Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tangled in Tradition

I promised myself when I started this blog that it would only truly be a useful and accurate reflection of my horsemanship journey if I shared both my good and bad experiences, especially as it relates to my growth and education in the Vaquero Tradition of horsemanship.  I've been avoiding writing this particular blog entry because I know how it will look to the folks that are the true die hard, 3 B visalia ridin', hand braided rawhide reata twirling, mustache knot tying honest to God Vaquero horseman out there.  But, I've put it off long enough and until I get this blog post done and off my chest I won't be able to go on and share my experiences in other areas of this tradition in horsemanship.

Let me start off by saying that I adore the traditions that go along with this style of riding.  I have a flair for the eccentric and the thought that this isn't something that just anybody out there is doing appeals to me greatly.  I love the tradition of quality hand made gear that would be passed through generations.  There is a certain pageantry in the way a Vaquero horseman outfits both himself and his horse.  Pride in self and mount are paramount throughout the tradition and I love that about it.  It really does do something for your horsemanship when you put pride in your gear and turn out.

Like any long standing tradition there is great wisdom in the way things are done that speaks to well thought out observations in both rider and horse.  But, also like many deep seated traditions, there is blind loyalty to a way of doing things that is routed in the thought process "this is how it has always been done there is no reason to change".  Many of the older traditions that were once part of the standard tool bag for a Vaquero have fallen out of favor in the light of modern knowledge.  One of those is the dia de sangre.  One of the ways that some of the old Vaqueros used to instill that "trigger fire neck rein action" where a horse will jump into his turn around when the rein touches the neck was to repeatedly quirt the horse's neck until it was extra sensitive (read painful) so that he would flinch away from that pain when the rein was applied.  It was a nasty day for horse and rider and it wasn't something that needed to be repeated, generally, but it did happen.

So, the modern horseman that chooses to learn, study and apply the traditions of the Vaquero will necessarily choose which traditions to follow.  Do you start in a snaffle like many of the horseman of the great basin or do you stick to the more traditional jaquima?  Do you forego any bit but the traditional spade and skip over some of the smaller transition type bits?  Do you ride with parachute cord mecates instead of mane hair?  Do you double your horse in the hackamore? Even among staunch traditionalists there is considerable argument.  Do you follow Rojas or Connel?  Which one was right?  From the standpoint of historical argument and research there is an unlimited amount of minutia to debate.  It is all fascinating stuff.

I believe the reason that we are seeing a resurgence of this style of riding is because it has been romanticized to a certain degree by the hand of time.  We look back on the talented horseman with their prancing bridle horses and want to believe that they were always soft, and kind and looking for a better way of building that ultimate partnership with their horse.  The trigger fire horse that responds in an instant to just a jingle of the rein chains is a beautiful thing.  They carried themselves with panache and style and grace with a formal flexion in their spade bits that you just don't see anymore. The relatively foreign idea of not starting a horse until it was 4 or sometimes even 6 so that they were mature and grown even has a romantic quality to it.  While we like to believe that this was because these older horseman were being careful and respectful of young growing joints, according to Ernie Morris, once those horses were under saddle and put out to work they were asked to put in a full day's work and anything younger would break down too fast.  So, there was knowledge that a younger horse couldn't stand up to the work but they were also working their horses harder and longer than most of us do today.  There are two sides to every story and looking back on history tends to place a rosy glow.

So, in my drive to really try to learn and study and preserve the traditions of the vaqueros I have embraced the gear, methods, and training programs to the best of my ability.  One of the things that I love about my involvement of Cowboy Dressage is that they embrace and encourage folks to ride within this tradition as well.  I was very excited to be able to attend and show at the recent Final Gathering.  After looking over the entry classes available I decided that in order to show support of the Vaquero classes and hopefully build this division as well as interest in this tradition that I love I would ride only in the Vaquero classes and only bring my traditional gear along with me.

Some of you who have followed my blog posts know that I don't currently have a horse that has been brought along solely through the vaquero tradition.  As my journey has been a learning experience I have experimented with all sorts of training modalities and disciplines in an attempt to learn and grow and find out what works best for me and my horses.  There is of course, nothing wrong with trying different things but if you truly believe in the tradition of training a horse that responds to signal rather than cue to create the ultimate bridle horse you know that you can reform a horse but not ever make a good solid bridle horse if they aren't started the right way.

So my 12 year old gelding is a product of many years of muddled training techniques.  It's a wonder he doesn't have more baggage than he does.  He does really pretty well for me in the bridle (he's currently in a hooded mona lisa) but if things get hot for him I lose him mentally and the bridle horse tradition only really works and looks good if you don't have to touch that bit very much. Ideally Chico would probably stay forever at the two rein stage where I had the ability to two hand him and support him in his times of mental meltdown.  Unfortunately this particular set up doesn't fit in such a manner as to allow for an underbridle.   So, at the Cowboy Dressage finals my horse decided he was unable to listen to the signal from the bit as well as my aids. When showcasing your horse in a forum that places an emphasis on lightness and softness having a horse refuse to listen to a one handed bridle bit doesn't look very soft.  Also when you ride "straight up in the bridle" you rely on the horse bending through his body through the use of your other aids (there is considerable debate within the tradition about whether a bridlehorse SHOULD even bend through his body around your legs, but I believe they should) so when you are unable to back up your legs through communication with your hands to create bend you find yourself in a position from which you are unable to help your horse.

I did put him back into the bosal so that I could work him two handed but since he IS NOT a traditional bridle horse this was of limited help as well.  What I really needed in order to help my horse focus and understand even in times of stress was a bit that I could create bend with.  Because I was trying so hard to stay true to tradition I didn't have that option for him.

Now, just for my friends that are struggling like I am to properly follow the Vaquero tradition let's outline the things I did wrong for my horse in this situation. First of all this wasn't a horse brought along in the bridle horse tradition from day one so I can't expect him to respond reliably all the time with a muddled foundation.  Second I went from the bosal to the bridle without the two rein stage. Shouldn't be a big deal on this particular horse because he's had lots and lots of time in a bit but it's true that we skipped that stage due to constraints with gear.

So here is my "Oh Gee" take home message from this stage in my horsemaship journey.  Tradition is wonderful and beautiful and poetic and often seated in wisdom handed down from many generations.  I will continue to study and learn and try to do my best working through training my horses in this tradition.  What I hope to never do again, though, is compromise my horsemanship and my ability to effectively communicate with my horse for the sake of tradition.  I'm not saying I condone using whatever means necessary to get the right behavior out of your horse, I'm saying EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION.  It doesn't matter what language you are speaking if your horse is completely unable to listen at all.  I hobbled my horsemanship by only bringing traditional gear that limited my ability to effectively communicate with this particular horse.  It resulted in poor use of my aids and frustration for a horse that was already upset.  I was saying, "Calmete caballo" when what he probably needed was "there there old chap" since that was his original language.  My horse needed me to be there for him and support him and help him through his time of need.  If I can't do that for him within the constraints of this tradition I will seek whatever tool I can to help him out. I may get some funny looks when I pull out my french link snaffle and pull off the bosal when he's having a bad day, but if it helps me to help him, you can point fingers all you want.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rider Enduced Changes in the Horse

The old adage, form begets function surely applies to our horses.  While horses can perform beyond their form or breeding they excel best when used for the purpose for which they were designed.  This is why Clydesdales pull the Budweiser hitch and Arabians do the Tevis cup and not vice versa.

What shouldn't surprise us though is function also begets form.  Our horses will reflect the use that we put them to.  In veterinary medicine we see specific injuries and performance related issues associated with specific disciplines as the horses are used.  It's a natural extension of our relationship with our horses.  You cannot ride a horse to any extent without changing the way that horse's body in some way. This isn't always bad and it happens in all walks of life.  Many of our bodies reflect the work that we do unless we work hard to avoid that.  Asymmetrical development in the dominant arm of any person that preferentially uses one arm for the majority of their work is a good example of this.  Unless they consciously build muscle in the opposing arm, the arm being used most will be the strongest.  Our horses are the same.

What I'd like to talk about today is the way we can affect change in our horses for both good and bad and how we can avoid some of the pitfalls of poor muscle development, braces, and other injuries that can shorten or limit the useful life of our horses. Eventually I will write an entire book on this subject as it is one dear to my heart so paring it down to fit into a blog post has been difficult.  There are far reaching implications and a plethora of details and minutia to be debated in this topic.  Let's start with just a few.

