Getting there is only half the fun…

We’ve been getting e-mails from Cal-Trans for months notifying us of the BIG CONSTRUCTION PROJECT that was to take place this summer. It would start with a bang with the road being closed every night from 7pm to 7am for two weeks. Poor David’s choices were: Add an extra hour to the morning commute, or stay with his parents in town for a couple of weeks. I figured it was annoying, but wasn’t going to affect me much at all. Then about two weeks before the clinic I realized there was no way I was going to make it to Fallon on time if I left Friday morning after they opened the road at 7—poo! So I called the motel and clinic organizer and added an extra night and made plans to drive out Thursday night instead of Friday morning. This meant more feed, more shavings, and more clothing to pack. It also meant I was going to have to zip home after work Thursday, load Dolly and take off which meant I had to have the horse trailer packed and ready to go Wednesday night. And all of this to deal with the road construction project from hell, intended to fix a problem that had already been fixed far more cheaply and effectively through the installation of a speed indicator at the corner in question. But if there’s one thing I know about government, it’s that you CAN’T STOP PROGRESS! Oh well…

It’s always interesting dealing with a new horse in a new situation like this. When I stopped to pick up the horse, I found out he is not a whole lot taller than Dolly, but larger in the bone and body. I had Dolly with me because I didn’t want to leave David worrying about dealing with my crazy neighbor’s crazy stallions, so I unloaded her and we loaded him in front because he’s bigger. At least we tried. He was perfectly willing to get into my trailer, but he wasn’t willing to stay in there. I think he was worried about the different configuration because he’s used to putting his head in the manger on a straight load (and hers is also taller than mine) and there is just a wall there in mine—he has to put his head into a corner. So we sort of cheated a little and got the job done by coordinating three people to get the door closed, hold his head and close the divider. While we played with it for a few minutes I noticed that he would move forward with his shoulder braced into me. Well, there’s the first thing we’ll have to work on. I was also hoping to have some time to play with him and the trailer after hours so he could stay in there comfortably before having to load him up and take him home.

Finally, we were on our way to Fallon. As I drove up the grade out of Yerington, I really wanted to gloat over having a truck that could actually take it at faster than 35, but I figured I’d save all gloating until after I got checked in to the motel. In the meantime, I kept a close eye on the trailer wheels back there! The best part about all that power was that I was able to get to the fairgrounds before dark and have a little light to find corrals and get the horses organized.

It was when I began bedding corrals that I discovered issue number 2. Surprise, my borrowed horse (Many thanks to Cindy!), immediately turned his back on me to fraternize with the horse at the other end of his corral. It wasn’t an aggressive move, but it was a “you don’t count” move. Well, I had a bale of shavings in my hand… so why not? So I tossed it at his butt and it kind of went “bomfph” and he kind of turned around and looked at me and said “what… is there somebody there?”

So I said hi and good boy and started working on the shavings again and he turned his back on me again. So I “bomfphed” him again with the bale of shavings. And he turned around and said “is it you again?” Well, we’re making progress anyway—I officially exist now.
The third time I started tearing open the bale, he began to turn to talk to his neighbor and I pointed at his butt and said “I wouldn’t.” You could see the cogs turning them. “Well, this neighbor horse is fascinating, but that person there just won’t leave me alone.” So he turned sideways so he could keep an eye on me and still be aware of the neighbor horse. Definite progress. We’ll keep working on this one.

Friday morning dawned clear and cold and I was out to feed about 6. Dolly needed her walk, so I took her out about 6:30. Well, you would have thought I had broken poor Surprise’s heart! He carried on and on while I walked her. There is a small warm-up circle right there, so I kept her close. Cindy warned me that Surprise can get wound up in new situations, and I didn’t want to upset him too much. This was an H1 clinic which is about riding, so we weren’t planning to start on the ground. We were supposed to be in the saddle and ready to go by 9, so after walking Dolly, I started to play with Surprise on the ground. And he tried to walk all over me… So we played a few games which mostly involved me blocking his head and defending my space! Then I “led” him to the trailer which mostly involved me blocking his head and defending my space. I felt like this spastic nut job flailing around and pushing and yanking. I thought “at least it’s early and not everybody is here yet!”

So next, we had to deal with the saddle issue. My endurance saddle looked like it might work, but I was a little worried about his withers being high. So I saddled him with my old dressage saddle. I haven’t ridden in that saddle for about 7 years, but it’s a good quality saddle and still in good shape, so I figured it would be okay. But when I say “saddled” you have to realize that it went more like this:

“Stand over there. Don’t move.”
Horse moves.
“Stand over there. No there. No right there! Don’t move.”
Horse barges into my space. More flailing arms.
“Stand over there. Don’t move.”
Horse barges… flail…
Repeat, repeat, repeat…

But the flailing level was getting less spastic and the horse movement was beginning to taper off, so we were making progress. I played with him on the ground some with the saddle on and it might as well have not been there. That was refreshing! I’m so used to my cold backed buckers. Course he still wanted to run me over, but I just kept on flailing and blocking… Next, I bridled him and took him to the arena. More playing on the ground. By now, there were so many people playing in there that I was hoping Surprise would feel more comfortable with all those buddies. Wrong. He preferred screaming for Dolly and randomly attempting to run over me whenever he got the chance. I kept his feet moving and finally decided he looked okay to get on.

