Sunshine and Mr T – some parting thoughts

The title sounds more ominous than it is – I’m not saying goodbye to Mr T forever, I’m merely going to be away for over a month, during which time they will probably loll about in the pasture and enjoy the summertime. Sunshine might get a bit of work, but Mr T probably won’t get much.

I’m thinking about my horsemanship, my horses, and their training. Although I am married to a man who makes a living turning horses from broncs into bridle horses, he is very much about letting me learn how to train and make my own horse. He’ll let me go out and do my thing, and then when I have questions or issues, he’s on hand to give me some pointers.

For example, I rode Sunshine on Sunday night. She is getting over a muscle spasm in her neck, and she’s still a little bound up here and there. We could spin to the left pretty nicely, once I got her put together just right. To the right, she was cheating me by stepping around with her hip as well as her shoulders, so she was spinning without pivoting on a back foot. I was frustrated and perplexed. My beloved watched us once, then showed me a drill that I could do, using his own exquisitely capable horse. Then he watched us try the drill. Like magic, Sunshine finally found her pivot, and I was happy to call it a day with her then and there.

Well, there’s more to this training lark than drills in the arena. When I think back to when Mr T arrived, and his transformation into the horse he is now, I realise I have put in more training than I think. Every time I go out to the pasture to catch him for whatever reason, I’m training him – teaching him that I can come into his space, that he can put his head down for the halter, that he needs to be mindful of my personal space. Whenever I groom him, I’m training him – reminding him how to pick up and hold his feet, how to tolerate me in his space, how to endure the horrors of fly spray and baths (he doesn’t really mind, he’s just grumpy sometimes). Whenever I leave him standing tied somewhere, I am training him – to be self-soothing and calm, to be patient, to be respectful of pressure, and learning that squealing and pawing and banging around doesn’t result in attention. I’m teaching him to be away from his friends and that he survives the ordeal.

The amount of groundwork that I put in with him wasn’t extraordinary. He is a well-broke horse, after all, and has had a rich and varied life under saddle already. All I needed to do was remind him that I was important to him, and that he needed to be attentive to me. I needed to show him that I could be around his body and touch him if I wanted to. Training in these particular things was a subtle art. It didn’t happen when I was actively “training” him. It was in the quieter moments, like opening and closing a gate with him, or going to get something with him in tow, or running up the hill with him to put him out and expecting him to trot with me when I ran, and to stop with me when I stopped. He was very good at this, by the way, and getting better all the time.

I’ve only ridden Mr T twice, so some might look at us and say I haven’t worked with him at all. How can you be training if you don’t ride? Here’s how: it doesn’t all happen in the arena.

This weekend I finally hopped up there and we got a feel for each other. Fun!

Very often, when I go to work with Sunshine, I notice little things that she does, and I am grateful and usually a little teary-eyed when I consider the work that Cowboy put in to her that makes her such a solid horse. The unseen training is what sets her apart. She will put her nose in to the halter or the bridle, and pick up the bit if we are working with one. She knows how to get through a gate without banging herself or me. She is mindful of my space, and attentive to me. If I pick up the reins or the lead rope, whether I am in the saddle or on the ground, she is ready and willing to see what I need from her. She reads me, trying to be in sync with my intentions. She is correct about 95% of the time. It’s her training that made her this way.

I hope to foster this same attentiveness in Mr T, and it is already beginning to come out in him. Where he used to hit the end of the lead rope as we went through a gate, because he wasn’t mindful of where I am, he is now softening and staying with me. He is happy to see me in the pasture, and comes over to me most of the time. He is pretty good at reading where I am going next and being ready to come with me. He is polite about being haltered. This stuff didn’t happen in the arena. This happened because I had things to do and I needed him to do them with me.

I’m thinking about how to move forwards with Mr T when I get home, and indeed with Sunshine. They need such different things from me. Mr T needs fitness boot camp, and to learn how to work with me in the bosal. I need a plan for him beyond that, but I don’t have the answer yet. Am I going to try to learn the Californios and vaquero tradition and turn him into a real bridle horse? Or am I going to turn him into the solid all-around horse who can take care of our friends, visitors and students? What do I do with him to take him down either of these paths? What’s next in his unseen training?

I have an idea of a few things already. He doesn’t like the sound of ropes in the air, or to have them swung around near him. The first time Cowboy and I went out and swung a few loops in the pasture, Mr T came over to see what was going on, and once he saw and heard the rope, he just noped right on out of there. I’ve worked on swinging things about near him. I often idly twirl the end of my mecate or lead line to amuse myself, and it’s important that he learns when it applies to him and when it doesn’t. To watch us, you wouldn’t think I was training him, but it’s happening. It doesn’t look any different to when I stand and twirl things around Sunshine, except that I know she doesn’t care. Her training in this regard has already happened.

The other thing we need to address eventually is water. I’ve heard Mr T learned to jump water rather than walk through it, and that’s not an attractive trait to me. I’ll need to find ways to work with him on this. Sunshine can also be a bit funny about it, but she is getting better.

Then there will be cows to sort in the winter time, when ranch sorting begins again. I have no idea how Mr T feels about cows. But the only way to find out and work with him on it is to show up and do a job with cows. It won’t look like training, but it’ll be happening.

Through this process, I am learning just how much work goes in to making a good horse. Saddling and riding is just a fraction of the work, and a fraction of what you need from a good horse. The rest is less obvious, and far more valuable. The rest is what you pay a good trainer for.

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