Northwood Horsemanship Challenge: Week Three

This was a good week. I had a lot of fun and played with a ton of different variables to see what I could come up with balance-wise. I also played around a little more with Limbo connecting with me on the ground on line.

I spent the day Monday catching horses for deworming, vaccinations, and shoeing/trimming here at the ranch. Other than for a few minutes during feeding and watering, I didn’t get to spend much time with my personal horses. But, I had my hands on everything from weanling quarter horses to ancient warm bloods, so I don’t feel like I was out any time on my horsemanship.

Tuesday morning was much of the same. In the afternoon, my husband and I saddled up, took all four of our dogs and went for a trail ride down on the river. I really paid attention to how light my horse was in hand, especially when doing his hind end work. I was VERY pleased with what I had going on for the most part.

Wednesday I got a lot done. We spent thirty minutes in the arena on line. I switched up the area of the arena we used, and started adding back in hind end disengagement and bringing his front end over to change direction. There is still some resistance there but it is getting to be less and less.

After that, I hopped on and tortured myself with a lesson on sitting transitions stirrupless. Once I got good and tired and sore from that I figured it would be a perfect time to jerk my saddle and continue on bareback in the arena. I was nervous being in a big area at first but loosened up pretty quick. In no time we were trotting figure eights around barrels, and we even went over the ground poles a time or two. I was thrilled with the video and pictures I got from that day.

If I was going to pick myself apart (and I do, all the time) I would say my toes are turned out way too much most of the time. However, I spent a good portion of my childhood getting scolded for walking, and standing toe out, and after a long time of trying to adjust to a straighter stance both afoot and in the saddle, I can say, it just ain’t happening. If I make myself stand toe straight, it is excruciating. If I am toe straight in the saddle I am absolutely useless. I consider it my very own conformation flaw.

Other than that however I like how I am starting to look taller, and longer sitting on my horse. I feel like I am heading in the right direction there.

Thursday I did something I very seldom do. I took the entire day off. It was very windy here which made for a good excuse. Yes, I’ve been keeping up with everyone’s updates and there is no way I would dare complain about the weather here. However, while I will happily ride in the snow, rain, and heat, if it’s windy, and I don’t have to, you can’t make me! I can’t even really blame my horse. He doesn’t care. It just drives me batty bonkers to be out in it trying to get anything accomplished with my hair blowing in my face. So call me a wimp if you want, but I stayed inside, cooked, and wrote….and it was wonderful!

Friday I went for a little trail ride with my friend. We worked on one horse leaving the other, and a few little basics. The big thing on Friday, was my friend let me borrow her balance board to use for the duration of the challenge. It seemed like a good idea, so after everything was done for the night I gave it a whirl (pre-beer of course). Wow! I found all sorts of muscles I didn’t know I had. Mainly in the last place I figured I needed work, my back. I’ve kept it up, working at it for fifteen minutes a few times a day and I’ve gotten up to a count of twenty-one thousand. It’s a good thing we till have nine weeks because it’s not considered mastered until I can balance for ten minutes.

Saturday Limbo and I went out on our own for a five hour ride up into the mountains. It wasn’t so much a physical workout as much as it was a mental one. We walked the entire way and he didn’t even break a sweat. At least I know physically, I’ve been conditioning my horse in the right direction. We did a lot of serpentines around bushes, hanging out and waiting till he cocked a hind foot, while pointed toward home, and messed around with soft feel. It was great to be out for that long and just be with my horse and my dog.

Today. Well, today I felt like we both needed to blow off a little steam so I saddled up and went out to the cross country course behind our place. After an hour of galloping and jumping I think we were both in a better place mentally. I’ll start back in on the slow and steady work tomorrow, but today was a good reminder that he and I are both built for speed.

My friend suggested that I pay very close attention to how my feet adjust to being in the stirrups now that I am riding so much without them. I found instantly that after my really good bareback ride this week, I started bouncing myself out of the saddle with my stirrups, even when trying to post the trot. So, for yet one more experiment (Because, hey, what else do I have to do?) I lengthened my stirrups a notch. I went for the trail ride on Friday with my lengthened stirrups and I gotta say, that was a bad decision on my part. I hurt more, I felt less effective, and I felt myself starting to go back to the chair seat I’ve been trying so hard to stay away from. I put my stirrups back up for Saturday and today, and I felt a lot better about things. I’m going to have to see what the long term effects are.

This coming week I plan on doing most of my riding bareback. I’d like to even go down to the river and play in the water. Also, I want to maybe see if I can pull off going over slightly raised ground poles bareback. Limbo is still Limbo. Not a whole lot of change either way mentally. He does seem to be responding a little softer than what he was though.

Hopefully, by the end of this challenge, I’ll have him closer to the feel I am looking for.

Have a great week everyone! And stay warm!

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He Doesn’t Rear

I was chatting with a friend about the muscle groups I am finding while working on the bareback part of my horsemanship challenge, and she brought up abs. I laughed and remembered the one summer of my life that I had both a killer body, and the time to show it off. I was also reminded of the little sorrel horse that ruined any hope I had showing off my bikini body.

