Saturday, August 17, 2013

Adventures of a country boy in the big city

Things are still slow on the horse front.  Busy prepping for our upcoming trip to the Philippines!  I'm still making entries in my travel blog.  You're welcome to have a look there.  The latest is about a little hike I took to the Statue of Liberty. 

Take care,

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Slow Week

I didn't get to do much in the way of horse work this week.  When the weather was good, I was working, when I was off, it was raining.  So, for this weeks blog post, I have a reflective piece over on my travel blog .  Hop on over there and have a look if you like!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A String of Horses

I’ve been working with several horses lately. I’m always intrigued by the different personalities and abilities of each animal. But first, I have the news that Tex; the hard to catch Kentucky mountain horse has a new home. A lady came by the farm, looking for a new horse, and Tex caught her eye. She was fully aware that he was hard to catch, and that he might freak out if she touched his rump while mounting. But Tex’s smooth mountain horse gait, and rock solid trail horse performance won the day. She was riding on the road in front of the farm when a loud hot rod full of teenagers roared past, well over the speed limit. The lady got nervous, but Tex never broke his stride. Tex was her horse before they ever got back to the hitching rail.

Apache is a new horse in the line up. I believe he will stay a while. I gave him an evaluation ride, and found that he is a push button trail horse. He knows his job, and does it smoothly and seamlessly. Nexie is a 14-year-old standardbred, retired from harness racing. She has been off of the track for about 6 years now. Her previous owner took her in and cared for her, but never put a saddle on her. She said she did sit on her bareback a time or two. The boss put a saddle on her and longed her around a bit and Nexie seemed to take it all in stride. I worked with her the other day. The saddle didn’t bother her at all. I pulled on the stirrups to put some weight on them, to see how she would react. She stood calmly for it. I tried to step up, but found she wouldn’t stand still. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t being contrary or trying to avoid being mounted. I got the feeling that she’s just never been trained that she is supposed to stand still during this operation. I asked the boss to come over to hold her. I climbed halfway up and draped myself over the saddle. Nexie seemed puzzled, but not nervous, so I swung all the way over and got settled in. The boss let go, and when Nexie tried to walk off, I put some pressure on the reins, and gave the command “whoa”. After some hesitation, she complied. We stood there a moment, then I put some pressure on her sides, and we moved off at a walk. We maneuvered through some turns and I noticed that she readily turns left, but seemed to resist right turns. She didn’t seem jittery at all, so I took her to the rail and gave the command to speed up. Nexie flew around the arena with no hint that she’d never had a rider. Even though she was traveling rather fast, the arena was too small for her to open up to full speed. Later, I spoke with a friend who has years of experience with racing. She confirmed my suspicions that not standing to be mounted, and the reluctance to turn to the right are vestiges of Nexie’s racing career. Another one is a pinto walking horse named Rebel. He is nearly 5 years old, but has never been trained beyond wearing a saddle and tooling around a farm with kids. That experience has made him a gentle and willing horse. In the arena, I quickly found that he does not understand the cues for turns. I used several cues simultaneously to get him to understand what I wanted. If I wanted him to turn right for instance, I first touched his neck with the left rein, then gently pulled on the right rein. If he still didn’t get it, I touched his left shoulder with my foot. That usually did the trick. After about 30 or 40 minutes, Rebel was negotiating turns around barrels and poles set up in the arena. We weren’t setting any records for precision, but he was catching on to the cues.

Apache will move right into the rental / lease program at Beaver Hollow Farm .  Nexie and Rebel will get more saddle time to work out their minor issues. I’m just enjoying the challenge of figuring out how to work with each horse as it comes along.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A New Wrinkle (Tex part 4)

I worked a bit with Tex again. He is a Kentucky mountain horse who rides well, but is hard to catch. I’ve been working with him on that problem. You can read about our progresss here and here .

The situation had changed a bit this time. Tex had slipped into the main pasture with the other geldings while some other horses were being moved. There was only so much I could do to control his movements in this much larger field. We had to work largely on trust. It wasn’t such a problem getting to Tex. The problem was the other horses. Since Tex is the new guy in the herd, all the other horses were picking on him. It’s just something they do to establish a pecking order within the herd. Whenever I got Tex’s attention and started to move toward him, other horses would approach me, and Tex would back off. A few times, more aggressive horses would chase him away. Eventually, I got him separated from the bunch. When he tried to rejoin the group, I simply walked at an angle that he could see would intercept him. That turned him back. When other horses tried to approach, I chased them off with the lead rope. After doing that a few times, everyone understood that Tex and I had our own business to attend to.

