Chasin’ Cows

Last night we went out to Cryin’ Coyote Ranch for team sorting practice and chased some cows.

At no point in my entire riding history (or life) would I have ever imagined that this is something I would one day do.

There are cows, numbered 0–9, in two small round pens that are connected with a pretty wide opening between them. The cows are all herded into one of the round pens, and two riders are in the empty one. As the first rider enters the pen with the cows, a number is called out, say “5”. The rider must separate cow #5 from the herd and put him in the empty pen. Her partner guards the opening to ensure that only cow #5 goes in there, and that he doesn’t come back out. Then the riders switch off cutting and guarding the cows in order — in this case, #6, 7, 8, 9, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 — until all the cows are in the second pen, or until time runs out. You only have a minute to achieve this.

In none of my five or so turns did my partner and I get all the cows; I think our record was four of them. The major achievement of the first turn was not getting bucked off by Dunnie, who despite being a finished reined cow horse, gets so excited about the cows that he doesn’t know what to do with himself, gets frustrated by it, and then prances and jumps around while the cows ignore him. The second time around, I was able to get him to go after the cows, but we spent the entire minute chasing cow #5 while he ran us in circles around the ring ensconced in the security of his herd (at times with his head literally under the back legs of the cow in front of him) and I laughed my head off.  But the third time! Let me tell you, getting that first cow in the pen was a thrill. I imagine it’s what hockey players feel like when they score their first NHL goal.

After that, I realized that making Dunnie wait in the line for our turn was ratcheting him up, and that if I cantered him around the warm-up ring in between, it’d give him something to think about and he’d cool himself off. I also had him doing spins, and with his elevated energy levels, we did some of the best ones we’ve ever done.

Waiting our turn.

Our next couple turns after that were much more productive. Every time I either got a cow in the other pen or successfully blocked one that wasn’t supposed to come in I felt like pumping my fist in the air and cheering (I mostly restrained myself, but I’m told my face was lit up like the sun).

So the upshot is, now I’m addicted to this. Once he gets past the silliness, Dunnie is actually a pro. And as I’m gaining confidence, I can be more aggressive chasing those cows down. It’s quite exhilarating to ride right into a herd of cows and then be able to control them. It makes me feel pretty powerful to be able to push around cows, even though they’re little cows. The  level of partnership and communication between horse and rider required for this is more than anything I’ve ever experienced. It means moving together as one toward the same purpose. As always, the tangible is more compelling to me than the abstract. I can certainly get behind working hard to get good at doing stuff in the ring and then winning competitions. But this is about as far from abstract as you can get. Horses are real. Cows are real. They are both big, and very vividly alive underneath and surrounding me.

The more I delve into all the different disciplines of riding, the more I see how there are so many ways to challenge myself and my horse. It’s like when I was taking English lessons, I saw some shiny stuff on the ground — and then when I started riding Western, I dug into this mother lode of possibility, where the deeper I dig, the richer it becomes.

The team.

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Cross-training

Over the last year, Dunnie has been a great teacher, helping me learn all the new tricks I’ve picked up as a Western rider. I thought it was about time that I returned the favor, and last Friday I decided to put an English saddle on him.

English Dunnie.

I’ve only ridden English twice in the last year, both times on horses that were not Dunnie, and both times I was struck by how much more work it is than Western. There’s so much less saddle to hold you on your horse, and the stirrups are less attached to the saddle, providing much more opportunity for your leg to swing all over the place. So in addition to not knowing how Dunnie would react to the different saddle and style of riding, I really didn’t know how my own body would react to it. I predicted that I’d be pretty sloppy.

Amazingly, that wasn’t the case. First, Dunnie is the best. He reacted so well to the change, even naturally adjusting his stride and movement to my different style of riding (posting at the trot much more, a little more forward center of gravity/arch in the back, etc.). I have to imagine that the significantly reduced weight of the English saddle was like a vacation to him after the serious heft of the Western saddle I ride in, but even so I was so pleased at how quickly he adjusted.

As for me, I was very pleasantly surprised by the strength and stability of my legs. Riding Western, I don’t grip as much with my upper calf as I do in an English saddle — it’s just not possible with the way the stirrups are — but I do use my legs a ton to tell Dunnie where to go and to move him laterally. I’ve also been making a serious point of adding exercise into my rides; I’ve been forcing myself to do a lot of two-point at the trot, posting with no stirrups, and a two-beat posting exercise that means you stand up for two beats, sit for two beats (up-up, down-down),  which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. I was able to see the results of all this work in the English saddle, where even at the canter, my leg was rock solid. It just goes to show that constantly going back to the basics in riding is important, no matter what level you’re riding at. I’m constantly reminding myself of fundamentals to work on in my own riding, now that I’m teaching and correcting the kids on these basics over and over.

