Archive for the 'Horses' category

 | December 15, 2010 2:32 am

Note: Still working on the book.

I just saw this quote from Neil Gaiman and loved it.  He’s talking about one of his cats, and why he’ll miss it when it’s gone (even though it is mean, grumpy, and dangerous).

I’ve also felt this sort of strange affection toward animals that might be, charitably, called evil. I think Gaiman does a nice job of describing why these creatures find a place in our hearts.

There used to be seven cats in this house.  There were always seven cats.  As one died off or went walkabout, never to return, another would turn up at the back door.  But two large white dogs sort of put an end to that, alas.  So as the older cats have died off, the house cat numbers have diminished.

Cocunut, who was once Maddy’s kitten, is the youngest.  He’s a very amiable, easygoing sort of cat.

And then there’s Princess, who is not amiable, and is only easygoing in the sense that the mad old lady who lives down the road and glares at you when you walk past her house is easygoing if you don’t disturb her.  Princess is the oldest cat we have.  She arrived here on June 26th, 1994, Holly’s 9th birthday.  But I’d glimpsed her at a distance, a feral ghost living wild in the woods for a good year before that.  She’s feisty and grumpy and likes making people do their trick for her, which is turning on the tap so a trickle of water comes out, and then waiting while she drinks a little.

She glares at you if you turn the tap off before she’s done.

She also likes making visitors pet her.  In the old days, she would let you know she was done being stroked by viciously sinking her teeth into you, deep and hard.  But she’s tool old for that nonsense now.  I used to have to muzzle her before I could trim her nails or remove knotted balls of fur.  Now she’ll submit to anything. Beneath the fur she weighs nothing at all …

And I just discovered that she has a lump on her left cheek.  I’ll get her to the vet… I hope it’s not something big and bad.  I’ve grown so used to having a bad tempered but beautiful cat that I need to warn visitors about.  She’s outlasted all the cats I loved and all the cats I bonded with.

And I think she’s grown very used to me.

When Zoe died, it was really easy to explain to people how much you could miss a sweet, gentle cat who was nothing but a ball of utter love.  I’m going to have a much harder time one day, months or even years from now, explaining why I miss the meanest, grumpiest, and most dangerous cat I’ve ever encountered.

I totally understand where he’s coming from.

As an example of one of my evil animals, I once had a horse that thought it necessary to buck people off and tap-dance on them.  Over the course of two years he bucked off and kicked everyone who thought they could ride him.  This includes me.  Twice.

(Most of the time, though, he was just fine.  It was just that once in a while when he felt the need to remind you he was evil where you had to be careful.  I’m not really sure what happened to that horse.  My parents waited until I was living overseas, and then sold him quietly. Now, he’s probably off running the Evil League of Evil.)

 | August 21, 2010 7:39 pm

Peekaboo-1Today is a bad day.  I just learned that my horse, Peekaboo, died.

She was beautiful, amazing and just about perfect, and,  I think that I’m going to miss her terribly.

Actually, if how I feel right now is any indication, I already do.

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 | October 22, 2009 4:09 pm

Indoor Arena Amongst horse people, one of the fastest ways to raise hackles or hostilities is to call someone a “surface worker.”  It’s just one of those things that you don’t do in polite company.  After all, one of the reasons people are drawn to horses is to enjoy a real and deep connection.   To call them a “surface worker” is to accuse them of putting on a a circus act.  Certainly, the relationship may look real and geniune; but it’s not.  It’s not nothing but an act and fraud.

Given how the word is used and understood, I find it extremely ironic that so few people understand that “surface work” and it’s attendant ideas of conditioned response, sensitization, desensitization and instinct are actually very important to horse training.  If you want to have any type of real relationship or meaningful communication, you need to do a lot of very tedious surface work to get there.

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 | June 22, 2009 6:55 pm

It's an important truth that bears repeating: most problems are not caused by the horse but by the human.Anyone who has been deemed “good with horses” probably gets asked one particular question at some point:  “What do you think that I should do to solve this problem that I and my horse are having?”  While I know some who get annoyed or even frustrated by it, by far the majority of the experienced horse people seem to look forward to having their knowledge queried.  After all, such a query is as an opportunity to share opinions and insights with an individual who actually wants the input.  That doesn’t happen very often.

And more often than not, the more experienced hand is able to offer some insight that might have a positive impact on a horse-human partnership.  When that happens, it is a tremendously good outcome.  Other times, though, no amount of advice or insight will do anything for the human being or for the animal.  There are a lot of reasons for this: the owner might be trying to manage a behavior beyond their ability, or the root causes might have an intractable physical or mental origin.

As a result, every experienced horse person (whether they be a trainer, riding instructor or long-time rider) should keep one particular line in their arsenal of tools.  It shouldn’t be used often, but there are circumstances where it is not only warranted, but necessary.