By the summer of 2002 I had moved on site at the stables and picked up the extra responsibility of feeding in the mornings and making sure everything was okay at night. Summer was our busy season and this one looked like it was going to be a good one. The forest, however, was incredibly dry and it’s closure was imminent.

Since the stable and trails were on Forest Service, closures were bad news. The Forest Ranger for our district was very understanding, and did his best to let us take out rides as long as possible.

On June 18th disaster struck. A wildfire was reported northeast of us. Just a couple of days later a second was reported. Within another couple of days the Rodeo and the Chediski fires merged and worked their way into history as Arizona’s largest wildfire. (That of course changed in 2011 with the Wallow fire.)

Needless to say our operation was shut down indefinitely. I was lucky enough to be able to stay on and tend to the horses’ daily needs. After all, even if money isn’t coming in, hay must go out.

The fire seemed to get closer every day. Once, as I was getting ready to step on my horse for a little ride around our makeshift arena, the winds changed and brought delicate, fluttering ash flowing down around us. The gray, snowflake-like particles were sharply contrasted in my horse’s thick, black mane. GULP.

We had an evacuation plan in place and kept in close contact with local officials. (This is where I plug making sure your horse’s trailer loading skills are perfect. Loading in emergency situations is not the time to deal with quirky or stubborn. More on this in another wildfire story.)

Luckily, things began to work in our favor and they got the wildfire under control. Our operation, however, had strict orders to remain shut down until the summer rains came. While I am in 100% support of forest closures due to severe fire hazard, it is always a financial blow to those of us who make a living during the forest’s tourist season. So we waited. And, we prayed. And, we ate a lot of ramen.

I got word that there was a stable just a little south of us. It catered to cub scouts and boy scouts, and was still managing to do rides two days a week. I can’t remember why they were able to march and we weren’t but I know I was game for a little side work. With a good word from my boss I was able to land the job.

By that point I had gotten very comfortable in my own little horse world and it didn’t occur to me to be nervous about stepping into a new one. I mean, you’ve seen one dude stable, you’ve seen them all, right? Well, yes, kinda, and no.

I showed up the first morning and instantly began noting the differences. The first thing I noticed was the horses at this new place tended to be “hotter”. The only other wrangler was a petite girl in her mid teens, who rode a hyped up, black morab. He was cute as a button if you could get back the bug eyes and his snaky head. The guests horses weren’t much different.

The second thing I noticed was the type of bits the guest horses were fitted with. Long alligator shanks, high ports, correctionals, chain mouthpieces, quick stops…all to be put in the hands of novice eight year old children. Little warnings began flashing in my brain.

I brushed them aside as I was given the rundown for the day.

“There’s one tree with a super low branch. If you don’t get ahead of the mule and block it, he will take the kid’s head off.

Be careful of the little bay gelding. If the kid tries to mount from the ground he will get cow kicked.”

Wow.

After the guest horses were saddled I was given my mount. It was a pencil-necked, nondescript, sorrel gelding.

“We just got him and we are trying him out before we put kids on him. He’s been a little light in the front end, but he doesn’t rear.”

I tacked him up and tried to get a feel for him. He blew, threw his head, and pawed.

The cub scouts invaded the barn and there was no more time to worry. With only a few minor hiccups we got all twenty of them mounted and stepped on our own horses. As I put the headstall on my mount the manager came up and repeated her earlier statement.

“Don’t worry about it at all if he feels light in the front. He’s never reared.”

With that I stepped on and fell in at the back of the line. We weaved through the pine thicket, with the crispy needles crunching under our horses’ feet. My mount seemed to be doing alright so my nerves settled down and I focused on my job. So far I was very impressed with how the horses were doing, especially considering what they were up against.

Just after the half way point my horse’s head went up and he began to prance. I began running information I had collected about rearing through my mind. I had been on a couple of different horses that reared in the past year. I knew it was basically a matter of leaning forward, hoping he didn’t go over, and making sure not to pull back.

Having mentally established that there was really nothing to do about the situation but pray and be ready, I rode the increasingly agitated horse along side the line of children, trying to block any of the other horses who knew that they were headed home. We almost had the barn in sight when my horse started popping up. Each pop got a little higher and faster. At that point common sense kicked in (It was slow going in those early years.) and I decided I had no business being on that horse. Best case scenario, the horse was going to be in an all out bucking fit by the time we got to the barn and I was going to get my neck broke. Worst case scenario, he was going to bolt and take twenty cub scout mounted horses with him in an all out stampede.

So, I called it. I got the horse in the very back of the line and slowed him down to a prance. I took my right foot out of the stirrup and prepared to dismount while the horse was mid stride. It was evident that he wasn’t going to stand still. I took my reins in my left hand and simultaneously put my hand on the horse’s neck and began to swing my leg over. That’s when the horse flipped over backwards and smashed me underneath him.

Here’s where I am going to count just a few of my blessings from that day.

Thank God that I didn’t get nailed with my saddle horn and shatter my pelvis.

