Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Autumn Kitten

by Linda Benson

We've had some great posts recently, about horse training and dog books. So if you don't mind, I'd like to announce my recent release, and tell you what's different about this one (besides being about cats. *grin*)

It's called The Autumn Kitten.

This is the fourth book in my series called Cat Tales (each one is stand-alone fiction, and can be read in any order.) But, after fifteen years of being pegged a children's writer, this is the first time the story is for and about - adults! (And I had so much fun writing this one.)

Can Grace find true love on the internet? Widowed Grace is handling life just fine on her own, except for endless chores and long lonely nights. But when she falls head-over-heels for a pair of blue eyes she spots online, life suddenly becomes complicated. Will she let a kitten decide who she should date?

First, let me say there is nothing in here that a 10-year-old couldn't read. (I guess my kid-lit sensibilities are still with me.) But it's a fun story. And someone compared it to the kind of short stories that used to run in women's magazines, like Good Housekeeping or Redbook. Anyone remember those?

But as they seem to be a thing of the past, now you can find lots of short reads on Amazon. And as for me - I'm having a blast writing short fiction.

I will have some news soon about The Girl Who Remembered Horses and a possible sequel, but for now, I hope (if you're busy like I am) you'll find time to enjoy a light tale about Grace, her suitors, and a rambunctious Siamese/tabby mix.

Here's the link on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Autumn-Kitten-Cat-Tales-Book-ebook/dp/B00NKQ5PUQ/

It's priced at $0.99 and you don't even need a Kindle to read it. Download the Kindle app for free to your tablet, computer, smart phone, or whatever device you have!

Also, if you'd like a review copy, shoot me an email at linda (at) lindabenson.net

Thanks! Happy riding and reading!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

First Ride


                                                            by Laura Crum

            So in the last post I talked about sacking, saddling, and tying a horse around, and said that once you were done with these steps the horse was ready to ride. Are there other things you could do first? Sure there are. You could drive the horse with long lines, or lunge the horse with side reins, or do some other forms of checking up. Would I do these things? Not usually. Not until after I was riding the horse.
            There’s a reason for this. You don’t want to put off getting on a horse too long. I don’t know how horses know that you’re afraid to get on them, but believe me, they know. If you keep putting off actually climbing on the colt, and stay endlessly dinking around on the ground, the horse will sense that somehow the actual riding of him is a big deal. And it becomes a big deal in his mind, too.
            There’s a rhythm to the whole thing. Every horse is different, but with a typical colt you’re about two to three weeks into the process when you get on him. You’ve tied him and sacked him and saddled him and tied him around. He’s a little worn down by all this and somewhat inclined to be compliant and accept that new things are happening to him. Hopefully, he’s developed a little bit of trust that if he complies with what’s happening, it will be OK. And now is the time to climb on him. (For more about my thoughts on breaking a colt, I wove quite a story about this into my 7th mystery novel, Hayburner.)
            Ideally the first ride is in the round pen. With no round pen we often did the first ride with the colt ponied by an experienced hand on an experienced pony horse. Or in the deep sand in the riverbed (at one ranch). The goal is to have a situation where if the colt panics, you have a chance of staying in control. We didn’t often have one panic, to be clear. I can only recall one that really came unglued with me, in all the years I spent climbing on colts. But yes, it does happen.
            You really need to be a competent rider to start colts. It’s honestly no place for a beginner. On the other hand, I was no bronc rider—at any point in my life. And I helped start well over a hundred young horses in my 20’s and 30’s. But I was, at that time, a pretty competent, experienced rider, who could read a horse reasonably well. (At this point in my life I’m much better at reading a horse, but much less able as rider—the perks and disadvantages of growing older.)
            The preferred place for the first ride is a solid round pen or bull pen—thirty to fifty feet in diameter, with ground of good deep sand. It’s best to have no one else in the pen. If the horse won’t stand still for mounting, it’s better to work on him learning to stand still than it is to have someone hold him from the ground. Said someone can really get in the way—and get hurt.
            If you can’t mount from the ground you have no business starting colts. We would usually work the colt in the round pen first, and go through the things he had learned-- trot, lope, whoa on cue-- get him slightly tired. Too tired is no good—“stealing a ride” is not desirable. But tired enough that he was ready to stand still—a light sweat on the neck. At that point we would bring him to the middle of the round pen, and begin the process of teaching him about mounting. With some colts you ended up working on mounting for several days before you ever rode them. But with many the mounting didn’t take too long.
            Basically, you pull the colt’s head gently to the left, and if you have done your tying around effectively, this is familiar and the horse yields easily. You put your left foot in the stirrup, and you begin hopping up and down and pulling on the saddle and what have you. The goal is not to scare the horse, but to get him used to you moving around there. If you have done your sacking thoroughly, this, too, is not usually a big deal.
            If the horse wants to move, you keep him moving in a circle around you with his head bent to the left. If at any point the horse rebels against this, you need to go back to the tying around. But if he just walks around you in a circle you let him walk, often with you hopping along, one foot in the stirrup, one on the ground (being VERY careful that you are ready to jerk that foot out of the stirrup at any time). You don’t go further until the horse stands still.
            Once the colt stands absolutely still no matter how much you hop and pull on the saddle, you pull yourself up until you are standing in the stirrup. Again, you are poised to leap clear of the horse. You have the horse’s head bent to the left. If the colt moves forward at this point, you step down and continue hopping around with him. And you repeat these steps until you can pull yourself up and stand in the left stirrup and the horse is unconcerned and stands still.
            Once the horse is OK with you standing in the stirrup, you begin reaching over the horse,  and talking to the horse, leaning over him, getting him used to the idea that you are on him. He needs to be aware that you are above him, on his back and be ok with this. The whole time you keep his head bent to the left with the rein and you are poised to jump off and pull his head to you if he leaps forward. You work on this until the horse is calm. If he does jump forward and you have to step off, you spend a lot more time working on it. You do not want the horse to feel fearful about you being on his back when you do sit on him. When the horse is absolutely OK with you being above him like this, you are ready to sit on him.
            This is the moment of truth. The moment where you swing your leg over a horse is the most vulnerable moment for a rider—always. Even a good rider is vulnerable at this point. We tried, always, to have the horse calm and accepting of the idea that you were “on” him before we swung that leg over. It is very important that from the first ride on the horse learn to stand still for mounting and not move off until given a cue by the rider.
            So yeah, when you felt the horse was ready-- calm and standing still and comfortable with you above him and on him-- you took a deep breath and swung that leg over, settled yourself in the saddle and found that right stirrup with your foot, hopefully without upsetting the colt. Once you were settled on him and ready to roll, you took a bit of time to talk to him and praise him, all the time keeping his head slightly bent to the left. And when you felt that he was ready, you asked him to take a step forward, while bending to the left.
            The goal was to walk him in a small circle to the left, say whoa, have him stop and praise him, then bend his head to the right and have him do the same thing on the other side. If you got through this calmly and smoothly, your chances of having a “good” first ride were very high.
            Of course, it doesn’t always go like this, though I’m here to say that with the colts I started, this was a more common scenario than not. But sometimes the shit did hit the fan.
            Colts would startle and leap forward—there were two possible responses to this and you had to choose quickly. The truly great hands always just let the horse alone. If he wanted to scoot around that round pen, they let him ago until he wanted to stop. If he wanted to bog his head and buck, they let him do it and sat up on him and rode him until he was ready to stop bucking. Nothing makes a broke horse quicker and better than someone who can do this. Unfortunately, I was never that person. I know very few people who ever were that person. I have seen it done and it is really is the best way to start a colt. He learns early on that bolting and bucking just don’t do any good—and that lesson sticks with him for life.
            However, for me and most people I knew, this approach wasn’t an option. I simply did not ride well enough to ride out a bucking horse. I have let one scoot around, but I was ready to grab his head if he started to put it down. And that is your second option. You double the colt, and if you’ve done your work well, you are able to get him in a tight circle, pulling his nose to your stirrup, and you just keep him going around until he stops of his own accord and puts slack in the rein. And then you praise him and release him and start again to get him to take a calm step forward, always with his head bent to one side or the other.
            The other big problem was a horse that did not want to take a step. This was surprisingly common. We tried to avoid thumping on a horse with our heels to get him to move forward, and I never used spurs on a first ride. The usual approach was to pull the horse’s head around as if you were doubling him, thump on him as much as you had to with the outside leg, and release/praise him as soon as he took one step. Usually this problem went away after a couple of rides. But if it persisted, once we were sure the horse was not frightened by having a rider on his back, we would over and under him with the long snaffle bit reins that we used, and get him to jump forward (not on the first ride). From very early days it is important that the horse develop the habit of moving forward quickly and lightly in response to the leg cue.
            A good first ride lasted maybe ten minutes, and the horse walked in circles in both directions and whoaed on command. He got a lot of petting and praise for doing this. Then came the mounting procedure in reverse, because you had to start all over again to be sure the colt would be OK with the dismount. It was a HUGE negative to have a successful first ride and then have the colt panic when the rider dismounted. So we always took our time getting the colt comfortable with the idea of the dismount.
            Some people dismount and mount several times at the end of the ride to reinforce this. I think that’s a judgment call. Sometimes it can be a good idea—depends on the circumstances.
            In the next post I’ll talk about early rides on a horse and what we tried to accomplish.



