What would Buck say?

So I thought I’d go into a little more detail about some of the philosophies and details that Buck talks about in his clinic.  But before I go on, I’ll put in a plug for Eclectic Horseman Magazine.  (Discussion question:  Does eclectic really only have 3 c’s?  and why does that bother me so much?)  I heard about this magazine several years ago, but have been disappointed by too many magazines that were long on promise and short on delivery in the past, so I never really looked very closely.  But then I found out you could get back issues in .pdf format for $2.50 each and I bought a few.  If you are into “classical” horsemanship, this is a great read.  Articles cover everything from the Dorrance/Hunt teachings to the original Vaquero style of riding through classical dressage.  It contains excellent articles that are well written and in depth and truly embody the principals of natural horsemanship.  So far, I have downloaded about a dozen issues and what I read there really gave me some good background knowledge going into the clinic with Buck.

Flexion:  Buck talked about longitudinal (vertical, or front to back) flexion and lateral (side to side) flexion.  He stressed asking the horse to find correct flexion in both directions.  He asked us not to flex our horses to the side past 90 degrees as this will encourage them to twist their head to bring it all the way to the knee rather than keeping their ears level.  Level ears are one of the hallmarks of correct flexion.  By over flexing our horses laterally, we are actually creating a situation where the horse is too soft and may have a hard time finding the right place to be when executing lateral movements.  He did point out that in a one rein stop—especially if you are trying to save yourself—all bets are off.  You do what you have to, to survive.

To get correct vertical flexion, you begin by asking for the “soft feel.”  This is where you take soft hold of the reins and hold it until the horse softens and releases his jaw and head to you.  But vertical flexion isn’t correct unless the horse also elevates his neck.  (For more information on the proper biomechanics of this, Dr. Deb Bennett has written some good articles.)  If you keep asking the horse for the soft feel, but never ask for elevation of the neck, you will have the classic (wrong) horse that travels flexed behind the poll, not at the poll.  Buck showed how he will ask for elevation at the standstill by simply lifting the reins and waiting for the horse to follow that feel.  Eventually, you will put the two together to get a horse that carries itself correctly.

If the horse is flexing incorrectly, you don’t do anything to “correct” it.  Rather, you hold the flexion and wait and allow the horse to experiment and try to figure out what you want.  In the case of Surprise, he had a tendency to twist when flexing to the right.  I would watch his ears and as soon as I saw the left ear rise—even just a fraction of an inch—I would release.  In this way, the horse will gradually learn how to position his head correctly in flexion.  The same is true for the vertical flexion.  At first, you simply release as soon as you feel the horse releasing to you.  Once he figures out how to soften, you can ask him to hold the soft feel for a few seconds or a few strides if you are moving, then finally you can begin asking him to elevate in conjunction with this.  Surprise and I were particularly successful with this exercise.  I would get the soft feel, but wait until he elevated the poll even just a bit before releasing.  After practicing this for not too long, he was carrying himself in a much nicer position.

The rectangle:  This is a concept that Buck uses to visualize how your horse is carrying himself in relation to you, the rider.  In an ideal situation, the rider and horse would be traveling within a rectangle that is about 3 feet wide by 7 feet long.  Surprise’s rectangle was about 3 feet wide, but 50 feet long and all out in front.  That’s because he really wanted to shoot forward given the chance.  You can think of the rectangle as the “sweet spot” for both horse and rider.  Let’s say the horse wants to bow his body to the right and drift off that way.  He is drifting out of the rectangle, so you put a leg on him and put him back into the rectangle.  When he is in the rectangle you leave him alone, so eventually, he wants to stay in that rectangle because he knows he’ll get left alone there.  Buck wrote an article on the rectangle for Eclectic Horseman, but I’m not sure which issue it is in.

Timing:  If you went to a Buck clinic with a clipboard and a checklist and checked off every time he mentioned timing, I think you would find this to be the number one concept he talks about.

“You have to time it up with the legs.”
“Timing is important here…”
“Good timing is everything.”
“That was bad timing there” (this said to me by the way)

He said it in so many different ways and so many different places that if anybody walked away from that clinic not understanding how truly important a concept timing is, they need to head right to the ear doctor and get some hearing aids!

Timing permeates everything we do with our horses.  Good timing is imperative because it doesn’t interfere with your horse and makes him more willing to cooperate.  You need to time requests for the movement of the feet to the moment when each foot leaves the ground.  The horse can only change the flight path of the hoof if you influence it there.  The first time Buck asked us to change direction at the walk, he explained that it should be a tight half circle with the inside front hoof reaching and should feel like reach, reach, reach, reach and the horse should be headed in the new direction.  Of course, ours didn’t look like that at all.  We looked more like the wheel barrow races at the county fair!  So Buck brought us in and did the demo (you see a scene where he does this in the movie) where he ties a string to a human’s leg and shows how you can and can’t use the string to influence the leg.  When he pulled on it when her leg was on the ground, he didn’t change anything about how she moved; but, when he pulled on the string as the leg left the ground, he was able to move it about anywhere he wanted.

