Thursday, November 29, 2012

Living History With Cocoa (pt 2)

As promised, here's more about Cocoa the Mustang. 

Once I found that she was a solid, usable horse, I started making plans.  My other hobbies include living history , and historical trekking .  My focus in these activities is the colonial frontier, and I intended to include Cocoa. 

The living history events that I attend are generally held at public historic sites.  That means there are lots of people around, with lots of kids who want to pet any animal they encounter there,  I didn't anticipate much of a problem in that regard.  As far as Cocoa was concerned, interaction with humans wasn't a favorite part of her job description.  But, she would stand still for as long as I needed.  My main concern was the noise.  These events usually involve battle reenactments and weapons demonstrations.  I had no intention of turning Cocoa into a cavalry horse.  We would be operating in the civilian sphere.  But there would be no escaping the sound of the musketry and artillery fire.  I had no idea whether or not Cocoa had ever been exposed to gunfire. 

Without a company of redcoats to fire musket volleys for me, I did the next best thing.  I signed up to ride in the local Christmas parade.  The riders at the stable I was boarding at always participate in this parade, so all I had to do was join in.  Cocoa endured the indignity of having Christmas ribbons and bows plaited into her mane and tail, and glitter painted onto her hooves.  All of us riders were in black pants, red shirts and Santa Claus hats.  The parade went really well.  Cocoa wasn't nervous, but she wasn't relaxed either.  The holding area was a field of grass.  She simply ate, and kept a wary eye on all the goings on.  Along the route, I found she was most comfortable in the middle of the street.  That kept her an equal distance from the crowds on either side of us.  I experimented with riding close to one side or the other.  Cocoa didn't misbehave, but she made it clear that she did not think it necessary to be so close to all those noisy people.  The middle suited her just fine, and I agreed.  Her performance gave me confidence that she could handle a living history program without any problem.  She took marching bands and random firetruck sirens right in stride.  With the parade under our belt, I set our sites on a demonstration at Fort Dobbs State Historic Site, near Statesville, North Carolina. 

Living History at Fort Dobbs, North Carolina
My plan was to show the public one of the ways commercial and military goods were transported in the 1750's.  By pack horse.  My method was fairly straightforward.  I had to learn all I could about historical and modern animal pack transport.  That was something I had a head start on.  I've been interested in it for a long time.  I had to learn how pack horses fit into the scheme of things in the North Carolina Piedmont during the 1750's.  Then, I had to transfer all that book learning into actual practice, and be able to communicate it to the site visitors. 

The logistics were also fairly simple.  I needed a picket rope and fodder for Cocoa, and a bedroll and fodder for myself.  I also needed enough "stuff" to demonstrate different configurations of loads to the visitors.  The problem was more or less self solving.  I parked the horse trailer in the parking lot.  Packing all the gear into the site on horseback, and setting up camp was a demonstration in itself.  It took several trips back and forth to get everything to my camping space.  First priority was all the things Cocoa needed.  I had two bales of hay, cut down to three quarter size, and wrapped in canvas.  The rest Cocoa would eat in the trailer.  These were lashed to the pack saddle with barrel hitches.  On top were the picket ropes needed and a tub for water.  Other trips brought in my camp gear and several odds and ends to demonstrate various load configurations to the public. 

Cocoa with a full load of camp gear

I built a simple camp.  Then, I spent the weekend talking to people in my camp, and leading Cocoa with her load around the grounds. 

My camp is very basic.  A bedroll on a pile of leaves, a box of kitchen supplies, and space for the horse.  The picket line is tied to trees, as high as I can reach.  The lead rope is tied to the picket line with a slip knot.  That way, the horse can reach the ground for food or water, and even lay down without getting tangled in the rope.  In a public place, I generally put up a rope corral.  This is more to keep people away from the horse than to keep the horse in. 

Cocoa with a light demo load.
Photo courtesy of Fort Dobbs State Historic Site, North Carolina.
  From time to time during the weekend, I put a light demo load on Cocoa, and led her out of our wooded camp and around the site.  This was both a test of Cocoa's people skills, and my strategy for dealing with the gunfire.  Outside of her little rope corral, Cocoa had to deal with small throngs of people, up close.  I walked her around the open spaces, away from other peoples camps and demonstrations.  Of course, we attracted groups of people, especially families with children.  It's important to remember that most people nowadays have no idea how to behave around large animals.  It's just not something people have to learn anymore.  While talking with folks about animal pack transportation, I constantly kept a 360 degree watch around us.  I occasionally prevented toddlers from playing under the horse, or whole families from rushing headlong up to her hindquarters.  I found the light came on for most folks when I explained "This is the friendly end, and this is the dangerous end. Come on up slowly to the friendly end."  Cocoa's all business personality also showed through during these walks.  She stood quietly while children patted her nose.  But, she didn't lower her head as horses who enjoy such attention do.  She just politely endured it.  A few children were disappointed when Cocoa wouldn't eat grass from their hands.  The explanation that she was a work animal, and not a pet seemed to satisfy them.  One thing that surprised me is the number of people who assumed she was a mule, simply because she was carrying a pack.  These are, more or less, the typical things you encounter when taking a horse out amongst the general public.  I look at it as a teaching opportunity in keeping with the educational goals of the historic site.  The visitors at Fort Dobbs are polite, and genuinely interested.  I always enjoy participating in their events. 

These excursions away from the campsite also allowed me to put some distance between us and the battle reenactment.  When this part of the program starts, nearly all the visitors flock to the viewing area.  I took Cocoa to to a patch of woods on the other side of the site.  When the shooting started, she became agitated.  I couldn't get her to stand still, so I walked her back and forth through unoccupied parts of the site.  During the afternoon reenactment, I tried to get even farther away.  I took her to the horse trailer in the parking area.  She remained nervous and jittery.  She paced around between mouthfuls of grass.  I worked our way to a spot where at least I could watch some of the action, and found that was the key to the whole problem.  Cocoa saw what was causing all the racket, and that it wasn't coming to get her.  After that, she settled right down to grazing.  Every now and then, she would pop her head up to check on the situation.  From then on, whenever I took Cocoa to Fort Dobbs, we had no problem with the battle reenactments.  I simply picked a grassy spot where we could see all the action.  Cocoa grazed and kept tabs on the situation.  Occasionally a visitor would come by to talk with me.  She did so well, that on a later trip we actually participated in the reenactment as civilians being rescued by soldiers. 

Next time:  Into the woods!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cocoa the Mustang (pt 1)

It's been about three years since I retired my old horse.  I'd like to take some space here to brag about her. 

I have had the privilege of working with other peoples animals for many years.  I did not intend to own horses until We had the property to keep them on.  However, our job options have kept us in suburbia, and I was leery of the expense involved in purchasing, and then paying board for a horse. 

That changed several years ago.  A friend of mine had an older horse that was giving him some trouble.  He said the horse was not mean, just extremely stubborn and uncooperative.  He was a novice horseman and at a loss as to what to do.  He couldn't afford a more usable horse until he found a new home for this one.  Because of her age, the only people willing to buy her were the meat packers.  That prospect did not appeal to my friend at all.  Instead, he offered the horse to me free of charge, if I would take over her care.  She was what we call an "easy keeper".  She stayed fat eating only grass and hay.  That was a big point in her favor.  I went to see the horse, and found that she was rideable.  After finding an affordable place to keep her, Cocoa came into my possession. 
Marlyn riding Cocoa the Mustang

She was a B.L.M. mustang.
From the freeze brand on her neck, we know that she was born wild in Nevada, and captured as a two year old.   The vet pegged her age at about 20.  Once I started working with her, I found that she had no serious problems.  Although the ones she did have were likely more than a novice could handle. 

She was well trained.  She knew what she was supposed to do.  But, it was obvious that she had become an expert at avoiding work.  The biggest issue was me learning how to understand her temperament.  I had some idea of the differences between horses born wild and those born into domestic conditions.  However, I did not have any first hand experience with it.  One of the first things I noticed was that she did not enjoy human contact the way a domestic horse does.  Most horses I've worked with seem to enjoy being groomed and petted.  They let you know which part of their neck or withers they prefer to have scratched.  Not Cocoa.  She simply stood there and tolerated it.  That same aloofness carried over into her work as well.  She did every job I ever asked of her, but her attitude was strictly business.  Whenever I approached, her expression said "What are we doing now, and where's the hay?". 

