Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Horse Books That Meant The Most

A few weeks ago, the latest Facebook fad seemed to be "post the ten books that matter the most to you." You weren't supposed to give it a lot of deep thought or anything, just post the ten books that came to your mind first. 

I gave it a shot. And here's the list that happened:

1. Emily's Quest, L.M. Montgomery
2. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
3. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
4. The Black Stallion (most of the series), Walter Farley
5. Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley
6. Light a Penny Candle, Maeve Binchy
7. Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson
8. The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie
9. The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
10. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis (every single one)

And then I sat back and looked at it. Wow. There were not a lot of horse books on that list. (Although my copy of The Mists of Avalon does have a horse on the cover.) 

Instead I had two fairly bleak turn-of-the-century Young Adult stories, two extremely different Irish novels, a Young Adult horse series and an adult horse book, and a whole lot of magic. (Like, seriously, a lot of magic. Who knew that fantasy was so important to me?)

But in the grand scheme of How My Brain Works, it all started to make a lot of sense. Most of these books seriously informed my writing in some way. Emily's Quest is about a young woman embarking on a writing career and coming face-to-face with the loneliness and self-doubt that such a calling entails on a daily basis. Rilla of Ingleside was about the upheaval and change that The Great War brought to a happy-go-lucky family who already had six books to their name -- it's the last of the Anne of Green Gables novels -- and what an incredibly bold move for a writer to make with such beloved characters! Light a Penny Candle is another big saga, about two best friends surviving all sorts of trauma (they come together through World War II), which, again, it's hard to believe the writer was so willing to dish out to such lovable characters.

Eureka Street, well, that might be my favorite book of all time. I adore everything about it: the vain, hapless, soul-of-a-poet repo-man Jake; the rambling and unapologetic passages exploring the terrible beauty of Belfast; the harrowing and yet lyrical descriptions of violence that leap out of previously tranquil pages as surely as The Troubles could instantly cloud a sunny day--and of course a cast of characters who were as funny and as flawed as any in literature.

And then all that fantasy! I'm still surprised by it. The Mists of Avalon probably is the least important to me as a piece of literature, but was a huge part of my adolescence, so I can't leave it out of any list. The ones that got me: Narnia, The Enchantress of Florence, The Night Circus -- oh, those really got me. Rushdie taught me that prose can be poetry if you decide it can. Morgenstern taught me that reality can be fantasy (and vice versa) if you choose it to be. Lewis taught me to talk to trees and animals without feeling embarrassed, and how many stories of my childhood did that inform? Countless.

What of the horse books, then? What are the horse books that meant the most, and why are they so few?

To be fair, there are twenty installments in the Black Stallion series, so that's twenty books right there that I stuck on my top ten list. Those books were my lifeline as a child, to a world I knew existed and that I wanted to be part of so very, very much. I put on my velvet hunt cap with one hand and I turned the pages of The Black Stallion's Courage with the other, imagining myself on The Black as we came down the long homestretch at Belmont Park; then I went out and used the mounting block to mount a school pony and get down to the business of staying on.

Horse Heaven was a lifeline as an adult, because it taught me a very important lesson: horse books for adults can work. This book was a massive seller. I should know--I was working part-time at the Barnes & Noble in Ocala, Florida when it came out. When HITS was going on, riders in breeches and boots were literally coming in and asking for it by name. We had it stocked behind the counter to save time. Horse Heaven changed the way I looked at horse books. And it changed the way I looked at what I might write someday.

When I started writing contemporary fiction for equestrians, it was with the success of Horse Heaven reminding me that people wanted books like this, about characters they recognized -- adults living their lives with horses.

I've read dozens, or hundreds, who knows, of pony books and horse books over the years, but these were the true game-changers, that helped decide the course of my entire life. From my years with Thoroughbreds to my current career as a novelist, those were the horse books that meant the most.

What are yours?

