The next installment, wherein we answer the question: is it really possible to write an entire novel based on four days of riding with Buck?
One of the things I really like about the format of Buck’s clinics is that there are two classes. In our case, H1 was in the morning and H2 was in the afternoon. The worst thing about riding in a clinic is that you can’t take notes about what you really want to remember while you ride. I usually spend a lot of time at breaks, lunch and after the clinic hiding with a notepad scribbling like mad and kicking myself for not remembering enough. The worst part of auditing is that you don’t get to ride and try out the things the participants are doing. So you get to take notes, but they become diluted by time so that when you “try this at home,” it isn’t quite the same. In Buck’s clinic, you get the best of both worlds—half a day of auditing and half a day of riding. Unless you sign up for both classes, in which case, you picked your poison then, didn’t you? It is also easier on the nether parts if you don’t have to sit in the saddle for 6 or 8 hours.
The H2 class worked on some of the same things we worked on, some more advanced riding concepts, and they got to work cattle and practice roping. It gave me a chance to see what kinds of things I might be shooting for if I want to ride an H2 in the future, but also an idea of where I might head with a horse once I feel I have mastered the H1 stuff we were working on. After 4 days of watching, I can honestly say that I picked up a lot of information about working cattle and not a whole lot about roping. I think that’s because I have chased the occasional cow, but I haven’t ever tried to swing a rope. It’s still a mystery to me how they get that loop to go over there and land over that cow’s head, as opposed to the many other random possibilities, so I didn’t make sense out of much of the roping discussion. I do feel like it might be a good idea to learn a little bit about roping and at least practice swinging a loop around while riding to teach the horse that it’s okay.
As for the horsemanship concepts, you have to realize that Buck’s ultimate goal for any horse of his is to be “in the bridle,” and all of his training is geared in the classical vaquero tradition towards that end. For those of you unfamiliar with it, there are 4 phases of training. You start the horse in a snaffle bit. Later you transition to riding the horse in a bosal hackamore. After the hackamore comes a two rein stage where you ride in a bosalita (usually a smaller diameter bosal) and some sort of leverage bit such as a half breed curb. In the final, finished, stage, you will ride the horse in a spade bit. Now for those of you who are thinking “how awful,” let me say that a horse ridden properly in a spade bit is like a beautiful piece of art—amazing and wonderful to watch. And Buck spends a lot of time stressing that before you even go to the two rein stage, you should have the horse operating almost completely off of a feel for your legs and body language. The idea of riding in a spade bit is that the horse “carries” the bit, not that the rider must use it for control. So there was a lot of discussion in the H2 class about where each horse was in this progression, what the rider should probably be working on now, and how each rider might progress to the next stage of training.
Buck also talked about training a horse to do flying lead changes. This brought up the concept of knowing what lead you are on at the walk and trot, as well as at the canter. Most people hear this and say “hunh?” at first. The idea is that if you are riding the horse forward at the walk or trot (it is easier at the trot for starters), do you know what lead the horse would take if you just gently pushed him into the canter at that moment? In other words, it’s not enough to just cue the horse and hope. Your horse should be properly set up physically to take the lead you want before you think about cueing him. Knowing your diagonals at the trot is only the first part of this skill. You need to practice trotting until you can feel that the hindquarters are set up for a specific lead, then you ask. If you have ever heard anyone talk about the “teeter,” this is a small part of that concept. Let’s say you can feel at the trot that your horse is teetering on the brink of taking a left lead canter. If you have that teeter there every time you want the left lead canter, you know you’ll never miss a lead. You don’t actually have to canter him, just bring him to that place where he’s completely ready.
He told us that the same holds true for lead changes. You get your horse set up at the point where you know he just about to give you a flying change of leads. Then you go do something else. Buck says horses get ruined on lead changes because people practice the changes over and over and over again. The horse feels the set-up and begins to anticipate the change and gets upset and hot about them. He says it is better for them mentally if you get them to the right place, then don’t ask for the change so that they don’t learn to anticipate. Otherwise, you will wind up with a horse who is completely stressed about lead changes or won’t stop doing them! He does a lot of counter canter to balance the horse out and prevent it from anticipating changes. He says you’d be surprised by how many people will come up to him and point out to him (as if shocked that he didn’t realize it) that he’s on the wrong lead!
I was pretty happy to be done and off my horse when the wind came up during the afternoon class. Fortunately, for those riding, the wind was coming from right behind the grandstand so most of it was blocked from hitting the arena. Still, when it came to riding Surprise that evening, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I asked Buck what I should work on from the ground and he said I should probably be using a flag or the end of the lead to work on having him get his shoulders out of the way. So with Surprise, I worked on hindquarter/forequarter yields and when he didn’t respond by moving his shoulders out of my space quickly enough, I followed up with the tail of the lead rope and popper and tagged him on the offending shoulder. Apparently I insulted him because he reared up in the air and tried to turn away. But after that, he gave me some really great yields in both directions, so I decided that perhaps Surprise’s issues have a lot to do with respect, and if he figures you will follow through, he’ll choose to cooperate.