It took a few sessions under saddle for us to really get to know each other.  In each phase we had to establish who was in charge.  It started with tacking up.  As I said, she was well trained.  She didn't try to avoid the saddle or act skittish.  the test came as I tightened the girth.  Cocoa arched her neck, flattened her ears, and began chomping her teeth together.  She didn't reach for me, but I didn't wait for her to.  I simply gave her a gruff "Knock it off!"  That was enough to stop her aggressive posturing, but the look in her eye told me that it was far from over.  In those early days she acted as if she would bite me most times that I saddled her up.  Each time I was able to stop it with words.  After a while, I wanted to see just how far she would actually take it.  That day, I took my time with the saddle and girth, and ignored the slowly escalating aggressive signals.  Finally Cocoa reached for me, mouth open and teeth bared.  I gave her a sharp slap on the softest part of her muzzle and continued working with the saddle.  She returned her head and eyes to the front.  Her expression softened with her eyes blinking and brows wrinkled.

She never tried to bite me again.  From time to time, she acted as though she would.  I'd stop it by simply looking in her eye and saying "I'm watching you.".  I've come to believe that it was a test of leadership.  "We're about to go to work.  Are you still on your game?". 

She had another small habit that may have been a test.  Or, it may have simply been exuberance.  From time to time, when we were at a canter, she would buck.  It didn't happen often enough for me to worry about, and it never lasted more than a couple of strides.  I always broke out laughing when the old gal tried to crank it out like a young bronc. 

The real test came on the trail.  One afternoon, we were riding alone on familiar trails.  At a fork in the trail, Cocoa decided that she should be the one who determined which direction we go.  I reined her to the left, but she wanted to go right.  She shook her head, stomped, reversed directions, and threw in the occasional crow hop.  I knew that the outcome of this little tussle would set the tone for our entire working relationship, and I wasn't about to give in.  We were going to take the left fork if it took til midnight.  I think we fought for fifteen or twenty minutes before she finally relented.  After that, from time to time, she would attempt to contradict me on our choice of route.  But, it never again took more than a simple correction to keep her on the path I chose. 

I don't like working in a vacuum, so I constantly read.  this helps me see what other folks are doing in similar situations.  Over and over again, professional trainers make the same point.  Horses in general, and wild born horses in particular, do not respond well to abusive methods or indecision.  The continuing little tests seem to be a trait of wild born horses.  they need to know that the one in charge is up to the task.  And to perform well, they need to trust that the one in charge will make the right decision. 

Another thing I noticed was other peoples reaction to her.  When people learned that she was a mustang, they tended to back away from her.  Even some experienced horse people acted as if she might suddenly attack them.  I heard parents warn their children away.  It didn't matter that Cocoa had been a well trained saddle horse for 18 years.  She had been a wild animal for two years.  That aura of wildness frightened some people, just as it attracted me.  It was the traits and habits she had developed in the wild that endeared her to me. 

Next time:  More Adventures with Cocoa.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Saddle Your Own Broncs

My wife, Marlyn also enjoys horseback riding.  She grew up around large animals on a farm, but never rode horses very much until recently.  She has wanted her own saddle for a while now.  She has ridden in several, but we hadn't found one that was comfortable to her until last year.  That one belonged to someone else.  But, it became available recently, and we bought it.  Marlyn is a very independent person.  The first thing she wanted was to learn how to saddle a horse herself.  So, one sunny day, we went to Beaver Hollow Farm , and fetched Pepper out of the field. 

Marlyn & Pepper with her new saddle
 Pepper is a black Walking Horse.  His face is turning gray with age.  He is an old standby at the barn.  In his prime, he was a calm and steady trail horse.  A year or so ago, his age caught up with him, and he was retired from the trail.  He still earns his keep around the farm as a lesson horse for beginners.  We brushed him off and I showed Marlyn, step by step, how to put the saddle on.  Then, she rode around the farm for a while. 

Marlyn can saddle her own broncs

Of course, bronc is a relative term
 A week or so ago, Marlyn wanted to go riding again.  She used to ride Pepper, but now he's retired.  Her riding skills have also improved beyond what Pepper was capable of.  Instead, she rode a relative newcomer to the lineup, named Cindy Lou. 

Cindy Lou is a mature, well mannered horse with a smooth, steady gait.  Marlyn groomed and saddled her with no problems.  I saddled up a gentle horse and off we rode.  We put the horses through all their gaits, and had a long, relaxing ride through Pocahontas State Park. 

Enjoying the ride.
 One of Marlyn's other hobbies is nature photography.  We stopped often to take pictures of the Fall foliage and each other.  All in all, it was a good day spent enjoying the company of each other and a pair of good horses. 

Stopping by the dogwood tree

Monday, October 22, 2012

Horse Puckey!!

This doesn't have a lot to do with horses, except in a roundabout sort of way.  Last week, I gathered several buckets of fresh horse manure.  The manure is for the compost.  The compost is for the garden.  I am not a gardener.  My wife, Marlyn is a gardener.  Seems I can't turn around in the garden without getting fussed at for stepping on some valuable plant or another.  I have the job of  PILOT.  The job of PILOT is just as important as it sounds.  It goes something like this;
"Where do you want this, Honey?"
"PILOT over here."
"Where do you want that, Darling?"
"PILOT over there."

Fetching and Carrying

Sometimes I pile stones.  Other times I pile landscaping timbers.  Mostly I pile the compost I've made.  We have about half a dozen mature oak trees in our yard.  Each winter, they drop a mountain of leaves onto the ground.  We used to simply push them over the hill to the edge of the street.  Eventually the County would send a vacuum truck around to suck them up.  Then they figured out that running a vacuum truck all over the county for free was costing them a lot of money, so they stopped it.  Some private companies picked up the slack, they wanted about $100 for the job.  Imagine that, a business wanting to get paid for providing a service.  Our neighbors started hauling their leaves away themselves.  We plunked down a couple hundred on one of those compost tumblers.  Then we bought a second, used one for a lot less. 

Maybe you've seen them.  Big, round cylinders with a crank handle on the end.  The advertisements claimed you could make perfect compost in about a week.  Sounds wonderful, compared to the seasons long collecting, piling, turning, and rotating needed to make compost the old fashioned way.  The trick is, it actually works. 

Our compost factory
It works, as long as you follow a strict recipe.  You use a specific ratio of green vegetation to dry vegetation to animal manure.  combine this with daily tumbling, and strict monitoring of the internal temperature of the mix, and you will cook up a batch of rich compost in a week or so.  My objective isn't to make the perfect batch of compost.  My objective is to make last years crop of dead leaves disappear before this years crop starts to fall.  I always have much more dry brown stuff than fresh green stuff.  This also works, but it's a bit slower.  You also need much more fresh manure.  The manure is the secret ingredient that provides the bacteria needed to speed up the decomposition process.   

When it comes to yard work, I like to work with nature, rather than fight against it.  Or, if you prefer Marlyns' explanation, I'm lazy.  But, I do have a method.  With my mix of leaves, grass, and manure, it takes about 2 to 3 weeks to make a batch of compost.  That's still much faster than the old way.  In the Summer, I try to coordinate cutting the grass with the times one of the tumblers will be empty.  That way, I have green vegetation for the mix.  In the Fall, I wait until the yard is well carpeted with fallen leaves.  Then mulch them up and bag them by running over them with the lawn mower.  The shredded leaves decompose faster, with or without the tumbler.  When the weather is cold, the bacteria are inactive, and the compost won't cook.  I store the mulched leaves in wire bins until Spring.  Soft vegetation that hasn't been mulched goes into a pile beside the bins.  We have another pile for sticks and hard stems.  When the wire bins are empty, I'll start using the unmulched leaves.  Occasionally, I'll take a fork and turn the unmulched leaves.  Other than that, the other two piles are simply left to nature.

While I'm trying to speed things along with the tumblers, nature is still working away at her own pace in the storage piles.  Every year or so, there's good rich soil at the bottom of one or another of the piles.  This year, the bins yielded a wheelbarrow load of good potting soil.  Mostly though, I get compost.