            Gunner as a three year old—a green broke horse—I had put about ninety days on him at this point.
            

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Next Step


                                                            by Laura Crum

            I started this series of posts because a few people said that they wanted to hear my views on horse training. By the time I was done with the first post, I really began to dread the scathing responses I felt sure I would be getting, accusing me of cruelty…etc. But I went ahead and put it out there, because it’s what I honestly believe—after forty years of non-stop owning/training/riding horses. Though I am sure many people disagreed with what I said, the lack of ugly, attacking responses was encouraging (in the sense that we can all discuss this subject civilly). I want to begin today’s post by (again) explaining why I used these methods and what they achieve.
            I know I’m repeating myself here, but remember, these are just my own opinions. If you’ve achieved a good relationship with your horse through other methods, more power to you. I’m happy for you. If you want to insist that your method of breaking/training horses is “better” than mine, that’s fine, too. But I want to be clear that we’re comparing apples to apples. I want to hear how your system works to create horses that stay reliably obedient even in stressful situations—because that is what I am talking about here. How to train a horse that is reliably obedient—a “broke” horse.
            I want to digress for a moment, because I have spent a lot of time thinking about this subject in the last week. Some of my horsey facebook friends have put up quotes from various horse gurus, along the lines of “we don’t properly prepare the horse to accept breaking and training and thus it is frightening to him,” and “the horse is just trying to survive in this sort of breaking situation—he feels his life is on the line.” And these gurus were referring, I believe, to the very method of breaking a horse that I’m writing about here. The more I thought about these statements, the more I understood the point of what we did when we broke ranch horses in a traditional manner. So I’m going to explain it as well as I can in reference to these statements.
            When it comes to preparing a horse to accept the breaking process, I want to repeat something I said in the last post. The tying solid is the preparation. In a perfect world, a colt would be tied solid until this was no big deal to him, and this might take months. Once a colt has accepted this restraint, and understood there is no point in fighting it, he has the basic understanding that will enable him to accept the breaking process. Also, in a perfect world, every step that I describe in this series of posts would be done every day until the horse accepted it completely—however long it took to get that done. This doesn’t always happen because in the real world the horse was expected to get ninety days of training and be “green broke.” Most of the time we were breaking horses for someone else—the ranch owner or a client. We weren’t free to take all the time we wanted. With my own horses I always kept the time frame completely open-ended, and I think this is by far the best way to train horses.
            The second statement—that the horse is just trying to survive in this sort of breaking process, that he thinks he’s fighting for his life—well, yes, that’s true. At some points that is exactly how he feels. I’m going to explain this concept the way I understand it, and I’m grateful to the person who posted that horse guru’s comment, because it made me think.
 A horse is a prey animal. His instinct when he feels truly threatened is to run away, and/or buck that predator off his back. If we are going to ride him and stay safe (and keep the horse safe), we have to change his perception. When he is scared and his adrenaline comes up, he has to follow the direction of his rider/handler rather than those deeply ingrained instincts. And there is (in my view) only one way to create this mindset. We have to put him in a position where he does feel that he’s fighting to survive (hopefully without actually threatening his health/well being) and let him discover that the only way out of his dilemma is yielding to the pressure exerted by the halter or the reins. We want to do this before we ride him, so that when we are on him we have a good chance of staying safely on his back. This is the ONLY way to be sure that when a horse is truly scared/excited/angry that he still remains obedient.
Now here’s the exception. If you are training a horse for yourself, and you have spent a lot of time teaching that horse that it is rewarding to do what you say (whichever method you use), that horse may be inclined to enjoy being with you and he may do as you say in your day-to-day interactions. It is still my opinion that the first time the horse is truly frightened/excited/feeling rebellious, that horse will ignore your leadership and bolt/charge/buck—whatever his instincts tell him to do, and you will be very unlikely to stay in control of him. He simply has no training in being obedient when he is stressed. But let’s say you survive intact and you’re still on him, and you eventually calm him down and he’s listening to you again. Let’s say this scenario happens maybe a dozen times in your first two years of riding/handling your horse—with the same positive outcome each time. By the third or fourth year of your partnership that horse may very well listen to you when the chips are down. He’s grown to trust your leadership even when he’s frightened. For you, anyway, he’s a reliable horse.
I’m sure you can see the hole in this theory. There are a couple of holes, actually. First you have to survive those scary potential wrecks in the early months/years of riding. If you or the horse or both are badly injured, both his trust and your mutual future are gone. And that horse learns to trust YOU. Whether or not he can transfer the trust to another rider/handler is problematic.
When we broke ranch horses we were trying to make a horse that would be safe and reliably obedient for whatever rider was on his back. As I said, most of the time the horses were not going to be our personal riding horses, and we knew that. We also knew it was in the horse’s best interest to become a reliably obedient “broke” horse. And the methods we used worked to achieve this goal. I think the distress a horse goes through being trained in this traditional manner is actually worth it, even from the horse’s point of view (and yes, there is some distress). Far better for him to learn from the beginning how to be obedient even when things are stressful, and thus have a chance at a decent life as a well-loved riding horse, than to spend many years being considered problematic and dangerous, because he has bucked/bolted too many times when he is fresh or scared. Better for him if he were “broke”-- with all that entails-- than suffering the fate that almost inevitably comes to horses that have hurt their rider once too often.
