Monthly Archives: February 2021

Little Bitty Fir Trees

I am about to struggle into my bunny-suit and felt-lined winter boots and charge into a 27° cold gray day with a biting north wind, to feed our horses and cattle.

We’re looking at a week of cold and ice and snow. I’m feeling anxious. Then, I flash back to younger years, in the early seventies, when we lived in the mountains of Colorado.

One winter a bunch of us guys got together and made a cross country ski camping trip up into the high country. We were too brave, ignorant, whatever, to know better.

We clipped into our skis and struck out into a blizzard, a “white out”.

After a long afternoon, most of which was spent “herring-boning” up pretty steep inclines (rather than gliding along like those Nordic dudes you see in the winter Olympics) we finally found what looked like a good campsite in a grove of little bitty fir trees.

It was like a dwarf forest.

We pitched our nylon bivouac tents in a circle and built a fire in the middle out of broken boughs of dead wood we had found.

After a supper of half frozen, freeze-dried camp food, we stood around the fire and told stories and even sang a few songs.

Then we crawled into our goose down mummy-bags. At dawn we awakened to a below zero sunrise. The insides of the tents were glazed with ice, from our frosty breath. We were planning to pitch into breakfast making when we discovered that our campfire had burned down to the bottom of a ten foot well in the snow!

But that’s not all.

In the summer of that next year Sallie and I hiked up to that same area. We were looking for that campsite. I wanted to show her the cute, little bitty fir trees.

On arrival we were greeted with a grove of twenty foot tall Douglas fir!

The Learning Spiral

I’ve been watching videos of reining horses. They were the best in the business, with blurring spins, sizzling sliding stops, and slight-of-hand flying lead changes.

I thought to myself “I will never be able to do this”. My disappointment was deep and palpable.

Then I watched a couple of videos of a competitor teaching a reining clinic. What I saw there was different. No two attempts were alike. Most of them fell short of being really good. But he never showed negative emotion, never really punished his horse. He just kept coming back and asking the horse to repeat the movement, and rewarded the ones that showed that the horse was “trying”.

Eventually he got one good movement, and he quit working. It reminded me of Thomas Edison‘s remark when he was criticized for trying some thing like fourteen times to make a lightbulb. “You failed fourteen times!” He retorted with “I have succeeded in discovering fourteen ways not to make a lightbulb!“ And we all know, that he did indeed finally invent the lightbulb.

The brain,whether it’s human or equine, has its own way of working at the learning process. It doesn’t learn with steady improvement. Instead it takes slow grinding, barely detectable forward progress, followed by blinding, almost quantum improvement, followed by plateaus, and even major setbacks. Then, once again, progress slowly picks up

I remember that my mentor, Buck Kidwell, would tell me “you’ve got to get them to do it three times, before you quit.” At first I really did not understand what he meant. Many decades later, while watching a John Lyons symposium, I realized that it meant that you work on a resistance, with numerous repetitions, until you begin to feel a “give”. Then as you continue to work, the resistance returns, and you feel like you are starting over.

Then a second yielding, or understanding, comes.

But he admonished us not to quit at that point. Keep working on it. A third resistance will come.

It may even be worse. And you just keep up the mind numbing, even tempered repetition. The horse’s resistance will eventually soften a third time.

The fierceness of resistance that third time, resolving into acceptance and yielding, is called “extinction burst” in psychology.

Then, the movement or response has finally been “learned”.

So it’s not just three actions. It’s three overcomings of the resistance.

It’s called the learning spiral.

But it’s not a spiral like a truck spring, steadily spiraling upward. It’s more like a greenbrier vine, tangling in itself, going up and down, then again up, and again down, then up, until it reaches the top of the tree it is climbing.

It’s not linear progress. It’s more like a graph of the stock market.

If you remain patient, ask frequently, expect little, and continually reward the slightest attempt, you will finally help your horse learn.

My wife said she holds out hope that she will someday see this happen to me as well.

The Floreo

I have roped cattle since I was a teenager.

Perhaps I should say I’ve roped AT cattle.

As an adult I discovered the Mexican art of Floreo, or making flowers with the lariat rope. It’s probably the most elegant part of the Mexican rodeo, the Charreada.

In four of the “suertes“ or performances of the Charreada the lariat rope, or reata, is used to catch an animal. But the process involves several minutes of rope spinning in multiple forms that absolutely defy the imagination. In fact for us mere mortals it defies capability.

I’ve been trying for decades. I think these Charros who do the Floreo were handed a little “Soga” or “Reata” as they slid out of the womb!

The art of Floreo developed over hundreds of years by the vaqueros in Mexico who gradually transitioned from the use of the lance or “Garrocha”, a three meter long stout wooden staff, to the use of the sixty foot long fiber rope.

The Floreo was at first a method of getting the rope alive through spinning or whirling so that it could fly a distance and stay open so as to trap the neck, horns, or legs of a running animal. Over hundreds of years this evolved into an art form such as we see now in the Charreada.

You can see it for yourself on YouTube or in many cities around North America at Fiesta times.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Mexican Charro has developed the art and use of the lariat rope to its highest form compared to anywhere on Earth!

However, I must say, going back to the garrocha that I mentioned, the stiffness of a lance can come in handy when working with some breeds of cattle. Specifically those with humps and long ears.

As I mentioned, I have roped a lot in the last fifty years. I must say, however, that even a really stiff lariat lacks a lot compared to the garrocha. Several bulls and a few feisty cows demonstrated that to me.

Once I had the rope on them, some took exception to being caught, charging up the rope at me and my horse. But that’s a story for another day.

Hey man, like, I’m really into grass.

Dude, what I mean is, I eat it!

First thing in the morning I scarf oatmeal, it’s the smushed seeds from oat grass seed head.

And, like, when I don’t do oats, I do rice cereal. It’s swamp grass.

Later, before sunup, I start a loaf of sourdough, from flour that’s ground up wheatgrass seed.

Out in my garden, I dig grass, Bermuda grass, it gets into my tomatoes. I call that “doing weed”,man.

Like, a weed is a plant that grows where you don’t want it, right?

I’m into hemp really heavy, like when I rope a calf, I use a hemp rope, dude. A grass rope.

I dig grass in my cow pasture, there it’s not a weed, it’s feed. Our cows don’t smoke it, they eat it.

I mean, like we’re a regular Alice’s Restaurant for cows. But don’t eat the brownies!