"Saddleback" is a term that refers to the hollowing of the top line behind the shoulders and eventual sinking and swaying of the back after years of service under saddle.  Common thinking in the horse world is often that this is a phenomenon of old age and is unavoidable.  To some extent that is true.  As a horse ages and is subject to heavy loads it's back will wear and break down.  Unless the horse exercises the muscles responsible for rounding and shaping the back, gravity and work will eventually win and you will see a pronounced sway.  Conformation of the horse definitely plays a roll in this.  Horses with long backs and laid back shoulders will often carry themselves with poor self carriage.  Self carriage does not necessarily come natural to the horse and you can see "saddleback" on a horse that never carried a rider.  It's common in cart horses that push with their shoulders instead of rounding their backs to push through their entire bodies.

While "saddleback" can be a natural process of aging, poor riding habits can compound this problem. Just like good posture in people, proper self carriage in the horse must be cultivated. A horse that is allowed to carry himself in a sunken and hollowed way will advance into saddle back quicker than one that is in a conditioning program designed to keep those muscles functioning.  Just people, some horses will need more time in the "gym" toning and shaping those muscles while others will seem to be toned and shaped without added work.

I have a horse that tends toward saddle back.  He has high withers and long sloping shoulder and as he has aged this problem is getting worse.  This also happens to be the horse that I do the most back country and trail riding with.  He has a long ground covering walk that I enjoy riding but he tends to go hollow when in this gate.  If we spend too much time out on the trail and not enough time doing calisthenic exercises encouraging rounding through his top line this problem gets quickly worse to the point of effecting my saddle fit.
So how do you encourage your horse to round and lift and shorten his back to build those top line muscles?  Transitions and work on soft feel help the horse to bring his back up.  The time that we spend on the Cowboy Dressage court is incredibly valuable to toning and shaping his muscles and top line.  Transitions done with soft feel from working walk to free walk and working jog to free jog ask the horse to repeatedly shorten and then stretch those muscles.  It's like doing leg bends at the gym.  It focuses the energy of the ride up through the top line and encourages self carriage combating the dreaded "saddleback".

"Oh No Muscle".  This is a muscle that I am very familiar with in my patients.  Anytime I need to do an intravenous injection into the jugular vein and place my left hand on the horse's neck to raise the vein I can tell exactly what kind of hands the person riding the horse has.  The "Oh No Muscle" is the over development of the muscles on the bottom of the horse's neck.  They run on each side of the neck and form the jugular groove and are responsible in part for flexing the neck and moving bones in the throatlatch area.  Over development of these muscles will give a horse a "ewe" neck appearance that may be completely secondary to use and not due to conformation at all.  In general, when I put my hand on these horses to raise the jugular vein their first response is to raise the head and neck and flip the nose up.  These are your classic head tossers and they tend to ridden with both a tie down and gag type bit to discourage the behavior.  These are horses that are long accustomed to bracing against pressure.  Better than 50% of the time these horses will also have damage to bars of their mouth from long standing bit pressure.
 This habit is tough to break in a horse even with a rider that has good hands.  The deep seated bracing and flipping of the head are so ingrained as a defense mechanisms these horses will say "Oh No!" before anything is even asked of them.  They generally start flipping their head before I even touch them with a needle and many of these horses will engage in this behavior in the pasture flipping their head at flies, other horses, or any stimuli that they classify as irritating.

The best cure in this case is prevention.  This is a case of a horse learning to push against pressure as a defense mechanism.  If there is never pressure to push against the horse cannot develop this habit.  Pulling relentlessly on young horses or even older horses that are being forced to preform in a way that they are not properly prepared for will develop this habit.  There are shelves of tack devices to counter this human produced equine behavior.  Tie downs, martingales, cavesons, draw reins, gag bits, correction bits, etc are all developed by folks trying desperately to remedy this behavior pattern as well as establish "proper" headset.  There is only one way to be sure that the "Oh No muscle" doesn't raise it's ugly head on your horse.  Soft Feel.  That's the only sure fire, 100%, always going to work gadget and you can't buy it in any tack store.

Bar damage is the last thing I would like to cover in this blog and this is a tricky one to address.  As I mentioned above, I'll often see bar damage in horses with a big "Oh No" muscle but it can be much more insidious than that.  Bone spurs on the bars of the horse's mouth will often go unnoticed by the rider and have largely been undiagnosed in horses until more recently.  Research has been done recently examining the differences in jaws from horses that were ridden and those that were feral examining the changes that we see in our domestic horses.  In jaw bones collected from slaughter houses from horses that presumably spent time with a bit in their mouth we see thickening of the bars, bone spurs similar to shin splints, hair line fractures, roughening of the periostium due to continued stimulation of bit contact. Without doing extensive comparrisons of horses across disciplines and with good information on the type of riding and type of rider they were carrying all we can do is extrapolate about the damage and potential damage that we are doing to our horses with irresponsible bit use.

The advent of widespread availability of digital x-ray technology is going to allow us to better examine the jaws of horses that are experiencing signs of resistance or bracing to the bit.  Physical examination can provide good information as to the health of the horse's mouth and state of the bones of the jaw.  I assess the bars on every horse that I float and can usually tell if a horse is having trouble with the bit.  I find bone spurs, thickening and roughening of the surface of the bars through palpation of the bars.  You can generally tell if the horse is stiff to one side over the other or has a tendency to fight the bit.

Often a horse with bit wear on the teeth has been attempting to alleviate undue pressure on the bars by attempting to hold the bit in his teeth.  When I see a horse with rounded premolars they generally will have thickening along the bars as well.  In my practice I would say that in general I see the most bar damage associated with snaffle bit use, gag bit use and horses that are asked for "collection" or head set in the show ring.  These are the horses that seem to experience the most pressure on their bars.  This is in no way a scientific observation but only a personal one based on the hundreds of horses that I evaluate in my practice each year.

Every horse's mouth is a little different.  Some big boned horses naturally have very thick and rounded bars and these seem to hold up well to carrying a bit.  Other horses have very thin delicate bars and these are generally at greater risk for damage.  Young growing horses that have very active periosteums in the jaw and are experiencing the growth of adult teeth are especially susceptible to damage from excessive bit use.

Mitigating this damage relies on protecting the horse's mouth and respecting it.  Hard mouthed horses are not born, they are made.  While there will be variation between horses depending on bar conformation all horses have to potential to feel and respond to very light stimuli on the bars of the mouth.  Building responsiveness in a horse by rewarding try and soft feel will help teach a horse to be responsive and "soft mouthed" without undue damage.

Allowing young horses to mature prior to bitting is also a good practice to minimize damage to the bars.  This is one of the things I love most about the vaquero tradition that relies on the bosal saving the sensitive mouth for advanced training.  Once the horse is carrying a bit he has advanced far enough in his training to be able to respond with very slight pressure on the mouth.

But, a good horseman can definitely ride a horse in a bit without causing undue damage.  I think of a young woman in my practice with a 8 year old horse that she has been riding in the snaffle bit for 5 years.  When last I floated that horse his bars were pristine.  That is a woman with beautifully soft hands.  I don't advocate the widespread use of bitless bridles to irradicate bit damage.  I advocate the widespread education of the hands of horseman that use the bits to improve timing and feel and mitigate damage before it happens.

There are many, many more examples of how our riding choices and uses of our horses affect their bodies.  I will revisit this topic at a later date to discuss some of the other issues that we see that are affecting our horse's physical and mental well being.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When to Hold 'Em, When to Fold 'Em

Despite what some folks may infer from my blog posts I do not under any circumstances consider myself a trainer.  I am aspiring to be worthy of the title of horseman at some point in the future but am fully aware that that is a title that is earned and not given out willy nilly.  In cowhorse circles it's often referred to as being a "hand" or being "punchy".  Whatever you call it, I am not it.  I am a lifetime student of the horse struggling like so many would be horseman out there to learn how to best communicate with these sensitive and complex animals that are so deeply linked with my soul. These blog posts are a record of my journey and the growth I experience on the way.  Sometimes growth is painful and for dense people like me I find the lessons are repeated as often as necessary until it sinks into my cranium.

With the widespread popularity of the Natural Horsemanship movement as well as the rising interest in colt starting competitions like Road to the Horse, many folks consider the ultimate goal to be to start a horse themselves and train it from the ground up.  I admit to being one of these.  I really want to someday take one of my home grown colts, do all the groundwork myself and then through diligent training take it clear from jaquima a freno sticking as close as possible to the traditions of the viejos. With luck and a lot of hard work, I may still get that accomplished in my lifetime.

The natural horsemanship movement has done a lot of wonderful things for horses and owners in the past 25 years.  Unfortunately one of the things that it has done that has not been entirely helpful for horses in general is to perpetuate the notion that anybody and everybody can start their own horse with the help of the right set of DVD's.  I don't believe this is true.  Just like not every parent is cut out to be a teacher just because they have kids, not every horse owner is cut out to be a colt starter just because they have young horses.  Starting horses or kids off on the right foot with the right foundation is a very special skill set.

