Murieta and Max (part 1)

I spent the weekend before last in Rancho Murieta at the Parelli Tour Stop. If I had to sum up what Parelli is all about, I would have to say it is about getting into your horse’s head, getting down to his feet and getting into his heart.   And I don’t think there is any other program that encompasses this philosophy quite as completely as Parelli does.  It’s not to say that the Parelli’s have the only methods that work, or that Parelli students are the best at it, or even that the Parelli’s are the only ones with this idea.  It’s just the philosophy and the attitude that you are there for the horse—you’re there to improve life for the horse by crawling into his mind and getting the message down to the feet and getting a hold of his heart—that’s pretty inspiring!

It was also truly wonderful to see so many of my like-minded friends there.  It’s amazing to me how many Parelli contacts I’ve made over the years.  Of course, the most asked question had to have been “So… what are you riding these days?”

I realize that I’ve brought this on myself after posting a few blogs about The Great Horse Search last summer, then nothing.  This was not intentional on my part.  I just haven’t seemed to be able to write anything about Max the Mustang up to this point and I don’t know why—one of those strange, intangible mental blocks that can’t be explained.  But when ten or more people start a conversation with “so…” I guess it’s time to fess up.

So I’ve been riding Max.  Max is a mustang.  He wasn’t adopted—his mother was.  She popped him out sometime later.  So he’s theoretically domestic except that I think he spent enough time hanging out with Mama before being weaned that she put one or two bad thoughts into his head.

Max is not a monster, nor is he a finished product.  He doesn’t come with mountains of baggage or a horrifying back story.  He’s not a horse that “needs” Parelli or he’s going to the auction, but he can sure benefit from it nonetheless.

Max is not my dream horse.

Still, I think we can teach each other a thing or two and that might be a good thing.  I’ve had him for close to a year now and the idea was that I was “deciding” if I wanted to buy him.  I’m still deciding.  I’m thinking that buying might be a good idea just from a good business/liability standpoint, but I’m not rushing to the bank.

I wonder how Max would have done at the tour stop.

In the first demonstration, Pat did a “colt start.”  He stated that they couldn’t really find an unstarted colt that fit the bill, so they borrowed one that had been ridden once or twice from Susan Nelson.  He was a pretty grey three year old Hanoverian.  My notes say “very nervous at first.”  I am the master of understatement!  He was crazy amped up on adrenaline and just galloped and galloped around the round pen occasionally stopping at the gate to yell for his buddies, then dashing off again.  Pat pretty much ignored him at first in his usual manner.  He told the crowd that he didn’t blame the horse for being upset and it was just his nature.  Soon, he moved around a bit as he talked, presenting the horse with opportunities to hook on.  The horse just kept on doing laps.

Then Pat just casually reached out and roped a front leg.  He let the horse keep running and didn’t put any pressure on the rope—just used it to give the horse a little bit of a connection.  He said that sometimes a horse needs a physical connection before he can make the mental one.  Then he just as casually flipped the rope off of the front leg to let the horse run free again.  After a bit of this, the horse would hook on for maybe half a second, but that was all he could stand and he would break off again.  But you could see he was beginning to calm down and think a bit more.  Soon, he was staying hooked on better and following Pat for longer and longer periods before breaking off to go to the gate again.

Pat said you have to go through three stages in starting a colt:  Trust me, trust the saddle, and trust the rider.  Soon, Pat put the rope around his neck and got the horse yielding to it.  Not long after, he had the colt saddled and hopped on bridleless for a passenger lesson.  He talked about the power of focus and began guiding the horse some with a carrot stick.  He played the touch it game using the stick and his focus.

About this time, Trevor came in with one of the Atwood colts that he had a couple of rides on.  This would be the colt’s first ride outside of the round pen.  He was a cute little strawberry roan and he just looovvveeedd the green ball!  He would throw himself on it with abandon each time Trevor got him near.  Trevor played with him on the ground first, then got on and rode him around.

Pat then put a halter on his horse and rode outside of the round pen—again using the power of focus.  He demonstrated how it is better to use your leg to control the horse’s hindquarters, not the reins.  He said it was like steering a boat.  If you want the boat to go left, move the back of the boat to the right.  He said he was only using his reins to control forward speed and to keep safe.

This is one of those things I have been working on with Max.  He’s not a dull horse, in fact he can be quite over reactive, but his instinct to push against you is so strong that at first, I would get almost no reaction from him when asking him to yield his hindquarters.  Listening to Pat made me realize I need to do more, like serpentines with my legs only, to continue developing this.  Of course I also need to keep working on my legs.  I do not have quiet legs—beastly, noisy things!  So serpentines with legs only, but only the slightest cue.  How soft can my phase one be?