A short note on giveaways and signings:

I'll be at Equine Affaire this November! I'll be with Taborton Equine Books on Saturday, November 15th from 4-6 PM, and on Sunday, November 16th from 12-2 PM. Come and visit me and the other awesome equestrian authors who will be there! You can add it to your calendar with this Facebook event: 

The Big Giveaway from Equestrian Culture Magazine is on throughout October. I'm so happy to be part of this gorgeous glossy magazine's giveaway this fall, which includes prizes from Goode Rider, Ariat, Dubarry, and plenty of other big names in equestrian apparel and supplies. Check out the website at http://equestrianculture.com/giveaway/ for details on how to win different prizes, including a set of my paperback novels. And if this is not a magazine you're familiar with -- it's time to pick up a copy! It's for our kind of people!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Early Rides

                                                            by Laura Crum

            This is going to be the last in my small series of posts about the way I learned to break and train ranch horses. I had meant to go on and explain the bitting up…etc, but I’ve run into a snag. A mental snag, anyway. I grew up on ranches and with ranch horses and I understand exactly what these methods can achieve when they are applied with skill by a good horseman. But in writing these posts I realized that I cannot impart this experience into words. As I said in the introductory post, none of this will work unless you can read a horse. No method is much good unless you can read a horse. If you respond to a fearful horse thinking he is challenging you, or a rebellious horse thinking he is fearful, you aren’t going to get good results. And so I find myself at a loss to explain how we knew when to push on and when to hold back. We read what the horse was feeling/thinking and responded to that.
These methods are very effective at producing broke horses, if you are a competent rider and you can read a horse. I learned them from competent horsemen who were good at reading horses. Not from a book, not being told a tale, but working beside these men and women, and under their direction. I learned by working with literally hundreds of horses. And this is the way to learn—not by reading my blog posts. Or by reading pearls of wisdom from horse gurus…etc. Someone posted a little quote from a well known horse guru the other day along the lines that you had to change your demeanor in response to a horse’s emotional state. I will admit that I rolled my eyes and thought “Duh.” Can you say “learn to read a horse?” All good horsemen do this, no matter their method of breaking and training.
I’ve become all too aware that I can’t really explain this to people in a way that translates to real life. I’m also aware that among the people that read these posts there is a small subset that have done quite a bit of breaking and training of young horses and have been around it their whole lives. In this group, no matter their specific background, there is real understanding of what I am talking about and how it might work—even if the person in question has used vastly different methods. But by far the majority of readers have not done much if any breaking/training. They may have ridden a green horse or two, and they may have participated in breaking/training maybe one or two colts. Their ideas about training are largely based on how they work with their already-broke-and-trained-by-someone-else horses. And, in fact, their thinking is often all about what was done wrong in said breaking/training such that their poor horse is not trusting. Sometimes they have a good point. And sometimes they are missing the point completely (in my opinion—obviously). But one thing is for sure, they haven’t been the one putting the first rides on a bunch of colts. Like everyone else, these folks are entitled to their own opinions, and I have nothing but respect for them if they are having a happy life with their own horses. But we can’t exactly discuss breaking and training methods on an equal footing. What works in theory is not always (or even usually) what works in practice. And the things I am writing about here are things I learned that work—and know this because I learned them by actually climbing on a bunch of colts and doing the work to set them on the path to being broke horses.
So I sometimes have a hard time with the sort of discussions that come up with people who actually have not climbed on a bunch of colts, but boy do they think they know how it should be done.  Such people have in the past said/implied to me that these traditional methods are harsh and “kinder/gentler” methods work just as well. All I can say to this is that until you have actually done the work of breaking colts and produced some well-trained horses that stay reliable under pressure, you don’t really know what works and what doesn’t. By all means you should work with your own horses as you see fit and I wish you and your horses health and happiness. 
The other thing that bugs me is the fear that someone will try this stuff in their own backyard, never having seen it done by a competent horseman, not knowing how to read a horse, and with no idea how badly things can go wrong. This haunts me. So I’ve decided not to talk about the bitting up and the later training that we did. There is so much potential for it to be abusive and for a real wreck to happen—even if the horseman means well-- but hasn’t had a lot of experience.
So far everything I’ve talked about is pretty straight-forward, though I will stress again that to get good results you have to be able to read a horse and respond appropriately to what he is communicating. This last post will talk about what we tried to get done in the first month of riding.

