Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Assuming Your Way Into the Dirt

You can take the title of this post how you like; after all, it's a fine enough life lesson that in general assuming things instead of feeling out or asking things can lead to an unimaginative and perhaps accelerated journey to your ultimate patch of dirt. You can also take it purely on the equine level on which it is also intended: assuming your horse already knows and is comfortable with things because XYZ  is a great way to eat some dirt, or very nearly.

Saturday was a great refresher lesson in all of the above for me. First, let's lay out the facts and assumptions  present upon purchasing Scrappy last year. You may find that you share(d) some of these assumptions with me, regarding Scrappy or your own horse:

1) Scrappy is 8 and been under saddle at least 2-3 years, he's had a lot of saddle and people work

2) Scrappy is a steady, nondramatic gelding by personality, he's so sweet and perfect and can do no wrong!

3) Scrappy has finished 2 LDs, 2 50s, AND the VC100 already, he really knows his shit! 

4) Scrappy rode beautifully with a nice head set in a hackamore, he must have some training behind that, and we are going to jog quietly away in our hackamore forever!   

5) When I bought him, Scrappy was a little hesitant and inclined to take a step back when you first wanted to mount, he was also weirded out when I first started climbing up on things to mount him.I went about mounting in a quiet and encouraging way and his hesitation seemed to disappear over the last year. I have used mounting rocks/blocks multiple times each ride with the treeless saddle over the past few months. I kind of assumed I handled this mounting hesitation thing because he's getting quieter about it on trail, moving on.

So there we have some basic facts and the resulting assumptions. If I'd been paying better attention I would have seen that this pattern of Scrappy overturning assumptions started the weekend after I bought him, when I took him to the 2013 Gold Country LD ride assuming a 100 mile horse trotted out for vets. No, no he didn't, in fact he required hazing and I finished the LD and went home in shame and have been practicing ever since, with the result of 2 nice trot outs and 2 half assed ones--but no hazing--at our last endurance ride in April.

Here's how we can look at these facts again, with a current timeline and minus the assumptions, and see how Scrappy pulled off what he has, but would still be completely wigged out by me going to mount in a new saddle in the round pen:

1) Scrappy is 9 and has been under saddle 3-4 years. He lived the first 5ish years in a big herd at Rushcreek Ranch with no human interaction beyond branding. Since he was brought home from Nebraska to CA he was "broke to ride" in some fashion, and then completed the 5 AERC rides with 3 different riders on him, with the 100 miler rider just meeting him the week of the ride. See #3.

2) Scrappy is a steady, nondramatic gelding by personality. I'm used to greenness being expressed by spooks and startles and a generally strong horse in hand, none of which Scrappy showed me, but he was also being himself in a scenario and sport he was already pretty comfortable in. Nothing more than that can be assumed. See #3.

3) Scrappy has now finished 5 LDs, 3 50s, and the VC100...which require Steady Moving, Eating, Drinking, Pooping, and Peeing--all things Scrappy naturally learned and excels at by being a horse raised on the range. The fact that he does those things well with a person on board and another grading him really exhibits nothing beyond the willingness to begrudgingly carry a human that far and tolerate another poking them.

4)The cessation of Scrappy riding with a nice head set in the hackamore was most notably on record at Nevada Derby in April, where my quiet fattie who had started back of the pack on a loose rein on an LD last fall was now a Hi Ho silver somewhat fitted up horse leaving camp with the hackamore cranked to his chest on a cold desert morning 50. This resulted in my first claim of "going back to basics," when I realized that the hackamore was just a nice little thing that worked when he felt like it, but when he didn't, having no lateral control and a hot horse in a hackamore was not okay. Putting a bit in his mouth resulted in apparrently clueless greenie bit chomping and giraffe necking, so in the last month I'd done a handful of round pen ground driving sessions working on giving to the bit, then rode him the 9 miles on trail the other day where I found him carrying himself and the bit rather nicely for not much work and a bunch of time off.

So, now we have a day where I throw a different (big, heavy, dangly stringed,creaky) western saddle on him and work him in the round pen. Operating with all the facts and assumptions listed previously, I then clipped the reins on and went to mount from the ground, resulting in this. 