Rich potting soil at the bottom of one of the bins.
The largest part of Marlyn's garden is on a slope behind our house.  Over the years, she has terraced it and made it usable.  The previous owners of the house, filled a hole on the very back corner with old wood, pipes, and other metal stuff.  Marlyn filled that in with the compost.  It is now one of the most productive areas of the garden.  With the steady supply of available compost, she has enriched most areas of the garden. 

Within 3 years after we bought them, the tumblers paid for themselves in savings.  At least, we didn't pay someone else $100 to pick up the leaves and carry them away.  We've also saved from not buying mulch or compost to beef up our garden soil.  So, if you're wondering what to do with your fallen leaves this Autumn, Just add horse puckey!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sometimes It Just Clicks

I've been on the road for a while, so I haven't posted much lately.  I haven't been doing much horse work either, or so I thought.  I'm constantly amazed at how intelligent horses actually are.  Sometimes it takes months of repetition in session after session to learn something.  Not so with the last horse I worked with.  Baby is a 3 year old walking horse gelding.  He earned his name by virtue of being the youngest horse at the stable.  He is gentle, and a pleasure to ride.  But folks were having problems getting him to stand still for mounting.  He isn't actively trying to bully the rider like Hawk, in my earlier posts.!/2012/07/continuing-education-of-hawk.html
Baby is just young, and doesn't know any better. 

A week or so ago, I had a bit of time after work to spend with Baby.  We didn't go anywhere.  We just spent a little less than an hour mounting and dismounting in the arena.  His performance wasn't bad, but nothing to brag about either.  I thought I'd have to work with him a few more times.  Then, I was gone for over a week. 

Today, I went to the barn to get a few buckets of fresh horse manure.  (That's another story in itself.)  Several folks had just returned from a good trail ride through the local woods.  I stopped and chatted with them for a while.  Everyone took a turn bragging about how their horse had behaved.  Baby's rider chimed in with the rest.  Then the boss turned to me and said "I don't know what you did with that horse, but when you get on him now, he doesn't move a muscle."

Like the title says.  Sometimes, it just clicks.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ginger Hits the Trail (pt 5)

I took Ginger on the Amelia Springs Trail Ride.  We had a good long ride, and I was very pleased with her performance.  Before this, I had worked her at the farm one more time.  She did well, never tried to duck down the driveway at all.  The following weekend, we trailered Ginger and about a half dozen other horses to the far side of the state park.  She was understandably nervous around new horses and a strange place.  However, she settled in nicely after we got moving.  She did shy once at some unseen bogeyman in the woods.  I think it was legit, because the other, more trail wise horses also seemed to have seen something, though none of them shied from it.  She shied a second time later on.  This time the other horses just trooped on past.  I thought I heard one of them whisper "Rookie" as he passed by.  She is a bit soft from languishing in the pasture for so long.  We rode for a little over 2 hours, and near the end, Ginger ran out of steam.  From there, we simply went back to the trail head at a leisurely walk.

                                            No Rest For the Weary

I gave Ginger a good rubdown with absorbine when we got back.  But, the very next weekend she was working hard again.  This time, another rider took her on a long, fast trail ride in North Carolina.  He reported that early on, she attempted to back up with him.  He simply turned her around and backed her about one hundred feet past the point she initially balked.  No more shenanigans after that.  They also encountered some vehicle traffic with absolutely no problems. 

The Amelia Springs Trail Ride was next on Gingers' plate.  We set off on Friday afternoon, and trailered the hour or so to the farm that hosted the event.  We had eleven horses in tow.  All were pre-registered, so check in went smoothly.

Checking in at Amelia Springs
 One of our number had already parked his big gooseneck trailer at our chosen campsite.  It was loaded with buckets, feed, hay, and other horse supplies.  We parked our other two goosenecks at either end of the first one.  This formed a small quadrangle that functioned as our camp for the weekend.

Our camp.  I'm always something of an odd duck, the tipi style tent is mine.

Other groups set up tents and trailers along with a patchwork of portable electric fences for their horses.  All of this quickly grew up around pre-established travel lanes.  In all, about 250 riders came out.

The ride is set up on farmland that is also used as a hunt club.  Our hosts provided meals on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  These were served up by an enthusiastic troop of Boy Scouts.  The farm is crisscrossed with a system of well marked trails.  There is a short ride of 14 miles, and a long one of 21 miles, all marked out with directional signs.  The two trails converge at a clearing at the nine mile point.  There, the Boy Scouts had set up several barbecue grills.  I let Ginger graze a bit, then tied her to a tree.  We relaxed and enjoyed burgers, hot dogs, beans, and potato salad. 

Most of our group elected to take the long trail.  Our walking horses are well conditioned, with Ginger being the rookie.  All of them easily covered the ground.  We rode for about six hours with a break for lunch.  On a big hill about an hour or 45 minutes from the end, our horses showed some fatigue.  We dismounted at the top and let them rest for 15 or 20 minutes.  I was pleased that Ginger held up as well as the other, more experienced horses.  She finished out the ride at her smooth, ground eating amble.  I let her pick her own pace going up the last few hills, and she took them eagerly. 

She was obviously tired when we got back to camp.  I unsaddled her and let her have a bucket of water.  Then, I led her around the camps for several laps, until her breathing returned to normal.  Once she was cool, I led her down to the wash rack and sprayed her off with water.  She finished off her day with a big bag of hay and plenty of water. 

Ginger has performed so well, that she has spent the past week with a prospective buyer.  Not bad for a horse that didn't want to do anything a couple months ago. 

Crossing the creek.  From front to rear are; Ginger, Cherokee, and Shadow.
photo by
 The little horse behind me in this photo is Cherokee.  Four months ago this horse was terrified of running water.  I lost count of how many creeks we crossed during this ride.  Cherokee even took at least one good long drink while we were out.  You can read about some of Cherokees' adventures here;!/2012/04/taming-water-monsters.html

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Notable Wrecks

Recently, someone asked me if I'd ever fallen off of a horse.  While I think I know what people mean by that, I'm never quite sure how I should answer.  I usually take the tough guy stance, and say "I've been thrown off plenty of times.  But, I've never FALLEN off."  That may not be entirely accurate.  Some of my earliest "unintentional dismounts" could probably easily be classified as "falling off".   It all started with my very first solo ride.

My grandfather gave us a Shetland pony, named Nugget, when I was six years old.  My father coached us on how to ride while he led us around, and all of it made sense to me.  After a few days, it was decided that it was time to ride him on my own.   It never occurred to me, that a Shetland pony's stubby little neck was a lot stronger than a six year old boy's arms.  I took one rein in each hand, and gave his ribs a good thump with my feet.  Nugget took off with that teeth rattling trot that ponies are famous for.  About a quarter of the way around the yard, I felt myself leaning to the left.  I tried pulling back on the reins without effect.  I was still in the saddle, but listing hard to the left.  Forsaking the reins, I grabbed the saddle horn.  I continued to slide, saddle and all.  Nugget trotted one complete circuit of our big front yard with me hanging onto his side.  He stopped in front of my dad, who peeled me off of the pony and fixed the saddle.  Our household was well versed in cowboy lore, and I knew the saying that you always had to get back in the saddle.  So I did.

We continued to ride and learn from that little pony for many years.  He learned how to get us out of the saddle, and we learned how to stay on in spite of his tricks.  I suppose he tossed me many more times, but only one other really stands out.  I was still in elementary school.  Nugget had learned to take the bit in his teeth, and run for all he was worth.  Fortunately, by then, we had an enclosed riding area we had cleared out of the woods behind the house.  On this occasion, he took off, and try as I might, I couldn't get him to stop or turn.  A Shetland pony can only run so fast.  But, to a kid, who can't find the brakes, it feels like 90 miles an hour.  I resolved to hang on til he ran out of steam.  Then, I felt myself slipping over to the left.  I still didn't have that balance thing quite worked out.  I did have a death grip on something or another.  That refusal to bail out has both kept me on top, and gotten me in a bit of trouble over the years.  We're fairly certain that it was a tree stump that knocked me loose from the pony.  Nugget kept racing around the fence line.  I got up and started walking toward the gate.  Something sticky was running into my eye, but I wondered why my Dad wasn't trying to catch the pony.  Instead, he was running toward me, peeling his shirt off as he ran.  He shoved his wadded up shirt against my face, tucked me under his arm like a football, and took off for the house.  It didn't dawn on me for a while, what had happened.  I was still wondering why we had left the pony all tacked up, running laps around the field.  Turned out, that I wasn't hurt very badly. Several stitches in my scalp took care of everything.  The scar has faded over the years, but the crease in my skull is still there.  It wasn't until I had a kid of my own that I realized what my dad went through that day.  My brothers, sisters, and I all took some tumbles, and always got back in the saddle.  Nugget eventually settled down to become a champion show pony on the 4-H and local circuit. 

