Patch Job Junkies

Something that has always bothered me is patch jobs, or in other words, temporary fixes. Problems that are patched always come back to haunt you in the long run.  Patch jobs only delay the inevitable, and a problem that wasn’t dealt with properly when it arose the first time can become catastrophic due to continued deterioration.  If a problem does arise, deal with it properly and save yourself time, money, and stress.

Of course the best way to go about things is to avoid problems altogether by maintaining control of every situation and putting preventative measures into place, but as well all know, life happens. If you’re not able to handle something properly from the start and you’re presented with a problem, go ahead and fix it completely before moving on to the next priority.  Once you have something fixed, stay ahead of it with proper maintenance and don’t let it deteriorate causing the same problem to arise again and again.  This is the only way to get ahead, otherwise you will find yourself in a state of continual crisis management never allowing you a moment to progress beyond the current situation.  An endless cycle of patching will take place until finally everything crumbles in on you and puts you even further behind the eight ball.

So maybe the proper title for this post should be ‘get ahead and stay ahead’.  I can’t tell you how many horses I have dealt with that this pertains to, or, more accurately, horse owners I have dealt with that think there is a short term miracle patch job.  This leads me to the subject of unrealistic expectations.  Sure there are some issues that can be fixed or greatly improved in one session such as trailer loading, bridling, and other more specific situational issues, but all in all, if problems with a horse are not addressed every time you work with the animal, the issues will always creep back in.

If an owner wants to keep his horse respectable on the ground and in the saddle, then he must establish this foundation from the start.  I’m talking about the foundation that Buck Brannaman, Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and countless others started teaching.  Once you have that, you can always come back to it if a problem arises.  If there is a problem and the horse doesn’t have a solid foundation, then I can only say that there is no time like the present to put one in place.

Ultimately, the foundation builds confidence in the horse by providing it with guiding support in the form of the rider’s ability to connect with the horse physically and mentally through timing, feel, and balance.  If your horse has this to begin with, the rest is easy as long as you take the foundation with you as you go.

Here is where patch jobs present a problem with horses – a horse that has no foundation and is put into training has nothing to fall back on when a problem occurs. The problem only gets worse with time until the point where a dangerous situation exists or where the horse completely gives up.  If a horse gets to this point, yes, a person could put one ride on them and make them look better, but as soon as the patch is done the horse will go right back into its old habits.  In order to fix a horse like this, it takes time and consistency.

Don’t let a horse get to this point. Don’t try to fix problems with patch jobs that will ultimately lead to major issues requiring serious repair that can take forever to get back on the right track.  Try to do it right from the beginning, but if that’s not possible, then fix a problem properly and stay ahead of it from there on out.  Learn from the mistakes you make along the way so that you can avoid them in the future.  If you’re going to do something, then you had best do it in the right way; if you don’t, it will not be a matter of if it goes wrong, but rather a matter of when and how badly it will go wrong. This is especially important for situations involving horses and people in that a problem with the animal can easily become a dangerous life-or-death issue.

Advertisements

The only thing I know is that I don’t know!

For the past two winters in Wellington, Florida, I have had the privilege of studying under George Morris one or two days a week. Over this time, I have found myself consumed by the effort to understand what skills and philosophies lead those who are masters at their trade along the path to ‘enlightenment’. I use the term enlightenment cautiously, not in a Voodoo god-like way, but in the sense of a deeper awareness and understanding of the world as it exists. When I refer to masters, I mean those who are able to refine their craft beyond the basic level that is comprehensible to most others.

A typical day spent with George was as follows:

After he had worked out for an hour at a nearby gym, George and I met for breakfast at 7 am. From there we hit the road, venturing to many different barns where he would ride, educate, and mentor many of the top riders and horses at every level.  He usually started out by riding a few horses, then progress to teaching a few individual lessons, and finally wrap up his instruction with a clinic.  Following the morning’s work, we would head back to his house for a few hours – but only after his usual stop at Dunkin Donuts for a large hot chocolate with whipped cream! While George occupied himself with the editing of his autobiography, I was left to browse his library and read his books and the notes that he had jotted down on their pages. In the afternoon, we would head to the show grounds where I got to observe him as he walked and discussed the course with several riders, both those he was responsible for coaching and those he wasn’t. My favorite part of these afternoons was standing with him as his students rode.  He could see every mistake before it happened and every bad distance long before the horse took off. His understanding of the horse’s correctness to the jump was so well established by his years of riding and teaching that George knew what was going to happen before the horse ever did.

