On a Borrowed Horse

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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A couple weeks ago, I had a really interesting opportunity. Back when we had both Oliver and Aiden for sale, a woman, M, came and looked at Aiden. She had gotten excited when she saw our photos because she recognized our gear and suspected we rode in the same style she does. She has an older mare who is blind in one eye and had some hard times in terms of health before she bought her. She was looking for a younger horse.

M told us she’s been taking lessons with Barb Gerbitz for a year. Barb Gerbitz lives in Illinois, and she follows the same horsemanship philosophy we do. (Except she’s actually a professional and is way more accomplished/experienced than we are.) M said Barb puts on clinics and does lessons around the area. She suggested we come to one some time.

Seeing as how we don’t have a truck and trailer just now, as much as we might like to take our horses to a clinic, it’s not currently in the cards for us. However, M got in touch a few weeks ago and told us Barb would be giving lessons for a day at a place just over an hour away from us, and wondered if we’d like to audit. We said yes, we would. And then a couple days later, M called and said someone had canceled at the last minute and asked if I would like to ride her horse, and have an hour long private lesson with Barb.

I couldn’t see a downside, so I said yes. But I must admit it was a tad intimidating. First off, I’ve never actually had a lesson in this style of horsemanship. I haven’t had any lessons at all in many, many years, and also I would be riding a horse wholly unknown to me.

But I figured it was nothing if not a learning opportunity.

My biggest struggle was that the horse was in a totally different place on the sensitivity spectrum than I’m used to. Particularly with the groundwork part of the lesson, I was not having much consistency with influencing the feet. Not feeling like I wanted to just come in with a lot of pressure on a horse that wasn’t mine, I got pretty stuck with a few things Barb was asking me to do. In retrospect, I wish I’d thought to use a flag.

Nevertheless, I got quite a bit out of the lesson. In some cases, what I learned is going to change what I do going forward. In others it meant revisiting something I do and deciding not to change. I’ll try to break things down a bit for easy consumption.

Feel and Groundwork

At one point Barb was pointing out that I left a lot of slack in the rope when I ask the horse to move off on the ground. She suggested I shorten the rope and put more pressure on the horse’s head when asking the horse to go forward. I got a bit confused here, because I’ve heard so many teachers say never to “pull” the horse forward. So I asked about that, and Barb said you aren’t pulling the horses, you are offering a feel. She said what you want is to offer the horse the same feel on the ground as in the saddle, and that it can be easy to become overly reliant on body language when doing groundwork. The problem with that is body language goes away once you’re on board. For Barb, the point of groundwork is to build a foundation for what she’s going to do once she’s mounted.

After we got back with our horses, I turned a critical eye on how we do our groundwork. While I definitely don’t rely on body language to get most things done, there are a couple instances (like asking for the front) where I wasn’t offering the horse any kind of feel on the rope before moving the horse with my body energy. We tested this on all our horses, and they will all step in any direction off a super light feel, no matter what our bodies are doing. So in the end I concluded this isn’t actually a problem I have, but will certainly be something I’ll think about the next time I’m handling a less responsive horse.

Hand Position

Right when I got on, Barb corrected my hand position when I asked the horse to flex. This is something I’ve gone back and forth on over the last few years. Currently, I’m very focused on keeping my hands close to the horn at all times. (I constantly hear Richard Caldwell in my head, saying, “Always pull to the horn.” Barb was saying this particular horse didn’t have the feel and education to be able to understand a pull from close to horn, so I needed to get wider to help the horse.

I understand that argument, and I’ve heard it before. Still, I think I don’t entirely agree. If a horse is having trouble, I will take my hand out to the side at the start of the pull wide before bringing it in, but I still want to end up near the horn. I guess, for me, I feel like a rider with good feel can help the horse with a subtle touch and a good release, rather than holding a hand way out to the side. I also feel like building a habit into myself I’m going to have to change later doesn’t have much benefit. In any case, all our horses are pretty darn proper in their flexes and don’t need extra support in that element. But perhaps next time I’m spending a lot of time on a green horse, I’ll go back to a wider hand position.

Staying on the Rail

Once I rode off, I started to feel a little more relaxed. The horse I was riding didn’t have much responsiveness to my legs initially, but after a few laps, that was getting better. The horse had a pretty strong desire to come off the rail in places, and when that happened my leg was no kind of barrier at all. Barb had me block this by applying pressure to both reins and pushing the horse back over with my inside leg. In the hackamore, many of the best practitioners say to never never use both hands at the same time. So this isn’t a place I naturally go right now as I mostly ride in the hackamore. It worked though. Soon we were walking and trotting and loping on the rail with the nose tipped in, and the feet (mostly) going where I wanted them.

