Last day! I finally got to have breakfast at The Daily Grind. They had been handling the lunch concession there at the fairgrounds and I figured they’d be a big jump up from McDonalds, but they don’t open on weekends until 6:30. Weekdays, however, they open at 5:30, so I was there as soon as they opened. They make great coffee, hamburgers, sandwiches and breakfast—yum. Surprise met me eagerly at the gate with a nice happy expression on his face. And, my back finally felt a lot better. And best of all, I was playing hooky from work. Somehow these things are more fun if I imagine my kids toiling over a worksheet while I am enjoying my day off.
Today was a recap of the first three days. We continued to practice all of the exercises and only added a couple of new things. First, we worked on backing up on a circle. This is an exercise we saw the advanced class practice quite a bit over the last few days. They would use this as the set up for a turn on the haunches. The progression is stop, back a half circle, turn 180 degrees on the haunches, then back straight a few steps before proceeding forward again. The half circle backing combines both types of flexion and puts the horse in the correct position for a turn on the haunches or half spin. Once you have mastered this, you are now in the correct position to continue on with more than half of a spin.
Actually, that is the only new thing I remember from the fourth day. Maybe there was more, but memory fades after 22 pages! We did trot a lot again. I decided to “go for it” and not worry about Surprise’s speed too much. Buck was really stressing the “throw them the slack” concept, and it seemed like Surprise might benefit from me not bothering him so much, so I would let him speed up the trot until I felt he was starting to get sort of discombobulated before asking for the soft feel and slow down. As with Sunday, he began to give me longer and longer periods of trotting that was combobulated.
He continued to improve on the short serpentines and other exercises and felt a lot lighter than the first three days. The one incident that really stands out that last day was when he got angry with me again. By now, he had decided that standing around in the group wasn’t such a bad deal after all and, when we would break up, he would give me the same “attitude” that he used when I was giving him too much leg because…well now, he actually preferred standing in the group, thank-you! It was a pretty effective display on his part, I have to admit. He would pin his ears flat to his head and bare his teeth and bite at his chest. (He hadn’t tried to reach around and get me since the first day when I asked him how my boot tasted—“Ariat, 2005 vintage, alfalfa overtones, alkali dirt with a hint of fecal matter.”) He had pulled this on me several times and the key seemed to be to unlock his feet and get him moving again. Normally, I would have used my get-down to create commotion and spank him if I had to unlock his feet, but we all know the get-down was as useful as a plant-hanger at this point (note to self: next time leave more tail).
I also felt that using the get-down was a bit too “Parelli-ish” since I hadn’t seen anyone else use one all weekend. I couldn’t decide if it would be a good idea to untie it and use it at that point. So, there I was trying to get him to move his feet without using too much leg with him pinning his ears and biting his chest and I thought “what am I thinking? I’ve got Buck Brannaman sitting on a horse about 50 feet away—this is what I paid for!”
So I asked Buck for help and he said (drum roll please) “Get his feet moving!”
Sometimes it’s nice to find out you already knew the answer, but sometimes it doesn’t really help solve the problem. He told me to give Surprise a good boot, but Surprise, by this point was starting to get a little light in the front and felt like he was going to rear, so Buck told me to get off and fix it on the ground. It was an oddly satisfying, yet unsatisfying answer. Satisfying because I might have done that myself had I been at home; unsatisfying because I felt like I chickened out. Buck’s reasoning was that in my endurance saddle—which is admittedly, pretty much just velcroed together—I was going to have a hard time riding out any sort of hijinks that might ensue. Either way, Surprise got his feet moving and we were able to continue. Later on, I was talking to a trainer who was in the class who said she would have given him the old “over and under” with her get-down. Uhhhh… yeah… me too!