On one of the last days I spent with George during the winter season, he said something that had an enormous impact on my thinking. As usual, we met for breakfast, said our good mornings, and sat down. It was not uncharacteristic on such occasions for George to start the conversation by exhaling loudly and then delivering a simple but mind-blowing comment.  On this day his comment was, “You know what keeps me waking up every day?  The drive to continue to learn, the hunger to be better for the horse, the fact that the only thing that is confirmed every day is that I don’t know. The only thing I know is that I don’t know.” This is a classic example of George’s sage-like advice: spontaneous yet full of priceless wisdom.  Only after some time had passed and I had let his statement sink in did I realize how significant it was.

This statement of George’s that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” encapsulates much of what it takes to achieve self-mastery. This in itself is a complicated subject, but for now I will only discuss what the statement means to me.

Simply put, the day you stop learning is the day you think that you have ‘arrived’, that you have reached the pinnacle of your potential, that there is no need to continue studying, applying, and refining your skills. You have reached a state of stagnation from which there is no forward progress. There is no more desire to conduct experiments in hopes of bettering your understanding and improving your awareness. You have become mechanized and routine in your approach to dealing with all situations, and you have lost sensitivity for the moment at hand.  As a result, a person who has reached this ‘pinnacle’ tends to treat everyone as though they were machines, providing one-size-fits-all answers instead of tailoring his approach to any particular situation. A teacher who has himself ceased to learn will be unable to help others think, cultivate the desire to improve, and develop an awareness of their influence on their surroundings.

As George made clear in his statement, he has never stopped learning.  He often tells me during a phone conversation or breakfast that after a recent breakthrough with a horse, he realized that he has been doing something wrong his entire life. He laughs to think that for all that time he had been teaching it wrongly. He still has a hard time believing that others listen to him when he teaches because he has these seemingly constant breakthroughs, no matter how small they are, that revise his previous understanding of the horse.

Another thing that working with George brought to my attention is his voracious reading and his struggle to understand the many variations and details of classical horsemanship.  He will read a specific book many times over the years, whenever his mood or current interest inclines him toward it. Seeing some of the books he has gone through over and over again with countless underlines, side notes, and comments in different inks has led me to appreciate just how many times he has been through the same book with different insights resulting from his labors. Each time George rereads a book, he peels back another layer of the onion to reveal a new meaning.

Depending on where I am in my journey, George’s seemingly simple statement that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” takes many different forms, always presenting itself in a new light to reflect my current circumstances.  The sentiment behind these simple words is one that is embraced by masters in all disciplines.  The details of the “not knowing” may have slight differences depending on who is professing their ignorance, but the meaning as a whole is applicable to all areas of study and life.

Any masters who have reached refinement to the degree of enlightenment have seemingly simple, short phrases that are so straightforward that they seem trite or untrue to those who hear them. On a lifelong journey of learning, however, the continuous breakdown of these sayings reveals the complexity and deeper truth behind the words. It is only with examination and explanation that these phrases can become accessible and helpful to students at all levels. I hope that I can build an awareness of these phrases in others by explaining my thought process as I myself try to understand the deeper meaning behind them by writing about them.

I feel so fortunate for the mentors and masters I have had and will have the pleasure to study under. It is hard to imagine a life without them.

Are Disciplines Getting Too Focused?

 

IMG_0352

Today there are so many different variations of disciplines within disciplines that “Good Horsemanship” is being skipped over in hopes of reaching the highest level within a specific discipline sooner.   In my journey of horsemanship, I find myself being asked what discipline I do. It is a question I couldn’t answer at first and kind of despised because people just categorized me under “western”. Actually, I am working towards making a very well-rounded and versatile classical dressage horse that could be taken into any other discipline out there.  People are getting too caught up in the appearance, style, or status behind certain disciplines.  Every horse should be given the respect and dignity of being started with the basics then improved through the continual development towards classical dressage, while also having their perspective and education level taken into account during every single ride. The rider should allow the horse to be at ease no matter what discipline he or she is pursuing, all the while never dropping the basics or flat work along the way to focus solely on the desired end result.