Barb also pointed out that my inside hand had a tendency to stray over the to the wrong side of the neck. It is true I was definitely doing this when the horse was coming off the rail. After I got home and back on our horses, I tried to figure out if it’s a real habit or just something that was cropping up in that situation. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to be something I do when I ride our horses. I think the problem was I’m used to being able to tip our horses noses in with light pressure and yield them off the leg without needing both hands. That wasn’t working on this horse, so I was straying into “lift the shoulder zone.” So, again, definitely something good to think about and watch out for.

Life and Soft Feel

Towards the end of the ride, Barb had me ask for a soft feel at the walk. This isn’t something the horse I was riding appeared to have much practice with, so it involved me hanging in there for a while to wait before giving a release. I had watched the owner have her own lesson with Barb earlier, and Barb had pointed out a pretty pronounced rooting problem. The horse only rooted on me once, right when I got on, and then that went away for the duration of the ride.

I was a little concerned it would come back when I asked for a soft feel. It didn’t. Still, though I think the horse was feeling pretty with me by that point, it was taking a long time before she’d soften to the bit. Barb suggested I get her life up more before asking. I tried that, getting the horse in a nice, energetic walk before asking for the soft feel. When I did that, things softened way up.

Since getting home, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. All our horses have places where they die a bit and lose momentum, and this always has a negative impact on their head position, balance, timing, and responsiveness. So I’ve been focused more lately on fixing the impulsion problem first, and only coming in with my hands once I have some better energy to work with. I’ve seen some good results.


All in all, it was a great opportunity to meet Barb and learn from her, and I’m super thankful for M’s generosity in letting me ride her horse. It’s always useful to have a someone with more knowledge and experience watch you ride, even (or perhaps most especially) when you’re out of your element. I’d like to get some feedback from Barb on our own horses someday. Who knows, maybe Santa will bring us a truck and trailer for Christmas.

Hackamore Aiden

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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It’s a little hard to believe, but we’ve had Aiden for seven months now. In that time, he’s transitioned from a scrawny, shaggy, wormy creature who would sooner walk over the top of you than listen to you, into a sweet, plump, soft guy who is respectful and quiet in most circumstances.

Not skinny anymore, but still intent on gaining weight.

Because of the way the number and type of horses we had over the summer played out, I’ve done most of the work with Aiden. Now that Oliver is gone and Brian is busy with Nevada and Laredo, this is going to continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m finding I like Aiden more the more I work with him.

Since Aiden is getting ridden more by K than by me lately, I’ve been using our rides mostly to just check in with all the basics, polishing up anything that seems a little rusty, and then fiddling around with whatever I happen to be curious about or interested in on any given day. One of the Richard Caldwell videos we watched recently brought me some new awareness and understanding about how important it is to be able to influence and elevate the shoulder. With Steen, working on this has helped us have better balance in turns and better canter departures. So I’ve been playing on building that up in Aiden as well.

When I rode Aiden last weekend, I was feeling like the snaffle was getting in my way a little. The thing I don’t always love about the snaffle is how noisy/sloppy it is. By design, it’s got a lot of flex and pivot points, and where it sits in the horse’s mouth is going to change depending on the horse’s head position, the amount of slack in the reins, what the horse is doing with his mouth/tongue, etc..

Beyond that, more and more, I’m just increasingly attracted to the traditional Vaquero philosophy of training a horse via signal rather than direct pressure. There is a bit of a debate in the tiny sliver of the horse world we align and identify with on whether horses should be started in snaffles or hackamores and which method is superior in what ways. For a long time, I felt I didn’t know enough to really have much of an opinion beyond repeating what I’ve heard said by horsemen I admire. While in reality, both the snaffle and the hackamore are just tools that can be used or abused in the hands of any horseman, lately both Brian and I seem to be gravitating towards a preference for the hackamore. Brian is starting Nevada in the hackamore, with no plans to introduce a snaffle anytime soon.

So, yesterday I decided to ride in a hackamore instead. Since Aiden is essentially new to the traditional hackamore, I used a 5/8″ rawhide bosal with a 5/8″ mane hair mecate tied on.

Aiden’s worst habit under saddle is a tendency to get a little heavy on the forehand. Ride to ride, the extent to which this happens varies, but during my ride last weekend I worked on this a lot. At the start of the ride, he felt like he wasn’t getting his haunches underneath him as much as I would have liked. The shoulder lifting exercises I mentioned helped, and by the end, we’d more or less worked through it. But yesterday, in the hackamore, we started out balanced from the get-go. Of course it’s impossible to say whether or not the headgear had much to do with it (it’s not like Aiden was heavy on the forehand every single ride until then) but one neat thing about the hackamore is the way the the knot hangs below the chin encourages the horse to find the point at which the noseband balances properly. A good bosal and hanger have been designed to help the horse find a balance point that encourages proper movement.