After lunch, Linda came in with Hot Jazz at liberty.  Like the previous horse, he was in an almost blind panic and really wanted to get out the gate.  So Linda worked with him down by the gate on hooking on and then expanding the area he was able to stay hooked on using approach and retreat.  Unlike Pat’s horse, though, Hot Jazz knows and trusts Linda.  So he hooked on faster and stayed with her longer each time.   He couldn’t make it all the way to the far end of the arena yet, but if he took off, she would just patiently work to get him back and make things uncomfortable at the gate if necessary.

Max and I have the same problem, but from a different perspective.  I suspect it is the “wild horse training” he got from Mama combined with a very dominant personality.  There are certain places that are “uh oh!” spots—like it really bothers him to be squeezed between a fence and me when we are playing follow the rail at liberty.  That’s the only time he will leave me because he’s scared.  But whereas Hot Jazz was very right brained about leaving every time, Max is very left brained about it most of the time.  He’s not scared at all, doesn’t see the need to stay hooked on to me and will just leave… like a wild horse out of a squeeze chute.  I’m very blessed to live where I do in the middle of nowhere.  I have no neighbors close enough for him to bother and he’s not going anywhere anyway as long as I keep the girls locked up.  So we have worked at this problem out in the sagebrush.  I have invented a couple of games to help him see that running away is kind of pointless and staying with me is a good thing.

I call the first game “nerdy stalker.”  You know how with a group of friends, there’s that nerdy kid who really wants to hang out with them but they keep trying to ditch him or her because he or she is so nerdy?  In movies, of course, the nerdy kid is always the one to save the day in the end, but in real life they just go on to found giant corporations and get their revenge by becoming filthy rich and ignoring all the jerks that ditched them.   So I am the nerdy stalker.  It’s a little like undemanding time except that there is a demand:  I’m going hang out with you whether you like it or not and there’s no point in leaving because I’m just going to follow.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m not predator like.  Mostly, I just have a seat nearby and play on my phone or get mugged by the dog.  Lately, we have been grazing together—Max browsing on the grass that is so tasty this time of year and me pulling the mustard that is so ubiquitous and annoying.

The second game is “treasure hunt.”  I go around “seeding” the property with goodies (being careful to keep them out of range of the dog who will happily snork down any horse treat, even a forage pellet, as if it were a slice of bacon).  Then I let Max out and we go for a liberty walk, “accidentally” finding little treats here and there.  This gives him a reason to stay with me.  I am the finder of treats.  If I simply carried the treats, this game wouldn’t work because Max would stay hooked on all day if he thought I had a cookie.   I notice after playing this that he is staying hooked on a little bit better, but just as important, he hooks back on sooner and leaves less decisively.  It’s as if he is thinking he should really leave because Mama taught him to, but the nerdy stalker lady might find another treat, so instead of dashing off, he starts to drift away and then sort of trots away looking lost as if to say “now what was I doing again?”  When I catch up to him, I can be 100 feet away and he will come back to me as if just remembering what he doing before he took off.

So I don’t know who has it easier, Linda or me.  I just know she got Hot Jazz to settle down and relax after a little while.  Then they brought in three Parelli students to demonstrate the 7 games on line.  There are people who complain about not learning something new in sessions like this, but I always find it fascinating to watch other people interact with their horses.  For example, this one woman was demonstrating the circling game and was inadvertently turning it into a squeeze between her and the fence.  Well, her horse was not ABOUT to get too close to the fence where all of those predators were lurking on the other side on the bleachers waiting to pounce.  If she had simply backed away until the horse was okay with the circle, then played approach and retreat by getting closer, then farther, I think the horse would have been okay.  I kept waiting for Linda to notice the trouble she was having, but she was busy talking about one of the other horses and the seven games.  Which is my biggest problem when they have several horses in the arena—I’m always afraid that while I’m watching one horse, I’m going to miss something good that another horse is doing.

The next demo was Colleen Kelly talking about rider biomechanics.  There were about 6 or 7 rider horse combinations in the arena.  Colleen talked about how the rider would influence the way the horse was going by being stiff or out of balance.  She then had the riders demonstrate some different postures to see what the effect on the horse would be.  She had them demonstrate one at a time, which was nice as you could see how a dropped shoulder, say, would affect the direction of travel of the horse and his/her body posture.  Then, she demonstrated some different ways a rider could positively influence the horse’s motion by just changing one thing about the body.  The finale was when she had all the horses line up at one end and head down to the other end.  The riders were to weight only one stirrup and all of the horses did a nice leg yield as they went down.