We rode a horse in the bull pen anywhere from once to half a dozen times, depending on the colt. But we always left the bull pen as soon as we felt reasonably confident that the horse had accepted the notion of being ridden. It is important to keep moving on and doing new things—it does not benefit a young horse to become bored and frustrated with being ridden. Boredom and frustration can be worked through with more tying. Riding should be engaging and interesting for the horse at this stage.
            So rides are kept short—maybe half an hour if in the arena, and an hour at the longest—if we went outside. We went outside as soon as we thought it would work. Usually with an older horse along as a babysitter. Ideally we found a long uphill stretch and if the colt was “up” we trotted (the long trot is the gait of choice for colts) until the young horse really wanted to walk. Trotting a young horse uphill until he wants to walk is a wonderful lesson. The colt gets to stretch his legs, see some country, figure out he CAN relax, and there is no need to fight with him. The hill does the work. Deep sand will work for this, too. But again, not too long. As soon as the young horse was tired and wanted to walk we went back.
            At this point I want to address a couple of common problems. The first one is spooking. Some horses are spooky—they just are. You won’t train this out of them. The way to deal with a spook remains the same from the beginning of a horse’s training until he is 20 years old. You are riding along with light contact and the horse sees something he doesn’t like the look of and spooks sideways. Some give a warning, some don’t. Some spook a lot harder than others. It doesn’t matter. You ride it the same.
            I don’t know how people who ride in English saddles do it, but here is what we did/do. As you feel the horse begin to spook, or think about spooking, you maintain your gentle contact on the reins. You might increase it a touch, in a steadying way, but you darn sure don’t pull on the horse. You keep your legs out of the horse and very loose. You sit deep in the saddle and you grab the horn if you need to. You ride the spook (if you’d like to see what this looks like, watch a cutting run and observe the rider’s posture—you ride a spook exactly the way you ride a cutting horse), and when the horse is done with his jump, you pick up gently on the reins and bump him lightly with your heels and indicate that we’re moving on now. No big deal. You never make a big deal out of a spook. You more or less ride it and ignore it.
            If the colt tries to throw his head in the air after a spook and scatter, you double him. Initially you just double him until you have his attention, as gently as you can, and then ask him to move on, using your broke babysitter horse to give him a lead. But if, as time goes on, the colt repeatedly tries to throw his head and bolt after a spook, you double him much harder and use the spur to make it uncomfortable. The message should be plain. You may spook, but you stay in my hand and you may not—ever—try to run off. Once again, the tying around that you did is critical here.
            About the spurs—we usually rode colts with our spurs on. There were exceptions. A very sensitive horse, we’d take them off. I never wore them on the first few rides because I wasn’t totally confident that I could keep them out of a colt if he scattered, and it is absolutely the worst thing you can do to spur a colt by accident when he jumps because he’s scared. But in general spurs help to make the young horse light and responsive to leg cues. Properly used they are a blessing to both horse and rider. Most people who have trained horses will understand this.
            And this gets us to the second common problem. The horse that is resistant, or “doggy” and doesn’t want to move out. Spurring such a horse doesn’t work very well. It just makes him mad. As I mentioned in the last post, the approach we used was to “over and under” the horse with the long reins—which had a popper on the ends. This caused the colt to jump forward and in the case of a doggy horse, this is what you want—that “forward.” So we would ask the horse to move out, very gently, with a soft touch of the spur, and if he did not do so, he was over and undered. If this is done consistently in the early rides and the rider does not get in the habit of thumping on the horse’s sides to get him to move, it is very much to the horse’s advantage in his future training.
            We also used this “over and undering” on a horse that wanted to sull up and thought about bucking in a resistant way (rather than a fearful way). These horses were usually a bit “doggy” and when we would feel such a horse “balling up” (hunching his back as if he was thinking about bucking, while resisting moving forward) we would over and under that horse quick smart. The typical reaction to this is to jump forward with the head up, and, though it seems a bit counter-intuitive at first—it actually took a horse’s mind off of bucking pretty reliably. It also works well with a horse that wants to balk and thinks of rearing. It’s important to do the over and undering BEFORE the horse is actually bucking or rearing. You do it when you feel the horse ball up in a resistant, balky way. The idea is not to punish the horse, but rather to get him to move forward smartly in response to the leg cue and not to think about resistance.
            There is one more potential problem—but it wasn’t very common in the QH type horses that I worked with. However I did run across it in a couple of horses I trained, so I’ll mention it here. This is the horse that doesn’t spook sideways when alarmed, but rather leaps forward. The forward leap rapidly escalates into a full on bolt. The trick with this sort of horse is to take his head and double him before he gets that first jump in. So if you even felt him think about making that jump, you doubled him.
            Anyway, we rode outside as much as we could. The object was to get the colt to “line out” in a long trot. If at all possible we had the colt follow a broke horse in the early rides and then take turns taking the lead. The goal was to have the colt gain confidence in being ridden and to learn to carry the rider at steady pace. Following a broke horse on a jaunt through the countryside is overall pleasant work for a colt and to begin with, as the colt is getting used to being ridden, it’s important to keep it pleasant.
            Any time a colt would try to bolt or buck, he was doubled. Any time he sulled up or balked, he was over and undered with the reins and made to jump forward. Mostly we just covered country. Again, rides were only about an hour. We did not want these young horses to feel exhausted or overwhelmed.
            Once a young horse would line out easily and seemed pretty confident in being ridden, we would go back to the arena—if we had an arena—and work a bit on getting a “handle” on him. This would usually happen at about the sixty day mark. Again, if I was working on my own horse, I did things as the horse seemed to need them, with no time frame driving me. But when we were starting colts for a ranch or clients, the typical goal was to put 90 days of initial riding on the colt (usually a three year old) and at the end of these 90 days the colt would be “green broke,” and often would be turned out until his 4 year old year.
            Green broke horses were still in the snaffle (or bosal, if that was your way), but definitely still in the two rein stage. They were supposed to be reasonably reliable about not bucking or bolting, though it was accepted that they would be “looky” as befits a youngster. They were supposed to know how to pick up the trot and lope when cued, collect a bit at each gait if asked, take the correct lead, and stop on a cue. Also back up, and turn easily to the right or left. They should understand how to move off the rider’s leg.
            I’m not going to talk about the way we taught these things, for the reasons I explained earlier. Without watching an actual horse respond to cues, my descriptions just won’t tell you that much. And there is much potential for abuse and/or a wreck. Find someone you like and trust and work with/learn from them. Choose a person who produces calm, confident, relaxed, well broke riding horses that seem content and you won’t go far wrong. Hopefully this brief series of posts has given you an idea how we began the process of making ranch horses that were reliable throughout their lives and a pleasure to ride.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Not quite a pony