In addition to feeling like his balance was better, Aiden and I just had a particularly fabulous ride. We had some our best canter departures ever, and I worked for the first time on jumping him straight out of backing into the canter. I got all his leads every time, (we had a phase right after I took him back over from Brian when he wasn’t wanting to give me the left lead). He was considerably softer to the hackamore than he generally is to the bit, and I felt he was moving off my legs with more life as well.

While I was trotting figure eights with essentially no input from the reins, it occurred to me that I can now get more done with Aiden than any other horse I’ve ever ridden (including Laredo) other than, of course, Steen. Now that Aiden is a healthy weight and his back has gained strength, he’s a really balanced, robust horse with good movement and a really nice attitude. At times, I actually ‘forget’ from moment to moment that he’s not Steen, and when that happens I find we get even further. It’s amazing how subconscious expectations can hold you back.

Of course, there are other moments as well  moments when I shift my weight in a way that Steen would understand and Aiden doesn’t pick up on the cue at all. But that’s happening less and less.

We probably won’t keep Aiden long term. But in different circumstances, I think he could have been a horse I could happily have invested a whole lot of time in.

Horseback Hours YTD: 204:35

Warm October

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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We’ve had an uncharacteristically balmy fall. While the horses did come off the pasture a couple weeks ago, we have yet to have a hard freeze. This is pretty unusual for this late in the season.

I won’t complain about the mild temps. Unfortunately, work always really picks up for me this time of year, too, which inevitably translates to less barn time. On top of that, Steen had a little phase where his energy level seemed low and he seemed a tad off in general. I had some blood work done on him and everything came back normal, so I’m not sure how to explain it. We also had teeth and fall vaccinations and other general ‘horse maintenance’ type stuff taken care of. Everyone is doing well in terms of overall health. After her recent trim, Nevada was so relaxed it was kind of comical:

During the days Steen wasn’t seeming quite himself, we had a couple rides that were not so great. The first one was a day that started off good. Brian and I rode for a while, then took Steen and Laredo out for a jaunt through the fields. Laredo had a massive spook and bolt when some deer came crashing out of the corn right near us. Steen didn’t react to the deer or Laredo, but after Brian got Laredo under control and came back, Steen was keen to get home.

This is something I’ve struggled with the entire time I’ve had Steen. Fortunately, it’s a behavior that only crops up every now and then at this point, but sometimes during a ride he’ll get super focused about getting to one particular place. Sometimes that place is ‘home.’ Sometimes it’s towards whatever horse Brian is riding (because he knows he often gets to rest near Brian), or a gate he knows leads to the end of the ride. After Laredo’s spook, he was intent on heading in the direction of the barn.

It used to be he hardly paid attention to me at all when he got like this. He would prance and jig and brace and generally forget everything he knew. That’s not the case anymore. Instead, it’s a subtle thing. I can just feel he’s not with me, mentally. He’ll still do anything I ask, but his heart isn’t in it.

I have, of course, learned over and over again that getting mad at a horse only makes that horse want to hang out with you less, not more. Still, on this particular ride, I got a little irritated. The more irritated I got, the more Steen wanted to get home. And thus the ride devolved into me doing too much for the wrong reasons, and Steen feeling persecuted. I worked on the problem for a while, trotting him to the barn and away again. The difficulty is, Steen doesn’t actually misbehave when he’s like this. He goes where I want at the gait I want. I can just feel that as much of his brain as he can spare at any given moment is focused on his desire to be done with the ride.

Afterwards, I knew I’d mishandled things, and I felt bad. The next ride we had was also sub-par, to an extend that surprised me even knowing that I’d made some mistakes the previous ride. This got me thinking a lot about what we ask of our horses and what is a reasonable expectation to have. In the case of Steen, he’s now to the point that he is totally with me, both mentally and physically, probably about 90% of the time. In reality, during that 90% of our time together, he is working harder than I am. He has to stay focused on me and attempt to fulfill my every whim.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that when we hit those patches, that 10% of the time that Steen gets distracted or loses motivation or confidence or whatever, it’s not my job to discipline him back into the right frame of mind. For one thing, he’s too sensitive a horse for that. For another, it’s just not fair. No living creature can perform at the top of his game all the time.

So when Steen can’t get with me, it’s my job to get with him.

With this in mind, I went out for a solo midweek ride and took Steen out into the fields. We had an ok ride. While he was perfectly well behaved, he just didn’t feel happy. I’m aware that some of these distinctions I’m drawing in this post are murky and potentially impossible to substantiate. Nevertheless, though I can’t point to any distinct reason why, the ride was just so so. We went out and trotted and cantered around the fields. We scared up a bunch of deer and then followed them for a while. Steen was solid. He did what I told him. And he didn’t enjoy it at all. Still, I did everything I could to bridge the gap, keeping my own mental state positive, keeping my hands soft and my expectations realistic and syncing my body up with him as much as I could.