Here’s the short version: Sell your horse.

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 | June 18, 2009 7:05 pm

Alice in Wonderland

It is possible to draw lessons on horsemanship from a tremendously diverse range of sources.  For me, one of the most important has it’s roots in an unlikely place, a brief exchange between the Chesire Cat and Alice while she first toured Wonderland:

“Chesire Puss,” she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider.  “Come, it’s pleased so far” thought Alice, and she went on.  “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

When considering the important topics of how a horse’s body is balanced, or how to effectively communicate an idea; truer words have never been spoken.  Think about it this way: for something to be labeled a journey, it must have a point or a a destination.  To merely go about doing things isn’t any kind of travel, but only so much wandering (to put it kindly) or a sure indication that the traveler is lost (to put it accurately).

At some point in your travels, you need to have a destination and realize that it matters.  If you want to travel to London, you are unlikely to do so via route of Buenos Aires.  And if you want to turn a horse in a circle, you are unlikely to accomplish that goal by merely pulling on the head.  Eventually, you must move the feet.Ultimately, you should be communicating your message to the horse's feet.

Various individuals wiser than myself have said it like this:

If you get control of the feet and the legs, the rest comes easy … Set it up so that he gets relief from moving his feet.  horses can figure out so many things if you arrange it and have a little patience.

To restate this nugget of wisdom in the language of cause and effect, the ultimate effect (or destination) is how a horse moves its feet.  Thus, to get a horse to accomplish a particular goal or to communicate an idea, it’s very important to make sure that you are effectively pushing your ideas to the end destination.

Let’s say that we are teaching a horse to lead, or asking for the hindquarters to move in response to a sideways tug on the rope.  The desired outcome, whether it be lateral disengagement or forward motion, culminates in a single important end-point: movement in the desired direction.  But there are a huge number of things which need to happen prior.  First, the horse will likely relax and soften, looking in the desired direction.  Next, the muscles along the horse’s back and rump will contract, causing it to rise.  Then, the horse will begin to shift into the direction of travel.  Finally, the desired foot moves and the horse is propelled through space.  Each of the intermediary stages involve a different amount of energy and commitment.  To reposition the head, or to shift the body, requires substantially less energy than to move the feet.  But only the movement of the feet actually facilitate the end goal rather than serving as a intermediary point.

To really get an effective response from the horse, you need start with the end in mind.  Thus, when asking for disengagement, you are asking for the feet to move, not for the head or the back.  And while a good rider appreciates that there are many intermediate points to any behavior, and that providing a well timed release at any of them (often called rewarding the slightest try), will condition the horse to actively seek out the next step in the chain, you are still asking for the feet to move and not for the head to bend.  Becoming obsessed about some intermediate step in the middle can lead to confusion and frustration.

All too often, I hear people complain that their horse is “stuck,” or “stiff,” or “being resistant.”  Though the language describing the problem might be different, the behavior looks shockingly similar.  First, the horse is physically stiff and may be actively pulling or pushing against the aid.  Next, rather than having fluid and graceful motions, they are short and heavy – as though the horse were moving through molasses.  Last, the there may be behavior typically associated with resistance –perhaps there is a kink in the tail, or the head is elevated, or the mouth locked.

All too often, the cause of these “problems” is the same: the rider isn’t communicating the message to the feet.  Consider, what would happen, for a minute, if you attempted to disengage the horse’s hindquarters simply by dragging on the lead rope.  Through sheer physical leverage, it is rather easy to forcibly position the horse’s head to the inside; but nearly everything else would be out of balance.

The majority of the body weight would be shifted outward, a position that makes it tremendously difficult for her to follow the feel of the rope.  So when the horse does eventually move, rather than being a soft and willing response, it is far more likely that the horse will brace and pull away.  Should this happen, the “resistance” has nothing to do with the horse’s frame of mind or intentions, and everything to do with position and motion.


Now, think about how the same goal (disengagement of the hind end) might be accomplished in the round pen with the horse at liberty.  First, you teach the horse about motion: how to move forward when pressure is placed behind; how to slow, or change direction when pressure is placed in front; and how to hook on when the handler changes stance from assertive to inviting.  Without the physical connection of the  lead-rope you are forced to focus on the desired end-product, where the horse is moving; and to accomplish anything, you must effectively pushing the feet.  When the motion does come, the head is automatically in the correct position.  When you invite the horse to hook-on, the head follows the direction of motion.  It just happens. With no resistance.  And nothing should change when the leap rope is snapped back on.  In many ways, the lead rope only exists to refine the already clear communication.

