Tuesday, December 31, 2013

10 New Years Resolutions for the Horseman

It's been a busy winter.  With the unseasonable cold weather in early December, then Christmas hustle bustle, riding has taken a back burner for us.  As the New Year approaches and visions of all the cool things we will do with our horses keeps us warm at night, it's a  good time to get refocused and set some goals for the shiny brand new year.

1.  Ride More
     This one should be at the top of every single horse person's list.  There are very few of us that actually get to spend all day every day in the saddle.  If you are one of those lucky ones, you have to come up with a new number one for yourself.  As for the rest of us, we don't ride near enough.  The epidemic of overfed, underworked horses is growing.  Put those horses to work!  They will be happier and healthier for it and so will you.  Make riding a priority and you will find the time to make it happen.  The very worst thing you can do is start making a list of excuses for why you can't ride.  Start making excuses for why you must ride.  I used to have to write time in my schedule for it to happen then guard that time with my life!  If you are a member of a breed organization you might want to check to see if they have any programs for recreational riders.  I know that both AMHA and AQHA have such programs that allow riders to log hours in the saddle for prizes at the end of the year. Or take the 100 day challenge and make it your goal to ride 100 days in a row.

2.  Take a lesson/attend a clinic
      Every single one of us can benefit from riding with a person that is more accomplished than we are.  If you already take lessons in some equine sport, branch out and try something new;  or even try someone new.  It's not disloyalty to your trainer to learn from other people and you never know when you are going to pick up something that will really help you or your horse.  Taking a lesson in a discipline far from what you usually do is a great way to challenge yourself and your horse and discover new venues to accomplish resolution #1. The only horseman that no longer has something to learn about horses is the dead horseman.  All the rest of us could stand a lesson or three.

3.  Participate in at least one local horse show
     Especially if you don't show your horse, this is a really good motivator for improving your equine excellence.  Local shows are great for this because you can usually find a good cross section of folks that are not the standard horse show crowd.  If you are a circuit showman and think the local scene is below you, you may find that helping out at a local show is rewarding.  It is in the best interest of every single horseman to find a way to support the local horse industry and encourage kids and other folks that may be new to horses that owning a horse is a great thing.  Welcoming those folks into the horse community strengthens the industry and helps carry the horse into the future.  Many of those folks first discover horses either on a dude ride somewhere or at a local horse show.  Believe me, I get plenty frustrated with the "horse show scene" but still recognize that good that supporting these local events brings to our horse community.

4.  Ride your horse into new territory
     Gus McCrea in Lonesome Dove said, "Ain't nothin' like riding a fine horse in new country."  How true that is.  Even if you aren't an avid trail rider you will enjoy the feeling of seeing this beautiful country we live in from the back of a horse.  There are so many wonderful places to ride out there.  As horse folks we need to continue to support and protect our trail systems so that generations of horse lovers can continue to enjoy those trails in the future.  Whatever you do with your horse on a regular basis, trail riding can help in your cross training program.  It's a great way to strengthen muscles that aren't used in the arena.  It can help a horse that doesn't feel much purpose in his work find purpose again.  If your horse isn't broke enough to ride outside on a trail he isn't broke enough.

5.  Learn how to build one piece of tack.
     It used to be that most real horseman made some or all of their tack.  This is especially true of the cowboys who were often not within riding distance of any towns for most of their working season.  If something broke, you mended it.  Not only was this a great way to keep tack in working order longer but it helped pass the time.  Now, the lost art of making much of the tack we use is in the hands a few remaining craftsman and the numbers of folks out there making good quality gear continues to decline every year.  So, while teaching yourself how to build a saddle this year may be a little out of your reach, tying a rope halter, braiding a set of reins or weaving a cinch may be a little closer to something attainable.  I want to learn how to make cinches this year.

6.  Read the words of an inspiring horseman
    This is a good one while the weather is still not really conducive to long days in the saddle.  Reading the words of some of the great horseman is a wonderful way to get re-inspired to better your horsemanship in some way.  There are so many out there to choose from and you need not choose only one.  Here are some suggestions from our reading list  Buck Brannaman's Faraway Horses or Believe, Ray Hunt's Think Harmony with Horses, Tom Dorrance's True Unity or True Horsemanship Through Feel or Mark Rashid's Horses Never Lie or Nature in Horsemanship.  There are many, many others out there.  Pick something that inspires you and read!  Better than watching RFD tv or a DVD because it is more interactive and will help you to think, which is what Ray Hunt was always telling us to do anyway!

7.  Clean your tack
     I"m sure most people out there are better at this than I am, so this one is mostly for me.  Keeping your tack in good working order means not letting dust and grime build up.  Good tack is an investment and can last you for much of  your life.  I have tack I've had for 30 years that I still use regularly.  It's important to remember to not procrastinate this important task.  Winter is a great time to get that done.  Again, another benefit to committing to a local show is it motivates you to clean your saddle!

8.  Teach your horse a trick
     This is a great exercise in learning timing and feel.  Horses are great at learning tricks and can respond well to positive reinforcement.  It doesn't have to be anything extraordinary and can be something even quite useful.  You can teach them to put their head down, or smile, or bow.  I would like to learn how to teach my horse to lie down.  That's my goal for this year.  The lessons that both you and your horse learn through the little trick training sessions should carry through into other learning opportunities under saddle.   And it may help you with the next one on the list.

9.  Fix one of  your horse's bad  habits
     Be honest, all horses, no matter how perfect we thing they are have at least one bad habit that we just live with.  Maybe your horse is a hard to catch.  Maybe he's a pawer.  Maybe he likes to chew on the end of the lead rope.  Maybe he doesn't take oral medications very well (this one is INCREDIBLY common!).  Each of my horses have a bad habit that I just live with.  It's time to really attempt to fix those.  What if your horse ended up in the hands of somebody else who really didn't like that habit and decided to fix it once and for all and not in a nice way?  None of us are immortal and it's up to us to be sure that our horses are good citizens incase the unthinkable happened and they ended up being somebody else's horse.  Each of my horses have at least one bad habit for me to work on.  Chico hates clippers.  He's 11 and I've never fixed it.  Shame on me, I know.  When you are a veterinarian it's easy to reach for the sedation rather than fix poor horsemanship.  So, that's on my list.

10.  Fix one of your bad habits
       This one you may need some help to fix.  Many of us have bad habits that we aren't even aware of.  This is when taking a lesson from someone who can spot these habits can help you identify and correct it.  Maybe even just having somebody on the ground who can yell out at you when you do it so you can become aware.  I learned last year that I don't keep my heels down when I ride.  Really?  How is that possible after all the years I've been in the saddle trying my dangedest to keep my heels down?  I thought they were down. They felt down.  But, alas, they were not.  If I hadn't branched out and taken a jumping lesson I never would have known!  That's just one of my bad habits but it's the one I'm conquering this year. No need to try and tackle them all at once!  I've got riding to do!

