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.

Life fusion

It has been Sunday today. OK, it is still Sunday for another five hours, but by tea time on a Sunday, the day has essentially reached its peak and the only thing left to do is have a big cup of tea, some sort of supper (maybe soup based), and watch a detective drama for two hours.

Today the sun was out, which was a glorious respite after what seemed like a month of rain. It was really only about three or four days, but when Cowboy is working outside all of the time, it can get a little wearing when it is so wet. I was ready to just hibernate until Spring.

This morning, however, the sun turned all of the cherry tree branches a lovely gold colour, and it wasn’t cold at all. The gigantic lake in the round pen was just a large puddle, and the brown mush outside the barn had firmed up reasonably well. I also found this video of Sergei Polunin dancing, and it made me giddy with glee. All in all, it was a good start to the day.

I had a sudden brainwave while I was frying eggs for Cowboy’s breakfast. Perhaps the Six Nations rugby matches would be on Youtube. At the very least, the highlights would be on there somewhere. A quick searched revealed that some kind soul had posted the entire Wales vs England game on Youtube. I dithered, unsure whether it was wise to get stuck in to such a British thing at this hour.

“You putting the Rugby on?” Cowboy asked.

“No!” I said, gaily rushing back to the eggs. He had caught me in the act of Britain-lusting. “Just looking.”

“Oh. Well, you should.” He sat down to breakfast. “And if we’re going to watch the rugby, you’d just as well make me a cup of tea to go with it.”

That is how the day kicked off (pun completely and unashamedly intended). We watched the whole match, and I did my best to explain the rules to him. Some of them might have been made up, but I think he believed me. He even thought it was the sort of game that he could really get into if he watched some more and learned some more about it. With the entire Six Nations coming up, I’m sure that can be arranged.

After breakfast, our neighbour stopped in and asked for our help. One of his cows had calved, and he needed us to tag the ear of the newborn for him. Armed with our muck boots, we went over to his farm, where I duly took hold of the tagging pliers, crawled under a barbed wire fence, and watched Cowboy grab the little one firmly by her legs and show me the spot in her ear. One good squeeze on the pliers, and my first hands-on activity relating to cattle was complete. Maybe one day I’ll be a real country girl! Ha… Ha ha ha… My cat is more country savvy than I am.

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Sir Richard, the gate keeper.

After a quick lunch (a coronation chicken sandwich, because that’s one of those odd British things that I didn’t realise I would miss so much, followed by the last handful of Smarties (British ones)), I saddled my horse and we learned about rope. She knows about rope already. I had no idea what to do with it.

“So, you know when you’re branding…” Cowboy started, trying to explain. I could only stare at him. He put his hand on my knee apologetically. “You don’t know at all, do you?”

“Nope! City girl.”

My education was swift and practical. Rope and reins in one hand, the other working to control my dallies on the saddle horn (teehee, if I say the right words, it sounds like I know what I’m talking about), Sunshine and I dragged the round pen with a mini harrow contraption. For just a moment, I didn’t feel like a completely useless dressage rider.

Part of it, as Cowboy pointed out when we were done, was that we were both focused on the task at hand. Pull the thing. Rather than fuss with my reins or micromanage her, I had to look back at the thing I was pulling, and just move Sunshine where she needed to be to pull the thing. She didn’t need to be perfect. For her, she probably didn’t know exactly what I was asking most of the time, but she also knew that we were pulling a thing, and so long as we were still pulling the thing, she was probably doing the right thing.

I felt her self-confidence coming through, as she patiently ignored the horse in training who was freaking out on the other side of the panels because he thought we were pulling a thing that would eat him. He freaked out three times. She ignored him and stuck to her job three times. She chose pulling the thing where it needed to be pulled over avoiding the puddle (because she’s a bit funny about water). When we had been warming up, she had deftly stepped around the water every time I had taken her to it, and I had decided not to make an issue about it because we had another job to do. As soon as the job was underway, the water wasn’t an issue for her either. I was so proud.

It was good work for both of us, and a good ride. Perhaps I could be a country girl after all…

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Ha. Ha ha. I still have a box full of stilettos and I can’t find it in my heart to get rid of them just in case I have a need for a pair.

Supper was Cowboy’s go-to meal, of fried cabbage and pasta with sausage. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s delicious. I’ll post the recipe one of these days.

The day has been a good combination of my lives: British, dancer, cowboy’s girlfriend, (aspiring) horsewoman.

And yes, I’m aware my horse is smothered in mud here. She’s a hog. What can I say?

Teeny tiny victories

Life has felt vastly out of control for a few days. Since we came back from Montana, I haven’t yet managed to parcel up and squirrel away the mountain of clothing that spewed out of our cases – adding to the mountain that spewed out of the bags that arrived from my shipment from the UK. I also had a mountain of items stacked in the living rom, and the kitchen was something of a biohazard. It was rather shameful.

I also hit a January low, and was close to hiding in a bed-shaped hole for several days. The first of several small victories was getting out of the bed-shaped hole and cracking on with the days at a reasonable hour. Hurrah!

The next eeny weeny victory was going out on the trail with Cowboy and making it through the creek twice, including a moment where Sunshine bunny hopped over a log/puddle combination, without breaking down in tears (although we came close). This might sound absurd, but it is a gigantic accomplishment in my return-to-confidence journey.

Out on the trail today!

Itsy bitsy victory three was making my heartwarming broccoli cheese soup for supper last night and getting Cowboy’s seal of approval. I think this is the first meat free meal I’ve ever made him. I doubt I’ll get away with it on a regular basis, but we are getting closer to having similar dietary habits.

Today, my petite victory was hoovering most of the house and doing four loads of laundry. I’m also working towards using up a few of the things in the freezer, to make space for new things. I’m a terrible hoarder. If I had a bigger freezer, I’d feel far better prepared for the apocalypse.

Order is slowly but surely being restored. One incy wincy victory at a time.