Runtastic and the Horse Who Doesn’t Run

I tried running for a while. It was the barefoot running craze time, everybody lusted after a pair of Vibram Fivefingers – I tried those too and hated them. I even ran a few “Extreme Trail” races. I hated those too. Well, I hated the running part. I didn’t mind the mud and the camaraderie at all.

A friend of mine has been using Runtastic to track all of her rides on her three horses for the year. Facebook will pop up with her stats, which she simply labels with the name of whichever horse she was riding. Some days she rides more than one of them. I spend a few minutes staring at the time she has put in, wondering how on earth she manages it, and then I remember something important about her. Continue reading

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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.

Partners in rehab: Mr T and me.

Mr T is transforming. He arrived almost a month ago, and after Cowboy worked him once or twice, I pretty much took over the work with him. He has taught me a lot about my own skills in groundwork.

The first thing that has changed in him is his general appearance. When he arrived, his back bone was visible as well as palpable, his winter coat was still lodged in place, and his muscle mass was very atrophied. I weight taped him at under 900lbs, which is far beneath where a horse of his size and build should be. Here’s a reminder: Continue reading

Playing with ponies all weekend

I had a plan for the weekend, which involved getting all sorts of stuff done and being super productive – I was going to finish unpacking the remaining boxes from the move, and get everything put away, and clean all the things, and bake a loaf of bread (HAHAHA), do all the laundry, fold everything, put it away, get ahead on my school homework, eat nothing but salad and fruit and healthy proteins, give no fewer than four massages so I could get ahead on my practice hours, and I was going to do all of this while looking super glamorous and energetic.

In short, I did none of these things. I did a few other productive things, like mow the lawn (badly), and we threw a birthday party for a friend of ours which meant we could break out the tiny barbecue that Cowboy was given as a graduation present some years ago, and I made an apple crumble and some custard for pudding. I almost cried at how much like home it tasted.

We also sent one horse on to his new home, and welcomed one in to our home. Continue reading

The importance of groundwork: lessons learned from a western horseman

Before I met Cowboy, I was the typical English riding school rider. I had owned my own pony and had been through the rigours of Pony Club stable management classes, and I had a solid understanding of maintaining a contact and kicking. Eventually, as I got older and found different instructors, my riding style became more subtle and refined, and rather more sensitive, but the basic principles remained: keep a contact with the horse’s mouth, and enclose the horse with the legs.

There were a few things that I always assumed were just mysteries of the equestrian world. Starting a horse was a misty and obscure process best left to somebody else and I would never know what went into it. Leading a horse required extreme vigilance for my own safety, because the horse might spook or ignore me or barge about. That was just how a horse would behave. I should also give horses a wide berth when walking around the hindquarters, to avoid being kicked. I never thought to question these things.

Then I met Cowboy. I watched, as he goes about his work on the ground, how his horses attend to his every move. They give him their whole attention for as long as he asks for it. He would just pick up a lead rope, lift the very end of it, and the horse would move, respectfully and quietly, where directed by this subtle cue. This groundwork goes into the very start of the horse’s training. As I understand it, if he doesn’t have complete control of the horse’s feet and body from the ground, he doesn’t move on to the saddle.

It was like seeing a magician rehearsing his tricks. This is knowledge that I’ve never had access to before, and it is happening in front of me every day.

I follow Horse & Hound magazine on Facebook, which is probably the leading publication in Britain for the equestrian community. I am shocked by the number of stories of people being killed in situations involving horses on the ground. The latest story that I saw this morning was about a lady who was killed while moving horses from one field to another with the help of a friend. Her friend didn’t see what happened. Another story earlier this year was a lady killed whilst clipping her horse. There was another headline, that I couldn’t read without paying, about fatal head injuries being just as likely on the ground as in the saddle.

I remember describing the clipping accident story to Cowboy. He was mystified as to why such a thing would happen. He found it hard to fathom why a well-trained horse would not behave quietly and respectfully on the ground. Having spent time immersed in his horse world, and having learned some new skills of my own, I find it hard to fathom too.