I stayed to watch the H2 rather than pull out early. This pretty much blew any chance I had of beating the road closure home, but I felt I wasn’t going to get another chance to watch Buck until who-knows-when, so I’d better take any chance I had. H2 worked on most of the same things they had for the first three days. There was one exercise that he had given them the first day that I might try someday if I ever develop superpowers. The rider would rope a barrel, then proceed to canter around the barrel while holding the rope and letting out the slack and steering the horse into a smaller and smaller circle and trying to get the rope to wrap around the barrel in a perfect, tight, non-overlapping spiral. At some point, the rider would get pretty close, then stop and turn the other way and canter, and take up the slack and etc… until the rope was unwound again. You can see why superpowers might be helpful—I’m thinking one brain to control my arms and another to control my legs, although an extra arm or two might not go amiss either!
I had this grand plan when the clinic wrapped up. I would move the truck and trailer back over by the corrals, repeat the trailer loading process I had begun the previous night, and take my time so that Surprise would have a good trailering experience. I had just put him in the trailer for the 3rd or 4th time when all hell broke loose. Remember the cattle? Well, Surprise wasn’t really crazy about them—in fact, he was downright frightened. They were part of the reason the trailer had been considered the “death zone” all weekend—because they were in a corral over in that general direction. Well, now that the clinic was over, the organizers needed to load up the cattle and haul them out. So they brought them down to the near end of the arena and put them into a corral right there! Surprise’s brain promptly fell out. I could see that I wasn’t going to get him anywhere near the trailer as long as the “evil cattle of death” were anywhere near.
In the end, I had to move the truck and trailer far enough away that he couldn’t see or hear the cattle. Then I got him and Dolly and walked them all the way out there and proceeded to begin at square -73 because Surprise wasn’t going to stop worrying about those cattle that easily. In the end, I simply out-persisted him. It took maybe an hour, and when I was FINALLY able to drop the pin on the divider, there was no WAY you could have induced me to pull it back out and repeat the process so that Surprise would have a “good experience.” Besides, by now it was after 6 and I really wanted to get home after driving the extra 70 miles through Bridgeport sometime before I had to go to work the next morning! And Dolly? She practically rolled her eyes at him as she daintily hopped in!
So what are my take-aways? Buck Brannaman is not my new God, just as Pat Parelli was not my old one. Why do people feel the need to worship their horse trainers anyway? I will gladly ride with Buck again if I get the chance. I might also ride with Martin Black or Brian Neubert or Harry Whitney or Brent Graef…if I get the chance. I can tell you this much. I’ll choose to ride if I get the chance and I don’t really care what other people tell me. I’m also not going to worry too much if I look too “Parelli.” I simply can’t afford to buy all new equipment anyway. I’m not going to show up looking like a walking billboard or argue over methods—that would be disrespectful and pointless. I’m not going to argue with the next Parelli clinician that I ride with about Buck’s methods for the same exact reasons.
There’s almost no way I can write this without making comparisons to Parelli simply because that is what I have done for the last several years. But while we’re on the subject, I’ll just finish grinding my little axe for a minute or two and be done with it. I have nothing against Parelli, in fact I have gotten a lot out of it and can credit the program with helping me take a lot of separate puzzle pieces of horsemanship and put them together to form a fairly cohesive picture. However, there seem to be quite a few people who got into Parelli pretty early on in their horsemanship journey and they don’t know any other way—in fact, they don’t think there is any other way! Now this group seems to eventually split into one of two camps—those who reach a point where they become disgruntled with Parelli and those who don’t. The disgruntled ones will move on and begin blaming all of their life problems on Parelli such as their truck broke down and their horse is too fat. In the same breath, they will tell you that (insert new trainer/NH clinician’s name here) is a god and the best rider in the history of the world. Many of the non-disgruntled Parelli types will begin to expand into other areas once they feel confident, but there are those—you can all name at least one, admit it—who will place their hands over their ears and chant “lalalala, I can’t hear you,” whenever you mention a non-Parelli clinician’s name.