By Gayle Carline
Horse-crazy World Traveler

I don' t know how it happens, but 90% of the time that it's my day to post, I'm somewhere else. This weekend, I'm at the Southern California Writers Conference, teaching a workshop here and leading a critique session there. If you're a writer and want to know more about conferences and why you should go to them, I watched an interesting session with my friend Marla Miller and her friend Carla King. Check it out:

But what I really wanted to talk about this month was my trip to Scotland. It was glorious! We went so many places and saw so many things, but I'll give you the horsey-highlights.

1. We saw the Kelpies. They are stainless steel horse heads, designed to pay homage to the draft horses that pulled barges up and down the river at Falkirk. Here is the photo I took:

And here is a photo my hubby took of me, standing in the driving rain, in a pink jacket, under the horse's nose.

They are enormous!

2. I rode! My horse was not a pony. She was a Cob-Draft cross named Florrie and it was just me and my guide Julia riding through the Highlands. We did a little "trotting with a rise" which is how they refer to a posting trot. If you say "posting trot," they smile. Say it twice and they start laughing. Here I am, preparing to go out:

I'm still kicking myself for not asking what that flap of material is on her nose. It's not a grazing muzzle!

Here we are, with Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness in the background. What you can't see is that I'm looking at a field of heather blooming. Gorgeous.

This is most of the scenery. Green, luscious, rolling hills.

One  more picture of me and Florrie, as it started to rain.

Our travel agent had instructed hubby to drive to his golf game and me to take a taxi to the stables. This turned out to be an error on her part, but a fun one. My taxi driver, Robert, said at the hotel, "You know this is a half-hour drive. It's over 40 pounds one-way. You could have dropped your husband at the golf course on your way and taken the car."

I shrugged and told him, "Too late now."

He shook his head. "I can't do this. I'll drive you to the stable, wait for you, and drive you back, all for 60 pounds."

Still expensive, but he was so nice about everything. He worried that my jacket wasn't waterproof enough and wanted me to wear his coat. I told him about America and he confessed he wants to ride a horse like the cowboys do and shoot a gun. We talked about the target shooting competitions on horseback and he was jazzed.

"I want to do that!"

Too bad he doesn't know how to ride.

When I came back from riding, his car was in the parking lot and I had to ride Florrie around him. He told me, "You had the biggest bloody smile on your face when I saw you."

Well, yes. It felt like I could die happy in that moment.

(And no, I didn't get pictures of Julia or Robert. I was so busy living in the moment that I forgot about recording it.)

Have you ever had that moment, when you realized a dream and it was everything you thought it would be?

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!