It’s the wrong horse Gromit!

Some of you know by now that I have pretty much given up ever trying to get Dolly sound enough to ride consistently again.  She can still walk 30-45 minutes a day, but, beyond that, things start to fall apart.  So when this friend of mine, Craig, told me he had the perfect horse for me, I got to thinking that I’d like to ride a wee bit more than Dolly could handle.  Not that 30 minutes at the walk is so bad.  It’s just that that sort of implies two fat old gals out for a casual relaxing evening stroll which is about as far from reality as you can get.  Dolly is one of those horses who NEEDS to get out and MOVE.  Take that away from her and she begins to get a bit—shall we say—flighty? rambunctious? downright wacky?  I kind of want to ride…on a horse that can go faster than a walk…and isn’t wacky!

I have been trying for weeks now to set up a time to pick up this horse to try out, but it never seemed to work out.  Finally, we said 2 o’clock Sunday.  I dutifully hitched up the horse trailer, then called him to see if we were still on.  Problem is, the pack station he runs is out of phone range, while his home is down here in the valley.  I was under the impression that the horse was at his home, so that’s where I went.  He wasn’t there, but his brother Travis was.  Travis walked out of the house and said, full of self assurance, “I know which horse you’re getting!”

So I believed him…

Which maybe I shouldn’t have…

Travis is an interesting character.  Born with multiple handicaps, my understanding is that doctors said he wouldn’t live long.  But they didn’t reckon with Bart Cranney, Travis’s cantankerous old grandfather.  As soon as it was feasible, Bart strapped Travis to the back of a horse and began hauling him along on pack trips to the back country.  Some of my earliest backpacking memories of the area are of passing pack trains with Travis tagging along in back.  I didn’t even know him then, but got to know him when he became a student at the high school.  He moved along a couple of years ago, but still comes by to visit us from time to time.  But sometimes I think Travis thinks he knows what is going on, when he really doesn’t.

I even asked him, “Did Craig tell you which horse I’m taking?”

To which he replied, “I know which horse you’re taking.”

So I followed him out to the pasture, a dry lot, really.  The front section is maybe 10 acres and the back section is about 5.  There is a fence between them, but the gate was open so that the animals had access to the whole thing.  There were maybe a dozen mules and 5 or 6 horses out there.  Travis set off confidently across the field and I dutifully followed.  He led me up to a nice looking bay horse that was maybe an appendix quarter horse.  He was also a gelding. That’s when the alarm bells should have gone off.  The little voice in my head that says rational things was saying “maybe you should just wait to hear from Craig.”

Instead I said. “This one’s a gelding, Craig told me it is a mare.”

Honest mistake really.

So we looked at all of the other bay horses out there and they were also all geldings.  But then we spotted her, a rolly-polly bay mare hidden in the center of a cluster of mules.  She looked more Morgan to me, but I conceded that she could be a half Arab.  I mean, what do I know?  The other half could be Clydesdale!  As soon as we turned our attention towards her, she left.  And all the boys followed.  So did Travis and I.  So we all walked up to the gate and through the gap into the other section of the pasture where she exuberantly took off and all the boys did too.  They stopped short at the far fence line where she apparently felt safe back amidst her cluster of admirers.  So that’s how it is!  She’s the queen bee!

Only now we had them up against a fence line, so we were in a better position to try to get nearer to her.  The funny thing was that most of the other mules and horses kept clustering around us saying “pick me, pick me.”  She was the only one playing hard to get.  After Travis made several attempts to get a halter on her, she somehow ended up nearer to me, so I bent down and reached out my knuckles for her to sniff.  She gave me a sniff, I stroked her neck and she figured the game was over and let us halter her.  Then we took her back up to the gate followed by a whole train of mules and horses.  Getting her out without any of her posse tagging along was the biggest challenge, but after that, she jumped right in the trailer.  As I pulled out, I heard her yelling and several of the boys galloped hopefully along the fence line yelling right back.

Things were not so relaxing at the other end of our little trip.  After all, what is a queen bee without all her peeps to run the hive!  She bulldozed her way out of the trailer covered in sweat with a decidedly un-queen-bee look in her eyes.  She danced around for a moment astonished at the lack of workers and drones amongst which to hide.  What ever is a girl to do?  I grabbed a carrot stick for self defense and we headed for the corrals.  Dolly let out a lusty yell which assured my charge that we were, at least, heading in a more promising direction.  I thought we were going to be okay in spite of the fact that she was walking like an really animated stork in about a foot of water when, all of a sudden, she stopped and her eyes practically popped out of her head.  I turned just in time to see Annie come sauntering over.

She, of course, was thinking “Hey guys! What’s going on? Hi there new horse…”

While new horse was thinking “A giant grey mouse!  Eeeeek!”

Good thing I had the carrot stick for self defense!  I waved it at Annie.  “No!  Stop!  Don’t come any nearer!” As the mare began to simultaneously crouch in preparation for a giant leap and swell up to twice her size in absolute terror of whatever horror was about to befall her, I was getting a better grip on the rope and wondering if I was going to be able to hang on when the storm broke.  Fortunately, at that moment Annie, choosing to be insulted by our obviously uncouth behavior, turned on a dime and stomped off in a huff.  Annie, apparently, doesn’t qualify as a peep.

Somehow, we made it over and into the corral.  I only had to bop her on the nose once to keep from getting run over, but it was obvious that in her panic, she wasn’t about to observe anyone else’s personal space.  She wasn’t much comforted by the presence of Dolly and kept looking around and yelling for her boys.  Smart mare really, Dolly, too, is a queen bee.  And though I would never scruple to propose the sport of horse fighting and would be horrified at its mere suggestion, still, the evil voice inside my head said “I wonder who would win?…”   Wisely, I placed her Bee-ness two corrals over from Dolly.  The vet has seen far too much of me in the last few years!

