Pokey

“What’s working equitation all about?”

“Well, go ahead and unload your horse and get saddled. Then come check cows with me.”

The visitor, we’ll call him Wade, saddled up and met the rancher in the corral.

“What are you doing now?”

“It’s called doubling, or nowadays, flexions. It’s like a preflight check, to see if my horse is listening to my rein aids. If he gives easily to both sides and ‘kisses the stirrup’ with minimal, or even no pressure, then I know he’s listening to my hands.”

“Okay, so, should I do that with Pokey here?”

“Absolutely!”

The rancher then began to slide his leg back toward his horse’s flank as his mount was bent around with his head relaxed at the stirrup.”

“What are you doing that for?”

“I’m getting him to move his hind feet away from my leg. Ray Hunt used to call it disengaging. When he steps away, I quit asking.That way he actually learns to do it off a soft cue. I’m wanting to educate my horse to work from signals rather than making him do things with force.It’s called lightness, and it makes my life easier.”

They started off together. The rancher side passed up to the gate, opened it, slid around it, and held it for Wade to pass through. then he sidepassed his horse to close it. They visited and joked as they rode along for the few minutes it took to get down to the creek crossing. The rancher’s mount walked easily across the concrete ford in about a foot of running water. But Wade’s horse stopped. 

“Just let him stand there looking at the water awhile. He needs to think about it.”

The horse finally let out a deep breath, and lowered his head toward the water.

“Now, back away from the edge, and turn him around both ways, using that leg to disengage him, and move those hindquarters. Then bring him back up to the edge and let him rest there. It’s called making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy.

This procedure was repeated three more times, then the horse stepped into the water,and finally walked across, lifting his feet high, but not bolting nor jumping.

“There, now, rub his neck and just relax. He did good. You did good.”

They continued on, crossing a rough field, pocked with hog wallows and shallow swampy sloughs. A deer burst out of the brush and Pokey spooked.

“Just flex him around both ways several times until his feet stopped moving. Give him time to calm down, then rub his neck. Don’t punish him, just use the flexions like a tranquilizer. Then ride on.”

They continued on down a dirt lane toward the cow herd. Then from behind them came the rancher’s son in a big tractor carrying a large round bale of hay. Pokey spun around, head high. 

“Flex him and disengage him ‘til he stops moving his feet. Keep him facing the tractor until it passes, then follow it. He won’t be as scared if it is moving away from him.”

Later, ducks exploded off a stock tank, and a white dog appeared out of nowhere from behind them, and Wade practiced flexions and ‘yielding around’ of Pokey’s hindquarters until his feet stopped moving, then he rubbed his horse’s neck. A chupacabra-looking burned out hollow log got slowly investigated until Pokey put his nose on it. Pokey was pretty apprehensive as they rode through the cattle, but with multiple flexions Wade made it through. 

“Little twenty seven has a new heifer calf!”

“I didn’t see anything.”

“That’s because you were busy with Pokey. But when you can, look up and out. Notice the new baby calves, listen to the birds, enjoy the clouds.”

On the way back to the barn, Pokey crossed the concrete ford easily as he followed the rancher’s big fleabit gray. When they had returned to the corral, Wade asked, ”Now, you never did answer my question, though– what’s working equitation?

The Old Chief

The old chief climbed to the top of the hill. He pulled himself up holding onto the limbs of mesquite and cedar, as the shale slipped under his moccasins. Occasionally a rock would slide off down the hill. Avoiding prickly pear thorns and skirting steep rocky drop offs he at last grunted to the top of the great mound. 

Many times since his youth he had been here. He had seen the plains, the waving grasslands to the north, and the broken canyons of red clay to the south. It was as it had always been. The breeze made his sparse gray hair dance lightly on his cheeks.

 He built a small fire there on top of the sacred mound. Lighting some fluff he brought which was made up of bird feather down, thin dried grass, and dry wood shavings by rotating a notched stick in a knot of bois d’arc wood he carried. As a spark ignited the fluff, he lightly blew on it, and as it burst into a tiny flame he nestled it in some very thin dry twigs of cedar. Adding slowly some more twigs he soon had a small smokeless crackling fire. 

In the pre dawn it was providing just enough light to allow him to prepare his sacred pipe for a ceremony. He drew out an ancient red stone pipe from his raccoon skin medicine bag and filled it with shredded tobacco from a smaller beaded deerskin sack. 

Standing up and facing east he lit the pipe with a twig from the fire. Drawing smoke through the hollow wooden stem. Holding the smoking pipe high as he faced East he said, “To the East wind, represented by the yellow bead on the pipe stem, which symbolizes the coming of the day, our birth, and all beginnings!” 

He puffed the pipe three times, and turning to his right he said, “To the South wind, represented by the red bead, which symbolizes the summer’s heat, which brings our crops, and also the passion of our youth.”  

Again he puffed and turned right, holding out the pipe chanting, “To the West wind, represented by the black bead, which symbolizes the going down of the sun, and the darkness of death, and doubt and uncertainty of our middle years.” 

Finally, turning once again to his right, and puffing the pipe he held it out and said, “To the North, represented by the white bead, which symbolizes the coming of winter, the white of our hair in old age, and hopefully,” he chuckled, “Wisdom.” He grinned a little. 

Turning again to face the East and the rising sun he held the pipe high above his head, looking upward, saying, “To the Man-God above, the great mystery that moves through it all!” 

Then holding the pipe pointing downward, prayed, “and to the Earth who is our mother, from whom we are made.” And he sat down by the fire to puff the pipe and to pray. 