But before we worked on anything, I played the catching game with him. I had a revelation about this awhile back after reading an article by Peter Campbell (Western Horseman?). Again, this is the difference between “the catching game” as we’ve been taught it, running the horse around, and following a feel. My expectation is that my horses will meet me at the gate when I open it and wait for me to halter them or whatever it is I may choose to do. So in my newer more subtle form of the catching game, I stand at the gate and wait. I may swing the rope back and forth or even “practice” spinning it so that the popper hits the fence panel just so. As long as the horse is paying attention to me, I will stay at the gate and “be annoying,” but if the horse ignores me, I may “sneak” over and pop him one if I think I can get away with it, then head right back for the gate. After awhile, the horse gets tired of being annoyed and steps towards the gate and I get quiet and smile and wait. You guys know how this game goes, eventually the horse is going to come over to me so I’ll leave him alone. Which he finally did.
After working with Surprise, I took Dolly out and saddled her up and rode. I tried to ride her in the big arena, but the wind was just blowing too hard. If you’ve ever been in that arena, you know it is powder river panels with plywood (actually OSB) attached. The wind rattled all of those wooden panels against the steel panels until Dolly was sure that monsters were coming to get her. So I rode her in the little warm-up area nearest the barn (and all of the four legged babysitters). We are supposed to be mostly walking with a bit of trotting mixed in. I also threw in some practice on some of what we did with Buck, but not too much as I didn’t want to have her use her hind end too much.
The one interesting thing that happened while I was riding her was that a bird flew over making the weirdest bird call I’ve ever heard. Dolly and I both jumped. It was kind of like a crow crossed with a red tailed hawk—hard to describe. Or maybe it was the sound a crow would make if you were trying to strangle it? Took me a couple of days, but I was finally able to identify this as the call of a ring tailed dove. It was the first time I’ve seen a ring tailed dove around, so I figured they must live in Fallon, but not range farther west. It gets weirder though because after I got home, I kept hearing this really strange cooing sound. It wasn’t a mourning dove of which we have plenty, but it still sounded dove-like. Finally, one of them made that weird cry and I realized that we have a pair of ring tailed doves hanging around our place now. Did they follow me from Fallon? Is it a conspiracy? Is it the ring tailed dove invasion?
Anyway, riding Dolly made me realize one very important fact—my endurance saddle is MUCH softer than my Stubben! Next morning, my first stop was Wal-mart (say what you want, but they are always there when I need them), where I purchased an ensolite foam camping pad. I cut this up to produce a couple of shims to go with my Equipedic pad and, voila, it looked like I would be able to use the endurance saddle on Surprise that day. (Also bought a bottle of Advil for my back.) Huge sigh of relief until I went to mount. Wallowing does not work well with a treeless saddle. I could just see me out there with my saddle turned under Surprise’s belly and all the other horses pointing and laughing at him because his rider is such a dork!
Surprise didn’t meet me at the gate that morning, but he came to me before I had to do too much “annoying.” He walked over to the horse trailer much more respectfully and while I was still not satisfied with how he carried himself with his shoulder braced towards me, it was much, much easier to “shape” him the way I wanted by simply touching his shoulder and asking him to bend around me as we walked. So we practiced walking back and forth until I thought this was better. We practiced stopping when I stop and backing when I back until I felt that he was leading off of a feel and really focused on me. Then we went to the horse trailer where he immediately fell apart—still a death trap, apparently, but this too, shall improve. He was being so much calmer, though, that I didn’t feel that humiliating him in front of all of those other horses would be a just reward for such behavior.
At first, I thought I would have to go get the mounting block out of the horse trailer, but what to do with the mounting block after? Hmmm… I had just resigned myself to being the one who was a dork and having all of the riders point at me when I noticed the calf chutes just outside the arena were the perfect height for me to hop on from the fence. Hmmm…. hmmm… I’ve heard of Buck teaching this, so it’s not just a “Parelli thing”… It seems less dorky and humiliating than walking around with a mounting block and far less humiliating than having my saddle turn over. So I climbed up on the chute determined to figure out how to sweet talk Surprise into letting me on from that vantage point. He immediately offered me his right side. Yahoo! Someone has obviously taught him this skill—thank you, someone! I hopped on before he changed his mind. I’m still not sure that he wasn’t doing it just because it gave him a better view of Dolly, but mine is not to question.
We warmed up using all of the exercises from the day before. I had noticed on Friday that Surprise behaved much worse at the end of the arena nearest to Dolly (really?). So we did as many trot to one rein stops down at that end of the arena as I could squeeze in between the multitude of other horses warming up. Then I took him over to the middle and let him stand for a few moments. Then back to the end and short serpentine for awhile, then back to the middle for a rest. Hmmm… are you thinking yet buddy? When Buck came in and began explaining things, if Surprise shook his head or wiggled at all, it was back in the direction of the gate for a few more small serpentines or one rein stops, then back to the middle. In this way, he decided standing still was better. Unfortunately, I managed to miss a lot of the explanation and demonstration that was going on!