Once we had some space to ourselves, we got to work. Tex had retreated to a small stand of trees by the fence. I approached him as I had in the previous sessions, sort of zigzagging my way towards him. I gave him plenty of space. When he got nervous and moved off, I just stayed between him and the other horses. He never made a break for the wide-open field. He just returned to the little stand of trees. We did that a couple of times before I could get close enough to touch him. When I did get beside him, I slowly raised my hands, keeping them close to my body. I allowed him to touch my shoulder and hands with his nose without attempting to catch him. I wanted him to see that he could do that without consequence. About that time, one of his companion horses from the other field approached from the other side of the fence. The other horse casually reached across the wire and started scratching Tex’s withers. Apparently, having two friends at once was a little more than Tex wanted to deal with. He walked off. I gently shooed the other horse away, then, circled around and got Tex back into position. This time, once he let me touch him, I gently clipped the lead rope to his halter and we walked to the hitching rail. While I was grooming him, the boss told me that he had found out some more of Tex’s background, and that they had accidentally found his “hot button”.

It seems that, sometime in his past, Tex has been beaten. I had suspected as much. Tex performs so well under saddle, yet he is tense and “jumpy” while you’re on the ground. That would explain why he flinched at my touch early on. I have gained a bit of his trust since we started. He doesn’t flinch, and it doesn’t take as long to catch him as before. Another rider had found his “hot button”. Fortunately she was in the arena at the time. Tex had been ridden, with nothing unusual happening. Then, this rider just happened to touch his rump with her right boot as she was mounting. In the bosses’ words, Tex “came unglued”. He didn’t say whether or not the rider was thrown. But, thankfully, she wasn’t hurt.

With that knowledge, changed my approach. I needed a way to convince Tex to stand still if someone drags their foot over his rump, or pokes him with a foot while mounting. I didn’t see the incident, so I don’t know how much pressure on his rump it takes to set him off. I started with a slight amount and began working my way up.

After he was tacked up, I took off my hat and began rubbing him with it. I started at his shoulder and worked up to his head. Then I worked back to his rump, being careful to stay out of range of a cow kick. Tex was tense, as usual, but he stood still on a loose rein. Next, I went over him with my hands. I rubbed him, scratched him, and gently poked him with my fingertips. Again, he stood still, but tense. He did flinch when I poked him in the hollow of his hip. That gave me an idea of where his sensitive spot might be. We went into the arena and I climbed on board, being careful not to touch his rump. I put him through his paces, and then we stopped in the center.

I did the same thing from the saddle with my hat and hands as I had done from the ground. I had to remind myself to keep a relaxed seat. I wanted to be ready if he “came unglued”, but I didn’t want to communicate to him that I was worried. I use a rather small, light, synthetic western style saddle. The big “cowboy easy chairs” keep me too far away from the horse’s back. The small saddle makes it easier for me to read the horse’s movements. The opposite is also true. The horse can read my intentions through the saddle.

This is the best pic I have of my little saddle.  (This is not Tex.  I don't have any good shots of him yet.)
 But Tex stood still with the reins draped loosely over the saddle horn. And he didn’t flinch when I poked near his hip this time. Next, I slowly went halfway through the motions of dismounting. As I did, I drug my leg across his rump. I was standing in the left stirrup, in a vulnerable position. My plan was to kick out of the stirrup and get away from him if he started bucking. He didn’t. He stood there on a loose rein. Then I reversed the procedure. I slowly drug my leg across his rump as I swung back into the saddle. When I was younger, I would have just done it without thinking it through. Now, I make sure I have an “exit strategy”. In this case, I would kick out of the stirrup and get away if he acted too badly before my leg was halfway across. More than halfway, I would try to get a seat and ride it out. If I couldn’t get a seat, I would use the emergency dismount. Having a plan helped me stay relaxed and not communicate any nervousness to the horse.

I repeated the drill two or three more times with the same result. Tex stood still on a loose rein. Next I tried bumping my right knee into the hollow of his hip as I mounted. Still, there was no reaction from him. During all of this, I was careful not to poke him with my foot. I’ll save that for the next session. I ended this one with lots of praise and neck scratching. We’ll see how things progress next time.

Friday, June 14, 2013


The derecho (dry land hurricane) knocked out our power yesterday.   I'll post the usual weekend update as soon as it comes back up.   There's more coming about Tex, the Kentucky mountain horse!   I'm using the portable I-gizmo at the library right now.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Slow Dance (Tex pt. 3)

I can’t help but think that it must be boring to watch some of these training sessions. But down in the dirt, even though there’s little physical action, the interaction between horse and human seems intense.