The answer is coming to me, having spent time in both horse worlds now. There is little to no information in British riding schools about how to handle a horse from the ground. At several riding schools where I have taken lessons, I’ve found the horses to be well-behaved from the saddle, and pushy and rude from the ground. Horses didn’t lead well, either rushing ahead with no concern about me, or dragging behind me. Some were rude about food, rushing to grab a mouthful of grass from the verge; another responded to being touched on a particular spot on his back by pinning his ears and kicking out. Nobody had any advice or strategy in place to deal with this problem. The solution was to simply not touch that horse on that part of his back, or to pull the greedy horse’s head out of the grass – all horse fans know how futile that battle is… I’ve encountered plenty of horses in Britain, and hardly any preventative information about bad behaviour from horses on the ground. The horses weren’t being taught that their actions were not appropriate, so it just continued.

Some aggressive behaviour can be attributed to pain, so I can’t pretend to have an answer to every situation, but I have heard people laugh about how pushy their horse is on the ground. “Oh, he just loves to race out to the field, he usually runs me over!” Making an excuse for dangerous behaviour, and accepting it as part and parcel of horsemanship, is not the way to deal with it. One comment in response to the lady killed while moving horses between fields described injuries such as “a kick or a squashed foot” as “part and parcel” of being around horses. This kind of disregard from a horse for a person on the ground would not be acceptable in my barn now. There is no part and parcel where kicking or running somebody over is concerned.

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If Sunshine isn’t mindful of where I am when I am on the ground around her, whether she is distracted by another horse, or by food, or simply being a brat, she gets a firm reminder that her job is to pay attention to me. The first reminder is quiet and subtle, usually just a little shake of the lead rope, or I’ll just say “Hey.” If she ignores that too, the follow up is a bigger gesture, such as raising the lead rope in my hand, and if that doesn’t get through to her, she gets a swift smack with the end of it. We rarely get to the smack these days. She knows where my personal space is, and she knows she is not supposed to be in it unless she is invited.

She usually does a wonderful job of being polite. She stays out of my personal space. She stops when I stop. She comes with me when I go again. She will slow down when I slow down, never mind how quickly everybody else is walking off without her. She has to be with me. If I have to get past her, she will move out of my way, moving her shoulders or her hips. She will wait in the trailer while I fuss with the dividers until I tell her she can get out. She will stand still without me holding her while I faff about with reins and my phone. She knows when to move, and she knows when not to move.

Cowboy taught her these things, and we continue to reinforce these things, because they make her safe. She has one job in life: be the safest horse we own. She will be taking care of our children one day, minding beginners, and educating unruly young colts in how to be polite. I continue to be amazed at how respectful and careful she is when I am around her. After years of bolshy ponies in Britain, her attentiveness is constantly surprising, and wonderful.

I would love it if Britain woke up to the fact that many horses are badly behaved, and that training and education methods need to change if we want to enjoy our animals without the threat of being mown down on the way to the field, or being kicked while clipping. Teach our young horsemen and women how to build respect with their horses. Teach our horses that they are not the boss, however big and strong they are. Equestrians, please educate yourselves. Study up on different methods – there is more to riding than a grackle noseband and a martingale, just as there is more to natural horsemanship than Pat Parelli. Accidents like the ones I have seen in recent months do not need to be, and should not be the norm.

Please consult with a reputable trainer if you have a horse with issues on the ground. Youtube videos are great educational tools, but do not replace the knowledge and experience of a trainer who can assess your horse in person.

Friday Night Feeling

It’s Friday night! I’m on the sofa with the cat and Cowboy has gone out to play poker with the boys. Living the dream.

Earlier this week, I came down with a strange headache thing that meant I missed a day of school. This is very sad to me, because school is much more fun than it used to be when I was eleven.

I finally got our thank you notes for our wedding gifts in to the post and they are on their way to the lovely people who showered us with kindness several weeks ago.

Sir Richard found a new cubby hole today.Sir Richard is getting ridiculously big, and now when he sleeps on my chest in the mornings, it’s less adorable and more suffocating. I still can’t help being utterly besotted with him. I am powerless in the presence of his little face.

He continues to tear things up, climb on things he shouldn’t, and shove his paws under the bathroom door and cry every time I go for a wee.

Occasionally he pushes a toy mouse under the door and we play instead. We have that kind of relationship.

