Great Reading

  • "Think Harmony with Horses" by Ray Hunt
  • "Ground Work" by Buck Brannaman
  • "Cowboy Logic" by Ray Hunt


Thursday, July 28, 2011

For the longest time we have all heard that what is happening to us, who we are, what we are like on the inside has a dramatic effect on our horsemanship and horses. Ray would say that what is on the inside of us drains right out and into our horses. A poet once wrote that the best thing for the inside of a man was the outside of a horse, but Ray would say that sometimes the worst thing for the inside of a horse was the inside of a man.

I know with a couple of my horses, if I'm having a bad day the LAST thing they want is to have ME in the barn. Mares are so intuitive that way. What the geldings will often times tolerate, the mares will have none of. Before I write one more word I have to thank, from the bottom of my heart, the horses and humans that were so generous in clearly illustrating this this often discussed bit of philosophy.

I have been caring for a wonderful little chestnut mare for the past couple of years. Watching her change, relax, become part of a herd and enjoy her life as a horse has for me been a blessing and a gift. She is a nice horse, patient, gentle and oh so very tolerant. She is my go-to girl when there are "new" riders in the barn. She knows her job and totes most folk around with the patience of Job. I have much to learn from that mare. She does however have her limits.

A friend was up for a visit and riding of course was the order of the day. She was bringing along a friend of hers that wanted to learn a little more about this style of horsemanship that has become such a passion for me. I was happy to share in my own limited way what my teachers have so generously shared with me. My goal is to spark that same passion, introduce them to my teachers and friends and continue spread this "virus" of great horsemanship. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes the greatest disasters bring the very best lessons.

The Chestnut mare was of course my go to girl. You can tell so much about how things are going to go in just the way a person leads a horse. I was swallowing hard. The mare was wanting to leave even though she knew going the barn meant grain and grooming, two things she really loves. She was fidgety, looking out the doors, not being able to still her feet. I was talking to our visitor about rubbing the mare, getting her to feel good about going with her, how much a touch means to a horse. It was as though my words were hitting an India rubber ball, they were bouncing right back at me. If you have ever played dodge ball on the playground as a kid, you know what I'm talking about. Grooming and saddling were "tolerated" events.

Ground work was the next order of business and I kept reminding myself of what things were like for me when I was first learning and what a trial that must have been for my teachers. I think the biggest difference was that I wanted to change. I was looking for something different, something real, new and meaningful. Our visitors sister had ridden with Buck Brannaman three times. She was helping her with groundwork. Something was missing in the translation. The clucking and pulling was having a dramatic effect on the Chestnut mare and you could feel the frustration on both the part of the horse and human. Same feeling, very different origins. I asked her to please quit clucking, the response was definite, "It works for my horse so I'm going to keep doing it". There was no thought to the trouble it was causing the horse she was holding. No thought of adjusting to fit the needs of another individual. This person was stuck, braced and absolutely unyielding. I was again having flashbacks of my own journey, stomping off in an absolute rage after my first Ray Hunt clinic. I rubbed the little mare, asked quietly for her forgiveness, slipped on her snaffle bit, and carried on.

Things went immediately from bad to worse. I could tell we were reaching limits of the mares patience. I was wondering how much more I could expect from her in good conscience and what the risk/benefit ratio was. I had just "sold" this horse and was having some real remorse. I was waiting for some "try" form the human, some indication that the discomfort and sacrifice on the part of the horse was going to be worth it. Mind you, it all looked...okay. The mare was walking, trotting, bending and doing her job. Her eyes however were starting to bug out of her head. The walk was stiff and there was getting to be more trotting, the bending was turning into pulling accompanied by a deep and authoritative "HO".

"Sa***a, lets try something different. I want you to think about rubbing her to a walk. Try not touching your reins, relax, breathe and just rub her." I was hoping this little exercise would help both horse and human relax as well as reinforce the message that its not about the reins anyway! The tension in the arena was palpable, thick and sticky. I stood back struggling with what to come up with, how to help, how to spark some recognition and find that "AH-HA" moment. I glanced around the arena and saw Ziggy and *nn*. They had been riding and I hadn't noticed that they had come still in the arena and were watching, relaxed, happy and quite unaffected by the tension building to volcanic proportions. Ziggy's eyes had even closed and his leg was cocked. A**e was watching, back, legs and seat soft, just as casual as the horse. The Chestnut mare noticed too. She could feel the peace and comfort and she was drawn to it. Her trot was now concentrated around Ziggy and ***e in an ever tightening circle. "Just pluck a rein and steer back out" I kept trying to get my little human volcano to exercise some leadership, and thought, to understand that riding is a verb and it requires action. "She has something going with that other horse" Sa***a's voice was getting shrill. "She won't walk. I'm not here to train this horse." So, with that final, frustrated declaration came the eruption. In a fairly masterful tug-o-war she pulled the mare to a stop and baled off. "I'd like to see you get this mare to walk around in here!" The words bubbled out like hot lava. I walked over took the mare and rubbed her. I rubbed over her very wrinkled brow and very bothered eye until the whites were not longer showing. I checked my cinches, shortened up my stirrups, lead her up to the fence and slid into the saddle. This is the only part of this lesson I have a tough time telling. I am not blowing my own horn, far from it. I have a tough time staying on a swinging gate in a stiff breeze most days. I am not fork-ed, I am not a bronc rider and I don't ever want to be. I would rather get my horses gentle. I would rather develop a partnership where they will work a little harder to fill in for me. I must say I'm pretty proud to ride like an old lady. It makes me think. I'm not quick, I'm not strong but I am pretty good at finding a feel. I like this mare. She knows it. With one big sigh she stepped off, flat footed and to my way of thinking, thankful. I spent my time rubbing her as we walked. She hadn't totally let down, but then I wasn't that let down either! This was no longer a lesson. I didn't have anything to prove. This was about forgiveness, trust and making amends. I put this mare in a bad spot. I asked her for more than what she could give and I wanted her to know it was my mistake. All she was looking for was a good deal, a little fairness and some understanding. I reached up and slipped her bridle off. It was the least I could do given the last the couple of hours. She continued to walk, softer and a bit more relaxed. Left, right, forward, back not great, not totally soft, but so very willing.