            Once again, the first goal of training should be to create a horse that is reasonably safe to ride and handle. A horse that will obey the rider’s cues, even when that horse is fresh, or scared, or pissed off, or whatever. And the most important cue is “the brakes.” And the thing that makes brakes is not response to “whoa” or a seat cue or what have you. This stuff works when a horse is not feeling resistant. But when the horse is resistant (for whatever reason), the one thing that gives you a good chance at control is a deeply ingrained tendency to yield to a pull on the reins.
 You are not going to achieve this response by bribing a horse with carrots, or bribing him in any way. Sure, you can get a horse to do “carrot stretches”—no question. But if you think this will translate into the horse yielding to you when you pull on a rein in an effort to stop him when he feels like bolting—well, I’ve never seen this work.
            In actual fact, what I have seen when people talk about training a horse without bitting up or checking up, is horses that “may” yield to the bridle when nothing much is going on. They may walk, trot, lope in a ring or on the trail and stop and steer, when nothing is happening to disturb them. I have never seen a horse trained this way that could execute at speed or under stress and still answer the bridle.
            Let me make this plain. If you have a training method that you think works, I want to see that your horse will respond to the bridle when running hard after a cow, or when he is in a crowd of other horses that are all galloping off, or if he is trying to bolt because he’s scared. If your horse has never even been asked to go faster than an easy lope, or dealt with any kind of pressure, you don’t KNOW if he’s broke. And if he comes unbroke any time something scares him (or he feels excited, or rebellious) and runs through the bridle (whether he bolts, bucks, rears, or runs sideways), then you and I have nothing to talk about. Because your system isn’t working.
            (An aside here—my horses are not machines. They spook and/or prance if they get “up,” depending on the personality of the horse. The difference is that they stay under control. A horse that is prancing or jigging because he’s excited or scared, but still “in your hand,” is one thing—a horse that is bulling through the bridle, out of control, is a completely different thing. A horse that spooks--and my Gunner was a huge spook-- but never tries to run off, is very different from the horse that spooks and spins and runs away.) 
            For those who say that they don’t need to put this kind of pressure on a horse to get him broke, because their horse is only going to do gentle riding type things and will never chase a steer…etc, all I have to say is you are deluding yourself. Even if you never ride your horse outside of an arena or go faster than a slow lope, there is still the unexpected. Someone else is riding in the arena and her horse bolts, scaring your horse. A tree falls next to the arena, or a helicopter flies over, or a loud tractor your horse has never seen before pulls up to the fence, or the snow slides off the roof with a loud whomp. I could go on and on. The truth is that every horse needs to be broke such that he will stay reliably obedient even when scared or excited, or he is not safe to ride.
            So…back to my system. Once a horse was really solid on the tying, the next step was sacking and saddling.             Sacking and saddling is either done tied up or on the leadrope in the round pen. There are advantages to both ways. If done tied up, both horse and handler have a greater chance of getting hurt, but the tying lesson is reinforced. Sacking and saddling in the round pen is a bit safer. Both ways take patience. It’s important to work on the sacking until a horse is really OK with it. Sometimes this takes an hour a day for two weeks or more.
            And here I must digress again and talk about circumstances. I broke horses on a variety of different ranches. And in every case the circumstances were different. On one ranch we had a nice arena, but no round pen. On another ranch we had a round pen, but no arena. On yet another ranch there was no round pen and no arena, just working corrals and pastures. And some of the time we had both a round pen, an arena, and plenty of good trails.  So the way we broke horses depended on the circumstances. In all cases there was (or we created) a safe place to tie. The tying was an essential part of the breaking process. If there was no round pen, the sacking/saddling was often done with the horse tied.
            Anyway, sacking is usually done with a light saddle blanket. This is gently run over the horse and gradually escalated until it is flapped and swung over every part of the horse’s body—quite vigorously. When the horse is absolutely calm about sacking, it is time to start saddling.
The saddle can be shown to the horse and dragged up on the horse and taken off and on the horse for as long as is needed for the horse to be comfortable with this. But when you make the call to cinch it up, that needs to happen in one smooth and effective move that cinches the saddle reasonably snugly. Because nothing is worse for a horse’s training than to have him buck with a loosely cinched saddle and buck the thing under his belly and eventually get rid of it.  Thus we were always very careful to first have the horse quite calm about the saddle, and then to cinch it snugly in one move the first time we pulled the cinch.
            Once the horse can be saddled and is reasonably comfortable with the process, the horse is caught and saddled and left tied with the saddle cinched so it will stay on. He is also taken to the round pen (if you have a round pen) and taught to move at the walk, trot and lope, carrying the saddle. And when the horse no longer has periods of jumping around in a panic when the saddle “catches” him, then it is time to begin checking him up.
