Reluctant Cowgirl

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My Horsemanship Instructor, Instagram

We’ve had some successful rides lately. Both in the arena and outside. After a year back in the saddle it’s starting to make a little more sense to me. I’m braver. I’m developing feel.

Today the sun was stubborn in the way that it tends to be in Oregon springs. Even over here on the dry side of the state. We are mud and hunger. Everything drizzle and damp. The cow patties sprout toadstools, or they would if it warmed up a little.

I spent some of the afternoon on the couch, as I am wont to do on weekends in March, watching college basketball with a book. But the mustang had had a day off yesterday and I know how that spells trouble. It wasn’t raining and I had the idea for what to do out there, so I caught him and brushed him and headed up to the arena.

What I had a mind to do was something I’d seen on Instagram. It’s embarrassing but I’m addicted. (At least it’s not Facebook, I tell myself.) A woman in California who trail rides her quarter horses all over greater Los Angeles posted a quick video of everything she requires of her mounts for groundwork basics. The list was short and simple but very important.

  1. Yield the hindquarters
  2. Yield the forehand
  3. Sidepass
  4. Back
  5. Flex
  6. Desensitize

I watched her horse move its feet in that brief video and thought, yes. That’s something I can bite off. That’s something I can practice regularly and keep us both sharp. Even in a few minutes.

The mustang is great at yielding front and back. His sidepass has a favored direction. He backs like a reining horse. His flexing has a favored direction, opposite the sidepass preference. He twitches at a flag for 7 seconds then gets over it. He holds tarps and plastic bags in his mouth for fun.

I have days when I wish I were a Luddite who eschewed technology and spent her days doing nothing but reading books and going out to attack whatever it is she wants. Then I have other days when I learn a valuable lesson from a social media post that leads to me being a better horseman, a stronger partner in our team. It’s easy, after this process, to not have regrets.

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On a Roll

One of my first rides on the mustang took us up to thick timber and elk country. I was fairly calm. I think we trotted twice. I remember one particularly ornery blow-down that he refused to cross until much urging was administered. He was also fairly calm, and curious. This was maybe his 20th ride or so. He had been rounded up  from the wild, gelded in a holding facility in Nevada, sent to a trainer in Washington, then to a show in Idaho, and finally to a home with strangers (novice horsepeople, no less) in Oregon. This all in the span of about 9 months.

On the final stretch back from this ride, we walked through a particularly irresistible sandy patch. He paused beneath me, pawed at the dirt, and I knew what was coming but did nothing about it. I bailed off to the right and watched him roll with my saddle on, the dust of late summer coating his black fur.

It shook me. I mentioned it to his trainer and she responded, “I love when they do that! It makes me think they are really relaxed and comfortable.”

I did not love it. I was looking for a reason and an easy fix. I grew paranoid about it, and got myself into trouble a couple times being so worked up about arguing with him over when the appropriate time to lower one’s shoulder to the ground was. (Spoiler alert: it is never when there is a rider on top of you, unless somehow that rider has trained you to do so.) There were a couple bucks thrown, albeit small ones. I started to really wonder if I had made a poor decision.

When I recall that moment now, I think, you dumbass. You wanted to blame the horse! You said, there’s something wrong with this beast, it does whatever it wants! Well yeah, it did. That’s because you didn’t give it anything better to do. You didn’t urge it forward or turn its head; you didn’t direct that energy elsewhere to come to a peaceful and agreeable solution between parties. You were literally along for the ride.

This is the thing about learning something new. You don’t know how much you’re learning from your mistakes until you make them, then stop making them, then develop the wherewithal to recognize them in hindsight.

The mustang still loves to roll. If I gave him the chance, he’d roll at the end of every ride. Maybe twice, once in the water and once in the dirt. He’s a greedy roller. But I ride him almost every day now and he hasn’t tried to pull that once. I give him better options than to argue. We keep the peace and save the recreation for once the rider and saddle are off.

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Get Out

We got out of the arena. It was not the vision of galloping across fields or even trotting up hills; there wasn’t even a saddle involved. I spent about 7 minutes on his back. The rest of the two hours I walked in front of him, holding a lead rope, asking him to follow.

We stepped through snow and over rocks, across creeks and into mud. He grazed on green grass in a stream bed while the dogs sniffed the pine duff a few meters away and the humans sat on our heels, imagining summer.

We did three, maybe four miles. Nothing crazy. He breathed heavy on the uphills but didn’t hesitate. I could see the fat burning and it pleased me. Onward, young man.

On the way back I let him roll in the wide part of the creek. I’ve never known a horse to love rolling in water, but he takes it on with gusto. He paws the water and mud first, as if checking for rocks or other potential injuries. Satisfied, his knees buckle and he lowers himself in, grunting. It never gets old.

In this case he got up muddy and shook, spray illuminated by late morning sunshine. Then on the road he took another roll in the dirt. I laughed until my sides hurt. Everybody was at ease and no one was tired of the routine because this was not part of a routine – it was new and honest and hopeful and in the quiet moments I whispered to him, “play your cards right, buddy, and your life will be full of adventures.”


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“How’d it go?” he asks, as always, when I come in from my ‘pony time.’

“He was a turd,” I reply, “he was at least 75% turd.”

It was true. I felt like I was working with a two-year old, not a fully-grown horse. Is this a mustang thing?, I wonder, this obstinate, arena-tantrum baby behavior? When he got tired of working in the circle and in general listening to anything I asked of him, he pulled to the nearest obstacle (a cone, a barrel, a mounting stump) and nosed it, getting as close as possible to whatever it was and bumping it with his feet. The cones have plastic bags on them, and he removed each in turn, and the second one I had to reach over and pull out of his mouth he was trying so hard to get it to a place that seemed a little too close to his esophagus for my comfort.

This is what it must be like to work with babies, I thought. Fussy, curious, with an attention span of about three minutes. Only this one is lazy, so my attempts to thwart his misbehavior with forward movement are met with pinned ears and nose that reaches toward the earth which always makes me think we are toeing the edge of a buck.

These are the moments I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m nervous and I’m angry with him and with myself and it’s all I can do to put some kind of positive spin on the session. I ask him to go the opposite way from where he is pulling. I reward every small try. I make it very easy for him to say yes, for me to say, thank you. I quickly try to reach a place where I can say, OK. Good. We’re done. That was, um, good enough for today.

Just yesterday he was light and responsive. I rewarded him with a walk down the road and a brief stop to have some grass at one of the few areas of open ground in a 3-mile radius. And today is the thanks I get.

I guess it’s like that old John Denver song:

“Some days are diamonds/ Some days are stones”

When I was a runner, I had bad runs. It was inexplicable most of the time. The moon? Hormones? What I ate? My mindset, distracted by some other seemingly unwieldy thing that I could not lay down? I learned to get through and let them go.  No judgement, no dwelling, no using them as reasons not to get back out there and try again. Take the stones as they come and put them in a pile. Hope they are outnumbered. Think diamonds next time.