Finally, last weekend we had two rides that made me feel like we were back to normal. We rode in the tree pasture, and that feeling that he was just putting up with me was gone.

Then, today, we arrived at the barn in the morning. Steen saw me step out the side of the barn before I was even approaching the pasture. He perked up from where he’d been dozing by the wind block, stared for a moment, then headed for the gate. When I reached him and was a little slow with the halter, he tried to help by shoving his face into it. He kept sniffing me and touching me with his nose while I groomed him. When I got on his back, he had this feeling I can’t quite describe. He was ready, willing, and happy to go where I pointed. We had a wonderful ride. None of the nagging offness I have sensed over the last moth or so appeared at all.

So, while I suppose you could make the case that all of this was just in my head, I don’t think that’s true. The reality is, the further you get into horsemanship, the more these subtleties matter. To me, this little stretch was another lesson for me in being patient and a reminder to, in the words of certain people who are a lot better at this than I am, “Ride the horse you have today.” I hope whatever little malaise Steen was experiencing is behind us now. And I hope the next time something like this pops up for him, I handle it a little better from the outset.

Oh, and also, I hit my 2014 goal for hours in the saddle this week.

Horseback Hours YTD: 202:55

Sunset Gallops

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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Lately I’ve been having this strange experience of feeling like I only have one horse. This isn’t true, of course. But we’ve worked out a deal with Brian’s student, K, and she’s riding Aiden three times a week, twice on her own, once in a lesson with Brian. This is great for her as she’s wanted to get more riding in but isn’t quite ready to go ahead and purchase her own horse. And really, Aiden is so solid and settled in by now, he doesn’t need the kind of training or conditioning we were focused on getting him when he first arrived. So while I’m still riding Aiden once a week or so just to make sure he stays in working order for K, he’s not a focus for me at this point.

Brian riding Laredo past the grazing Aiden.

There is Laredo, too, but I haven’t ridden him in months. With Bear gone and Nevada barely started, Laredo has become Brian’s defacto permanent mount for the time being. With the push to get Oliver and Aiden as polished as possible and one of them sold, Nevada has gotten a good chunk of time off. Our initial plan wasn’t to even get Brian a new youngster until right about this time of the year, anyway, because we knew he wouldn’t have time to focus on her until one of our other projects was off to a new home.

Little miss cutie pie. And my husband. He’s cute too.

Lately Brian has been bringing Nevada in again and getting back to the groundwork. He’ll probably start riding her more again soon. But it’s going to be a while before she’s a horse he can just get on and relax. As much as we like working with various project horses, we also both like to have one horse each that’s more in the ‘refinement’ stage of things. Laredo is definitely in that category now, so it’s good he and Brian are getting a long stretch of quality time together.

Still this means, after a summer of feeling like we always had a ton of horses to keep up with, I find myself back to mostly hanging out with my trusty Steen.

These two guys.

This is not at all a bad thing. One interesting result of getting to know so many other horses and really working with a variety of temperaments and education levels is I am more convinced now than ever that Steen and I are just a really good match. This is true on everything from sensitivity level to temperament to size. Oliver, for instance, was a bit wide for me. When I rode him, the knee issue that used to bother me a lot before I discovered Wade saddles (or, more specifically, pre-twisted stirrups) had a tendency to reappear. And as we’ve cycled through more horses, we’ve discovered that some horses just seem to do a little better with one or the other of us.

I do think any good horseman can get along with any horse, but some pairs just seem to click more quickly and easily than others. For me, it is awfully nice to always have a perfect match to come back to.

Some nice trots.

After a couple successful months in the two-rein, Steen and I are back in the hackamore for a while. I switched back for a few reasons. One is that the fall is always a bit hard on Steen. He always loses weight when the nights start to get a little cold, and this often coincides with him feeling a little lower energy under saddle. I supplement his diet and this year we’re having some blood-work done on his as well, just to be sure it’s nothing more than his typical seasonal swing.

While I’m like 90% sure he’s totally fine, there is no doubt riding in the two-rein is still a challenge for both me and Steen, and it feels like too much to ask of him when he’s not at the top of his game. I also felt like (as ever) I learned a lot from our period in the two-rein and it revealed some things I still need to polish up in a hackamore.

So we’re back in the hackamore for now, and we’ve been having some incredible rides. Brian and I recently watched another Richard Caldwell video in which he’s riding a horse that is just so unbelievably soft and balanced and fluid in all his movements. I’ve been working on a lot of his exercises with Steen, and we’re getting to new discoveries every ride.

Brian on Laredo, K on Aiden. Steen ears.