Of course, this is just a list of suggestions and you can add your own to the list.  Many people pooh-pooh resolutions because no one keeps them anyway so why bother.  Just setting yourself up to fail, right?  Good heavens, no, that's not right at all.  Resolutions are like little goals for your year.  Setting goals, both big and small is how all great people succeed in life.  Set your goals so that you have some that are easily attainable and others that take some reach and some that you may not be able to quite get done this year.  Reaching for that next thing is how we continue to improve in life and horsemanship.  As Buck says, "Horses and life.  It's all the same to me."  Happy New Year, horse friends, and here's to many long dusty days in the saddle!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Making Tough Decisions

This has been a really rough weekend.  I have a wonderful, sweet, not quite 4 month old Irish Setter puppy.  He is the canine embodiment of goodness and the light of my eye.  I haven't loved a dog like this in a long, long time.  Saturday morning Dan and I were doing chores and as always our dogs were "helping".  Their version of helping is pretty much gamboling around us while we bustle about feeding, watering and the many other assorted chores that come with equine and bovine husbandry.  We don't allow the dogs to chase or otherwise antagonize the stock so they know to stay out of the fence lines unless invited and the Healer and two Border Collies are respectful of this.  The Irish Setter puppy is obviously still learning.  He prefers to be right with us.  Because of that I've been trying to stay out of the pens when he is with us right now just because he doesn't know to stay out of the way.  Our horses are used to dogs.  They are underfoot all the time both at home and on the trail.  I mostly worry about a horse inadvertently stepping on a dog that isn't paying attention.  

What happened Saturday wasn't inadvertent.  I was standing outside the fence with Patrick.  He had moved to just barely in the fence line but wasn't going any further and was paying attention so I was just watching him to be sure he didn't go in any further.  That's when my gelding came over and out of the blue struck him and broke his femur.  It was quick, it was violent, and it was heartbreaking to see.  It was like watching one person that you love, trust, and respect stab another person that you love, trust and respect right in the back.  I know that is anthropomorphism and I'm not trying to place human values on the actions of my animals, but that was the heart wrenching feeling that it evoked in me.  I've had horses and dogs all my life and we co-exist like one big happy family.  I have never in my life had something like this happen.  I suppose it was just a matter of time.

Anyway, the incident resulted in two separate surgeries for the poor puppy.  Anybody who has animals that they love as their children knows how hard it is to watch your pet in pain.  They don't understand and you cannot explain it to them.  They just hurt and you hurt for them.  It isn't any different for veterinarians and their own pets and sometimes I think it's even worse because we know the worse case scenarios and it's very difficult to keep your mind from going to the procedure failure statistics instead of the procedure success statistics that we use to bolster our clients confidence.  

So, here is the other heart wrenching side of this sad tale.  The gelding that did the deed is my aspiring bridle horse.  I have hours and hours of concentrated training into this horse that I have been carefully leading on the path to become my all star.  I love this horse and enjoy him and hadn't planned to part with him.   Now, I can't even look at him.  The anger that I feel towards him is irrational and powerful when coupled with how much I love him.  He is, after all, just a horse.  He has absolutely no history of any aggressive behavior like this.  In all likelihood it'll never happen again.  Like I said, he's been around our dogs and had them underfoot for the past 3 years and I don't even remember him pinning an ear at them.

But, irrational or not, it's how I feel.  I know without a doubt that that anger will fester and interfere with my ability to continue his training.  You see, in horsemanship, all emotion MUST leave the equation.  Horses don't hold grudges, they don't premeditate, they don't act out of malicious intent.  That is why they don't understand it when we do act that way.  Punishment is ineffective in horses because they don't think that way.  They move from one minute to the next and can go from aggressively chasing a pasture mate away from a scrap of hay to eating nose to nose with them the next minute because of that ability to move beyond the emotion of the minute.  It's not because they are stupid, it's because they are herd animals that rely on that kind of social dynamic to survive.  It's a shame people don't have the same instincts.  Think of the splendor of a society that can instantly forgive and forget and move on.

So when you carry a grudge with your horse you become unfair and injust.  When you carry the emotions of your bad day, or the remembrance of the shinanigans your horse pulled  the last time you rode into today's ride, you have failed your horse.  When his little mistake gets inappropriate correction due to your anger it can create fear in the horse.  If you ride with anger in your heart, they feel it in your hands and it isn't fair to the horse.  When you lose the inability to distance yourself emotionally you fail the horse.

So, as hard as it is for me, I've decided that the best thing I can do for my gelding is to put him into the hands of another horseman that can approach his training without the emotional baggage that I now carry.  He deserves to have a partner that allows him a clean slate.  I can no longer be that for him.  He is an amazingly talented horse with the kind of custom designed lightness and responsiveness that you just don't come across very often.  Because of the intense and specialized training he has had the transition to a new rider won't be very easy for him, but it'll be easier for him than his trusted rider riding with anger in her hands.

I care too much about the future of this horse to risk riding him with anger and creating fear.  I come across people all the time that are struggling with their relationship with their horse.  Maybe the horse did something that scared them so they lost trust.  Maybe they just don't see eye to eye with the horse and cannot establish a level of communication that is working for them. Whatever the reason the resulting relationship is one of tension.  The owner is constantly angry and disappointed with their "jerk" of a horse.  The horse is in either a constant state of fear or struggle for dominance in the pecking order because of the fear they sense in their supposed leader.  Sometimes those relationships can heal, but honestly, for both horse and human I just wish they would go their separate ways.  The person needs a horse that they can trust and communicate with and so does the horse.  There is no shame in claiming irreconcilable differences.  Humans have such a hard time letting go or giving up the fight and all it does is drag out the misery for all involved.   Sometimes, as hard as it is to admit, there is a better person to take the reins.

So, while this is an emotional decision on the heels of an incredibly emotional weekend, it isn't a decision that I have made lightly.  As opposed to those who will view this decision as one I have made out of hate, I have made this decision out of love.  I love my dog and I love my horse.  I love my horse so much that I would rather see him in the hands of another person than risk treating him unfairly because of my inability to move beyond this moment in time. He deserves better from me and I know I just am not able to give it to him.  Someday when I am completely able to detatch all emotion from my horsemanship I know I will have finally completed my journey.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lightness Outside of the Vaquero Tradition.

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!
 Our "cross-training" outfit.  Bosal and a jumping saddle.  The only problem is where to stick the mecate!
Chico and I jumping at a lesson this summer with Roxanne Conrad.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Having Fits with Saddle Fit

I sometimes think that I could make a living in just providing saddle fit clinics for horses and riders.  It's such a universal problem for people that it's difficult to believe that our ancestors rode horses as a means of transportation and didn't sore up every single one of them.  Why is finding a saddle that fits hard for folks today?  Saddle fitting clinics are trending and there are experts all over the place holding expensive clinics to help you find a saddle that fits.  We see saddle fit related back injuries with increasing frequency in our practice.  Is this an increasing problem or an increased in awareness?  Probably a little of both.

Equine Anatomy
First in saddle fit, it is important to consider the anatomy of your horse's back.  Back length, wither height and shoulder angle are all very important in saddle fit.  The bars of the saddle should ride along the top of the rib heads supported by the long muscles of the back.  The front of the bars will sit in the pocket just behind the shoulder and below the wither.  The bars should not extend beyond the flank nor should they create pressure on the loin.  The paddle like portion of the scapula moves in an arc over the front of the rib cage with the horse's stride.  The flatter (more laid back) the shoulder is, the longer the stride length and the more movement of that shoulder.  Pressure in this area will affect stride length.

