It’s a valuable mantra, especially in horsemanship. Listening to horses. Listening to those with more experience. Listening to peer-reviewed research. And, for me, especially: Listening to readers.
Our new column, Ask the Expert was prompted by an email question from my friend, Nina Fuller. She asked a horsemanship question, and I thought, ‘Hmm. I know some folks who can answer this best!”
Ask the Expert is all about listening to horse-related questions readers and helping them expand their learning with advice from our partners, professionals who share a like-mindedness with BestHorsePractices and its principles. Got a question? Contact us!
Our initial Ask the Expert query comes from Nina Fuller at Lily Brook Farm in Hollis, Maine. She writes:
My question: I have a horse that was given to me two years ago. She’s great except for a few things. She won’t stop moving sideways and backwards when I go to get on. If I was younger ,I would just hop on. That’s what someone has been doing all her life. She is 18.
But now that I am not young, I want her to stand still so I can get on her when I am alone and no one is holding her. I have tried to put her against a rail or a fence, but she just wiggles away and avoids me as best she can.
This month, Jolene has weathered many new experiences, but never without worry. That’s Jolene. Anything new (new helmet, new gear, new trail, new visitor) is cause for inspection and concern. I’ve become more patient with her than I typically am our other equines. I understand that review and consideration cannot be fleeting, unless I want bolting and distress.
Even saddling, once an hour-long event, now honed to 10 minutes, can still be subject to review. Read about saddling challenges here.
As we ramp up the trail riding, we’ve worked on these elements:
- Riding in a gully. It’s scary because the path seems to have walls on both sides, rising up and making her a bit claustrophobic and vulnerable to predators (my interpretation here).
See photo at right.
- Going fast. Last year, she bucked me off a few times. And I think we were both a little uncomfortable loping and galloping together. Finding good running room is challenging with all our rocky terrain, but we found some and have opened things up a bit. Read what Buck Brannaman has to say about “dialing it up.”
- Being light and soft. Jolene’s lateral flexion can be easy sometimes, clunky the next. So, when we’re trailriding, we practice one-rein stops and general listening back and forth. We’ve worked on softer, finer cues with hands, legs and seat.
Other new experiences: a creek crossing and going over weird, man-made earth cylinders, meant to deter erosion and set up like small interval jumps.
- Saddling up in a confined space (between a building and a truck).
- Introduction to packing. In photo at left, Jolene is wearing a saddle with over-the-saddle panniers from Outfitters Supply of Columbia Falls, Montana. She did marvelously with her first hundred-pound load.
Other learning opportunities:
In an effort to expand the circle of comfort and get everyone in shape (or “legged up,” as they say around here), I’m riding all our equines.
Jodi is like a Golden Retriever. She benefits from lots of encouragement and praise. She’s a plug compared to Pep or Comet, lovable but perhaps lacking confidence. But I’m working on improving our connection and her go-getter-ness.
Brooke is the most challenging, our temper tantrum girl. She benefits from a strong, firm rider who can have a conversation without riling her.
Whenever we return home, she’d prefer to do so at breakneck speed. My strategies: making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. If she starts racing, she gets put to work in circles or in the opposite direction. If she whinnies for her herd, she gets to back up several paces. Soon enough, she finds relief with good behavior and we’re returning home on a loose rein, having stopped to graze and enjoy the scenery.
Words of wisdom are funny things. They can make total sense or leave you scratching your head. How you absorb and apply them is equally variable. It depends on your attitude, perspective, and education.
Those who worked with Bill and Tom Dorrance told me Bill explained things deliberately. Tom, on the other hand, liked to leave things barely graspable.
“If you asked Tom something, he would answer with something like ‘the oxen is slow, but the earth is patient.’ It was so vague. If you asked Bill the same question, he would say, ‘Put your left foot here and take your right hand…'” explained Randy Rieman.
Joe Wolter learned from the Dorrances. A generation later, the clinician travels the country, passing on what he knows. We met up with him at the Great Basin Buckaroo Gathering last year and the Utah Horse Expo this spring.