Once safely in the corral, we played a little bit.  Move your hindquarters.  Move your forequarters.   Back-up—not much back-up there…  Come around me, then turn and face.

Bend your neck—stiff as a board to the right, but some bending to the left.  When I first asked her to back up, she stood rigid.  I just gently bumped her nose with the halter and she got the idea.  After a couple of steps backwards, she lowered her head and licked her lips.  She visibly relaxed and her eyes got much softer.  Okay, maybe there’s hope here.  Only problem is she already reminds me too much of Dolly.  Oh, I like Dolly.  But she’s been a lot of work.  Our personalities don’t necessarily mesh very well.  I’ve certainly learned a lot from her.  I’m just not sure I want to buy another horse that is just like her.  Given the choice, maybe I’d like a different poison this time!

Still, I could work with her for a couple of weeks.  I could comb all the knots out of her mane and trim her feet.  I could work with her on the ground and see if I could get her relaxed and focused enough to ride.  Maybe I’d even be able to ride her enough to get some of the weight off and get her in a little better shape.  And maybe once she got over the shocking change in her lifestyle, she would prove to be a very different animal.  You never know, right?  So I went up to the house satisfied that I was at least willing to give it a try.

Then Craig called…

“You got the wrong horse.”

And you know, before we got hit by lightening, things like this used to surprise me, but not anymore…

The right horse was at the pack station and Craig had been busy dealing with a sick horse and etc, etc…  I said “why don’t I take this horse up to the pack station Tuesday morning and exchange her for the right horse?”

Judging from the alacrity of his answer, I think he was relieved at the suggestion.  He told me the horse I had was also a half Arab, named Rasmin.  The horse I was after was named Jasmine.   Maybe this is why Travis was confused?  (Or maybe all bay horses look alike to Travis…)  He said Rasmin was a real sweetheart and I should ride her on Monday.  I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen, but I didn’t want to insult him by suggesting that his horse might be just a little bit, you know, SCARY, when not surrounded by other equines.  Anyway, I had appointments in town Monday morning and by the time I got home, the wind was blowing 50 miles per hour and it was raining.  It was snowing in the mountains.  Not exactly riding weather.  That’s June for you.

Buck: The Novel–Last day of the clinic!

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.”

Buck: The Novel Chapter 37

Quick link to the rectangle article I referenced in an earlier post:
http://www.eclectic-horseman.com/content/view/44/33/
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.

Buck–the next installment

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.

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.”

Getting there is only half the fun…

We’ve been getting e-mails from Cal-Trans for months notifying us of the BIG CONSTRUCTION PROJECT that was to take place this summer. It would start with a bang with the road being closed every night from 7pm to 7am for two weeks. Poor David’s choices were: Add an extra hour to the morning commute, or stay with his parents in town for a couple of weeks. I figured it was annoying, but wasn’t going to affect me much at all. Then about two weeks before the clinic I realized there was no way I was going to make it to Fallon on time if I left Friday morning after they opened the road at 7—poo! So I called the motel and clinic organizer and added an extra night and made plans to drive out Thursday night instead of Friday morning. This meant more feed, more shavings, and more clothing to pack. It also meant I was going to have to zip home after work Thursday, load Dolly and take off which meant I had to have the horse trailer packed and ready to go Wednesday night. And all of this to deal with the road construction project from hell, intended to fix a problem that had already been fixed far more cheaply and effectively through the installation of a speed indicator at the corner in question. But if there’s one thing I know about government, it’s that you CAN’T STOP PROGRESS! Oh well…

It’s always interesting dealing with a new horse in a new situation like this. When I stopped to pick up the horse, I found out he is not a whole lot taller than Dolly, but larger in the bone and body. I had Dolly with me because I didn’t want to leave David worrying about dealing with my crazy neighbor’s crazy stallions, so I unloaded her and we loaded him in front because he’s bigger. At least we tried. He was perfectly willing to get into my trailer, but he wasn’t willing to stay in there. I think he was worried about the different configuration because he’s used to putting his head in the manger on a straight load (and hers is also taller than mine) and there is just a wall there in mine—he has to put his head into a corner. So we sort of cheated a little and got the job done by coordinating three people to get the door closed, hold his head and close the divider. While we played with it for a few minutes I noticed that he would move forward with his shoulder braced into me. Well, there’s the first thing we’ll have to work on. I was also hoping to have some time to play with him and the trailer after hours so he could stay in there comfortably before having to load him up and take him home.

Finally, we were on our way to Fallon. As I drove up the grade out of Yerington, I really wanted to gloat over having a truck that could actually take it at faster than 35, but I figured I’d save all gloating until after I got checked in to the motel. In the meantime, I kept a close eye on the trailer wheels back there! The best part about all that power was that I was able to get to the fairgrounds before dark and have a little light to find corrals and get the horses organized.

It was when I began bedding corrals that I discovered issue number 2. Surprise, my borrowed horse (Many thanks to Cindy!), immediately turned his back on me to fraternize with the horse at the other end of his corral. It wasn’t an aggressive move, but it was a “you don’t count” move. Well, I had a bale of shavings in my hand… so why not? So I tossed it at his butt and it kind of went “bomfph” and he kind of turned around and looked at me and said “what… is there somebody there?”