So there I was… Standing in an arena full of horses… And I needed to get on… Um… So I got on from the ground. I haven’t done that in forever. One more thing to work on. The way I look getting on from the ground? The word wallow springs to mind. It would look much slicker to have a horse sidle up to the fence to me where I could slide gently and gracefully into the saddle. I train all my horses to do this. It may be the single greatest idea I’ve picked up from all of natural horsemanship.

So we rode around a bit and did a lot of one rein stops. Surprise showed a propensity to trot off on his own whenever he felt like it, but it wasn’t scary. He wasn’t leaping or getting crazy and I was able to shut him down without any problem. I worked on one rein stops every time he began to trot off followed by a release when he stood still. By the time Buck came into the arena, he was willing to stand quietly for me. Sort of.

And what about Buck you ask? Buck is the real deal. There’s not a movie Buck and a clinic Buck. What you saw in the movie is what you get in real life. I think that’s what Hollywood likes so much about him. Everything in Hollywood is plastic or injected and here’s this guy who has absolutely nothing fake about him and they see that as something really special or crazy. Course, those of us who know a few of the guys who make a living at cowboying know guys a lot like Buck. There’s a whole culture out there made up of men and women who are as real as it gets only those Hollywood types are too shortsighted to go out there and find it. But why shouldn’t someone real benefit from such a goofy, falsified bunch—and who better than Buck? After seeing him in action, I’d say he is as good a representative of the guys I know as anybody else. And as far as horsemanship goes, I’m not sure there is better representative—he’s that good. I’m just hoping I get the chance to ride with him sometime in the future without having to resort to some sort of gladiatorial contest just to get a spot in the clinic.

We had to stand around for awhile while he explained the first exercise and demonstrated a few things. Surprise seemed to be happy to stand and listen. Every once in awhile, he would shake his head or his whole body and he constantly fussed with the bit, but he pretty much stood so I wasn’t too worried about it. Later, I realized that when Surprise is fussing with the bit and shaking his head, this is not a good sign. It means his brain is moving while his feet are not. I think his brain must be a lot like mine with all these haphazard thoughts bouncing around like so many pinballs. I suspect that his thoughts are a lot simpler than mine and at that point were mostly centered around getting back to his new love, Dolly, as quickly as possible. When Buck finally finished his explanations and we started out to try the first exercise, he lasted about 60 seconds and then began to fall apart.

At first he was just kind of fizzy. But then the horse next to us got silly and he began to feed off of that and get fizzier. Since I didn’t know him, I didn’t know what to expect next and decided to bail and correct this on the ground. Now if this had been a Parelli clinic, I would have run him in a half circle into the fence about 100 times and driven him sideways and backwards a lot, but I was trying to be sort of “Parelli-free,” so I basically tried to imitate the groundwork Buck had demonstrated in his little intro and keep his feet moving until I felt he was ready to ride again. Then I wallowed back into the saddle and gave it my best shot.

The first exercise we worked on was the short serpentine. This sounds like a deceptively simple exercise that turns out to be nearly impossible. I could write about for the next seven pages and still not do it justice. Think of walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time. Now add in patting your head and rubbing your stomach while reciting the Declaration of Independence—backwards—and adding a hop every third step and we’re getting closer to the complexity inherent in doing the exercise correctly! Did I say correctly? The horse needs to maintain forward motion. The hind and front ends should be reaching evenly. The horse should be flexed correctly and deeply enough. Your changes in flexion should feel smooth, soft and be even in both directions. Your outside leg should be on the girth controlling the front end, while your inside leg should be behind the girth controlling the hind end. Your reins need to be short enough so that you can change directions without juggling them which means you will have to rotate your pelvis forward and lean a bit forward so that you aren’t pulling on the outside rein as you turn.

Honestly, if you want to try this at home, I would suggest that you audit a clinic to hear the full explanation and watch people working on it and listen to Buck’s comments on what people are doing. I had this exercise explained to me by someone who had actually done it at a clinic and had tried it on Dolly on my own and found out at the clinic that I was doing it almost entirely wrong.

Buck’s big statement was “All you have to do is about a million of these and you’ll get the hang of it.”

I’m guessing that Surprise and I did about 500 at the clinic and after four days, I really did feel like I was improving. The first thing I discovered is that Surprise’s forwardaholic tendencies were a blessing in that I didn’t need to keep asking for impulsion. Unfortunately, my dressage background reared its ugly head and made it much more difficult than it should be. I was taught the iron rule of outside leg behind the girth and inside leg on the girth. I don’t think either direction is inherently “right,” you just have to be consistent—AND I’M NOT! I kept getting mixed up and that outside leg seemed to drift back randomly and always managed to come to rest in the wrong place right when I needed it! About the time I’d get that behaving properly, I’d change directions and be confronted by the same exact insubordination from the other leg. And about that time I’d realize I was juggling my reins and not bent deeply enough and I hadn’t been thinking about whether or not the flexion was anywhere near correct and I’d swallowed my gum and forgotten the Declaration of Independence altogether!