Horses are wonderful. They live in the moment. Their capacity to forgive is amazing. Their willingness to respond to the good deal, impressive. Their ability to sense what we as humans try so hard to hide is humbling. As I think back on this day, I am still in awe. We can hear these stories, these horsemanship parables, but to get to experience it, and share in it with such alive clarity is such a gift. I am so truly thankful for these moments. Thankful to horse and human and feeling very blessed to in some small way, be a part of it all.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

There's no place like Hope

"Chase Creek Summer Camp, come JUMP!" I couldn't resist the title, pictures or promise of heading up to central Canada to spend a week jumping with Nick Holm-Smith. Nick sponsored and taught the fine art of cross country jumping at his farm just outside of Chase, BC which is about 40 miles north of nowhere in central BC, Canada. I started to do my homework and find out all of the particulars. Nicki was 14 and a very serious Three Day Event competitor and wanted to ride with the best. Nick, a Pan Am Games Gold Medalist and member of the Canadian Three Day Olympic team was just the guy to help her move up and on in her career. I signed the forms and sent the check. In July, we were headed to Nick's!

There was a group of us going. All of the kids that were part of Nicki's little Three Day team. It was going to be a dream to ride with Nick and everyone was thrilled. Being rustic Eventers, and having done my homework, it seemed most folks just tent camped while at Nick's. It was all dry camping with all water being hauled for horses and humans from Chase Creek, no electrical, and a couple of outhouses just a short hike from where we would be staying. I talked to several trusted friends about their experiences at Chase and while camping was a bit on the difficult side, everyone loved the experience. I was all for the tent right up until the stories about the bears started to surface. It seems that Chase Creek is also home to several rather large black bears and one brown sow and her cubs. That was the end of the tent. I started looking for better accommodations that very day. I had always wanted a horse trailer with living quarters and now seemed to be the perfect time to make that investment.

Serendipity and timing were on my side. The previous November while attending the AQHA World Show in OKC, I helped a pal pick out the perfect LQ trailer. I huge Sooner. Double walled and insulated, it was a white painted aluminum three horse with the most perfect interior. I was in love. It was Angie's trailer, but she let me make all of the choices. I had a ball. White washed cabinetry, burgundy and hunter green interior, plush carpets and a mud room. It was girl heaven. I was green with envy. It was my perfect trailer!

Angie only hauled the trailer twice. It was too big for her truck, she said. The wiring was also bad and she was stranded at a show on account of that damn trailer, was the story. I hadn't given the trailer another thought until Angie's rant. Bears still fresh in my mind, I was on the phone asking "How much do you want for it?" Angie sold me the trailer for what was outstanding on the loan. I called Joe, told him to grab the checkbook and meet me before Angie could change her mind. The trailer was mine. I was ecstatic!

The trailer was huge! The guy from Sooner assured me that my Ford F 350, 4 X 4 could haul it. I believed him. Wiring checked, B & W rollover ball installed, new brake controller, and lots of test miles to just about everywhere I could think of, we were ready for Canada! Bears be damned, we were going to be traveling in fine style. Safe, secure and totally self contained, I was brimming with self assurance and confidence! July couldn't get here quick enough!

We were on our way. Kids and horses packed, route meticulously planned, layovers scheduled, it was two days to make the trip to Chase. Easy days with interesting layovers to make the trip fun and plenty of time to get our convoy through customs. Day two, Hope. I tiny little town, nothing more than a motel, cafe and gas station, Hope was the gateway to the Coquihalla highway 116 miles through the northern Cascades and one of the most difficult and hazardous passes in all of north America. I was clueless. Everything seemed to be going great. Customs was a breeze unlike the horror stories we had heard about, our layover stable was clean comfortable and horses and kids were all doing great. Ignorance was bliss.

The haul out of Hope was amazing. The scenery, breathtaking. Towering granite peaks, blue sky's, I wanted to see something amazing like a moose or some other wild creature. My camera was at the ready. I was waiting. We kept on climbing. My truck was doing great. I had heard other friends talk about this stretch of road. No over heating and I was keeping pace with all the other trucks that were hauling much smaller loads. I was feeling good, strong, confident. We were just about to the Great Bear Snow Shed, a landmark on the highway when we saw it, a huge North American brown bear in the highway. Trucks were swerving, everyone was hitting either the breaks or the gas to get out of harms way. The bear was SO big it simply stepped over the concrete barriers in the middle of the highway. It was completely unconcerned with the 4 lanes of traffic in each direction. I think the bear knew that the smelly, belching, burping creatures moving up and down the rock river in the middle of it's range would stay out of his way. I think he knew just how big he was. He was right. No one touched the camera. By the time we reached the bear he was safely ambling up the mountain. Crossing the Coquihalla was just same-o, same-o for him. I was amazed that a bear would be so comfortable that close to people, trucks, and all that noise. That was enough excitement for me. We kept on climbing.

I guess I should have known there was something special, something different about the Coquihalla. Maybe the number of tow trucks conveniently parked at the top of the pass should have been a hint. I simply thought it was a normal "Canadian" thing. It was a long haul up, but the excitement of the bear and the ensuing conversation made the miles fly. It was no time at all and we were in Merritt, then on down the highway towards Kamloops and Chase. The day was waning and we wanted to make Nick's place before it was totally dark. No time to think or analyze.

It was a sharp right hand turn onto the road to Chase Creek. No markers. Just the river to the left and a simple road sign to the right. It was the first time my engine strained. It was dark and we were in a hurry. We were close and had to set up camp, find the corrals for the horses get the kids to bed. I was already thinking ahead and not noticing the grade we were having to climb. My truck was feeling the load. It was working, hard. I was only able to eek out 25 miles an hour. At this rate the last few miles were going to take forever. We kept twisting, climbing. I was impatient, we had lots yet to do. The road was now gravel and finally leveling off. We had climbed up the side of a mountain and were now following the valley between two peaks. This was Chase. We were finally there.

