Quick link to the rectangle article I referenced in an earlier post:
The name of the article is “Centering Your Horse.”
Our wonderful clinic organizer, Karyn Shirley, planned a barbecue for Saturday night. Although my ice pack felt great, I managed to drag myself up and head back to the fairgrounds with enough time to play a bit with Dolly and Surprise before dinner. David was driving out to join me for the food and entertainment and I didn’t want to get too messy, so I played with Surprise and mounting from the fence in different places, but I didn’t actually get on. I had put him away earlier as soon as he decided to stand still at the loading chute, so this time we tried it off the arena fence, off the chute again, off the calf chute again but from the left, and off the fender of the horse trailer. I discovered that you have to be a human fly to perch on the arena fence where there is OSB attached, but other than that, he was very good and didn’t swing his hindquarters away as much or as persistently.
So then I played with Dolly. I wasn’t going to get on, but I wanted to try to find a better place in the arena to mount from the fence, so I was experimenting by climbing up a promising looking spot (still had to be a human fly) and she just kind of hopped up there and invited me on—wow! I couldn’t disappoint her! I wound up riding in a halter and lead rope bareback for about 20 minutes in the arena. So much for clean jeans… Now this was funny, because Dolly isn’t usually this happy to cooperate. I think she went out of her way all weekend to act like Little Miss Perfect. Could she have been jealous? Or was it simply the contrast between a horse I have been handling for 8 years vs. a horse I have just begun to play with? I don’t know, but she made me laugh several times when it seemed as though she was trying just a little too hard.
The barbecue dinner was excellent and was catered by Susie’s BBQ. The entertainment after dinner was provided by Adrienne (no last name). If you like old time buckaroo music, she’s really good. Her website is buckaroogirl.com and she has 3 albums out and is only 20 years old! She writes her own songs and would explain the background of each song to the crowd before singing it. She’s got quite the voice.
Day 3 dawned bright and clear with the brightest full moon this year just setting in the west. My back felt somewhat better and Surprise met me at the gate with a nice expression on his face and allowed me to lead him to the trailer in a very relaxed manner. Once at the trailer, he wasn’t so happy, but he was definitely trying. I checked his withers carefully for signs that the saddle had caused him any problems and he seemed just fine. Usually, by the third day of a clinic, I am pretty wiped out, but I found I was looking forward to what the day might bring. Cindy didn’t make it out to watch on Saturday, but she made it Sunday and her first comment was that he had a different expression and a softer eye today.
As on the first two days, we continued to work on our short serpentines, yields, turn arounds, back ups and serpentines from the leg. We continued to refine the soft feel and use it as a prelude to stopping and backing. But today, we added trotting. Buck talked to us about the value of the long trot to help a horse learn to regulate his impulsion. He told us this is how real cowboys “commute” to do their days work. Our group didn’t exactly look like a bunch of cowboys headed to some distant pasture to do a day’s work when we tried it. We looked more like uranium molecules in the process of reaching critical mass inside the bomb. It took some doing to perform one rein stops and avoid other people also doing one rein stops at first, but after a few minutes, we all sort of got the hang of what we were doing. The horses must have been gossiping the night before about the Kentucky Derby, because there were a few who seemed determined to win it—trot, canter, they didn’t care!
And Surprise was pretty certain he was the favorite.
We did a few one rein stops at first, but I was worried about causing a wreck. Buck had said to try to use the soft feel to ask the horse to slow down, then throw him the slack and leave him alone. I felt this was better as I wasn’t careening into a circle in random places in front of all of the other uranium molecules. And we trotted… Buck said that you need to do this for a long time to establish the trot. He also said it works best if you can take the horse out across the pastures, but a big arena is sufficient. And we trotted… At first, asking Surprise for a soft feel was kind of like trying to slow down a freight train. Finally, he began to respond a little better and I was soon able to maneuver him around the other horses by asking for a soft feel, then leg yielding him when I needed to. And we trotted… I finally felt a much nicer, more regulated trot show up occasionally. He still surged forward when I released him, but he was not surging forward as quickly each time. And we trotted…
The biggest problem I had with the trotting was that I was riding with a mecate. I don’t normally ride with one and I had not had much success making the “get-down” part of the mecate stay put in my belt loop. At the walk, it would slither out at inconvenient times and I was always checking and juggling and fussing with it. Someone would usually tell me if it was slipping, but the one time it made it to the ground, Surprised cocked an ear over and I realized something was wrong and hastily snatched it up before he got too worried about it. Trotting only magnified this problem. I solved it on this day by holding the end as we trotted, but it seemed very undignified. I finally realized on the last day that the ring on my saddle was big enough to push a loop of the mecate through and sort of macramé it into a short end. Not as slick as tucking it into your chaps, but safer than carrying it or having it slide out right when the questionable horse next to you is starting its stretch run. I wouldn’t be able to use it, but who needs a get-down when you are riding the derby favorite anyway?