I thought long and hard that night, and the next day, and for the hours that I worked Scrappy that next day. Why would my wonderfully trained quiet gelding suddenly lose his mind after a year when I've been trying all these different saddles right along and and and??!?!

My trainer April asked me a certain question in that 24 hour window that stuck.

** "How often have you truly pushed him outside his comfort zone?" **

Well I've--well...Hhmmm. How much of what I've done with Scrappy was anything outside of what his previous owner's did in the approximately 3 years that they had him since he came off the "range."  From what I can glean and remember, the only departures in what I've done from what Scrappy already knows is safe Scrappy land, have been the round pen sessions working on head set done in the last few weeks, where I wasn't even riding, just working him from the ground.

Had I even ever mounted him in the Round Pen before??? I quizzed myself desperately with a tired brain made fuzzy from stress and surprise.

Don't think so.

Have I ever ridden himbareback?


Why not? You tool around ride camps bareback on Blaze.

Thinking on that long and hard, I pretty well found that subconsciously I wasn't comfortable doing it. Yeah I'll strap crap on his back and go try to finish a 50 with gear all over him, but the act of climbing on my "quiet little gelding" bareback in a halter wasn't something that had shown up as safe to try in my little Risk Calculating brain. To be sure, I've gotten more cautious after shattering my ankle a few years back, but wandering around my property or a ride camp on my horse bareback has always been a *thing* for me, I even did it on Desire (eventually, and not at a ride camp). The simple realization that I wasn't comfortable sliding up on Scrappy bareback and hadn't at all in the year that I'd owned him pointed out the Holes to me more than anything else had, even his recent dramatic round pen reaction.

Holes in our relationship. Holes in the trust that you and a horse place in each other when venturing out for miles together. He has uncertainties and so do I. That head raising uncertainty about mounting thing that he did when I first bought him certainly factored into my unconscious hesitation to ride him bareback. While a year isn't a long time in the overall span of things, it's still longer than I would have liked to go not really knowing my horse. Scrappy was purchased to take over for my mare Desire who I battled to keep sound and ultimately retired last year. He arrived with my frustrations and stymied endurance dreams already placed on his shoulders, and after owning him for a week we were already at a ride doing an LD. Physically and baseline mentally, Scrappy could of course handle it, as could I. We finished, had fun, came home and told our tale. But right then and there I was just another random stranger who took him in hand and rode him some miles, without knowing him or looking farther than "we finished!" I struggle to avoid this meandering over into overly flowerly "the horsie has feelings too!" ground, and I certainly mean to place or imply no blame on his previous owners in all my ruminations. I merely and truly want a complete relationship with my endurance horse and what I see of Scrappy and my first year together is a bit of a jumble, obsessed with miles and saddle fit before I really knew what I had.

Lots of Holes, in need of filling.

In that vein, Scrappy and I went into the round pen the Sunday after the saddle melt down with nothing but a rope halter and lead. Having seen his extreme flight reaction to bunny hopping and basic greenie horse starting tricks in his saddle episode and with all of the above on my brain, I stripped it all down to basics.

First, stored up pizzazz, out. Once he was looking at me on the circle and quieting down, how did he feel about me bunny hopping 2" off the ground? OMG BYE! said Scrappy, as he zoomed away around the round pen. Alrighty then. HopHopHopHopHopHopHop. I have an extremely tragic video from the session that I only showed my husband of me breathing like I've just won a 400 meter dash after all the hopping efforts it took for Srappy to decide hopping might be an acceptable human action.

Okay then, how's this?Up on the round pen rails. (OMG BYE!) Down again. Up again. (Again? huh..) Down. Hop Around on the ground (OM--oh. Well..that). Climb the rails.

ugh weird human above me, toleratetoleratetolerate
 Down again. Onto the mounting block. Down from the mounting Block. Up and HOP on the mounting block (OMG BYE!). Down again. Onto the mounting block again. Repeat.