I was ground crew for the week. Nicki was there to jump her little thoroughbred, Jupiter. A very handy and athletic gentleman, he needed miles on the cross country course. Chase was going to offer them both that opportunity. Nick Holm-Smith was a man in miniature. Short, hairy and powerfully built, with gray hair (everywhere), sparkling blue eyes and a lisp, "ride like stink" was the phrase of the week! And ride like stink they did. Nicki was to have been jumping Novice and Training. Someone forgot to tell Nick. It didn't matter to him. If he thought you could, you would! It didn't matter that you had never seen anything over 3'3", if it was in your way, you jumped it. I tried to video the jumping lessons. My poor camera spent most of the time getting dropped on the ground. I was too new to big fences. I had not build up my "Mother of an eventer" nerve and kept gasping and dropping the camera. I have lots of great video of my shoes and the grass. I did get better as the week went on.

The stay was coming to a close. Horses and kids were getting salty. Fears conquered, confidence built, even the Weldon's Wall and wedding cake in the middle of the second water complex was no longer causing fits of exasperation and tears. The coffin complex in the woods was the only jump off limits in that a mother bear and her cubs had taken up residence there. Nick had taken one group out to see if they could use the series of fences and ditches, only to raise the ire of mother bruin and send the whole group frantically crashing through the trees to find safety in non-bear infested pastures. It was a great week.

Sunday was get-away day. Horses and memories packed, good-bye's said, we headed out. Down the gravel road two turns, three more turns and then suddenly onto a steep grade that just kept getting steeper. I had been on a mental wander through the last week. Had I missed a warning sign? Was this the same grade we came up a week earlier? Was I really on the right road? There was NO shoulder, NO guardrail just a very sheer and quite unsurvivable drop to a very green and pastoral looking field about 1,500 feet below. My back went weak and watery. The trailer was pushing us ever faster down, down, down and then there were curves. We were going too fast and I knew it. I hadn't properly adjusted the trailer brakes and the truck was taking the full load. I had to slow down. I had to. I didn't know if I could or should try and gear down. It was too late. I could smell a sickening hot smell. We were in trouble. Big trouble. I was responsible. My children, their friends, horses, I hadn't paid attention and now we were all going to...I couldn't think it, it was terrifying. I could see what was coming, the last long downward stretch, a sweeping right hand turn to a stop that teed into the highway. If I couldn't stop, I would shoot across the highway over the railroad tracks and into the river, that is IF I made the turn. I had to choose. I hit the brakes. I reached down and grabbed the manual controller for the trailer brakes. Truck brakes, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand; trailer brakes, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. All of the talking and giggling in the truck stopped. "Mom, what's wrong?" the girls kept asking, begging. I couldn't answer. I was sweating and praying. I wanted to throw up, cry, yell. I wanted the damn truck to stop. I was gaining on the rig in front of me, too close, too close was all I could say out loud. I think my voice was a bit shrill. The girls were getting scared. We had to stop, we had to STOP.

We were finally slow enough I slammed the truck into first, the transmission caught, the engine revved, I saw smoke. My calipers were on fire! It only seemed like a million years later, we were stopped. Friends from the truck in front of me baled out screaming, "Your on FIRE!" I yelled at the girls, "Give me the fire extinguisher, NOW!" Being from the school of over prepared is just prepared enough, I knew I had 6 fire extinguishers to choose from. Two in the cab of the truck and 4 in the trailer. I grabbed the extinguisher, pulled the pin, aimed and...nothing. Not a squirt, not a fizzle. "What the F%$*K! GIVE me the other one, NOW!" I grabbed the second one and again, NOTHING! Unbelievable! The fear and now the frustration were just too much! I let loose a string of expletives that would have made the most hardened sailor blush! (That was for you EZ) I was screaming like a drill Sargent, kids and adults alike were scattering. A chain gang had formed to retrieve the remaining extinguishers from the trailer with one helpful bystander offering up a cup of coffee to quell the flames shooting out of the rims of my front tires.

Extinguisher #3 was as useful as numbers one and two, however good ol' number 4 and 5 saved the day. Flames quenched, I was able to assess the situation. I didn't like it. We were 40 miles north of no-freekin'-where on a Sunday morning with a flaming front end, no room in any other trailers, and two days to home. Nice. Then I heard a voice, "You must be one of Nick's people, ay. Follow me. You can make it ay. My shop is about a mile away." It was a tow truck driver. He had been parked at the bottom of the "hill" waiting, as he did every Sunday during the summer when Nick ran his camps. Seems that it was commonplace on the unmarked 12 percent down grade for unsuspecting horse haulers to smoke either brakes or transmissions each and every Sunday or as the local repair shop called it "cash day". So, three hours and $700.00 US dollars later, we were on our way.

Needless to say my confidence was shaken. The girls had seen a side of me that left a distinct impression or more aptly put, a scar! They heard things that I had hoped they would have only heard in college or better yet in the military! It was very quiet in the truck for most of the afternoon. After fuel and a snack the mood lightened a bit. We were three hours behind schedule with miles to go. Coquihalla miles. Down grade miles. Truck pushing, brake burning, tire flaming miles. I was scared. After closer inspection of my truck and trailer, the kind, confidence shattering, mind blowing, terror instilling tow truck driver explained to me just how horrifically overloaded my truck was.

He was telling the truth. I was lucky to have gotten to Chase and I would be lucky to get my rig home. There was nothing left to do but to hit the road and hope for the best. No one was coming to rescue me. I had to get home. Joe was in San Jose. I had our only truck. No one headed in our direction had room for our horses. I asked the tow truck driver what he would do. The advice was simple, direct and honest, follow the semi's. Go slow. Stop frequently and let the brakes cool down. Crawl out of the Coquihalla in 1st gear. 25 miles an hour. It was the only way. It was going to be at least 53 miles of 6 to 8 percent downgrade. It was going to be a long, long night.