And Surprise distinguished himself in my mind with an interesting quirk. You know how some horses have a preferred diagonal and if you trot on the one they don’t like for a while, they will figure out how to bounce you back over to the one they do like? Well, Surprise is the first and only horse I’ve ever ridden who did this in both directions! Back when my little riding group was into Sally Swift, I trained myself to feel my diagonals. I ALWAYS know which diagonal I am on and I NEVER have to look. I would start out on the correct diagonal each time, but then after about 30 seconds would find myself on the wrong one. Huh? So I’d switch, but after about 30 seconds would feel that shift and be back on the wrong one. I began to doubt myself. At first I thought I just couldn’t feel diagonals on this particular horse, but I kept checking and dang if it wasn’t him. His preferred diagonal is, apparently, the wrong one! Be interesting to see if, over time, as he learns to slow the trot down to where he is more connected, he would stop this or not.
And in the meantime, we trotted… Buck would let us walk for a moment—then it was back up to the trot. Or he would have us get a soft feel, stop and back up, then go back to the trot. He started having us change directions at a trot. He kept saying he wanted a nice smooth half circle. That’s easy! For once, my horse show experience stood me in good stead. I got to thinking “Geez, I was probably doing this exact same maneuver in this exact same arena 25 years ago!” When we finally stopped trotting, I was beginning to feel a little rub on the inside of my right knee just starting. But we made it and my back felt a lot better from all the movement. I was quite pleased with the third day’s ride even though my arms were probably two inches longer by the end of all the trotting.
As for standing around, Surprise had not completely denounced his wicked ways, but was, again, much improved. He pretty much never needed to move his feet at all on the last two days, but he would still try to root his head if I wasn’t paying attention. He would also throw the rooting into a halt or a back-up, but as long as I was vigilant and ready to block, he kept improving. Cindy says his mom does the same thing which I find interesting—rooting is a family trait? I wonder if she is vigilant too, will he ever just give up on the behavior altogether or will it still be in there lurking, perhaps waiting for some unsuspecting rider that he doesn’t respect to bring it back to the surface again?
In the afternoon class, he had them working on cantering. They would canter the short end of the arena, then trot across the diagonal. Halfway across, they would ask for a leg yield, then change to a haunches-in at the end of the diagonal and ask for the canter. Buck is the first person I’ve ever seen actually use the haunches-in to help the horse pick up the correct lead. It’s funny, though, because I have observed that in every horse I’ve ever brought along that around the time I taught the horse haunches in, leads stopped being an issue. He also stressed very strongly that if you are working on learning flying changes that you must work on cantering in a straight line. The horse really has to be straight in order to be able to perform a flying change. He had some of the riders cantering on the diagonal, then performing a simple change of leads. He says that he has found this is the easiest way to get to the flying change. You just keep reducing the number of trot steps until you can do a simple change of leads with only one trot step. He says the horse will generally figure out how to do the flying change on its own at that point and offer it to you.
Something happened Sunday at the end of the H2 class that I found interesting. First I need to give some background on the cattle working portion. Buck has his students work with the cattle in a rodeer in the middle of the arena. A rodeer is the way cowboys work a group of cattle out on the range when they haven’t got a convenient corral around. Basically you group the cattle in a bunch and surround them with a circle of cowboys, each facing the rodeer and responsible for holding the cattle in his/her portion. The cowboys need to be far enough away from the cattle to let them settle and feel safe in their little clump in the center of the circle. This also leaves room for one cowboy to move into the cattle and separate one of them out to be roped and doctored without upsetting the rest of the herd too much. The person moving one cow out “works” the cow on a circle around the other cattle. His horse travels on a circle just outside the rest of the cattle while the calf travels on a larger circle between him and the turn back riders.