Thank God that I already had one foot out of the stirrup and managed to get the other one out before the horse got up and dragged me to death.

But mostly, thank God that I managed to keep that horse’s reins in my hand and managed to restrict him from bolting past those children and creating mass destruction and chaos.

I walked the rest of the way back to the barn, leading the prancing, hopping, snorting horse by a short rein.

At the barn I tied up the horse and helped get everyone unloaded. I was dang bruised up physically, but mentally I was even worse off. I replayed the wreck over and over in my mind looking for a place where I could have caused a horse that doesn’t rear to react that explosively. I just couldn’t find it.

Obviously, the manager was not happy with me.

“We’ve ridden him around the yard three or four times and he’s popped up a little but he’s never flipped. He should have been fine on the trail. You must have pulled him over on you.”

It was her turf and her horses. Arguing would have been futile. So, I finished out the day. I tailed a second ride of twenty cub scouts, this time riding the mule who had a penchant for beheading it’s riders with low branches.

At the end of the day I jerked my saddle and helped do the chores. After the work was done, everyone else left. I carried my saddle out to the road and sat under a big alligator juniper to wait for my ride. My boyfriend pulled up. I loaded my saddle and eased myself into the passenger seat.

“What happened?”

I told him.

“Huh.”

The next morning was BRUTAL. Although the first layer of bruises was just beginning to show on one side of my body, every inch of me felt like it was on fire. I very gingerly got dressed and readied myself for round two. When my boyfriend saw me his eyes were huge with disbelief.

“You have got to be kidding me.”

“Nope. I told them I’d work for them this week and I am going to.”

The young wrangler choked on her muffin when I walked up carrying my saddle. Still, she didn’t seem to mind my help when it came time to round up the hard to catch horses. By the time we got the first ride of the day mounted I knew I was going to quit. I’m not saying the place I worked at full time was top notch, but I don’t remember us ever having several small children dangling underneath horses by a foot stuck through a stirrup. Call me lily livered if you want, but I just didn’t have the heart for this!

We eked through the day with no deaths. At lunchtime the manager and the young wrangler sat on the porch reminiscing about past wrecks.

After unsaddling and afternoon chores were done I went to the manager. I had thought all day about what I would say and decided I should be honest.

“I think you should find someone else for next week. I’m just not a good enough hand to do this job.”

“Yep. I think you’re right.”

And that was the end of it.

The rains came and my stable opened again. Shortly, we had more tourists and money than we knew what to do with.

One evening my boyfriend and I were sitting at a table at a little cafe. One of the local horse traders walked in, saw me, and pushed his way into our booth.

“I heard you did a short stint at that place down the road.”

“Yep”

“I heard you got munched by that little, scrawny, sorrel.”

I looked down at my fading bruises.

“Yep”

“You know, I ran him through the sale this past spring because he did the very same thing to me!”

He laughed, smacked the table with his palm, got up, and left.

I think about what I would do now compared to what I did then, and I’d like to say that I’ve either gained the knowledge to help that little horse, or at least I’m smart enough not to get that deep in before I cry uncle.

I don’t know if that horse’s problems were pain or training related. I doubt anyone ever bothered to try to find out. It’s a shame, whatever the cause, that it got as bad as it did. It’s also a shame how people are willing to ignore huge red flags and not just put themselves, but others in danger.

Anymore I am very particular about whose horses I just step on and go. If I have the option at all, I prefer to spend a little time on the ground with them first. No, I may not see every hole, but I may see something that will save my life.

There are people out there who can ride anything. I have friends who can (and do) ride a bucking horse while roping a wild bull. I believe we should push ourselves to be the best riders we can be, because at some point, no matter what, something is going to hit the fan. I would, however, just as soon spend some extra time with a horse getting as many bases covered as possible before the wreck happens.

Anyway, another valuable lesson was learned. Along with always checking my cinch, I also never step on a horse who, “Never rears.”

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Northwood Horsemanship Challenge: Week Two

I bet you thought I was joking about the “Head Up” on my saddle horn didn’t you? Nope. I wasn’t. And I am so glad I did it. I spent this week focusing mainly on keeping my head up and seeing how making it a habit affected my riding. After the first ride my eyes never made it back down to my saddle horn. They would get to my horse’s poll and would instantly shoot back up to avoid reprimand.

        

Monday, Limbo and I headed back in to the arena to work on moving in a circle at various speeds on line with no pull. We spent an hour in there, and I am very happy to say that it went well. There was a little pull and lack of focus at the beginning, but by the end, we were back to where we left off originally. I like having him soft enough that I don’t even really need to close my hand on his lead when we are working. Monday gave me hope that we are on the right path.

Tuesday, was a long one. We started out in the round pen, touching on on line lunging again. There was almost no pull, even when he went in to a canter. We played with transitions and changing direction for about thirty minutes and when I was happy with where he was at, I decided to work on me. I spent the next thirty minutes working on my seat, sitting the trot and working on transitions without stirrups. I felt the burn! While it was hard work I was really happy that I did it. It showed me that while I still have a way to go, I am making progress! After that we left the round pen and meandered down by the river for an hour or so.

