Reluctant Cowgirl

go West, young woman, and get a horse

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My Horsemanship Instructor, Instagram

We’ve had some successful rides lately. Both in the arena and outside. After a year back in the saddle it’s starting to make a little more sense to me. I’m braver. I’m developing feel.

Today the sun was stubborn in the way that it tends to be in Oregon springs. Even over here on the dry side of the state. We are mud and hunger. Everything drizzle and damp. The cow patties sprout toadstools, or they would if it warmed up a little.

I spent some of the afternoon on the couch, as I am wont to do on weekends in March, watching college basketball with a book. But the mustang had had a day off yesterday and I know how that spells trouble. It wasn’t raining and I had the idea for what to do out there, so I caught him and brushed him and headed up to the arena.

What I had a mind to do was something I’d seen on Instagram. It’s embarrassing but I’m addicted. (At least it’s not Facebook, I tell myself.) A woman in California who trail rides her quarter horses all over greater Los Angeles posted a quick video of everything she requires of her mounts for groundwork basics. The list was short and simple but very important.

  1. Yield the hindquarters
  2. Yield the forehand
  3. Sidepass
  4. Back
  5. Flex
  6. Desensitize

I watched her horse move its feet in that brief video and thought, yes. That’s something I can bite off. That’s something I can practice regularly and keep us both sharp. Even in a few minutes.

The mustang is great at yielding front and back. His sidepass has a favored direction. He backs like a reining horse. His flexing has a favored direction, opposite the sidepass preference. He twitches at a flag for 7 seconds then gets over it. He holds tarps and plastic bags in his mouth for fun.

I have days when I wish I were a Luddite who eschewed technology and spent her days doing nothing but reading books and going out to attack whatever it is she wants. Then I have other days when I learn a valuable lesson from a social media post that leads to me being a better horseman, a stronger partner in our team. It’s easy, after this process, to not have regrets.

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On a Roll

One of my first rides on the mustang took us up to thick timber and elk country. I was fairly calm. I think we trotted twice. I remember one particularly ornery blow-down that he refused to cross until much urging was administered. He was also fairly calm, and curious. This was maybe his 20th ride or so. He had been rounded up  from the wild, gelded in a holding facility in Nevada, sent to a trainer in Washington, then to a show in Idaho, and finally to a home with strangers (novice horsepeople, no less) in Oregon. This all in the span of about 9 months.

On the final stretch back from this ride, we walked through a particularly irresistible sandy patch. He paused beneath me, pawed at the dirt, and I knew what was coming but did nothing about it. I bailed off to the right and watched him roll with my saddle on, the dust of late summer coating his black fur.

It shook me. I mentioned it to his trainer and she responded, “I love when they do that! It makes me think they are really relaxed and comfortable.”

I did not love it. I was looking for a reason and an easy fix. I grew paranoid about it, and got myself into trouble a couple times being so worked up about arguing with him over when the appropriate time to lower one’s shoulder to the ground was. (Spoiler alert: it is never when there is a rider on top of you, unless somehow that rider has trained you to do so.) There were a couple bucks thrown, albeit small ones. I started to really wonder if I had made a poor decision.

When I recall that moment now, I think, you dumbass. You wanted to blame the horse! You said, there’s something wrong with this beast, it does whatever it wants! Well yeah, it did. That’s because you didn’t give it anything better to do. You didn’t urge it forward or turn its head; you didn’t direct that energy elsewhere to come to a peaceful and agreeable solution between parties. You were literally along for the ride.

This is the thing about learning something new. You don’t know how much you’re learning from your mistakes until you make them, then stop making them, then develop the wherewithal to recognize them in hindsight.

The mustang still loves to roll. If I gave him the chance, he’d roll at the end of every ride. Maybe twice, once in the water and once in the dirt. He’s a greedy roller. But I ride him almost every day now and he hasn’t tried to pull that once. I give him better options than to argue. We keep the peace and save the recreation for once the rider and saddle are off.

