The winter months with cold temperatures and windy conditions make riding one of the things we may want to put on the back burner. But, getting on and riding isn’t the only way to keep your horse and yourself in riding shape, at least mentally. We can all think back to some things that weren’t working as well as we’d like between our horse and ourselves in the saddle this past riding season. This time of year is a great time to check some things out on the end of the halter rope. We can still see what we have for connection and communication with our horse without having to saddle up and brave the cold.
If our groundwork has focused on the mechanical, we can use the winter months to establish or re-establish more of a “feel” with our horse. Seeing how little we can do to cause our horse to do what we’re thinking of him doing is a fun way to spend 20 or 30 minutes on a less than stellar weather day. Amy and I like to see how much we can influence our horse with our bodies and feet by doing as little as we can with our hands. If our horse will follow the feel of our bodies, like a dance partner, we have a better chance of them following the feel of our seat when we are in the saddle. Imagine yourself riding your horse in a circle around a cone or barrel. You become the cone or barrel, the center of the circle. If you are upright and balanced and your horse is upright and balanced, you should feel a float in the lead rope, an arc in the horses’ body, and the horse flowing from hind feet to nose. It will feel good to you and the horse!
We like to feel of the whole horse. It’s good to know what the parts of the horse are doing but, it’s better if we can take-in the whole horse. Focusing on the hind end or the front end or the head causes us to lose sight of what the sum of the parts are. That’s often the result of being mechanical and trying to “make” the horse do what we want rather than focusing on setting things up the best way we know how and letting the horse find the feel we are offering. If a feel following a feel is our goal, we will connect with our horse better by offering a feel and allowing the horse as much time as it takes to find and follow that feel. Each offer our horse finds causes him to search for other offers in a way that he won’t if a more mechanical means is employed.
A good example of our horse following our feel is in the simple exercise we’ve all done many times. Our horse is leading past us in a circle. We ask his hindquarter to reach bigger until he disengages to a stop. Then, we ask the front end to move past us and get back on our circle going the other way. How much we use the lead rope to get the hindquarters to reach can be in direct correlation to how much we’d have to use the rein to get the hindquarters to reach from the saddle. Paying attention to how the hindquarters disengage and noticing if the disengagement starts with the mind or if it’s just an escape from pressure will help us to recognize how our horse is reacting to cues from our seat, legs, and reins when riding. Watching for our horses’ mind to move through from one direction to the other and how his balance and feet follow that thought as the front end comes through to get back on the circle can make the difference between his rushing mechanically and stepping through thoughtfully.
Connecting with our horse and communicating our intentions without unnecessary pressure will encourage our horses to get with us and follow our feel. If we get it on the ground, we increase our chances of getting it from the saddle. We get better so our horse can get better. And, we never had to get on!
We’ve had the opportunity to work with some new people and horses over the past couple of weeks. That’s always a thrill for us because not only do we have the opportunity to share some of our knowledge with someone new, we have the chance to be exposed to different ideas. When we did a lot of day-work on neighboring cattle ranches, we saw a lot of different ways to work cattle and use horses. It was a great way to see, in practice, ideas that might work for us. Whether we learned what we wanted to try or not to try in our own operation, the ability to experience ideas was invaluable to our education.
Continuing to educate ourselves beyond the walls of a classroom and a formal education is one of the great things about life. It’s a life choice. We can either stay stuck in our ways and ideas or we can venture out beyond our comfort levels and experiment with new ideas and methods of doing things that are important to us. Amy and I have gotten to the age and stage in life where we’ve experienced quite a bit. We’ve found things that work well for us by doing lots of things that didn’t work as well. It has been a blessing to be able to work with, for, and around lots of different people doing lots of different things. Those experiences have helped us develop into who we are and what we do.
One of the endless debates in the horse community is about whether the front end or hind end of the horse is more important to control. As our teacher and mentor Tom Dorrance used to say, “it depends”. As in a lot of things in life, if we get too focused on one thing, other things will suffer. Amy and I try to keep track of the whole horse; mind, body, and spirit. By doing that we become more aware of what happening before other things happen. We continue to develop a feel for our horse and become less mechanical. We’ve discovered that there are times when the hindquarters are more important than the front end and times when we really need the front end to get a job done.
The more we all understand how horses see, think, and react to things, the better we can prepare ourselves and then our horse for the jobs we will do with them. If I understand how my horse needs to move to carry my weight and do what I need done, I can help him to get balanced within his body so his feet can move how and where they need to go when they need to go. If my horse and I fail to stay balanced in our job, we’re likely to be working against one another. If I’ve educated my horse to the job we are doing and taught him to stay with me and stay balanced, I can let him decide what part of his body is more important for getting my thing done his way.