            In those places where we didn’t have a round pen, the next move (after the horse could be saddled and would stand calmly tied up with the saddle on for several hours) was to pony the saddled colt from another horse. Be warned: it takes skill, a well-broke pony horse, and a saddle horn wrapped in rubber to safely/effectively pony a green colt from another horse. You have to know when and how to dally in order to prevent the colt from bucking/bolting. And your pony horse has to know how to take a jerk and/or drag a reluctant colt along. It does a great deal of harm to a horse’s training if the colt is able to jerk the lead rope out of your hands and run off.
            In any case, once the colt could move freely at the walk, trot and lope with the saddle on his back we began the checking up.
            The first checking up move that we did was to tie the horse around to the side. First the horse must be accustomed to the bridle. We put a plain smooth snaffle on the horse, making this process as gentle as possible. And the horse wears this bridle, sans reins (or with the very loose reins tied to the saddle horn), along with the saddle, for more round pen work (or ponied work) until the horse is accustomed to the bit. During this time the horse learns to move out at the trot and the lope on cue and stop on cue. There are a lot of different systems for this—I think there is probably something to be said for most of them. At this point the horse is working with his head free. He’s getting used to carrying the saddle at all gaits, and to moving out when cued to do so by a cluck or a “kiss,” and stop at a “whoa.” Some people reprimand a horse for bucking at this stage, some don’t. I think it depends on the individual horse and the circumstances. To go back to what I said in my first post, you need to be able to read a horse. In any case, as long as he is bucking, or seems nervous, he needs more round pen work (or ponied work).
            Eventually most of them start to move around that round pen quite freely, and to stop when the trainer says whoa. They quit acting like the snaffle bit is a terrible affront. They ignore the saddle and its flopping stirrups. And this is the point where you can tie them around.
            (If we did not have a round pen, we tied a horse around in the arena, or a corral, or in whatever sort of pen we had. At one stable where I broke a three-year-old, I made a round pen in the corner of the arena out of show ring jumps that nobody was using. It wasn’t—obviously-- too strong, so in that situation I also had my colt on the lunge line while I was teaching him to move out.)
            We tied a horse around to the stirrup. I have seen it done many ways, but tying the rein from the snaffle to one stirrup was the way I did it. The stirrup gives and moves a bit, which makes it easier on the horse. The first time it is done it is very important that it not be tied too tightly. The horse’s head is very gently pulled just a little to the left and the rein is tied such that the horse must remain with his head slightly cocked to the left. And the trainer observes.
            It’s important to stay there and watch. I never left a horse alone tied around (I know some people do this, but I don’t believe in it). It’s important to see exactly how the horse responds and to either tighten, loosen, or release the horse, as the situation calls for.
            If you have done your previous work tying solid with a halter, your horse will probably accept the tying around without too much struggle. And it may sound paradoxical, but we liked to see the horse resist the tying around—at least a little bit. If he didn’t struggle with it a little, we were never sure the message had been received. Said message being that if the rein pulls you to one side, you must yield. No matter how scared or mad you are. Fighting won’t work.
            Like the initial tying solid, all horses respond differently to this tying around. Some fight a lot, some fight very little. If a horse seemed scared, I would loosen the tie, but the horse stayed tied around until he “gave.” If that was a struggle for the horse, then he was untied the instant that he did give (the first time).
            There were two kinds of problematic horses. The kind that fought too much and the kind that fought too little. The kind that fought too much got beside themselves with fear or sometimes anger. Such that they would throw themselves down. Just like with the tying solid, we did not release a horse for such behavior. It just doesn’t work to do this. But I would loosen the tie, and encourage the horse to give, just a little, and as soon as he did give, he was released for that day.
            The kind that fight too little are more of a problem. They feel the tug and give their nose—no big deal. But they didn’t learn the important lesson—you must give even when you are scared or mad. So we would often encourage this sort of horse to keep moving, until at some point he wanted to throw his head or stick his nose out—but couldn’t because he was tied around. If he struggled with this, even a little bit, and then gave, that was enough for the first session.
            Tying around was repeated every day, on both sides, until the horse would reliably give his head. Again, sometimes this took a couple of days, sometimes a couple of weeks—depending on the horse. The ties were tightened over time until the horse’s nose was almost tied to the stirrup, and when the colt was encouraged to move he had to go around in a tight circle. When the colt would do this calmly in both directions, even under a bit of pressure, he was ready to ride. Because you had your one rein emergency brake in place—what we called “doubling” the horse. If you could double a colt—pull his head around such that he went into a tight circle—you could stop him from bucking or bolting or rearing. But that response had to be solid—thus the tying around.
            I should point out that when we had reached the point in the tying around where the horse was tied pretty tightly, we did not leave him that way long. Maybe a minute on each side, if he gave to the pressure. Any time a horse resisted the pressure in a significant way, we would re-tie him, a little looser this time, and wait until he seemed OK with it. Then try him again tied more tightly. For those who wonder why they had to be tied tightly at all, well, once again it comes down to safety. If a colt wants to buck and/or bolt with you on his first or second or third ride, your only real chance of controlling him is to pull his nose right around to the stirrup before he gets going. So essentially you’re training him to accept this “emergency brake.”
            In the next post I’ll talk about putting a first ride on a colt…