We learned to ride well enough that Dad bought a horse for himself, so we could range farther afield.  I survived into my early teens without getting banged up too  much.  We got involved in the 4-H club, where I got some excellent coaching, and experience.  We were growing and learning, and our horse herd was increasing. 

One of the new additions was a half wild pony meant for one of my younger sisters.  This creature had grown up in a herd of 10 others like herself, with little or no human contact.  We called her Bugaboo.  Dad gave my brothers and I the task of making her safe for our little sister to ride.  We handled Bugaboo until she would lead, and accept a saddle and bridle.  Then, we decided it was time to mount up. 

On the appointed day, we led Bugaboo to to the lane that ran the 50 or so yards from the house to the barn.  The area was mostly enclosed, and more importantly, I suppose, had no tree stumps.  Being the oldest, I was first up.  I think I made it about halfway to the barn before she dumped me.  Then, the next oldest brother climbed on.  When he got tossed, the youngest rode til he got thrown.  Then, it was my turn again.  We kept that up all day.  Ride til you're thrown, get in line, and ride again.  By the end of the day, the pony had stopped bucking.  It was a while longer before she would take directions from a rider.  But, I don't recall that she ever bucked again.  My sister eventually rode her to third place in the state in 4-H competition. 

About this time, I got the opportunity to work as a stable hand at the place that sponsored the 4-H club.  That was a memorable summer.  On the one hand, for the  chance to be out among working people.  But, also to be able to ride a different horse every day.  That was probably the best horsemanship training I could have gotten. 

There were three to five of us teenage boys staying in a small apartment built into the big horse barn.  We were to keep the stalls clean, and horses fed, keep the rental horses saddled and ready, occasionally lead trail rides, and do any other work that came up.  Each night, we kept a few of the rental horses penned up in the barn, "in case of an emergency".  It made perfect sense then.  Since then, I haven't been able to think of an emergency that would require a bunch of teenagers to dash out into the night, saddle up, and ride off.  The practical use was, that there were a few horses available each morning as soon as customers started arriving.  We also used one of them to ride out and bring in more horses for the rental line.  We took turns gathering up horses each morning.  It was on one of these rides that I had another wreck. 

There were several hundred acres of wooded pasture at this stable.  I'm not sure the owner knew how many horses he had out there.  One of them was famous among us.  Smokey was a one eyed gelding who was reputed to be an excellent riding horse.  If you could catch him.  Smokey always seemed to elude our morning roundups. 

This particular morning, I rode out, and found a small band of horses lounging in a patch of woods.  I circled wide, and started pushing them toward the barn.  These horses always broke into a run when we gathered them up.  I'll confess that we encouraged it.  Partly for the excitement.  But, we also knew that there were often teenage girls standing by the fence when we galloped up with a herd of horses.

I kept the horses running toward the barn, and noticed that one of them had only one eye.  My mind raced ahead to the bragging rights I'd have when I rode up with Smokey in the herd.  In my excitement, I suppose, I pressed them a little closer than I should have.  We were at the last creek crossing, at a turn in the trail, about 500 yards from the barn, when Smokey made his break. 

The herd splashed into the water, and Smokey peeled out for the back forty.  I was riding a rather indifferent horse who wasn't quite up to the occasion.  He had already set himself up for the galloping turn into the creek, when I tried to turn him in the opposite direction to catch Smokey.  His legs tangled up, and we went over the bank, into the creek.  We had stayed upright, and I had stayed on top, but we ended up with his legs folded under him in the mud and water.  I stepped off of him to let him untangle himself and stand up.  We were both soaked and spattered with mud, and my boots were full of water.  The horse was more puzzled than hurt.  The herd scattered to the winds and I had to turn around and find some more.  Instead of bragging rights, I had to explain why it took me so long to find a few horses.

Most of the spills we had were minor.  But, the really good ones seemed to happen when we were showing off.  One night, the owner came in from Texas with a truckload of new horses.  We took them one by one to a holding pen on the back side of the barn.  As each one was unloaded, one of us would throw the lead rope over its' neck, and hop on bareback.  Just to see what it would do.  Things went routinely, until we were almost done.  That's when we noticed that one of them liked to crow hop.  Everything had to stop while each of us took a turn riding that horse down the aisle.  Just to see what we could do. 

Being the youngest, I was last up.  By then, the horse had grown tired of us.  He was doing more running than bucking.  Then, he took a little hop, hit on all fours, dropped his head, and threw his rump in the air.  I sailed straight over his head, and turned a complete somersault before I hit. The horse kept running.  I landed sitting upright, with my legs splayed out in front of me.  Then, I fell back, unable to move.  I heard the hoof beats, and thought "Well..... I'm gonna get stomped on."  I closed my eyes, and tensed up as the wood shavings from the floor rained down on me.  Then, everything stopped. 

The horse had slid to a stop, and was standing with his nose in my face.  He had a "What are you doing down there?" look in his eyes.  I just blinked back at him.  The guys helped me get up.  We all had a good laugh, after we realised I wasn't dead or crippled.  It was a while before I could sit in a saddle again.  And, I took a good ribbing about my bruised tailbone. 

I got through my teen years without any more major spills.  About this time, I began starting colts.  Despite the common perception, few of them have ever bucked with me.  The worst was a skittish arab-saddlebred cross.  No matter how much groundwork I did with him, he wouldn't settle down.  I figured the only thing left was to climb on and expect a fight.  I saddled up, and before stepping into the stirrup, I cheeked him.  This technique involves holding the cheek piece of the bridle along with the reins as you mount.  In theory, this turns the horse directly under you as you mount.  In practice, it only ensures that you know which direction a horse will move if he blows up.  I stepped on board, expecting a contest.  But the horse simply laid down.  I stood up, and stepped over him.  He eventually stood back up, and I got back on.  Things were fairly uneventful after that. 

Most of us grow up, and leave home.  I joined the military, and had fewer opportunities to ride.  Then, I found out about the amateur rodeo associations.  I had a rather short and sporadic rodeo career.   Most of the time, I ended up in the dirt.  When I did stay on, I never scored high enough to place.  My last one convinced me that enough was enough. 

Bareback bronc riding was my event.  A bareback rider uses a small rig that only covers the withers area of the horse.  Where the pommel of a saddle would be, the rig has a little handle.  Sort of like a suitcase.  The normal routine for starting a ride, can be a drawn out process.  First, you put your rig on the bronc.  Then, you stand over him in the chute, warming up the resin on the handle by twisting your gloved hand over it.  When it's good and sticky, you settle down onto the horse, get a good grip on the handle, and pull yourself up close to the rig.  Then, you give a signal, the ground crew opens the gate, and you ride.

At this rodeo, I drew a bronc that had a reputation for blowing up in the chute.  The tactic I was advised to use was to get a good grip on my rig, drop onto the horse, and give the ready signal.  I wasn't quite quick enough.  I got a good grip, and dropped onto the horse's back.  He sat down and tried to roll.  The ground crew knew they had to do something, or I'd be turned into sausage.  They opened the gate.  The bronc exploded up and out with me still attached.  It only took him a couple of strides to shake me loose. 

I don't remember this broncs' name.  Just his attitude. 

The judges decided that I didn't get a fair shake, and awarded me a re-ride.  The second time around, I told the ground crew to open the gate as soon as my butt touched the horses back.  The re-ride was anti-climactic.  I stayed on the eight seconds, but I was on my way off when the buzzer sounded. 


