Thursday, February 28, 2013

Confessions of a Horse Novice Trainer

Or, Are our horses really broke?

We've been posting most of our content lately on and talking about our experiences on the podcast. I really like this, more intimate environment and feel like I can "open up" here more than any other place. Blogspot is my cozy space.

The Gather

A little more than a month ago we had an opportunity to go on a "gather". I knew we would likely not be much help to the real cowboys, but it would be a good experience for both me and Jessie.

It was an early morning wake up, followed by an hour trailer ride and then, I wasn't really sure what to expect. As it turned out, we got to this nice little flat where there were about two hundred head of cattle stationed. The temperatures had dropped into the teens overnight and the ground still had ice on it. I had saddled Jessie just in case we needed to come out ready to work. I parked and opened the back trailer door and my poor horse was so worked up that steam and mist came rolling out of the back of the trailer.

I tied Jessie to the trailer and we stood around for about an hour getting to know some of the other riders as we waited for the day to get a little warmer. While she stood nicely, she was worked up and our first task was to round up the herd and move them into a pen. We went to the far end of the flat with three other riders. Two went to one corner and me and the other rider went to the other. There was a huge boulder to go around and we split up. Now, we weren't fifty feet apart, but we couldn't see each other. Jessie just started throwing a fit. She was throwing her head and rearing up (not huge, but she was getting her front feet off the ground).

This really threw me off. We had ridden out by ourselves many times and Jessie had never seemed to mind. However, in this stressful situation she saw security with the other horses. I tried working her by backing her up and yielding her hindquarters. The backing up seemed to just stimulate the rearing. The rearing scared and surprised me and I was caught off guard. I was around a lot of people I did not know, all of them had substantially more horse experience than I (or so I thought), and I certainly did not want to come off. I dismounted and did a little groundwork and Jessie just got more pissy and while we were doing this, the other rider came back around the boulder and she calmed right down.

Feeling a little less secure and slightly embarrassed now, I mounted up and we worked the cows back to the main herd. Jessie seemed to enjoy this and really wanted to "take charge". I worked on collection and did a lot of changes of direction to try and keep her attention me.

Once the cows were penned about 10 horse and riders were charged with the job of riding to the top of this ridge, spreading out, then working our way back down looking for stray cattle. The ridge was about 1/2 a mile up the steepest hill I had ever climbed on a horse. There were plenty of breathers and I really thought the stopping and starting would be a good workout for Jessie and get her mind right. As she got more winded, her answer was to charge faster up the hill. The higher we got the faster she went. She didn't even know where we were going, yet she wanted to take the lead. It took at least thirty minutes to reach the ridge and she was covered in sweat. One of the experienced hands suggested we stay here, lest she tie up from over exertion, then work our way down behind the others.

Everyone rode off and we were alone on the side of this oak tree covered hill, me and my sweaty, insecure horse. She could not believe everyone was leaving us and whinnied and nickered for about fifteen minutes. I thought of working her, but as she was already sweaty and there really wasn't much open space, I let it go. She worked quite a bit on her own anyway. Her agitation had her going in circles around me. My main goal became not getting separated from my horse. One of the exercises that ended up helping was "throwing the rope to a stop". As she did her circles I just started tossing the rope over the saddle and she would come to a stop. She would start on her own and I would toss the rope and she would stop. Then I just kept tossing the rope and she finally started to relax. I must admit my feelings were hurt knowing that just her and I were not good enough. Why did she need those other horses?  I had thought we had built a strong bond. At this point I wasn't so sure.

We stayed there for over an hour until we saw the other team start working their way down. We were able to yell to them about a stray cow 50 yards to their right and they chased him back to the main herd. Because of the terrain I had to lead Jessie down most of the way. It was just easier and we had to serpentine to search for any other errant cows. When the terrain opened up near the bottom I remounted and we walked the rest of the way in. Jessie got tied to the trailer once again after being offered some water, and I had a little lunch.

Sitting around the lunch area I was talking with some of the more experienced guys trying to see if they might have any suggestions. Their answer was basically "You do this enough and she'll learn not to work so hard right off the bat". Great. That doesn't help me much now, does it? Oh well, it's all a learning experience. We will deal with it the best we can.

Toward the end of lunch one of the hands thought he spotted some cattle on the far hill and asked if we wanted to go up and check it out. I asked one of the older hands (who had kinda watched over us on the first hill climb) if he thought Jessie was up to it. He asked if she had taken some water and, when I said yes, he said, "She'll probably be okay." So off we went. It was a ride across the flat, through a creek, and then up the other side. There was a road and this side was not nearly as steep, but it was up.

The four of us went along pretty well. About halfway up there were some guys doing some rifle target shooting. We rode up to them and the horses stayed fairly calm as we let them know we would be across the ravine from them and to keep an eye out. We then climbed a bit further up and looped back the other side. Jessie was still a little chargy and this would have been the perfect time and place to practice some horsemanship....if I were a good trainer. We could have gone off by ourselves and worked on some of the herd bound behavior she had exhibited before, but something in my brain just switches off and the thinking stops.