Wednesday, my husband and I went out for a trail ride that I used to focus on keeping my horse moving at a nice, fluid, fast walk. Also, we loped a bunch through the sand wash so there was plenty of time to practice rating and adjusting the speed of the lope. When we got back, we loped a few circles in the arena. I’ve found if I can come back in from a ride, lope maybe five circles each direction and then leave the arena, I get  much better circles out of myself and my horse, than if I make “loping circles” the plan for the day.

We finished off the afternoon roping our dummy. I’m not a great roper so for the most part my horse just had to stand there and be patient. But, when I did catch it was great to work with him. We sidepassed up my rope as I coiled it. He had to let me hang off of him while I took my rope off of my dummy. And, then we side passed and moved his hind end and front end where I needed it to get me lined up for my next shot. He job went back and forth from just standing there to pretty technical stuff. And he had no problem with it. Good stuff.

Thursday, other than pulling him out to groom him I left him alone. He’s been doing great and I have plenty of hours and rides racked up so I didn’t really feel like I had to pressure him into working that day.

Friday, four of us went for a three hour trail ride across the road. I ride alone most of the time so it actually takes more focus for me to ride in large groups than if I am out by myself. Limbo got a little bit of working on front foot work, and sidepassing to get a gate. I worked on feeling how much he weighed in my hands. I liked what I felt for the most part. Again, when we got back we worked on loping circles. They’re getting prettier and prettier!

Saturday was another trail ride, again with a friend. It was only an hour long. For the most part it was a mental break but we did prowl around some new country and worked on hind end stuff just a bit.

     

Today was the day. I wanted to see if the newly formed habit of keeping my head up really made that much of a difference bareback. So I had Limbo pick me up from the fence and walked off. At first I felt all discombobulated. I felt more like I was going to fall off than I had at the end of last week. I finally figured out that putting my head up is good, but I have to be careful not to brace to keep it up. Once I put my head up AND relaxed things started flowing. I like what I saw in today’s pictures a lot better than last week’s. There’s still plenty of room for improvement but progress is being made.

So, my plan for this coming week is starting to form. I want to move from the round pen to the arena for my bareback rides. I also want to start paying a little more attention to any new braces  that I am developing.

Limbo continues to be a good sport and a pretty reasonable school horse so that’s good. I’d like to play with his connection. Eventually I’d like to find that perfect stopping point for our outside rides to keep him connected to me, instead of tune me out. Before this challenge I had spent a long time getting him physically fit enough to long trot for miles on end. While I achieved that, I think I ruined some of the mental fitness he had going for him. The good news is we still have plenty of time to play with it!

I love reading about everyone’s second week. Every story is unique and yet we are all in this together!

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A Horse Called Horse

The first few months of my employment flew by. I learned all I could about each individual horse. And, while I loved all of them I definitely had my favorites. It wasn’t too long before I decided it was time to begin my search for my own personal horse. I had gained a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time and the reality of horse ownership had begun to sink in. Still, I wanted a partner to cover those trails with me.

So, I formed a list of what I wanted in my potential horse. This list was very different than the ones I had made as a small child. I no longer wanted a 17 hand Hanoverian mare. I now leaned more toward shorter geldings. Breed had become completely unimportant as I was surrounded by all types and builds of horses who fell into the “grade” melting pot.

There was a constant flow of horses in and out of the stable. Some were only there a few weeks, while others were there long after I left. I knew I didn’t really need to actively search for a horse. It was just a matter of time before one came to me.

One evening the local horse trader dropped off a new horse for us to try out in the string. I waited until the day worked it’s way to an end and headed out back to check out the new guy.

He was a wild eyed buckskin with a thick, punk rocker mane and tail. He had a road map of brands on his left side. In my short time at the stable I had learned to recognize some of the more common brands. It helped quite a bit in figuring out what a horse was going to be personality-wise. This one had a – N on his left shoulder. He had come from the Navajo reservation via the Holbrook livestock auction. Well, that told me a story. Chances were he’d be snorty on the ground. Under saddle he’d either be really good or really bad.

I climbed into his pen, sat down and leaned against the rail, watching. He stayed on the other side of his pen, eating his hay and glaring at me from under his thick forelock. I felt the first tinglings of being smitten.

The following morning I pulled the new guy out and tied him up. He seemed gentle enough but I was wary. I brushed him down. He pretended to ignore me. I went about my morning chores and then returned to him with a manure fork. I very carefully eased the fork behind him to scoop a pile. Instead of taking a cheap shot at me with a hind foot, he looked back, moved over, rolled his eyes and sighed at me. And, just like that, I fell deeply and completely in love.

I wasn’t brave enough to step on him first but that was okay. Louie would arrive shortly. He could be the guinea pig. I had the gelding saddled and ready when Louie got there. I was hopping up and down with excitement. The horse was underwhelmed. So was Louie.

The horse and Louie eyed each other suspiciously.

