two horses again it seems like  a bit of overkill to have two stalls and two loafing sheds. But guess what? Bullet STILL stands (mostly) outside to eat and sleep. I’ve never once caught him laying inside the loafing shed no matter how horrible the weather or wet the ground is. And for the most part, Dharla hogs the corner hay racks now while Bullet is content to feed wherever he can. A couple of times this winter when the weather was really bad I put Dharla in the stall that opens up to the loafing shed and small pen. I closed the pen off and opened her stall door so she could come and go into the shed and paddock without bothering Bullet. I let Bullet go in the other stall, the one that opens up to the large paddock, and left his stall door open so he could come and go as he pleased too. Both horses were right next to each other, but separated. They both ate their gain and hay inside, but then Bullet went out and stood just outside his open stall door. By the looks of things the next morning it seems he stood outside his open stall door all night. In the freezing sleet and rain. Dharla was dry as a bone.

*Sigh*

Some horses are just more of a throwback than others I guess.

Contemplations

I’ve done a lot of thinking the last 48 hours about my relationship with Dharla and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.

1. I need to quit basing my progress on what other people have done with their horses.This is MY experience, not theirs and taking three years to do what they did in three months does not detract one thing from the finished product. I need to keep reminding myself this is a JOURNEY, not a destination.

2. I need to give up my need to turn every step into a me or her situation. If she’s not ready to do something then WE’RE not ready. Period. And since we’re a team, that’s really important to remember.

3. I need to look at this as a good opportunity to relearn how to be more optimistic. I used to be, but I lost my sunny outlook somewhere along the line. Having lots of bad shit happen to you is really not an acceptable excuse anymore. Get over it and move on.

4. I need to constantly look for any little willingness to give to my requests and revel in Dharla’s naturally good disposition. Don’t nit-pick a sweet horse to death!

5. I need to quit thinking I’m going to change 45 years of my own bad habits overnight. Learning and putting new information into action takes time. Nobody perfects everything right away, including the ‘experts’ who are teaching. They’ve had years upon years to learn what they know and have tons of different horses and riders to prefect their methods on. In contrast, I’ve only owned three (of my very own) horses. My pool of exposure is far and away more shallow than theirs. Lighten up!!!

6. It’s too easy today get overloaded with information and end up with Paralysis by Over-analysis. Don’t get way ahead of yourself. Read, learn and apply the information that’s applicable to where you are NOW and don’t waste your time trying to grasp concepts that you don’t even need yet!

That’s all for now. I’ll probably come up with more as I move forward.

The Wisdom of Age

First Ride!

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When I was young(er) I used to think I knew everything I needed to know about riding. Having been raised by parents who put a strong emphasis on physical activity, I learned to ski, swim and master a variety of physical achievements at a very young age. I was given a young, unbroken pony while I was still under the age of ten. Then after having trained and outgrown her, I got my first horse at thirteen. Mind you, I never took a riding lesson in my life, but learned to ride by the seat of my pants.

My (first) Quarter horse Serena was a well-started, gifted barrel racing horse. When I wasn’t running her on the makeshift track my father cut around our sprawling hay field, Serena and I spent hours honing our craft. I soon learned that when I cut a turn too tight my shin would clip the edge of the barrel and instantly split wide open. Damn, that hurt. Since this was long before shin guards were commonly used for other sports, I talked my art teacher into selling me a few sheets of copper that I fashioned into an armor. I used medical tape to attach the guards to my lower legs, hiked thick knee sox over them and continued to practice my turns.

I learned that making tight turns in a dewy, grassy pasture can lead to a frightening wreck. As silly as this sounds, it had never occurred to me that a horse might go down with a rider on it’s back. But one damp morning I checked my horse as she approached a tight turn and felt her hind-end slide out from under us. Her head flew up and her front feet scrambled to get a purchase on the slippery grass, but it was too late. We went down. Hard. My right leg was pinned under her side, my left foot still in the stirrup. I didn’t know what to do. I somehow managed to slip my left foot out of the stirrup and pushed myself clear as my horse struggled to regain her footing. Sitting on the ground in her shadow, I looked up. Serena stood frozen with shock, shaking and blowing, afraid to move a muscle. I stood slowly, mentally checking to make sure I wasn’t injured, then reached for the dangling reins and started to slide my hands over Serena’s legs. Thankfully, she was fine. Scared, but unscathed.