Today, Cowboy pestered me into riding Sunshine for the first time in over week. We’ve had a lot on our plate, and I hadn’t felt up to doing much in recent days. Sunshine has been out in the pasture with Beau, getting as much good grass as possible as the winter closes in.

Well, I brushed her off and saddled her today (ok, Cowboy threw the saddle for me… I’m puny…), and we went out to the round pen to see how we would do.

Bill Dorrance writes about feeling for the horse; true horsemanship comes through feel. I’ve been working hard to put aside my frustrations at my lacking horsemanship, and to leave behind my annoyance when I step into the barn. I’ve been focusing on putting out a good feeling whenever I am around Sunshine, and keeping in mind that she is my partner in this work.

We’ve worked on little things on the ground as I’ve brought her in and out from the pasture – she’s stopped being pushy and impatient and has begun to feel for me when I’m leading her. When I’m brushing her down, I try not to be brusque about it, but to feel for her response to the work and to give her the sense that I’m there to help. She has stopped dancing about while I’m grooming now. She watches me with one eye.

Today, the weather was cold and damp, and both of us were feeling a little stiff and sore. I made an effort to tack her up quietly and gently, and to invite her with me to the round pen. We both stretched out a little bit. We both heaved a sigh as if to say “Goodness, I am out of shape for this sort of thing.” That’s entirely true…

We stretched out, we moved, we got as loose as we could, and I thought all the time about how she felt. She felt stiff, tight, unfit, but willing enough. She did everything that I asked without a fight, but she couldn’t offer me the flexible, pretty thing. That was ok. I could feel her trying. I could feel her feeling for me.

I love it when a plan comes together. She and I are finally starting to get each other figured out.

“OK,” she said, dropping her head and trying to round, “I hear what you want. I’ll give it a shot. This is all I can manage today. Is that OK?”
It was more than OK. She and I have got ourselves into battles before. Finally we’re learning to talk to each other without yelling. We’re learning to meet in the middle.

It was possibly the best ride we’ve ever had together.

I’m going to go and throw hay at her now.

13 days in

I’ve been in the US for 13 days. I have finally got a US phone number, and waved a sad goodbye to the phone number that I have had since my very first phone, the trusty Nokia 5110 with the changeable covers…

I’ve cleaned all the things – most things more than once, and the dirt keeps coming. It doesn’t help that we have a juvenile feline who likes to shred anything he can get his adorable little paws on. We invested in a laser pointer in the last few days, just to keep him busy.

Cowboy and kitten ❤️Sometimes we can wear him out, just for a moment.

I’ve started to learn where everything lives in the supermarkets. I’ve learned that you can’t get anything for a good price without giving up your personal information and getting the store club card.

I have a pile of recycling in my kitchen and my shed because I haven’t yet deciphered the recycling system. It involves crates with very similar contents listed on them. How exactly do “scrap paper” and “newspaper” differ in any significant way? Why is there no crate for plastic? It is mystifying.

I have fed Cowboy some real food and he has repaid me with some manual labour, heavy lifting and getting up early to get the horses in while I snooze for another hour or two.

The horses have been a joyous challenge to me. Sunshine is teaching me about how to say “I mean it!” and our new addition, Beau, is teaching me about lightness. Sunshine has been so desensitised that you could do just about anything with her and she barely blinks, which is wonderful for keeping people safe, but it also means she needs a louder cue. Beau is so light and responsive to anything and everything that just thinking something seems to be enough for him.

His little quirk is that he has spent so much of his 4 years in the arena, he has no idea how to pick up his feet. So we spent some time teaching him the other night.

After a good ride on Sunshine this evening, I got to sit and watch the sunset, and look at Mount Baker, the moon, and these two figuring things out.It took him a few goes to catch on.

There is something magical about watching this little horse think something through for the first time. He tries so hard. He wants the right answer, and when he understands the question properly, he is ready for anything.

It was a beautiful evening, and it reminded me why I came here. Me, the cowboy, horses and the fresh air. I am so lucky.

Buckaroo Country Photography

For a while now, I have been following a page on Facebook called Buckaroo Country. It was owned and run by Mary Williams Hyde, and she showcased her stunning photography from around the Great Basin (and beyond) as she travelled to brandings, ranch rodeos, roping competitions, cattle gatherings, and more.