So I said hi and good boy and started working on the shavings again and he turned his back on me again. So I “bomfphed” him again with the bale of shavings. And he turned around and said “is it you again?” Well, we’re making progress anyway—I officially exist now.
The third time I started tearing open the bale, he began to turn to talk to his neighbor and I pointed at his butt and said “I wouldn’t.” You could see the cogs turning them. “Well, this neighbor horse is fascinating, but that person there just won’t leave me alone.” So he turned sideways so he could keep an eye on me and still be aware of the neighbor horse. Definite progress. We’ll keep working on this one.

Friday morning dawned clear and cold and I was out to feed about 6. Dolly needed her walk, so I took her out about 6:30. Well, you would have thought I had broken poor Surprise’s heart! He carried on and on while I walked her. There is a small warm-up circle right there, so I kept her close. Cindy warned me that Surprise can get wound up in new situations, and I didn’t want to upset him too much. This was an H1 clinic which is about riding, so we weren’t planning to start on the ground. We were supposed to be in the saddle and ready to go by 9, so after walking Dolly, I started to play with Surprise on the ground. And he tried to walk all over me… So we played a few games which mostly involved me blocking his head and defending my space! Then I “led” him to the trailer which mostly involved me blocking his head and defending my space. I felt like this spastic nut job flailing around and pushing and yanking. I thought “at least it’s early and not everybody is here yet!”

So next, we had to deal with the saddle issue. My endurance saddle looked like it might work, but I was a little worried about his withers being high. So I saddled him with my old dressage saddle. I haven’t ridden in that saddle for about 7 years, but it’s a good quality saddle and still in good shape, so I figured it would be okay. But when I say “saddled” you have to realize that it went more like this:

“Stand over there. Don’t move.”
Horse moves.
“Stand over there. No there. No right there! Don’t move.”
Horse barges into my space. More flailing arms.
“Stand over there. Don’t move.”
Horse barges… flail…
Repeat, repeat, repeat…

But the flailing level was getting less spastic and the horse movement was beginning to taper off, so we were making progress. I played with him on the ground some with the saddle on and it might as well have not been there. That was refreshing! I’m so used to my cold backed buckers. Course he still wanted to run me over, but I just kept on flailing and blocking… Next, I bridled him and took him to the arena. More playing on the ground. By now, there were so many people playing in there that I was hoping Surprise would feel more comfortable with all those buddies. Wrong. He preferred screaming for Dolly and randomly attempting to run over me whenever he got the chance. I kept his feet moving and finally decided he looked okay to get on.

So there I was… Standing in an arena full of horses… And I needed to get on… Um… So I got on from the ground. I haven’t done that in forever. One more thing to work on. The way I look getting on from the ground? The word wallow springs to mind. It would look much slicker to have a horse sidle up to the fence to me where I could slide gently and gracefully into the saddle. I train all my horses to do this. It may be the single greatest idea I’ve picked up from all of natural horsemanship.

So we rode around a bit and did a lot of one rein stops. Surprise showed a propensity to trot off on his own whenever he felt like it, but it wasn’t scary. He wasn’t leaping or getting crazy and I was able to shut him down without any problem. I worked on one rein stops every time he began to trot off followed by a release when he stood still. By the time Buck came into the arena, he was willing to stand quietly for me. Sort of.

And what about Buck you ask? Buck is the real deal. There’s not a movie Buck and a clinic Buck. What you saw in the movie is what you get in real life. I think that’s what Hollywood likes so much about him. Everything in Hollywood is plastic or injected and here’s this guy who has absolutely nothing fake about him and they see that as something really special or crazy. Course, those of us who know a few of the guys who make a living at cowboying know guys a lot like Buck. There’s a whole culture out there made up of men and women who are as real as it gets only those Hollywood types are too shortsighted to go out there and find it. But why shouldn’t someone real benefit from such a goofy, falsified bunch—and who better than Buck? After seeing him in action, I’d say he is as good a representative of the guys I know as anybody else. And as far as horsemanship goes, I’m not sure there is better representative—he’s that good. I’m just hoping I get the chance to ride with him sometime in the future without having to resort to some sort of gladiatorial contest just to get a spot in the clinic.

We had to stand around for awhile while he explained the first exercise and demonstrated a few things. Surprise seemed to be happy to stand and listen. Every once in awhile, he would shake his head or his whole body and he constantly fussed with the bit, but he pretty much stood so I wasn’t too worried about it. Later, I realized that when Surprise is fussing with the bit and shaking his head, this is not a good sign. It means his brain is moving while his feet are not. I think his brain must be a lot like mine with all these haphazard thoughts bouncing around like so many pinballs. I suspect that his thoughts are a lot simpler than mine and at that point were mostly centered around getting back to his new love, Dolly, as quickly as possible. When Buck finally finished his explanations and we started out to try the first exercise, he lasted about 60 seconds and then began to fall apart.

At first he was just kind of fizzy. But then the horse next to us got silly and he began to feed off of that and get fizzier. Since I didn’t know him, I didn’t know what to expect next and decided to bail and correct this on the ground. Now if this had been a Parelli clinic, I would have run him in a half circle into the fence about 100 times and driven him sideways and backwards a lot, but I was trying to be sort of “Parelli-free,” so I basically tried to imitate the groundwork Buck had demonstrated in his little intro and keep his feet moving until I felt he was ready to ride again. Then I wallowed back into the saddle and gave it my best shot.

The first exercise we worked on was the short serpentine. This sounds like a deceptively simple exercise that turns out to be nearly impossible. I could write about for the next seven pages and still not do it justice. Think of walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time. Now add in patting your head and rubbing your stomach while reciting the Declaration of Independence—backwards—and adding a hop every third step and we’re getting closer to the complexity inherent in doing the exercise correctly! Did I say correctly? The horse needs to maintain forward motion. The hind and front ends should be reaching evenly. The horse should be flexed correctly and deeply enough. Your changes in flexion should feel smooth, soft and be even in both directions. Your outside leg should be on the girth controlling the front end, while your inside leg should be behind the girth controlling the hind end. Your reins need to be short enough so that you can change directions without juggling them which means you will have to rotate your pelvis forward and lean a bit forward so that you aren’t pulling on the outside rein as you turn.