Once he thought standing and even hopping on the mounting block wasn't the worse thing ever, it was all about asking for one step at a time, sidling up to me, for the eventual goal of an assisted bareback mount. If he got nervous and committed to not stepping up, he worked. Pretty quickly he understood that all that I wanted was one polite little step at a time, toward me up on the scary block. He started to get consistent with it, so off the mounting block and back up the round pen rails I went to test the One Step when I was looming above him. Less enthusiastic about me being above him but the One Step response is still there, and I could already see that he was gratefully accepting the use of the tool that I had provided him. He was uncertain about the whole situation, this new work in the round pen, me sitting there on the rails above him, but his go-to action was becoming One Step toward me when cued instead of balking and trying to get away/being driven to work. My goal to make myself and my odd requirements the happy, quiet places, seemed to be to be on track.

An hour or so after starting, swallowing fear frogs and with shaking legs (I do have PTSD about mounting at times), I finally slid onto his back. He raised his head a little but didn't move. Everyone breathed, and after standing around for a good minute or two, I asked him to walk off. Of course at this point I only had his lead rope clipped to the chin halter loop, so I didn't really have much steering. Trying to get him to flex to the right to tie my rope on the other side as "reins" demonstrated renewed stiffness to his right. When I got him Scrappy would flex to the left all day and not at all the right, but I worked on it and had gotten him flexing both sides quite nicely. Well, it doesn't translate bareback apparently, so we did some circles around the pasture and round pen until he gave me his face to the right just a LITTLE and completely gave and went quiet. OH, that? Scrappy said, and gradually started flexing his neck around to the right more and more, til I could tie the rope on.

From there I repeated all of the above actions, but up in our *scary* driveway, in sight of all the other horses, with my mounting efforts done from a terrifying cooler sitting next to some horse eating muck boots. With renewed tension it was even more obvious that Scrappy accepted the tool of my One Step cue. In maybe 5 minutes, snorting softly and eyeballing everything, he came to the cooler's side and stood for me to slide up on his back. From there we had a totally relaxed cruise all around the property, bareback in a halter. Scrappy was inquisitive, snacking as he marched to all corners of the fenced perimeters, not stopping at the fillies or his pasture gate as I thought he might. He seemed content, and interested, and I felt at home on his broad warm back.

'sup, mini horse

Somewhere, in one or both of us, a hole was quietly filled in.


  1. Bareback, trust, all is awesome! Interesting holes, expertly filled. I like your one step cue. I taught something similar with a click-sound I make. If I'm up on something and click he has to take a step, and another, until I stop. Super useful for mounting.

    I think you are doing right by him, but it's hard when you have to share the time you have with other great horses too. I think Scrappy will figure out that you're his human, he's not going anywhere, and you'll have an even better partnership.

    But of course now I'm wondering about the holes I have...

  2. I guess that's always part of the challenge that comes with a made or semi-made horse -- they will always have holes of some kind. Fortunately it sounds like Scrappy has a big try and is willing to work with you on filling in those holes.

    1. I think Scrappy is young and willing enough that we can fill in most of his holes. Fortunately he wasn't raced (okay he top 10'd one 50 before I bought him but I have no idea how, it didn't stick, and I know he was not happy about it, LOL) so I don't have to truly fight an intense race brain like with Desire. Now THAT was exhausting.

  3. Big brother Seth wants to know what is shameful about being hazed? That is as far as he got in the story. He had grass to eat....

    1. Seth gets hazed in private though! ;) No matter what the horse or occasion, I will never find dragging my mount like a dead thing in front of people grading us an enjoyable endeavor! He doesn't have to do hand springs but at least don't make them start playing Sara McLaughlin and collecting money to rent him a retirement pasture somewhere ;-)

  4. Great post! I admire how you thoroughly and logically discussed the facts, assumptions, problems, and rising resolutions. Very well-thought and well-written! Best of luck in continued endeavors. It's not easy taking those steps backward at first, and boy do I know it haha.

    Grey horses man, grey horses. :-p

    1. Thank you! It took a couple days to get this post sorted out from the mess it started as, glad it came out somewhat logical!

      Hahaha, Grey horses, man.