She has the most wonderful eye for the horse and the horseman. The buckaroo tradition is not to be confused with cowboying – and although I call him Cowboy, he’s more of a buckaroo. Cowboys are focused on cows. The buckaroo’s world and work is about his horse. Mary captures this life so well.

As I am just learning about this life and the traditions carried along by the fine horsemen and women, Mary’s Facebook page was a total delight.

Then one day, posts appeared that were clearly not posted by Mary. They appeared all day, at regular intervals, with sensationalist and attention-grabbing headlines. Mary’s page had been hacked and taken over. In just a few days, her following of over half a million people was destroyed.

Mary fought back, and set up another page. Her following is smaller, but devoted. She still shares her photographs with us, freely and generously. Take a moment to see her work, and support this wonderful artist.

Click here for Mary’s new and spam-free Facebook page. Be a good egg and press “like” while you’re there 😉

Click here for Mary’s website, where you can purchase prints, books, subscribe to her eMagazine, and support her journey.

On climbing back on.

“Get straight back on!” my instructor would shrill, marching over to wherever I was picking myself up out of the dirt. “Up you get! Get back on!”

That’s the first rule that I remember learning about horses, apart from never using a mane comb on the tail. If you come off, get straight back on.

It’s decent enough advice, and intended to stop setbacks from sticking long enough to become issues and obstacles. See that crappy thing that just happened? You can get over it and move on and still have a great time, and that crappy thing becomes a great big nothing.

It’s been a strange time in life lately, and I fell off this blog. I fell off normal life. I fell into being somebody else for a little while, and realised it was no fun. Worst of all, I climbed off my horse. I climbed off, voluntarily, intentionally. Even though I landed on my feet like a regular dismount, I might as well have thrown myself face first into the dirt. My demons cackled with glee.

See these crappy things that happened? They’re huge and terrible and your life is over and you’ll never be happy again. You are a great big nothing.

It spiralled. I watched myself behave in a way that I hated. I listened to myself say things to Cowboy that were unfathomably horrible. I felt myself sliding like a poisoned body into a murky swamp, completely apathetic to stop it from happening.

It wasn’t quite what I wanted, given that I was making plans for my whole future at the time, and a murky swamp wasn’t what I really had in mind.

Shut up, the demons said. What you want doesn’t matter. You’ll never get it. You’re going to fail at everything you ever do, you’ll lose everything you’ve ever had, and you’ll never have anything again.

And then I finally saw the sunshine. I saw this Sunshine:

We played today. :)

I sat in the saddle in tears, about to climb off again (throw myself metaphorically face first in the metaphorical dirt). I had a violent meltdown. I was on the verge of quitting – quitting everything. I’d just go back to bed and never get up again.

Cowboy gripped my knee as I went to dismount, holding me still. He was unusually forceful. He almost shook me.

“Stay on the horse,” he said. I fought him feebly for a moment. He said it again, slower, more urgently. “Stay. On. The horse.”

“I can’t,” I protested, sobbing. “I’m just not in the right mood.” I’ll never be in the right mood again. Everything is worthless and useless and my life is already over.

“She doesn’t care,” he said. “Go ride.” He let go of us, and chased Sunshine off into the middle of the arena.

I sat there as she walked about, looking for a spot where she might be allowed to stop. I didn’t even pick up the reins. I watched her look back at me first with one brown eye, and then the other. She listened to me as I tried to catch my breath between the tears. She heaved a big sigh, and stepped onwards across the sand.

I finally came out of the haze. I emerged, squinting, from the toxic fog where the demons muttered at me, and I noticed the way she moved beneath me. I noticed her gentle, deliberate footfalls, and her patient breath. When we finally stopped, I felt her big heart pumping.

We had a big breakthrough that day. I say “we” did. I mean me. She has life all figured out already. I needed to hear it from her. She turned her head a little, looked up at me on her back. I like to think she was saying “Hey, human, what’s the big deal? I’ve got this.”

She became a safe place. That’s an amusing notion, given that just a few weeks earlier I had been frightened to be on her back. Now, I will climb on her fresh from the field, and we put the world to rights.

Except now I am back in England, thousands of miles from her, and looking into the fog once more. In searching for another safe place, I’m climbing back on to the blog. Let’s ride.