The rest of my little convoy eventually distanced from me. The plan was for them to go on ahead and if things fell apart for me, they would unload horses and come back for mine. I asked the girls if they wanted to ride with one of the other parents and I received a resounding "NO". They eventually fell asleep in the back seat. The weight and responsibility of getting everyone safely home was huge. I was Mom, protector, leader. I wanted them to remember this trip and make it again with confidence. I tried my best to shake the fear. I dropped in behind a semi, took a swig of coffee and settled in.

I wanted to throw up when I saw the first "Use lower gear" sign. Even in first gear, I had to brake. It was too steep. I was going to fast. I rolled down the windows and waited for the smell of over heating brakes. I had adjusted the trailer brakes so that the load was more even. I could smell them getting hot. I had to stop and wait. The truck driver in front of me kept going. He was like my life line. I had followed him and paced myself by him. I had make a "cooling stop" behind him. Now he was able to continue and I had to stop, again. I was trying to remember, was this where we had seen the bear on the way up? I was starting to get a little frantic and slightly shrill. Her I was, alone, just kids, horses, hot brakes and bears. I called Joe. "I'm in a meeting" he whispered. "I don't give a crap" it came out a hysterical whisper. I didn't want to wake the girls. "What should I do if I loose my brakes? Scrape the divider or try and wait for the run-away truck ramp?" I choked out the words. Joe could offer nothing. He was safely sitting in a conference room a million miles away and I was hauling a giant lunch box through bear country with our children! I'm sure nothing smells better to a bear than horses barbecuing over a tire fire. I was loosing it. I was on the verge of a total mental meltdown when a semi truck pulled up and stopped next to me. I don't know the drivers name, but he was a saint to me. He said simply, follow me. He would watch out for me and that we would be fine. If I got into trouble, I was to flash my lights at him. He has a quiet confidence about him that put me instantly at ease. Never being one to trust strangers, let alone a truck driver given the reputation of most in that industry, he was a blessing, I'll even go so far as to say, angel.

We crawled out of the Coquihalla. Two more stops to cool off and then, Hope. Finally, Hope. Hope never looked so good. My truck driving saint turned left. Two flashes of his lights and he was gone. I turned right towards our layover, friends and home. We had made it. Hope restored us. With Hope came renewal, new confidence, strength, wisdom. Hope, what a wonderful thing.

Sorry this was SO long. Congratulations to those that make it to the end of this tale! Sorry about the punctuation...I hate to edit! XOXO Denise

Monday, August 2, 2010

"M***S and the Bear"

Just a note dear readers: this was first written for the "Slice of Life Tall Tales Club" started by Earl "EZ" Greiner on Facebook.

I'll have to back up just a bit for this little SOLTT...I'm sure most of you know Ricky and if you haven't yet met him, you sure might like to. I met Ricky a few years ago now. Time does fly and I'm just not going to use dates. Suffice it to say it has been a bit.

I came to know about Ricky through Cathi Bauer. I had just had my first back surgery and had a colt to start. I didn't want to go about things the way I had always learned them. I knew there just had to be something better that was more intuitive to the needs of the horse. Jet was the first colt out of my mare. A very special cross between her and a lovely 17-2 hh hunter "Skys Blue Boy". This was going to be my next competition horse and something I was not going to sell. I was excited, quite literally busting at the seems over this horse. I wanted to do everything with this colt just right and after spending years actively competing in AQHA events, I didn't like what I was seeing. I didn't like how the horses were treated as a matter of course. I wanted something more, something better.

I had heard about this cowboy, Buck Brannaman. People said that he had a very special way with horses and as a researcher, I started to dig. I liked everything about him, he sounded just right to me. Buck was going to be in Washington, so I picked up the phone and called his sponsor, Cathi Bauer. I liked her immediately. I let her know that I had a colt to start and launched into a detailed diatribe on all of the things I had seen and unfortunately done to and with horses and never wanted to do again. She listened with calm patience to my rant that must have lasted for quite some time. I told her I wanted to hire Buck to start my colt and asked for more details on where, how much, when etc... Cathi laughed. I could tell she wanted to full out belly laugh at me but was far to polite. She chuckled a bit and said "Well Buck doesn't do that." I didn't get it. He was a horse trainer, right? "Nope", she said. I was used to the Quarter Horse way of doing things. You cracked open your check book, wrote out a check and had your horse "trained". Not so with Buck. This was going to be very different and I could tell.

Cathi, bless her, explained a few more things to me and also let me know that Buck was not doing a colt starting at the clinic in Washington. I was crestfallen. I really wanted this and the timing and location would have been perfect. Sensing that I was not going to let her off the phone without some sort of answer, Cathi said " I know someone that may be willing to help you. His name is Ricky Quinn and he is one of Buck's students " Great! That sounded good to me. There was just one caveat however, "Cathi, no hard feelings, but if I don't like what I'm seeing, I'm just going to kick him out of my barn." Fair enough was Cathi's more than confident reply.

Ricky had been coming out and trying his best to help me for a couple of years. I still could not understand why we didn't have droves of people packing the barn watching and learning. It was everything I had been searching for and struggling to find. Still for the most part it was just a handful of friends that saw value and quality in what Ricky was doing that ended up in my barn. It was making me crazy. I was sure, absolutely convinced that the reason there were not people packed to the rafters every year was nothing more than a marketing problem. People just didn't know he was here and we, I had to do something. Posters, post cards, and even an ad in the local paper was just not enough. Even with a non-existent budget, there were still things we could be doing to get the word out.

Brainstorm, FREE DEMOS! Excellent, I was patting myself on the back. I would set up free demonstrations for Ricky. I would pick a group or club and have them bring a colt to start or a troubled horse to be restarted. That would give folks the ability to see and experience this style of horsemanship and they would be instantly hooked, ready to shake off their old ways and embrace what they were actually seeing. It was so hard to translate what Ricky was doing in a poster or even with words. People had to see it! This was a GREAT idea! I was pretty darn pleased with myself.

I'm not sure how to describe Ricky's response to the whole idea. I remember the look on his face and it still makes me chuckle today. It was sort of like asking him to go sky diving and letting me pack his chute. Some things you just have to take on faith or just love an adventure. I don't know why he agreed, but he did.