Without the basics, you shouldn’t be allowed to do anything else with your horse.  As long as you have the basics working for you, if anything happens along your journey, you can always come back to the basics to fix your mistakes and ask your horse for forgiveness.   So many horses are so specialized that you can’t do anything outside that particular horse’s and rider’s comfort zones.  For instance, take a dressage pony that does “great” in the arena but as soon as you try to leave the arena it looks like someone gave the horse a shot of pure adrenaline. It shies at everything and freaks out because it has never been exposed to anything else.  As another example, consider a rodeo horse taken into a dressage ring to do flat work. It looks like a llama on speed because there are no basic horsemanship skills put into the horse.  Not all are this way, just using examples, but imagine if you had the basics in the horse to be able to do all disciplines?

Whether it be western, dressage, jumper, polo, rodeo, or any other discipline, neither your attire nor the name behind what you do should matter.  What does matter to me is that you could take a jumper and go rope a cow off of them, or a western horse and go into the dressage ring without people judging your tack, or a barrel racer into the jumping arena and have collection without the horse running off like an antelope on red bull, or take a dressage pony and be able to gather horses with them without ever noticing a difference in the relaxed demeanor of the horse.  Most of all, the horse should respectfully enjoy every bit of what they do, no matter what it is!

Recently I took a trip to Florida and was able to take a jumping lesson on a beautifully huge horse!  The horse was great at its job, but there were no foundation in the horse.  I tried taking the same horse around the property and found the lack of foundation pretty quick.  It was a one dimensional horse, which ultimately there is nothing wrong with, but imagine the fun in being able to take that same horse to show in classical dressage, or go rope a cow, or enjoy a ride around the property without any fear.  I then rode my horse that day, roped some horses, did some classical dressage work to warm him up, jumped some small jumps, tried to pull a golf cart out of the mud with my rope, and then used him to show groundwork and saddle work in a lesson.  Point being, the fun of taking my horse to do all those jobs without ever having any fear along the way is based on the foundation that the horse was started with and still working at!

On a funny note, I felt and sure I looked like a rookie in an English saddle with the stirrups put way up in the lesson.  Note that I learned a ton from that lesson and it moved me forward significantly in my journey, which I will touch on in the future!

Imagine the fun you and your horse could have just by having the basics from the start.  All horses should have the right to being brought up with the basics to enjoy a life of peace and not live a life in fear.   All riders should know the basics to give that respect to the horse!  You should know where each foot is at all times, you should know your horse’s mental state, and most of all, if you put yourself in your horses position throughout his entire life, would you have been able to learn and would you have enjoyed the journey along the way?

I know that my greatest struggle as I am progressing is taking into account if the horse enjoys it or if he feels like it’s a dictatorship in which he reacts but doesn’t necessarily enjoy.  When I am working at something I tend to get result focused.  While I can get a horse to look pretty, how does the horse feel about me after I get there?

I hope you take away from this the feeling that it doesn’t matter what the label behind what you do is but more importantly that you have the foundation put in your horse to safely pursue and excel at any discipline while continuing your education on the basics and flat work of classical dressage!  All along the journey, try to put yourself in your horses position to see if the journey would be enjoyable to you.

Application to Daily Life:

Now imagine a child being raised from the young age of 4 years old to reach the highest level of a discipline without ever going through the basics. Imagine he is pushed to reach the top tier of a discipline through coaches yelling, screaming, and demanding that the child reaches perfection within the discipline from the very first day of practice.  Now compile 4, 6, 10, or even 20 years on top of that without the demand for perfection decreasing, or if anything increasing over the years.  Now imagine that child was you?  How would you have responded to this?  Would you have lasted more than a couple of years?  Say you did and reached the top level of competition. Would you be happy once you reached that level?  Would you have enjoyed the journey?  Would you even enjoy your life looking back on any of it?

Now imagine replacing the child with your horse and imagine that horse is you,  Would that have changed anything you have done in the past or will do in the future of your journey?

 

 

 

Working towards lightness

DSC_0068

Watching others ride, I often see people riding with pressure instead of lightness. This simply means that people think they need pressure for comfort and control, are unwilling to let go, and do not allow the horse to move as freely as they should. It seems that true lightness actually scares people; if they get lightness, then they will actually have to let go and trust in the horse. This is very tough at first for everyone, but if you’re able to break through this, the rewards are truly amazing and affect way more than your horsemanship.