The last few weeks, Brian has been giving his lessons in the evenings. While he and K are doing their thing, me and Steen are left to our own devices. A couple of these evenings our barn owner has been out riding too, and she’s goaded me into some fantastic gallops. This past Tuesday, the beans were down. We went out and opened our horses up, running them on the diagonal of the biggest field on their land. It was the longest gallop I’ve had in years, and it was super fun. Then the barn owner and another girl that was out with us continued on. I turned Steen around and we had the most fantastic easy canter along the waterways back to the barn. The sun was setting and moon was rising. Steen was relaxed and willing and with me. It was the kind of moment that makes you feel like you’ve been given a gift.

Horseback Hours YTD: 194

Parting with Oliver

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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I don’t know what happened to September. One moment it was just starting. All of a sudden its nearly over.

It’s continued to be a good month with the horses. We have Brian’s student coming out to ride Aiden a couple extra times a week on her own. They are getting along really well. Since that’s been making us less keen to sell him, we decided to list Oliver for sale as well. We’ve never had two horses for sale at once before, and it was a bit interesting in terms of seeing who got more interest and for what reason. We had one person come look at Aiden a few weeks ago. While that seemed promising during the test ride, it didn’t lead to a sale. Mid week this week we had a couple people passing through Iowa City ride both of them. They had a super ride and asked us if we’d give them a package deal, to which we said yes. We spent one strange evening thinking Oliver and Aiden might both be leaving. But those people ended up finding another horse they preferred for the girl who was genuinely the one shopping, which was fine with us.

Then, this weekend, we had a sudden surge of interest in Oliver. We had three people trying to schedule times to come see him, but the first one rode him, bought him, and took him home.

Which means we’re back down to four horses. It’s a little surreal, how quickly it happened. With the horses soon to come in off the pasture for the winter and Brian needing to start putting more hours on Nevada, it was the right time. We feel great about the sale. Oliver now belongs to a girl who is just starting high school. She’s been riding her aunt’s horse for years and is ready for her own. She fell in love with Oliver. Watching her getting to know him reminded me of the experience of buying my first horse when I was just about the same age. It’s a magical thing — that first horse.

So it’s a good thing, but it’s always a little sad to say good-bye. Oliver is a really neat guy. Brian and I both had a lot of good hours with him. He was fun and versatile for visitors as well. On Saturday, Brian’s mom and sister came over from Chicago for a ride. All four of us got on horses and rode together. That was fun for all involved. It’s certainly been pretty easy to have so many horses that are just well broke and relaxing to be around.

Little did we know that was our last day with Oliver. A motivated buyer is a good thing, but it’s also a tad startling. For the moment, we’re taking Aiden off the market so Brian’s student can continue to enjoy him. We might sell him in the spring. At which point we’d obviously have to buy another horse.

Horseback Hours YTD: 189:00

Big September

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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It is September 7. So far, this month, I have spent 10.5 hours in the saddle. This is probably a new short-term record for me. I’m not sure I’ve ever started a month off with such a bang.

Mostly, I blame the weather. It’s been absolutely gorgeous out. We’ve had perfect temps, just enough rain to keep the grasses growing, and nights cooling down enough so the horses get a good break.

This weekend, Brian and I decided to put a priority on pushing our boundaries. We ride in a lot of different places, but with riding multiple horses most barn trips now, we’ve gotten a bit out of the habit of going out past the immediate surroundings of the barn’s arenas, pastures, and the nearby strip. This weekend we decided we’d tack on a little exploration of the waterways around nearby fields to every ride.

Mostly, that went well. On Saturday, after a really great ride on Oliver and Aiden, we ventured out to the second strip. Both Oliver and Aiden were alert but relaxed. Even though there were swarms of grasshoppers making crazy popping noises in the corn, breeze rattling the just-starting-to-dry-out crops, and we were in new territory, they both stayed with us. We didn’t push on for more than a quarter mile or so, but it was a good little foray beyond our normal pattern.

Next we rode Steen and Laredo and took them way out to the far end of the property boundary. Steen was so, so relaxed. It was the kind of ride that made me remember how nervous and flighty he used to be with a sort of disbelief. We did an easy circuit around the fields before heading home.

Today, Brian rode Nevada again for the first time after her six week hiatus. We stayed in the indoor arena for that, and I rode Oliver for the first time in many weeks. Other than one little rearing episode during groundwork, Nevada took coming back to work with her usual equanimity. Oliver started out kind of uncertain as to why he was hanging out with me instead of Brian, but we settled in quickly.

After the first ride, Brian and I got on Steen and Laredo and rode out with a purpose. There were several abandoned fly masks scattered out in the big pasture (one of which was ours) so we decided to ride the whole pasture and collect all that we saw. We found ours right up in the winter lot. I hung it up on the fence to dry, and we trotted out to collect another we’d seen from a distance on the far far hill top. Once we’d picked that one up, we realized we should put ours on Oliver. So trotted all the way back up to the winter pasture to get the fly mask where I’d left it, then back out to where Oliver was grazing. Brian then succeeded in putting the fly mask on Oliver from Laredo’s back.

