Reluctant Cowgirl

go West, young woman, and get a horse


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Blog Hop – Rocking E Cowgirl

Okay, I know I haven’t really advertised this blog anywhere so no one reads it, but I like the concept of a bunch of questions to answer and Rocking E Cowgirl posted some fun ones, so I’m joining in!

1. What is your earliest, clearest horse memory?

Definitely a lesson on my first instructor’s Penny the Pony, when she decided I was ready to learn to jump and cleared a pile of railroad ties that I did not point her at in order to get to a nice patch of green grass. Typical pony. But I was bit by the jumping bug for good!

2. Describe the perfect summer day.

Big, slow breakfast, some yard work, plentiful lemonade, a trail ride, then ending the day with a cold beverage and reading in a hammock. Ahhhh.

3. Are you reading anything right now? Tell me about it!

The Happy Horse, by Tania Kindersley. Aren’t we always trying to figure out how to make our animals happier? I’m enjoying her writing and learning a lot, and love all the reminders about staying quiet and calm.

4. Do you follow a celebrity (horsey or non) that you’re embarrassed to say fascinates you? Tell me. NOW.

I’m not sure I’m embarrassed about it, but I love Elisa Wallace and her mustangs and OTTBs. I particularly enjoy her Youtube posts. She’s a great ambassador for the sport and I love that she uses mustangs for more than just trail rides and lawn ornaments. I’d love to believe my guy could be an eventer one day!

5. What is your single most biggest horsey dream or goal?

Being able to gallop on the trail feeling like we’re in tune, without being scared. We’re a long way off, but I think we can get there.

6. If you were at Starbucks right now, what would you order?

Just a latte. I like to keep it simple.

7. What is your biggest equine pet peeve?

Snobbery in the sport.

8. With everything going on politically and in the media, tell me, do you follow it religiously? Tune it out? Or something in between?

I can’t obsess over it. Need to take breathers every now and again. I listen to plenty of NPR and read the New Yorker.

9. If you had to show your horse to a song, what would you choose?

I’ve had John Denver’s ‘Wild Montana Skies’ stuck in my head forever. I think that would be a good one, even though the mustang is from Nevada, not Montana. He probably wouldn’t mind.

10. What are you most looking forward to this summer?

Getting into the mountains with my man and critters. I’m worried about camping for the first time, but I think we’ll all love it so need to make a good plan and just do it! Hopefully it happens soon.

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Grazing at the edge of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. We’re gonna do some riding in there soon, I swear.

 


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Get a Grip

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Everyone posts pictures of stuff on their mustangs so I thought it was my turn. We may need to get a new tarp.

Today I watched a YouTube video from the account ‘Art2Ride.’ Well, I watched part of it. I got there because I was looking for solutions to a horse pulling while lunging and YouTube is a brilliant suckhole of clicking and watching and rewarding curiosity with endorphins, and whoops, there you are. Watching some fancy Southern California dude in $300 breeches and $700 boots lunge a young warmblood who is stretching and building topline and preparing for a career of concentrating very hard at going around in circles.

The Internet is a terrifying, overwhelming place. I didn’t have the internet the first time I was a horseman. I went by feel. I listened to my instructors. I watched my friends. I did not micromanage or obsess. Now, I can spent 4 hours of the day just trying to figure out the correct way to half-halt according to every “expert” who has working fingers and access to the World Wide Web.

Before you know it, I’ve forgotten what I’m even looking for, and I’m not any closer to having a lunging session where the mustang does not pull when I ask for a canter. Crap. I circle back and chant the reminder: keep it simple, go back to the foundation, be happy with small steps, and spend more time in the arena than on the internet. In short, get a grip, start where YOU and your horse are, not where the fancy internet stars look to be.


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Does Love Lead to Connection? I Hope So.

It wasn’t really the plan at first, but some days it’s better to make friends than get attempt to get serious work done, at least with this mustang. I don’t always want to chase him around with a whip. It’s not always about hefting a saddle up over his withers and tightening the girth.

I read a blog entry about connection. Connection is what everyone showcases on their blogs and Instagram accounts and such. Look, my horse follows me everywhere! Look, I can ride bareback and bridleless. I’m jumping! We’re dancing! See how much we are one. #twohearts; GOD. I’d settle for two steps in the direction I want to go, when I want to go there. Let’s be real, OK?

I don’t feel a connection to Henry. I love him, sure, and enjoy the time we spend together, with some hope thrown in that we’ll get to a better place some day. But right now he is standoffish and aloof. I am probably trying too hard, I tell myself. I’m not releasing at the right moment and he’s always feeling pressure that I’m honestly not even sure I’m giving. I guess it’s a form of dance, but it’s not pretty to watch.

So tonight it was just easy. Just standing in the arena getting rubbed and scratched and having a rope thrown over him a little bit. Then more rubbing and scratching and lots of playing with his mane and massaging his poll. He didn’t seem that into it. With him it’s always just a low level of tolerance. When will I get the connection? When will I feel him echo something like joy?

It did feel good to love on him. The old horse pushed his way in, as always, also not connecting but asking for everything. GIVE IT ALL TO ME I DON’T CARE THE CONSEQUENCES, he says, like a shameless old man who can’t help himself and farts in public.

I’ve got enough love to go around. What I need to work on is the patience. The belief. Knowing that it will take time but that we’re both capable of getting there. Approaching the session with a positive and happy attitude, choosing to see and be grateful for each tiny scrap of connection as it unfolds.

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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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Stones

“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.