When the process happens in reverse, failure to think about destinations can make for some spectacular messes.  We’ve all seen horses who are heavy on the forehand or behind the bit because head position (“collection”) was desired at the exclusion of movement.  We’ve also seen horses that step behind while doing a turnabout for the same reason. 
In each case, it’s not about what the horse’s head is doing, but what the horse’s body is doing.  As noted above, physical manipulation of the head does not result in mastery of motion.  In fact, some of the worst disasters I’ve ever seen (as a riding instructor, clinician, or emergency response technician) occurred when an unfortunate rider made just this assumption.

So, rather than aim for having the head “in the right position,” instead focus on effectively rounding the horse’s back and getting the hind-end to engage.  In this case, the use of  seat and legs will have a far more potent influence on the position of the head than hands alone could ever hope to achieve.  It’s the head that balances the feet, not the other way round.

 | June 2, 2009 12:25 am

Peekaboo - 2008 0328-5 Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I am self-centered, arrogant and more than slightly conceited.  In addition, I have exquisitely “discerning” tastes, pretenses to education, and sophistication.  Put simply: I am a snob.

I like to have nice things and I enjoy browsing and shopping in tremendously stuffy stores.  I want people to think about the overall experience and quality,  and I have an extremely low tolerance for when they don’t.

Unfortunately, being a snob is substantially easier when you have the income and social standing to support it.  In what I consider to be one of the tragedies of existence, I have neither.  In a genuflection to reality, therefore, I take the approach of owning a very small number of high quality things.  Quality, not quantity.

While I try to apply this rule to most things, there is one area of my life where I make absolutely no compromises: horsemanship.  My tack needs to look, feel and hang a certain way.  Some of these preferences stem from the “need” to look a certain way, but many are practical.  I hold strong opinions about how things should be done and get more than a bit fussy when life doesn’t follow my lead.

Consider, for example, a specialized riding hackamore that I often use (seen modeled by my somewhat evil mare, Peekaboo).  I like for it to be made from yacht cord, with a 25 foot lead rope and rawhide touches and tassels. (Style is just as important as substance in most everything.)  While I might be willing to concede that my hackamore is a glorified halter, the various evolutions I’ve added are extremely important to me.  I’ve ridden quite a few colts, and I’ve found that spending the first 30 to 60 days in a halter helps develop a foundation that will last for the rest of the horse’s life.  The tugs, weighting and motions of the halter are first instilled on the ground and then transfer to work under saddle.  You can use a halter with 8 foot rein and 25 foot lead right from the very beginning without having to change tools and this can make a big difference in the horse’s overall development.

There’s just one problem: I’ve never been able to find a 35 foot lead made of yacht cord and I’m simply not willing to go with nylon.  (The yacht cord is important because I like its feel, weight, and durability.)  Additionally, no one makes a halter with rawhide and tasseled accents. (What can I say, I’m a sucker for horse hair tassels.)   Because no one sales the tack I want, I am left with only one alternative: I make it myself.

Hand made (by me) halters, headstalls, riata, and a large variety of other things made from rawhide (in addition to those made of string, leather and miscellaneous baling twine) all hang in my tack locker.  Each one was (more or less) lovingly crafted with an eye to detail and quality.  But even taking the route of the obsessive connoisseur doesn’t solve every problem.

Like … how can the materials for custom, hand-made tack cost more than the store-bought finished product?Don’t believe me?  Consider my quest for the perfect lariat (a handbraided piece of rawhide wonder known as a riata) some 60 feet in length.  I’ve been saving for rawhide so that I can braid it for a while now.  Naturally, it will be my third riata since I just can’t seem to keep my hands on the others.  The first one that I created was both spectacularly beautiful and according to a good braider friend of mine, utterly unusable.  Thus, it hangs in my office as decoration.  On the second round, I created a usable piece of kit (which quite unfortunately parted my company during a weekend roping clinic).Braided Reata

Thus, we are now on round three.  From the first two attempts, I have given up trying to find usable rawhide in my local area.  The local leather supplier largely pedals crap, and overcharges to boot.  My first experiment in buying hide from California was an utter disaster.  It was only after a great deal of searching and writing to every commercial braider in the Western US that I was finally pointed to a nice little website that sales quality stuff.  The catch?  It’s horrifically expensive and the supplier is often out of stock.  Apparently, there is a reason why most serious raw-hide braiders both treat and cut their own string.  Pity that I don’t really have the time, space, or overall desire to do so.  Gives new perspective to, “If you want it done right, do it yourself.”  More depressing, you can find a perfectly passable riata on e-bay for between $150 and $200 dollars (a little less than it would cost me to braid my own).