These are the kinds of silly jobs we create for ourselves because we don’t have real work to do with our horses. While none of this necessarily needed to be done via horseback, it was pretty fun to do it all on four legs instead of two.

After trotting and cantering around the big pasture a fair bit, we took Steen and Laredo out into the fields again. They were, if possible, even more relaxed than the day before. We tooled around for an hour and a half before calling it a ride.

So, yay for long rides and beautiful weather. It was definitely the kind of weekend that has me counting my blessings.


Horseback Hours YTD: 178:25

A Few Weeks in the Two-Rein

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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We’re having a really lovely late summer. Really, the whole summer has been surprisingly nice, but the last few weeks have been particularly gorgeous. Accordingly, we are logging lots and lots of barn hours.

With King gone and Nevada getting a little break, Brian and I have reverted to our previous breakdown of mounts. I’m riding Steen and Aiden. He’s riding Laredo and Oliver. (This choice is mostly due to the fact that my saddle fits Aiden better and his fits Oliver better.)

All the horses are doing well, but the most exciting thing going on for me is that I’ve finally made a total transition into the two-rein with Steen. I dabbled with the set-up on and off for quite a few months, but every time I rode in it it made me aware of things that were missing or not quite right with my communication in hackamore. We’d go back to the hackamore to work on the deficiencies.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I tried the two-rein again. For the first time, it felt all good all through the ride. I rode in it again the following day, and it felt really good. The third ride was even better still.

That string of riding brought me to a decision. No more dabbling. With Steen being 14 and this being my first time using a spade, if we’re going to do this, now’s the time. We’re not going to find a better moment.

It also helped that we recently watched a video by Bruce Sandifer that went into an in-depth exploration of the mechanics of the spade bit and how it works in comparison to a lot of popular bits commonly in use today. This helped me really set aside any lingering fear that I would somehow accidentally hurt Steen with the spade, plus gave me increased understanding of how the spoon and mouthpiece work, and why.

So, for the last few weeks, I’ve ridden Steen exclusively in the two-rein. We’re both increasingly relaxed about the headgear, and he’s rapidly building up his understanding of the signals. As his understanding and my aptitude increase together, I’m starting to get glimmers of why a spade bit is so unbelievably cool. I have seen other people ride in spades, read about them, watched videos on them, and collected all sorts of abstract information about them. But finally really riding in one is something else entirely.

Unfortunately, it’s the kind of thing that’s really difficult to talk about. Much of what is different isn’t really quantifiable. The most obvious elements is the subtlety. On Steen in the hackamore, I can usually put him exactly where I want with only a little pressure/effort. On Steen in the two-rein, it takes even less. I’m starting to learn how little itty bitty twitches of my fingers cause the bit to signal, and Steen so far has shown very little difficulty in translating these minute shifts into instructions that reach his feet.

The other things that are different about riding in the two-rein are a lot harder to describe. Increasingly, I understand why Martin Black says the work he does with young horses is essentially geared to get them into the two-rein as quickly as possible. He talks about the two-rein being his favorite part of the bridle horse progression. And that brings me to what is perhaps the most noticeable difference in riding Steen in the two-rein. It does feel like leveling up. For both me and Steen, there’s a lot more to think about. There are simple changes, like just riding around with two sets of reins, and there are subtle things, like the way the spade moves in his mouth when he holds his head at different angles. It’s like adding an entire new layer to our potential to communicate.

We have yet to have a moment where the bit gets in the way or causes a problem. Every time I ride in it, Steen is more relaxed about taking it and holding it from the get-go. Of course, we still have a long, long way to go. I’m trying to be realistic about what’s ultimately possible for a horse like Steen, who has a very checkered training history, two traumatic leg injuries, and is now past his prime, particularly given the fact that he’s in the hands of someone who is learning as she goes. Still, it seems that as long as we’re both enjoying the learning process, there is no reason to stop pushing on.

Horseback Hours YTD: 173:10

Oliver, Aiden, and Playing Cow

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

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A lot of the time I find it difficult to get out to the barn on Friday afternoon. After a long week, it seems easier to just stay home and read a book. When I succeed at motivating myself to get out there, I often do it by giving myself permission to just have a super easy ride on Steen.

Today, though, I rode Aiden. I mostly did it because it’s been a hot week and it’s supposed to be a hot weekend, and Steen suffers in the heat a little. I know we’ll ride all the horses both days this weekend, and I figured three consecutive rides would be more useful to put on Aiden. Brian was having similar thoughts about his string, so we ended up doing our Friday ride on Aiden and Oliver.