Dan and I have now gone through the process of starting several of our own horses with fairly good results.  We have had pretty easy horses for the most part that make our jobs easy and make us look good.  With the right kind of horse, anybody can experience a degree of success.  But what happens when you get that horse that doesn't necessarily play by the rules?

My young black Morgan didn't play by the rules.  I've owned Kit since he was a weanling and have known him since he was a day old.  I have tried to raise him the same way I had all of my other young horses, hopefully avoiding mistakes I had made with any of them.  As a weanling I took him on hikes around the property, exposing him to as many things as I could think of.  As a yearling I started some basic groundwork in the round pen and then continued that over the winter before he turned two.  I started him under saddle as a long 2 year old and with the exception of the first 10 days of bucking with the saddle every day he did really pretty well.  If anything I was afraid he was dull and lazy with a tendency to buck a little when he was bored. I gave him the winter off and expected his 3 year old year to put him back to work and start his journey to my ultimate bridle horse.

Then he bucked me off.

Ray Hunt has always said you need to know what happened before what happened happened in order to understand what happened and I will freely admit to having no friggin' clue. We were trotting along on a nice loose rein when out of the blue (at least as far as I could tell) he came unglued. I'm not talking about jumping sideways a step or two or taking a few good natured leaps. I'm talking about full on grunting, head between the knees Pendleton Round-Up old time bronco busting poster child.   I got right back on him, like a good kid, and figured maybe I should go back to more round pen work.  He was tight in the round pen and I was afraid of getting pitched as spectacularly as he had pitched me in the arena. After all, I am not a trainer (I believe I've mentioned this) and I need my body functioning in order to do the things I need to do to make enough money to buy these horses hay.  He pitched me off in June and it took me until August with a handful of rather tentative rides on him (he didn't buck again, just felt like he might)  to realize it was time for me to call for back up.

It was a hard thing for me to do.  I'm stubborn, sometimes to my own detriment, and giving up on this horse and admitting that I was afraid to go further with him was a difficult thing.  But, I had to admit that after several months of dinking around with him I was going backwards and not forward.  I was afraid of getting hurt and it was transmitting to him and he was getting more and more nervous.

Dan and I chose Jon Ensign to help us get past where we were stuck.  Dan and a 2 year old mare that he wanted started and he helped convince me that getting Kit to Jon was the best course of action.

Oh my gosh, I am so glad I did!  Jon reports that he didn't have any trouble with him which bruised my ego only slightly but otherwise reassured me that I had a good horse that needed expert help.  Luckily I hadn't created a monster with my dinking around.  Once he had somebody who was confident to let him move forward and trusted him not to come unglued he became a solid citizen.  Jon put 30 days of training on him and exposed him to ropes, cows, water, and all the things that we would have done over the next 6 months.  I am so much further along in my training with him and now I have complete confidence in him and he in me.   We can go forward from here and refine and shape and work on the things that I would like to do with this colt in the future.

No, I didn't start this one all by myself.  I had some help.  I'll try and start the next one on my own but if I run into a snag or feel at all intimidated I am turning to the folks that do this for a living.  I have to tell myself that it is no different than when a competent and well respected horseman asks me to give their horse an IV shot because it makes them nervous.  Of course they should have me do it, it's what I do.  Having a confident and accomplished colt starter help you with your colt is not selling out (I had to tell myself this over and over) it's making the best decision for your horse to become a solid citizen.  Money and time spent on training is never wasted.  Like any investment into education, the money is well spent.

So, the moral of this story and my step along my journey is to know and understand your own limitations and weaknesses.  It's good to have realistic goals and to work hard at learning and expanding your comfort zone.  It's also good to know when you are in too deep and need some help. Calling for back up in the interest of not only saving your own skull but assuring the continued success of your horse is an important part of being your horse's advocate.  I now have a much better understanding of that.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Practically Perfect Isn't Perfect At All

It's been kind of a different summer for me, from a horsemanship perspective.  I have been traveling the vaquero trail so to speak for a few years now and this year I sold my hackamore horse mid summer.  It was a tough decision for many reasons and you can go back through my blogs to read about that particular journey.  I had planned on getting my 3 year old some saddle time this summer and continuing his journey towards becoming a responsible youngster but ran into a little bucking issue and had to call in for back up.  So, I've spent the majority of time on my 12 year old Morgan gelding, Chico.

Chico is a wonderful, magnificent, gregarious horse with an amazingly engaging mind.  We have a true connection like old friends.  I've had Chico since he was a very green 3 year old and have put all of the training past his first 60 days myself.  I've come quite a long way since I started trying to figure out how to finish a horse.  Chico was the first horse I had to finish on my own and honestly, though I have been riding since I was 8, I didn't really know how to go about it.  So, I started muddling and trying things and feeling my way along.  Every bad habit that Chico has is thoroughly my fault.  He has a brace on his left side thanks to my tendency to bend him more to the right.  He walks off when mounting often because I trust him and don't make him stand still like I should.  I've ridden him in every conceivable bit, bosal and contraption and tried almost every discipline with him trying to decide both where I wanted to go as a rider and where he should go as a horse.

What I've created is a pretty brave, quiet, fairly broke horse with some well ingrained quirks that I just put up with in him that I would have NEVER allowed in my hackamore horse.  While I can ride Chico in the bosal and have attempted to "restart" him that way he will NEVER be a true bridle horse in the traditional vaquero way.  He's never quite figured out responding to signal but is pretty light just off pressure most of the time.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to ride in a Cowboy Dressage clinic with Dale Partee.  It was a great weekend to spend with Chico and I looked forward to the opportunity to spend time both with my best bud and all my good girl friends as well.  Cowboy Dressage is wonderful for many reasons, but the true Jack Palance "one thing" (A City Slickers reference, I'm sure many of you will get it) that I took away from this past weekend was to hold myself and my horse accountable.  Cowboy Dressage is an exacting discipline.  Because you are riding straight lines and circles on a fairly small court accuracy and timing is a must.  We've been riding on the cowboy dressage court for two summers, playing in the dirt as it were.  But this weekend "sorta" round and "sorta" straight and "almost right" wasn't good enough.  Dale was so good about making sure we did it again and again until we got it right.

And you know what?  Chico can do it.  Even if he's wiggly sometimes and opinionated and not always perfectly bent around my leg, if I don't accept that as the answer and continue until he has it right, viola!, there it is! I'm so in the habit of close is good enough with Chico because of all of the mediocre training we've done that I've created a mediocre horse.  But, he doesn't have to be that way. I can raise the expectations for both Chico and myself and he will rise to the occasion.

I don't really have a good reason for why Chico has always been allowed such leniency in our training while I was so strict with Moony.  Perhaps it's because I was too close to him or felt unsure with what I was asking.  The good news is that that can change.  I don't have to "retrain" him, all I have to do is ask for precision.   He knows dang good and well what I am asking.  He knows how he is to respond.  What he doesn't know is that "meh" isn't enough.  Dale reminded us of a quote she picked up from Buck Brannaman that I will have to paraphrase here because I didn't have a pen.  Don't ride your horse the way he was or the way he is.  Ride him the way you want him to be.

The vaquero journey and Cowboy Dressage are natural partners.  Even though the traditional vaquero never had a need to ride patterns in an arena, the tradition of horsemanship, soft feel, and taking your time to make things perfect are all the essence of both the vaquero tradition and Cowboy Dressage.  The vaqueros didn't just strive for pretty dog gone good, they wanted perfection and precision in their cues creating a trigger fire like response in their bridle horses.  A good vaquero will communicate with his horse so subtly that you will never see what he is asking.  You don't get that level of precision with "sorta" right answers.  You get that with striving for perfection every single time you ask your horse to do something. The vaqueros used cattle to train their horses in percision.  I'm using the Cowboy Dressage court.

You know, when you really think about it, it's a good motto for life as well.  Don't live your life the way it was, or the way it is, but live your life they way you want it to be.  Strive for perfection in all things and with grace and a good heaping of try perfection can begin to happen.

A moment of perfection from this past weekend. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mountains and Leads: Ramblings and Musings.

Author's note:  This blog post could be titled, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation".  This post more than any other I've posted recently is the ramblings of my brain attempting to understand some nuance of horsemanship.  I hope it encourages you to explore with your own horse.  I think I'm on the right track here in my thinking and reasoning, but it's entirely possible I'm completely off base too!  Read at your own risk!  -jlg

There is nothing like spending 10 hours on your horse to really get your mind and body in tune with the natural rhythms and balance of your horse's movement.  Every summer we take a week long trip to the Montana high country and spend a glorious week at 9,000+ feet elevation taking in the splendor that is God's country.  We typically put in 12-24 miles/day depending on the terrain and the day.  It's not terribly difficult riding, some rocky ledges, some switch backs, some water crossings.  Mostly it's just a horseback tour through some amazing mountains looking at wildlife and taking in the grandeur.