There is a wide variation in body types and styles within our equine population.  Some horses are high withered and narrow shouldered, some are muttoned withered with huge bulldog shoulders.  It may be hard to believe but horses used to be selected for breeding based on their backs.  A horse was said to have a good back for riding with moderate withers and a good pocket behind the shoulder for the saddle bars. Muttoned withered horses were considered cart horses because it was difficult to get a saddle to stay in place on their back. Often in the discussion of saddle fit you will hear folks talk about how the horse's conformation today is much different than it used to be, presumably because folks have quit selecting for back conformation in their horses.  I don't believe this to be a universal problem across the breeds.  I think many families of the Quarter Horse have lost the nice withers that they were bequeathed from the Thoroughbred and certainly there has been increased selective pressure in that breed for that "bulldog" look. Today's Quarter Horse often doesn't resemble the foundation type in many ways; back conformation among them.  They tend to be lower withered and wider, flatter backed then their ancestors so using an old saddle or one of old type will have a bar angle that is too steep for a flatter backed horse.  I think for my breed of choice, the Morgan, the opposite is true and our horses may have a better back with higher withers than many of their ancestors did.  So, generalizations are not appropriate.  You need to consider each horse as an individual.

This is Moony.  Green lines show the back edge of the shoulder and the front edge of the flank.  These are the front and back borders for your saddle.  Ideally you don't want any of your saddle to extend beyond these points.  The yellow line indicates the part of his back where the bars will be resting and demonstrates the relative length and angle.  The blue line is the height of his withers and the necessary gullet height required to provide him clearance.  The red line is his the angle of his shoulder and indicates relative shoulder action.  The larger the angle of the shoulder the more movement through the joint.
 Salsa has slightly shorter withers than Moony with a steeper relative shoulder requiring slightly room for movement through that area.  Her back is relatively longer than Moony's with slightly less rock.  Both of these horses have a very easy back to fit a saddle to. These horses can easily share a saddle.  The only difference is that when saddling Moony it is important to place the saddle back just a little further than where Salsa wears her saddle to accommodate for more range of motion through the shoulder.

Chico has a longer back than the other two and is fairly straight through the back.  He has tall withers with a good shoulder angle that requires quite a bit of room for movement.  Chico's saddle fit issues are not in his back, but in his hoof.  He has a tendency towards clubbiness in his left front foot creating unevenness in his shoulders and back.  Those high withers have been a struggle as well!

 The majority of horses are left handed.  In general (and this is a broad generalization) you can tell the horse's handedness by the direction that the mane falls naturally.  If the mane falls to the right, the horse is left handed.  Chico is very very dominant right handed and his tendency to be clubby in his left front foot is either the cause or the effect of his right handedness.  Because of this we had severe lead issues through the first 4 years of his time under saddle.  If you stand at his rump and sight down his back towards his shoulders you can see the difference in the two shoulders.  His right shoulder is thicker and has more range of motion.  His left shoulder is atrophied  yet sits slightly higher and has slightly less range of motion.  Riding in a poorly fit saddle for many years exacerbated this atrophy and I've had a hard time rehabilitating the shoulder to get them more even again.  I do think I've seen some progress in that area since my saddle fit journey began.

Recognizing Poor Saddle Fit

There are many ways you can tell if your saddle is causing problems for the horse.  For Chico I first noticed white hairs at his withers.  White hairs are caused by pressure points from the saddle and indicate chronic pressure damage or damage that was inflicted months ago.  It takes sometime for those white hairs to show up.  A common spot for white hairs to develop is at the hollow behind the shoulders where poorly fitted saddles have been interfering with shoulder movement.  Behavioral or gait changes are often the reason that I am called out to evaluate a horse for back pain and saddle fit.  Hollowing of the back during saddling, dancing around or pulling away during saddling or puffing up at the cinch during tightening can all be indications that your saddle is causing your horse physical discomfort.

Under saddle a sudden reluctance to lope, or extend gait or pick up a certain lead may indicate pain due to saddle fit.  Sometimes the horse has spent so much time in pain from a poorly fitted saddle that they become a chronic bucker.  If your horse is kicking out or bucking suddenly under saddle, ruling out physical pain should be your first thought before trying to "train" the buck out of them.

Other signs of back pain may include head tossing, teeth grinding, agitation as the ride progresses,or horses carrying their heads too low trying to stretch out those back muscles.  What does your horse do as you mount?  Does he pull away from you, buckle at the knees, grunt or hollow his back?

A properly fitted saddle should not need a crupper or breast collar to stay in place when riding on flat ground.  It also should not require an excessively tight cinch.

After riding and removing your saddle you should always examine your horse's back.  Is his sweat pattern even?  In a horse with a healthy back with no previous damage there should be even sweat patterns on both sides of the horse, especially where the bars are located.  If it's been a long ride, the entire area under the pad will probably be sweated up but it's the bar areas that you are most concerned with.  Unfortunately if a horse has experienced previous saddle damage, those areas will not sweat and that doesn't recover with correcting the saddle fit issue.   Check all along your horse's back for areas of raised lumps, excessive heat, rubbed hair or tenderness to the touch.
 This roan horse has a nice even sweat pattern along the bars of the saddle.  This pattern should be even on both sides.  The channel at the top of the spine should be dry and free from rub marks or areas of swelling or pain.

This palomino horse is showing areas of dryness at the fronts of the bars.  This area is not sweating due to too much pressure.  This may be a single incident or the result of chronic saddle fit.

Tools for fitting your horse to his saddle

When I found the white hairs at Chico's withers I assumed he was too narrow for Quarter Horse or Semi Quarter Horse bars causing the saddle to rock down on his withers.  Consequently I found a narrow saddle that I felt didn't hit his withers but was supported all along his back. I thought I had solved our saddle fit. But,  because this saddle had a fairly steep bar angle it dug into the pocket and limited his shoulder movement. This saddle was also very long so I had to put it further up over his withers than I would normally increasing the pressure on his shoulders.   Eventually this made his problem even worse to the point that his stride was so severely shortened that I had to correct it with time off and chiropractic and massage.  I never had dry spots under my saddle.  I never had bucking issues or saddle slippage or white hairs.  It just changed my horse's stride to the point that he couldn't perform.  By trying to fix my saddle fit issue without fully understanding the root of the problem I made it worse.  I also made his back even harder to fit because it caused further atrophy to that shoulder.  You would think that they would teach this stuff in vet school so I didn't have to learn it the hard way!

But, because of that journey I have learned more and more about saddle fit and am better able to help both my horse and my clients.  I have also done some limited work with thermal imaging and feel this is a great technology to aid is saddle fit diagnosis and determine how to correct the problem.

The very first thing that I did to try to determine exactly what type of saddle I was going to need for Chico was to do a tracing of his back.  This is a very valuable exercise that will help you to determine what kind of back your horse has.  It requires such high tech equipment as a length of outdoor plastic coated wiring and a tape measure.  You can get some of it at the hard ware store.  It's thick and malleable and it will help you to determine the shape and angle of your horse's back.   This website gives you directions to walk yourself through the process.  http://www.outwestsaddlery.com

Basically you take a length of this plastic coated wire and create a tracing your horse's back from the base of the bar along the withers at the sweet spot where the front of the bars will rest in the pocket.

What you end up with is an outline of your horse's back that demonstrates the shape and relative width.  (Please see the webpage for a more detailed description of this process)

What I was very surprised to find out was that the relative shape of all our horse's back's was remarkably similar when measuring at the correct spot.  Although Chico's tracing did illustrate some atrophy at the point of the withers and his wither height was a little higher, the angles and width were the same.  He doesn't need a narrower saddle, he just requires a little higher clearance in the gullet so it doesn't hit his withers.