The other important component of this is the release.  He sent us back out to just practice timing up with the front leg and asking the horse to reach using our inside hand and outside leg.  It should feel almost as if we were picking the leg up and putting it down ourselves.  Each time we set the hoof down, though, we were to release because continuing to ask for the reach when the hoof is on the ground is pointless, only interferes with the horse, sometimes ticks him off, and never tells him that he did the right thing.  So the timing is really like reach-release, reach-release, reach-release…   I am pleased to note that we got this one down pretty quickly, probably because it involved fewer moving brain cells on my part!

Backing:  I add that here because this has so much to do with timing also.  You need to time up your reins with the movement of the feet and you need to build in the release with every step, so the feel goes step-release, step-release, etc…  He made the excellent point that people just pull back and never give the horse any relief or indication that he’s doing what the rider wants.  Eventually, the horse will quit trying in the back-up because he thinks “what’s the point in putting in effort.”

And the concept of timing segues right into the idea of Getting To The Feet.  You aren’t really in control of your horse unless the messages you send work their way from the brain all the way down to the feet.  He said this many times during the clinic.  He thinks everyone should learn to know where the feet are at all times and also how to get the feet to move where and when you want them to.  The timing exercise with the front legs was one example of how you can practice at this.  The short serpentine is an excellent exercise because you are asking all of the feet to move evenly and consistently throughout the exercise.  It is really effective if you try to visualize how the feet are moving and reaching in response to your requests.

Following a feel:  We use this concept in Parelli when we try to refine our cues to the softest possible, but I don’t think we really take it far enough.  When we use the language of phases, we never ratchet that down to the idea of feel.  The “feel” should be our phase one, but it is kind of like my dressage training where we think phase one has to be something obvious.  A “feel” could be as simple as opening my hand on the rope to allow the horse to move in that direction.  I made a big change in my horsemanship when I started thinking this way last year.  I set aside the carrot stick unless absolutely necessary and started thinking “what is the feel in this situation?”  I have never seen a more apropos example of following a feel than I did when watching Buck ride and handle his horses.  He’s so quiet with them.  It doesn’t mean he doesn’t get on their case if they are not responding, but most of the time, you are just seeing them operating off his feel and they are in complete harmony.

Expectations:  Several times, he talked about what we expect from our horses.  He stressed that it is the little things that count, both in the saddle and on the ground.  If we accept bad behavior on the ground, then we have no right to expect good behavior under saddle and vice-versa.  If we have a problem in the saddle, it’s probably because we have the same problem on the ground and haven’t bothered to fix it up there first.  All interactions with the horse count and we should make sure that our horses live up to our standards of behavior all the time.  Nowhere was this made more clear to me than in the contrasting behavior of the two horses I had with me.  At one time or another, both horses got insecure and panicky on the ground.  The difference was that Dolly could be leaping and silly in a blind panic, but never once tried to pull away or encroached into my space—this is simply how I expect her to operate.

Excellence:  All of the preceding rolls into the concept of striving for excellence.  If we want to be horsemen, not just folks sitting on horses, we have to constantly strive for excellence.  What we don’t want to do is become so critical in doing this that the horse is afraid to try.  This is, of course, why we reward the slightest try, but we also have to reward excellence at the right time so the horse learns that this is what we are expecting from him.

Buck shared with us the reason his horses are happy to spin as fast as he asks whenever he asks for it.  He said that he does a lot of spins slowly and correctly.  Whenever he asks a horse to speed up the spin, the second he feels the horse putting in a good effort, he stops and lets the horse rest.  Pretty soon, his horses figure out that if they put extra effort into the spin, he’ll let them stop and leave them alone.  He never drills, in fact, he rarely asks for a fast spin at all, but his horses consistently perform a fast spin, with excellence, when he asks for it, because they have been rewarded for giving him excellence.  Too often, we want to say “that was good, let’s do it again,” rather than “that was good, let’s do something else.”  All we are teaching the horse at that point is that there is no payoff for excellence.

I could go on and on.  I wish I had an audiotape of the clinic so I could go back and hear so many of the good things that Buck said.  It’s pretty tough to write when you’re riding and by the time I get off the horse I’ve forgotten half of the things that I wanted to remember and write down later.    Most of the people reading this have heard a lot of this already anyway.  The point is that just hearing about it or knowing it isn’t enough.  We have to put these thoughts into action at all times if we want our horse-human relationships to live up to “the dream.”

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