“You know Chrissy, these Indian horses can be kind of funny.”

“Yes, I know Louie.”

Seeing that that didn’t make the impact on me he had hoped, Louie stepped on the horse. He spun it lightly in both directions and then trotted it in a circle around me. By that point it was all I could do not to cry, “Gimme, gimme, gimme!”

He stepped off and handed me the reins.

“I think this is too much horse for you. Please be careful.”

Before the words were out of his mouth I was on the horse and walking it around. Louie stepped on another horse and we headed out on the trail for a test ride. I had fallen in love with the adrenalin rush a good canter would provide, so that was the main focus of that first ride. Could the new guy run? Louie stayed in front, going out of his way to block any of my attempts at a good sprint. I managed to get a few canter strides in, but mostly we rode at a rough, washing machine trot.

By the time we got home I was beaming. I had found my equine partner! He was everything I wanted and then some. He was fun and darty to ride. He seemed pretty decent on the ground. And, he had just as much hair as me! He was flat out indifferent, if not outright contemptuous of me. I decided I would win him over eventually. He’d grow to love me. He’d figure out I was his human and he was my horse. In fact, I tried on several different names for him at first, but I always ended up back at Horse. So Horse, he stayed.

I soon found out he was incredibly smart. It didn’t take a week before he knew all of our trails. He also knew the spots where I would stop to tell stories. He even knew the average time I took to tell a story and if I went over he would sigh, start to turn and give me a pretty clear signal to wrap things up.

While he made a pretty steady mount for me, he didn’t particularly like things being dropped off of him. This limited who else I could put on him. For some reason at least once every ride someone would have to drop something. If that someone happened to drop something off of Horse, well, they’d usually find themselves on the ground, right where they had just been sitting astride a horse. Said horse would be standing just a few feet off, glaring at them from under his fabulous locks, and mocking their bad decision making.

He packed me day in and day out for years. He put up with my whims, ribbons, braids, and glitter hoof polish. He would even go out of his way to dumb himself down for me when I needed it.

In some ways I am incredibly thankful he was my first horse. I always had to be on my toes and prove myself to him. He knew when I got cocky and always had a way of “grounding” me when I got too big for my britches. Still, I wonder how far we could go, if I had him now. I am a lot further along in my horsemanship journey and I think I could do a lot better by him.

I still keep an eye out for another good, stout – N and I will always have a special place in my heart for Navajos. I have yet to find one who could fill Horse’s shoes though.

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Northwood Horsemanship Challenge: Week One

So far this week I’ve logged nine and a half hours not counting today. I’ve gotten in five PURPOSEFUL rides, one of which was entirely bareback. My week was an interesting one as it really was my way of forming a plan for the rest of my challenge journey. Each bit of time I spent with my horse was used to feel him out and find places to improve. My final goal is to go out in the arena and ride a small obstacle course bareback, using several walk/trot transitions. And, do it with a pretty decent seat. This week, I found lots of things that I can work on to make that final ride easier.

Ride one on day one was an easy amble through the woods along the Verde River. My husband went with me on this ride. It lasted two hours and probably appeared completely boring on the outside.

I actually spent the entire ride focusing on a couple of questions. How heavy does my horse really feel in my hands and beneath me? How much effort does it take the two of us to perform normal trail horse tasks? The answer I came up with is, sometimes we move together effortlessly, and he feels weightless. Other times I feel like I am driving a mack truck with no power steering. More often than not it is a feel more on the light side than the heavy side so at least I know we are headed in a good direction. But still, there are definitely those heavy spots I need to work with.

So, on day two I went into the arena and did some on line lunging. We spent quite a bit of time in the beginning of our relationship doing on line lunging and I was happy where we left it. However, although we work quite a bit loose in the round pen on transitions and I thought we were doing really well, I found that it was a good thing we went back and revisited on line work. Holy cow, he wanted to pull on me! Mainly on the part of the circle that was nearer the herd, but still, where the heck did that come from? Apparently I had lost a ton of ground with this horse and didn’t even realize it. So, that’s what we worked on for a half hour. It was a pretty big struggle to find the sweet spot where he could trot in a circle and not pull. It took about a half hour to get it in one direction. When I switched direction to what is usually his more “bracey” side there was no pull whatsoever. Interesting. I ended there. I didn’t get nearly as far as I had intended, but I did gain back a little ground, and with this horse, that’s enough for me.

Day three we did another two hour saddled ride down by the river, this time alone. I used the two hours to focus on lateral flexing at a walk, a few walk/trot transitions and most importantly we went in and out of the barnyard several times to play more with the mental pull it has on him. He’s never acted barn sour, he’s always gone as far at any speed as I’ve needed him. He’s never been spooky out by himself or ever made me feel like riding alone was a bad idea. But still, the on line stuff got me thinking that even if there is no physical manifestation, as much as I would like to think he is, this horse is not mentally “with” me. So we played with that. When we got to the point that we could stop, move his hind end and then move off in both directions (away from and toward home) with the same energy, and overall light, not rushing feel, I turned him around and ambled home. I think that was the right thing to do, but only time will tell.