Using the tracings I had done of our horses I was able to check all our saddles for each horse to see what saddle fit which horse the best. Again, the website goes into more description of this process, but basically you take the tracing of the horse's back and place it in the bottom of your saddle.
We had one roping saddle that was far too wide for any of our horses.  The saddle I had been using was far too narrow for any of our horses and by a lucky coincidence, the saddle that Dan had just had made fit not only his own horse but most of the rest of the horses in our herd as well.  This tree has a 3b visalia tree which is an older traditional style tree.  The channel is fairly large with a good bar angle for our horses.  This is a hand constructed wood tree that sits nicely on most of the horses that we have had it on.  The only concession that I made in ordering my own tree was to increase the height of my gullet and allow more room for Chico's withers.  It doesn't change the angle or width of the gullet, just the clearance for a horse with slightly higher withers.

A new emerging and gaining in popularity modality for saddle fit is thermal imagining.  This can be very useful tool in determining pain in a horse's back and if it is related to saddle fit.  A thermal imaging gun is one that measures hot spots on the horse's body and on typically on the saddle as well.  Usually a horse's back is scanned for an image prior to riding and then after a period of 30 minutes of exercise.  Then both the back and the saddle are evaluated.  Images such as these are useful in determining how that saddle is interacting with the horse's back.

The image on the left is a saddle that is bridging on the horse's back.  The red areas indicate areas of greatest heat.  The image on the right shows a saddle with fairly good fit along the entire bar length with the exception of a a little extra heat in the right front of the bar.  Suppose this horse is right handed?  Or does this rider tend to lean on that side just enough out cause extra pressure there?  With the good distribution in weight it is probably not a significant issue, but still an interesting finding.

Choosing the right saddle for you and your riding style

Many people who are struggling with saddle fit are lured into the flex tree or treeless saddle option.  Some even decide to just forgo the saddle and ride bareback.  Let's take a minute and discuss why these are not good ideas for most riders.  If the majority of your riding is for 30 minutes or less on level ground with low impact, then you do not need to read any further.  Limited riding of that sort can be done bareback or in in a treeless saddle with no ill consequences.  If you ride a little harder than that, keep reading.

First of all, let's diffuse the myth that bareback is more comfortable for either the horse or the rider. While I do fully recognize the benefits of bareback sessions for developing rider balance and harmony with the horse, these sessions are best kept to short rides in the arena or jaunts down to the lake for a swim.   I spent a lot of time bareback as a kid and I suppose when you only weight 75 pounds it's a moot point.   The entire purpose of a saddle is to distribute the weight of the rider's seat bones over a larger area on the horse's back.  Without a saddle tree all the weight of the rider is consolidated into one area thereby increasing the pressure points.  It's like the difference between going on a long hike with a properly fitted external frame backpack spreading the weight over shoulders, hips and back or carrying that same weight in a purse slung over one shoulder.  This is a  well documented fact and many recent studies have been done to scientifically confirm what should be common knowledge.  Here is a link to a study completed using pressure pads to measure mean pressure points along the horse's back both with a saddle and without.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22796121

A treeless saddle creates similar problems.  Not only are they more likely to cause pressure at a single area because they lack a real tree they are also prone to slippage and create more difficulties with the need for an excessively tight cinch in order to keep the saddle in place.  Again, especially for folks doing a lot of long hours in the saddle, this is not a good choice.

Flex trees are another  option people commonly turn to when fighting saddle fit.  The important thing to remember about flex trees is that they are not meant to "conform" to your horse's back.  The flex trees are a solid traditional tree with areas that will flex slightly (and we're talking millimeters) or trees made entirely of a hard neoprene.  Think of a hard sole to a work boot.  More flex than wood, but not a lot of give.  The idea with a flex tree is that it moves with your horse.  Of course, it is also going to move a little with the rider's weight.  Therefore if you are off balance at all a flex tree would increase that problem of uneven weight distribution for the horse.  Many people believe that a flex trees allows for movement in the horse's back for a better athletic fit.

Let's look at where the bars of the saddle ride on a horse.  The bars rest on a fairly stable area on the horse's back.  If you have ridden bareback you know that while there is some flex and movement there, it is minimal.  A horse can round or hollow his back and arc his rib cage laterally slightly.  The flex tree is allowing for flexion outward or at the leading edge of the bar to allow for movement of the shoulder.  We have already determined that proper placement of the saddle and proper fit require the saddle to be out of the way of the shoulder.  If your saddle is interfering with shoulder movement then it doesn't fit properly and it will not help to have it flexing a few millimeters.

While I don't believe a properly fitting flex tree will cause problems for the horse, I also don't believe it will correct a poor saddle fit nor do I feel it provides any true benefit over any other well fit saddle tree.  The one thing that I don't particularly like about the flex trees is that I prefer natural products that are more forgiving in the construction of a saddle.  Ralide and neoprene are not my favorite saddle components. Neoprene is a source of extra heat in your saddle and isn't a good choice for any of your tack.

Besides fitting the saddle to you horse, it is also incredibly important to fit the saddle to you.  The bars, while designed to distribute weight over the back evenly can only do so if the weight that they are carrying and placed evenly on the bars.  There is a trend towards people riding in saddles that are too large for them.  Many people do not realize what size saddle they really need.  A larger saddle with longer bars is more likely to cause bridging and extend into that area of the loin that should be avoided.  If any part of your saddle, extends back over the horse's hips where the hair changes directions it is too long for that horse.

A properly fitted saddle for a the rider should place the rider's weight directly and evenly over the stirrups.  You should not be sitting in a recliner with your feet out in front of you.  This places pressure on the back of the bars and will sore your horse over his lumbar vertebrae.  You should not have more than just a few fingers of space in the area in front of your leg nor should there be more than just a hand's breath behind you at the cantle.  Your weight should not be pressed into the back of the cantle but centered over the center of the bars.  A good saddle should make your riding and keeping your balance easier.  If you have trouble keeping in the center of your saddle, keeping your feet underneath your body or loose stirrups often you may be fighting a saddle that doesn't fit you or is poorly made.

So, having been there and struggled with saddle fit, let me give you some advice. First of all realize that this is a process of trial and error to a certain degree.  Just because you have one saddle with "semi-quarter horse bars" doesn't mean another saddle with "semi-quarter horse bars" will fit your horse.  Unfortunately there is no uniformity in the measurements used by saddle makers and most custom saddlers will tell you that these measurements have little meaning.  Shop around for the best saddle that you can afford.  Stick with a quality made tree by a reputable tree maker and a saddle made for years and years of use.  Quality materials mean better wearing on the saddle and less incidence of warping of the tree, stretching of the leather or defects in the materials that cause the saddle to have pressure points.   You will be much further ahead having one quality saddle that fits several horses than 3 cheaper factory made saddles that don't fit anything really well. Consult a known expert in the field that has experience in saddles and fitting them to horse and rider.  Then do your research.  Use the tools mentioned above to determine if the saddle is fitting your horse like it is supposed to.

Here are a few other websites I found helpful in my research besides the ones mentioned in the text.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Pyramid of Training

It's that time of year for us Northern folks.  As the ground in the arena goes from brown to white and the needles on the Tamaracks cover more dirt than branch we start thinking about laying off our horses for winter.  While many people do continue to ride in the winter, just as many pull the shoes on their horses and don't climb on again until the round pen thaws enough to "restart" them in the spring.

Luckily we are no longer in the camp that has to forgo riding for the winter months.  We are blessed to be able to board a few horses at a local barn so that we can continue to work on some training through the winter.  It's gone a long way towards keeping us sane during those long cold months.

But, even though we aren't laying off our horses completely in the winter it still is a time for reflection.  We look back on our year with our horses and take stock of where we started and where we would like to go next year.  We check off goals that were attained and set new ones for both rider and horse.