So, if you’re caught in the debate over front end versus hind end, don’t fret over which end is up. Instead ask yourself if you’re considering the whole horse and the jobs you will be doing together. Our bet is that you and your horse can find the answer together. And, if you need some help figuring it out, we’d be happy to help!
My parents were teachers so, I paid attention to what teachers did and I paid attention to what it took to become a teacher in our school system. One of the steps in the process was to become a student teacher. Student teachers came into our classrooms to practice what they had learned in college. I never asked any of my student teachers how closely what they learned at college matched with what they were presented with once in a “real” classroom. I imagine that the student teaching job exposed some student teachers to environments and attitudes they never foresaw. That was probably one of the big incentives for having a student teacher program in the first place.
We had a chance to attend a clinic as students recently. We try to be students of the horse everyday but, being another persons student can be both enlightening and challenging. We don’t have a lot of ego. We know that there are many things we do not know and many things that we know that we could do much better. So, when we attend a clinic, we really are there to pick-up new ideas, look at something we do in a new way, and to refine our skills. Because we both teach humans as a part of our business, we are looking for new ways to present ideas to others as well as find new things to help our horses.
I’m not a very good student. Even when I try to listen and follow instructions, I end up doing things that cause my teacher consternation. When I ask questions, I come across as argumentative and when I reply to questions asked of me, my answers come out all wrong. Worse yet, when I attempt a new skill, I’ve got two left feet and six thumbs on both hands. I’ve worked on correcting or adjusting those faults but, with little success. Something happens to my brain and body at a clinic that I just don’t understand. Despite all of that I feel like my horse gets better and that I come away with nuggets of information valuable to my learning journey.
The really great thing about attending a clinic is that I gain increased empathy for people that attend one of our clinics. We’ve known for a long time that different people learn in different ways. What we tend to forget is that different people have different reactions to the clinic setting itself. Some people are comfortable in that setting and will say and do all the right things. Others are more like me, saying and doing some good things and some not so good things. What’s important for me to realize is….we wouldn’t be attending if we didn’t want to learn something. Sometimes we take a chance and go to a clinic knowing nothing of the teacher nor the way they will present their information. Other times we know the teacher, know how they present, and have an idea of what we may take away from our experience. Either way, we are there to learn.
As a teacher to humans about horses and cattle I need to remember that what works for me doesn’t always work for the next person. I see and feel things differently than the next person. I’ve worked at developing ways of interacting with my horse and with my horse on cattle that work for me. I shouldn’t expect that those things will work for my students. What’s important is developing an awareness of what you want from yourself and your horse and then developing a feel for when those things take place. What you do to get there is not nearly as important as getting there in such a way that you and your horse are comfortable and relaxed and enjoying the learning process! That’s what I learned from being a student this time. I pray it makes me a better teacher.
We had the opportunity to ride with some really great folks this past Saturday at our Winter Series, Refining Our Horsemanship Clinic. Everyone was trying hard to understand what their horses needed from them. Sometimes it was a doing a little more to get a horse to search. Sometimes it was doing a lot less to give the horse the opportunity to show how much they can do for us. We worked on becoming aware of when we had succeeded in getting our horse to think about what we wanted. Then, we worked on the timing of our release for that thought.
When we rode in Ray Hunt’s clinics he would talk about how to look and feel for what it takes to get the horse to understand what we’re asking. He talked about how sometimes it would take all we had to get our point across but, other times, it would take the littlest thing and they’d be right there. To us, refinement in our horsemanship has taken the form of seeing how little we can do. Looking for ways to get our thought to become their thought. Changing their mind and then getting out of the way so our horse can do our thing their way. We’ve worked on becoming aware of our horses feet and how to get in time with them.
At the clinic, I watched Amy ride a horse that was struggling with his right side. This gelding was always wanting to look left and pushing his shoulder and rib cage out to the right. He is 10 years old and had been in this frame for quite a few years. When Amy first began her ride she thought it would take quite a little time to get him out of such a strong habit. But, to Amy’s and our surprise, the gelding came through after just a little bit. Amy’s timing must have been fitting to what the he needed. She must have felt what the gelding was thinking he needed to do and changed his mind. The straightness that Amy offered must have felt good to the him because once he knew through Amy’s release that it was okay to travel that way, he stayed there on his own. Amy’s experience helped. She knew what she was looking for. She would allow the gelding to run into his own pressure when he wasn’t right and would release as the gelding thought about getting right. Amy’s timing was good…..according to the horse!
Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt showed us years ago that feel, timing, and balance were the keys to creating good communication with our horses. It was true then, it’s true today. We don’t need to look for anything else!
One thing that will keep you from getting into trouble with your horse is if you “ride the horse you have today”. When we look back at a bad day with our horses, we may discover memories of signs that, had we paid attention, could have prevented our unpleasant encounter. Being that horseman that has good situational awareness and adjusts to what is rather than what we wish for can mean the difference between a good ride and a bad one.