The only time I was ever involved in a rodeer, I was helping some friends drive about 60 cow/calf pairs up Sonora Pass. They have the grazing lease up there, only you can’t get a cattle truck up the grade, so they drop them off at the bottom and the cattle have to be driven up to where they will be turned out for the summer. I don’t know much at all about handling cattle, but I like to think I did a pretty fair job of stopping traffic and babysitting the one youngster who could not be trusted to ride too close to the herd. When we finally hit the turn-off, we stopped the herd to allow them to mother back up and formed a rodeer. Somehow I managed to take up position in the middle of a bog and spent the whole time worrying that when they finally got around to moving the cattle on, they would only find my hat sitting on the ground with the top of my head peeking out.
As you ride on your circle when working a calf, if you keep your horse a little behind the motion of the calf, a “short position,” that should cause the calf to continue move forward on his circle. If you get ahead of the motion of the calf, a “long position,” it will cause the calf to turn back in the other direction. This is how you can set the calf up to be roped by another rider or how you can move the calf to practice your turns. Buck had riders with less experience simply move the calf forward and practice speeding it up or slowing it down with just a few turns in the mix, while more experienced horses would practice turning the calf back and forth. It is slow, controlled work, not what you see in your average cutting show. In the turn back, the horse stops on its circle, still facing forward on the circle, not facing the calf. As the calf turns, the rider backs the horse up, then turns 180 degrees so that the calf winds up on his same circle again and the rider is on his circle a little behind the motion of the calf so it will move out on its circle again.
What happened was this. Buck got angry. One of the women had this horse that had had some high powered cutting training somewhere along the way. Instead of wanting to stay on his circle, this horse wanted to go out there and go after the calf. All of that shucking and jiving that cutting horses do might look spectacular out in the cutting arena, but it won’t get diddly done with the cattle out on the range. In fact, it’s bad for the cattle because they go sour and get much harder to work. It is also bad for the horse because it teaches bad habits. You also won’t be invited back to help with the branding if your horse rattles the cattle. And for whatever reason, she was letting him get away with it. So Buck was legitimately angry with her because her was trying to get her to do it right and she didn’t seem to want or be able to keep the horse on its circle and not let it go after the calf.
So he got angry… And let me tell you, Angry Buck is kind of scary to watch. So it makes sense to me now where the whole “Buck is mean” perception comes from. It was hard to watch, but it was also instructive. She was not doing what he wanted and he simply made her try again and again and again until she figured out what she needed to do to get it right. He was never abusive or demeaning. He would say things like “get back on your circle!” and “don’t let him do that!” and “get another calf!” He just wouldn’t let her off the hook. And perhaps he wasn’t really angry—I don’t know—but his demeanor certainly seemed angry. Maybe he felt she needed that tone of voice to get her attention. In the end, she did get it right and she thanked Buck.
After the clinic ended Sunday, I did my half hour walk/trot with Dolly, then moved the horse trailer over to the warm-up circle so that I could play with Surprise. The footing was better there and I thought it might be a little less scary if it was closer to the barn—my current location was obviously not a happy place for Surprise. So we broke down the process and worked on the parts. I figured he needed to get in the trailer, then I needed to be able to thread the lead rope through the front loop and hold the end to keep his head facing forward while I moved back to close the divider. Once the divider was closed, I could close the door, then tie his head in. So the first thing was to get him to stop freight training backwards out of the trailer. I’d put him in…zoom… I’d put him in…zoom… After maybe 20 iterations, he began to decide that this was too much work. He would now stand still for a whole second or maybe even two whole seconds before flying out.
So we kept pecking away at the problem. I worked on getting in the trailer with him and petting and touching him. At first, he took any kind of contact as a signal to leave. Soon, I could pet him and move around and he was okay with that. Then, I was able to get him to stop after only backing the hind legs out—big progress. I wanted to reach the point where I could move him backwards and forwards in the trailer without him wanting to leave. We never quite reached that point. He would move forward, but as soon as I asked him to take one step backwards, he would take that as THE SIGNAL. Only now he would stop halfway, and after encouragement, would bring the back feet back in instead of having to back all the way out. I decided this was pretty good for an evening’s work. We had gone from “Eject! Eject! Eject!” to “Back up!…uh…wait… you want me back in? I guess I can do that.”
We called it a night at that point and I returned to the motel exhausted. I literally had to force myself to walk over to the restaurant and buy dinner. The only thing that got me out of the room was the promise of a beer with dinner since I was too tired to drive anywhere and could stagger back without getting a ticket.