Often in the rush of late summer and fall riding I tend to get distracted a bit with just riding.  I love to get out in the mountains and cover ground and just be with my horse seeing new country. Especially as the daylight and nice weather start dwindling I spend less and less time in the training pen. While it's a great way to put miles and exposure on your horse, there isn't always much training that occurs on the trail.  Winter time is a time for me to slow down and concentrate on where we are and how we are going to move forward.  It's also a time for me to concentrate on just one horse at a time.  In the summer I am rotating between my horses trying to keep the time spent with each of them equal.  In the winter I board one at a time, usually for 30-60 days and concentrate on just that one horse for that time.

One of the tools that we use in the winter months to fix any holes in our horses or ourselves is the Pyramid of Training.  This illustration is provided by Cowboy Dressage.  You can call it any number of different things and the concept is anything but new.  Buster McLaury spent quite a bit of time during our clinic this past summer relaying a story that Ray Hunt used to tell his students about the importance of building the foundation.  You can't spend too much time on foundational training because it's what holds every thing else you do together.

In the world of horsemanship, foundational training starts on the ground.  This where you teach the abc's and communication between horse and handler.  It doesn't matter if your horse is 2 or 20, there are times when going back to the ground to reiterate certain points is immeasurably valuable.   We spend a lot of time doing groundwork exercises during our winter months.  Every single thing that you do with your horse in the saddle you should be able to do on the ground as well.  If you can't do it on the ground, how do you expect your horse to do it in the saddle?   This foundation of communication is so important with a young horse.  If you don't establish the communication, trust and bond in a young horse through careful handling on the ground, everything else you do with him will be a waste of energy.  It's like skipping kindergarten and going to algebra.  You may be able to hammer the concepts in with enough time and repetition but why do that to your horse?  Teach your horse to learn and he will reward you with better attention, try and heart throughout your time together.

For me, in my winter training, this is where I get really picky about my groundwork.  I want exact foot placement in my groundwork.  I want to stop a foot in midair and direct it's footfall.  Often in the summer I am too anxious to just get out and ride and let some of this stuff get sloppy.  Winter is a great opportunity to slow down and concentrate in a quiet setting.

Another thing that we spend a ton of time on in our winter training is transitions.  This is the next level up on the pyramid.  Walk, jog, stop, back.  You cannot do too much of this.   If you spend a half hour in the saddle and all you do is walk, jog, stop, back transitions with as much lightness and softness as possible, you will be further along in your training than if you had done an hour of loping patterns and working on flying lead changes.  The key here is building lightness and communication. If you have to beat your horse into a slow lazy jog lacking in energy and then drag him down again to a stop and back you are not capturing the essence of this exercise.  Over and over again ask your self, "How little does it take?"  Can you move that horse up into a jog through just raising the energy in your body?  Can you bring him back down again by just stopping riding in the saddle?  What about foot fall patterns?  Close your eyes and feel where those feet are landing. How can you direct the feet without knowing which foot is off the ground?  You have to remember that it's not IF you can get it done with your horse, it's HOW you get it done.  You want to get to the point where you think it with your body and they respond.  It becomes a game to see how closely your horse is listening.  You'll be surprised at how closely they pay attention when you still the other chatter that usually clutters our riding.  Make the horse responsible for listening to you and making that change rather than forcing the response from your horse with your hands or feet.

Once your horse has begun to master these things in a straight line, you can begin work on softness and suppleness.  Lateral suppleness comes first in the pyramid.  I almost hate to even go on to talk about the peak of the pyramid because so many people want to jump up to this level before they and their horse are ready.  It's like the flying lead change.  Everybody wants to do it before they can even really lope a circle. There is a reason that these things are at the top of the pyramid.  Lateral softness should start with your horse in the groundwork so that when you begin to work on it under saddle it makes sense to the horse.   Suppleness and bend isn't just referring to the head and neck but to the entire body.  With good lateral flexion through the rib cage you can create a very arced horse that curves around your leg in a small circle. By getting lateral flexion through the hips you can achieve a haunches in.  Lateral flexion in the shoulder creates a shoulder in.  Each of these body parts should be soft and easy to direct.

Finally at the top of the pyramid is soft feel.  Now, I think of soft feel in every interaction with my horse, but in this illustration we are specifically talking about what other people think of as vertical flexion.  This is asking the horse to get soft in the bridle, shorten his body by rounding his back and stepping his hind end underneath him.  This is the beginning of true collection and is something that must be built slowly one step at a time.  You can't hold a horse in soft feel.  You can ask him to come to you and you can reward him doing so but if you try to hold him there without him holding himself you create a brace and false flexion by breaking at the 3rd vertebrae or creating a horse who is heavy on the front end and has his energy fall out behind him.  Soft feel in true horsemanship where lightness is valued beyond everything else is like a ballet dancer going on point.  It takes years of preparation and training and building the proper form and discipline before you can do it right.  It's not something you can master in 30 days.

The Pyramid of Training is also a great illustration because it emphasizes how much relative time you should be spending on each of these exercises with a horse that is the beginning stages of training or retraining.  With my 3 year old (when he goes into light training this spring) I will be spending the majority of my time at the ground levels working on basics of communication.  He'll get a short session of work under saddle with some forward movement and transitions.  Then at the end of my session I usually do a short suppling exercise and work on breaking the hind end over and bringing the head and neck around laterally.  The last thing I work on at the end of our riding session is just the very beginnings of soft feel.  I'll pick up on the bosal just a little until I feel him soften and shift his weight backwards.  Then we're done.  

I have specific goals in place for each of my horses for their winter work.  We enjoy the leisurely time together just hanging out in the indoor arena with friends who are also dodging the weather.  It's a great time for exploring new techniques, trying different exercises and experimenting with mastering footfall.  So, while I hate to see the summer come to an end, it's kind of like the excitement of starting a new school year.  Class is in session!

Monday, October 28, 2013

How Old is Old Enough?

It's interesting to me that now that horses are used primarily for pleasure or entertainment instead of as a means of survival or transportation that we are less patient with putting them to work.  Perhaps that is a reflection of our throw-a-way society.  Or maybe it is the fault of the the veterinary community that has perfected the band-aids necessary to keep a horse working when it maybe shouldn't be. Or maybe it's the fault of the high end competitive venues that have turned towards making money off of equine children rather than equine adults and the rest of us just follow suit.

I'm talking about the incredibly controversial issue of skeletal maturation and optimum age of starting a young horse.  There are many misconceptions and widely spread misunderstandings in this area of the horse world. The modern horse world seems to be more and more impressed with the advanced abilities of a young horse as showcased in a futurity.   We prize that young horse who achieves enormous amounts of money earnings early in his career and then retires to the breeding shed as a 3 or 4 year old.

You can see this change in almost every aspect of the horse industry, but maybe nowhere so dramatically as in the American Racing industry.  Where race horses used to have to be at least 4 before they began competing in long heats of 4 mile feats of endurance, the concept of the quick sprint futurities was introduced to allow betters a "glimpse" of the talent coming up.  Racing of 2 and 3 year olds in shorter more "humane" races became the norm and were immensely popular for the ability to stage a shorter race in a track that could seat more people, allow for more prospective betters and overall increase the excitement of the race.  Soon the only horses racing at maturity were cheap claimers or geldings that didn't have a career in the breeding shed to look forward to.  What has occurred in the racing industry is a significant drop in the number of starts a horse will have in his life paired with an increase in the number of breakdowns.