This year we had a horse along on the ride that was being ponied each day without a saddle.  I ended up directly behind this horse on the trail on numerous occasions and it offered me a unique opportunity to really study the way the horse's back moves as it carries itself without interference of tack or rider on some of the rugged terrain.  Watching the arc through the neck, rib cage, back and hips as that horse navigated a switch back made me better able to visualize what was happening under the leather of my saddle and how my weight in the saddle might affect my horse's natural movement.  Horses are such amazingly athletic and graceful animals.  They flow naturally like a ballerina, carrying themselves in perfect balance for a rounded back, stepping up and underneath themselves in the turn, carrying the head at the most natural and comfortable and efficient place for balanced movement.  Naturally, movement down a mountain trail does not require feats of advanced horsemanship and extreme collection, but with changes in the terrain, the horse must adjust how he carries his body.

As I was watching this riderless horse ahead of me and trying to better feel what my horse was doing below me, I, for the very first time, felt my horse's leads at the walk.  It's been quite a few years since I first heard Buck Brannaman talk about the leads in the horse at the walk at one of his clinics.  I thought the man was spouting mystical out of reach horsemanship principles that yahoos like me could never appreciate.  Heck, 4 years ago I still couldn't even consistently get my canter leads on my gelding, now I had to worry about leads in the walk and trot? No thank you!

But, watching that horse and appreciating the feel of my own horse I was able to finally feel and influence the leads on my horse at the walk on those high mountain trails.   Buster McLaury introduced us to encouraging a walk with purpose in our horses.  Having a forward moving horse, like our Morgans, makes that a simple task.  We don't have to work very hard to get that good forward movement.  I think until you have a very forward walk there is no lead at that gait.  Movement with purpose on a free walk appears to create a walking gait that causes the horse's hips to travel just a fraction inside or outside of the movement of the horse, much like the hips will shift slightly in a the lead in the canter.  While I wasn't able to scientifically measure my horse's gait as we were traveling along, I could feel my hips shifting either left or right with his lead.  To begin with, I noticed this the most while ascending a series of switchbacks.

My gelding is very right lead dominate.  It took me almost until he was 7 before I could consistently get a left lead at the canter and it required extreme acrobatics.  If he has his choice, even today, irrespective of direction of travel, he will choose his right lead.  So, I wasn't too surprised to appreciate that same preference at the walk.  What was interesting was to feel him shift his weight and change leads as we entered into the switch back for a left hand turn.  He would travel along on the left lead on the next straight stretch for a little while before preferentially switching back to his right lead.

Dan was traveling behind me during this phase of our trip and I mentioned to him what I was feeling and he could watch from behind as I could feel him switch his leads and surprisingly it was fairly easy for him to see in just watching my gelding's hips.  And, as I watched the horse in front of me who I would have expected to be a fairly straight traveler I could appreciate by watching his back and hips that he would switch leads from time to time at the walk as well.

Then I started to experiment with influencing that lead in the walk by my body position and seat.  Much like cuing for a lead change in the canter I shifted my feet and hips to change leads at the walk.  If I stayed in rhythm with my horse and didn't interfere with his rhythm he switched leads fairly easily, though I couldn't get him to "counter walk" in the wrong lead around a switch back.  He's too seasoned a mountain horse for that!   Interestingly enough when I got out of rhythm and just tried to "force" the lead change by actually cuing, rather than just pushing my body weight over he ignored me.   A narrow mountain trail isn't exactly the best place for experiments in lateral movements but it is a great place for developing feel.

So, as cool as leads at the walk may or may not be to the casual observer, what does this have to do with developing advanced horsemanship?  Everything!

The leads at the walk are the horse's natural ability to orientate his body for the execution of lateral movements such as shoulder in/out, haunches in/out, and leg yields.  When a horse is walking in a lead the hind end is tracking on just a slightly different track than the front end.  Have you watched a dog trot down the road?  As the dog is trotting down the road he will move his hind end over just a bit so that he doesn't step on himself.  They reach so far underneath themselves in their trot that they have to have a leading side.  The horse in "natural" extension will do this as well and we can use it to help teach ourselves and our horse's the beginning of lateral movement.  If you can learn to move with your horse so that the horse feels your body and reads it just as you are feeling his body and reading him he will pick up the nuances of changing body position.  If you over cue, exaggerate your body position or force your body position your horse will learn to ignore that making it that much more difficult to teach leads on the horse at any gait.  I mastered the forcing and exaggeration for poor lead departure about 4 years ago while attempting to teach my gelding his left lead.  Forcing a maneuver on your horse through exaggerated cue or body position doesn't work.  When you find yourself doing this (we all do from time to time) you should hear Buck's voice in your head saying, "Do less, not more".

Extrapolating even further, I think this is why teaching straightness should be one of the first places that you start with a horse.  I think the horse's tendency toward's having leads and his natural ability to create arc and bend through his body is well established in his natural movement.  Straightness, however is not natural.  Teaching the horse to hold himself equal and level with straight and even movement through both sides of his body is harder, I believe,  for the horse than creating a bend on a curve.  It's like us learning how to walk with good posture.  It's not natural and takes some work to get good at it and most of us will go right back to slouching first chance we get.

I have always started my young colts with lots and lots of bending, circles, flexing and yielding of the hindquarters and have ignored teaching straightness until I felt I had them very "bendy".  Then I have fought the bendyness trying to create straightness.  This leads to trying to "lift" a diving shoulder or make the rib cage bend appropriately around your leg.  If the horse can already carry himself straight, those body parts shouldn't fall out of alignment.   I think both are incredibly important, but I'm wondering now if I have over emphasized the bendyness and ignored the straightness to my horse's detriment.

The old vaqueros didn't worry about all of this bend in their horses.  They rode a straighter more classical horse.  They didn't do flexing, arcing or breaking down of the body parts individually like we tend to see in today's training programs.  Perhaps we have gotten away from helping the horse be straight in our western performance training.  Anybody who watches the contortion act a reining horse will go through before a lead departure knows that "bend is in!"

I think in the next colt I will concentrate more on straightness earlier in his training.  It should create a whole host of new problems for me to tackle!  This is why there are no young master horseman.  It takes a full life time to get this stuff figured out!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In the Moment

On our recent trip I had the opportunity while on the plane to read Tom Dorrance's True Unity.  I'm almost embarrassed to say this was my first read through this excellent book.  I've read plenty of excerpts and quotes and am familiar with Tom's teachings, but until recently had not had a copy to hand to peruse at my leisure.  If you consider yourself a student of horsemanship and  haven't had the pleasure of reading this book, I encourage you to get yourself a copy.  You'll need a pen or highlighter while you read because the pearls of wisdom are many and like any inspirational piece of work there will be snippets that speak to where you are with your horse today.  For me, the reoccurring theme that I kept hearing over and over again in the book from both Tom and the stories included from his students was "be in the moment".

Tom was unique in his ability to be in the moment.  He was an astute observer and intuitive reader of both equine and human natures.  There are many, many stories of Tom noticing just a small change in either horse or rider that translated to big changes or happenings when put into the big picture.  A dropped ear, tightened eye, lifted tail, or tense mouth spoke volumes to Tom.  With these slight reads on the horse he was able to "read the horse's mind".

Dr. Robert Miller spoke at length on the perceptiveness of the horse at Light Hands Horsemanship recently.  These animals are so good at reading body language of herd mates as well as other species both predator and prey that they seem to have a heightened sense of their surroundings.  A horse is sensitive enough to feel the elevated heart rate of it's rider through the leather of the saddle.  And we as, highly evolved, intelligent beings believe we can fool a horse by hiding the halter behind our backs when we go to catch them.

I think Tom had some of this highly evolved perceptiveness and I think it's one of the things that made him such a great horseman.  He was incredibly adept at reading the horse and being in the moment with the horse so that he could feel the horse's intentions before the action occurred.  He and Ray would often ask their students of horsemanship, "what happened before what happened happened?"  While incredibly frustrating for the budding horseman, this is the crux of being in the moment with your horse.

How often does your horse do something, "out of the blue"?  Your answer is probably, "All the time!" but, I'm willing to bet that in reality it is quite infrequently.  While the horse's highly developed sense of flight of fight does lead to sudden bursts of activity preempted by seemingly insignificant occurrences, many times the horse will be quite explicit in it's intended reaction before it happens.