M***s P***s was the president of the Southern Oregon chapter of Oregon Equestrian Trails. I called her. I let her know that Ricky Quinn was going to be doing a Colt Starting and Horsemanship clinic in our area and that he was just starting his career. Part of his introduction to the area was to hold a free colt starting demonstration for certain groups and would she be interested? She jumped immediately. M***s would have her whole group attend we would just have to do the demo in Oakridge about an hour and a half south of my place. No problem. Date and time set, posters, post cards, sign up sheets, Ricky's new P.A. system at the ready, we hit the road. This was going to be great!

We were at M***s' place a little early. We could see the round pen set up, tables and chairs, lots of chairs all ready. We also saw someone in the pen. It was an older lady with a spindly, narrow little chestnut. She had the horse haltered and was doing something with a long stick that had a squeaky toy attached to one end. Ricky sat quietly watching as the lady set about saddling her horse. The molded saddle pad was sitting on the horse backward as she threw the saddle up. The horse was squirming as she was lunging for cinches and latigos. It was getting ugly. Not bad ugly. Not bronc-y ugly just uncoordinated, like putting your pants on in an earthquake type of thing. It was not pretty to watch and you just knew trouble was not far off. Then it happened. Nylon latigos not so snugly in place the horse took a big step and the saddle slipped under his belly. That happened smooth. It was the only smooth thing we had seen. "Holy Shit" was the only thing I could think to say. "Ricky, should we go down and help her?" I was feeling a little frantic. The lady was older and she was now on the verge of a pretty good wreck, or so I thought. We watched as the little horse stepped both front feet through the stirrups. "Holy shit" again, it was the only thing I could think to say.

Bless that little horse, he was the only calm thing in the pen. The horse was standing quietly with the saddle under his belly, legs through the stirrups, while the lady did her best impression of a whirling dervish in a mad attempt to un-truss her horse. I turned to Ricky expecting that maybe now we would offer some sort of rescue. Ricky's response was clear, concise and simple, "I gotta pee!" He slapped his hands on the steering wheel and hopped out of the truck.

I sat mesmerized, alone in the cab of the truck watching the drama unfold in front of me. Horses are just amazing. It seems the little chestnut knew he was in a bind. I think he knew he had to take care of himself. He wasn't touchy. Just dull and simple, he waited as the lady scratched at the nylon and finally pulled the saddle free. The little gelding stepped out of the stirrups as if to say "I've done THAT before."

Ricky had saddled Loopty and I gathered up pens, clip boards, posters and the like and headed for the table next to the round pen to set up. "Hi, I'm M***s" the lady blurted out. She was kind of twitchy and nervous. I was thinking that maybe she was on edge because she knew we had been watching her. "I was just getting him ready for you!" M***s reported to Ricky. About this time she squeaked the toy that was on top of the stick, thrust her hand into a bucket of oats and fed the gelding, oats flying everywhere. "He's 'clicker' trained" was the announcement. I swallowed hard, maybe this wasn't going to be so great.

Ricky was going to be starting M***s' clicker trained chestnut. The crowd had started to assemble and I was making the rounds greeting the members of the club. Everyone SO excited that **vas was finally going to get some much needed help. Stories of the misadventures of the pair circulated the group with lots of nervous laughter. I was really beginning to wonder if I had indeed done the right thing.

The connection between horse and human can be magical. The formation of a real partnership when it is balanced, serene and honest is beautiful. This can only happen when the relationship is truly understood, when the horse is a willing partner not a slave and not a substitute human but a horse in every sense of the word. The chestnut was **vas' substitute baby. Her spoiled, dull, braced, just trying his best to survive in his very unbalanced world, child. I swallowed, hard. This was not going to be pretty. Approaching a horse like a horse after they had lived for so many years in such an unnatural environment is just not a pretty transition. Un-doing the damage and getting back to a solid foundation, building trust and respect was something that this group would not understand. It is hard for the human to make the adjustment if they had not experienced Ray, Buck or Ricky or this style of horsemanship. It would not be easily understood, especially in the beginning. My stomach was in knots.

Ricky started in. Just normal colt starting stuff. The audience sat in rapt attention, some taking notes. Everyone had their eyes glued on what they were seeing, everyone but **vas. She had started to pace. Her husband had already told her twice to sit down as had several of her friends. Ricky roped the gelding and the chestnut anchored up. Ricky waited.

"There's about a hundred pounds of pressure on my rope right now" Ricky continued his dialogue of quietly talking and explaining what was happening and why it was necessary. **vas never heard a word. If there was a hundred pounds of pressure on the rope that was nothing compared to the pressure building up in **vas. She blew! She had been machine gun firing questions and comments for the last 20 minutes with Ricky answering and working the very braced little gelding. She wasn't seeing the trouble she had created in the horse, she didn't see the changes that were taking place. She was looking for something that was easy and comfortable for her. Something she recognized. I saw something very familiar in what she was experiencing. Here was that moment. She could turn loose and find the value in something new, different and life changing or continue with what for so long was comfortable even if it was not working and dangerous. Humans are tough. **vas chose comfortable.

"Listen here YOUNG man" **vas was clawing at the round pen, her face a deep purple red. I didn't hear the rest of the rant. I was too busy gathering up supplies and looking for my nearest emergency exit! I looked at Ricky. His shoulders had slumped, his head dropped, chin almost on his chest. He sat quiet, thinking. The seconds drug on forever. I wasn't quite sure what was coming next and those of you that know Ricky, know what I mean. Then decision was made. Ricky looked up, popped his dallies "**vas, come get your horse" were Ricky's only words, his rope was off the gelding and neatly coiled back on his saddle. Ricky was quietly sitting on Loopty as **vas continued to rage.

"Does anyone else have a horse they want me to help with" Ricky announced. To that point not a soul had moved. Some were trying to get **vas to calm down, her husband even went so far as to tell her to shut up, and several others were asking Ricky to please continue, right up until he asked for another horse.