I think now that I know he’s all right with it, I’m going to add to that exercise regimen one biweekly English ride to provide cross-training to both myself and Dunnie. Now that we’re making some real breakthroughs in our Western riding, including getting him to carry his head much lower than before and finally finally getting some good turnarounds, I’m motivated to keep pushing him, to see what else he can do. While Western is still our main focus, throwing in a little English now and again will be good for both of us just to keep it interesting — a bored Dunnie is a troublemaker Dunnie — and who knows? We might just try out some English classes in addition to the Western ones at our next show.

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Book Review: The Man Who Listens to Horses

One of the best books I’ve read on training is The Man Who Listens to Horses.

I found this book by accident because I was looking in the wrong section of the library for another book for someone else. I’m so glad I did. Not only was it an engaging account of an extraordinary life, it was a clear, simple articulation of a method for creating connection and trust with a horse.

At the time, I’d recently taken a course on taming mustangs that was based on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) principles. The aim of this method is the humane training of horses (and other animals) based on gaining trust and then teaching using the behaviorist methods of Skinner and Pavlov to pair positive stimuli with the training process. It’s interesting and effective, but I found that when I was studying the process, it seemed…convoluted. Like it was more complicated than it had to be.

When I read about Monty Roberts’s join-up method, I saw what was missing. He speaks to the horses using their own language, not our complex vocabulary of psychological terms. Having spent so much time observing mustangs in the wild and understanding how they interact—for example, how a matriarch mare disciplines the problematic behavior of a young colt—Roberts was able to learn how to make a connection with horses in terms that they understand. There’s a part where he talks about a tutor he had when he was young, who said that you can’t teach someone anything, you can only create an environment where he can learn. That is what strikes me as the difference between the ABA approach I studied and Roberts’s approach. Instead of repetitive, scientifically constructed scenarios aimed at getting the horse to do what you want, Roberts’s method is essentially a conversation. It’s saying to the horse, “Trust me; I’ll take care of you,” when the horse is at his most vulnerable. After he trusts you, he’ll willingly want to learn.

The ideas of this book really stuck with me. Several months after reading it, I was at my first show with Dunnie, having my first experience with cow work. He’s trained as a cow horse and gets very excited about them. I, on the other hand, am somewhat afraid of cows. They’re big and I don’t have any experience with them — so I don’t know how they’ll behave. But as I was watching everyone in my clinic class try to keep that cow along the wall, and then in my own run, I realized that a lot of it comes down to pressure.

When Roberts first has a horse in the round pen during the initial join-up process, he puts “pressure” on the horse by approaching it with squared-off shoulders and direct eye contact, in order to encourage the horse to move away from him. After the horse begins to show signs of no longer wanting to flee (turning an ear inward, turning a head, licking and chewing, and finally dropping the head), he beings to ease off that pressure by turning his shoulders at a 45 degree angle to the horse and releasing eye contact. It’s then that the horse will come over to him and join up. (You can watch the process here. It takes an astonishingly short time and it’s kind of like magic.)

So as I was learning about how to manage the cow, it occurred to me that this same kind of pressure applies. When you approach the cow’s flank with your horse, it applies pressure and the cow moves. But then as we were chasing the cow, the clinician was telling me to apply “cow-side” leg—i.e. stay parallel to the cow, but move Dunnie off my leg laterally in the direction away from the cow. That seems to ease off the pressure and results in the cow slowing down or stopping. The whole thing seems to hinge on creating the right tension of pressure on the cow, aiming it at the right place with the right timing to control it. I have a lot to learn in this area; my one experience after the clinic was our Working Cow class this next day, my goal in which was less to control the cow and more just to make it out alive. But the more cutting I watch, the more interested I become in trying it out again with Dunnie. We might soon have the opportunity to do more cow work with the show team; there’s a team penning event held at a place not too far away on Wednesday nights that I’m dying to go to.

Since working at this barn, I’ve also had my first opportunities to work in a round pen, both with Dunnie and with another horse I was testing out for my trainer. It was amazing to me how much I could learn about a horse by interacting with him on the ground. Using Roberts’s techniques, it’s possible to strike up a conversation even with a horse that is fully trained that can broaden and deepen your understanding and connection.

Starting a horse from scratch has always been my dream. Reading The Man Who Listens to Horses made me long for the opportunity to do that even more.

Book Review: Storey’s Guide to Training Horses

 

This is a concise, yet comprehensive text on the fundamentals of all aspects of training a horse, from imprinting a newborn foal to fixing potential problem behaviors in an older animal.