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Get Out

We got out of the arena. It was not the vision of galloping across fields or even trotting up hills; there wasn’t even a saddle involved. I spent about 7 minutes on his back. The rest of the two hours I walked in front of him, holding a lead rope, asking him to follow.

We stepped through snow and over rocks, across creeks and into mud. He grazed on green grass in a stream bed while the dogs sniffed the pine duff a few meters away and the humans sat on our heels, imagining summer.

We did three, maybe four miles. Nothing crazy. He breathed heavy on the uphills but didn’t hesitate. I could see the fat burning and it pleased me. Onward, young man.

On the way back I let him roll in the wide part of the creek. I’ve never known a horse to love rolling in water, but he takes it on with gusto. He paws the water and mud first, as if checking for rocks or other potential injuries. Satisfied, his knees buckle and he lowers himself in, grunting. It never gets old.

In this case he got up muddy and shook, spray illuminated by late morning sunshine. Then on the road he took another roll in the dirt. I laughed until my sides hurt. Everybody was at ease and no one was tired of the routine because this was not part of a routine – it was new and honest and hopeful and in the quiet moments I whispered to him, “play your cards right, buddy, and your life will be full of adventures.”


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“How’d it go?” he asks, as always, when I come in from my ‘pony time.’

“He was a turd,” I reply, “he was at least 75% turd.”

It was true. I felt like I was working with a two-year old, not a fully-grown horse. Is this a mustang thing?, I wonder, this obstinate, arena-tantrum baby behavior? When he got tired of working in the circle and in general listening to anything I asked of him, he pulled to the nearest obstacle (a cone, a barrel, a mounting stump) and nosed it, getting as close as possible to whatever it was and bumping it with his feet. The cones have plastic bags on them, and he removed each in turn, and the second one I had to reach over and pull out of his mouth he was trying so hard to get it to a place that seemed a little too close to his esophagus for my comfort.

This is what it must be like to work with babies, I thought. Fussy, curious, with an attention span of about three minutes. Only this one is lazy, so my attempts to thwart his misbehavior with forward movement are met with pinned ears and nose that reaches toward the earth which always makes me think we are toeing the edge of a buck.

These are the moments I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m nervous and I’m angry with him and with myself and it’s all I can do to put some kind of positive spin on the session. I ask him to go the opposite way from where he is pulling. I reward every small try. I make it very easy for him to say yes, for me to say, thank you. I quickly try to reach a place where I can say, OK. Good. We’re done. That was, um, good enough for today.

Just yesterday he was light and responsive. I rewarded him with a walk down the road and a brief stop to have some grass at one of the few areas of open ground in a 3-mile radius. And today is the thanks I get.

I guess it’s like that old John Denver song:

“Some days are diamonds/ Some days are stones”

When I was a runner, I had bad runs. It was inexplicable most of the time. The moon? Hormones? What I ate? My mindset, distracted by some other seemingly unwieldy thing that I could not lay down? I learned to get through and let them go.  No judgement, no dwelling, no using them as reasons not to get back out there and try again. Take the stones as they come and put them in a pile. Hope they are outnumbered. Think diamonds next time.

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The Easy Horse

I have a second horse. I came by him by accident or serendipity, depending on your point of view. When I swung my leg over his back it was the first time I’d been on a horse in years. He was stubborn and did not want to leave the herd, but I inherently trusted him. Maybe because he is old and reminded me of the horses of my youth, maybe because he is small…but I didn’t focus on the fact that he is a 900-pound animal capable of inflicting damage – I focused on the ride. And sometimes that’s just what one needs.

So I rode Rube today. Not with any grand intention nor having planned to do so. I walked both horses into a pasture they hadn’t had access too since before the snow fell. I forgot that there were a couple stumps over there. The idea struck me and I put the halter on him, led him over, and mounted up, cowboy style. My ribs and belly met his back and in one confident following motion my leg went over and I was upright. I think we were both a little surprised.