I knew I had to get back on. Not so much for my sake, but for hers. I slid my foot into the stirrup and swung on, then sat a few moments on the still quivering horse. Gently, quietly, we began to walk around the pasture. I knew we needed to go through the barrel pattern at least once so we wouldn’t develop a lasting fear of it, but I had a new respect for the danger of high speed turns on slick grass. We walked to the starting point, turned and began to trot through the pattern. Mission accomplished.

Most of the things I’ve learned, both good and bad have been taught through trial and error. At this point in my life I can honestly say I’m beginning to realize how little I actually know about riding. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something I want to change. I spent the last twenty years riding the same horse. Occasionally I rode my husband’s horse, but not with enough consistency to say I have a wide variety of experience riding other horses. I used to think that was a good thing; to have one horse and know how to ride it really well. But as I’m beginning to learn, this can actually create a false sense of security. I trained myself and my horse to be so in tune with each other that I’m finding myself a bit lost now when I ride a different horse. The subtle cues and signals I used to communicate with my old horse aren’t as readily understood by my new horse.

Starting at square one with Dharla is going to force me to change. I need to learn to grow with her in ways I didn’t take the time to learn with my old horse. I’m lucky in that I already have a good seat and soft hands, but there’s SO much more for me to learn and begin to refine. I’m excited about this, but occasionally discouraged. How did I go so long thinking I knew so darn much? Well for one, I had a great horse who made me feel like a much better rider than I probably was. When you think you do something really well its easy to stop looking for ways to improve.

In all fairness, I spent most of my 40’s trying to recover from a series of debilitating spinal surgeries that left me totally disabled. So I guess it probably wasn’t the right time to be fussing about perfecting something I was lucky I could still even do. (My surgical team did NOT give me their blessing to go back to riding. I ignored them and started riding only a few months into my lengthy recovery) Fifteen years later I have many physical limitations and the list of things I had to “give up” for the integrity of the metal hardware that holds my spine together is long.  But I’m still riding. And if I can still ride then I can learn to ride better.

If having a teachable mind is the first step toward success then I’m ready to become a student again.

Dce 21, 2011, (Off)

It’s yet another crappy, rainy day. It seems like I can hardly get two days in a row of decent riding weather and then it’s miserable again for a few days. We’ve been in this weather pattern for the last year now, and I’m pretty sick of it. When I had a 28 year-old horse it didn’t much matter what the weather was like as I didn’t feel the daily pressure to get her out. But this year things are different and I can’t help feeling that I should have been more productive than things turned out to be. And our downfall was 100% related to nasty weather.

So we get another day off. That’s not horrible, but it wasn’t what I had planned for today. Not having much else on my agenda this morning, I sat down at my computer and caught up on email and reading. A fellow equine blogger that I follow had written an interesting post about being “horse crazy” since birth and trying to find acceptance in the equine community as she grew up. Unable to have a horse of her own, she baptized herself into the horse world by working in the equine industry and learning via firsthand experience, albeit with other people’s horses. Yet for some reason feeling accepted into and affirmed by the greater equine community somehow eluded her. Why? Because she didn’t have a horse of her own.

Like her, I spent most of my youth fantasizing about owning and riding horses. Whenever opportunity arose, I pestered horse owners relentlessly, begging them to give me a ride. Though we didn’t live in an area where horses were typically found, we sometimes visited the countryside where horse and pony sightings were far more common. On those rare occasions I would bolt at the clip-clop of approaching hooves like a child who runs toward the jingle-jangle of an ice cream truck bell. When we visited a summer fair, I would abandon my family just to hang out around the pony ride.

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As I grew a bit older, my favorite summer event was attending the pony and horse pulls with my family. I was fortunate that, although my father was not a full time farmer, he was well liked and respected among the local horsemen. Once these men got to know (and trust) me, I was allowed to help harness and hitch their teams. Looking back, I can’t imagine anyone letting someone’s non-horse reared child help with this task, but it was a different time and they welcomed the extra help. Me? I was thrilled, even if it meant just standing for hours in the hot sun holding a grazing pony on the end of a lead rope.

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 I still enjoy watching pony and horse pulls, only now I usually watch them through the lens of my camera.