Now I don't mean this wrong and to be honest, I am NOT in peak physical form myself, far from it as a matter of fact, just like the majority of folks watching Ricky that day, but when Ricky asked for another horse, chairs, coats, cups and a couple of small children went flying! There was a mad dash for the barn and a fair amount of pushing and shoving as half the audience bolted off to grab their horses in a first to the round pen dash! **vas and her chestnut were nearly trampled! She was still ranting and no one was taking the time to notice. Even as she loaded her horse, clicking her clicker, squeaking the toy in a hail of oats, the rant continued. **vas' husband stayed. There was a little fist waving as her truck and trailer lurched down the road and a few parting shots hollered from the truck window. Ricky didn't notice. His focus was now on the leggy gelding that had just been thrust into the round pen his owner slamming the gate behind him. It was her turn now and she was taking full advantage.

The demo continued this time with folks crowding close to the pen. The questions were honest with real purpose. I was quietly banging my head on the table. Ricky continued without so much as a blink. I was dreading the ride home. I wasn't sure what the fallout was going to be, from Ricky or from M***s. Good news moves like molasses, but anything bad is like wildfire. I felt like I had just taken a bullet, luckily, as it turned out, it was just a flesh wound.

The human is the hard sell. All you have to do is offer the horse a good deal, be fair and understand the horse as a horse and they will do their best for you. The human has an agenda, an ego. A horse will try and continue to try against all odds but the human will quit you. I remember Ray telling me that I wasn't going to get it all today, but someday I would understand. It is a personal journey. Some of us will be quicker about it. Some will have more talent and ability but the most critical element, the most life changing, really the most horse-like is the willingness to try.

We all tried something new that day. Some tried and quit, some tried and failed and some tried and found success. There was no negative fallout, no bad press. There were also no new converts from that day. Change is difficult for the human. There has to be a real drive, a quest, a desire to find something new and then make it part of who you are. Ray said it is not like flipping on a switch, but a small click on a dial, so true.


PS: I have had several queries about the title of this piece and folks wondering, "what about the bear"? I'm sure you all have heard the old saying about poking a bear in a cage...? Well, M***S was the one with the stick and Ricky was the bear. As I was watching M***S fire off nasty comments, and inane questions AT Ricky, without ever waiting for an answer or attempted answer, I couldn't help but have that little image pop into my head. ~D

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ray Hunt 1929-2009

I have shed a lot of tears. I don't mean to, Ray wouldn't like it. They are the kind that just sneak up on you, well up in your eyes and roll down your cheeks. They are the tears that come up from a deep place of real regret, loss and sorrow.

I had been working on my next post about teachers and the difference between coaches, teachers and "horse trainers". Ray's passing on March 12 changed things just a bit. Ray is a teacher. A teacher of horses and humans. He said once that he knew if he didn't get through to the human, he could never help the horse. Ray was all about the horse. If you had ever ridden with him, he would say that he was there for the horse first, then him and we could have whatever was left over. There was a whole lot left over. Way more for one person to digest in 4 short days. Way more for one person to digest in a lifetime. It was that way with Ray.

I would leave a clinic with my mind just spinning. There was so much in just the simple things, not to mention the big stuff. I would try and write it down. Even that process took a while. Ray's clinics, those wonderful times I had to just talk to him and listen to him are for some strange and wonderful reason, perfectly clear in my mind. I call on the information and conversations every day. What Ray shared is critical to me as a person and as a horsewoman. His passing leaves a void that can never be filled.

I met Ray and Carolyn for the first time in Eugene, Oregon in the late 90's. I was invited to go and watch by a friend that was showing Quarter Horse with me. She had adopted a very pretty but troubled Appaloosa horse and was told that this old cowboy had a real way with horses. She was going to ride her App and wanted me to come and watch. I did. I spent a good portion of the day chatting with Carolyn in the parking lot talking about construction and contractors we would like to kill. I had no idea what I was missing just a few steps away. Carolyn finally said I should go on in and watch. What I saw was impressive, and I didn't quite know why, it just had a good feel to it.

The Appaloosa horse was indeed troubled. Ray said that for some horses, the kindest thing we can do for them is to put them down. Harsh words from someone that I thought was a horse lover. I didn't understand the extent of caring Ray really had for the horse that day. I did however finally figure it out. He saw the suffering in the horse. He knew what the human wanted of that very pretty gelding. Ray new the horse had had enough. The silver lining was that the new owners took Ray's words to heart, allowed the App a home in their pasture and never even thought of a show career for him again. Amen.

My first ride with Ray was in 2003. Jet was three and Ricky had started him for me. Four good rides from Ricky and we were off and running! I hadn't had a lot of time with the colt. We were still living in San Jose and only coming home on weekends. Some friends let me know that Ray was going to be doing a clinic in Hillsboro, and I was on it! I signed up, paid my money and then checked my calendar and vapor locked. It was the same weekend as the Area 7 Young Riders clinic that Nicki was riding in. I had also agreed to house all of the coaches that were teaching. They were luminaries in Three Day Eventing. Peter Gray and Paul Delbrooke were the co-captains of the Canadian Three Day Olympic team, Major Jeremy Beal was the youngest man to have ever won Burghley and a dressage legend. Jon Elliott had just gone 12th at Rolex and was a rising talent. And they were all staying with us for the next eight days.

I had a few days to prepare. I let everyone know what had happened. Peter was a complete gentleman and let me know he was a very apt cook, so breakfast would be no trouble. Major Beal, in his very British way, said to enjoy my "cowboy" experience. Nicki couldn't believe I was leaving, even for a minute and would miss her rides just to hang out with some old cow dog. I must admit, I was really having my doubts. I had agreed to drive up and back every day. It was two and a half hours each way. No big deal. I could pull this off.

The first day was clear and hot. Amid the good natured jibes, some yee-haws and the like, I loaded Jet and hit the road. The barn was a dump. Falling down fences, cluttered equipment, stalls doors held up with concrete blocks, I was appalled. The colt class was in the morning and I had missed it. It was lunch break and I was doing my best to saddle a very uncooperative three year old. I was nervous and it sure influenced my horse. I had to just keep bringing him back, redirecting his feet. It was sort of like saddling a baby octopus! I finally got it done and to my surprise, a very nice gentleman hopped out of his semi-truck, walked over and told me I did a real nice job saddling my colt. It was Ray. His truck was parked right behind my trailer and I had been providing lunch time entertainment. I didn't understand what he thought was so good about it. It had taken 20 minutes to saddle one horse. I just didn't get it.