One of my duty stations in the Army was with the First Cavalry Division Horse Platoon, at Fort Hood, Texas, now, the First Cavalry Division Horse Detachment.
We performed close order drill and weapons demonstrations from the 1880's era cavalry manuals.  Our shows took us to rodeos, county fairs, and other celebrations all over Texas.  We even went to Washington D.C. for President Ronald Reagans' inaugural parade.  In the two years I spent there, I only had a couple of mishaps.  One of them probably could have been prevented by one more tack check prior to our show that day. 

We got through the the demonstration without a hitch.  That was about twenty or thirty minutes of precision drill, individual and team weapons drill, and rescue drills.  This show was in an open field, so we finished up with a cavalry charge.  I was carrying the guidon, so I was in the center.  I had the staff of the flag jammed into my right boot top, instead of the little flag cup attached to my stirrup.  We had just started when I noticed my saddle slipping to the right.  I tried to correct it by pushing down into my left stirrup.  Without realizing it, to keep my balance, I was also pushing down with my right hand.  The one holding the flagstaff jammed into my right boot top.  The more I tried to right the saddle, the more it slipped to the right.  Once I passed the balance point, down I went.  I had the presence of mind to pull the guidon out of my boot, and let go of it.  After tumbling around for a while, I got up, picked up the guidon, and ran after the troop. 

They finished the charge, and returned in a column of twos.  One of them had caught my horse.  I handed off the guidon, and hopped on bareback.  I still don't remember if they undid the girth, or if the saddle fell off.  Afterwards, our medic determined that I probably had a concussion, and took me to a doctor.  Lot's of "if onlys" in that story.  But, I can say I've had an experience unique in modern times.  I've been run over by a cavalry charge.

First Cavalry Division Horse Platoon circa 1981
The other spill happened at the big exercise ring, behind the Horse Platoon barn.  When we weren't on the road with our demonstrations, we were training back at Fort Hood.  Of course, we practiced our drill, but we also played a variety of horse mounted games.  This improved our horsemanship, our confidence between mount and rider, and in each other.  This particular day, we were having a type of relay race.  We had to start dismounted.  At the signal, one trooper from each team mounted, and raced to the end and back.  Then the next in line did the same.  We couldn't cross the start line until we were fully mounted, with feet in both stirrups.  I was riding Chuckles, my primary mount for most of the time I was there.  Chuckles, for some reason, never stood still to be saddled or mounted.  She was otherwise a superb mount.  We simply found ways to work around her peculiarity. 

When my turn came, I tried to get my toe into the stirrup rather than jump into the saddle.  Chuckles, being accustomed to rescue drills, would have blasted off, and I would not have been "fully mounted" when we crossed the start line.  With all the excitement, She was  more fidgety than normal.  No matter how I danced around, I couldn't get my foot into the stirrup.  So, to keep her off the start line, I crowded her into the fence corner and jumped up.  Keep in mind that this was more than thirty years ago.  In those days, I could leap directly onto the back of a fairly tall horse.  (These days I've grown fond of short horses.) 

I sprang up, expecting to settle into the saddle, find the stirrups, and go.  Instead, the saddle came up to meet me.  Chuckles was trying to jump the five foot tall fence from a standstill.  We went up, and up, and then, her front feet caught on the top rail.  Her head disappeared from my view, and the saddle shot me forward.  Everything seemed to switch to slow motion.  I arced ahead of the somersaulting horse, and planned my "tuck and roll".  I hit the ground rolling, but the horse was bigger than me.  She rolled faster.  As we tumbled along together, I saw grass and dirt, then sunshine, then grass and dirt, then her belly and hooves, then grass and dirt.  When I stopped rolling, Chuckles had rolled over me, regained her feet, and was high tailing it for the barn. 

Remarkably, I was untouched, but I lay there, working each joint in turn.  By the time the other troopers had gotten to me,  I had found that everything worked.  I got up, and we went to check on Chuckles.  She had escaped injury the same as me.  Later inspection showed that the antique saddle had come through unscathed as well. 

The rest of my military career kept me overseas most of the time.  That, and a tight family budget, limited my riding to the occasional vacation rental or weekend with friends horses.  I picked it back up after I retired.  Nothing so exciting as before.  I'm happy to say I've had no spills since Chuckles tumbled over the fence with me.  For several years now, I've worked green and problem horses for a local riding stable.  Most are already trained, and simply need "tuning up".   I have to admit, I still enjoy the thrill of anticipation when a new project is described as "nervous" or "spooky".  I guess I am a lot more careful than I used to be.  The ground seems to have gotten farther away, and I don't bounce as well as I used to.  I still believe that the safest place is on the horse's back.  But I've learned to heed "the best advice never followed" from the rodeo circuit.  When you lose your seat, BAIL OUT.  There is a technique that I've learned and used, called the emergency dismount.  The best description of it I've found is here: 

Boiled down to basics it's get out of the stirrups, drop the reins, hug the horses' neck, throw your legs over the horse's back, and push AWAY from the horse.  If you ride western style, you have a saddle horn to worry about.  But, the techniques I've seen designed for a western rider seem dependent on the saddle staying in place.

This one assumes that the rider is also an acrobat.

Whichever one appeals to you, learn it, and practice it before you need it.  Seems that I'm getting a bit preachy here, so one more thing, then I'll stop.  This is advice that I don't follow myself.  But, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it.  You probably should wear a helmet.  While I don't wear one myself, A friend of mine is alive today because she decided to start wearing one.  The second day in the helmet, she was tossed headfirst into a fencepost.  She is bruised, and has a concussion.  The helmet is broken in two places, but she is alive and healing. 

Another friend is fond of saying that "when a horse isn't actively trying to kill you, he's thinking of how to kill you."  I'm not quite so pessimistic, but I still recall a bible verse from my youth.  Psalms 33:17.   An horse is a vain thing for safety: neither shall he deliver any by his great strength.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Short Workout With Ginger (pt 4)

Weather, work, and family obligations have kept me away from the stable for over a week.  I did get to work Ginger briefly the other day.  She has been integrated into the field with the other mares.  She was keeping to herself on the wooded side when I went to fetch her.  So, that's an improvement in her living arrangements.  She was a little antsy when I mounted her, so I took her into the arena to work it off.  To my surprise, she stood still while, and after I mounted.  I dropped the reins, and gave her neck and withers a good patting and scratching, reinforcing it with an enthusiastic "good girl!"  Don't know what caused it to click, unless it's been the constant correcting her each time she tried to walk off before I was settled in the stirrups.  I also don't know if she'll remember it next time. 

She seemed nervous, and wanted to move out, but I kept her to a walk for the duration of the workout.  She crossed the various obstacles without any problem.  She got anxious whenever horses in the adjoining fields came to the fence to investigate.  I wanted her to know that, as a team, we outranked any of them.  I spoke sharply to them, and swung the ends of the reins at them, being careful not to hit Ginger.  All the while, keeping her in her position on the rail, and moving forward.  That seemed to calm her down.  The kicker came when one of the mares charged the fence with her ears pinned back.  I slapped a fence post (I couldn't reach the mare) with the reins, and shouted at her.  Ginger held her ground.  I had to laugh when Ginger wanted to turn back and do it again.  I kept her moving forward, but the mares didn't bother her anymore.  We cris-crossed the arena and negotiated the obstacles for about half an hour.  Then we finished up with mounting and dismounting, praising her profusely for standing still. 

You never know how each session will work out.  We'll see how much she retains next time out. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Upping the Ante (Ginger pt 3)

Friday, August 17th, 2012

It's been a little over a week since I've been able to get out to work with Ginger.  The other folks who are working with her have worked with her briefly in the arena.  All the obstacles in the arena are no problem to her now.  I found that her ground manners have regressed, so I've still got a battle coming on that.  The main issue with her is her performance under saddle, so that's what I'm concentrating on.  She has to be rideable by the clientele of this stable, or the boss won't keep her through the winter. 

Today, I raised the ante a bit.  I brought my quirt, and wore my spurs.  I wasn't sure what use the quirt would be, but I wanted to have as many tools as possible at my disposal.  My main tactic was going to be with the spurs.  Ginger has no problem with commands to move out, so the spurs are not needed in that way.  My thought was, that when she refuses and tries to spin away, I would bring my foot up with my heel to her shoulder.  That way, she would run herself into the rowel unless she moved in the proper direction. 

