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The Hoss Show

Those of us who use horses for ranch work often find ourselves puzzled by what we observe taking place in horse shows. It is a given that a horse show is of course an artificial situation. And, I’m glad to see the newer stock horse associations making the attempt to align their classes more with the realities of ranch type riding. 

I’m remembering a story once told to me by a man that I worked with up in eastern New Mexico back in the eighties. He spoke of taking his teenage son to his first horse show in Texas, near where they were from, outside of El Paso.

His son had a little buckskin quarter horse that had been trained over the border in Chihuahua. He rode him on the ranch and helped with the cow work with the cowboys there. The boy was about fourteen years old. So, they signed up for a pleasure class in a local quarter horse show.

The boy rode in on his ranch saddle wearing his chinks, his sweat stained Stetson, and two inch rowell, long shank, drop down spurs. He entered the arena at a trot like he was told. He grabbed the saddlehorn, stood in the stirrups and took off at a long trot. After lapping all the other competitors, the steward asked for a walk.

So the boy sat back, pushed his hat back on his head and pitched the slack to the old pony, and rolled out into a mile eating, ranch style running walk.

Again he lapped his fellow competitors.

When the steward asked for a lope, the boy tugged his hat back down and kicked into a rocking chair Mexican canter, which was so laid-back that the rest of the horses began to pass him by.

Finally the steward indicated to come to the center of the arena.

So the boy picked up his bridle reins, laid down a pair of elevens in the dirt, and walked to the center to line up.

He threw his right leg over the saddlehorn, pulled out his snoose can for a dip and pushed his hat back,waiting, with a big satisfied smile.

Later he told his dad

daddy I don’t understand it? I got the gate!

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.