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I’m lucky to live in an area full of working cowboys. They use their horses for jobs. It’s a scenario that many of us fabricate in order to keep our horses handy and engaged.
On a recent cattle drive, for instance, I watched as their horses ground-tied perfectly, self-loaded into a trailer, moved through gates, and worked well around the cows. Meanwhile, my horse and I tried to be useful and tried to stay out of the way when we couldn’t help.
On the whole, I think working cowboys are pretty darn good horsemen. Except when they aren’t.
I visited with Randy Rieman about ranch work and horsemanship. Rieman himself is a longtime working cowboy. A protégé of Bill Dorrance, Rieman worked for years starting colts on Hawaii’s biggest ranch and now tours internationally as a clinician. He will give a three-day clinic here on September 24-26. Click here to find out more and register.
“The reality of ranch work is such that you’re often mashing a horse through the process,” said the Montana man. “It isn’t that working cowboys won’t get it done. They may not get it done smoothly.”
Rushing and not preparing a horse for a task has short- and long-term consequences, he said.
“If a horse is rushed through a deal, he’ll be uncomfortable. He may move quickly but incorrectly. He’ll carry an apprehension
with him in other riding situations. If your horse is especially frantic or uncomfortable, it doesn’t take much to pass that on to the cattle. His discomfort is going to have a negative impact on your work somewhere down the line.”
He said he sees a lot of cowboys who do to their horses the equivalent of throwing a swimmer into the deep end of the pool before he knows how to dog paddle. “Ranchers will tell me, ‘I realize I never did get my horse ready for that job. I just made him do it.”
Rieman has observed additional consequences of an anxious or ill-prepared ranch horse:
“I’ve seen a tightness and reduced range of motion from these horses. You’ll see that dopamine rush and lip-licking only when they’re put up for the day, not during the work,” he said.
During a clinic, students have a chance to practice accomplishing a task in a relaxed fashion and to reward softness. What you learn at a clinic will allow you to get those jobs done more smoothly.
Always one to tip the hat to a colleague, Rieman mentioned horseman Billy Askew, a longtime friend and fellow cowboy. “You never see Billy’s horses in a hurry. He is always thinking ahead and his horses are always where they need to be; they are unhurried and unworried,” said Rieman.”Ranch work is so much easier with a relaxed animal who’s not defending himself.”
Back East, ticks give me the heebie-jeebies. They and the linked prospect of getting Lyme Disease, represent one of the biggest impediments to carefree outings. Here in Colorado during the summer months, it’s rattlesnakes. The possibility of harm and crisis – for horses, humans, and dogs – is enough to motivate several preventative strategies.
There’s not a lot we can do for horses aside from education, preparation, and engage our ability to keep calm and keep the horse calm. Check out these helpful articles:
Since many of us have dogs, here are some canine-related thoughts. Like Frontline or other tick deterrents, the rattlesnake vaccine is something dogs can get and something dog owners can hope will help. With it, my 30-pound sprite, Peeko, might survive long enough to get to the vet and it may also help significantly reduce the vet bill.
Another preventative measure is a rattlesnake avoidance class, something my dogs unwittingly enrolled in last weekend. It involves a shock collar, a big-ass rattlesnake (who goes by the name Brian, is 12 years old, at least five feet long, thick as a Campbell’s soup can, and has had his venom glands surgically removed), and an experienced canine trainer from Arizona. Watch video. Read more about JJ Belcher and Sublime Canine here.
Individually, the trainer led Kip, Peeko, and Belle to the snake. When they got curious, they were hit with a jolt from the collar. Later, Belcher returned with each dog to visit Brian. My dogs had caught on quickly; as soon as they spied the snake, they went in the other direction. When I led each dog to a bag full of snake sheds, they also steered clear. Lesson of the Day: Stay away from something that looks or smells or moves like Brian. I’m pretty confident that the education will stick and that they won’t simply associate Belcher and the collar with a bad deal. We have all now seen a rattler and know theoretically to steer clear. Some dogs made bigger generalizations: I watched one goofy golden walk away from the training and then spook at a three-foot stick. Well…he had the right idea.
Mark Rashid visited Durango for an evening lecture and three days of sold-out, one-on-one sessions recently. The author of several books and DVDs, Rashid travels internationally as a presenter and clinician.
For the past several years, Rashid and Crissi McDonald, his wife of eight years, have incorporated Aikido, a Japanese martial art, into their work.
In martial arts as in horsemanship, there is potential for danger and violence, said Rashid, but the best approach is with softness. Softness (not to be mistaken with passivity) is internal softness, emotional softness, and physical softness.
Softness is successful “when my thought becomes your action,” said Rashid. “When we try to force things to happen, we never get them to happen.”
“Crissi and I try to find a way for the horses to be emotionally sound. You can get the feet, the teeth, and the body sound, but still put them under tremendous stress. We try to work horses towards a sense of peace and to ride in a clear and consistent way.”
Petra Sullwold, a Durango animal chiropractor, hosted Rashid and introduced him as an evening presenter. Sullwold worked on Rashid’s horses and discussed her assessment:
“I was amazed at how free and supple his horses felt,” said Sullwold, who has worked on a wide range of animal athletes, including Olympic-level horses. “It’s seldom I see freedom like that.”
Notes from the event:
Rashid on consistency: When horses don’t know when the other shoe is going to drop, we’ve got a problem. We want to ride in a clear and consistent way. Even a harsh cowboy will be appreciated (by the horse) for his consistency. It’s when you use spurs one day and not the other, or have soft hands one day and not the next, then those changes are problems.
- A Barn Sour horse is not thinking in the future. He’s thinking in the past: Where was I last comfortable?
- Horses have a spectrum of emotions, ranging from fear to curiosity. If you can turn the fear into curiosity, you’ve got them.
- Do not put value on the horse’s behavior. The horse cannot be a “bad” horse.
- Don’t direct any energy into anything you don’t want.
- Your primary cue is thought. First, use your inside to move the horse. The inside of you connects to the inside of the horse. Be aware of how your body functions. When you get tight, he’ll get tight. What does it take to go from a walk, to trot, to stop? Remember to breathe. Check out this article on Rider Balance
On herd dynamics, Rashid said horses in domestic herds are “completely backwards.” The most dominant are often the most insecure away from the herd, because the herd has defined them. Lower-ranked horses are often quite confident and comfortable away from the herd.
McDonald and Rashid met at one of his clinic years ago in Arizona. They married in 2008. Over the weekend, she weighed in on the couple’s collaboration:
“We do our best to live what we preach. We try to stay soft, to not get in each other’s way. We don’t always get it right, but each day is a chance to practice.”
McDonald is writing about rider fear and overcoming accidents, something with which she has experience. In 2014, she came off one of her horses and was unconscious for five minutes.
“I know so many women who berate themselves for being afraid,” said McDonald, who tasked herself with reading more about trauma recovery. “Ninety percent of working to get back on is done away from horses.” Read her blog here.