It was my purpose when I began this blog to document and describe mostly my horsemanship journey as it has been molded and effected by my studies in the vaquero tradition of the bridle horse. While I've deviated from that topic quite a bit, I still feel that the pursuit of this tradition in lightness and correctness and old style horsemanship is still the main focus and drive of my horsemanship journey.
But, it certainly doesn't describe everything that I do with my horse. Besides building a working cow horse the traditional way I am also working on developing a Hunter over Fences mount in my older Morgan, Chico. While you may think these two disciplines are so far removed as to be unrelated I can assure you that they are not. The principles of lightness and correctness as well as many of the movements that I have learned in the pursuit of the Vaquero tradition have served me well in keeping the focus and softness in Chico as we explore this new discipline.
Ah, Chico. He's such a confused horse! I've had Chico since he was 3 years old. When he came home with me he had a fairly solid foundation from a good horseman who started him under saddle and spent 60 days on him. I don't know what methods that he used but when Chico and I met he was at a point in his life that I could pretty much just hop on and go. My horsemanship principles at that point and time in my journey consisted of the theory that you ride a young horse just like it's a seasoned mount and they'll eventually just figure it out. So, I got on and rode Chico exactly as I had been riding my newly retired Morgan Cory for the past 18 years. At that point in my life I had little to no experience with green horses. I was pretty fearless and a good rider and confident that Chico would come along quickly. I was on a drill team at the time and Chico became my drill team mount. Drill team is a wonderful team equine sport but not necessarily the best place to develop lightness, correctness or a soft gait in a youngster! I was able to participate by pretty much just hauling him around manually. Being willing and gregarious he complied for the most part. I also took him to play days and the local shows hoping that with enough exposure he'd just figure it all out like my wonderful Cory had done. I failed to realize that Cory had been 9 when we met and well seasoned. Chico, though willing, wasn't really ready to be tossed into the deep end like we did.
By the time Chico was 5 we had some fairly serious issues that I was pretty much unable to fix. He had never really figured out the whole ground manners thing. I didn't know I had to teach/reinforce that so I unknowingly reinforced bad behavior by not correcting it consistently. I had no left lead whatsoever and that problem seemed to be getting worse. He could do an entire barrel pattern in his right lead even if we took the right barrel first. I also have almost no control of his body parts. Being incredibly athletic and flexible he could lope sideways, butt first with his head cranked to my knee in the opposite direction of travel. One rein stop? Yeah, right. Prepare to gallop shoulder first in whatever direction he was planning to go. I went through a bucket full of bits trying to get more control. For all that he wasn't a bad horse, just willful and my control over his willfulness seemed to be getting worse with time instead of better.
It was at this time that I figured out I needed help. I turned to a certain "natural horsemanship" trainer that was big on establishing respect and "MOVING THOSE FEET!" I faithfully followed the program with the devotion only a professional student can muster. We definitely made some progress. But, I also noticed that my relatively calm and relaxed, if somewhat willful horse became a little fearful and over reactive. So, I needed more help. I started looking at other trainers under the "natural horsemanship" heading and eventually found Buck Brannaman, Ray Hunt and the Dorrance brothers. This lead me to the Vaquero tradition.
So, I put my 9 year old "broken" gelding into a bosal and began to try to learn feel and to develop softness and correctness in my aids. I went back to the basics. Oh the progress that we made. I had established some control of body parts but it was bracey and over reactive. Now I had the tools to refine that and allow my horse to understand that a little try was all I needed. Riding in the bosal helped me to establish softer hands and better feel and timing so that when I did move Chico back into a bit my hands were softer, his mouth had spent a year healing and we were better able to communicate without a bigger bit, tighter nose band, martingale or draw reins. The bosal also helped teach Chico how to break at the withers and not just at the pole which makes the horse lighter on the front end, softer in the bridle and is a step on the way to true collection. A horse that doesn't break at the withers will break behind the poll at the third vertebrae and that is false collection and can act as evasion of the bit.
So, now with all the disciplines that Chico and I have messed around in we are trying to learn how to be jumpers. Maintaining the elements of softness while learning to jump has been a challenge. Obviously I can't use traditional vaquero tack to learn to jump but the vaquero tradition goes beyond just the tack. (Unless you talk to one of the die hard traditionalists who are probably burning me in effigy for even suggesting such a thing.) Because jumping is new and exciting and somewhat scary for both Chico and I he tends to get a little racy when we are practicing jumping. Getting those nice even cadence circles with softness and elevation kind of goes out the window after that first jump and all we are both thinking about is getting over the next one without dying. His old habits of leading with his shoulder and dodging and forgetting leads also crop up when he gets a little nervous about the jumping.
What has really helped to keep that from getting out of hand so that I have to get a bigger bit just to control him again is to continually go back to basics and the maneuvers that he knows and understands in between jumps and in between jumping sessions. So, when he takes a jump too fast and then tries to run to the other end of the arena leaning on the bit we can stop, back, get soft, yield the hindquarters and bring the forequarters across just like we would do if were practicing working a cow. Then we might do a short serpentine at the walk moving all the body parts through the serpentine. All this is done on a very soft feel, emphasizing collection but not holding it there. The last thing I want to reinforce with Chico is leaning on that bit. We've worked too hard for that to go away. We are using a very mild french link bit to learn jumping. He has the option to completely ignore me and run through that bit if he so desires and he demonstrated that desire on a trail ride just the other day! It's a very mild bit that helps to protect his mouth from my inadvertent yanking when I'm not in the correct position over the jump.
So, while I am riding in breeches and a jumping saddle, my riding really hasn't changed that much from what I do in my slick fork when working on cow horse turns. Having that well established base to recenter both of us and allow us to reaffirm our communication and lightness has been instrumental in keeping us both sane and healthy through this endeavor. While the cues I'm using may not be what the typical english rider would use, who cares? I doubt anybody can see that anyway. Who cares if I cue my jumping horse like a cow horse and we canter along with just a slight drape in the rein. I'm not going to compromise lightness and correctness for style. You don't have to change the way you ride just because you are doing something different with your horse. If you have established basic soft communication with your horse it should transcend both tack choice and discipline.
Obviously Chico is not on the traditional bridle horse path. We had too much baggage to really establish a true bridle horse via the Vaquero tradition. But because of what I have learned about softness and feel he will be the kind of horse that can excel in many disciplines and stay happy and with me whatever we are doing. At least that's our goal!