The same has occurred in the western reined cowhorse industry. What used to be a competition for a mature bridle horse (generally 6 or older) was then turned into a futurity for hackamore horses.  As the snaffle bit increased in popularity for it's ability to accomplish more advanced training more quickly the snaffle bit futurity was born.  This is a high dollar competition for young Quarter horses that are 3 years of age.  In order to compete in this highly demanding and physical sport those horses are often started under saddle at 18 months.One of the sad parts about this is that right there on the first page of the NRCHA rule book is the purpose of the association:  "The purpose of the NRCHA is to improve the quality of the western reined stock horse: to perpetuate the early Spanish traditions of highly trained and well reined working cow horses;"  It has traveled quite a way from the goals at it's inception.

Sadly the tradition of the early Spanish horseman were to not put any metal in their horse's mouth until age 5 or 6 and to bring them along slowly to protect not only their physical well-being, but mental well being. Spanish tradition would start a horse at 3 or 4 with very light riding with a hackamore until he was ready to move into the two-rein at 5 or 6 and only after he was carefully prepared would be be straight up in the bridle and riding one handed.  For many horses this wasn't until they were 7 or older.  Today, a 7 year old reined cow horse is likely ready to retire from the show ring.  Not always, but often.  It's like seeing Billy Etbauer still riding in the NFR.  Not impossible at his age, but very rare.

But it's not just high dollar performance horses that are being started as 2 year olds.  Conventional wisdom seems to push folks to start their backyard pleasure horses sometime during their 2 year old year.  The conscientious owner knows to wait until "the knees are closed".  This piece of equine wisdom is referring to the growth plates at the distal radius.  While you can't actually tell by palpating the horse if that growth plate has fused or not, many folks feel that you can and use this colloquial rule of thumb for starting youngsters under saddle.

What we know about rate of skeletal maturity is that the growth plates in the equine body slowly fuse between 1.5 years and 5.5 years.  Across the board.  There is no truth to the myth that some breeds of horse mature faster than others.  All horses reach skeletal maturity at about 5 1/2 to 6 years of age.  This really shouldn't surprise us as we know that the horse continues to erupt molars until they are 6.  Why shouldn't the timing for completion of growth be at about the same time.

What may not be common knowledge is that it's not the legs that are the slowest maturing part of the body.  The growth plates of the knees mature ( or close) at about 2 years for the small bones and 3 years for the distal radius and ulna.  The very last growth plates to fuse are in the equine vertebrae.  All 32 of them.  The last of those are the ones in the base of the neck.

The reason this is relevant to our young horses that we plan to ride well into their advanced years is that the process of riding our young horses can contribute to not only excessive wear and tear on their young joints (the hocks also don't fuse until 3.5 years) but strain to their backs and necks as well.

The process of teaching a horse to be ridden at a very young age teaches the horse to protect itself from back pain.  To do this the horse  braces his back and drops his shoulders and hollows out so that he can help take the weight of his vertebral column.  It's a minor thing at first and one that every young horse being started under saddle goes through to a certain degree until their back muscles get better at carrying that weight.  But if you persist in riding a young horse who's vertebral column is not able to bear that weight even with muscular conditioning, you create a habit caused by pain that becomes deeply ingrained and prevents the horse from properly learning to round up and use his body.

The next step in training a young horse after getting on their back (especially in many of today's "natural horsemanship" methods) is the one rein stop.  This is accomplished by repetitively pulling the horse's head over to your foot and limbering up the neck until it is quite soft and "rubbery".  Isn't this putting added stresses on the last vertebrae to fuse in the horse's entire body?  Pain here causes stiffness in the bridle that causes the horse to flex by turning his head at the atlas rather than flexing his entire vertebral column.   With vertical flexion he then learns to brace his withers and instead of flexing along his entire column will flex at the third vertebra to protect the rest of the cervical vertebrae.  All of this might look like a broke young horse to the uninitiated, but in truth it is a horse with reflexes built on pain.  Those horses can never move in a true collected frame.

So while the now common and widespread practice of putting a 2 year old to work in a rigorous training program undoubtedly leads to increased incidences of breakdowns in race horses and the widespread practice of injecting young horse's joints to try to stave off juvenile osteoarthritis, the other long lasting effects of braces and pain through their back and neck are less often addressed.

Does this mean that we shouldn't start our horses until they are fully skeletally mature?  That, for me, is a harder question to answer.

Paired with the data of skeletal maturity is the data that exists on mental maturity.  Horses can and do learn to learn.  One of the great things that have been bred into the Quarter Horse performance horses is their ability to calmly and easily learn what is expected of them.  They are almost "born broke".  This is because they have been selected for train-ability which is really the capacity to learn.  (Whether that makes them the smartest breed of horse or just the most trainable is a discussion for another time!)  For most folks that work with young horses and start colts the ones that have had an introduction to good handling and training as yearlings are much easier to start as 2 or 3 year olds.  That ability to retain a lesson and understand what is being taught is a learned behavior.  The younger they learn that, the easier they seem to be to train and quicker to trust.

Therefore, I believe the answer lies in moderation, as with most things.  I think you have to take into consideration your youngster and your training program.  I am 100% not in favor of futurities that demand a horse be put into rigorous training as a 2 year old.  I am also not in favor of any practice that deems it common and prudent to inject a young horse's joints in order to maintain joint health or cover-up a lameness and keep them working.  But, that's just me.  I have many colleagues happily preforming these procedures and building their retirement accounts much faster than I am.

I don't think you necessarily need to completely stay off your horse until they are 4.  I think you can teach a horse some valuable lessons, expose them to important stimuli and situations and in general build their confidence and ability to learn as a young horse.  I personally put 10 short (all but one of them were under 20 minutes) rides on my 2 year old this summer.  He had already had about a month of various groundwork exercises to establish some basic commands and improve his comfort with me and the tack.  Riding sessions would generally consist of going both directions at a walk and a trot with some simple directing with the hackamore.  We established whoa and the beginnings of a back.  I pushed him into a lope just to get him to feel it and then allowed him to trot again. That was it.  I did take him on one short trail ride just to expose him to an area other than our arena and home trail.  In my mind, that was about all he could handle.

This year as a 3 year old I will put some more rides on him throughout the summer.  He will be lightly ridden and exposed to basic commands and stimuli in a rotation with the other horses.  He'll probably be ridden about twice a month lightly through his 3 year old year. He certainly won't be loping circle after circle, going on 4 hour trail rides or schooling on spins and sliding stops.   He's almost 15 hands and probably 900#.  Had he been smaller (or I bigger) I would have waited until he was 4 to start the process.    

I don't feel that lack of skeletal maturity means no work or riding at all, but I think it means conscientious riding and training to preserve not only your horse's mind but his physical ability to be a good sound partner throughout his entire life.  I want to be riding my horses well into their third decade and possibly longer.  There is nothing sadder to me than a 6 year old that is too lame to be ridden in the show pen anymore because it was ridden too hard as a youngster.  That's like seeing a teenage girl that trained too hard as a gymnast and now has collapsed bones in her wrists and deformed radius.  Too much work too soon.  We need to be smarter than this for our horses.  Increasing the usable upper age limits of our horses through smart training will go miles to decreasing the numbers of unwanted or crippled  horses out there.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cowgirl Crazy

Phew, it's been crazy busy lately!  Work has been incredibly busy and we're trying to fit more work into less daylight hours.  This is also the time of year that we finally do all the chores that we need to get done before the snow flies that we have been putting off in favor of riding our horses all summer!  Normally it's not a problem and we get it knocked out without trouble in the month of October but this year the weather and the heavy work load have conspired against us so that we are struggling to find the free time needed to haul hay, cut firewood and do the various stashing of summer stuff in order to prepare for the winter.  Consequently our riding time has taken a back seat for the first time all year.  I will admit that I've ridden only twice this month and both times very briefly.  Yes, it's painful.  Yes, I'm having withdrawals.  Yes, I would suggest we not belabor the point!