Jet and I walked, carefully, over to the arena, trying to avoid all of the hazards on the way. I especially liked the set of discs parked in the alley way to the arena. I started to do what little ground work I knew as the class participants started to filter in. I was getting worried. There was a man on a very scared bay mare, a lady in daisy-dukes and flip-flops riding a very "happy" pinto stallion that was screaming, two women on gated horses riding side by side, one had twine reins, and a younger guy on a buckskin colt that had bucked him off twice in under ten minutes. I had gone to horsey hell.

I was standing sort of in the center at one end of the arena looking around and thinking "this just can't be right". I saw Ray come in and walked up to him and said, "Excuse me, but I think I'm in the wrong class". Ray looked back, smiled and flipped on his mic. "This lady thinks she is in the wrong class, but you just put your snaffle bit on, and it'll be all right." It was at that point I realized that I was so scared at what I was seeing that my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth and I didn't even have enough spit to swallow. I put Jet's snaffle bit on and got in the saddle. This was not like anything I had ever seen or done at any sort of professional clinic. There were horses bolting, some bucking, the stallion trying to mount anything that was close, the gated horses glued to each other, it was a nightmare and I was in the middle of it. Ray talked for a bit. Tried to get the lady on the pinto stud to listen and then sent us out. I was thinking I could make it. No big deal. Then he had us split up. "Half of ya are going to the right and half are going to the left" was the order. "Ya look like a can of worms out there!" Ray was booming. Such a simple thing to have go so terribly wrong. We were just walking and trotting and what a disaster. The round pen was still set up at one end of the area and it was our job to space ourselves in order to go on the back side of it and stay on the rail. Sounds simple. The walker sisters, still glued to each other came into the gap in front of me and plugged my escape, the bolting bay mare was coming up from behind and headed right for us. We got t-boned. Luckily, Jet, even then was a big boy and the bay was small. She knocked me completely out of the saddle. I sort of landed on my feet running backward and crashed in a pile of semi fresh cow poo. It was all over. Up my back, in my pants, on my leg. The clinic sponsor, seeing what had happened, thought it necessary to scream, "rider down, rider down!" That alone was incentive enough to get back in the saddle fast, and I did!

Jet was shaking and so was I. I couldn't do much to help him and he felt like a little volcano, ready to blow. It didn't take long for the eruption. With horses in front of us the bolting bay, and "happy" pinto behind, Jet had had enough. I was no help or support to him and the pressure of leaving him trapped was too much. He bucked. Just one really big one. Enough to launch me straight up. I was airborne. I had blown both stirrups, but was still hanging on to my mecate. I clearly remember looking down at my saddle and really having no thoughts at all. I got lucky. The horses in front kept Jet from going forward. Actually they shut him down long enough for gravity to do it's job. I came right back down from where I started. It was painful. The Aussie guy that was traveling with Ray was to my left and gave me an loud "good on ya!" and a thumbs up. I however was on tilt.

Nothing much registered with me after that. Anger had kicked in. It was probably a good thing. I got the heck out of the mess. I rode for salvation alone, and then it was over. Good thing too. I was done. Ray had us circle up and asked each rider how things were going. Everyone had a comment or two and I was fuming. When it was my turn, Ray said "how are things working for you"? Well, I said, not good. I think I have done a huge disservice to me and my horse. I thought we were both going to die. I was waiting for the apology. I was waiting for a refund! Ray simply nodded and went right on to the next person. I popped a cork. All I wanted was out. Just to put my horse in the trailer and get home. This was a mess. I was convinced I would never be able to show Jet for the damage that was done that day. I had left real horsemen at home to drive all the way here just to wreck my horse. I felt like an idiot and someone was going to pay. I left. I went back to my trailer vowing that refund or not, I was never coming back. The same "friends" that told me about this mess were at the trailer trying to talk me off the ledge. It wasn't working. Jet was unsaddled ready to jump into his trailer when Ray trotted up, eyes sparkling. I'll never forget the look on his face. "Trouble?" The word just bounced out of him. I didn't answer. Gretchen, said " Yup! Trouble with a capital T!" Ray looked over at me and said "I tell ya what, you come back tomorrow and ride in the colts. We'll get things fixed up" I never looked up, acknowledged, nothing. Ray trotted off.

Everyone was SO supportive and encouraging me to come back, don't give up, hang in there...All I heard was bla, bla, bla. I was done. I cried all the way home. It had been so stressful. I was going to hear major crap when I got back home and the day had been a disaster. I was never going back, I was sure of it. I cried all the way to Hillsboro the next day.

The colt class was heaven. There were at least 10 of us packed into the round pen and it felt great. Ray was in control. I was sitting on my colt, but Ray was riding him. There was a huge change in Jet. Better yet there was a huge change in me. I felt good. It all felt just right. We rode out of the round pen. Horses and riders confident, secure. It wasn't really us. It was that feel following a feel. It was how Ray had changed us all in the round pen. Ray exuded presence, confidence, comfort and security. It was enough for all of us, horse and human. That class went all to quickly. As bad as I had felt the day before, that is how good I was feeling on day 2. Heaven.

I unsaddled, rubbed my colt, put him up and and went to lunch. I could eat. It was going to be a hoot being able to watch that afternoon class from the safety of the stands. I couldn't wait. I wanted to see what day two was going to bring with the bolting bay, mounting pinto, walker sisters, and the bucking buckskin. It was going to be entertaining, or so I thought. We had all settled into our seats when Ray on his little chestnut mare flipped on his mic and started combing thought the audience. "Where is that lady with the big bay colt?" He announced. My heart sank as all of my former friends pointed me out. "You go get your colt and come in here" Ray said. I felt sick. I had to walk my own Green mile. I went out, saddled Jet and dragged us both back to the arena or as I was still calling it, Hell. Ray was right there. "Now when you feel things are getting to be too much, you come stand by me or Carolyn, all right. You just keep yourself clear."