Day four was another ride very similar to day three. I added a few more walk/trot transitions to build on what we had been doing. After we got home I unsaddled him and hopped on bareback in the round pen. It turns out he isn’t the only one who needs work! I used to ride bareback all of the time, in all sorts of terrain, at any speed. I knew I had lost some of it over the past few years but I didn’t realize quite how dependent I had become on my saddle. Of all of the pictures I have that day, I only found one where I wasn’t in the fetal position. How’d that happen? If I have an excuse it is that this particular horse came to us with a history of bucking. I am a chicken about bucking, and as such, I have avoided riding him bareback. Sometimes logic doesn’t do us any favors. The good news is I found that areas that use to be no go zones, were no longer an issue. In other words, he didn’t dump my butt when I lost my balance and grabbed on to his bare withers. Victory is mine!!!!! Sort of.

Day five was a fun one! I used a much more finished saddle horse, Austin, to do groundwork with Limbo. We worked on flagging, mainly getting him to let me get in to position to flag him, without him turning and running off. Again, it was a slow, walking with just a bit of trotting session but I felt like we ended in a really good place with the flagging. Not only was it good for both of the horses involved, it was good for me to go back and practice my technique. After the flagging I stayed on Austin and practiced my roping. It took me a half hour of trying, and missing to get my horse into position, convince Limbo to maintain a certain speed of walk while I was riding along side him swinging a loop and then actually having everything come together and catch him! Once I caught him I found that he had no pull in him. I had to time my picture just right to show a tight rope. He’d feel it and give immediately. That was very good news in my book. Austin was pretty poofy about catching the wild black bronc. I put him up so he could gloat to the other horses and then had Limbo pick me up from the fence for our first official bareback ride.

I spent the first part of the ride just trying to find the feel of my horse at a walk. Bit by bit I became accustomed to the rhythm again so I decided to pick up a trot. There was that lurch forward again. So, I experimented with body position, and balance and came up with something pretty quick. I am going to write “Head Up” on my saddle horn. That’s what’s throwing me off. I spend WAY too much time looking down, specifically at my horse’s ears. (In my defense he does have big, adorable, expressive, floppy ears that are usually the best indication of what is going on in his mind.) Still, I need to break that habit now. Once I sat up and looked up I started finding my balance again. It wasn’t a miracle or anything, but I did take four nice trot strides and then gear down to a walk both directions without the forward lurch so I know I found the root of the problem. I spent a half hour working on my seat and he was a perfectly gentlemanly school horse. That made me pretty happy. I definitely count day five as our biggest success.

Day six was a pretty laid back trail ride with a friend. No ground breaking discoveries but a good ride for his mind. We worked on two tracking and hind end/front end stuff, and again I focused a lot on how much he weighed in my hands. He seemed lighter but it may be too early to tell.

Today I plan to revisit on line lunging and get a small ride in. I’m hoping to find less of the pull. If so, I’d like to play with his transitions more and maybe add some trot over ground poles. We’ll see.

That’s all for now. Overall I think I did manage to come up with an outline of skills that need work for both me and my horse. With time and effort I am sure we can improve by leaps and bounds. I love reading everyone’s updates, there are so many stories of success and determination. It’s amazing how many disciplines and breeds this challenge covers. It really seems to be the first absolutely no boundaries horsemanship group I’ve seen. I love it, and I am so thankful to be a part of it. I can’t wait to see what the coming weeks bring for everyone!

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Web MD for Horsemanship

I now have a reason to fast forward to current events, so this blog is definitely going to derail from chronological order, to more of a stream of consciousness telling of what is important as it arises. I have to do this because the new year brought around some very interesting ideas that go along with my biggest horsemanship issue: direction.

If I’ve noticed one major flaw in my work recently it has been what I call, “Horsemanship Hypochondria”. Here’s a very obvious example.

Over the past year I’ve been working with a 5 year old gelding to head into the entry level endurance direction. One of the things I’ve been focusing on is his topline development. So, I’ve been sending pictures taken throughout the year to my friend/teacher, horsewoman Kathleen Lindley Beckham for discussion.

Her comment on the last picture was, “Getting there! I like that I DON’T see a roach back forming.”

We went on to talk about other things, but all that got stuck in my head was the term, “roach back.” Very shortly I had myself in a tither over Google images of horribly grotesque roach backed horses. Not only that, but I had myself convinced that he did indeed have a roach back and I was riding all wrong and needed to start back at square one.

Now, to be truthful, he does have some chiropractic issues that I am working on. But those are very directly linked to a wreck he had with a stock feeder last summer. We are working those out, but they don’t really have any thing to do with, or look similar to a roach back. It only took me a few hours to convince myself that he did have one though. And, that the roach back MUST be the root of any bump in the road I am having with him training wise. That, my friends, is Horsemanship Hypochondria.

Eventually my panic stricken brain talked it’s self off of the ledge and I tore my eyes away from the computer screen and out to my horse. He was fine.