The outdoor arena at our barn is currently undergoing some renovations. Mainly, it is being converted from grass to sand/dirt. This is nice as it was not mowed regularly before, and the grass was patchy and inconsistent. Half of it had a tendency to turn into a puddle while other parts got way overgrown. Right now, the new arena is great. It has had sandy soil added and it’s mostly even and level. It feels approximately five times as large as it used to be.

Brian and I rode out there. It was hot and all four of us were on the unmotivated side. After a sluggish warm-up, I was trying to think of things to work on that would be a bit fun and interesting for all involved. I wanted to take advantage of the big space and good footing. I suggested we play cow.

For some reason, we’d kind of lost track of doing this recently. For anyone not familiar with the exercise, it’s fairly simple. Basically one horse and rider pretend to be a cow trying to get back to a rodear. The other horse and rider try to stay between the cow and the place it wants to be. This mostly involves circling the imaginary herd and doing quick turnarounds. The horse either drives the cow or gets ahead of it, which causes the cow to turn around and run off the other way. On some horses, the game can get really fast. It can also be played at a walk. The point is not to be only fast, but fast AND accurate. We try to make sure we get a good turnaround every time, even if it it means losing the round.

The last few times we’ve played this I’ve been on Steen and Brian has been on Laredo. And it’s not really a very fair contest. Steen not only turns around really fast, he understands the game and he gets into it. Laredo isn’t quite up to the same level with this kind of maneuver, so this means poor Brian gets left behind a lot.

Playing on Oliver and Aiden was a much better match. Oliver is super quick and light on his feet except that he gets stuck sometimes. Aiden is soft and consistent with his turns, but not super inclined to move out afterwards.

It was the perfect thing to work on. We played it so when the horse lost, the cow got to stand in the center and rest while the horse had to keep trotting around the circle. Then we’d switch rolls, and do it again. Both Oliver and Aiden started out distracted or slow in their various ways, but they really started to get the idea that effort would be rewarded. With each switch, they both got faster and smoother.

We didn’t keep it up for that long though. It was hot, and we were all sweating buckets. Still, it was a really fun distraction for a hot Friday afternoon. I think Aiden even had some fun.

Ride Time: 0:50
Horseback Hours YTD: 158:40

King Goes Home

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

Tipped Z - 3 Covers Learn More

It’s hard to believe the way the summer has flown by. Our two months with King ran out on Saturday, and his people came and picked him up.

Working with King was a very interesting experience. In recent years, we’ve been working almost entirely with stock horses. In the past I spent quite a bit of time with Arabians and a mustang and a few other high spirited horses, but I’d never worked with a horse of a cooler tempered breed. King, being half Fresian, half Tennessee Walker, was different both physically and mentally than the horses I’ve grown most used to. While he doesn’t have any bonafied Walker gaits, his locomotion is not like a stock horse’s. His hind end is on the scrawny side while his front end is huge and stocky. His neck is big and powerful. His head is massive. This combination makes him really, really inclined to be heavy on the forehand.

My current trainer crush is Joe Wolter. We’ve watched a number of his videos lately, and I’ve been consistently impressed watching him handle troubled or uneducated horses. None of the trainers we follow advocate punishment or use of pain as a training technique, but there are moments I’ve seen most of them apply quite a bit of pressure to get a point across. I have never seen Joe Wolter resort to that. In every scenario I’ve seen him in (including when he was in the background in a round pen on a day he and the Neuberts started a few dozen colts) he is soft and patient and quiet. He seems to have found the perfect balance of giving a horse time and space to explore without ever allowing himself to be ignored or forgotten about.

Seeing this has had me thinking a lot about making a horse do something vs setting things up so a horse can find the right answer. I have written about this a bit before. As I find I’m more and more able to climb on an unfamiliar horse and just make things happen, I wonder more and more if that is the best way to go about a horse’s education. King was a good exercise for me right now because when he arrived he was simply too big and too backwards for me to be able to muscle him around. He had been ridden inconsistently by a lot of different people for quite a few years. He had some major defenses in place, and everything he did under saddle was out of balance. The first time I asked him to step his front end over, it felt like running into a brick wall.

These two months were more about balance than anything else. King overflexed both laterally and vertically. He got stuck regularly at all gaits. He couldn’t back up. He couldn’t bend. He couldn’t step his front and his hind independently. He had a tendency to fling his head down whenever he was frustrated or confused, which just made his heavy front end even heavier.

But he is a sweet horse, and very intelligent. And the most important thing I learned working with him was not to hurry. I don’t feel I’m ever particularly in a hurry with horses, but with King being so large and lumbering and also more of a thinker than a doer, I found I had the most success with him when I gave him more space and time to understand and execute what I was asking. Particularly with groundwork, if you hurried him, he got resentful. If you let him work at it for a while, he got softer and lighter and more willing. By the end of our time together, he could do the walking half circle exercise almost as fast as Aiden. (Aiden is admittedly not our most agile and quick and this, but still.)