We rode out to the perimeter trail, and she immediately balked at turning off the driveway onto the trail.  I'm not as nimble as I used to be.  She was a quarter of the way around her left hand spin by the time I got my foot in position.  She spun around twice against the spur, then moved on out down the trail.  Not far down the trail, she balked again.  Once more, she spun twice against the spur.  We rode completely around the farm and she balked again as we approached the driveway.  This time, however, she only spun once before accepting the direction I wanted to go.  We worked for a bit over an hour.   She balked twice more, but spun only once against the spur each time.  We rode around the farm, changing directions frequently to approach the driveway from opposite directions.  Most times I could feel her preparing to dodge down the drive  But , that was corrected with a light touch on the reins.  A few times, she actually walked past the drive without a thought of changing directions.  To finish up, I stopped her at the head of the drive, and stood there for a minute.  Not long enough for her to get nervous, I wanted her to be successful.  Then we turned to the road, stood there and watched a couple of cars drive past.  I turned her back down the driveway, stopping at irregular intervals to reinforce that we don't just blast down the driveway going home. 

We'll be working some more this weekend.  I hope she remembers how to behave.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Temper Tantrum (Ginger pt 2)

Ginger and I worked a couple more times this past week.  Wednesday was our second time up.  She is a bit more attentive walking on a lead rope, and with mounting and dismounting now, but still not where she needs to be.  Took her outside the arena for the first time.  She did fairly well, but her first reaction to anything she doesn't like is to sit back and spin away.  She only did it twice.  First, at the spot where she got chased through the fence.  That could also be because that is where the barnyard opens up to the house and garage area.  She's familiar with it, but there are a couple of blind corners there that sometimes spook other new horses.  We rode the perimeter trail around the farm.  A good portion of it parallels the public road, with a fringe of trees between.  I was hoping a truck or motorcycle would come by so I could get a feel for what she might do when I take her onto the road.  I had no such luck, so we took a couple of laps around the farm at a nice calm walk.  Just for fun, we crossed the road at the top of the driveway.  She stood quietly on the other side while we watched a couple of cars buzz by.  We crossed back to head down the driveway to the farm, when she started spinning again.  This one was more of a refusal than a spook.  She wanted to head down the road instead of going home.  A group of trail riders had saddled up and left while we were getting ready.  I'm fairly certain that she knows this is the route they take whenever any horses leave the farm.  As much as she wanted to go with them, she is not yet ready for the real world.  I spun her around in both directions, and pushed her into a trot to get her going in the right direction. 

On Friday we worked on ground manners, mounting and dismounting for a good while.  Ginger still hasn't figured it out, but I can see she is trying.  It's very much like teaching an active kindergartner that she has to raise her hand, wait to be called on THEN speak.  Repetition, repetition, repetition, with unwavering consistency. 

From the barnyard, we moved out to the perimeter trail again.  The obstacles inside the arena no longer bother her.  We met a few things that gave her a small start.  The clacking of the pedals on a golf cart, a cat darting across the trail, and a cyclist on the road.  Nothing to do for unexpected things like that but to always stay calm and balanced, before, during, and after they happen.  The main event of the day was a reminder to me that you should never plan your day around a horse's behavior.  We made two loops around the farm at various gaits, then I decided to call it a day.  Fortunately, I had no other pressing commitments that afternoon. 

When going back to the barn, I habitually ride back and forth past the driveway entrance, sometimes four or five times.  This is to reinforce that we don't just duck down the driveway whenever we pass it.  On our first pass at the top of the drive, Ginger decided that she was going home NOW.  And she let me know it with her patented left hand spin.  I kept her spinning, and came out of it aimed in the direction I wanted to go.  Ginger countered by spinning back toward the driveway.  I spun her several times in both directions.  By the time we were done dancing, we were well inside the driveway entrance.  I had her facing out, and cued her to walk forward.  She threw it in reverse and backed down the driveway as fast and straight as she walks forward.  I turned her around, and backed her in the opposite direction.  She knew what was going on, and didn't go as fast as before, though she did stay straight.  Back at the top of the drive, I turned her completely around a couple of times, left and right, just for general purposes.  Then I pushed her back onto the perimeter trail.  She fought that briefly, but a light tap of the reins on my boot top convinced her that this round was over.  I pushed her several yards past the point where she relented, then turned around to try again. 

When we reached the driveway again, Ginger renewed the battle.  She wasn't nearly as enthusiastic this time.  It only took a couple of turns in both directions to convince her to move past the drive.  Instead of turning back, we continued all the way around.  About halfway around, Ginger figured out what was going on, and gave a halfhearted protest.  Several tight turns in both directions convinced her to continue on.  As we approached the driveway again, I began looking for a way to end this fight on a positive note.  I stopped her at the driveway without turning into it.  Instead, we turned to the road, and stopped at the edge.  We paused there a while, then I turned her around and we walked calmly back to the barn. 

If I had allowed Ginger to win this contest of wills, I, or someone else, would have had twice the problem next time around.  We'll see how much of this she remembers next time up.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rudeness (Ginger pt 1)

Ginger is the lowest ranking horse in the herd.  She is so timid that the others have hounded her through the fence.  She doesn't offer the least resistance to this treatment.  Fortunately, she stayed calm while we knocked the boards loose and untangled her.  She got out of what could have been a disaster with nothing more than a few scrapes.  I took her to the hitching rail to check her over, and noticed that she had absolutely no manners.  While being led, she wanders without regard to the human leading her.  she also walks faster than a human walks, and when corrected, swings around to face the person.  As I doctored her scrapes, I noticed that she would not stand still at the hitching rail.  Not trying to escape, but constantly moving, keeping an eye on everything around her.  I thought it might be because she had just been chased through a fence by her pasture mates.  I was told, and have since seen for myself, that this is her normal demeanor.  We separated her in a field with a horse who won't pick on her.  She is my next project. 

You never know how much credence to give to a new horse's back story.  I glean what I can from them, then deal with each horse as an individual.  As told to me, Ginger was professionally trained as a youngster.  She was ridden for a while.  Then, after spending a year or more in a pasture, was "tuned up" by a pro, and ridden for another short while.  This cycle seems to have been her life so far.  Long periods of languishing in a pasture, broken by short stints of professional training and light riding. 

She moves easily, with a smooth comfortable gait.  And, she works with a light bit, a short shanked snaffle that we call a "tom thumb".  We know some of her disadvantages.  Her poor manners, of course.  She is "light in the front end", meaning a tendency to rear when faced with uncertain situations.  She is also said to be "nervous" in traffic. 

There's an old saying I heard when I was a kid.  "The cure for most horse problems is wet saddle blankets."  Ginger's owner has three of us working with her.  Or job is to keep her saddle blankets good and sweaty.  In the process, we'll teach her some manners, get her to stay on the ground, and make her traffic safe. 

My first session with her began a few days later, I caught her up from the pasture and constantly worked the lead rope as we walked down the lane to the hitching rail.  She would move when I needed her to stand still, or wander when I needed her to walk by my shoulder.  I would shake the rope, tug it, or snap it.  Whatever the situation called for.  She wasn't completely sure what I wanted.  That will come with repetition. 

Halfway to the hitching rail, she spooked.  Another rider was free lunging her horse in the arena.  This involves some running around, kicking up heels, and changing directions.  Ginger didn't like it at all, and started dancing around, trying to get away from the scene.  Of course, I thought we should stand around and watch.  So we did.  After about a minute, she was standing still, but she still didn't like it.  We had more work to do, so we moved on. 

At the hitching rail, I gave her a good grooming and checked her for bruising and soreness from her encounter with the fence.  She seemed no worse for the experience, so I saddled her up.  The farm was bustling with activity.  Vehicles were moving, people were saddling up, and moving out for their afternoon rides.  Ginger was constantly moving, twisting, shifting, and in general, making it difficult for me to get the saddle square and tightened up.  The saddle wasn't her problem.  She wanted to keep an eye on all the activity around us.  I realized I had no effective way to correct her there.  Her head was tied to the hitching rail, and my hands were occupied with the saddle.  I wasn't going to ride her immediately, so I went with what I had, crooked saddle pad and all.  I put the bridle on her, and moved into the arena. 