On the other hand, Surprise turned out to be the perfect horse for me to learn this exercise on because of the dressage legs. You see, I wasn’t just taught to put them in a different place, I was taught that if your legs weren’t ON the horse and you weren’t USING your legs that you weren’t really riding the horse. I’ve worked on this a lot since beginning natural horsemanship, but under the stress and newness of the situation managed to completely revert. It turns out that Surprise doesn’t like it when you use a lot of leg. You know how some horses get pissy when you use too much leg? Well, he gets downright ANGRY—actually, enraged might be a more appropriate word. And the thing is, he’s not being a jerk, he’s being a horse—and if there’s one thing horses have taught me is that horses can only be 100% completely honest with you. So when he pinned his ears, reached around and tried to take a chunk out of my leg, sure I blocked him, but I also knew he was right. I was using way too much damned leg!

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one. Buck made some comment about us all trying to grind our heels right through our horse’s sides. Then he explained how to have an “active” leg without constantly using your heels. Holy cow! This is the first time anyone has ever explained this to me in a way that made sense! He showed us how he just fires the muscles in his thigh which sort of wiggles his foot without making any contact with the horse. It is similar to how you ask the horse to back up with just your legs in Parelli. It just never occurred to me to translate this to activating one leg to ask the horse to move away or forward or whatever depending on where you locate the leg. I always thought of phase one as putting my leg on the horse as lightly as possible, but this is a much more subtle and refined cue than that. And it finally gives me a constructive way to untrain my dressage legs because it gives me a way to use my legs while keeping them completely off the horse.

After the short serpentines, he had us do 20 one rein stops from the trot. Surprise and I were overachiever–we did around 30. He tended to shoot off gleefully at the trot every time and I was hoping he would relax a bit after the first 20 stops, but he never really saw the point in slowing it down. On the other hand, he was fine about stopping. He never argued and even if it took him a few turns to stop, I could always turn him loose at the end and he would stand and honor the stop. My biggest concern was keeping him from bashing into other horses at the trot because there were so many of us there and there were some who got a bit iffy with the added speed. In terms of herd dynamics, I suspect that Surprise is the first horse who goes crashing into the middle of the herd when the lions show up, so I’m pretty certain that avoiding collisions is not very high on his priority list.

Next we worked on hind quarter/fore quarter yields. We do a lot of these at level 3/4 in Parelli. Buck wanted more flexion in the yield than I am used to, but I think it prepares you better for the forequarter part of the yield. We were (of course) back to the whole walking and chewing gum thing here. He kept saying it is about synching up your timing with the legs. It should feel like hind-two-three-four front-two-three-four. For those of you not familiar with this, the hind quarter yield goes 180 degrees and the fore quarter yield is also 180 degrees so that you wind up walking back in the direction you started in. The trick as with so many of these things is to keep the correct parts of the body active so that you don’t just look like a merry-go-round horse spinning around a pole and you don’t just dump the horse on to the front end and you don’t look like you are pushing a wheel barrow around! And in my case, you also have to keep your leg off the horse and practice using an active leg like Buck described. Mine went more like hind-two-(hey keep those hindquarters moving)-bleagh-(that’s better)-ick front-ugh-(oops, get the outside leg right)-three-what?

I was able to get a nice feeling turn around once or twice where both ends felt light and soft, but was still hampered by trying to do too many things at once. I did better when I tried not to think about everything, but instead focused on the feel of the timing and cueing the leg as it left the ground, although in the entire weekend, I was never able to get a yield that felt like hind-two-three-four front-two-three-four as Buck described it. This was another exercise where Buck said “you just have to do about a million of these.” Okay, only 999,900 to go now…

That was pretty much what we worked on for the first day’s ride. Buck would have us come in to the middle and talk about refining things and demonstrate with his horse, then have us go out and practice more, then back in for more explanation. After the first day, he was able to do less explaining and more refining so we were able to spend more time practicing. He told us our “homework” was to take the horse out later and practice all of this stuff again. I actually had the best of intentions of doing this, but two things got in the way. My nice Stubben dressage saddle? You see, it has a tree… made of wood… and not well padded either! By the time I got out of the saddle, my lower back was on fire and we won’t even talk about my hindquarters. And then the wind came up… remember how my last show was cancelled because the jumps kept blowing over? Well, it was sort of like that and I wasn’t sure how Surprise would be in the wind so I played on the ground, but simply couldn’t force myself to climb back into the saddle that night.

Wow! I haven’t even finished the first day and this is already a novella. Kudos to anyone who has made it this far and stay tuned for the next installment.

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