I’ve been really careful since then to not let perceived problems take away from my time and work with horses. I’ve realized that the precious hours I spent inside, researching something that had nothing to do with my or my horse could have been spent improving my riding or my horse’s understanding of the world. The worst part of it all is that in my panic, I stepped on my horse and started riding him completely different than what I had been. Guess what? In an hour, I had a sore backed horse.

I’m not saying that as knowledgeable horse people, we shouldn’t be as educated as possible. And, I’m NOT advocating riding or using horses that are in pain.  Instead, I am saying two other things.

We probably make up way too many excuses why we shouldn’t ride our horses. I know tack fit, lameness issues, and weather are things to consider. I guess it’s just that we should be careful to not to fall into the Horsemanship Hypochondria mentality. It’s awfully easy to say, “My horse is a little off today, I can’t ride it, work with it, or even get near it.”

It’s dang hard to say, “I’ve hit a wall training wise and I’m not real comfortable riding my horse.”

Yes, I know horses’ performance can be vastly affected by pain. If your horse is in pain and you can fix it, please do! This isn’t a discussion of whether or not horses can feel pain, but rather my observations on some of the excuses we as humans have for not doing our best work.   Ride or work your horse within it’s limitations, but at least do something!

The main horse I ride right now has a huge brace in his right side. He has always had it and it is part of why I ended up with him. Could it be pain related? Maybe, or at least it’s stiffness related. Yes, I’ve had vets look at him.  No, none of them felt like it was a soundness issue.  I always have to work with and sometimes around that brace. After a year, I doubt that the movement I am looking for will ever be as fluid as what I like with that particular horse. It’s not his fault, but it can be frustrating. Still, I don’t stop working with him.

The second thing I need to say is don’t let yourself fall into a panic over something that is completely insignificant in order to avoid taking another step in your horsemanship. That’s what I tend to do, and it’s a bad idea.

Which is why I am incredibly thankful to have been invited to the Northwood Farms 2015 Twelve Week Horsemanship Challenge.

It sounds pretty basic. In the coming weeks I have to log forty horsemanship hours with a single chosen horse. I also have to complete thirty rides on that horse, five of which can be bareback.

Now, from what I’ve seen, this challenge is directed more toward people who live in bad weather climates, to encourage them to get out and work with their horses, no excuses.

As I neither have the time nor weather constraints that most of the riders have, I am using the challenge to fill in things I’ve been avoiding with this particular horse. For instance, I am making sure at least five of those rides are going to be bareback. And, by bareback ride five, I’m going to be sitting the trot.

That doesn’t seem like much, but it means I’d better make the main focus of my saddled rides getting a solid balanced trot, and getting my walk/trot transitions stellar. Which means I’d better go back in my groundwork and see how that trot and transitions are on line and loose in the round pen.

Having said all of that, I don’t know if twelve weeks, or forty hours or thirty rides, or five bareback rides is going to be enough at all!

So, there it is. I’ve been floundering around for direction for almost a year and just like that I have plenty of direction and detail to work on for the next twelve weeks.

I am going to use this blog to record how the challenge is working out for me. I’ll still pepper it with old stories because I feel like I am leaving a huge gap right now. There’s no real idea yet of how I got from her to me. So, I’ll keep adding those stories as they come to mind.

For now, however, I am off to catch my horse and go to work.

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Don’t Lie to Your Wrangler. Just Don’t.

That winter was a cold one. We had several snows more than two feet deep and for a least a couple of months there were parts of our trails that never did thaw out. At best, the parts in the full sun would melt and turn into slushy bogs just to refreeze in the night. The worst parts, though, were in the deep shade of the pines. During the warmest part of the day, the very top layer of ice would melt and then quickly refreeze slick and smooth. Each time the horses made a pass over the trail they would churn it up a bit, making any snow melt and form another layer of ice.

Still, we marched. Not all day, but at least a couple of times a day. We knew the most dangerous parts of the trails and tried to avoid them. Most riders were understanding if we brought them in a few minutes early for their own safety. Heck, a few even appreciated it!

One particularly cold and snowy day I was in the office with another employee. We heard a vehicle pull up and looked at each other in disbelief.

I stepped outside and watched what looked like a perfectly pleasant family step out of their SUV. From the looks of their small son I expected that they would want a pony ride around the yard and then be on their way.

They shook the snow off of their hats while I greeted them on the covered porch. I told them I’d be more than happy to put the boy up on our pony and lead him around.

“I am going to go on a trail ride!” the little boy declared.

I asked the boy’s age. His father piped up. “He’s six!”

Now, I know diddly squat about kids. But by this point I did know the average size of a six year old and that boy wasn’t even close.

I looked at the other employee and she shrugged. Six was the age limit to go out on the trail and we had been directed to always go with what the parents said. I felt like I had no choice. (Learn from my mistake. You ALWAYS have a choice.)