It was another 90 minutes riding through some beautiful country. We did not find the lost cows (they came running later that afternoon when the truck started dropping the evening feed). The rest of this afternoon was uneventful. Jessie stayed tied to the truck for a while until we headed home. It was a fun day. I took a little solace in knowing that she was sore for the next three or four days.

The Cutting Lesson

Really. I just wanted some help transitioning Jessie into the bridle. My farrier said it would advance my horsemanship and be a good test for both me and Jessie. He had given me a name of a reining trainer and after a few attempts to contact him, I decided someone who doesn't return calls would not be for me. My farrier recommended a cutting trainer who I had heard of and was a man with a good reputation. We arranged a Saturday morning to meet at the feedlot he managed even though there was a Ranch Versatility Show going on that day. We hadn't talked price but I stuffed ninety bucks in my pocket and we headed for his place.

Little did we know there would be 250 horse and riders in this event. Trailers and horses everywhere. Our horses were getting kinda used to this and handled it all fairly well. I called the trainer's cell and he let me know where he was - on the opposite side of the feedlot. We rode over, watched him finish up with his current lesson, a very well trained futurity prospect, and then he let us in to warm up.

The arena was nice, great footing, and we loped around and around. Ranae had a few issues with Dusty but she worked them out. Jessie was a bit fast and I worked on trying to slow her a bit, but to no avail. The trainer's name is Robert Bias and he help us work out some of the speed issues. He essentially had me relax a little more and Jessie did slow down. He also tested our skills at backing up and rolling back and found them severely inadequate. After the warm up he brought one cow in and instructed me on how to work it. Jessie kept drifting to the right as we approached the cow and I really had to bounce the spur in her to get her to move back. We got to work for just a little while when Robert asked if he could ride Jessie. I said "sure".

Now, granted our backup isn't the quickest most effective backup ever performed, but we do have a backup. I don't have much of a problem with trainers in general, but I do have a pet peeve and that is, if you want to ride my horse and ask her to back up, why don't you ask me how I cue it? This is the second trainer who has ridden Jessie that gets on and announces "I backup by bouncing both of my legs at the same time". My cue is to alternate legs. Not a big difference, but if you are going to tell me the "Fly is the best horse trainer" story, then I think it's fair to be on the same page about the back up cue. Anyway, I don't say anything because a) I'm a pussy and b) I came to learn what he knows not to try and demonstrate what I know.

He proceeds to give Jessie the cue and she doesn't understand and she get frustrated. Can't blame her for that, except that she starts giving the same attitude as out at the gather. She starts rearing up and getting pissing and really gives Robert a hard time. He's not abusing her, just demanding she do things his way, so I am okay with this. She should pay attention to whoever is on her back. He works with her for about 15 minutes and gets it a little better, finds a good place to stop, comes over and tells me my horse isn't broke.

"How old is she?"

"She's thirteen."

"No way a thirteen year old horse should carry on like that. She's not broke."

I rolled that around in my feeble little brain for a bit and tried to find some error in his logic. He had to be wrong. Jessie hadn't tried anything in the six years I've had her. I had never come off. She had never really bucked. We've trail ridden in some tight places.  But, there was no getting around the statement, No way a thirteen year old horse should carry on like that. I had to agree with him. A tough concept to swallow, but one that if I could, just might make me a little better trainer (I think). Ranae and Dusty were next and it was almost a carbon copy of our experience except Dusty was just a little slower and lazier than Jessie. He kicked up a little too out of frustration. At the end of our forty-five minutes, Robert asked if we wanted to come back the next day. We said yes. Today's lesson was $100 for the two horses. Oops! It didn't even seem like we were out there an hour. I'll bring you the rest tomorrow. Great.

We headed home to get some of our weekend chores done. We gave the horses a little lunch, then around 3 PM we went out to our field and worked them though some of the paces that Robert said we would need. This helped a lot. For both of us, Robert was the last to ride our horses. We had not actually gotten to try some of the suggestions he had made. We both agreed the horses did really well, we thought, so while we were prepared to ride for an hour, they did so good we took them home after about 40 minutes.

Sunday morning Robert wanted us to work the flag. I'm not a big fan. Ranae loves the flag. And, oh by the way, the feedlot was empty except for us, Robert, and two professional cutting horse trainers. We got to warm up in the wonderful arena again (must get me one of these someday). One of the professional trainers' assistant came over and was "loping his horse for thirty minutes" so we got to chat and I got to see some of his techniques. Both of our horses were much improved over the day before, but all the control we thought, no, we knew, we owned out on the trail was nowhere to be found. The moves in cutting have to be right now. Once the cue is given it means move and we weren't doing that. Even more frustrating was when I wanted to move Jessie to a better position she would just fight me on it. Nevertheless, we worked, we learned as much as we could.

The up shot is that we need more work. A lot more work. That's also the frustrating part too. We only get to ride on weekends and the next two are half booked with non-horse related activities. We have to find a way to ride more and to get better responses. In the two weeks since the cutting lesson we have ridden better. Last Sunday at a team sorting Jessie did not immediately say "yessir" when I asked her to move in response to a cow. And when I schooled her with a backup she came off her front feet again. I worked her hard there, because now it wasn't a surprise. It's what an unbroke horse does. And I was ready.