Here’s a sampling of his comments as he worked a demonstration horse. I think you’ll find bits of Bill and Tom in his way with words:
- There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake. What’s hard is not knowing you made one.
- The best teacher is your horse. It’s like having that computer in your pocket…All you have to do is use it. If I get aware enough to listen, by golly, all the information is right there.
- I’ve got to fix it, so me and my horse are gonna win…When he gets right behind, he gets light up front.
- Him doing better and better means I’m doing less and he’s doing more.
- If I’m working a cow, I want the horse to do four things:
Go. Stop. Shift weight back. Turn.
- With the green ones, I’m going to use my hands or my legs, but not both at the same time.
To toss your hat into the ring for a chance at a Troxel Rebel Turquoise Rose, send in a paragraph or two describing your ah-helmet moment (think ah-ha moment!) along with a picture. When and why did you make the conscious decision to wear a helmet every ride (or for most rides)?
For the first round, we’ll accept entries June 4-11. Enter by contacting us with description of your ah-helmet moment, OR
send us a message on our Facebook page. The entries will be posted on NickerNews by June 12. A week’s voting will run through midnight June 19. The entrant with the most votes will receive a brown Troxel Rebel Turquoise Rose helmet.
“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
Val Giessler, a mentor to Unbranded’s Ben Masters, utters those words in the new documentary’s trailer. Read more about Unbranded.
It comes to mind, too, when I think of all the ways my horsemanship has evolved over the decades. As a pre-teen, it was about as bad as my haircuts. (Thank goodness, these images are blurry.)
Fortunately, us horse folks don’t just evolve over time, we tend to improve. Even the best still have things to learn. That’s why you’ll see Elijah Moore at Martin Black clinics, for example. Read more here.
Especially as we get older, learning can take on the form of un-learning, undoing bad habits, re-teaching ourselves, and unraveling the muscle memory of bad form. As Val said, we learn from our mistakes.
Here are a few of mine:
When I was a kid, I thought giving my pony sweet feed was the right thing to do. Not only is grain often unnecessary, sweet feed is about the worse kind of grain you can give a horse. Read more here.
2. Rein contact.
Granted, I started riding in the English tradition which emphasizes rein contact. But even when I was riding bareback, I thought having constant contact with my horse’s mouth was the right thing to do. Yikes! Now, I’ve learned to direct my horse with other cues, use the reins to steer rather than stop, and to use one rein and the one-rein-stop instead of yanking back with both hands. My horses thank me and our rides are more relaxing for both of us.
I thought putting her in the stall at night and blanketing her were responsible ways to care for my horse. It made sense back then that keeping her “safe” from the elements was what I should do. Wrong! What she really needed to do was be outside and move around. Constraining her movement and not letting her body regulate itself was, in fact, exactly the opposite of best practices. Read more about how Less is More.
4. Hoof handling.
After picking hooves, I’d just let go. The horse would be caught unawares and the hoof would drop. Now, I release my hold while waiting for my horse to take the hoof back from me. In this way, she can put the hoof down on her own terms and stay balanced. It seems much better practice for my horses. See three-step image below
5. Bit and cinch handling.
When it came to tacking up, I’d pull, yank, and drop. Now, tacking up is part of the connection process and full of mindful moments. It’s something we practice and work on. Since most of our horses come from past difficult scenarios, they may have real issues with bridling and saddling. I’ve ended up dedicating hour-long sessions to saddling with Jolene. Read more about saddle struggles here.
And when it comes to taking the bit, I like to let them take it up in their mouths and to let them spit it out. All the while, I try to keep the leather away from eyes and move it gently over the ears. In the photo at right, Randy Rieman takes extra care when asking his gelding to take a spade bit.
At the cinch, I take my time and have learned to buckle loosely first. Then, I go about other actions. I come back a few minutes later and cinch up another notch. Only when I’m really to climb aboard, do I cinch it as snug as it’ll need to be for the ride.