First off, what does it mean to achieve lightness in horsemanship? Depending on your discipline it can mean 800 different things, but for me it means only one thing: the lack of visible pressure being put on the horse in order to achieve the desired reaction and maintain the horse’s balance at the same time. As far as measurable pressure, if anything it would be a couple of ounces or, at times, complete weightlessness to help your horse make the desired movement. There should be no stretching of the horse’s lips or spurs digging into the side of the horse to scare them into your desired action, throwing them way out of balance.

Depending on your journey in horsemanship, working towards lightness can take many different forms. For most, just taking their horse into a round pen and getting their horse to lope and stop on a loose rein may be it. For others it may be refining the movement to where your hands are only used to collect the horse and your legs or seat are used to direct your horse.

Please do not settle for pulling, kicking, or spurring on your horse. Put yourself in your horse’s position and imagine how you as a rider use the bit or your legs. Do you think that you would enjoy the way you use your aids if you were the horse? Are you getting a result that carries over to lightness? This is as much of a reminder to myself as it is a word of caution to all. Become aware of the way you ride, not only for your sake, but more importantly for your horse’s sanity. Are you working towards lightness or pressure?

A Herd Bound “Run Away” – Part 1

DSC_0380

There is a horse that the ranch received a few years ago and has created quite the name for himself.  Here on ranch, that’s usually not a good thing.  On his resume are accomplishments such as a separated shoulder, multiple run aways, excessive rearing to the point of flipping over backwards, and a comical fondness for running people into walls, gates, fences, etc.  He was always on my radar as one that needed a lot of support and one that could potentially teach me a great amount, but for some reason other wranglers kept getting a hold of him before I could.

The 2012  fall I had the honor to work with him.  Worked him on the ground and found some great spots where I could see where others struggled in the saddle.  Whenever I would try and break the hindquarters over and bring the front through, he would get real bothered trying to keep drifting instead of engaging the hind and bringing the front through.  The real issue surfaced when I was going about the ground work outside in a tighter more confined environment.  Every now and then, on his left side, I would go to switch directions where he would completely check out.  Trying to run sideways rearing excessively, just like he did to others in the saddle, but by staying in correct position behind the balance point I was able to work through the issue.  Two times of that and he was over that “wasted” effort.  Shortly after the horse didn’t take another incorrect step, smoothing out and relaxing.

The next step was to check how he backed off the slobber strap.  We will just say, that was  a no go.   Offered him a good deal, went to firm up on the snaffle and he just about flipped straight over backwards.  After breaking his feet lose a few times, the horse would back in unison without any pressure needed.

After doing the ground work I then went through all the same things in the saddle.  It all checked to an extent so that day I wrangled on him.  The wrangle went great, he was pretty wound up, but we worked through it.  I wrangled on him one more time, break away roping a few stragglers, and he was calm and quiet with lots of respect.  We made a big change so I turned him out till this spring.

I caught him up, did a little ground work and went for a ride.  Everything went well, just wanted to make sure there was no surprises in there with 4-6 months off, and put him up for the day.  The next day I left him tied for several hours, but didn’t get a chance to put a ride on him.  Repeated the same steps the next day, except at the end of the day he was caught up so I thought I would just wrangle on him.  Of course I didn’t have time to check him out on the ground so I just got up on him and went for it.  At this point I knew very well I wasn’t exactly stacking the deck in my favor for many reasons.  This horse, with out ground work or prep riding to get to the feet, is the same horse that separates shoulders, runs through immovable objects, and a rearing son of a buck.  About the only thing running through my mind is just go with the flow until the opportunity comes along to where he settles and I can work on getting to the feet and connecting them to the reins.

As we are picking positions for the wrangle I chose to push so that I could just flow with the horses and not have to use my reins a whole lot.  I get into the corral and I can feel the engine come to life in this valiant steed.  We were walking towards the back of the corral, when all of a sudden he catches a glance of his hoochy mamma.  That’s when I felt the the engine turn into a performance race car engine that was revved up to the point of explosion.  He starts going for his woman and I am just doing figure eights in the back of the corral trying to let him work it out.   Mind you the corrals are a swampy death pit at the time from high run off.  They cracked the gates to let the horses out to pasture and he became even more amped up.  The figure eights turned into these giant loops through the corrals, trying to buy a little time for the horses to get out on their way to pasture so I could let him go with out worrying about guiding his life.  He was on the brink, starting to circle for one last loop when he lines out to go for the corral fence.  I remember this clear as day, thinking this is the point where he tries to run through immovable objects.  He was running straight for the wood paneled fence determined to either run through it, jump it, or hell for all I know he thinks he is Pegasus.  I was ready for all the above, trying to gently assist him to turn to the right, for the left was a sure slip on the muddy hillside into the fence. Leaving us both in a pile, that I would come out of with broken bones at best.