Ginger continued her moving around, but now I had control of her head with the long reins.  She still didn't completely understand my signals, but it was obvious that she was thinking about them as I reset the saddle.  My next step was a technique called "sacking out".  It's an old cowboy method of getting a horse accustomed to things moving and flapping around it.  In the old days, an empty feed sack was used.  I tend to use an old saddle blanket.  I use this technique on young, or nervous horses.  My method is to first, fold the blanket up small and let the horse see and smell it.  Then, I rub it all over the horse as if I'm brushing it.  From there, I continue in the same manner, gradually opening up the blanket.  I open it a bit at a time, until the horse allows me to touch it anywhere, and flap it around myself and the horse.  If the horse gets nervous, or spooks, I back up to the last step, and work until the horse accepts it.  It was obvious that this was old hat to Ginger.  She stood calmly the whole time I was waving the blanket around, wrapping it around her legs, swinging it under her belly, and draping it over her head.  I tossed the blanket on the ground, and moved on to the next step. 

Sacking out is old hat to Ginger.

I stepped into the stirrup to mount, and Ginger continued to move around.  Nothing major, just little steps as I stepped into the saddle.  Then before I was settled in, she began walking off.  I used the verbal command "whoa" and pressure on the bit with the reins.  She still doesn't understand completely that I want her to stand perfectly still.  But, the firm "whoa" and equally firm rein pressure after I was up, was clear to her.  We did that drill several times, with similar results.  It will take more time and consistent repetition before it sinks in. 

We took a few turns around the arena, just to see what would happen.  We moved out at a walk.  I avoid letting a horse think that it should blast off at speed, as soon as a rider is seated.  There are a number of objects in this arena.  Barrels, poles, traffic cones and big PVC pipes are set up for various purposes.  We walked around by the rail without incident, then changed directions.  We had passed  the PVC pipes in the corner easily once.  Ginger didn't like them from the other direction.  There, I found out her favorite trick.  She sat back on her hocks, and spun out of there like a cowhorse.  Spinning to the left seems to be her preference.  I spun her completely around, and attempted to go past the pipes again.  She spun away again.  Since she wanted to spin, I just kept her going.  We'd spin around a few times, then head right back toward the pipes.  She eventually figured out that her spinning trick wasn't getting her out of the situation, and relented.  We took a couple more turns around the pipes and went back to the hitching rail. 

After untacking and a good brushing down, I led her back to her pasture.  I still needed to work with the lead rope to teach her that she's expected to walk quietly by my shoulder.  But, she still had another surprise for me.  When I opened the gate to let her into her pasture, she charged through it with no regard that I was standing there.  With a horse that I'm unsure of, I hold the lead rope sort of upside down.  the rope runs from the horse's head through the bottom of my fist, and out the top.  I cock my elbow toward the horse, giving me something of a bumper in case half a ton of beastie comes charging towards me.  With my elbow stuck out like that, Ginger, more or less, bumped me out of her way.  But, I still had the lead rope.  I gave it a jerk,  and she turned to face me.  I swung the free end of it in a figure eight around her head, and let her know in no uncertain terms that I didn't like what she had just done.  The whole thing only took a few seconds.  I gave her a firm "whoa", and began scratching her neck and ears.  She settled down immediately.  Then we tried going in and out of the gate again.  With constant motion on the lead rope to keep her attention on me, we calmly passed in and out of the gate a couple of times before I gave her some more scratching and turned her loose.  There's a lot more work to do.  We'll see how things develop.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Still Life (Hawk pt 5)

When you mention training horses to most folks, they seem to picture some type of wild rodeo scene.  The truth of it is more mundane.  There's lots of repetition of simple tasks and concepts.  A couple of years ago, I took a saddle that needed some repair to an old fellow who lives near me.  He is from the mountains of Tennessee.  I knew I'd like him when I drove onto his place.  He had no fence separating his yard from his pasture.  We struck a deal on the saddle, then stood around talking horses.  His basic philosophy on horse training is "Do it 'til it don't matter".  Standing still while being mounted, for example. 

This past week, I concentrated on that one thing with Hawk.  My game plan was to work with him in the arena until he got it right once, then stop and put him away.  That way, he'd only have one thing to think about until I worked him again.  Of course, his owner is riding him frequently also.  She is having much better success by being firm and assertive with him.  On Monday, after I fetched him up, I stopped partway to the hitching rail to talk with the owner of the farm.  I leaned on the fence and got comfortable, and we talked for about 5 minutes.  When I first met Hawk, he had no respect for a person on the ground.  If a person was between him and whatever he wanted to do, he would simply walk over them.  After a month or so of work, he's gotten out of that habit.  But, he still hasn't grasped the concept that "whoa" means stop right here, right now, and don't move an inch until I say so.  I gave Hawk the command, then leaned on the fence.  When he got bored and took a step, I repeated the command.  If he continued, I gave the lead rope a quick tug.  When he tried to move off, I would place him back where he was and repeat "whoa".  If needed, I'd add a tug on the lead rope.  Occasionally, I'd have to snap the lead rope sharply to make my point. That point being, that no matter what the human is doing, he is expected to stand quietly. 

I tacked him up, and took him into the arena.  Things went, more or less, as normal with him.  He moved around some, when I first mounted.  Then I did the "up and down" drill.  The second time I mounted him, he stood perfectly still.  I gave him a lot of praise and neck scratching.  Then, I put him away. 

A couple days later, I worked with him again.  Several people had gone for an evening trail ride, so the farm was quiet, without a lot of distractions.  This time, I tacked him up and took him to the center of the arena.  Instead of mounting, I gave the command, "whoa", stepped in front of him and held the reins up where he could see them, and dropped them on the ground.  I use a pair of really long split reins, so there was quite a bit of rein on the ground.  The idea there, is that, if he moved, he would eventually step on a rein, and correct himself.  I stepped away, and began playing with some pebbles on the ground.  He stood perfectly still.  I moved farther away, and moved some poles around.  Hawk didn't move.  I walked up to him, and fiddled with the saddle, then moved away.  Still, no movement from him.  I walked farther away, and leaned on the fence.  Nothing.  I went back and put the off side rein over his neck, and moved away again.  This time, I went all the way to the end, and moved some barrels around.  Still there.  I worked my way back to him and draped the on side rein over his neck, then moved away again.  We played this game for about 10 minutes or more.  Then, I stepped up to him to mount.  The reins were draped loosely over his neck, with absolutely no contact on his mouth.    I took a chance, and grabbed a handful of mane without taking up the reins, then stepped into the stirrup.  Hawk stood perfectly still!  I was all over his neck and withers, scratching, patting, and telling him what a good fellow he was.  Then I dismounted, and put him away.

On Friday, I went back, thinking to try the same thing with the addition of a mounting block.  It was Friday, the weather was perfect, and about 10 people were saddling up for a ride, including Hawks owner.  I saddled up a promising 3 year old to tag along and see how Hawk behaved for his owner.  I wanted to cheer and do cartwheels when Hawk stood perfectly still while she climbed up without a mounting block!  We had an enjoyable ride, with a little coaching on rein handling, and collection.  We're really happy with all the progress, but plan to keep working at it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Continuing Education of Hawk (pt 4)

Had a few more sessions with Hawk and his owner.  Hawk simply needs regular workouts that engage his mind, and force him to pay attention to the person on the ground.  Once I'm in the saddle, or, for that matter, have one foot in the stirrup, he does fine.  He stops all his evasive tactics as soon as my foot is in the stirrup.  So, when I'm most vulnerable, with one foot up and one down, he is as still and safe as a horse gets.  My major problem with him is getting him to stand still before that point.  He is a fairly tall horse, roughly 16 hands high.  I am a smallish fellow, and with age, not as nimble as I once was. 

His first tactic with me was to move his shoulder into me.  I countered that by keeping light contact on the off side rein.  That worked for the first couple of sessions.  After the first little contest, we would have no problems mounting and dismounting for the rest of the day.  During later sessions, he changed tactics.  When he realized that I could physically prevent him from crowding me, he started moving away from me.  There's no way I can prevent that with signals from the reins.  He simply needs to stand stock still on the command of "whoa".  I think he knew it once before, as evidenced by his standing still once I get my foot in the stirrup.  But, after years of getting away with fidgeting and moving around, he's "forgotten" it.  To "remember" it again, he needs to be put into a situation where he can get it right, and be rewarded for it. 

