Thursday, February 28, 2013

Getting Help

Getting Help

This may turn out to be a review of a Horsemanship Clinic given by Gwynn Turnbull and Dave Weaver of Orland California but it won’t be meant to be that way. I had written earlier about how I finally decided that I needed help with my 17 year old quarter horse gelding “JB”. He was too much for me when we’d go outside the confines of an arena. He would not relax and whatever I tried was not working. I knew I needed help because I was losing my temper. Read my blog “There’s Times” for a refresher of the difficulties I was encountering.

I was really glad to see that there were only 6 people attending the clinic that weekend in February. The sun was shining and there was no rain in the forecast. Unfortunately it was cold and windy but riding in a good jacket and hat got you warmed up. The great thing about having a small class meant that we were sure to get one on one attention. Almost every other clinicians has twenty riders in their clinics. When this happens it’s really only the people who are in danger of dying an early death that get the attention. Under those conditions anything less than imminent death gets short shrift.

On the first day Gwynn and Dave zeroed in on each individual’s problems very quickly. We were horseback in their very large round pen and were warming up. Dave worked with one lady’s colt and then they asked all of us riders to walk, trot and canter around so they could see how we did. They sized us up fast. Let me tell you it’s best to leave your ego and sensitivity at the door. Not that they’re mean or insulting. They’re anything but. They're very supportive. However you’re sure to get an honest opinion and it won't be empty flattery.

Most people had the same problem that manifested in different ways. The horses were braced or reluctant generally speaking. Gwynn and Dave told us that responsive lateral movement and flexibility was one of the most important keys to getting a horse prepared to execute the rider’s commands, to be safe and under control. Gwynn looked at JB and me and offered that JB was very good at backing up because his hocks were low but that he was very braced to the left. She instructed me to un-track his hindquarters and take him to the left exclusively for the time being. So we worked on that and got pretty good. It was a work out but the “best” was yet to come.

Late in the morning on the second day I got the one on one attention I had hoped for and then some. Our problems were the most significant out on trail so Gwynn took us out. Up hill, down hill, through gullies and over creeks we drilled through the problems. Our problems surfaced very vigorously out there much more so than in the arena although, of course, they were there, too, in less substantial form. This is what was going on: JB would tense-up and take over. How it showed up was this: trotting out when I didn’t ask and plunging ahead of the other horse and rider. When he went to trotting I was to take him in a small circle with his nose to my knee and give him as much leg as it would take to move his hindquarters over with his inside back leg stepping over, under and in front of the outside back leg.

Ray Hunt once said “a horse learns what he lives”. Whatever my horse had learned in the 15 years before I got him had made him tight and braced. For the first year, give or take, he would flinch and jump forward at the slightest touch of my leg. He also held his head way up high. In my first year with him I had made progress in eliminating the flinching and got his head back down but in unfamiliar surroundings this behavior came right back to the surface.

We worked really hard and she kept after me to stick with it. Kind of Riding Boot Camp. I found I had more moxie than I thought. There was a moment or two when all his pogo sticking around started hurting my lower back so I said so and she found another way to do the exercise. From time to time he would “get” what I wanted, would put some effort into it and soften. Immediately I gave him a release and petted him.

I’ve since read in Tom Dorrance’s book “True Unity” that releasing him at the moment he softens is too late. Tom suggests that it’s best to release just as he’s thinking about giving to the pressure.

So we came back to the ranch with homework and we’re setting right to it. I emailed Gwynn and told her that riding him out on the ranch since the clinic has not been exactly enjoyable. But now I have purpose and this is making all the difference. Since the clinic I have been able to control my own frustration, anxiety and anger. When the shenanigans continue the whole ride I have made myself breathe and relax. I’m in it for the long haul. Here it is: patience and persistence. This discipline will teach me a lot. I consider this the end of the road for the horse and me. He’s 17 and I’m 62. Neither one of us are in our prime. We’re both on the down turn and neither one of us is going to get more agile or athletic. We’ll both do what we can do and be happy with that. I think of many folks my age who have really gone downhill and count my blessings that I am still in the saddle. The goal will be to stay safe and enjoy the journey. I know he can relax. He’s relaxed many times off and on and when he does it’s great. So we will build on that and hopefully soon we’ll be singing Happy Trails with a big smile on our face.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

There's Times

There’s Times

There’s times when you realize you just need some help. It’s my newest project this time. A 14 year old quarter horse gelding with Hancock bloodlines. We call him JB. His registered name is My JB Hancock. I don’t know what JB stands for. I had a “contest” once to get ideas. I got a lot of good ideas and then some riduculous ones. Jim Beam. Just Because. Junior Bonner. Jingle Bob. Jello Biafra. It’s still anybody’s guess. I just call him JB and leave it at that.

 He’s a grey, and in my humble opinion, a beauty with nicely defined withers so that roping saddle doesn’t go side ways when you have a hefty steer or calf on the end of your dallied rope. I’m grey, too, so we match. Physically he’s a sturdy boy. Probably about 1100 pounds dripping wet. A calf can’t pull him off his feet. Tall but not too tall at 15.3 hands high. Just right for me. Refined aquiline nose. A classic horse. Gentle and quiet. Walks out briskly. Not lazy. Or so the theory goes.

It seems like he just spent too much of his life within the confines of a corral or arena. We got him when he was already quite an adult. What had been done had already been done. Ray Hunt said, “A horse learns what he lives”. So now he’s anxious when we go out to the wide open spaces of our ranch to check the cows and calves. He’s kind of a like a born and bred New Yorker in a way. “Dahling, what is that over there? EEEuuuuuww! Let’s go back to the barn where I’m safe!” So I’m up there getting my fillings knocked loose from the jigging. I have enough feel in the reins so he knows he can’t just rocket away. So the energy goes where? Up. Next we try some circles. We’re trying to get down to the life in the feet and wind down that life. That goes no where. Or better put it goes some where more than I want. He simply spins out of the circle into even more energy! We try asking for softness in his head and neck. This works a little bit but as soon as he gets soft and I give him the release to say “Good job! Right answer!” he goes right back to jigging. Where was that valium anyway!

Frustration sets in. The bag of tricks is getting perilously empty. It wasn’t too full in the first place. I don’t know what to do. When he’s particularly bad I just get off and walk him back. With me in front he quiets down to the horse I know and love. I guess the New York side of him says “Oh, thank god! Stay in front and protect me from the bad nasty critters!” When he’s not particularly bad but just somewhat bad I stay aboard trying my limited bag of tricks. At least he’s giving me practice to stay balanced and light and noticing the slightest tries in the direction of relaxed. Of which there are precious few. I’m trying “ATM”. Ask. Tell. Make. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph must not have trained horses. In horse training consistency is the salvation and the holy of holies. This and perfect timing. A very astute person once told me that if you don’t give the horse the cue that he did something right exactly when he does it right he will pass by that try and consign it to the dust bin of “that didn’t work!” He may never try that answer again or it may take a very long time before it takes a chance and tries it again.

So you see we’ve got a challenge here. We’ve got an imperfect horse with an imperfect rider. Trial and error on both sides. Months are going by and we’re making glacial progress. It’s time to bring in the honchos. In the meantime we keep on the old saw of consistency and timing of release. It’s not so much what you do it’s how you do it and when. Just don’t get mad. Zen. Zen. Breathe!

Next installment: I take Jitter Bug to Gwen and Dave hoping to start the transformation of our partnership as horse and rider and turn him into Jim Dandy.