PS—And here is a pretty photo of my last trail ride on Sunny. Sunny is a product of the sort of breaking and training I am talking about here, and I think those who own such reliable horses will understand the pleasure I take in going for a two hour ride in which my horse does nothing but behave calmly and obediently and enjoy the ride with me. No spooking, no jigging, no balking, no resistance or overly “up” energy. Yes, broke horses are worth their weight in gold (especially for those of us who are old enough that we dread coming off).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Selfies by Alison Hart

I am not quite 'hip' with the selfie generation that seems enamored enough with themselves to FB, blog, tweet, twitter about their every move and now send out photos of themselves doing whatever -- in Jennifer Lawrence's case doing it nude.  But I have added a selfie of me and Fang (or is it I and Fang in this selfie world?) because she is so cute. Those of you who are getting older (like me) usually don't want to  see a photo of her/himself because of wrinkles and sagging skin, much less one of another old person, but here we are, Fang looking adorable and me looking grey:

 The selfie fits right in to this post because it is about me -- and my latest book, Murphy Gold Rush Dog, which is finally in my hand.  There is already a great review from Kirkus and since this is a post about selfish me, I get to brag that it was a good review with words like heart-wrenching and heart-warming and "An adventure-filled tale set within a fascinating period of history."    However make note that I am not tweeting, twittering or Face Booking this information --it is exclusively for Equestrian Ink (and there will be no nude selfies either.)

What is also exclusive is a giveaway to anyone at EQ Ink who would like  to review the book and post glowing comments on her/his own blog/FB page. You can even Tweet and Twitter about it.  It's not a horse book, but horse and dog loving seem to go together.  I would mail the book to you for FREE--note that FREE is in bold letters since that may be all you read as you skim this post.

 If you are interested, email me at
alison@alisonhartbooks.com.  I will send it even if you don't think you will write glowing comments and I will especially send it if you have kids who would enjoy reading and sharing it with others.

Enjoy the rest of the summer weather and let's toast to a glorious fall!


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Images from Saratoga Springs


Is summer really over? Saratoga's 2014 racing season is over, so for a whole lot of racing fans, the answer is yes.

I'm hopelessly in love with Saratoga Springs, New York--with its landscapes, with its architecture, with its people, with its obsession with horse racing that cannot be equaled. The original lovely little town with a Thoroughbred problem, Saratoga has been my muse in the past, and I have no doubt she will continue to inspire my writing in the future.

My husband and I were lucky enough to spend a few lovely days at Saratoga this August, during Travers Week, when the excitement for the "midsummer derby" is reaching its fever pitch. We didn't stay for the Travers, but we had plenty of excitement with the weekday racing, along with plenty of time for dining, shopping, and just plain wandering Saratoga's graceful streets.

I wrote a short primer for visiting Saratoga over at my travel blog, but for you, my equestrian readers, here is just a collection of some of my favorite images from Saratoga Springs. 

Horse racing is literally everywhere - this is the grocery store.

Is this a house made out of a little barn? If so, can I have it immediately please? Just a block away from the racecourse, and practically perfect in every way.

The Jim Dandy bar, which Alex visits in "Other People's Horses." I tend to selfie a lot.

Admiring the very gorgeous Bossman, who won his race despite an extremely lengthy inquiry that kept him walking in circles while the stewards pondered the video.

I am not convinced that this building is real life. It's too perfect. It's a miniature. Right? This is the Canfield Casino, home to the Saratoga Springs History Museum, right in the middle of Congress Park.

More random horse racing murals! This one is in the gorgeous post office on Broadway.

Tale as old as time? Girls and their horses. The winner's circle between races.

Best sidewalk decoration ever? Obviously.

I met a pony. He was the best pony ever. He luffed me.

THESE ARE PAINTINGS. I am forever obsessed and want them both.

Would you like some delicious water little girl? One of the many springs in Congress Park shows off its mineral content.
Note: we drank from all the springs in Congress Park. The best-tasting water comes from Columbian Spring. This is because the water in Columbian Spring is CITY WATER. There is a little sign nearby indicating this. The rest of the water is varying degrees of ick, from "wow this isn't the worst" to "OMG VILE." The award for most vile also goes to the most lavishly landscaped, and I do not think this is a coincidence, but an EVIL PLOT. I'd upload a picture but Blogger is being ridiculous so just be warned -- stay away from Hathorne Spring. It tastes like sulphur soda. You don't want that.