I used a wide inside rein and asked him to go away from his buddy, back toward the barn. I kept my legs on him and used them to urge him in the direction I was asking for. I was persistent and clear. I did not freak out and dismount when he tossed his head and fought me. I stood my ground, and he listened.

We walked back through the two gates and into the paddock. He started to get anxious about being so far from Henry, who was still taking his time browsing where we’d left him. I asked him to relax. I told him I was with him and we got this. He finally said OK.

I swung my leg back over him and landed in the mud. When I took the halter off he didn’t even run to Henry, he just blew and took a few steps toward the gate with me. I smiled. I had ridden a horse well, even for a few minutes. I felt like I knew what I was doing and got my point across. I know that I’m not supposed to use terms like “battle” with natural horsemanship methods, but I was a winner nonetheless. Maybe the point is we both won.

I got the old horse as a confidence builder, because I trusted him and we both needed a little rescuing. He’s not particularly pretty or responsive or talented. He is old and crotchety and stubborn and has a case of buddy sour that you wouldn’t believe. But he balances out a green-as-spring mustang pretty damn well.


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I can’t recall if I ever ground drove a horse prior to when my current instructor handed me the reins in her ring a few months ago. The mustang was on the other end, and seemed to know exactly what he was doing. I did not. (It’s part of a theme.)

After that one mostly-successful lesson, I bought a surcingle and cotton long lines that are about 20 feet longer than anyone could ever need. (Honestly, what is up with 30-foot lines? What role could they possibly play in a training regimen? Do you drive a horse from across the arena?) We haven’t trailered all winter, which means the only lessons I get are from Youtube.

Some videos I watched included horses being ground driven in round pens. I don’t have a round pen at present, and if I did it would still have three feet of snow. We made do with the outrageous arena, and tried small circles at a walk and changing direction.

The problem I have experienced with Mustang Henry is an unwillingness to go forward. He balks (sets back) when tied, he balks in hand, he balks under saddle. The internet tells me this is a lack of respect. I get it. I am wary of the line between moving his feet enough to get him to honor my wishes and having him fear me. This thing in natural horsemanship or whatever you want to call enlightened horse handling where you balance on the head of a pin called ‘feel’ takes time to develop. Time and consistency.

I like the feeling of being at the end of a pair of long lines. With running shoes on, we can both burn calories heading up hills on the dirt road, and with more practice I’m sure we can come to terms on the proper signal for going forward at different speeds, and that rein pressure means ‘turn the direction my aid is asking you to go,’ not ‘turn in circles trying to face me as I spin around you and we both look like a couple of raving lunatics.’

img_0696A thing I am realizing in re-starting horsemanship lessons while approaching middle-age is that humor and patience are key. Onward!

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The Weight of Winter

The winter has been long. Snow started in November and didn’t let up til January. During that same timeframe the temperature barely snuck its head above the freezing mark, maybe twice. It averaged around 10 degrees F, with many nights below zero and several plummeting all the way down to the negative 20s.

The horses got more hay than they needed because I didn’t need that kind of guilt. There was no sign of ribs anywhere on either of them, but they were extra eager at every feeding time and seemed to know that it would be a very long wait for grass. I bought senior grain for the old one, fed a mixture of oats and sunflower seeds to the mustang, both mixed with soaked forage cubes, plus almost all the mixed grass alfalfa hay they could take. I overdid it because I was inexperienced and too afraid to underdo it. I gave up on the internet searches and just went with my own hungry winter gut.

It’s February now and the cold has broken on more than a handful of occasions. We can finally believe in spring and green grass, though it’ll still be awhile before we see any. The path to the arena is a frozen, uneven mess, and each time I go up there I swear I won’t do it again until the footing is better. But spring is coming, and I have fat horses, one of them always teetering on the edge of wild, so we persist in finding ways to burn calories and maintain a bond.

And everybody is on a serious diet.