I just spent about an hour with Tex. He is a smooth riding, and trail wise Kentucky mountain horse who is rather hard to catch. I didn’t ride, and we didn’t go anywhere, just around and around in the corral. My idea was not to catch him, but to get him to trust me enough not to bolt away from me. Tex and a companion horse were in the turn out pen behind the barn. The gate to the adjoining corral was open, so they could have access to hay and water. I wanted Tex alone, so I pushed him into the corral. He knew something was up, and tried to get back into the turnout pen, but I closed the gate on him. We started just like before. I just slowly worked my way toward him, zigzagging back and forth, and not going directly toward him. I call it “sneaking up on them sideways”. I describe the reasoning behind this technique here .  Just like before, he bolted when I was close enough to touch him. Again, I swung the lead rope to make him move around the fence line. I pushed him for several laps around. I didn’t push hard, just enough to keep him moving. After a while, I swung the rope forward of him and got him to stop. Then, we started the process over again. At first he was snorting and shifting his feet. I got close to him again, and he bolted a second time. So I pushed him around the corral again. We went through this process about four times. Each time I could stand closer to him and for a bit longer. His snorts lessened and became a hard blow from his nostrils. I kept my hands to my sides, but after the second round he began reaching his nose toward me. We weren’t close enough to touch yet. He’d just put his nose out, then blow when he took it back. On the third round, he wasn’t blowing so hard when he reached out his nose. Eventually, he touched me on the shoulder with his nose. I continued working my way closer to him. Whenever I was close to him, I whistled softly and spoke in a low conversational tone. I also began bringing my hands up about chest high. I kept them close to my body, not reaching out. The movement made him nervous, and he took a few steps away. I turned my back on him and began walking away. Instead of making a run for it, Tex followed me. I went to the hayrack and held a handful out toward him. He tentatively took a few stalks from me and quickly got his head out of my reach. I tried working my way back to him, but he moved off again.

Round four took a long time. After pushing him around the corral, I began working my way towards him again. Tex had decided that he didn’t like me getting beside him. He maneuvered himself to where he could face me. Instead of stepping away from me sideways, like before, he stepped backwards. We danced back and forth like this for a while. I had been keeping his body parallel to the fence. This backwards movement just kept us moving along the fence line. I changed tactics. I backed up a couple of steps toward the center of the corral. Tex shifted to face me. He was now perpendicular to the fence. I worked toward him again, and step by step, he moved back until his rump was at the fence. I had made sure we were on a straight stretch of fence and not in a corner. I did not want him to feel hemmed in. I worked my way closer, this time staying in front of him to keep his rump to the fence. I don’t like standing directly in front of a horse. Tex had never offered to hurt me, but I was making him do something he didn’t want to. We stayed on the straight section of the fence so he had plenty of room to move away to either side if he wanted. I also had the lead rope I could swing at him if he panicked and charged at me. I stood at sort of an angle, not facing him directly, and sidled to within arms reach. I moved my hands about waist high and wiggled my fingers to attract his curiosity. Tex reached out with his nose and touched my shoulder again. His breathing was normal, no more snorting or hard blowing. I inched closer and held out my hand to him, palm down. He reached out his nose and touched it. I brought my hand back to my waist, and moved closer. I was so close that he couldn’t move his head without touching me or lifting it over my shoulder. He did that a couple of times. I was worried. If he got antsy and shook his head, he could give me a really big thump. I slowly raised my hands to chest level, keeping them close to my body. Tex reached out and touched my hand. He stayed there and let me stroke his nose with the back of my hand. I praised him softly, and slowly moved my hand to his neck. He let me scratch him under his mane. I stroked his neck down to his chest and moved my hand to his withers. I stayed there a good while, scratching his withers and speaking softly. Only a couple of days earlier, this horse was flinching at my touch, so I was pretty happy at this. Next, I moved my hand up his neck to his head. Before, if my hand got anywhere near his head or his halter, he took off. I scratched behind his ears, and around his face. I made sure I touched and moved his halter several times, but made no attempt to hold it. Tex, calmly stood there and took it all in.

I wanted to finish up with this success, so I turned around and started walking away. I was pleased that Tex followed along with me. Just for fun, I meandered around to see if he would stay with me. He did! We wandered over to the gate so I could open it back up. I was a bit worried that he would bolt through before I got it fully open, but he stayed with me as I swung it fully open and tied it in place. We walked into the turnout pen, and stopped. We stood there a while before he took a tentative step away. I stepped away from him, and he calmly walked back to his companion.