Visit my travel blog at ThatDisFamily.com for more on Saratoga Springs (and pictures of the evil spring). Have you been to Saratoga? What do you think of it?

One last thing - while I was there, Cory and I were lucky enough to attend a media picnic at Abigail Adsit's training barn. We met up with the folks from Talk of the Track, who ended up interviewing us about the books, particularly "Other People's Horses" and "Ambition." I haven't watched the interview, because the idea of watching myself in a video is just the last word in horror, but if YOU want to know what I said - some things about Saratoga, some things about Thoroughbreds, some things about myself, I guess - it's at my Facebook page, Natalie Keller Reinert: Equestrian Fiction. I can't say that my first time on camera was a completely terrorizing experience, but I did require several beers and a whole lot of french fries to recover, so... be nice!


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why Your Horse Won't Behave


                                    by Laura Crum

            CAUTION—this post may be quite upsetting to those of you who view horse training very differently than I do. In fact, I had almost decided not to do this series of horse training posts. I really don’t need to convince anybody of anything, and I feel nothing but admiration for those of my fellow horsemen who achieve a happy relationship with their horses. I don’t care how you get there if it works for you and your horse. So, yeah, I had almost decided not to rattle anybody’s cage (even inadvertently) with this post.
But…I got an email after I had posted my last blog post (which was about a nice trail ride that I had on my reliable horse). And this young lady very sincerely wanted to know how my horse got the way he is. She loved her horse, but she was afraid to ride him on the trails because he was so unpredictable—and on his bad days he did violent, scary things, which she quite rightly felt were putting both of them in danger. In the course of our conversation I became aware that she didn’t even know that these methods that I planned to write about existed. And, of course, the way all of my horses became reliable riding horses was through this particular breaking/training process.
  So I am putting my experiences out here in case they help someone who isn’t happy with how his/her horse is behaving and doesn’t feel that the methods he/she is using are helping the horse all that much. I was raised (in the horse world) by some pretty handy cowboys, and the horse training methods I learned are, by and large, the methods used to turn out a reliable ranch horse. Those of you who have ridden a good ranch horse will know that this is a pretty dependable sort of critter—these posts are aimed at explaining how we “made” such reliably broke horses.
 Also, the “your” in this title doesn’t mean you. It doesn’t mean anyone in particular. It is a generic “your.” I absolutely wasn’t thinking of anyone when I wrote it. And again, this post is just my opinions. No need for anyone to agree. I have no wish to convince you that my way of thinking/training is right.
If you are happy with how your horse behaves, more power to you. If what you are doing works for you, you should not care at all that I might find your horse’s behavior completely unacceptable. We all have different standards for our horses and different goals, for which we need different cues and responses. As I said, if you are happy with your horse, why should you care at all what I would do?
            That said, I see and read a lot of stuff about ill-broke horses. Horses that grabbed the bit and bolted, or spooked and spun and ran away, or balked and reared and fell over, or bogged their head and bucked their rider off. I hear about people who are hurt, or almost hurt and very scared, or too anxious about their horse’s behavior to want to ride any more, or selling their horse because they’ve become afraid of it, or spending all their precious riding time trying to convince the horse to do the most basic of things. If I know the person/horse, or I’ve been following their blog, I often know exactly what (in my opinion) happened to cause this crap, and, in fact, I’ve often been sitting here at my keyboard shaking my head and thinking “this isn’t going to end well”—months before the horse started behaving really badly.
            Do I tell the person? Short answer—no. I used to do this. It never worked. The people were insulted, and nothing changed. I don’t do it any more. So this post is what I would say if someone asked for my thoughts. If anybody benefits from it, that’s a good thing. If everybody would just like to argue with me, that’s fine, too.
            Anyway, most of these problems that I see were caused by the way the horse was trained—or not trained. The horse hasn’t got a decent foundation. He/she is not (in my vernacular) a “broke” horse. And so, when he/she doesn’t feel like obeying his/her rider/handler, he/she just jerks the reins/leadrope away, or bulls through the bridle, or pushes through the handler, and follows his/her own inclinations. And usually, someone gets hurt. In my view, this is a lousy system.
            (The other common reason for behavioral problems that I see is a basically well-trained horse that has learned he can get away with bullying his particular owner/rider. But that’s another post.)
            My way of training horses isn’t so popular these days. Some people will tell you it is cruel. And in my lifetime I definitely moved into a gentler approach than the one I learned as a young woman. But I still kept the basic principles and steps. You know why? Because they worked.
            Horses trained the way I trained horses do not, in general, come unglued and untrained and hurt their riders. There are exceptions, sure. Some horses will not become solid citizens no matter what method you use. But overall the methods that I used produced horses that stayed broke, even under pressure, even when they were feeling fresh…etc.
            I am (or was—I don’t train horses any more) a traditional western-style horse trainer. This is almost a dirty word in these days of natural horsemanship…etc. But I have not seen results from these newer methods that are anything like as effective as what we could achieve with traditional methods.
            Before I go any further, traditional methods can be abused. They can be cruel. Yes, that is true. Pretty much any method can be abused. And when a horse is trained so ineffectually that he is a constant danger to anyone who handles/rides him or is around him, and he ends up on a truck to Mexico through no fault of his own—well, that is abuse, too, in my book.
            Horses are dangerous. They can kill you. The very first goal of horse training is or should be to teach a horse to be safe for humans to deal with. Safe to handle, safe to ride. We call that a broke horse. It is a fundamental concept that people disregard at their peril. And the peril can be pretty extreme.
            So when I trained horses in a traditional way I did a lot of things that were aimed at showing a horse that it did him no good to resist the human handler/rider. These things were all set up such that the horse could not win. Yes, that is what I said. The horse could not win. Because that is the foundation of a safe horse, a broke horse. Even when the chips are down he will obey your cues—because his training has taught him that obeying is the only answer.
            Let us contrast this to the currently fashionable approach, which boils down to trying to get the horse to do things because something good will happen—like food or a positive response of some sort from his human. The horse learns that if he does what’s wanted he wins. Sounds good right? Until the day the horse doesn’t give a flying you know what about what’s wanted. He’s too excited or scared or pissed off or fresh or what have you. He doesn’t care about pleasing you and he is going to do what he feels like doing. And at that moment you are totally screwed. Your pleasant training system is going to fail you. And every single proponent of this sort of training that I know of has gotten themselves in this sort of pickle (by their own account). Excuses are made, but yeah—the horse kicked them or ran over them or dragged them or dumped them or bolted with them or stepped on them or flat refused to do what was asked…etc. And in my opinion most (not all) of these wrecks could have been prevented if the horse had been given a different sort of training foundation.