This is something I need to work on with Max.  He has some strange things he does with his body.   Mostly, I see this going from a canter to a trot.  He drops out with his hind end first and sort of gives a strange skip.  I don’t know if I can help him with this or not, but polishing up the canter and canter departs is definitely one of our goals.  On the other hand, his leg yielding is not bad considering how little he was willing to yield his hindquarters at first.  I just have to work on making less noise with my legs and Colleen’s segment gives me a way that I might begin to help influence him.

The last segment on Saturday was a trailer loading with Pat.  This was one of the better trailer loading segments I’ve ever seen him do.  The horse was a grey thoroughbred mare and the human was an interesting mix of teenaged girl bravado and rebellion, which Pat neutralized with his usual schtick.  Of course, he didn’t even ask her to go near the trailer, but instead worked on circling, squeezing and so on.  At first, the horse was very jazzed up and just couldn’t keep her feet still.  Pat had her working on letting her circle, then interrupting the pattern by asking for the hindquarters.  At one point, the horse got her foot over the rope and Pat made Tawny (the owner) stand on a tarp and try to figure out how to get the rope off the horse’s hoof without stepping off the tarp.
This was one of the aspects of this demo that made it so interesting to watch.  At first, Tawny had no clue what Pat was after, but after experimenting and trying different things, she began to figure some things out on her own.  And she finally managed to get the horse to step back over the rope.  By making her solve the puzzle and not directly telling her “do this,” he allowed her to begin developing some real savvy and solve the puzzle on her own.  Eventually, you could see the horse was beginning to calm down and think more rationally.

One of the horse’s evasions was to rear straight up into the air.  Pat would just ignore the rearing and be saying “well, get her to go forward,” or “you just need to have better hindquarter control there.”  I think Tawny was expecting Pat to DO something about the rearing and was surprised when he simply ignored it and told her she needed to get the horse softer here or to respond better there.    He said the horse needed to learn to trust Tawny more, so he worked with the green ball trying to build the horse’s confidence.  Next, he had Tawny work on circles, then turn them into half circles against the wall, then into sideways and finally a squeeze.  Pat followed this up with squeezing between barrels and then moving them closer and closer until Tawny had her jumping over the barrels.  Then he had Tawny sit on the inside barrel facing away from the fence and squeeze the horse in a jump over the barrels behind her back—that was cool.

I don’t know how long that part took, but it could have been three hours it was so fascinating to watch.  People were edging closer and closer to the fence just to get a better view.  Finally, Pat had Tawny move down and practice her squeezing against the trailer ramp.  You know the progression…squeeze between human and ramp… move closer… repeat.  Then squeeze over the ramp… put your head in… and so on.   And when the horse was right, Pat would often have Tawny drop the rope to demonstrate how much release she needed to give the horse.  Pat asked Tawny what her favorite soft drink was and offered her a Dr. Pepper as a reward once she got the horse in the trailer.  Someone brought him one and he kept taunting her with it.  Once the horse would put her front feet in, Pat had Tawny take her away from the trailer slowly and then head back quickly and ask her to go in.  After a few tries of this, the horse loaded right up and Tawny got her Dr. Pepper.

A couple of weeks ago I went riding with a friend.  It was the first time Max had ever given me any trouble with the trailer.  He walked in just fine, but wouldn’t move forward to where I could tie him up.  You could see him thinking “She’s going to take me away from the girls!”  And then, ever so slowly, he just kind of oozed back out.  I let him step out, but once out, no farther back.  You could see he was testing this new thought of his, but I had the rope doubled through one of the rings and it gave me enough purchase to stop him.  So then he came slowly forward with just his front hooves, then slowly out again.  After about three times, I think he realized that this wasn’t getting him anywhere and he gave up and loaded up.  I didn’t want my friend waiting for me, so I didn’t play with it any more then, but after the ride, he tried it again—stinker!  This time, I figured it was time to work on the forward button.  After two circles of forward, he hopped right in.  It was not nearly as exciting as Pat and Tawny’s loading, but it just shows that it really isn’t about the trailer, just not wanting to go forward or not trusting or whatever.

This was just the first day and I’m sure I left out about a thousand important details, but I’d better post this now and do the second day later.

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