Clearly articulated and well illustrated, my only difficulty with this book was that it was slightly repetitive; often the “sidebar” boxes interspersed throughout the text were disruptive to the flow of ideas and didn’t usually offer anything different from what was being said in the main body.

However, it also provided explanations of some of the basics that seem to have become glossed over in my horsemanship education. Having spent my whole childhood and teen years taking riding lessons but never owning a horse, and now doing much of my current training with my leased horse on my own (with a weekly lesson to give me some structure), I’ve missed out on being specifically taught skills like longeing and other areas of groundwork. This book does a great job of explaining those concepts and connecting them with related skills used while riding the horse, and has been able to fill in some of the significant gaps in my knowledge.

But perhaps the most valuable part of this book for me was, oddly, an articulation of the concept of dressage. Growing up as an English rider who did hunt seat equitation, in my mind dressage existed in an entirely different (and, if I’m being honest, boring) world from what I was doing. It was just the part of the Olympics that I wanted them to stop covering and move on to the exciting jump stuff.

As I began my foray in to Western riding and reining about a year ago, I did somewhat grasp the similarities of reining and dressage. But I had no idea the new depths of training and understanding that I would begin to develop through learning from Dunnie and my wonderful trainer. I’d always been taught to ride in a style of figuring out how to get whichever school horse I was on to participate in what I was trying to do with at least a basic level of functioning, and then practice that until I could look pretty doing it. But the description in this book of dressage (of all things!) neatly sums up the approach that I’ve finally come to know about and take in working with horses:

“The concept of dressage means different things to different people: it can encompass basic training, harmony between horse and rider, perfection of the gaits, development of a horse’s physical and mental ability, and horse ballet. The term is often misunderstood to mean a type of riding that can be performed only in a certain way and one that is just for English riders.

The term comes from the French word dresser, ‘to train,’ and dressage is the kind of training that goes beyond simply breaking a horse and making him willing to carry a person on his back. Dressage is the art of improving a horse beyond this stage, making him more agile, willing, easier to control, more pleasant to ride, more graceful, and better balanced. It involves a type of consistent horsemanship that is necessary for developing perfect obedience and perfect lightness and agility.

Dressage teaches a horse to understand your aides more fully and to become more responsive. Dressage is therefore beneficial for any horse — it will help him become well rounded in his education and less apt to become spoiled or one-sided. A little dressage makes for a better-trained horse. A broader experience of dressage not only trains a horse but also develops him physically and mentally so he is truly ‘one’ with his rider, able to understand whatever the rider asks of him and physically competent to perform it. “

 

Funny enough, as I’ve come to recognize this approach and see the potential it has for creating an incredible working relationship between horse and rider, I’ve always attributed it to the Western sensibility. To working horses that need to have these skills to get the job done, rather than pampered, gleaming show horses prancing around the ring to no discernible end. Thanks to this book, I now have more of an appreciation for the worth of a discipline that I had previously dismissed (although I’m still not sure I’ll be in a rush to go out and watch it).

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Reading

The other thing taking up time that I could spend writing this blog is that I’ve been reading every book on training I can get my hands onto. Not only am trying to become the best rider I can be, but also Dunnie is so damn smart that if I don’t keep him interested with new drills and challenges all the time, he gets really annoyed.

To that end, I’ve decided to start a new “book reviews” category.

The first book I got about a year ago when I started riding Western was Reining by Al Dunning, which is put out by Western Horseman.

Here’s my goodreads review:

I’ve had this listed as “reading” for a long time now, but truthfully I’ve read through the entire thing. I just keep going back to it for ideas on new training exercises, or for help with fixing problems and sharpening up skills.

This is a great resource that spans levels of training from green to finished. As a rider that’s new to reining on a horse that’s finished (but who has had a lot of time away from being asked to work and therefore needs sharpening up), I’ve found this book extremely helpful in understanding the fundamentals of reining and learning how to build on those fundamentals to refine my skills in each area of the discipline.

 

Especially helpful are all the pictures that show what the horse should be doing and what that looks like at each step or the drills and the diagrams of how to perform all of them. My favorite chapters are “Body Control and Suppling” and “Turn-Arounds,” both of which have been extremely helpful in working with Dunnie. It’s a pretty great feeling when you read something, decide to try it, and it has immediate results that tell you it’s working.

Next up for review: Storey’s Guide to Training Horses.

You can also see my “horses” Goodreads shelf here for reviews on all kinds of horse books (not just training-related).

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Talking to Horses

In addition to riding three or four days, I’m now also working at the barn two evenings a week. I say that partially as an explanation for why I am updating this blog so infrequently. But it also represents a huge turning point for me: I’m now actually getting paid to do what I love.