With doubt in my mind, I pulled out four horses. After I got the mom and dad mounted I loaded the boy on a good, solid buckskin paint gelding named Tex. Tex was a no nonsense kind of guy who would keep his place and march no matter what. Unlike our pony, Socks, who took great joy when an extra small rider could not offer him direction. Had I taken the very rotund pony I would have had to lead him and would have ended up playing a constant tug of war that was sure to roll the small child right out of the saddle. Tex at least was narrow, and the boy’s legs didn’t stick out straight to the sides.

We slowly and carefully headed out, the little boy behind me, then the mother, then the father. We wound through the one hour trail amazingly uneventfully. Snow fell on us the entire time. Luckily the horses knew where the slick patches of ice were. Whenever we came to a section of ice the horses would slow to a tiptoe. Tex would put his head down and single-foot ever so delicately, trying desperately to stay underneath the child.

Somehow, even as slow as we moved we managed to run just a little ahead of schedule. About five minutes from the barn I realized we were running fifteen minutes early. About the time I realized it, so did the father.

“Hey, we’re not back already are we? We still have fifteen minutes to go!”

“I know sir, but the rest of the trail is very iced over and there is a hill I’m afraid your son may not be safe going down.”

“He’ll be fine…(insert arrogant berating here).”

Now, this is where I should have said, “I understand your concern sir and it is your prerogative if you feel it is necessary to complain about me. However, that does not change the fact that the rest of the trail is too dangerous to take a child your son’s size on.”

That, or some form of that is what I would say if faced with the same situation today. And you know what? A formal complaint would have been totally worth it if it would have avoided what was about to happen.

I didn’t say any of that. Instead, I slapped a smile on my face and said, “Whatever you say sir!”

The mother puffed up with pride at her husband’s assertiveness. The babbling boy had no idea whether we were early, late, or right on time. He was just happy.

I turned my horse away from the direct route home and to a short extension trail. As the minutes ticked by I told myself it would probably be okay. The child had been grasping tightly to Tex’s saddle horn the entire time. As long as he held on that tightly going down the little, icy hill, he should be fine.

We were quickly at the top of the dreaded hill.

My horse put his front feet on the ice, then tucked his butt and slid down in one smooth motion. As I said, it wasn’t huge, maybe one whole stride, it was just solid ice. And, no matter how good a horse was, the angle of the hill, coupled with the ice made it impossible not to slide at least a little bit.

I turned to tell the boy to hold on tight and lean back.

Tex put his right front foot on the ice, and lifted his left front, ready to do the same smooth movement my horse had just done. Somewhere, somehow, while Tex’s left front was in the air, the boy slid off of Tex’s left side and underneath his neck. He ended up on the ground right as Tex put his left foot down. It landed squarely on the little boy’s chest.

Extremely surprised by what had just happened, the horse leaned back. Unfortunately, his hind feet were already on the edge of the ice so he began to slip. He slipped all the way down the little hill with his foot on the child’s chest. The child slid underneath him like a gruesome ski.

As soon as the horse found purchase he took his foot off of the boy. He stood to the side, shaking, with wide eyes.

The parents’ horses had no choice but to slide down the hill just like the two others had. By the time they got there I was off my horse and with the little boy. I had tied my reins to my horn and sent my horse in to signal for help.

Both parents were off of their horses in a heartbeat. The mother had her little boy in her arms. He was screaming bloody murder which I took to be a good thing. She was ghastly white. The other employee showed up almost immediately and we all walked back, the mother carrying her son. The father was silent.

We were only two or three minutes from the yard. There, we pleaded with the parents to let us call an ambulance. They didn’t want any part of it. It was incredible, but the boy seemed to be alright. They said they were going to take him directly to the hospital and have him checked out.

After they left it dawned on me they had never acted the least bit angry with me. I retold the story to my coworker, including the part where the father had demanded a longer ride. I wondered aloud that they hadn’t acted mad, and what’s more they had acted almost sheepish.

“Chris , that kid couldn’t have been more than four years old. They lied, then they pushed. You can feel guilty if you want, but you’ll never feel as guilty as they do.”

And it was left at that. We heard the next day that the parents had taken the boy to the hospital and other than a hoof print shaped bruise on his chest he was perfectly fine.

I’ve replayed that day in my head at least a million times over the years. I’ve had nightmares about it, I’ve picked it apart consciously and subconsciously. I’ve done everything I can to understand it.

This is what I’ve come up with:

The horse really didn’t make a “new” or sudden movement to unseat the child. The fall actually happened about two steps before I figured it would. There was no real reason for that child to fall off at that moment. Shit might just really happen.

That small child had the entire weight of a horse localized on his chest and sliding on him for around five feet. I don’t know how long it was time-wise but it’s safe to say it was long enough to cause some broken ribs, a collapsed lung, SOMETHING! Miracles might just happen too.

I’ll never forget the look on Tex’s face after he lifted his foot off of that boy. I don’t care what anyone says, that horse was scared and worried.

I might eventually let the guilt I feel toward that little boy go. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over the guilt I have deep inside myself for giving that good, solid horse that experience.

After that day I tried to avoid using Tex on my rides. It wasn’t long before he went away and another horse took his place. I don’t know if he is still around, but if he is, I hope he knows I’m sorry.

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