            Let’s say you are riding through the woods on a tough trail and your horse sees something that really, really scares him. He spooks and leaps forward, and there are rocks and crap ahead. You pull on the reins to check him (no room for a one rein stop or such green horse stuff) and the horse does one of two things. He gives his head to the pull, because he has been trained in a traditional way and was checked up enough that giving to the pull is automatic and ingrained, and even though he is terrified his nose comes down in response to the pull, and you gain control of him. Or he throws his head wildly in the air in response to your pull on the reins, and keeps running, completely out of control—because he is scared and he has never been shown beyond any doubt that he MUST to give to the pull—under every possible circumstance including terror. Which response do you want? Which response might save your life?
            For those who will say that you can get the first response without checking up and other traditional methods I would say—maybe. I haven’t seen this but sure, it could be possible. But I will bet anything you want that 90% of horses that respond in the first way were trained with traditional methods, including “bitting up” or “checking up.”
            What I have seen (a lot) is that horses that were trained without traditional training will often behave just fine—until they don’t want to. And then, whether scared, mad or fresh, they simply stick their noses out, or up, or down, and jerk the reins through their rider’s hands and do what they damn well please. And you know what? You can’t stop them.
            A horse is much stronger than you. Neither a harsh bit, nor a running martingale, nor a tie down will stop a horse that wants to resist your pull on the reins from running right through the bridle. The only thing that will keep the horse responding to the aids is successful training. Training that sticks no matter how extreme the situation—and this training cannot only be “feel good” training. Because gentle, feel good training only works when everything feels good. When the pressure is on and the shit hits the fan, the horse won’t give a rat’s ass about feel good training.
            I will digress here and say that if you have spent many years developing a partnership with a horse and covered hundreds of miles and been through plenty of tight spots (even if the horse acted like a complete jackass in a lot of those spots), yeah, sure, the horse may trust your leadership—no matter what training method you use, including strictly feel good type training. But I’ll be damned if I personally want to go through all the near wrecks and the years of not knowing how the horse will react under pressure that this system involves.
            The problem with all this is the danger. You are risking your life. You are risking your horse’s life. The only way to be on the safe side when you ride/handle a horse is to be really sure that the horse knows you are in charge and his training has taught him to obey your cues. All the time. No matter what.
            And how you get there is by putting the horse in some tough situations and teaching him that that he cannot win by resisting. He can only win by obeying. I’m not going to discuss all the different methods of achieving this, because I don’t know all of them. Some versions of traditional training are very cruel—and I have seen this. But it is not the methods per se that are cruel. It is the way they are applied. You have to be able to read a horse and know when it’s time to stop and when you must push on. And you have to care about a horse’s well-being. Every single thing that I talk about can be overdone, or done too harshly, and then it becomes abusive. Horses are hurt, or emotionally shut down, or turn into rebels when these methods are poorly applied. I will tell you what I learned to do—and I CAN tell you that, properly done, the methods I used produced reliably broke horses—unless the horse is determined to be an outlaw. (And they do come that way.) 
            The other thing about the methods I use is that they are safe for the rider/handler (if you are not completely clueless). They are ways to teach a horse to give to pressure that are done on the ground. The horse is fighting himself (if he fights) and not you. And the situation is set up so that the only win lies in yielding to pressure and getting the release. This is a very effective lesson (if done properly) and will truly stick with a horse, even when he is scared or mad or what have you.
            Before I go any further I want to add that those who actually know me will say that I am, if anything, too easy on my horses and too protective of them. My horses trust me and they do what I ask willingly. Those basic tools that were instilled in them by traditional methods aren’t really needed any more. But the trust doesn’t happen overnight. There was a time, when these horses were young, that the basic training that was given to them provided the foundation for the trust. The horses obeyed because they’d learned that was the only workable answer, and thus we all stayed safe in the years where they were learning to trust in their rider.
            The other thing about this sort of training is that it’s very helpful if you want to put a different rider on your horse—especially a beginner. The horse will obey, not because he “trusts” the new rider, but because his training foundation is there. If the rider pulls on him he gives to the bit, and stops or turns, which, along with going forward when kicked, is the simple bottom line of “broke.” If a horse is broke he can be sold and passed from one rider to another and he will stay obedient for all of them. (My Henry is a very good example of this.)
            So, how did we achieve “broke” horses? First I am going to refine the definition a bit. In general, what I learned to make was a reliable all around western horse—a ranch horse. The basis of what we did was the cowhorse tradition, which comes from the Spanish/Mexican vaqueros. Such horses not only stopped and steered reliably, they “bridled up,” or collected easily. They took the walk, trot, or lope at a signal; they would stop at a light touch on the reins, even from the gallop. They would “watch” a cow (meaning turn with a cow), and you could rope a cow off of them, and open and close a gate from their backs. They were reliable in any sort of high pressure situation, from wide-open gathers on a twenty thousand acre ranch in rough country, to the intensity of parting/branding cattle in a big corral. (By the way, all my horses can/could do all these things.) These are the skills that are useful/necessary when doing ranch work.
In general, ranch horses are not handled much until they are three. At three they are given ninety days or so of training, which is the foundation for everything that comes afterward, and establishes the “broke.” They are given six more months of riding as a four year old, turned out for the winter, and brought into full use as a five year old. Some time between five and eight (depending on the individual horse and the skill of the rider), these horses are deemed broke. At this point they will obey whatever rider is on them, and can be trusted to do their job under a wide variety of circumstances.
Everybody breaks horses a little differently. But what I will give you in this short series of posts is a very brief overview of some general steps that are often/usually used to turn out the sort of broke all around ranch horses that I’m talking about here.