Honestly, if you want to try this at home, I would suggest that you audit a clinic to hear the full explanation and watch people working on it and listen to Buck’s comments on what people are doing. I had this exercise explained to me by someone who had actually done it at a clinic and had tried it on Dolly on my own and found out at the clinic that I was doing it almost entirely wrong.

Buck’s big statement was “All you have to do is about a million of these and you’ll get the hang of it.”

I’m guessing that Surprise and I did about 500 at the clinic and after four days, I really did feel like I was improving. The first thing I discovered is that Surprise’s forwardaholic tendencies were a blessing in that I didn’t need to keep asking for impulsion. Unfortunately, my dressage background reared its ugly head and made it much more difficult than it should be. I was taught the iron rule of outside leg behind the girth and inside leg on the girth. I don’t think either direction is inherently “right,” you just have to be consistent—AND I’M NOT! I kept getting mixed up and that outside leg seemed to drift back randomly and always managed to come to rest in the wrong place right when I needed it! About the time I’d get that behaving properly, I’d change directions and be confronted by the same exact insubordination from the other leg. And about that time I’d realize I was juggling my reins and not bent deeply enough and I hadn’t been thinking about whether or not the flexion was anywhere near correct and I’d swallowed my gum and forgotten the Declaration of Independence altogether!

On the other hand, Surprise turned out to be the perfect horse for me to learn this exercise on because of the dressage legs. You see, I wasn’t just taught to put them in a different place, I was taught that if your legs weren’t ON the horse and you weren’t USING your legs that you weren’t really riding the horse. I’ve worked on this a lot since beginning natural horsemanship, but under the stress and newness of the situation managed to completely revert. It turns out that Surprise doesn’t like it when you use a lot of leg. You know how some horses get pissy when you use too much leg? Well, he gets downright ANGRY—actually, enraged might be a more appropriate word. And the thing is, he’s not being a jerk, he’s being a horse—and if there’s one thing horses have taught me is that horses can only be 100% completely honest with you. So when he pinned his ears, reached around and tried to take a chunk out of my leg, sure I blocked him, but I also knew he was right. I was using way too much damned leg!

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one. Buck made some comment about us all trying to grind our heels right through our horse’s sides. Then he explained how to have an “active” leg without constantly using your heels. Holy cow! This is the first time anyone has ever explained this to me in a way that made sense! He showed us how he just fires the muscles in his thigh which sort of wiggles his foot without making any contact with the horse. It is similar to how you ask the horse to back up with just your legs in Parelli. It just never occurred to me to translate this to activating one leg to ask the horse to move away or forward or whatever depending on where you locate the leg. I always thought of phase one as putting my leg on the horse as lightly as possible, but this is a much more subtle and refined cue than that. And it finally gives me a constructive way to untrain my dressage legs because it gives me a way to use my legs while keeping them completely off the horse.

After the short serpentines, he had us do 20 one rein stops from the trot. Surprise and I were overachiever–we did around 30. He tended to shoot off gleefully at the trot every time and I was hoping he would relax a bit after the first 20 stops, but he never really saw the point in slowing it down. On the other hand, he was fine about stopping. He never argued and even if it took him a few turns to stop, I could always turn him loose at the end and he would stand and honor the stop. My biggest concern was keeping him from bashing into other horses at the trot because there were so many of us there and there were some who got a bit iffy with the added speed. In terms of herd dynamics, I suspect that Surprise is the first horse who goes crashing into the middle of the herd when the lions show up, so I’m pretty certain that avoiding collisions is not very high on his priority list.

Next we worked on hind quarter/fore quarter yields. We do a lot of these at level 3/4 in Parelli. Buck wanted more flexion in the yield than I am used to, but I think it prepares you better for the forequarter part of the yield. We were (of course) back to the whole walking and chewing gum thing here. He kept saying it is about synching up your timing with the legs. It should feel like hind-two-three-four front-two-three-four. For those of you not familiar with this, the hind quarter yield goes 180 degrees and the fore quarter yield is also 180 degrees so that you wind up walking back in the direction you started in. The trick as with so many of these things is to keep the correct parts of the body active so that you don’t just look like a merry-go-round horse spinning around a pole and you don’t just dump the horse on to the front end and you don’t look like you are pushing a wheel barrow around! And in my case, you also have to keep your leg off the horse and practice using an active leg like Buck described. Mine went more like hind-two-(hey keep those hindquarters moving)-bleagh-(that’s better)-ick front-ugh-(oops, get the outside leg right)-three-what?

I was able to get a nice feeling turn around once or twice where both ends felt light and soft, but was still hampered by trying to do too many things at once. I did better when I tried not to think about everything, but instead focused on the feel of the timing and cueing the leg as it left the ground, although in the entire weekend, I was never able to get a yield that felt like hind-two-three-four front-two-three-four as Buck described it. This was another exercise where Buck said “you just have to do about a million of these.” Okay, only 999,900 to go now…

That was pretty much what we worked on for the first day’s ride. Buck would have us come in to the middle and talk about refining things and demonstrate with his horse, then have us go out and practice more, then back in for more explanation. After the first day, he was able to do less explaining and more refining so we were able to spend more time practicing. He told us our “homework” was to take the horse out later and practice all of this stuff again. I actually had the best of intentions of doing this, but two things got in the way. My nice Stubben dressage saddle? You see, it has a tree… made of wood… and not well padded either! By the time I got out of the saddle, my lower back was on fire and we won’t even talk about my hindquarters. And then the wind came up… remember how my last show was cancelled because the jumps kept blowing over? Well, it was sort of like that and I wasn’t sure how Surprise would be in the wind so I played on the ground, but simply couldn’t force myself to climb back into the saddle that night.