A perfect example of this happened to me the other day during a routine visit with one of my patients.  Of course I've had Tom on my mind and have been in mulling mode since reading through True Unity but being a fallible human, I need lessons drilled into my head repeatedly.  I don't learn nearly as quickly as does the horse.  On this day I was preparing to sedate a horse for a float. This is a relatively quiet older mare that I have floated at least once before though it has been awhile.  She was quietly led up to me for the procedure.  As I approached the mare I was busy chatting with the client and watching out of the corner of my eye as their Labrador sniffed the tires of the vet truck exchanging pleasantries with our dogs in the truck.  I patted the mare on the neck, noticing as I did that she was a little tense, but proceeded to prepare to give her an IV injection.  As the needle touched the horse's skin she exploded "out of the blue".  She snorted, reared, flew backwards and looked at me like I was every bit the lion for which I had acted.

After the horse reacted I felt like the worlds biggest fool.  Suddenly all the other things going on faded away and I looked at my patient standing there with stiff neck, high head, white eyes and tight lips.  She had been standing just that way when I approached he with the needle as well.  She told me in no uncertain terms that she WAS NOT READY for her injection.  If I had taken a moment to calm her down and talk to her until her heart rate dropped and head and jaw relaxed I may not have had the same reaction to the injection.  It probably would have taken me 2 or 3 minutes to reassure her.  Instead I spent 10 minutes talking calmly while she danced around in no mood for second chances.  If I had been in the moment with my patient at the time I could have avoided the whole incident.

It is hard for me to be in the moment at any time in my life.  I am a very accomplished and proud multi-tasker.  I have an active mind, always going and churning through any 5-10 things at one time.  I used to think this was an attribute, but I think this trait is actually why sometimes things slip through the cracks.  Instead of completely doing one task at a time I have 10 irons in the fire and none of them are heating evenly.  I'm guessing that Tom Dorrance was not a multi-tasker.  I am imagining that when we was doing something, whether it was braiding, riding, teaching, or listening to a student, that was ALL that he was doing.  I believe that is why he was able to observe so much about the person, horse or situation.  How many times am I in a situation where I am not totally there?  I'd have to say it's more often than not, actually.  I may be talking to you and I might appear to be listening, but I bet in my brain I'm thinking about the next appointment, my list of diagnosis and possible treatment plan already.

Part of this problem is my personality.  Part of this problem is my job.  But, the solution lies only within me.  I used to spend an awful lot of my time in the saddle with my phone in my ear.  It wasn't by choice, it was necessity, but how can I effectively communicate with my horse while talking about a sick animal in the next county?  How can I effectively give veterinary advice while I'm trying to give muddled cues to my horse?  I can't do either, I'm willing to admit.

So, along with all the other goals in my horsemanship journey, I have made being in the moment one of my top priorities.  I'm hoping to carry it over to my job and other aspects of my life to the best of my ability.  The few times that I believe I have managed to be thoroughly in the moment in the past week have been very rewarding, making interactions richer and memories brighter.

Giving up multi-tasking may prove to be more difficult than giving up chocolate or caffeine, but I think it's just as good for me.  I'm going to do my best to be in the moment in each and every thing that I do in my business, personal life, and horsemanship life.  Simplify to edify.  The journey continues.

Monday, June 2, 2014

LIght Hands Horsemanship

Dan and I were so glad that we made the decision to attend Light Hands Horsemanship this year.  It isn’t like we haven’t wanted to be there in the past.  May is an incredibly busy time in the lives of a large animal veterinarian in North Idaho.  We work long hard days getting horses ready for the busy riding season, welcoming new lives into the world and helping to create new lives to welcome next spring.  With the busy rush of work it is easy to tell yourself that next year, or maybe the year after we can find the time to breakaway and attend this annual event.  When we heard that this year’s clinic would be the last held at the gorgeous Intrepid farms we knew that we were out of “next years”. 

For those of you unfamiliar with this event I will attempt to paint the picture of what has been happening here at this special place for the past 8 years. There is a revolution taking place in horsemanship and Light Hands Horsemanship is at the forefront of that revolution.  What you wont see at LHH is a lot of flashy music and gimmicky tack and colts getting broke in 30 minutes.  You won't see anybody, anywhere standing on a horse's back with a leaf blower.  What you will see are the most accomplished horseman in the country today all with a single goal in mind;  developing harmony with the horse through communication and understanding of the horse's nature.  It's natural horsemanship at it's best and purest and it comes in a variety of flavors to suit the needs of any rider.  

This annual event began through a fortuitous event in Brazil that brought Dr. Robert Miller, DVM, Eitan Beth-Helachmy, Lester Buckley, Jack Brainard and Jon Ensign all to the same expo.  Art Perry, an accomplished horseman and multiple world champion in the Morgan horse industry was also there and so impressed with the event that he approached Dr. Miller about hosting a similar clinic at his farm in Santa Ynez, California that would showcase the horsemanship of these fine horseman and help bring it to the world.

The premise for this clinic is a little different than some of the others that you may have attended.  This is a small venue with 200 participants.  It is a very open format where you are free to watch and learn from the presenters but also to sit down and have some dinner with them and get to know them as well.  This is an incredibly giving and open group of horsepeople.  All of these presenters have one thing in common; they are there for the horse.  These are people who are passionate about horsemanship and learning and getting to be the very best that they can be.

Dr. Miller is an expert in equine behavior and is so good at explaining this creature that we all know and love.  Each day starts with an engaging and eye opening discussion in equine behavior and how understanding, I mean REALLY understanding, how the horse ticks can improve our relationship and affect how we interact with the horse.  This year Dr. Miller also discussed the damage that we do to our horses, primarily by starting them too early and riding them to hard.  As a veterinarian I found his comments to be spot on and echoed my own thoughts on the subject.  To hear him passionately making his point that horses should be mature and grown prior to being started I don’t understand how anyone could disagree.  He sited page after page of classic literature from horseman dating back thousands of years all repeating the same thing over and over again.  Over riding and over training young horses under the age of 5 will lead to premature breakdown of the horse and permanent damage of joints, ligaments and tendons.  Many of the more damaging trends in the show rings were discussed as well such as the low head sets seen in both Western Pleasure and today's reining pens as well as Rolkur in competitive dressage.  

Jack Brainard is a legend in horsemanship.  He is a Texas horseman that has been riding, training, and showing horses in various events for almost a century.  He is a master in teaching timing of cues with footfall patterns and the importance of foundation.  Listening to Jack explain the nuances of a solid foundation and how each of these maneuvers needs to be perfect in order for a horse be considered good and broke was so simple and so powerful at the same time.  Jack is so friendly and approachable and so giving of his knowledge.  He has been doing this for 70 years or so and is still as interested and passionate about teaching as he ever was.  I was sitting next to him as he was talking with Shelia Varian as he discussed how beautiful her horse was.  It was obvious to me that he still marvels at the beauty and grace of these animals we love as much as the rest of us do.  A true gentleman and horseman.

Shelia Varian of Varian Arabians is one of my personal heroes for many, many reasons.  She is an inductee to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and an accomplished bridle horseman.  Her Arabians are some of the most beautiful horses I have ever seen.  She is also a character as well as a lady as all good cowgirls should be!  She spoke at length on the vaquero tradition and the gear that is used to prepare these bridle horses.  She believes in the tradition and the methods used only she adds her own lighter touch.  She is able to embrace some of the newer horsemanship principles and incorporate that into her horsemanship while staying true to the heart of the vaquero style that she has been practicing for her entire life.  To hear her talk about learning from Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance while still using traditional gear speaks to where I hope to take my horsemanship.  You can stay true to the heart of a tradition and still stay open minded to the new things that you are introduced to and pick and choose what works for you and your horse.  Having shown horses for many many years she understands having to train to a deadline and adhere to the crazy trends in the show ring but also that for horses that are not going into the show ring how taking your time and training to the horse’s schedule will give you a better horse.  Shelia hasn’t been well lately and I was so worried that she would be too ill to ride this year.  I’m so thankful for the health that she enjoyed this weekend and for the opportunity I had to meet one of my heroes.

Jon Ensign is a Montana horseman that has trained under Buck Brannaman.  He is a master colt starter and is one of the softest, quietest horseman on the ground.  He seems to be able to read his horse’s minds and present his ideas to the horse in such a way that even a nervous colt like the one he had at the event this year makes quick changes and settles in to go to work.  Jon is as humble and approachable as you would expect any Montana cowboy to be.  He has practical tips and builds a great solid working horse in a light and easy way.  I look forward to the opportunity to ride with Jon soon.  Colt starting is an art form and Jon has it mastered.  It's easy to see that he gets a colt soft and confident without over desensitizing and making them dull or nervous. 

Richard Winters is an accomplished horseman.  He is a great communicator and makes people feel they are not alone in their struggles along the journey to better horsemanship.  He easily communicates the worries and fears that we all have from time to time and  he is excellent at  addressing issues both in the mind of the rider and in the horse.  He spoke at length on Saturday about being a good leader and coach for your horse and taking responsibility for your horse’s growth and learning.  It was inspiring to remember that our horses do look to us to be strong leaders for them to succeed to their full potential.