So thinking about all this and the blog I read earlier made think about my own past and path with horses. My father bought a pony for the family when I was about ten. She was young, unbroken and quite an advanced “project” for an inexperienced child. But children and fools have no fear so I guess my parents didn’t see the harm in letting me give this pony a shot. We did have some help in the form of a family friend who had grown up riding horses on his parents farm. But he was a grown man and couldn’t be expected to back such a little Welsh pony.

I remember we did some ground work, if you could call it that. We taught the pony to be haltered, lead and eventually to be saddled. Perhaps we sacked her out, but I don’t recall and it’s probably unlikely. I remember getting helped up on her while our friend held her head, then her bucking and shaking and and basically just doing everything she could to get me off. Sometimes she succeeded. Eventually, the friend started to let go of the lead rope as he walked beside us. I was nervous, but not really scared. I knew Topsy would buck … I expected it. But I learned not to be afraid of that. I knew it was just part of the process of her learning to be ridden.

I rode that pony as much as I possibly could until I was thirteen or so, when my parents broke down and bought me a horse of my own. By then, my folks had made the decision to leave the ‘burbs and relocate in the country. They purchased an old run-down dairy farm that my father intended to convert back into an operating “Gentleman’s Farm.” You see, my father was a farmer at heart, but a doctor by profession, and sometimes I think he used my love for horses as the catalyst for leaving city life and livin’ the dream. I sure can’t fault him for that!

Through most of my teens I was involved in riding my barrel racing horse. She was fast, well broke and very competitive, and the riding skills that were learned at the expense of a feisty Welsh pony were further honed on the back of this capable mare. Bottom line, Serena made me look pretty damn good … far better than I probably actually was. In defense of myself, I did have to learn how to stay with such a fast moving, quick turning horse. But as quick as Serena was, she never gave a buck or a hop in her life, and I could eventually learn to relax and enjoy the ride.

If there’s a common theme with my fellow blogger, it’s that while I had my own pony, I never once had a riding lesson in all this time. Oh, I rode plenty of horses, some who were very challenging to ride, but I never had formal instruction of any sort. I was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of rider, who did pretty well I might add.

Many years later, when I was in my mid 30’s, my husband decided he wanted to learn how to ride. Not anxious to try to teach him, I signed him up to take lessons nearby. I went with him for the first few lessons to make sure it was the right kind of place for him, but also because I was curious. I wanted to see how riding was taught, especially to an adult. Each time I went I found myself wanting to do more than just watch, but it seemed a bit foolish to pay good money to take lessons for something I thought I already knew how to do. But the more I watched the more I started to realize how little I actually knew about the technical aspects of riding. Sure, I’d picked up some things instinctively and from basic repetition, but many of the finer points had eluded me all those years. So I asked the instructor if I could join the class. She was very willing to let me.

It wasn’t long before I noticed something unusual happened during our lesson: The instructor often didn’t expect me to perform the same exercises as the rest of the group. Now granted, the other students were all beginners of various levels, but still. Why was I exempt from having to practice the same basic skills? She seemed to treat me as though I didn’t need to be taught or corrected because I already knew how to ride. In the end, I didn’t take lessons for more than a few months because I wasn’t learning or perfecting anything new. I came away from the whole experience feeling foolish and never tried to take another lesson again until I bought Dharla last March.

I sometimes share my blogging friend’s feelings of not being good enough or of not knowing enough because I didn’t grow up with a ‘formal’ horsey background. I mostly learned from the school of hard knocks, and while that’s really OK, it means I don’t have the bragging rights to the credentials so many like to see. Usually I don’t get too hung up on this, but I sometimes feel a bit left in the dust when horsey friends start throwing around buzz words and terms I never much cared to learn. But I’m not an armchair expert either. I’ve lived with horses in my back yard for almost 45 years. I think a little knowledge has rubbed off along the way … or at least I sure hope so!

Dec 17, 2011

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So today I packed up my trail saddle, took it down to my local tack shop and put it up for sale on consignment. While I think it’s a smart thing to do, I can’t help but feel like I’m closing the door on an era of my life. In another week or two it will be a year since I lost Tia. About thirteen years ago I bought this saddle to use with Tia and I can’t tell you how many miles it has on it. I always took good care of my gear and  my husband was kind enough to do the routine maintenance when I wasn’t capable. I brought my saddle inside during the winter and when the damp humid summer months arrived, so it’s in very good shape.