He was doing great! Except for the part where he would root his head while standing. I tried a couple of different things, but it wasn’t until the second protracted standing interval that I plucked up the courage to ask Buck what to do. He said you need good timing and as he said it, Surprise rooted his head and I pulled up with both reins. That’s when I got the “that was bad timing” comment. He said to block him with one rein only, and that I had to block him as his head was beginning to go down. Then he continued explaining to the whole group and as soon as he looked away, Surprise rooted his head and I blocked him with one rein. He did it one more time and I blocked him again, and then he stopped and stood perfectly still. Buck finished his explanation and turned back and I was able to say “it’s already worked.” That was cool.
We spent a lot of time working on the same exercises from the first day, but we added in more work with the soft feel. Buck would have us walk forward, ask for the soft feel, then ask for the halt, then back up. The trick is to get the soft feel first so that the halt and back-up are nice. We also added a serpentine from the legs only. You would ask using seat and legs and if the horse didn’t respond, then you would use the rein. Surprise thought this was a really cool way for me to ask him to trot! After a bit of practice, he would bend to the left really nicely, but not to the right—I always had to add in some rein. At first, I would use a one rein stop if he trotted off, but then Buck told the group if your horse goes trotting off, you can use this as an excuse to ask for a soft feel, then halt from the trot. I liked this because it gave me two ways to deal with the trot without making Surprise feel “wrong.” The trick, as always, is to give a nice release when the horse stops so that he knows that he did the right thing.
The last thing Buck demonstrated to our group on the second day was how to mount the horse off of the fence! He gave the example of people who chase horses around with mounting blocks when the horse is certainly mobile and could just stand next to the fence. I was soooo… glad I used the fence! He teaches it to the horse differently than I learned it and Surprise was having a real head shaking, foot moving spell right then, so I missed a lot of his explanation. The gist is that he is (again) more subtle with the cues to teach the horse to stand next to the fence. It came down to the same trick as the catching game—annoy the horse until it finds the right position. Later, when I worked on this, I wished I had heard the whole demonstration because I kept having to spin the end of the rope to ask Surprise to move parallel to the fence and I would have liked to feel more certain that I could practice it the way he explained it (with no rope spinning) correctly. Our homework was to practice this exercise. I decided to work on doing it from as many different places as I could find and having Surprise give me his left side to mount—he displayed a strong preference for the right. This turned out to be a good choice as Surprise was happy to let me on as long as I did it his way, so I figured expecting him to allow mounting from the left would indirectly chip away at the respect issue.
It was while I was practicing this at the cattle loading chute near the arena, that I had an interesting conversation with a woman who turned out to be a spectator. Surprise would put his left side up to the chute, but then swing his hindquarters away, so I was just kind of repeating “get parallel to the fence, move up into position, now stand, I’ll leave you alone now,” ad nauseum and noticed this woman standing watching the process. She asked if her watching bothered me and I told her it was okay. Then she asked how I liked riding with Buck and I told her I liked it just fine. Then she seemed to think that it must be very difficult to ride in the clinic as we all came from different backgrounds. I told her that you have to let go of preconceived notions and ideas when you ride in a clinic and simply try what the clinician is asking you to work on or you are wasting your money. This kind of seemed to surprise her. How could someone let go of previous learning and start with a blank slate? Well, my legs already proved that was impossible, but I told her you just have to try what the clinician asks and not say things like “so and so says this,” or “that other guy told me to do it that way.”
Can you imagine Buck’s reaction if I had said “all my dressage instructors taught me to put my outside leg back so I can’t do this!”
She also wondered about Buck’s teaching methods. He had told us as we rode that we all got an F on last night’s homework and she thought that was kind of mean of him. I told her it was true, though. I didn’t get back on and ride Friday night, and I know I wasn’t the only one. He was just trying to stress the idea that we needed to practice the exercises a lot in order to finally grasp them. If we had done this in the evenings after the clinic, we might have looked better in class the next day. She seemed bothered by this and I thought “gosh, he was nice compared to some of the instructors I’ve ridden with over the years.” Then she said she liked horses (and all animals really) but had never had one and was actually kind of scared of them. Ahh… now it makes sense—she saw the movie and came to watch “the movie guy.” I guess maybe she was disappointed.
The funny thing is that the whole time we were having this conversation, I was moving Surprise. Parallel to the fence, move up, now stand, leave him alone, he would swing the quarters, parallel to the fence, move up, and again, and again—we must have done this like 20-30 times while we were talking. She finally asked how long I was going to do that for and I said “until he stands and doesn’t swing his quarters or I pass out from low blood sugar!” After that she lost interest and wandered off. Gee, I guess it’s boring to watch someone do the same thing over and over and over again—probably figured I was some kind of a nut-job.
But Surprise did finally decide to stand and I said “yippee!” and went to have lunch. In spite of the fact that I had ridden in my endurance saddle, my back wasn’t giving me any breaks, so I decided to watch part of the afternoon class, then head back to the motel for an ice pack and the Kentucky Derby.