Lester Buckley is a Texas born horseman that now spends most of his time starting colts at the Parker Ranch in Hawaii.  Of all the talented horseman at this event he is by far the most versatile.  Lester has started colts on the King Ranch and has spent time cowboying.  He is also an accomplished dressage rider and eventer.  It does not matter what style of riding you do you can learn from this impressive horseman.  There is something magical that happens when Lester gets on a horse.  I’m not sure I can describe it exactly, and if you aren’t a rider you may not notice it, but this man was born to sit a horse.  This weekend Lester had his 4 year old Warmblood stallion flown to Santa Ynez.  He was recently imported from Germany and only recently released from quarantine for international travel.  He arrived to the farm after midnight on Friday and was a little worked up by the time Lester was due to work with him.  He was a big beautiful powerful horse and much more than I would have liked to have climbed up on.  Lester did a little ground work explaining how his goals for this horse were a little different than what we are looking for in a good ranch horse.  He got what I would consider to be minimal respect and “checking in” from this young stallion before donning helmet and climbing aboard.  Once on his back it was magic.  He was able to reassure and direct this stallion and move him around the round pen with only a few little bobbles.  I held my breath for the first few minutes then just relaxed and watched an amazing horseman quietly direct this youngster under saddle.  He had to point out what he was doing with his aids because you sure couldn’t see it.

Eitan Beth-Halachmy.  Ah, what is there more I can say about Eitan that I haven’t already said somewhere before?  He truly is the master.  When you talk about control of body parts and soft hands the rest of us just dabble in these things.  Eitan can quietly shape his horses to his pleasure and direct that energy through each foot individually until horse and rider are moving as a single until.  Add to that the development and gift that is Cowboy Dressage and he is an inspiration to every one of us that strives to be a better horseman.  Eitan is always learning and humble and will tell you that he is still growing and changing how he rides, even after all his time in the saddle and accomplishments under his belt.  What Eitan does with a horse is unlike any other horseman I have had the pleasure of watching.  I’m not even sure how to describe it or who to compare it to.  If you haven’t seen him ride yourself, I encourage you to find a way to watch him ride sometime and I highly recommend that you watch him in person because the nuances don’t come through a video like sitting 4 feet from him while he lightly does a piaffe.  The only horseman that I can even think to compare him to is the legendary Nuno Olivaria.

I think it is safe to say that greatness attracts greatness.  The people in attendance were all horsemen in their own rights. Monty Roberts stopped by on Saturday just to say hi to his long time friends.  Ernie Morris, a legend in the vaquero world and exceptional artist and gear maker, was on hand all weekend to impart his own wisdom for those that would pull up a chair and sit a spell.  Katrina Sanders, an up and coming horsewoman in her own right, gave a presentation on the history of the vaquero that was wonderfully full of the extensive research she has done on the subject.  Then she spent the rest of the weekend talking to folks interested in learning more about this rich history and art of horsemanship.   

So when my friends ask me what I learned this past weekend at LHH, I find myself having trouble putting the experience into bullet points or take home messages.  It's not little things, it's big things.  It's the struggle for lightness and softness.  It's seeing what that can look like if you really work at it.  It's the feeling, more like a revival than a clinic, that kindles your fire and makes you want to be a better horseman.  It's putting the horse first and foremost in your thoughts.  And most of all, it's being around people who feel about the horse like you do.  Dan and I will never forget this weekend.  To our friends, I'm sorry I can't tell you more than that.  All I can say is you really have to go for yourselves.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Do You See What I See?

This is the busy season for a large animal veterinarian.  We have been working 7 days a week for a long 6 week stretch.  This last week was the busiest of them all and to say I've been a little tired is an understatement.  A few days ago I was driving home after one of those early morning emergency calls that had followed one of those late night emergency calls.  I was operating on about 3 hours of sleep.  You go into a kind of automatic pilot under those circumstances.  It's amazing how much of what I do in my work becomes completely reflexive.  I think I could successfully ultrasound a mare in my sleep and I've come pretty close to doing that very thing.  Anyway, as I was passing Sand Creek I noticed a bear on the shore of the creek being illuminated by the early morning sun.  I caught it out of my peripheral vision but knew it must be a bear by the way my body instantly reacted to it.  My heart sped up, my breathing got shallow and rapid, I even felt the beginnings of an instant sweat.  Obviously, since I was in my truck and not walking along Sand Creek I wasn't truly afraid, but instead experiencing a classic sympathetic nervous reaction to a perceived stimuli.

When I did a double take to look at the bear with both eyes instead of out of my periphery I was surprised to find it wasn't a bear at all but a large chunk of driftwood.  I shook my head and laughed at my tired mind.  Under normal circumstances, my mind would have been sharp enough to realize that it wasn't likely to be a bear on Sand Creek right in town and I would have had to take a double take to convince myself it wasn't a piece of driftwood.  Our logical and intelligent minds make those kinds of decisions for us even if our eyes "play tricks" on us sometimes.  That's why when we see certain typos our brains will automatically read right over them and just see what we expect to see.

Horses on the other hand operate just like my tired mind.  They are hard wired to see the bear, tiger, or wolf in the shrubbery.  In their world everything is a predator until proven otherwise.  They have a very highly developed sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for that rapid "flight or fight" response.  When they see the perceived "bear in the bushes" they react just like my body did in that moment when my Autonomic Nervous System was fully functional and I was on auto pilot.  The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is our body's auto pilot.  We breath, digest, have a heart rate, and other necessary functions thanks to the ever functioning ANS.  It would suck if you had to always tell your heart to beat, guts to digest and brain to function.  You can all say a little thank you to your ANS for taking that to do list off your hands.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is a branch of of the ANS.  This branch is responsible for keeping us alive in dangerous situations.  It's always there and ready to take over when we need it most.  It's responsibilities include diverting blood away from the gastro-intestinal tract and skin and to the large skeletal muscles and lungs which prepares you for flight.  This is the reason people blanch when afraid.  Horses do it too, you just can't see it through all the hair.  The SNS also dilates the bronchioles to increase air flow through the lungs.  It increases the heart rate and contractility of the cardiac muscles creating that heart "squeeze" that anybody who has suffered a sudden fright has experienced.  It also causes the pupils to dilate allowing for greater field of vision.  I have watched this happen in a horse that suddenly saw something outside of the arena during a ground work session.  Head came up, heart rate elevated, eyes dilated and horse exited stage left.

What you have to understand is that you and I and the horse have very little control over this reaction once the SNS gets underway.  It takes over and auto pilot is thoroughly switched on and it can take a few moments to get the switch thrown back the other way.  Even when you are looking at the piece of driftwood, shaking your head and laughing at yourself, you can still feel the last racing beats of your heart and the blood returning back to your cheeks.

The other component that compounds the horse's "flight or fight" response is their eye sight.  They simultaneously see both more and less than we do.  Horses have a very large field of vision owing to the lateral placement of their very large eyes.  They can see approximately 300 degrees around their body at all times.  The problem is that the majority of that is in monocular vision which is anything but reliable.  The horse's monocular vision is similar to our peripheral vision.  Think about the kinds of things you can see well in your periphery; flashes of movement, slashes of color, recognizable shapes.  Anytime something in your periphery catches your attention you turn to look at it with your highly acute binocular vision that will determine actual distance to the object, true color and actual shape.   Horses have a very limited field of binocular vision.  They can only see clearly what is directly in front of them and in order to adjust acuity they need to raise and lower their head.  That takes time and if you are a horse and are hard wired to flee the scene you may not take the time to look at the object you think is a bear with your limited binocular vision to decide if fleeing is the right move or not.  You may just flee first and ask questions later at a more appropriate distance.

So, how do we, as horseman, counteract a system that is so hard wired and rapid fire in our horses?  Luckily for us, the horse is a herd animal and not an independent thinker.  Horses "know" that their SNS can be a little over reactive causing unnecessary expenditure of valuable energy and calories.  Therefore they rely on the acuity compliation of the masses.  If one horse sees something that looks like a bear they will alert and this causes the other horses in the herd to alert as well.  The younger horses will often take their cues from the older horses in the herd who have the experience and learned behavior patterns to over ride the SNS when necessary.  If the older, more seasoned horses in the herd see the object in question and go back to eating, the herd stays quiet.  If, however, the alert is picked up by the dominant horses in the herd there will soon be a stampede.  Conversely, if it is one of the matriarchs of the herd that alerts, there are no questions asked.  The younger horses in the herd will assume that an alert from an experienced leader is valid and will flee without taking a second look.