In his thoughts he prayed for the best outcome for members of his tribe,’ for those who were ill, or who were troubled, or in doubt or fear.’ Then he chuckled softly to himself, his wrinkles deepening around his eyes and mouth, ‘For me, I ask nothing, for you have given me much, I am so blessed. Thanks.’

A Good Mount Nowadays is Hard to Find

I stepped on my wife’s dog. I didn’t mean to, I was just so focused on my Ipad. My eyes were glued to the screen. I’d watched trick riders, roman riders, mustang makeovers, but this precision drill to music with about twenty horses rocked me. 

They were all carrying flags, galloping, turning, twisting, flying between each other so fast that my eyes couldn’t keep up with their movements. These fourteen to seventeen year olds were performing like professionals, narrowly avoiding collisions, and smoothly transitioning from one movement to the next, right with the music. It was beauty, freedom, and artistic expression!  

At the same time it represented a huge investment in work, practice, discipline, and horsemanship,to say nothing of time and money. It was thrilling to watch and I bet it was even more fun to ride. 

   Now, I have to tell you, my first thought was “Where in the world did they get that many GOOD horses?” Because in my sixty years of training horses, I have seen only a small percentage of willing, sound, kind natured riding horses. It often seems that those good old noble steeds have gone extinct. In their place are nervous, high stepping, even downright difficult knotheads. So in a world where “a good mount is hard to find” here were over twenty of them, all in one place!

   The great thing about these drill team competitions, as well as other horse related activities is that it gets these kids out of their school desks, outdoors, and involved with each other, their horses, and their adult mentors.

They are engaged with the natural world, as well as involved in human interaction, not a computer or cell phone. So I’m all for that kind of healthy activity. And for it to work we need horses that will safely carry beginner and amateur riders, be they fourteen or forty. 

   Looking back into the twentieth century we see since the Second World War the slow disintegration of the horse culture in this country. Riding and driving horses had been replaced by the infernal combustion engine. Cars, tractors, tanks, and airplanes took over civilian and military equine jobs. 

After the cavalry remount was shut down, horse breeding was no longer as lucrative as it had once been. A growing market for recreational horses allowed some breeders to continue a profitable existence. That’s the good news.

The big prices, however, came with “high performance” horses. These specialists who could “win the world” be it rodeo, dressage, reining, or cutting, among other disciplines, are often not the same horses as those good old easy going, user friendly, farm and ranch horses. 

Now we are having horse breeding decisions driven by judging in the show arena rather than by common sense, and knowledgeable breeding practices. Winning stallions are now producing more offspring than less well known but often more solid producers of colts and fillies who can be counted upon to give an amateur a safe ride without thought of injury. 

   The most frequent request I get is for a horse that can be ridden by a child or a woman of middle age who can now afford the horse she has dreamed of since her teenage years. These are riders who want to enjoy leisure activities without having to work at it “pick and shovel.” And I have to tell you those ‘ol ponies are few and far between. 

   What I’d like to see is for breeders to pay less attention to show placing and put more emphasis on satisfying the needs of riders. About ninety percent of the nearly nine million horses and mules in this country are horses used for recreation. Even ranch work requires a more “watered down” version of cutting and roping horses.

Most folks, however, want a trail riding horse, or an equine companion they can enjoy on weekends, or an occasional show, or a pony to quietly ride down to the creek to watch the sunset. As breeders I feel that our job is to study and become knowledgeable of conformation, soundness, and trainability.

As riders we have an obligation as well. We have now at our disposal teachers, clinicians, books, videos, and ,oh yes, YouTube to educate ourselves to become better riders and horsemen, and women. 

  Well, the dog has forgiven me, and I’ll just get down off this high horse, now. See ya down the trail!

Perfect!

   We just enjoyed a long overdue visit with an old friend, Dr. Cliff Honnas DVM. This time it wasn’t on account of a sick horse. We were there for a pre-purchase exam of one of our Andalusian horses. It was a delight to reconnect with him and to see his smile as he greeted us at his spacious facility near Bryan, Texas.

   I was anxious, of course,as I anticipated the outcome. But his response reassured me, and made me proud of this ancient breed of horse. “Glenn just brings this ‘ol pony in out of the pasture without washing him off, or giving him a cookie…” he grinned. Then as he showed us the x-rays he said, “ He’s perfect”!

   Smiling, we drove away with one less horse in the trailer, feeling very happy that a knowledgeable horsewoman had chosen to become the new owner of one of our steeds. It was last year’s winner of the basico championship in Doma Vaquera, TCR Leonidas, ( Banbury Ella X Trovador ). Then I realized, of course he passed his exam! He’s a Lusitano! At least he’s half Lusitano, and the other half Spanish (PRE).

   You see, those two countries have spent the last five hundred years carefully breeding horses under the watchful educated eyes and hands of experienced horsemen, ranchers, and cavalrymen. Moreover, in Portugal, the breeding stallion was only allowed to produce offspring after being tested in the bullring. The Rejoneo, or mounted bullfight has kept the bar high for soundness, athleticism, and trainability in the Lusitano. Once again, survival of the fittest comes through as our Leonidas sailed through a pre- purchase exam with flying colors! He will now change his career from ranch using cow horse to dressage competitor in the hands (and saddle) of his new owner, Heather Kilby. 

Our thanks to Heather, as well as her coach Pam Grace. In addition, I thank my own coach, Manuel Trigo, without whose patient teaching I would not have understood the structure of a training program for true collection in a dressage horse. Muchisimas gracias don Manuel! 

Finally, I thank Donna Meyer, my dressage teacher for putting up with me weekly as she has strived to help Leonidas, as well as several others (“all those gray horses”) put up with this old cowboy trying to learn the art of classical equitation!