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I was thinking that somewhere down the line I’d like to get a better grade saddle for Dharla. My old saddle had some features that didn’t suit me anymore and although they weren’t enough to make me run out and drop a bundle on a new saddle, I did think that at some point I might start looking for a replacement. Then, in early November, I went to the Equine Affair; a colossal four day event that attracts retail dealers galore and multiple riding clinics. This event has everything you can possibly imagine that pertains to horses under one (well, under five or six) big roof(s).

I wasn’t planning on saddle shopping. Honest. But I was hoping to visit the booth of a retail shop that had been recommended by Dharla’s trainer. Unfortunately, their store is in a nearby state that is close, but not THAT close.  I thought I could see if they’d brought any saddles to sell and maybe do a little browsing or mind-picking without having to do a lengthy drive. Lo and behold, not only had they brought a HUGE inventory of western tack, Dharla’s trainer was moonlighting for them as one of their salesman!

I hadn’t seen Patrick since April, but he recognized me right away. We had a nice chat and caught up on Dharla’s progress before I turned the conversation to the question at hand. And how nice was it that I had someone right there to help guide me, who not only knew my horse and her specific anatomy personally, but also knew my strengths and weaknesses? I was stoked!

Needless to say, I was not planning to buy a saddle in the first hour that I was at the Equine Affair, but that’s what happened. They had a used Bob’s saddle, a close contact Doug Mullholland reining saddle that fit me very well. It was expensive …. far more pricey than anything I’d ever dreamed of buying, even for a used saddle. But it was oh, so nice. And broken in just enough to be really comfortable, but not so much that it was beat up. Because who in their right mind would abuse a saddle that cost that much?

I hemmed and hawed. I knew that thinking about buying a used saddle at an event like that was like seeing an antique you like at a flea market and not buying it right then and there. You snooze, you might very well loose. Not that this is a one-of-a-kind saddle, but the chances of ever finding a used copy in that size and great shape was about a gazillion to one.

So there I was in the first hour after arriving at the Equine Affair and considering buying a used saddle that more than exceeded my tack budget by a wide margin. By all accounts I should have just gotten in my car right then and there and driven back home because my shopping allowance was totally shot. But I was there with someone else and so it was a few hours  before I could call it a day.

I was pretty stoked to try my new saddle. I thought it fit Dharla well and I liked how it felt when we rode. That said, it was different and I had to ride in it for about three weeks before my muscle memory could “reset” to it. There were times when I questioned if the saddle was the right fit for me, because it didn’t feel like my old saddle felt, which meant my horse didn’t feel quite the same. But the more I rode in the saddle the better the rides got. I had to adjust to feeling more of Dharla’s action, to having a slightly different posture and alignment and a better feel of what was going on beneath my seat.  At first, it made my dysfunctional back ache, which made me question my purchase. But as I continued to use the saddle I started to get stronger where I was weak and the thoracic ache began to dissipate. I started to love the way the saddle felt, the way my horse felt under it.

I held off on selling my old saddle until I was certain I’d made the right choice on it’s replacement. I took my new saddle and drove to Rhode Island to talk with the tack shop owner and re-evaluate my purchase. I’d spent a lot of money and I wanted to be absolutely certain I was buying the right saddle for Dharla and me. Let me just say that sometimes you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the company of a great horseman …. and this was one of those times.

Steve knew stuff that made me wish I was sitting around a campfire recording his words. I mean, I know a genius and talented horseman when I hear one. So we talked … or rather, Steve did, and I listened. A couple of hours passed and I came away with a lot more tips about working with my horse (and my “new” saddle) than I bargained for. It made me wonder what’s going to happen when saddle makers and horse trainers like this are no longer around to share their wisdom? All I can say is that if you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop and pay a visit to Allie’s Tack Shop in Rhode Island. Ask for Steve, then sit back and be prepared to be amazed by his wisdom and humble horsemanship. Cowboys and craftsmen like this are a very rare find indeed

.So time will tell if my old saddle sells. I know I’ll be a bit sad if it does, but it’s the Buddha way  … if it’s not being used it’s time to pass it down the line.