It was a long, slow dance, and likely not much to look at from the sidelines. But, it was a huge improvement from the last couple of sessions.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Hard to Get (Tex, the Kentucky mountain horse 2)

I took Tex for a spin in the Pocahontas State Park late Saturday afternoon. He proved to be a solid trail horse. We negotiated traffic, herds of deer, creeks, wooden bridges, and fallen trees without a single problem. He’s been at the farm for a week now, getting settled into his new digs. He has demonstrated that he is hard to catch. So, he’s still in the “new guys corral” and not in the big field with the rest of the geldings. Another rider had worked with him earlier in the week. As predicted, she had trouble catching him. She finally caught him using what the boss called “that Parelli thing, where you chase them around the ring.” When I went to fetch him up, I could get close to him, but when I reached for him, he would bolt. I decided to try “that Parelli thing” myself.

The method is not unique to the Parelli program, it is used by many practitioners of natural horsemanship. It takes advantage of a horses natural instincts and social behavior. This technique uses how a horse sees itself in the herd hierarchy of the animals and people around it. In its’ simplest terms, the horse or human that can make another horse move, outranks that horse. It combines that with what a horse perceives as aggressive, friendly, or passive actions and positioning.

I started by taking up a passive position near the horse, or in country boy terms, “acting like I wasn’t up to nothing”. I stood sort of sideways to him, facing in the opposite direction from him. I fiddled with a handful of hay. I hoped this made it look like I wasn’t interested in him. He’d already shown that he was curious, but was mistrustful of bribes. I fiddled with my hay and slowly zigzagged towards him. I was careful not to face him, but kept him in my peripheral vision. If he took a step away from me, I took a step away from him, but continued zigzagging toward him. I eventually got by his shoulder, close enough to touch him. I kept a “friendly position, standing beside him facing the opposite direction, the way two horses stand when they’re scratching each other’s withers. I knew that if I reached for him, he would bolt, so I waited for him to reach his nose toward me. When he did, I put my hand toward his halter, and he took off.

This is where the running around part comes in. The concept is, that the one who can make the other one move has a higher rank in the herd. When Tex bolted, he didn’t run away, he just moved well out of my reach. The important thing here is that HE made that decision. In other words, Tex was controlling the movement. To change that, I swung the lead rope toward him to move him away from me. It didn’t matter which direction, or what gait, he was moving because I wanted him to. When he wanted to stop, I swung the rope faster and moved toward him to keep him moving. I pushed him around the fence line like that for several laps. When I wanted him to stop, I swung the rope forward of him, picked up a handful of hay, and began zigzagging toward him again.

The second round went about the same as the first, so I pushed him around the corral again. The third time, he allowed me to take him by the halter. Tex is a joy to ride, but we’ll need to work on the first step in that process.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Rosie on the Trail and Tex, the Kentucky Mountain Horse

We took Rosie on the Amelia Springs trail ride. She did pretty well, for a youngster. I was very proud of her performance at mounting and dismounting. She did well in spite of all the excitement of a strange place, strange horses, and a big change in her routine. All weekend long, I mounted and dismounted from a block or the tailgate of my truck while Rosie stood quietly on a loose rein. She was obviously tired by the halfway point, so we took the short route back to camp from the lunch area. That way, she didn’t have to worry about keeping up with the rest of our group, and we walked a good bit of the way back.
Rosie and me at Amelia Springs
photo by
She was a bit nervous about being alone for a while, but she settled in as other riders overtook us. While all this was going on, the boss was in negotiations to buy another horse. We ended up bringing a Kentucky Mountain Horse named Tex home with us.

We had watched Tex perform on the trail and could see that he was an experienced and proven trail horse. I rode him for the first time the other day. Folks had told me he was hard to catch, and a little “jumpy”. I didn’t have to worry about catching him; the boss had left him in the stall for me, after feeding him. At the hitching rail, I could see what folks meant by “jumpy”. Tex was tense. He stood still, never offering to move or shy, but he flinched nearly every time I touched him with a brush or my hand. Tacking up was no problem. But, even though he accepted the bit, he kept his head high while I bridled him.

He was obedient, but stayed tense as I led him to the arena to mount up. We knew he was a good riding horse, we had seen him working on the trail. Still, his body language had me half expecting him to shoot to the moon when I mounted. But he stood still. He did move off before I got my right foot in the stirrup, but it was a simple thing to stop him and get situated. Once we started moving, I found Tex to be a dream to ride. He neck reins, he stops on command, he has a range of comfortable gaits. We’ll work with him some more and see what develops.

Tex, relaxed and all business under saddle.
photo by Debra Wood Ferguson

Monday, May 20, 2013

Keeping track of the horses

I've made a minor change in the blog.  Some folks have said they would like to be able to track the progress of the individual horses as they read.  So, I  added each horse's name and part 1, 2, or 3, as the case may be to each title.  It starts way down at the bottom of the sidebar on the left with "Dandy's First Ride".