To counter his moving away, I placed him against the fence.  Hawk countered by moving forward.  I put him in the corner of the fence.  He moved backwards.  I backed him into the corner.  He moved forward, and added swinging his rump toward me.  At last, I got him still long enough to get a foot in the stirrup.  We took a couple turns around the arena to wind down from all that. 

Back in the center of the arena, I dismounted and remounted several times without taking my foot out of the on side stirrup.  Of course, he stood still, and I praised him for it with much scratching of his withers and neck.  Next, I dismounted completely.  Hawk started moving again, once I tried to remount.  Normally, after I've mounted once, he stands still for the rest of the day.  This time, I think he was too worked up from the first go round.  He was however, less fidgety, and I was able to take advantage of a slight pause and get mounted.  I praised him a bit for that.  We did the "up and down" drill again.  Again, he stood perfectly still for it.  More praise and neck scratching, then a couple more laps around the arena.  We did the "up and down" , then a full dismount and remount with similar results. We finished up with a couple circuits around the farm. 

Now, I'm still spry enough to dance around with Hawk.  His owner is not.  She is shorter than me, and not particularly athletic.  Mounting her tall horse from the ground requires all her effort.  There's no way she can manage to climb up, and,at the same time, work the reins to keep the horse lined up.  She'll either lose her balance and fall, or jerk the horse's mouth unintentionally, causing even more problems.  Her usual method is to have someone hold the horse, while she uses a mounting block. 

My first goal is to get rid of the horse holder.  I want Hawk to stand perfectly still, on a loose rein, while she uses a mounting block.  My second, and more difficult, goal, is for her to be able to mount without the holder or the block.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hawk, Round Two (pt 3)

For the second time out with Hawk, I took the same trail.  This time, I put him through several gait changes.  I didn't want him to think that whenever I was on board, we would simply go as fast as he could.  Again, I was pleasantly surprised at how responsive he was.  He changed gaits readily on command, but needed about the same amount of correction as before. 

At our first meeting, Hawk only wanted to go fast.  Now that we're better acquainted, he is much more calm.  He walks quietly on a loose rein.  This did highlight another problem his owner had mentioned.  Given his head, he sometimes strays off the trail, as if he's heading off into the woods.  Don't know yet if he's not sure he's supposed to simply follow the open trail, or if he's trying to take control from the rider.  I suspect the latter.  At the creek crossing, he attempted to turn back.  I pushed him through, then crossed and recrossed several times to make my point  After the fourth time, he more or less grudgingly plodded across without much pushing.  At the top of the loop, He knew that one fork went back to the barn.  I turned him as if we were going back around the loop.  He protested by trying to turn back and by wandering off the trail.  I cued him into an amble until he appeared to accept the new direction.  Then, I turned him back.  At the top of the loop again, I turned as if we were going back around in the opposite direction.  Once more, he protested in the same way.  I pushed him until he accepted my decision.  I repeated this exercise several more times.  Each time required less distance before he relented.  I think we're going to play that game often.  On the way home, he wanted to pick up the pace, but it was easy to keep him at a walk on a loose rein.

I got more encouragement from him the other day.  I was fetching up another horse from the same field.  Hawk came up to me on his own, and stood there for me.  This is the first time he's done that.  I've always had to chase him down before. 

This is a sign of improving trust.  His reward was not having to work that day.  We'll see if he continues.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hawk (pt 2)

I had Hawk under saddle a couple of times last week. Probably, more importantly, I had the chance to speak with his owner for a short while.  I told her of my assessment, and suggested she be a little more assertive in her handling of him.  She seems to be following that advice, and the horse seems to be working better for her. 

I had been told that the horse wasn't holding his gait.  That is, he would break out of the smooth, fast, and comfortable walking horse rack, into a bouncy trot.  For my first time on the trail with him, I wanted to push him into holding that gait.  Tacking up went better than before.  He didn't pretend to shy from the saddle and pad this time.  As I cinched up the girth, he arched his neck and flattened his ears at me.  I continued the task, and spoke firmly to him.  He sighed and relaxed his aggressive attitude.  He also stood quietly while I mounted.  A big improvement. 

I got another pleasant surprise when we got onto the paved road leading to the trail.  Right on command, Hawk moved easily and naturally into a smooth 4 beat amble.  For a walking horse, this is the next speed up from a flat walk.  He held this for the full quarter mile to the trail head, only breaking stride a couple of times.  That was easily corrected with a light tap on one rein.  This tapping on one rein, or nudging with one heel, is the cue used to train some walking horses to hold their gait.  Once on the trail, I pushed him into a rack.  This is the walking horses' specialty.  Done well, it is so smooth and fast, that other types of horses often have to canter to keep up.  Hawk made this transition easily as well. 

My plan was to to push him hard for one loop on the short trail around the pond.  He is a strong, well conditioned animal, and can handle that easily.  He moved well.  But, he frequently had to be reminded to hold his gait.  Usually, he corrected himself when I tapped on the rein.  However, a few times, I had to break him down to a walk, or a stop, and start again.  He is still headstrong. At each intersection, Hawk tried to choose the route.  He knows these trails, and seemed to prefer the one that would take us back to the barn the quickest.  I had to muscle him around to the one I wanted to take.  Other than that, he is very responsive to rider cues.  I think he simply needs a leader.  In the absence of one, he will take charge.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cherokee has graduated! (Hawk pt 1)

Friday, May 4th, 2012

I didn't get out to the farm last weekend, so Cherokee has had a few days rest.  Or so I thought.  I went there today thinking to let him work on his ditch crossing for a bit.  As I was pulling in, I met the owner at the head of an outbound convoy of horse trailers.  We stopped to exchange a few words before he pulled out.  He said "If you're looking for that little mountain horse, we've got him in the trailer."  We've been riding him, and he is awesome!"  Then they headed out for a three day ride in the Carolina mountains.  So, now my once naive little pupil is out in the big wide world, earning his own keep.

Before he left, the boss pointed out a big, brown, pinto walking horse.  He said "That one has been giving his rider some trouble.  Get him out, and see what you think."  Hawk is tall, muscular, and alert.  I'd never ridden him, and didn't know his personality.  He has performed well, but now he is not holding his gait.  I gave him a good brushing down, and began to saddle up.  He shied away from the saddle pad, which surprised me a bit.  I got the feeling that it was an act.  The riders at this barn are mostly beginners, with a few intermediate level folks, and a couple or three experienced riders.  The horses are chosen carefully to match that.  I knew Hawk to be a veteran trail horse, with no major behavior issues.  I spoke to him firmly, and continued the chore.  He settled down, but nipped at me as I tightened up the girth.  I don't tolerate any behavior that can hurt a  human, especially on the ground.  I spoke sharply, and thumped his nose with my finger.  He didn't need any more than that.  With the saddle screwed down tight, we went into the arena to do some work.  He continued trying to buffalo me as I mounted.  Nothing aggressive, he just tried to crowd me while I tried to get my left foot into the stirrup.  I kept the off side rein tight to keep him straight, while I repeated the command, whoa.  Once I was in the stirrup, and committed, he stopped his antics. 

Hawk is not a mean horse, he was testing me.  After I was in the saddle, he waited for me to get settled and give him the command to move out.  When we started working, I quickly realized his problem.  He was anxious to move, and move out fast.  He wasn't concerned with holding the smooth, fast, and comfortable racking gait that walking horses are famous for.  He only wanted to go fast, at any gait whatsoever.  It was also difficult to get him to move in the direction I wanted.  Not that he didn't know what I wanted.  Now he was trying to bully me into letting him be in charge. 

One of the things I've noticed in recreational trail riders and horses is the tendency to simply go with the herd.  If someone up front decides to move out at a faster pace, all the horses in the group want to do the same.  Many, many riders seem content to let the horse make the decisions for them in this situation.  The result is often that an intelligent, and strong willed horse, like Hawk, decides he no longer needs to take direction from his rider.  I only worked him for about an hour.  Just long enough to make an assessment.  This seems more of a case for training the rider, rather than the horse.  Although, Hawk will need some work to get him to return to his natural walking horse gait.