Obviously teaching horseback riding to children two nights a week isn’t allowing me to quit my day job. But it’s a start on the path that hopefully one day leads to horse work being my life’s work. And it makes me think of the thousands of times I’d be stuck at my desk, consumed with depression because I never thought I’d find a way out, positive that there was no way I’d ever have the opportunity to do work that was meaningful to me.

Coworkers.
Coworkers.

I was fond of saying, when particularly drained from the utter pointlessness and repetitiveness of the busywork I did all day at my last job, that I would rather be mucking stalls. At least then I’d be using my body instead of deteriorating in front of a computer. I don’t have to muck stalls at this job, but I certainly do use my body. I’m in constant movement: getting the horses from their stalls, grooming them and picking their hooves and tacking them up and untacking them and putting the equipment away and turning them out, cleaning up the barn and the tack room and the arena. And that’s not even taking into account the work in the ring with my students: lugging the mounting block around, helping them mount, walking (or running) alongside them to help them control their horses or understand new concepts, moving around poles and jump standards…I downloaded a step counter for my phone, and in the approximately 3 1/2 hours I work in an evening, I easily get in 8,000–10,000 steps. And that’s after doing all those things with Dunnie and then riding him. The first week I worked, I was utterly wrecked.

But I also slept amazingly. And I can already feel my legs getting stronger and tighter, and my posture improving, and even my pants fitting a little less tightly.

The work isn’t just physical, either. It’s totally mentally engaging. It has to be. When you’re dealing with large animals and small children, safety is the utmost concern. So there’s the running mental checklist and potential-disaster-scanner part of your mind that’s always going. On top of that, teaching riding is all about problem solving. You tell the children what to do. Since they’re not only new at this, but it’s also an activity that takes body awareness, coordination, sensitivity, cooperation, and muscles that few other activities or circumstances provide the opportunity to exercise, it takes quite a while for them to learn how to do what you’re telling them to do. The indicators of whether they’re doing it right are large, obvious behavioral outcomes — like whether they are able to get the thousand-pound animal underneath them to trot, for example — but all of the factors that may contribute to or prevent success in reaching that outcome are extremely subtle and involve an intuitive alchemy that’s not always easy to articulate. So much of what goes on when teaching riding is looking at the horse to see if it’s moving in the way that you’d expect it to based on the instructions you gave the rider. Then if it’s not, you have to analyze the many potential cues the rider is giving the horse to confuse it. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the rider is telling the horse “go!” with her legs, but also pulling back on the reins, which tells the horse “stop!”. But other times, there are signals sent through the body that aren’t even visible. So you go through the catalog of your own riding experience, thinking about horses you’ve ridden that are similar to this one and how you solved the problems then. You ask your student creative questions about what she’s feeling from the horse that allow you to project yourself onto the horse’s back with her so you can understand what’s going on.

Ultimately, more than teaching a just sport or a physical skill, what you’re teaching when you teach riding is a language. You’re instructing someone how to communicate with an entirely different species. To convince a creature way, way bigger than them to accept that they have the authority to decide where to go and how fast to get there. It requires instilling an understanding that they must talk with the animal through their hands and legs and seat, using the symbols that the horse has been trained to understand the meaning of in terms of actions. One of the biggest things to overcome there is to make people understand that even though the horse has been trained to respond to these cues, they aren’t machines that will react as though we’ve pushed a button — especially because so much of our lives are infused with technology that works in exactly that way — and that instead they are living things with whom you must take into account personality, preference, mood. So many of the questions students ask me center around trying to come to grips with that. They ask, “Why is she doing that?” “Does he always act like this?” “Do the horses like each other?”, and many others that reveal their attempts to piece together an understanding of the horse’s mental life. I love trying to answer those questions more than any others, because it feels like I’m handing someone missing puzzle pieces that they’re fitting in to get a picture of something elusive and beautiful.

Starting to teach has also prompted me to step up my already pretty intense desire to learn, and ever since Dunnie and I got back to work after the holidays and his short stint of lameness, we’ve been reaching some new levels of refinement. I’ve been working a lot on trying to make his responses to my cues crisper; asking him to react more quickly and strongly to ever-decreasing amounts of pressure from my leg and hands. It’s been going pretty well in most areas. We canter all around the ring now and I ask him for lead changes at random times and in random places. The changes are smoother and more accurate, and since I’m keeping him on his toes now, he doesn’t have the opportunity to anticipate when he thinks he should change the lead. So when we canter circles and I don’t ask him, he’s not constantly switching around the turns like he was before. I also realized that by using more leg pressure to turn when I am planning to ask him for a lead change — speaking more loudly with my outside leg, as it were — then the cue to change is clearer to him when I take that leg away and give pressure with the other to ask him to switch (which means I can speak softer with that leg). The constant refinement of our communication is a really interesting process to me. It’s kind of like the longer you’re in a relationship or a friendship with someone, your communication flows more easily through the way you use shorthand or inside jokes to refer to something you both know together. I feel that happening with Dunnie now, like we are really connecting.