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rosie part 3

The third time up on Rosie was a very successful session. I’m working to make sure she will stand to be mounted using a mounting block. We started just like the day before. I groomed her on a loose lead line, again using the mounting block. I kept her on a loose line while tacking up as well. She has done so well standing on a loose line that I took a chance when I went to get the block for mounting up. I hooked the reins over the saddle horn, leaving plenty of slack in them. I also draped the long lead line over the horn. I repeated the command of “whoa”, and walked over to get the block. Rosie stood perfectly still while I picked up the block and brought it to her side.

The other times I have ridden her, Rosie has moved around some before I got well settled into the saddle. In reviewing the previous sessions, I realized that I might have caused some of the movement myself. Rosie has only recently been introduced to the bit. I’m using a short-shanked “tom thumb” bit on her. I use a very light touch on the reins, and I can tell that her mouth is soft and responsive. When mounting, I’ve gathered the reins somewhat close so I could be prepared to stop her if she moved off. It’s entirely possible that there was an increase in tension on the reins, probably on the off side, as I mounted. Rosie could have interpreted that as a command from me, or simply shifted her position to relieve the pressure.

This time, I left the reins and lead rope on the saddle horn and grabbed a handful of mane for support. I’ve had success with this tactic before with a horse named Hawk. It worked with Rosie as well. She didn’t move at all. I mounted and dismounted from both sides a couple of times, then moved into the arena.

Rosie has the mounting block down pat.
Photo by Debra Wood Ferguson

I led Rosie and carried the mounting block with us. I left the gate open and moved to the center of the ring. There, I tossed the block out in front of us, letting it bounce around. Rosie wasn’t fazed. I hooked the reins and lead rope over the saddle horn again and gave the command “whoa”. I went back to the gate and closed it. Rose stood there where I left her. She did try to take a step toward me when I started back towards her. Another “whoa” stopped her. She stood there while I retrieved the mounting block and rolled it noisily toward her with my foot. Once again, I mounted and dismounted from both sides. This time, I bounced and rolled the mounting block under her belly when I changed sides. No problems from Rosie.

Rosie, patiently waiting
Photo by Debra Wood Ferguson
I figured that she had the mounting block aspect down pat, so we took a couple of turns around the arena to break the monotony. We stopped parallel to the board fence, and I dismounted and mounted using the fence a couple of times. Then we went around the arena and did it again in the opposite direction. I took her out to the barnyard and tried a few different things. We mounted and dismounted using the well cap, the fender of a horse trailer, the floor of a flatbed trailer, and the tailgate of my pickup truck. Rosie handled it all.

I can’t take full credit for all this success. Rosie had a good start with a gentle trainer. She trusts her rider implicitly. She still has more to learn. She doesn’t know backing yet, and has a lot of work to do on her turns. But the parking brake works pretty good.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Rosie part 2

It’s been rainy and sloppy here, but the other day, I got back to work with Rosie, the 3 year old walking horse. I’ve been tasked to teach her to mount using a mounting block. A mounting block is a platform used to mount an exceptionally tall horse, or to assist riders who have difficulty getting a foot up to the stirrup. Sometimes they are permanent platforms with safety ramps and rails. Usually, they are lightweight, portable steps. The one I’m using is the lightweight, portable variety.

Marlyn using a mounting block on a horse named Pepper
I started by grooming Rosie without tying her to the hitching rail. I simply gave the command “whoa” and held her with a lot of slack in a long lead rope. I worked my way around her with the brush. When she tried to move, I repeated the command and reinforced it with a tug on the lead rope. It didn’t take long before she stood quietly on a slack rope while I moved all around her. Once she had that mastered, I picked up the mounting block and casually moved around her with it. I let her sniff at it to satisfy her curiosity. Then, I set it on the ground beside her. I continued brushing her then stepped onto the block and brushed her back. I draped myself over her and brushed the opposite side. Then, I did the same on the other side. Rosie never moved.

I kept her on the loose lead to saddle up. Someone was using the arena, so we stayed in the open area by the hitching rail and horse trailers to mount up. Once again, without tying to the rail, I casually set the block beside her. I mounted and dismounted a few times. The first time I had ridden her, I noticed that she had the habit of trying to walk off once I was in the saddle, but before I was settled in. I had to gather up the reins and stop her while I got my right foot in the stirrup. She did this a couple of times with the mounting block. She even bumped it with her foot a time or two. But she stood still while I got on and didn’t spook when she bumped the block. That was good.

I moved the block around to the other side and mounted and dismounted on her right side. Many horses aren’t trained to do this. The unfamiliar position could cause a horse to shy or spook. You can’t carry a mounting block on the trail with you. A person who needs assistance mounting needs to be able to use whatever might be naturally available. This could be a tree stump, a rock, or a dirt bank. You may have no control over which direction you can face the horse to utilize it. I want Rosie to accept being mounted from either side.

