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.