I think the people who seem to “get it” the best are those who have done all sorts of horse activities pre-Parelli and so have a framework within which to insert the Parelli training methods. In my many years riding horses, I have done a bit of almost everything you can do with a horse. I have seen the horror stories and the people who are “un-natural” to the point of brutality, but I have also seen and recognized the true horsemen that are out there in almost every discipline. Maybe these people had their own Ray Hunts and Tom Dorrances or maybe they just figured it out on their own, but they seem to specialize in getting the job done in the most efficient and effective way possible while gaining the trust and cooperation of the horse. You can always pick them out at a show, but you have learn to look for the signs. They are the ones riding in the warm-up with no artificial devices on their horse’s heads. They are the ones who aren’t drilling on the exercise they will be using in the arena over and over and over again, but instead working on some strange little figure that doesn’t even relate to the class. They are the ones who leave the arena after the class and pet their horses and say “good boy, you tried real hard,” then don’t go out and “tune them up” for another hour. You will never see them tying their horses head up or around or wherever, not because they are good at hiding it but because they simply never do it.
They are the ones with the hands. I mention this because of Ulrich Kirchhoff. And who is Ulrich Kirchhoff? I have never met Ulrich Kirchhoff, but I had the distinct pleasure of watching him ride in the Show Jumping portion of the Atlantic Olympics in 1996. My mother and I attended, and one of our entertainments was to identify all of the headgear adorning each horse as it was ridden in for its round of jumping. There were shank bits, regular bits, gag bits and hackamores, double bridles, standing and running martingales and some things we never did identify and they were always used in combination. (I remember one horse had both a standing and a German standing martingale.) Then in rode Ulrich… in a plain snaffle… with no appliances of any kind. And he had the hands. They were perfect! Soft, giving, relaxed. And guess how Ulrich’s horse was? Soft, giving, relaxed. I got to where I would just watch the hands. So while all of those other riders were jerking and pumping on 18 pounds of random headgear and physically lifting their horses by the mouth and throwing them over each fence, Ulrich was simply being soft and staying out of his horse’s way. And he put in four clean rounds. And he won the gold medal!
My point is this: Parelli isn’t the only game in town, but then neither is anybody else. You are welcome to argue all day about who is best and who is worst, who teaches the “most pure” version of Tom Dorrance, whose horses are too fat or who attended more Ray Hunt clinics, who has won more money and/or accolades, who’s only in it for the money and who has the biggest ego. Just don’t argue this with me—I don’t want to hear it. You won’t like my response anyway. And I have Parelli friends who are clamoring to hear about the “Buck experience,” while I have others who would ask why I would even bother to ride with him.
And then there are the women. They are not exclusive to Buck’s or Pat’s or indeed any one clinicians’ events. For all I know, they could even be the SAME EXACT women at all of those clinic. I really have to work to resist rolling my eyes or shaking my head whenever I see them. They look, for all the world, as if they had had a complete makeover on Oprah that morning before coming to the clinic. Sunday best. Full make-up. Nails. What are they thinking? That Buck will notice them in between shepherding 20 yahoo’s around the arena making feeble attempts to execute a short serpentine? That they might get their picture taken with Clinton, then post it on Facebook, and GOD FORBID that anybody should ever see them on Facebook, in a picture with Clinton Anderson, looking like they have ever stepped anywhere nearer to a horse than the box seat at the Cow Palace!
This is, and always should be, about horsemanship! I realize that I may be sort of immune to this phenomenon because I look more like Jabba the Hut on horseback than Miss Rodeo America, so vanity, in this case, thy name is certainly not Sharon Soule. But really? If the good fairy showed up tomorrow, I think I would choose an infusion of horsemanship skills (and maybe that third arm) over the perfect hairdo any day of the week. And no matter whom I ride with in the future, or whatever their program is, I would hope that they might remember me as the woman who asked questions, tried real hard, and improved over the course of the clinic. I hope that whatever horse I manage to scrounge at the last minute goes home improved by the experience. I hope that, whatever happens, I can have the grace to shake the clinician’s hand at the end of the experience and say “thank-you.”