We did the same up and down drill several times from both sides in a few different places in the barnyard. After a half hour or so, I could slide the block underneath her from one side to the other before mounting. We finished up with that success.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rosie Part 1

I’m mounted up again after a long winter hiatus from horse work. I haven’t been idle though. My wife, Marlyn and I spent part of the winter getting some things accomplished on our ranch property in the Philippines. If you’d like, you can read about that here on my other page, “Random Notes From the Road”.

My first project this season is a 3-year-old blue roan walking horse named Rosie. Most of my other projects have been older horses. Some are new arrivals at the farm that just need the kinks ridden out of them before they settle in to their new routine. Others have developed a bad habit or two and need to be reminded that they need to behave, even for novice riders. At only three years old, Rosie is a clean slate. She has had a good start. She’ll stand quietly for grooming, tacking up, and mounting. She’ll move out, stop, and change gaits, but needs work on her turns.

I worked her for a short time in the arena. With nearly all my project horses, but especially the youngsters, I start with sacking out. I still do it old style with an old saddle blanket. It only took a couple of minutes to see that Rosie had already been through this aspect of training. She stood calmly while I moved the blanket all around her legs, belly, and head. I did the same from the saddle with no problems. From there, we went on a short trail ride with a couple of other folks. Rosie did just fine crossing creeks and wooden bridges. She shied once at a herd of deer, but I made her stand and watch them bound off into the woods. The few times she has shied at anything, she’s settled right back down.

Rosie, on the trail.  That's us on the right.
 When we got back to the farm, the boss asked if I could train her to be mounted using a mounting block. He has a customer interested in Rosie, and that’s one of the specifications. So, in addition to the usual on the job training, a 3 year old gets, Rosie will spend a lot of time mounting and dismounting with a block in different places.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pack Train! (Cocoa pt 4)

Here is the 4th installment in the series of posts about my adventures with Cocoa, the  BLM mustang . 

The January following our first experience horse packing into our hunting camp , our small group of woodsmen once again met at the trail head in the Powhatan Wildlife Management Area.  As usual, we were outfitted in our 18th century gear.  This time we had two horses.  My horse, Cocoa, and my friend, Mark Jeffries' horse, Blue.  Cocoa, by this time, had a hunting trip and several public demonstrations behind her.  Blue had been on a few trail rides, but had never carried a pack load. Also on this trip, I was using an Appalachian style pack saddle on Cocoa.  This allowed me to organize the load much better than before, and to safely carry more weight.  Because of Blue's inexperience, we opted to pack him lightly, lashing a set of pack bags over his riding saddle. 

As before, some of our party forged ahead to hunt while others stayed with Mark and I to pack out the horses.  Cocoa carried two bales of canvas wrapped hay, each cut down to 3/4 size.  These were lashed with barrel hitches to each side of the pack saddle.  In addition, she carried the picket rope, and our kitchen box filled with food and cooking utensils.  The box was tied down with a figure 8 lashing.  I had been a bit concerned about overloading her, so I weighed all of it beforehand.  Together, it came to just under 100 pounds.  Blue was carrying all the soft things that we could stuff into the pack bags.  I had my blankets and extra clothes folded individually, so they could be distributed evenly on both sides of the horse.  The other mens' gear was in individual bedrolls.  The bedrolls, extra canvas, and more food and rope were also balanced out in the pack bags.  We set off down the trail, paying close attention to how Blue handled the new job.  We needn't have worried. Blue conducted himself like a trooper all weekend long.

Setting off with the pack string.  Blue in front, being led by Mike Payne.  Cocoa and me in the back.  Photo by Mark Jeffries

Figure 8 lashing holding a keg to an Appalachian style pack saddle.

Cocoa also put in a solid performance.  But, I didn't expect anything less.  We went straight to the campsite we had used the previous winter.  By the time we got there with the horses, the others had already begun the camp chores.  They had cleared the area where we would set up our shelter, and begun collecting firewood.  One of them had also taken a squirrel on the way in.  Most of the camp gear was on the horses.  Mark and I unloaded them and began setting up the picket line.  The other guys grabbed what they needed from the pile of stuff, and finished setting up camp. 

Crossing the stream about halfway to the campsite.  Photo by Mark Jeffries
  Once our camp was good and snug, most of the group fanned out to hunt and explore some more.  Mark and I tended to the horses.  We had set up an overhead picket line to secure them.  We tied Cocoa and Blue far enough apart that they couldn't bother one another or get tangled up.  Each horse had it's own pile of hay to munch on. 