Wow! I haven’t even finished the first day and this is already a novella. Kudos to anyone who has made it this far and stay tuned for the next installment.

The first day of the rest of my life…

Have you ever had one of those periods of time where you were being pulled in 17 different directions at once. I just went through one of those. Between the horses, the clinic and my Drama class, I have been running non-stop for about the last three weeks.

I know what some of you are thinking right now. “Don’t you teach math?” Not exactly sure how I got stuck with drama either, but there you are. The math teacher, who has not even acted in any kind of live performance since playing the evil stepmother in Cinderella in the third grade (you really can’t count the vacuum cleaner ballet or any of the other crazy things Sandy Pritchett got us to do on stage because they were just silly—didn’t Will marry Meghan once to the sounds of the big bopper?—not acting) is teaching drama. This is the second year I’ve taught it. I learned two things last year: a. pick an easy play—last year’s play involved lots of chaotic running around in the last scene and we never really did get it all right, and b. do whatever it takes, up to and including endless nagging/bribery/torture to get your students to memorize their lines early on—they can’t learn to act or project until they know their lines.

I’m not exactly sure how it worked out that I spent 4 days attending a Buck Brannaman clinic, then returned and had to perform our play two nights later. We originally had it scheduled for a week later, but there was a conflict with the board meeting and since the Superintendant’s son was in the play, it just seemed polite (not to mention politic) to reschedule the play for a night when he could be there. When I finally came to and realized what a horrible conflict this would create for me, it was too late to do anything. Those of you associated with schools in any way know how absolutely jammed up and crazy the last month of school is, what with science camp, 8th grade trips, walk-a-thons, Memorial Day Ceremonies, proms, spring sports finals/banquets and graduations/promotions from every grade conceivable (honestly, I think we overdo this just a wee bit? Kindergarten promotion? Really? I guess you have to be a parent to understand this one) so anyway, our date wasn’t going to change whether I liked it or not.

Last night was our performance. The kids did a great job! There were the usual few miscues, but for the most part everyone had it down pretty well. Even my most shrinking violet was able to speak up and act some. With any luck, we will get an English teacher who can teach drama next year and I will be able to go back to hiding in my classroom surrounded by my graphing calculators and dodecahedrons. I would really like to go out on this success, although I have to say that I am kind of starting to get the hang of it.

So, today, I can get back to living my life without this huge metaphorical boulder hanging over my head. I keep getting e-mails asking when I’m going to write about the clinic. It may take me another two weeks to do it justice, but I am working on it now that I am able to: a. sleep and b. stop nagging kids to memorize lines.

We’re going where?

Have you ever known one of those kids who got so excited about doing something that his or her parents couldn’t tell them anything ahead of time? My brother in law and his wife had that problem. Years ago, they booked a trip to Disneyland. They knew that if they told the kids about the trip, they would get so excited they would make themselves sick, so they told them they were going camping that weekend instead. They packed three sleeping kids into the car in the middle of the night and drove all night long. They finally figured it was safe to tell the kids at their breakfast stop that morning about 100 miles north of Disneyland. The two girls greeted the news with howls of delight, but they were accompanied by anguished tears from their son. It seems he had a new hatchet and he’d really wanted to get to use it camping that weekend. They had a great time anyway, but had to go camping the next weekend so their son could use his hatchet.

Anyway, I’m that person. I have this thing where I’m afraid I will jinx something if I get too excited about it. Which is why I haven’t told too many people that I’m riding with Buck Brannaman this weekend. I’ve thought about riding with him for years, but somehow it never seemed to work out. He used to do clinics in Smith Valley every year, but at the time I didn’t know enough about natural horsemanship and the Dorrance/Hunt legacy to understand what I was missing. Oh, I thought about auditing, but never got around to it. I did know a little bit about Ray Hunt, but that was filtered through comments from folks who had ridden with him. They were all pretty good ropers, so I thought you had to be a good roper to ride with Ray. More missed opportunities.

Along the way, I also picked up some interesting notions about Buck. Somewhere along the line, I got the idea that you had to be a top hand to ride with him too, so I wasn’t “good enough.” Then I started to do Parelli, and was told that Buck hates Parelli Natural Horsemanship and if you show up with a carrot stick or Parelli halter, he’ll send you packing. I was also told he was mean and liked to make women cry. I was also told that if you did Parelli, you weren’t good enough to ride with Buck anyway so don’t bother. So I spent some time shunning the notion of Buck and ignoring any chances that came up. But then, I figured out that the same people who were telling me I wasn’t good enough to ride with him because I did Parelli had all been doing PNH when they started riding with him. So I finally put two and two together—thank God for that math degree, huh?. I mean, I’ve heard a lot of the same negative stuff about Parelli. Heck, I’ve even heard of one woman who wouldn’t ride with Parelli because “his eyes are too close together!”