That afternoon was a whole new show. I rode for my horse. I kept him clear. I found the good spots and I avoided the wrecks. I really understood for the first time what is was to RIDE my horse. It was so simple it was complicated. I listened to Ray's voice alone. I did exactly what he said. I absorbed every last molecule of information because it meant the difference between success and disaster. That arena was no longer Hell. It was just me and my horse. It was what Ray wanted to prove to me. It was the lesson he knew I needed. He got to the human. He saved the horse.

The rest of the clinic was pure joy. That horsemanship class was never Heaven. It was however a slice of real life. It was a lesson in what creating a partnership was really all about. My horse and I really had to rely on each other. He had to listen to me and I had to listen to him. We had to work things out, we had to do better because there was no "just getting by". It really was so simple it was complicated. Ray didn't spoon feed us. I had to drown a little. He said we would have to. We might have to go down a time or two and really struggle for air, but we wouldn't drown completely. He would help us out before we went down for the very last time. A drowning person really cherishes a life vest. Ray was there to throw us one. All we had to do was put it on. The changes in the horses and people at that clinic will stay with me forever. I have ridden in lots of clinics with Ray since then. But that one was special. I think it was seeing things for the first time. Being so close to the edge of the cliff and learning that you didn't have to tip over. Having Ray tell you just in the nick of time, " How about going this way".

Ray was a real teacher. He allowed you to search, struggle, drown if that is what it took. But, he was also there to support, comfort, guide and yes, in my case pamper just a little. He was a teacher. He knew what his students needed to find success. He knew that if he could get to us, he could indeed make it better for our horses. I asked Carolyn last year about Ray and traveling. She said something profound that I will never forget. She said that Ray just knows that the very next horse at the very next clinic will teach him so much. Isn't that amazing. A true teacher is always driven to learn. A true teacher is also the best student. Ray was a student of the horse. We were blessed having him as a teacher.

Teachers, true teachers are selfless. They give much more than they take. They thrive on giving and sharing. I asked Ray once about retirement and he said "Nope, this is where I want to die". At the time he was leaning on a fence outside a dusty corral, helping people with their horses. Having a student that really listened and did what Ray was asking was the true gift to him. Knowing that he made a difference and that what he was giving as a teacher was being learned, applied and used was the reward. I hope Ray finds Tom in heaven. I hope they get to ride good horses. I hope they find good students to teach that listen and do their best. I hope I was a good student. I hope I made it clear to Ray that he made a difference to me. He was my best teacher. I will try and honor his memory by doing right by my horses and to Whistle, Grin and Ride.

Thank you, Ray.

Monday, February 9, 2009

For the Good of the Horse

I'm smiling. It really is a new era for horsemanship, and that just makes me happy. It has been about 12 years ago that I started this little journey and things have really changed.

I remember being snuggled up in a hotel room after our OQHA Year-End awards banquet. I was surrounded by a mountain of trophies, saddles, buckles, blankets and assortment of awards after a very successful year. I was happy and bothered. Talking to my "trainers" at the time and being very immerced in achieving my AQHA goals in the show pen, it seemed that the more successful "Team LaChapelle" became, the more I felt there had to be a better way. A better way to achieve top performances without all of the pain and punishment. I remember saying that there had to be a way to communicate that was "horse first" and that the movement would be lead by committed amateurs that really loved their horses. I was viewed as an eccentric and a maverick. I was accepted because we won.

Leaving the show pen on the cusp of achieving my life long goals with great horses that I knew would not be around and in peak condition forever, was one of the most difficult decisions in my life. I did it anyway. Friends asked what in the world I was doing and why NOW! Why sacrifice so much to do the "cowboy" thing. All I could answer was that it just felt right.

I had already started to do my homework. Several years before I had attended a clinic with Ray Hunt in Eugene, Or and witnessed some pretty amazing things. Although the information did not really click, something about the whole thing struck a cord, and I was hooked. I actually participated in a clinic with Bryan Nuebert and watched the "cowboy" stuff in more detail. I thought they were pretty good "tricks". I didn't really yet understand the nature of the horse and why this approach seemed so seamless and natural. I kept at it.

Thanks to Jet aka "Nothingbutbluesky" and Ricky Quinn my horsemanship education went from wandering in the dark to light bulbs and laser beams. I wanted to start Jet, but not the way I had been doing it my whole life. Spending time with Ricky that first winter was intense. I was seeing things in such detail, things I had never seen. Why had it taken me so long to find this information? This way of being, acting, and interaction with the horse was something I had never been exposed to, and yet it made so much sense. It was a hair on fire experience and I could not figure out why my little arena was not packed with all of those people looking for a better way.

Ricky left. I felt a bit like a toddler having taken my first step and then realizing that there was no coffee table in sight, nothing to grab a hold of. It was lonely. Just me, a rope halter, a whole bunch of thumbs and two left feet. After day one, I had bruised my face, calves and behind just trying to get a handle on ground work. I was trying to get my twelve foot, tree line, lead rope to behave! I hadn't even touched my horse yet! I had no one to call. No friends that would understand. No one that knew how the heck to spin that rope, yield those hind quarters, face-up and one rein stop. It was just me, my horses and a whole lot of guessing.

Things are so different today. One by one you have all come. There is a network now of colleagues, friends, teachers, students, horsemen and women that are just as passionate as I am about finding a better way for the horse. Ray told me once that we are all in the same stream, its just that some of us are a bit further along than others. Thank heaven for that. What a gift for those just entering the stream. What a gift for all of us to know that someone has been this way before and can point out the rough spots and offer support, direction and guidance.

So here's to all of you, CHEERS! I'm not alone out here anymore! People that are searching and trying to offer something of quality and meaning have a ready source of information, and help. Thanks to Ricky Quinn, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, Bryan Neubert, my teachers. Thanks to Laura Lillie, Nick Donohue, colleagues and professionals that have made a life's commitment to this style of horsemanship. Thanks to all of you dedicated horse owners and lovers that knew there was a better way and pushed to find it. And above all, thanks to all of my horses, those patient teachers that just knew, I too, would find it.