Picket line.  You can see the broken saddle sitting too low on Cocoa's withers here.

While we were unloading, I found that one of the joints on the forks of the pack saddle had failed.  The original it was based on had been made from the forks of a tree.  The fellow who made mine didn't have tree forks available to him.  He had made the forks using glued half lap joints with a dowel helping to hold the two pieces together.  The glue had failed, but the dowel  had kept the fork from separating into two pieces.  No problem.  Cocoa had not been hurt, and we had gotten everything into camp alright.  The camp and horses were secure, and there was plenty of daylight left. 

I decided to carry the broken saddle back out to the trail head on foot. While most of our party were out hunting, I stripped the rigging off of it and hiked it out.  I used the walk to puzzle out how we would get all our stuff back from the campsite.  I decided on a variation of an old style, a Spanish aperejo.  An aperejo was a stiffened pad used to protect an animals back, and to lash cargo to.  They often had an internal wooden frame that gave them enough body to lash to.  The thick saddle pad I had made was not stiff enough for that, but would be enough to get our gear out of the woods. 

Back in camp, I rigged up the pad with the cinch just to make sure I could keep it secure.  Then I settled in to enjoy the rest of the weekend. 

The makeshift aperejo
 We passed the evening pleasantly.  We dined on a stew of squirrel, root vegetables, parched corn, and a few other chance ingredients we had brought along.  After supper, we took the horses to water.  Then we made sure they were secure, and had plenty of hay.  Afterwards, we settled in for conversation and didn't neglect passing the jug around.

We slept snug in our open faced shelter, feeding the fire by turns.  Our camp was tight, and we had a mountain of firewood to last through the night.   In the morning Mark and I took the horses to water, and refreshed their piles of hay.  We breakfasted on oatmeal, cooked with dried berries, and fried sausages. 

In Virginia, there's no hunting allowed on Sundays, so we broke camp and prepared to head out.  We had to carry our gear out without the pack saddle, so we put my plan into action.  We tacked up the horses, blue with his riding saddle and pack bag, and Cocoa with the makeshift aperejo.  I made two blanket rolls and loosely lashed them together side by side.  These were draped over Cocoa's back and formed a platform of sorts to help support the rest of the cargo.  Loose gear was bundled up into a pack cover. and lashed into the center of the blanket roll platform.  Blue had worked well on Saturday, so odds and ends that didn't fit onto the aperejo were added to his load.  We got everything loaded except for the wooden box that had held our cooking utensils.  With the experience I've gained since then, I think I could have loaded the box as well.  But we left it to be retrieved on foot after the horses were safely loaded out.  As before, the horses performed admirably.  We all arrived at the trail head and everyone claimed their gear from the loaded horses. 

I repaired the broken saddle shortly afterwards.  It was a simple fix.  I had a blacksmith from a local historical site bend a piece of iron, and punch a few holes in it.  This was fitted over the forks and held in place with clinched nails. 

The repaired Appalachian style pack saddle.
I have used the saddle frequently with no problems since then.  We haven't packed into a hunting camp lately.  We have done plenty of demonstrations . 

A couple of years after this trip, Cocoa developed the heaves.  She is retired now, living out her days as a pasture ornament on a farm in North Carolina.  The old gal taught me a lot, and we had a few good years together.  Given the chance, I would not hesitate to take in another BLM mustang.  I hope anyone else with the patience to work with their peculiarities does the same. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Christmas Vacation

Some folks have been after me to write about something other than horses.  So, I've revived one of the other pages in my blog.

This post is a "what I did on my vacation" type of essay.  Hope you enjoy it.

Hint:  It was Christmas in the Philippines, and there was a LOT of food involved.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Into The Woods (Cocoa pt 3)

Here's part 3 of my series on Cocoa the Mustang.  The other two articles are titled "Cocoa the Mustang" and "Living History with Cocoa".

Another activity I enjoyed with Cocoa was historical trekking.
This involves studying the people, events, and material culture of a specific place and time in history.  That knowledge and equipment are then taken into the field.  A small group of us had camped and hunted with our 18th century gear in the Powhatan Wildlife Management Area of Virginia on foot on several occasions.  I wanted to add another element, the packhorse.  Our group usually gathers for an 18th century squirrel hunt in January of each year.  The Virginia weather in January can be almost anything.  We've experienced warm, pleasant days with moderate evening temperatures, as well as snow, freezing rain, and single digit temperatures.  Being prepared for any weather while on foot often means carrying heavy loads of bedding and shelter in on our own backs.  With the horse along, we can bring in plenty of extra blankets and such.  The canvas used to protect the load doubles as shelter in camp. 