           
            The very first thing we did with any green horse was tie him up. This is the basis of everything. If you cannot tie a horse hard and fast and have him stand there as long as needed, your horse is not broke. It is a fundamental part of training that underlies everything else. Some horses have a lot more trouble with this than others. But they all need to learn it.
            It isn’t pretty to begin with. It isn’t fun for the horse. But it is the single best way to get a horse started on the path to being broke. Yes, they can get hurt. But they can get hurt no matter what method you use to train them. If you tie with some thought and care, they are unlikely to get hurt. To be effective, a horse needs to be tied for a good long time. Young ranch horses were fed in the morning, caught and tied after that, taken to water at lunch, and tied for the rest of the day until dinner. Not in the blazing sun, no. But yes, all day. For those of you who think this is cruel, all I can say is that after a week to a month of this (depending on the individual horse—some only needed a couple of days), those horses were much better able to handle the breaking process. They had learned the main thing that they needed to know just from the tying. Fighting doesn’t get you anywhere. And they had learned patience. Two absolutely essential qualities in a broke horse.
           
            We always tied a colt until being tied was no big deal. We did nothing but tie him until he could be counted on to stand quietly as long as he was tied, in a relaxed pose that indicated he understood that there was no point in doing anything else but wait patiently. At that point he was ready to move on with the breaking process. And it took some horses a good long time to get to this stage. But this is by FAR the best and easiest way to get a young horse into the frame of mind that enables him to accept training to be a reliable saddle horse.
            Tying does some other things that aren’t immediately obvious. It gets the horse used to giving to pressure on his head, rather than fighting it, which helps him with giving to the pressure exerted by the bridle. And it makes him far safer to lead and handle from the ground. A horse that has been taught by tying can almost always be counted on to yield to a well-timed tug on the leadrope, rather than bulling through it. So much better for leading and also for ponying from another horse.
            Tying is useful throughout a horse’s life. Whenever I’ve had a problem with a horse, I’ve always gone back to the tying. Leaving a horse saddled and tied for a few hours will go a long way toward resolving many things. When the horse stands relaxed, with one hind leg cocked, you can often go back to work with him and find that his attitude is significantly more cooperative—and thus a fight is averted.
            I will write about the methods we used to check a horse up in the next post. I’m sure I’ve managed to alienate a bunch of people just from what I’ve already said. The last time I talked about tying on this blog a few people called me “cruel.” But bear in mind—I love my horses and take good care of them and none of the horses I own (including the two of them that I broke as three year olds and rode for their entire working lives—one is 25 and one is 34)—EVER hurt me. They didn’t once dump me, or bolt with me, or step on me, or drag me, or run over me, or kick me. I rode them all on many, many trail rides and gathers and had no wrecks. And they are all living a happy life with me today. So these methods do have a good side.


PS—Please do not take an older horse that has never been tied and tie him solid to fix his problems. Older horses who have set patterns do not always or even usually benefit from such attempts at retraining. When I buy an older horse (older than eight) I make sure that I am OK with him the way he is. Older horses who have a ranch background and have been tied as part of the breaking process will often benefit from some hours of tying—especially if they are showing behavior issues.

PPS—Tying is a very effective training method with a young/green horse, but if you have not done it before PLEASE be sure to get some help from someone who has. It can go very badly wrong. Never tie to something a horse can break. I am not going to try to describe what is and isn’t a safe tying situation—because I am afraid that someone will get hurt trying to follow my ideas without really understanding the potential problems. I learned to break young horses with the help of people who had done it many times, and this is the approach I would recommend to others.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Riding New Trails


                                    

by Laura Crum


            Well, I had a post all ready for today about how we started horses on the ranches where I worked when I was a young woman, but I’m not posting it. I think it contains some valuable insights, but to tell the truth, I’m just not in the mood to hear people jump all over me because it’s not “their” preferred style of training. Sometimes I’m up for these discussions and sometimes not. So maybe I’ll post the horse training post somewhere down the line.
            For today, I dunno, words just don’t seem like what matters. Or arguing about horse training styles. I have a good horse and I went for a lovely ride this afternoon through the coastal California hills on trails new to both of us, and we had fun.
            We don’t compete at anything, and our ride was only five miles or so, but the joy factor was every bit as great, I think, as that of any equestrian on the planet. Temps were in the 70's and there was a pleasant ocean breeze. The lack of stress, pressure, and any goal other than enjoying ourselves really added to the pleasure. 
            I am so grateful to my little yellow mule, who was clearly as happy and interested as I was to be covering some unfamiliar terrain. He walked out with his ears up, alert, but calm, and really, in my book there is no greater delight to be had with a horse than this relaxed camaraderie. Nether of us were anxious at any point; neither of us were ever bored or uncomfortable or too tired. We found our way around a nice loop, despite never having been on these trails before, so that was rewarding, too.
            Yes, Sunny got the way he is through those very horse training methods that I wrote about, but we’ll save that discussion for another day. For today, here are just a few photos to illustrate a good life with a good horse. (Most that I took were just too blurry--I don’t stop for photos.) Hopefully you can share in our happy ride—if only vicariously. Cheers!