You can see this in a group of horses on a trail ride.  If there is a youngster in the group that repeatedly shies, or spooks at known objects on the trail, the older, more seasoned horses will likely ignore junior and his antics.  However, if the lead horse sees something up ahead, the other horses in the group are likely to turn and bolt at the same time as the leader assuming that he knows what he is talking about! This is why having a good strong solid leader on a trail ride with younger or more inexperienced horses will help make the ride more pleasant for all concerned.   The very worst combination is to take two inexperienced horses out on the trail together.  They feed off each other and compound the spookiness.  Dan and I once took our two colts out together for a little trail ride.  We figured they were such good buddies that they would enjoy being out together rather than going out with one of the older horses who always picked on them.  It had the opposite effect of what we intended.  Instead of a fun "kids only adventure" where the two boys could enjoy their time out together they were uncertain and often afraid together looking (thankfully) to us to help them through something.  Both of them did better with an older gelding giving them the confidence and security of a lead horse on the trail.

We have to teach our horses that we are the lead horse.  If we help them to understand that if we aren't afraid, they shouldn't be either, they can learn to ignore that SNS in all but the most terrifying situations.  You can't ever completely remove that "flight or fight" reaction system out of the horse (no matter how many times you stand on their back wielding a leaf blower or chainsaw), but you can help them look to you to know if they should react or not.

Ask yourself how you react to your horse's spookiness on the trail?  Do you get nervous yourself, afraid that your horse is going to bolt or whirl?  If you can feel your horse tense up beneath you, you can bet your horse can feel you do it on top of him.  Do you get angry at your horse, kicking or whipping him forward to face his stupid fear of the rock he's walked by 100 times?  The absolute worse thing you can do with a horse that is locked up with fear is move them forward while that SNS is in full effect.  If you want to force movement on a hair trigger response you are likely to get more movement than you intended.  The horse in their "flight" state of mind may read your reaction as agreeing with the alert he has given you and getting the go ahead to leave the scene.  Conversely, holding a horse still when his body wants to move can compound the fear response as well.  A horse that feels the need to flee physically but can't will flee mentally instead.  Have you been on one of those horses that "checks out" on the trail?  It's not a good thing.  That's when crashing into trees and tumbling down cliffs happens.  If the horse is allowed to move their feet and clear their mind (provided you have a safe place to do that) you can help the horse to blow off the SNS and return to conscious thinking.

In a situation where the horse is alerting to an object, it is our job as rider and leader to help our horse understand that object is safe and it is not a bear.  We do this by first and foremost building a relationship with our horses.  The horse has to understand that we are the leader when we are together.  Not the alpha, but the matriarch/patriarch of the herd.  The one they can look to for support and guidance when they are unsure of themselves.  This relationship starts on the ground.  We teach the horse through groundwork exercises and flagging that even if you are afraid, even if you are unsure of yourself, if you will just trust me and come back to me, everything will be okay.  This isn't desensitizing.  You don't have to repeatedly expose your horse to every scary object out there until they pretend it doesn't exist and go comatose and ignore it.  That isn't teaching a horse to think.  That is teaching a horse to do stage tricks with a leaf blower.  It's okay for a horse to alert.  I want my horse to tell me they see something they are unsure of on the trail.  The last thing I want to be doing is riding a dead head that is unaware of their surroundings, ignoring everything around them until there really is a bear standing in the trail ahead of us.  If my horse has to ask me a dozen times if that rock is safe, I'm okay with that because I will tell them a dozen times that it is just fine.  My horse knows to feel back to me when scared so that he doesn't doubt my judgement feeling the need to allow the SNS to take over in a scary situation.  They can't be afraid to be afraid because that only makes it worse for them.

The best way to help a scared horse feel back to you is through body language.  Talking to a horse is for the human.  If it helps you to remember to stay calm, that is great, but it's the body language that your horse is really feeling.  If you keep your seat bones quiet, legs soft and body relaxed that will transfer through the saddle.  Touching the horse on the neck with the palm of your hand helps the horse to feel our pulse and know that you are not afraid and are looking at the same thing that he is.   I can feel the heart rate on my horses through either the neck or the saddle.  I allow a few moments for that heart rate to stabilize before asking for forward movement.  

Tom Dorrance used to talk about riding through your horse's eyes.  We all try to ride and feel down to the horse's feet, but if you can also ride through the horse's eyes you can get to the brain before it even gets to the feet.  It requires seeing what the horse is seeing and being an active leader for your horse.  You ride your horse forward on the trail, looking where you are going as well as looking around and being aware of your surroundings.  Your horse can tell if you are riding turned around in your saddle chatting to the person behind you.  The more your horse feels you are a passenger and disengaged with the ride the more he his inclined to take over.  If that happens and your horse feels the need to spook or alert at an object, he may not bother checking back in with you because he knows you haven't been paying attention anyway.  Riding through your horse's eyes doesn't mean you are looking at your horse's head, it means you are looking where your horse is going.  It casts your energy forward and creates forward movement in your horse.  Your horse can feel you keeping an eye out for bears and Indians and will relax and rely on your leadership.

Riding in kinship with your horse is an amazing feeling.  It creates unity and sense of purpose and direction.  Having a horse as engaged with the ride as you are enhances the experience.  Ride through your horse's eyes the next time you head out on the trail.  You may be surprised at what you've been missing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Manana Principle

*Note, I tried to get the "tilda" over my 'n' but had no luck.  Please, gentle reader, imagine it there.*

Within the traditions of the Vaquero style of riding is a guiding principle that is unique to the California region.  It is the Manana Principle.  Basically this is the belief that anything worth doing is worth doing right and it doesn't matter if it takes a day or three because there is always tomorrow.

Just imagine the old vaquero on his finished bridle horse decorated with silver sitting atop a coastal bluff.  His hair and his horse's mane blows lazily in the scented sea breeze as he looks down on the cattle grazing the coastal grass on the rolling hills.  The weather is temperate, again, and there is all the time in the world to move those cows from their early spring grazing to their mid summer grazing just a bit further in the distance. Oh, look, there is a golden eagle soaring on that warm ocean updraft.

Things are a little different here in the Northwest.

This past weekend Dan and I spent diligently engaged in the chores of the season.  You see, where we live we are blessed to enjoy the 4 seasons.  You have Summer, which is a glorious period of about 6 weeks followed by Get Ready for Winter, a period of crazy hustle and bustle paired with the accompaniment of the ever shrinking day. Winter then lasts about 6 months and is followed by Recover from Winter, which is another crazy hustle and bustle period that resembles all the Get Ready for Winter chores in reverse.

Living in an area with these lovely 4 seasons does not engender a feeling of Manana.  Instead it engenders a feeling of, "Holy crap, the sun is out, don't waste a moment of it!"  This rushed feeling is reflected in everything that I do.  This is the exact reason why ranches in the Northwest have bailing twine gates and pallet and tarp barns.  There just doesn't seem to be enough time to get things done properly.

But, there is a good lesson in the manana principle in both life and horsemanship.

When you slow down and breath and realize that though it may not be sunny and warm tomorrow, tomorrow will still come you don't have to feel so rushed.  Taking the time to do something right the first time is a better alternative than coming back next season and fixing whatever half done thing you did.

There are no short cuts in good horsemanship.  Though you may want to just twitch your horse to get the bridlepath clipped before the big show, taking the time to work with the clippers every single day is a better way to go.  You don't handle your colt's feet on the night before the farrier comes but every single day for a month before the farrier comes.  It is, essentially, the principle of working completely without deadlines.  The horse doesn't move into the two-rein because it is 6, it moves into the two-rein because it is ready.  There is no concept of 30, 60 or 90 days of training.  It is working with your horse at your horse's pace with no external time constraints.  This is a principle foreign to many of today's training packages.

I've always considered myself a person that works better under pressure.  I live for deadlines waiting until that last possible moment to feel that inspiration that would push me to set a new world record in essay writing or cram style studying.  I hope that as I have grown older and wiser I am learning that this is not always the best way to approach things.  The manana principle is not about procrastination or laziness.  It doesn't mean don't do today what you can put off until tomorrow.  It means don't do a shoddy job.  Don't scimp when doing something the right way will mean that you don't have to do it again next week.

Taking the extra time to do something right the first time is worth it but it is a very, very difficult thing to train yourself to do if you are anything at all like me.  I'm a multi-tasker.  I take pride in my efficiency and speediness with whatever I am doing.  Getting things done in record time has always been my goal. So, slowing down and doing something properly and with the right amount of concentration is difficult for me.  Taking the time in both my life and my horsemanship makes both me and my horse better tomorrow.