So, this morning while we are waiting for the fog to clear so we can cut more firewood I'd like to share with you the amazing cowgirl experience I was fortunate enough to be a part of at the end of September.  Every year a group of local cowgirls embark on a horseback adventure at the end of September.  It's a tight knit group of girls with varying horsey and personal backgrounds with one thing in common.  They all want to not only enjoy the camaraderie of other horsey girls but further their own personal horsemanship journey.  There have been different focuses of past retreats, but in general we put together a series of clinics with one or more clinicians paired with a good trail ride.

This year was a great year with the exception of the lousy weather.  I'll just get that out of the way and say the weather sucked almost the entire time.  Cold, windy, snowy, rainy.  We got a few breaks but other than that it was an opportunity for us to "cowgirl up".  But for all the years this retreat has been happening, this was the first year the weather didn't cooperate!

We had three great clinicians that taught us in three small groups of six.  We were instructed in working a mechanical flag and both live cattle and buffalo, basic reining and trail obstacles/horsemanship.  The clinics were very instructive providing great opportunities to hone our skills on live animals with the cutting practice.  Reining was a great opportunity for many of the girls to try out the gas pedal on their horses and there was a lot of whooping in encouragement coming from the reining pen.  The trail obstacle/horsemanship session was fabulous.  My favorite was the teeter totter bridge.  For those of you that haven't seen one, it's a bridge that rocks when you walk over it just like a teeter totter.  I assumed my horse would be troubled with it a bit, but he handled it very well.  As a matter of fact, while he was standing in line with the other horses while I was off helping prepare another obstacle he decided to take his turn without me and went right over the bridge by himself!

Our location for the clinic just happened to be within easy driving distance of a couple of different hot springs and so our evenings after dinner were spent soaking in the hot mineral pools of the hot springs.  Incredibly welcome after the frigid day in the saddle.

We had the added luxury this year of professional camp cooks who provided amazing food at a bargain price so that the rest of us could concentrate on just riding and trying to stay warm.  I don't know how these woman provided such amazing food three times a day with no electricity or running water but they did.  I'm sure they won't volunteer to do it next year, but so glad they were here this year!

Our final day was the epic trail ride to the ghost town of Bannock.  We rode the old stage road 10 miles to the abandoned and well preserved ghost town.  Part of us splintered off for a more exhilarating cross country romp through the sagebrush hills and gullies.  Flying over that sagebrush at a gallop with a pack of cowgirls leaping sagebrush and gullies and flying up hills made me feel like I was part of an old time posse.  Definitely one of the highlights of the weekend.  Then topping the hill and looking down into the picturesque town of Bannock was like stepping back in time.

It sounds like this would be an extravagant and prohibitively expensive endeavor but it is not.  The girls that work hard each and every year to put this event together do a great job of making it affordable.  This annual trip has spawned several other smaller ones that focus on different aspects per the group's preference.  Maybe you want something less structured, maybe you want something that's just trail riding, maybe you want to just see some amazing new country.

The point is that you should just do it.  Being together with a group of like minded horsemen to share not only laughs and triumphs but encourage past snags and fears is so incredibly valuable.  Learning from your fellow horseman is a wonderful way to learn.  Sometimes you learn what you can do to further your learning with your horse and sometimes you learn what not to do, but both lessons are equally valuable.  So, I encourage any of you horsey women out there (and men too!) to explore putting together a retreat like this.  The opportunity to spend a weekend of concentrated time with your horse and some of your closest friends is a wonderful way to improve your horsemanship.

Here are some pictures of our retreat this year.
Me and Moonshine on the left and Trish and Harley on the right working a buffalo heifer.  (This was that break in the nasty weather I was talking about!)

A few of the girls at the Meade Hotel in Bannock.

The entire gang about to over take the town of Bannock, Mt.

If you are interested in putting together a retreat for your group of friends, I encourage you to contact Lori Fisher at Fisher Equine http://www.fisherequine.com/  She can help design the experience that you and your friends are after.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Bosal

I get lots of questions about why I'm riding my horse in a bosal.  Many assume that I am interested in going "bitless" and confuse the bosal with other more modern styles of bitless bridles including the mechanical hackamore and the side pull.  This could not be farther from the truth.  When I tell people that I am attempting to prepare my horse to one day be a bridle horse that carries a spade bit they look at me like I am woefully confused.

So, I thought I should maybe go into a little more detail about the purpose and use of the traditional bosal as there is much misunderstanding regarding what is a very simple and traditional piece of equipment.

I've already spoken a little about the difference between signal and cue and how it is important in preparing a bridle horse. The bosal allows us to train  a horse that responds to signal instead of cue.  Before the snaffle was introduced to the traditional vaqueros the horses were all started in a rawhide braided bosal.  There were many thickness and stiffness available and selection of what type of bosal you placed your horse in was often a matter of personal preference for the rider, sensitivity of the horse, and where the horse was in his stage of training.  To generalize, a young horse is usually started in a thicker and stiffer bosal that measures 3/4 or 5/8" in thickness.  It may have as it's core either rawhide, latigo or in extreme cases wrapped wire, though that is much more rare.  The reason for starting a young horse in a fairly stiff and thick bosal is that it provides a very clear  definition between signal and cue.

One of the things that I love about the theory of starting a young horse in a bosal and "saving" the sensitivity in his mouth for the spade bit is that young horses have A LOT of stuff going on in their mouth.  Young adult teeth are very sharp when they are first in wear.  Caps are often retained and difficult to shed.  It's not hard to imagine that asking a young horse who's mouth is busy going through a lot of sometimes very uncomfortable changes to accept a hunk of cold steel as well can be a difficult thing to do.  Of course in this day and age we routinely float a young horse's teeth to help remedy that problem, but still, it's nice to think that you can leave their poor mouth alone completely until they are done going through all those changes.

There are many misunderstandings in the use of the bosal, but the probably the most common is the fit.  You can't just take a bosal off the shelf (even a very expensive well made one) and just put in on your horse.  A new bosal is shaped roughly like an inverted dew drop.  It's braided in a straight line then bent around and joined in a heel knot.  If you've ever looked closely at a horse's nose that's not at all what they are shaped like.  In order for a bosal to provide a clear and concise signal to your horse it needs to fit all the way around your horse's nose, like a hat fits around your head.

These are new unshaped bosals.

Here is a great shot of a bosal fitting like a glove         

A poorly fitted bosal.Here is what your bosal should NOT fit like

Notice in the poorly fit bosal there is only one point of contact at the bridge of the nose.  This horse will become very sore and have rub spots on the top of his nose which is a very common complaint for the uninitiated that give the bosal a try.  When your bosal fits your horse properly, there is very little to no abrading of the skin.
 This is a bosal shaping block. In general the bosal needs to be narrowed at the nose and widened at the cheek pieces.

When the bosal is properly fitted it rides about two fingers width down from the facial crest.  The bones of the horse's nose are easily felt and you can feel when that junctions to cartilage in the horse's nose.  You want your bosal on the bones, not the cartilage as that is soft and fragile and you can damage a horse by improperly placing the bosal.