A “bad day” story may sound like: Yeah, ol’ roanie was a little hard to catch that morning….I pulled him off the best, greenest pasture we have and away from that mare he’s so fond of. There was a little ear pinning when I cinched him up but, when I rode him 3 months ago, he was fine. He did walk off from the tie rack with his tail swishing and a big ol’ hump in his back but, when I moved him around a little he only kicked at the cinches once or twice. Come to think of it, he did have a big ol’ brace on that left side….not good remembrances from a convalescent bed!
A “bad day” turned into a “good day” may sound more like this: Yeah, ol’ roanie was going to be a little hard to catch so I took my time and made sure that he was catching me before we left the pasture. A couple of days ago I noticed he was getting pretty attached to our mare so, I moved her to another pen hoping that would help today’s ride go better. It had been most of the winter since we last rode so, I took some extra time with the grooming. I kept ahold of roanie so I could move him around me and my brushes hoping he’d get a feel for me again. When I put my saddle on his back, I took a little time to rub on him and I did a double check on how things were fitting since our last ride. I brought those cinches up easy and just tight enough to keep the saddle from rolling and then I moved him around me a little to see what he thought about things. I noticed a brace on that left side so, I took some time to work that out and make sure that left rein was working on that left hind foot. By the time I was ready to step on, ol’ roanie had blown two or three times and yawned. He looked like a horse that wanted to go with me. We had a great ride!
As we all get ready for Spring, now may be a good time to start assessing our tack, our pastures, and our horses. Getting back into the habit of thinking about what kind of situations we want to try to create to make our riding season one of the best ever! Looking forward to seeing all of you soon!!
We like to remember. We remember our first good friend, our first teacher, and our first love. We remember the folks that have helped us along our way and the folks that have not. We hold on to those memories. Sometimes they are in the forefront of our thoughts, triggered by an event or a song, smell or something familiar. Other times our memories are hidden somewhere in the depths of our minds like an old friend we lost contact with.
Horses remember too. They remember everything! That’s why a good start in the halter leads to an easier start under saddle and a good start under saddle leads to a more confident horse in any discipline. Horses remember how things feel. They also remember being scared from a bad experience, over confinement, or from the over use of force. They remember how to fight when their flight response is taken away from them.
The good news is, most horses are very forgiving. We know from working with hundreds of horses that have had less than a perfect life. When these horses are offered something that feels good to them, something they understand, they find a way to bury the past. They don’t forget, they forgive and bury. If we offer them the things they understand in a way that makes them feel safe, they will choose to react in a way that helps us do our job.
A good horseman will do their best to forget any unfavorable encounters with the horses they work with. We need to have confidence in our ability to learn from our mistakes and create better learning environments for our horse partners. If we applied pressure in a way that caused a blow-up, we need to think of ways to get our job done without crossing that line again. We look for the subtle signals from our horses that allow us to expose them to things they need to know and still stay on this side of trouble. We also need to forgive and trust that given our new knowledge, everything will work out for the best. We need to leave the past in the past.
We were flipping through channels yesterday, trying to catch-up with what is going on in the rest of the world. We like to learn from other’s perspectives. On one of the Sunday morning talk shows a U.S. Senator was being interviewed. He was asked about a lot of different things. His answers were straightforward and appeared to be from his heart as well as his mind. I don’t even remember what the context of his remark was but, what he said was profound and could apply to a lot of different areas of our lives. I’ll paraphrase here because I don’t want to misquote him. I heard him say that, it’s not always about winning; it matters how you get there. Wow! Something we truly believe coming from a sitting Senator!
We’ve lived our lives on that pretext. It really does matter how you get there. It matters how you treat the people that come into your life and it matters how you feel about things happening around you. It matters how you deal with the good and the bad. It’s not about winning the contest, it’s how you play the game.
It matters to our horses how we get there. Because they live what they learn and learn what they live, each moment of the journey with their human matters. For them, it’s not about winning because it’s not about a contest. It’s how the offer is made, how the problem is presented, and how it feels when the right solution is found. There is enough struggle between horse and human in trying to understand each other without making working with our horse a contest. Learn how to live in the moment, deal with the present, and enjoy the way you get there!
When I was a young guy eager to learn the ranching business and the cowboy trade, I had the opportunity to work around some older hands who taught me a ton. I grew up in town and had just enough of a taste of ranch life through an uncle and some summer situations that I wanted more. I looked for chances to spend time around livestock people. I’d go to the Arizona National Livestock show held in Phoenix each year, I’d spend time at the local feed store and the stables in our area and I’d talk to anyone who didn’t mind visiting with a green kid about horses, cattle, and ranching. Even though I didn’t know much, my wanting to learn and their willingness to teach gave us something in common.