To prepare, I corresponded with some folks who had much more experience than me, W.D. Bennet and Lane Linenkohl.    Both posses a wealth of hands on knowledge.  Mr. Bennet suggested the book "Horses, Hitches, and Rocky Trails", by Joe Beck.  With my confidence bolstered, I worked up a practice load of camp gear.  I didn't yet have a pack saddle, so I made a pack bag to drape over my riding saddle.  I hitched Cocoa to a fence post and experimented with it until I had a, more or less, balanced load.  Then I practiced lashing it down and leading her around the field with it.  She took it all in good humor, so I figured we were ready.

Practice load of camp gear
 Our traditional date for our little trek is the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in January.  I arranged for a fellow with a horse trailer to drop Cocoa off at the trail head on Saturday, and pick her up Monday morning.  Our group of woodsmen gathered there on Saturday morning, and we prepared to disappear into the woods.  Going into the back country overnight is a bit different from a day jaunt into the same area.  Of course you take the food, shelter and emergency kit for the people involved.  The horses also need the same consideration.  In our case, we had only one horse.  The bulk of her load was horse fodder and equipment.  The rest consisted of my own personal gear, extra blankets, and the bedrolls of a couple of the other guys.  It took a while to get all this organized, balanced, and bundled.  Some of our party forged ahead to do some hunting.  A couple others stayed with Cocoa and me.  We agreed to meet at a pond about a mile or so in. 

Cocoa's load, once it was assembled was an ungainly looking affair.  The pack bag worked as before.  The added bedrolls and such looked a bit lumpy, but were balanced.  The big difference was the half bale of hay I had wrapped in canvas and lashed to the top of the riding saddle.  The english style saddle had no "cradle" for the bundle to rest in.  It was simply held in place with rope, gravity, and luck.  We managed to get it in to the rendezvous point without much trouble.

gathering at the rendezvous point
The campsites we have used in previous years are secluded, and well off the main trail.  Most have no clear pathway into them.  All are too thickly overgrown for a loaded packhorse to get into.  However, we did not want to stay in the open.  The weather was cold and windy, with a hard freeze predicted overnight.  We expected freezing rain to move in on Sunday.  The advance hunters had located a sheltered area clear enough for the horse to get into.  The site was more than adequate.  It was mixed hardwoods and pine with a thick canopy overhead.  There was a clear area to picket the horse, and a few yards away was room for our own needs. 

Our camp, just inside the treeline
 We spent the better part of the morning setting up a good tight camp.  Then, most fanned out to hunt.  I stayed in camp and tended to Cocoa.  She had done well, despite her ungainly load.  Here, on the trail, is where Cocoa excelled.  Her instincts, molded as a young, wild horse, came to the fore and served us both well.  She was calm and dutiful, yet alert and observant.  I knew that I should pay attention if she stopped on the trail and stared intently into the woods.  We have no large predators to worry about in our part of Virginia.  But we were on public land and there were possibly other hunters about.  Her instincts also showed on the picket line in camp.  Unlike many domestic horses, she didn't bury her head in her pile of hay.  Instead, she munched contentedly as she kept a watchful eye on our surroundings.  I took her to water at the creek morning and evening.  She never drank immediately.  Instead, she chose a spot, then gave the area a good 360 degree visual sweep.  She didn't move her feet, only her head and ears.  When she drank, she took a few good swallows, then raised her head for another look around.  She continued this way until she had drunk her fill.  There was nothing at all nervous in her demeanor.  Only the calm routine of being constantly aware of her surroundings.  That is a rather desirable trait for a horse carrying hunters gear into the back country. 

Cocoa on the picket line
 The campsite itself worked well.  The predicted freezing rain arrived Saturday evening.  Our canvas shelter became encrusted with ice.  We stayed warm and dry underneath it.  Sheltered by the trees and terrain, Cocoa had stayed warm and dry as well. 

Packing out was a simple matter.  We no longer had the hay to worry about.  But, we were already making plans for the next outing.  I had an Appalachian style pack saddle being made.  And Mark Jeffries, my companion on many of these excursions, and Cocoa's previous owner, had acquired another mount.....

Next time:  More horses and better equipment!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Back to Work From the Holidays


I've been traveling overseas for close to a month, and haven't put in any updates here.  My wife and I were in the Philippines for the holidays.  We also spent a good deal of time tending to some business on the ranch that will become our retirement home in a few years.
We had a well dug, and plotted out the locations for our house, barn, stock pens, garden, and pasture divisions.  Our plans are for a mixed use farm.  We'll have a kitchen garden, cattle, goats, and of course, horses.  I'll be writing about that adventure on another blog.  I'll keep folks posted when that site is up and running.

Now that we're back, I'll have another installment on my series about Cocoa the mustang posted shortly!