I especially notice this when I am working with my patients.  This time of the year we hold shot clinics where we will see maybe 30-40 horses in a day for shots, deworming, and health certificates.  It's a big job and we try and get through it as fast as possible.  What I have learned is to use my speed and efficiency with the paperwork and not with the horses.  The horses can tell that you are in a hurry and they instantly get their defenses up.  If I approach a horse to give it a shot like I'm trying to get it done as fast as possible it may decide that he wants no part of me.  When I see my patients start looking at me wide eyed and backing up I know I am moving way to fast and it's time to take a breath and spend some time scratching and saying hi to the horse.  It's the manana principle.  Instead of thinking about the 25 horses I have left to see I concentrate on the one horse that is in front of me at the time and give him my full and undivided attention.

So, I may not get as much done in a day as I would have hoped to but I'm getting it done better. Because, after all, there is always tomorrow to work on it again. Take pride in each and everything that you do in your life and in your horsemanship and take the time to do it properly.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Is leading your horse a real drag?

In the winter months, our horses sleep inside with us.  I know, I know, they are incredibly spoiled, but we are blessed to live in a barn.  They sleep downstairs, we sleep upstairs.  There are all kinds of benefits to this arrangement.  Most horse folks could readily see the benefits, but let me outline them to the odd spouse that may be vehemently opposed to such an "earthy" living arrangement.

First of all, it helps us heat our house in the winter months.  Even just 4 horses in the barn with no additional heat can keep the barn at a toasty 40 degrees most of the time.  In extreme temps they will still keep it above freezing.  When all 7 of them are in, we have to crack the barn door or it gets too warm in there. It also decreased our building costs; two buildings for the price of one, and allowed us to make better use of our property.  We get to monitor each horse's individual feed and water consumption at least over night so that we can do a systems check on each horse daily.  If a horse should colic in the middle of the night for whatever reason, we are quickly awakened by the rolling or pawing.  This has come in handy on multiple occasions.  The best benefit of all, though, is I can go down and kiss my horses goodnight in my pj's without putting my shoes or coat on.

When we first started this about 6 years ago we had 4 horses that were reasonably easy to handle and one nasty old mare that was a real bear.   That was the year of the terrible snow fall and we weren't ready for it. Our barn wasn't completely finished, and we had no running water, kitchen, or furniture.  We spent each evening, late into the nigh,t working on finishing the living area and barn.  Because we were busy and unprepared for record snow fall we had narrow little paths carved through the snow that we couldn't walk beside the horses as we led them in.  Our gates were difficult to open because of all the snow and the horses would often bolt through the gate over the top of us with no place to move out of the way as they made a break for the barn. (Incedently, I challenge anyone who thinks horses don't need or want to sleep in a barn to stand in front of one on a narrow snowy trail when they are in a hurry to get there) We thought we'd be smart and just start opening the gate and getting out of the way so that they could run down the paths to the barn themselves and into their stalls.  This worked great for awhile.  It made bringing the horses in each night a real cinch.  The problem was that they got worse and worse about rushing the gate and if we tried to lead them they decided they were in charge and drug us along like skijourers  behind them.   After a few hairy late night experiences where both my husband and I saw our lives flash before us we decided that we better take control of the situation.  So, for a time we haltered each of the horses and backed them down that snowy narrow trail all the way to the barn.  Since the snow was above knees and hocks they were motivated to keep themselves on the trail and they really couldn't turn around because it was too narrow.

It took most of the horses one or two trips. Granted, these weren't horses that had a long history of bad behavior.  This was a behavior that grew out of poor handling on our part.  The old stubborn mare took 5 nights. She was a recent adoption with a long history of poor handling.  At 30 years of age she had been getting her way for a very, very long time.  She was reluctant to change her established routine, but she did eventually decide that good behavior was far less work.   After that we never had a problem again and the horse's manners just improved.  We began to make them wait on us and calmly be haltered and walk politely down that trail without endangering us or they backed right back into their pens and started over.

This wasn't some revolutionary break through in horse training.  All that happened is that we quit being in a hurry and taking whatever the horses offered and waited for them to actually behave before walking them into the barn.  The reward for them was there already and it didn't take them long to figure out that good behavior equals hay and grain quicker.  We didn't correct the problem with fancy tack, colored sticks, nerve lines, chains or special halters.  We corrected the problem through conscientious handling.  We thought we didn't have time to fix the issues in the dark and deep snow in the dead of winter.  We actually didn't have the time not to fix the issues.  Had we addressed the lapses right when they first occurred instead of being distracted and in a hurry we never would have had the problems we encountered that winter.  It was an abject lesson for us in the quality of handling of our horses.  We believed that with a barn full of older horses we shouldn't need to "train" on them.  My dear 4-H instructor told me long ago that if you aren't training you are un-training.  Our horses' decline into night time barn related anarchy was a perfect example of un-training.

Nowadays we rarely have trouble with the horses when we bring them in, even though we have a pack of youngsters that could sure get all fired up if they wanted to.  The reason is not that we are amazing horseman but we fix each little thing right when it comes up.  You don't let the horse get away with something for a month waiting until you have an opportunity to fix it.  5 or 10 minutes added to your chore time isn't that big of a deal most of the time. Each time you let the horse engage in unwanted behavior without correcting you are inadvertently rewarding that behavior and cementing the behavior deeper so that it takes longer and longer to correct. What may have taken 5 minutes to address today might take a week of 15 minute sessions next month.

I hadn't thought about our year of the nasty horses much lately but was reminded of it tonight as I was catching my 3 year old colt to bring in.  He was 3rd into the barn tonight which didn't suit him very well, so he was in a bit of a hurry.  He wanted to push past me and then push open the gate and let himself out.  That's when I slowed myself down. It was dark.  It was cold.  The wind was blowing.  It was icey.  All reasons that I could have used to justify letting the behavior slide in favor of getting the dang horse in the barn the fastest way possible. But, instead of trying to rush and get his halter on before he got more upset I just stood there and waited for him to tune back into me. I even walked away from the gate and just stood in the middle of the pen.  When he realized the halter wasn't getting on and he wasn't getting into the barn faster he looked over at me as if to say, "Hey, what's the hold up?  Do I need to help you put that thing on?"  So he walked over and calmly lowered his head until I had the halter on.  Then I backed him a few steps, opened the gate and made him wait until I sent him through.  Being an anxious youngster he walked through the gate calmly enough then hit the end of the lead rope, taking the slack out rather sharply as he tried to head to the barn without me.

I gave him one quick pull then slack, signaling to him to yield his hind quarters and face me until I was ready.  Then I yielded him around again, brought his fore quarters through and we walked slowly to the barn.  I had to stop a few times to look at the night sky, adjust my boot and yield his hind quarters over again.  While he wasn't happy with the delay he put up with it knowing anything else would lead to even more time between him and his grain.

As a mobile veterinarian I visit people and their horses in their homes and I'm often quite surprised at folk's inability to catch, lead, or move their horses outside of their pens.  We are frequently asked to tote all of our equipment to the horse's pen because it can't be led away from his fellows, or stand quietly to be worked on without a fiasco.  When I encourage the owner to go ahead and lead the horse out with insistence that all will be well they will walk out, one hand on the halter bracing themselves should the horse act up.  The horse may be prancing all over the top of them or dragging them around, or they are dragging the horse step by step.

These aren't bad horses but they have been done a disservice by well meaning owners.  The very basic manners a horse needs to function in society above and beyond any feats of riding excellence are good ground manners.  That means they need to be able to follow a feel and walk beside a person away from their hay or friends without causing bodily harm to either themselves or their handler.  This is horsey kindergarten and sadly it is often skipped.

The fix is as elementary as learning ABC's and it serves as a foundation for every other thing you will do with your horses.  Expect manners and respect from your horses, be sure that when they aren't giving you their best behavior you make whatever changes are necessary to ensure that they do.  It sounds simple and it really is.  Handle your horses with quality each and every time you handle them and the incidences of misbehavior will decrease dramatically.

I didn't say your horses will become perfect angels all the time.  That depends on their general demeanor and how long they have been bullying over their handler but all horses have the ability and desire to behave.  They just need to be shown how.

While there are piles and piles of DVDs out there to teach the do-it-yourselfer how to transform the savage beast into Grandma's broke pony the best advice for any horseman is to remember quality in your interactions with your horse.  Don't avoid difficult situations with your horse such as leading him away from his mates or tying for periods of time just so that you don't have to upset your horse.  Help your horse by putting him into those situations during times you can help him through it and cope.  Don't rush through bad behavior waiting for the time to fix the problem.  Fix problems as they arise and your horse will have fewer and fewer problems to fix.

It's the quality of time we spend with our horses not the quantity.  Make each interaction count towards improving your horse's citizenship so that he can become a valued member of the equine community and not an embarrassing footnote in the veterinarian's or farrier's case log notes.