We did have some hiccups. Mainly, King was really super out of shape when he came to us, and he didn’t have the strength and stamina for as frequent or as long rides as would have been ideal. Nevertheless, we got a lot done. The week before he went home we were finally getting some balanced and willing cantering done. When I showed the Miracles people his groundwork the day he left, I could send him all over with my fingers open on the rope. His disengages with both the front and the hind were quick and soft and balanced. I honestly am a little surprised we got to where we did given what he knew the day he arrived.

So, I feel really grateful we had the opportunity to work with King. He got more open, more affectionate, more motivated, happier to see us, and quite a bit more balanced and willing under saddle. Of course, there were tons of things we still could have improved upon, but I hope what we did is enough to help him move on from here to a good future.

Sad Friday

Novels for Horse-Lovers

The Tipped Z Ranch books feature fictional stories but real horsemanship.

Tipped Z - 3 Covers Learn More

Settling back into our routine after vacation is always a little bit of a challenge. This week I didn’t make it to the barn. But this afternoon we rallied (barely), and headed out for an easy ride.

The horses were way out behind the distant hilltop. As Brian and I walked out, we noticed a dark streak on the shoulder of one of the horses in our herd. The horse in question was a gray, 7-year-old Andalusian named Bean. He belonged to the trainer at our barn. From a distance, both Brian and I thought the streak was blood. As we drew closer, we were relieved to see it was just sweat. We patted Bean on the head and looked him over. Other than being a bit sweaty, he seemed fine. We concluded we must have just missed the trainer working him, and continued on.

We got Steen and Laredo, and had a nice ride in the trees. It was a beautiful afternoon – cool and breezy, and the guys were good. We rode for just over an hour.

When we were untacking, we noticed something strange. Another boarder was out in the winter lot, where Bean was standing alone. And she was on the phone. A few minutes after that, the vet arrived. Instead of parking by the barn, he drove straight out into the pasture.

We finished untacking quickly and went out to see what was up. The other boarder, K, said she’d come out to find Bean leaning against the windblock, shaking all over and covered in sweat. She’d called the barn’s trainer, M, and the vet, who happened to be passing by just at that moment.

But Bean looked horrible. In the less than two hours since we’d seen him in the pasture, his demeanor had changed dramatically. He was shaking and quivering. His entire body was drenched in sweat. His coat was cold to the touch. He’d clearly made it all the way down from the hilltop to the winter lot, which is probably about a quarter mile. But he no longer wanted to move at all. The vet had no idea what was wrong. He gave him banamine, cleared his bladder, and started an IV drip. The horse tolerated all of this, but he was unstable. His legs seemed seized up.

This is a shot of the herd from a few weeks ago, checking out Nevada. Bean is the one in the fly sheet.

It took five of us to get Bean into the barn – three people pushing from behind, two pulling on the head. We got him out of the pasture and into the indoor arena, which is a couple hundred feet, maybe. The vet had wanted to get Bean into a stall, but concluded the horse couldn’t deal with more movement. Brian got his lariat and threw the end up over a rafter. We rigged the IV bag so it could be raised and lowered and easily changed. The vet still had no real theories, but he put a tube in through the nose to administer fluids and some compounds that would hopefully absorb any toxins that might be in the system and flush them out.

At this point, things were settling down. The vet said to keep him on the drip all night and monitor vital signs. When he took the tube out of the nose, it started a nose bleed. But the vet was packing up to leave and M was set up next to Bean. Brian and I decided to walk out into the pasture and double check all the other horses.

Every one else in the herd seemed totally fine. By the time we got back to the barn ten minutes later, Bean had collapsed. The bleeding from the nose hadn’t stopped, and the horse was in an increasing amount of pain. M made the decision to put him down. The vet said he thought he’d have died in about 20 minutes anyway.

Stunned, Brian and I did what little we could to help. Finally, a bit before 7:00, we left. We’d patted Bean on the hilltop around 3:00. In retrospect, of course, I wish we had paid more attention to him then. But even if we had, I’m not sure anything we could have done would have made a difference. The vet couldn’t have gotten there any sooner, and whatever went wrong didn’t appear to be reversible.

It’s the kind of experience that leaves you feeling so sad and helpless. It turned out M had not ridden her horse that day. She’d spent the afternoon at a funeral for two 9-year-old boys who died in an ATV accident earlier this week. Tonight she had to say goodbye to a horse she’d purchased as a weanling, who was perfectly healthy yesterday.

We still have no idea what caused such a quick, dramatic crash. The vet was preparing to perform an autopsy when we left. Hopefully he will turn up some answers. In the meantime, we’re just going to keep an extra close eye on all the other horses in our herd, and keep our fingers crossed.

UPDATE – 8/23: Autopsy results indicate liver failure, though the cause is still unclear.

Horseback Hours YTD: 146:45