I figured out that maybe it was time for me to suck it up and make up my own mind! So I started looking for a clinic to audit in 2011, but I just couldn’t find one close enough and at the right time to make it work. And then the movie came out. Buck went from being some guy that does natural horsemanship to “that guy in the movie!” Everybody wanted to ride with Buck. His 2012 schedule wasn’t even out and half of his clinics were already full. I was beginning to think I was going to get to ride with him in maybe 10 years if I was lucky. But then I had a stroke of luck… I like to lurk on a certain Internet forum which is mostly made up of people who ride with Buck. They are very pro-Buck and mostly anti—you know who. I don’t like a lot of the snarky stuff, but there is also some good, thoughtful discussion about horsemanship there. (The one time I posted, I was castigated for not harboring enough anti—you know who sentiments.)

So one day while I was lurking away, I found a thread about Buck’s 2012 schedule having been posted—that day. I went to his website thinking to find something close enough to audit and the sun came out from behind a cloud and the Angels all sang “Laaaaa…” There was a clinic scheduled in Fallon (about 2 hours drive) in May. I am pleased to note that I really did learn something from our tractor buying experience. I called right away and said “where do I mail the check?” I had David mail it the next morning on his way to work! And don’t bother coming home if you forget! And I was in.

Only, I didn’t have a horse… Well, at least not a sound one. Kind of like our chain saw. I told David I was thinking about buying a new chain saw.

To which he replied “we have a chain saw…” long pause “Oh, you mean one that works!”

Um, yeah… I want a horse that works. So I redoubled my efforts to get Dolly sound. To which she responded by getting lamer.

Sometime in February, I finally started to realize that I was going to need to find another horse to ride. A friend of mine who runs a pack station told me about a half-Arab mare he’d like to sell. He says she has a nice fast walk, but it’s so fast that she outwalks the mules. He has to keep holding her back and she gets stressed and she would probably be better off not leading a string of pack mules. Well I heard fast walk and go-ey and thought she sounded like the perfect horse for me. The plan was that I would borrow her for a month and ride her and decide if I liked her. He was planning to pick up the horses from their winter pasture about a week before the clinic, so I’d have a week to get to know her and figure out which saddle fits and so on.

And before anyone asks why we didn’t just go out there and catch her in the pasture (because I did think of that), I’ll explain. The pasture is huge—it’s like a half section or more—and these are pack station horses, not the cream puff pets that you and I have who want to be tucked in at night with a mug of hot chocolate in their jammies. Once they are turned out for the winter, they aren’t planning to be caught by anybody for any reason. So I had to wait until he could round them up and bring them into the neighbor’s corrals to be enslaved for the coming season. Only that fell through… Which is how I found myself with no horse to ride three days before I was supposed to leave for the clinic!

So I went home that night and put an appeal on Facebook. By morning, I had not one, but four possible rides! It’s amazing how generous people are. Two of the horses are located in Smith Valley, which is on the way to Fallon, so now I had to choose! How great was that? I talked at length to both owners and decided to ride an appendix Quarter Horse who sounds pretty similar size and disposition-wise to Po. I decided that maybe I should stay within my comfort zone just a little bit since this whole clinic experience will be very different from what I’m used to.

So the horse trailer and truck are packed to the gills. I think I’ve packed half of the clothes I own—the half without any of you know who’s logos on them (just in case)! I’ve also packed a bunch of extra tack “just in case” for this unfamiliar horse. I may spend half the weekend fiddling with saddles, bits, bridles and girths, but I think that will work out fine. I’m ready for a heat wave as well as a snowstorm although as I remember, the most likely weather event is going to be wind. (I’ve been to Wyoming folks, and I swear Nevada’s windier.) I haven’t been to the fairgrounds out there for more than 20 years, but I distinctly remember that we had to cancel the last few classes at the last show I went to because the wind kept blowing the jumps over! I’m really praying for sun, but only because I got the coolest new sun visor for my helmet and I want to try it out. Couple of days of sun and I’ll be praying for snow!

So I think I’m all prepared to go. I’m doing my darnedest to not get to excited or happy yet. I’m still a little worried about jinxing myself—especially after my boat experience last weekend. Maybe I’ll just wait until I get checked in to the Motel to post this particular blog.

The Adventures of Nighthawk

Episode 23: Nighthawk dictates a letter…

Oops—sorry, wrong comedy show.

Nighthawk is our boat. Usually when it becomes known in conversation that David and I are the proud owners of a boat, people jump to the conclusion that we are out waterskiing or fishing every weekend. Unfortunately for us, we aren’t. Instead, we belong to that great bastion of nautical snobbery—sailors! I say unfortunately, because waterskiing and/or fishing would be infinitely cheaper. You water-skiers are sniggering right now and thinking to yourselves “you haven’t priced new water skis lately, have you?”
To which I reply that one cleat on our sailboat, which is mainly comprised of cleats, lines, downhauls, blocks, jibs, clews, more lines and gudgeons (whatever they are—we just point vaguely at the boat whenever we say the word gudgeon and hope no one ever catches on that we haven’t a clue); anyway, one cleat on our boat can cost more than a new set of water skis any day of the week, and you will need dozens of these cleats just to tie up to the dock, much less sail the boat anywhere. I have this game I play whenever we visit West Marine products wherein I look for the most expensive piece of deck tackle I can find. It is usually in the neighborhood of around $300-$400 dollars. And these are the cleats they are willing to put on display. The really expensive stuff is kept in a vault somewhere guarded by trolls and dragons. (And don’t even ask what a gudgeon costs!)

