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Before this marvelous interview, I thought I’d share a few bits on my work with two young horses. It’s a departure of sorts, but I hope you enjoy it. We love to hear from listeners. Contact us here.
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Because writing and talking helps me to better synthesize and appreciate experiences (and progress and hiccups and trepidations and failures and successes), I wanted to share some words on my time starting two youngish horses, Tuesday and Table.
Tuesday is four or five. She came to me as a free-to-a-good-home, dark buckskin, club-footed quarter horse.
Table, who was called Lorenzo until this nickname overpowered me, is a five-year old mustang from the Devil’s Garden herd management area in northern California. I acquired him from a gal who seemed afraid to handle him and before that he was with a man who mistreated him, or at least that’s what I was told and, based on Table’s behavior, I’d say is accurate.
Both had been handled very little, had never been ridden, and were overweight.
That’s where the similarities end.
Tuesday had a disrespect for my personal space and was pretty klingy to her herdmates. With work, like creating clear boundaries, testing them, letting her make a mistake and learning from it, those elements of her behavior are improving nicely. She’s a sweet horse and I think it can be tempting to invite her in for some rubs and loving. But for now, it’s more important for her to learn she can be happy with boundaries. She was unsafe in how she encroached, and it would be easy to make her unsafe again.
Table tends to be wary of everything, from a phone that suddenly plays music to me wearing a cowboy hat instead of a baseball hat. And even after lots of good work around tying, he still has a tendency to set back.
While I am a competent rider and have helped several horses who have come from bad situations, I have never started a horse from the ground up. As luck would have it, my friend, Jessica Munn, came to visit for a month. Jess is a colt starter, with a background in dressage as well as cowboying. It hadn’t been our plan to dedicate so much time to Table and Tuesday, but I’m so grateful that we were both able to commit to this focused work. Her help has been fundamental to our progress and I am deeply indebted to Jess for the knowledge and encouragement she brought to the pen. Oh, and she relearned me on the bowline knot, which I learned as a kid but had a hard time tying it as a horse-tying knot. If you have a horse that might set back, a bowline is a better knot to tie than a quick release knot.
Over several weeks, we worked every day to get both of them more comfortable with many aspects of this horse-human thing. Like, for instance, being tied for decent periods of time (20 minutes or more), being hobbled, being led, being tacked up, having feet handled and trimmed, and being away from herdmates.
That’s a broad brush and it’s tempting to think this checklist was ticked off in an afternoon. Far from it. Getting these horses to be better citizens was a road full of frost heaves and potholes. We worked every day, for one or two hours with each horse. We built on the previous days’ work and almost always revisited what we’d done in days past.
There is a great deal of repetition in good horse work. We do this so the horse knows what to expect in the form of boundaries and performance: when I apply pressure, you move away from it. When I tie you, you get to chill. When the other horses go out to pasture, you get to stay here, pay attention, and have fun.
Jess helped me with essential groundwork, which has included lunging and driving, as well as important techniques for riding horses who’d never been ridden, like being able to have them flex when I step up into the saddle. Stepping into the saddle is done from both sides, by the way. There was some learning for me around how to carry the reins more safely and how to sit better on a young horse.
She has encouraged me to take time to do everything well. As I have helped the horses become more patient, she has taught me the value of fence-sitting and taking more time with, well, everything. “It’s not time-consuming,” Jess reminded me. “It’s patience-building.”
I have learned some hacks for making progress and being less fearful. Singing, playing ridiculous music, and talking to my horses has helped shake off the brace and elevate my confidence. Taking videos has helped me see my penchant for leaning forward. When it feels like I’m leaning back, I’m actually pretty erect in the saddle. Jess has reminded me to be a confident leader. But what does that look like and how can I relate this to you all, who have different pictures in their heads about what confidence looks like?
I see the best results when I am decisive and clear. But being clear means knowing what you’re doing, so I have needed help with technique. Being clear is also wound up in confidence and mental habits, too. It’s easy to say, “work with confidence and clarity,” but it’s harder to do it in a way that is effective for the horses. “Black and white makes light. Be sparingly demanding.” says Jess. Whether with groundwork or riding, it is an everyday challenge to be clear, not vague, to ask succinctly, and not to nag.
Our work together, these daily sessions over a month, along with the sitting around, talking about what worked and didn’t have helped me a lot in this vein. Now that I’m doing the daily work on my own, I find I have to commit even more diligently: to get out there every day and to stay focused and intentional.
Of course, there has been unintentional nagging. Of course, I can beat myself up over tough afternoons. It’s all part of the process.
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