Yesterday and the day before I spent time with the Double Diamond Halter Co. crew setting up a booth at the Western English Sales Association Show held at the Denver Merchandise Mart. The owner, Pete, his wife, Sharon, and a friend, Nancy got the booth set-up, put product out, and looked at ways to promote Double Diamond’s product line. They make the best halters, leads, reins, dog leashes, and tons of other things useful to horse owners like us. We’ve used these products for more than 20 years and found them to work well and last a very long time.
Pete cowboyed, rode colts, and shoed some horses as a young guy. Sharon and Nancy help run businesses or departments and have spent a good amount of time around horses and livestock. Even though their lives are different than mine we have common interests of cattle, horses, and business. We have some common ground that we’ve built a friendship around. I enjoy spending time around Pete, Sharon, and Nancy because we have things in common and we work to reach a worthwhile goal for a couple of days each year.
Wouldn’t it be great to find some common ground with our horses through a worthwhile goal? Getting our ideas to become their ideas and then allowing them to do our thing their way? When we are working with the horses mind, we create a goal and attempt to reach that goal as a team, as partners. Learning and practicing the tools that allow us to communicate clearly with our horse and then offering them a chance to help us reach our goal would put us on some real solid common ground.
We were at a meeting tonight. As part of the proceedings, an entertainer was hired to well….entertain. He was very good. He had songs that related to the groups interests and had humorous stories that we all could put ourselves in. In spite of this fellows talent and topics, there were several in the crowd that were more interested in listening to themselves talk than to listen to the entertainer entertain. For those of us who seldom have the opportunity to hear this kind of thing it was very, very annoying.
I was helping a lady today whose horse was a little like those folks at the meeting we went to tonight, he just would not focus on the entertainer. He is a nice horse. He’s gentle, sweet, kind and totally uninterested in what the human has to say. I get that! There are plenty of folks we run into on a daily basis that use a lot of words to say very little. Our goal with this gelding was to let him know that what we are saying is important to us, therefore, important to him. We needed him to make plans to help us. And, without listening to us, hearing what we had to say, he had no way of knowing what was happening with us right now or in the near future so, he wasn’t getting prepared to help.
We needed to make ourselves more interesting. We couldn’t do what we had been doing and expect him to get more interested. Changing how we presented our ideas and working at keeping things fresh seemed to help him help us. To me, that’s a big part of what horsemanship is all about.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of you hard working, dedicated mothers. Raising young ones is one of the toughest, most frustrating, most rewarding things to undertake on the planet. Our daughter, Liz, is a new Mom and celebrated her first Mother’s Day today. Liz has a great example in Amy of what a mother can be. She’s her own person and a great Mom in her own right; doing a fantastic job of raising Ella. I don’t know what the ideal mother is but, I imagine she has to be tough as nails in one moment and soft as silk in another. She must struggle to find the balance between being the supporter of trying new things and attempting new challenges but, the keeper of common sense and the compass that keeps her youngster from straying too far from acceptable boundaries. I don’t pretend to have a good grasp of all that entails, I just know that our kids are adults that I really enjoy spending time with and that’s a result of what Amy did and does as their Mother.
We’ve been blessed with three little fillies this Spring. They are all healthy and seem to be doing really well. We are firm believers in allowing the mare to raise their young. We insert ourselves into a foal’s life just enough for them to know that we mean them no harm and that we can be relied upon to be comfortable to be around. Whether for good or for bad, we want the mare to raise her foal to be a horse. We don’t want our foals to be confused by too much human interaction at an early age. I know I’m prejudice but, I think that the horses we allow our mares to raise and then we halter start are well balanced, well-adjusted horses that know where they stand in a herd of horses and where they stand with a human.
Over the years and recently we have had horses come in for training that don’t have a good feel for the human. They don’t have the respect for a human we expect a horse to have and as a result they are not good on the end of a halter rope and are tougher to get started under saddle. We feel bad for those horses because in order for us to be safe around them and to get them safe for their owner, we have to rock their world. Many of the habits they’ve developed have to be changed or eliminated. They have to stop ignoring the human and begin to focus on what they are offering. It sounds simple and easy but, for the horse it’s very difficult. They’ve learned what they’ve lived and they have settled into getting their own way. They have little regard for what the human needs or wants. Learning to respect the leadership of the human is a whole new concept to them. Creating enough pressure for the horse to look for a different answer is sometimes very challenging for the human.
As we all celebrate the wonderful mothers that gave us life and direction we would encourage you to think about allowing the mothers of your foals to raise their young to be good horses. Give those foals the chance to know what you are without influencing too much what they are. The time will come soon enough for those weanlings to get a glimpse of what the human’s world has in store for them. But, by then they will come into our world knowing well the world they come from. Happy Mother’s Day!