But this expensive hobby seems to be our lot in life and over the years we have owned a succession of sailboats. This particular iteration is a 1978 Balboa 21 that we bought a couple of years ago from one of David’s friends who was leaving the country and thought it might be smarter to sell the boat to us rather than try to sail it to England. This is our second season with her and we spent most of the first season trying to brainstorm a really cool name. I really liked “Two If.” Get it? Huh? Okay, David didn’t like it either, so he tried coming up with names like “Summer Wind,” only in other languages like Finnish or Latin. None of those really struck a chord. At one point, I thought he had settled on naming her “Ellie E” after his grandmother, but after trying it on for a few weeks, he nixed that one too. Somehow, she became Nighthawk. We both love our nighthawks, but I wonder if, somehow, naming a boat after a bird that will suddenly execute a plunging dive is such a great idea. I picture us sailing happily along one day when she chooses to live up to her namesake and—whoosh—dives straight down Edmund Fitzgerald like to the bottom of the sea and people ever after wonder what really happened to the Soule’s.

Nighthawk also happens to be our first ever ballasted boat. And what is ballast? Do you remember Weebles? “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!” Probably not—they were a pretty stupid toy actually, but the point is that Weebles didn’t fall down because they had ballast. You could hit them and they would just pop back upright and that was pretty much the extent of the fun. So although they did have a catchy slogan, you can see why they never really caught on. But Weebles notwithstanding, the concept of ballast has been used for years in a somewhat laughable attempt to get boats to stay upright. This is especially true for sailboats which have a tendency to “heel” or “lean” inconveniently whenever the wind blows which is, ironically, what makes sailing fun—wind that is. So heeling is just a part of the game and is also, incidentally, a smashing way to have fun scaring inexperienced sailors or “landlubbers.”

“Boy, she’s really heeling today! Hope we don’t have us a accident!”

And it mostly works like it is supposed to. Say you are sailing along and you get hit by a rogue wave or attacked by a sea monster or a giant shark or run down by a totally oblivious cargo ship. And let’s say it is a really big totally unrealistic mechanical shark that actually hits the boat hard enough to roll it completely over until it is upside down. That’s right folks—at that point, the boat will act like a giant Weeble and pop back upright (only a lot slower than your basic Weeble, so take a deep breath). Of course, it will go sailing merrily off without you because you forgot to use a lifeline and are too busy being eaten by a giant mechanical shark to swim after it. But that’s the general idea.

Ballast is a really great thing to have when you are sailing on Topaz Lake, where you can be sailing along, let’s say north, on one tack, then suddenly find yourself sailing along, still going north, but on a completely different tack wondering what the hell just happened. We once sailed in a complete circle on the same tack, which is only possible if you are sailing on a lake in the Sierra or in the giant whirlpool from Pirates of the Caribbean. In an unballasted boat, these quirky little lake sailing tricks can be quite exciting. The word sailors use is “sporting.” Conditions on Topaz Lake are pretty much either what we call “boring” or they are “sporting.” Frankly, they were beginning to turn both of us into “weenies.” (I think that’s the proper nautical terminology.) And I will admit to being far more weenieish than David. In fact, I was beginning to dread sailing on the lake, so I was all for buying a ballasted boat.

But ballast has its drawbacks. I mean, basically, it is weight. And basically, weight makes things weigh more. A lot more! So my poor truck went from hauling Hobie Cats and Wayfarers, any one of which could be picked up and moved by 3-4 burly men or women and to which the truck responded “Huh? Is there something attached back there?” To hauling a ballasted behemoth which you couldn’t pick up and move with 20 college students AND a Volkswagon and that made it creak and groan almost as badly as it did when hauling two horses across Nevada in the horse trailer. I already knew it was time to replace the truck, but Nighthawk was truly the beginning of the end.

On our final trip “over the hill,” we noticed a funny noise coming from the front end of the truck. We pulled over somewhere east of Lodi and checked all over the front end. We couldn’t see anything, so we kept on driving. We checked it again somewhere west of Lodi, but still couldn’t find the funny noise. Finally, when we made our last turn off of the freeway, David noticed the steering seemed wobbly and we pulled over and this time he noticed that we only had 3 lug nuts holding the left front wheel on. We thought we would just get some more lug nuts until we realized that the studs that hold them on were gone also! So we tightened up the three remaining lug nuts, (only one of which was really doing anything in terms of actually holding the wheel on the truck at that point) and limped the last few miles to Mom’s house. The next morning, it was off to Schwab, who was fortunately able to fix it. The mechanic said “oh, yeah, this happens all the time on these older trucks!” They always make these statements after the fact as if any fool ought to know… Why didn’t we lose the wheel when we were driving 65 on the freeway? We lead very blessed lives.

So we bought a new truck. Used actually, because we would have to rob a bank to be able to afford a new truck and I don’t think they let you sail or ride horses in prison. It is much heavier duty than the old truck, has far fewer miles and is much younger. So when our first sailing trip of the year rolled around, we thought we were set. Nighthawk emerged from her winter hibernation with a newly finished centerboard, a new Genoa and a few other improvements. (Note to water skiers: the stuff to finish the centerboard costs around $75 a quart and you will need several quarts to get the job done so you still don’t impress me!) We were all set to go. Friday afternoon, I drove home from work prepared to drive her in to town to meet David. As I was driving up the hill out of Holbrook Jct, I remember thinking what a nice day it was and how nice it was to have a diesel that didn’t even need to slow down going up a hill hauling a heavy boat. You could almost hear the strains of Beethoven’s Pastoral playing in my head, when suddenly there was a jerk and a whump behind me. I looked back in the side view mirror to see the left wheel of the boat trailer separate itself from the trailer laughing “I’m finally free!” and continue on down the road on it’s own little parallel journey.