The moment of truth was upon us!  Left to death, straight through the fence, jumping a 5 foot high wood barrier, or a sharp right turn for the best chance of survival.  I was trying not to anticipate any one of the ideal options laid out before me in hopes that I would just react and go with my horse instead of making like a rocket inspired lawn dart, going head first into the swamp with only my legs sticking out of the mud flailing wildly.  To make matters worse he is in a left lead as we approach the moment of impact, whether that be a slip and slide into the fence or potentially flying through the air for 10 seconds before I go splat.  He had one stride left before he makes a decision, still in the left lead when all of a sudden he picks his shoulder up and evens my weight, leaning and offering right, taking his right lead.  Safely turning, but so close to the fence I had to take my left leg clear up past his flank to keep from getting crushed by a fence post skimming his side.

We survived the turn with just enough time for the horses to get out of the corral.  At this point I knew we were through the worst and let him air it out a bit.  Taking off like batman out of the bat cave, mach 9, full speed ahead, peewwwww!  The race was on to him, to reunite with his honey boo boo.  It took him all of two seconds to catch up to the herd, going way to fast in tight corridors to bend him, so I had to take a hold of the reins to slow his feet to keep from beating the herd out to pasture.  I was taking a huge risk, asking him to slow his feet because of his fetish with rearing in previous years.  I felt confident because the one thing I was able to check out in a matter of seconds before getting on was backing him off the slobber strap.  I grabbed a hold of the reins offering a good deal to just slow his feet, no response.  I then firmed up to the point of stopping and backing him a few steps because of the resistance he put into slowing/stopping.  We took off again and from there I was able to rate him until we were in a spot where I could bend him, working on other movements.

Once the horses cross the bridge its pretty much home free for the horses, in a sense it’s like loading a gun.  Once they cross the bridge to pasture they all take off at a full out gallop, thundering into the meadow.  This was my last obstacle to making it a successful wrangle on a fresh green horse.  We were in the midst of crossing the bridge, watching all the other critters take off like wild banshees, and i could feel the tension rising once again.  There was one more moment before the take off where I was able to position him to the left and brake the hindquarters to bring the front through, setting him up to take a right lead to get right of the gate.  I wanted to get to the right so that he could lope a big circle in the nice grassy area, winding down at his own pace.  Made the move, he took the right lead, taking off with out a doubt in his mind he was free.  We made it to the right of the gate and he was still full throttle ahead.

After about 50 full speed circles at his own desired rate, close to 20 lead changes in about a 50 yard diameter circle, he found a his own stop away from the other horses and away from the pasture.  Success!  We paused there for a couple minutes just loving on him while he let down completely.  We walked in at a nice lively walk, straight as an arrow, stopping with quality at the manger area where I dismounted.  Took a moment to really let it all soak in for tomorrow I was going to need all the help I could get for his first wrangling of the horses in from pasture which is a whole new ball game.  The night was finished with a successful ride with little to no preparation.

The only way I believe we both survived is through other preparation up to that point and letting him go at his own rate when possible.  If I would have been in his way any more, I believe that we would have both been in a pile.  I knew his limits from where he was at in the situation given.  Knowing that I didn’t give myself or him the best chances for success, but knew that we could be successful by letting go and trusting him.  It’s a hard thing to let go of yourself and just trust in your horse to do what he needs to do.  In a sense your letting go of all “control” you think you have over them.

This is part of how I have learned the little bit that I have in the past years, by pushing the limits.  Almost always leaving situations better then which they were at, even if it gets ugly for awhile, staying there till I am able to learn from the horse.  If I don’t leave the situation better, it eats at me all through the night, until I can ride that horse the next day with more to offer. I am always learning along the way about the horses mental state, physical state, and most of all my state of being.   By pushing the limits and reflecting accordingly, I always come out offering the horse a little more.  All in hopes of being able to offer the horse a lot more down the road.   Little by little the journey progresses, enjoying it even more with every day to come.