This situation doesn’t only apply to raw-hide or leather.  Oh no, getting hold of the rope of preference (double braided yacht-cord) is just as difficult.  There are only three stores in my area which will sale it by the foot, and each one overprices it horribly (often 2.00 per foot or more).  It’s even difficult to find it online for much less (about $1.60 per foot from u-braid it).  Given my taste for longer leads, it is essentially impossible to get rope cut for less than fifty dollars.  And yet, fifty dollars can buy a huge amount of crappy rope. Even worse, you can buy a Parelli hackamore for about $75.  What. The. Hell?

It’s just not fair.  Since when are raw materials more expensive than finished products?

I suppose that I could use inferior materials, but that would lead to an inferior product.  And inferior products are simply intolerable.  Truly, it is a curse to be gifted with superior taste.

 | May 7, 2009 8:08 pm

Note: Earlier this afternoon, I came across a note on a horsemanship list that inspired a bit of writing.  A very nice person was quoting a part of True Unity by Tom Dorrance.  This gave me the opportunity to reminisce a little bit and think a few relatively deep thoughts.  After I finished writing my response, I was quite taken with it (something doesn’t happen often) and I have, thus, decided to post most of it here.

Dear Margaret (name changed to protect the innocent),

While you may not know it, you just made my day. In the years since Tom and Bill Dorrance passed away, I haven’t heard or seen much about either one of them. They have dropped from the casual conversation of most horse people that I associate with, their books don’t come up with much frequency and I don’t often hear their names. With their passing, Ray Hunt solidly stepped into the role of horsemanship’s grandfather and became the appeal of ultimate authority. About the same time, Tom’s little blue book seemed to disappear. When trying to find a copy for a friend, I was alarmed to see that Amazon had it listed as out of print and “new” copies started from a heart stopping $115.

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 | March 23, 2009 4:36 pm

It seems that every introduction to horses or horsemanship must begin with some mystically beautiful scene: wild mustangs charging across the open plains, jaw-dropping feats of disciplined horsemanship, or breathtaking leaps during a majestic steeplechase. It is unfortunate that such beginnings often reek of propaganda and those who use them double as slick salesmen. Instead of the reality, such individuals choose to promote a beautiful mythology – which like any good mythology has elements of truth, but which have been distorted and manipulated.

Yes, it is true that horses are deeply beautiful creatures: majestic, graceful, intelligent, and wonderful; even spiritual. Nevertheless, they aren’t mysterious or magical. Most who start out with horses often abandon the pursuit within a year, and even fewer remain after five years; and while I somewhat doubt some specific numbers I once heard cited (which claimed that the disenchanted were as high as 80%), I believe the trend. I also believe that an important reason why so many leave in frustration is that they never found the promised vision of sublime mystical perfection. The first time you mount a horse, the perfect moment immediately cracks and you are left with the grittiest parts of reality: horses are big, they have their own ideas, and those notions often don’t match ours. Further, when you sit on their backs, you are utterly at their mercy. This, of course, is to say nothing of the mud, dust, shit and miscellaneous smells. That can be a lot of reality to absorb in a single session.

Nevertheless, even among those who passionately pursue horsemanship, there is often a tremendous degree of stagnation. In my late teens and early twenties, I spent some time as a traveling horse trainer. In three-day spurts, I would work with five or ten people at a time. We would talk about concerns or problems and together we would struggle for a solution. From this experience, several things became clear: many people struggle with a few simple issues, and nearly all of those issues arise from a relatively small number of fundamental behaviors. The particulars were always different – which was what made the job interesting – but those behaviors arose from gaps in foundational knowledge. What is regrettable is that the holes were so unnecessary. At some point, I decided to try and do something about this (which is how this screed began life). Since good beginnings predict successful conclusions, I thought I might share a few observations that I wish others had levered at me. These include a few rules, a few guidelines, and more than a few relatively good suggestions.

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 | December 8, 2008 10:30 pm

When I was younger, one of my favorite past times after a hard day of horse work was to come home and read. My parents and grandparents had been good people who imparted to me a love of words at an early age. I can’t remember a time when sitting in the sun with a good book settled between my legs wasn’t an enjoyment. It would work out the knots in muscles cramped from hours spent in a saddle.

Horse work was a wonderful privilege too, but after some hours sitting astride an animal, it felt good to get a change. God never intended for man to sit on certain bones for very long.

Along with the love of reading came a strong imagination and a love of creating my own stories. When I was a small boy, I can recall the sagas born, nurtured and let loose from the minds of myself and friends. In a time when the deserted block of city – half house, half field – seemed the expanse of an entire world; and when creatures of magic – faerie, elf, gnome, giant – walked the woods a stone’s throw away from my door. It was a time when empires, knights, indians and pirates arose, fought, loved and died before dinner and then it began again each morning. Some of those sagas (the lucky ones at least) found their way to paper.

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