So I calmly stepped on the brakes and pulled off the road. As I did so, my renegade wheel wandered off into the oncoming lane without the slightest sign of slowing down or turning off. Uh, Oh! I began to flash my lights madly hoping that the cars coming in the opposite direction might notice that they were about to go toe to toe with my fleeing wheel. Fortunately, the first car saw it and swerved at about the same time the wheel made it to the far side of the lane and shot off the road altogether and into the weeds. Whew! Then I freaked out. I tried calling David, but I could barely talk. Fortunately, the next person who pulled over to help me was my cousin’s husband—also a sheriff! It’s handy to have relations who drive vehicles with flashing lights and radios and clout with dispatch. He was nice enough to position his vehicle with its lights in such a way that the other cars and 18 wheelers would slow from 70 to a sedate 65 as they passed by us to show how safety minded they are. He also called for a tow truck.

If you’ve ever waited by the side of a road for a tow truck, you know what it is like to be poised on the edge of a black hole. Scientists who study black holes should stop designing fancy experiments and just study people waiting for tow trucks—their data would be much more valid than anything they could postulate from observations using the Hubble Telescope. Of course, if astronauts knew that being poised on the edge of a black hole is, in fact, identical to waiting beside the road for a tow truck, they would never volunteer to go on the mission. David actually made it from Carson City, through rush hour traffic to my location, before the tow truck did. After much debate, we decided to have the tow truck haul the boat into Schwab and leave it there for repairs.

This involved a lot of scooting, pulling, lifting, raising and lowering of ramps and general praying on everyone’s part, since it turns out that putting a one wheeled boat trailer which happens to be carrying a well ballasted boat up on top of a rather large tow truck is as complicated a procedure as docking the space shuttle to the International Space Station. But, we finally got it done and chained up and the tow truck headed for Gardnerville with the entire shebang—boat, trailer, tow truck and all—heeling slightly to the left as any good nautical operation probably should. I was somewhat concerned about what the oncoming drivers thought of this monstrosity that must have appeared, from their perspective, to be diving off to port at each and every moment, but none of them swerved off or acted the slightest bit concerned. They were probably too busy texting their spouses or BFF’s to even notice. Getting the boat and trailer off of the tow truck turned out to be every bit as complicated as getting it up there with the added excitement that gravity, which you would think would help, was in fact being just a little too helpful.

So Nighthawk still hasn’t tasted water under her keel yet this year. Aside from a black rub mark (from the tire hitting the boat) which David was able to buff out, a small crack in the gel coat and a crumpled fender on the trailer, there was no major damage. David spent most of the day Saturday checking out the Benecia wind reports which were so dismally bad (blowing 2, gusting to 3) that he was kind of relieved we didn’t make it after all. I was disappointed because I was really looking forward to calculating the mileage on the new truck while hauling something over the mountains. Still, that’ll happen soon enough. The only lingering affect reared its ugly head today. I took my horse trailer in for its annual wheel bearing pack and at every bounce, wobble, shake, wiggle and vibration, I was ready to pull over to check the lug nuts “just in case.” I had to force myself to keep driving, but I kept looking back at the tires to convince myself they were all still there anyway.

Which soundtrack do you hear?

I haven’t written much lately. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, but can’t seem to get much down on (virtual) paper. That’s because my life isn’t always a sitcom.

It seems to me like most people really enjoy reading what I write when I’m writing about the absurd or funny parts of my life, but not so much when I write about the not so funny stuff that happens. So when I don’t or can’t turn what is happening into something absurd or funny, maybe I shouldn’t write at all…? So I thought about that and decided this is my blog and it’s not about me being funny—it’s about me writing all the stuff down that is whirling around in my brain just to get it out of there. If it also happens to be interesting or entertaining reading for you, then yeah!

But it is an interesting concept—that my life could be a sitcom. Because I don’t care how funny you think your life is, or how funny you are personally, nobody really lives a sitcom life. We all have our ups and downs to deal with and our crosses to bear. Some of us have bigger crosses and some of us bear up under them with a lot more grace than others. One of my resolutions in the last year or so is not to whine as much. When I write funny stuff, that is my way of taking what I would like to whine about and turning it into something non-whiny. I mean, what it really boils down to is which soundtrack you are listening to. Am I hearing the laugh track or the dramatic duhn-duhn-duhn every time something happens? Because basically, in life, we all face the choice of whether to laugh at life and move on or get stuck believing it is a drama and just… get stuck.

Still, it has been difficult to write lately for a lot of reasons, and one of them is that it has been winter. Don’t get me wrong—I love winter! Unfortunately, my somewhat slightly malfunctioning brain does not. My brain wants daylight. It would be happy if I lived on the equator. It would be ecstatic if I would move to, say Australia, from October through March every year. When we visit the San Juan Islands in June, it is overjoyed by all of the light, light, light! Every time we go, I think how wonderful it would be to live there until I realize that I wouldn’t even make it through the first October. I would have to sleep in a tanning bed, and then the skin cancer would get me.

But I can only use winter as an excuse for so long. The days have been getting longer for quite some time now and yesterday, I saw my first phlox of the year. Spring has sprung and I still haven’t posted anything to my blog. I seem to have developed a sort of inertia when it comes to writing. It is as if I have been stumbling around attempting to come out of hibernation for a while now and not really succeeding. I can also see that this writing a blog thing has to become a habit. I am in the habit of thinking about things (maybe too much sometimes), but not so much in the habit of writing them down. I guess that is kind of like a sitcom episode—Person resolves to complain less about life sucking by writing a blog about it being a sitcom, only person can’t write about how life sucks because life sucks too much, only life doesn’t really suck that bad—it’s just an excuse to not write the next episode of the sitcom!

I am reminded of those old basic programs where you would get yourself stuck in an infinite loop. I can’t remember the key sequence you used to break out of the loop, but it was something like ctrl-S. So here it is—ctrl-S. I’m officially out of hibernation. I’ve had my virtual cup of coffee. Can you hear the laugh track?