Another thing that can take some practice when you first begin to learn to ride in a bosal is that it works much differently than a snaffle bit.  Because it is a signal device rather than a cue device, pulling doesn't work, especially if you are pulling with both hands at the same time. You can't hang on a bosal, and if your hands are constantly bumping and balancing on your horse, he will soon learn to ignore any pressure on the bosal.  So, developing a sense of feel and timing when riding in a bosal is very important.

A good example of this difference is in teaching lateral flexion.  Many who teach lateral flexion in a snaffle bit recommend that you pick up tension on the bit and hold it in a fixed position until the horse gives to that pressure.  The release of the pressure is the reward for the give and you build on that concept.  In a bosal you teach lateral flexion by gentle bumping on the bosal off to the side until the horse give just a little bit and that is his reward.  You can use the same techniques in a snaffle and honestly I think learning how to signal a horse in a bosal improves your feel and timing in a snaffle as well.

If you have an older horse that you would like to attempt to ride in the bosal I highly recommend that you get excellent lightness and response in your halter work first.  A halter can loosely work like a bosal in that the horse gives to both direct and indirect pressure.  If your horse tends to lean on his halter and not respond to the lightest touch, he will do the same thing in a bosal.

I need to mention that I am by no means an expert on the use of the bosal.  I am learning as I go and have much yet to learn.  This journey has been an experiment that I undertook as part of the challenge of learning the tradition of training used by the old vaqueros for building a bridle horse.  I have used the bosal to advance my green horse that was started in a snaffle, retrain my older gelding that has been ridden in all types of bits including correction bits and start my young two year old.  There is a very steep learning curve involved but it is incredibly rewarding to build lightness in your horse in the bosal.  All of my horses have responded very well and my 2 year old will be the first horse that never feels the iron of the bit until he is ready for the two rein.

I challenge anyone interested in improving their feel and timing to experiment with riding in a bosal.  I believe that the horse enjoys the break from a bit and it allows you to work on different aspects of your training as well as improve your feel and timing.  It is a valuable tool for any stage of your horse's training and there is nothing better for a leisurely trail ride.  If your horse isn't soft in a bosal, how soft are they really?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Recap of Buster McLaury clinic

Last week Dan and I had the privilege of attending and participating in a horsemanship clinic with Buster McLaury.  While I have the utmost respect for Buster and what he teaches I was wondering just how much I would get out of a Horsemanship 1 clinic with my 6 year old who is supposed to be going into the two rein this fall.   He should be pretty far beyond the horsemanship 1 level, right?  Yeah, that's what I thought.  What I would like to do in this blog is recap what I learned and the lessons I hope to carry forward in my horsemanship.  Dan and I tried to make a list of all the things that really stuck with us from the clinic.  I'm sure we forgot more than we remembered because there is just so many moments that good stuff is happening that sometimes you don't notice it until weeks or months down the road when it suddenly goes off like a big bright light bulb. So, here are snippets of wisdom that I can pass onto you.

Sometimes you gotta be hard to be soft. Always offer as soft as possible then do what is necessary to get a change.   I spend so much time trying to develop light hands that I let my horses get by with not really trying that hard sometimes.  Especially when you know your horse knows the right answer but is just giving you a half-hearted response, firming up on him can drive home the point and make him try a little harder so that next time you can come in even softer.

Human has to change first.  The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  If you truly want change in your horse it has to come from you.  You cannot effect change without changing how you ride.  I find this applies to way more than just horsemanship.

Moving the hindquarters is the key to moving the forequarters.  This is applying specifically to the foundation of the turn around.  If you can't move the hindquarters efficiently and perfect don't even ask for the forequarters.

Build the foundation one perfect piece at a time but don't walk away and forget about it.  You have to check in on that stuff from time to time.  If any piece of your foundation training isn't exact it'll magnify into a bigger whole as you progress.  Get that stuff perfect and don't let it get rusty. A quick run through when you get on your horse is a great opportunity to check on that stuff.  Flex the neck, back up a step, move the hindquarters, move the forequarters, get soft feel.  Viola.  Now your ready to ride.

Soft feel without a change in the feet is not soft feel.  This one sunk in big with me and made a huge change in my horse in a very short time.  I have been told by numerous folks to "drive the horse into his face" by grabbing a hold of the face and driving him into to it create the illusion of softness.  It doesn't work.  Soft feel and true collection is in the feet.  When you pick up on your horse at a walk, trot, lope or stand still and ask him to get soft or collected it should not only change the way he is carrying his head but it should change the way he is moving his feet.  Once I quit driving my horse into his face the collection just came.  It makes sense to the horse that way.

When something you are doing with your horse isn't working you need to go backwards to when it was working and figure out where you missed a step.  For me this was the ever elusive flying lead change.  I have been working on trying to get this for years.  But when I tried to move my horse's hip at the trot I got nothing.  Therefore it wasn't working for me.  Once I went back and fixed it, we got it.  You can't move on until your solid in the parts of the foundation.

If it's not working slow, it'll never work fast.  We spent the entire 4 day horsemanship session working on walk/trot transitions.  We didn't lope once.  We just worked to see how perfect we could get those transitions and how light you could ask for it.  By the final day all I had to do was mentally raise the energy in my body and my horse would transition up.  No bumping, no squeezing, no clucking.  Just a change in my mental state.  You know what?  When I came home and worked on canter transitions it was perfect.  You can get more training done at a walk and a trot without loping than you can ever get schooling at the lope.

The horse knows how to arrange themselves, we just need to get out of their way.  I have spent so much of my riding life learning how to "hold" my horse together.  How to pick up a dropped shoulder, how to push that hip over so he can lope, how to bring his head down and in etc, etc.  When you forget about all of that and just work on getting in time with the feet and learn to get out of the horse's way they are perfectly capable of carrying their own body.  Hard habit to break, but it's immense freedom in your riding when you figure that out.

The horse should feel back to you when it's working right.  When you pick up on the reins, the horse should come along with you.  If he hurries to get off that rein because he's afraid of getting snatched at when he doesn't, that's not softness, that's fear.  If you pick up on the rein and he immediately sets himself with a brace to prepare for your bad hands, that's obviously not softness either.  When it's perfect, it's like holding the hand of a good dance partner.  You feel together.  So, if you pick up a soft feel the horse should hold it there with you as long as you ask.  If you pitch the reins and he's still holding it, he's not feeling back to you, he's posturing.  Does that make sense?

Get in time with the feet.  You can't move a foot when it's on the ground.  We worked on this a ton.  This is the key to lengthening stride, riding your horse in a perfect circle and stopping and backing as well as transitions.  When you are riding in time with their feet you can direct each foot as it moves.  Not because you have to help them move, but like you are dancing with them.  It's really fun to work on as you walk a circle.  You should be able to move the horse's feet along in a perfect circle, without losing the impulsion in the walk just by aligning your hips like you were walking that circle yourself.  You don't need to push the rib cage over, pull the nose in, and lift the inside shoulder.  The horse knows how to do that himself.  If you just move with him and get out if his way he can walk a perfect circle all my himself.  

Next time you ride your horse, pay attention to how little it takes to get your horse on the same page as you.  How little does it take to get your horse to walk.  To stop.  To back.  To trot.  To do a forequarter turn. To do a hindquarter turn.  Can you do it with just a thought?  No?  Me neither.  But that's what I'm after and hopefully someday we'll get close.  We're a lot closer now than we were 2 weeks ago!   None of this stuff is new or ground breaking tenets in horsemanship.  It's all been around a very long time.  It's not until you really challenge yourself to see where you really and truly are in your foundational horsemanship that you realize how badly you need to go back to square one and just fix somethings.