 

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Back to Work

A couple of things have recently somewhat derailed any efforts at training: 1) the insanely demanding, all-consuming juggernaut of the holidays and 2) some soreness/lameness for Dunnie.

The holidays had their nice moments, of course, and I enjoyed spending time with family. But the “holiday season” seems to keep getting longer every year, and it’s gotten completely out of hand. It really feels like it starts in September now, when everyone starts freaking out about pumpkin spice. And then the month-long marathon of Christmas music on the radio begins the second after Thanksgiving and it’s just a countdown until I can have my life and my 80s music back.

The other thing I’ve recently gotten back is Dunnie. Starting a week or two before Christmas, he started acting strangely. We had noticed that there were potentially some pressure points from the saddle I was using, although he was acting fine, and decided to try a different one. That went poorly. I tried three other saddles, all of which seem to make him PISSED, and then went back to the old one only to find that he was still not himself.

At first there was no obvious lameness. He was certainly stiff, particularly when tracking right, and especially on circles. He was usually just fine at the trot, but ask him to pick up a canter and he would kick out on the left, and wouldn’t be able to smoothly pick up the transition, sort of rearing back a tiny bit with his head high to lope off. Then at the canter, he was constantly switching leads in back. And ornery. He was uncharacteristically ornery about all of that, which is what tipped me off to that fact that he was in pain and not all of a sudden acting out just for fun.

Then at my lesson on the Thursday before Christmas, he finally turned up lame. His back left was really stiff and it was apparent after trotting him just a few steps. I ended up riding a different horse that night in my lesson — a big, sweet, calm ex-racehorse named Chrome — and riding English for only the second time in a really long time. It was fun, but strange; it’s amazing how much less secure an English saddle feels. And I’d forgotten how much work it is! I think I just assumed that riding so often has gotten me in much better shape, but nope. Western is just way, way easier.

Anyway, I ended up giving Dunnie some rest over the holidays, and then my trainer contacted a Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) therapist . There’s a good description of what this is on their Facebook page, but essentially it is a machine that pulses a magnetic field through the body, stimulating cells and increasing oxygenation, reducing inflammation and promoting faster healing. I was there when they came to work on a bunch of the school horses, and the therapist (who also treats human clients), put the machine — which looks like a vacuum hose bent into an oval shape — on my back to see what it feels like. I could feel it all the way through my stomach. It was kind of intense, not altogether pleasant or unpleasant. In the places where there is particular pain and inflammation, the muscles sort of twitch in little spasms. This is very clear on the horses, whose muscle groups are large and easy to see.

When she treated Dunnie, I wasn’t around, but when I spoke to her after she said that he’d had a lot of soreness all over his body, and particularly on the left side, which jived with what I’d been experiencing. I’m not really sure what made him like that. One theory was that removing his back shoes put him out of whack (the farrier came right after Christmas and put them back on, and that seemed to help a bit).  Another was that he’d pulled something when we tried to work on slides. Yet another was that the cold temperatures were bothering him, making arthritis that we didn’t know about in the warm months act up. We just didn’t know. While Dunnie could communicate to me very effectively that he was in pain, he couldn’t tell me why.

Luckily, the PEMF seems to have worked like a charm. Since he had the treatment about two weeks ago, it feels like I have my old Dunnie back. He’s moving much better, doesn’t display the same stiffness, and is visibly happier. I’m so relieved that it doesn’t seem to be a bigger issue or serious injury, and that he’s clearly feeling much better. It’s a terrible feeling to think that your horse is hurting and that it might be because of something you asked him to do. Especially because Dunnie, champ that he is, would do it anyway. When I first noticed something was amiss and I was putting him through his paces to try to identify the problem area, he’d tell me “that hurts!” — but he would still do what I asked of him.

Now, with all that distraction out of the way, it’s time for us to get back to the work of training. We’re working on a new pattern that incorporates pretty much all of the skills we need to use for anything we want to do. It has side-passing, lead changes, circles, backing, spinning — you name it. It feels good to be focusing again, and working toward getting better at things we’ll use at a show. Dunnie is at his best when he’s mentally engaged in what we’re doing, and so am I, so we’re about to start having lots of fun together again.

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