Cowboy Changed Me – Working Towards Riding

In September of 2020, during the Covid pandemic, I bought a Horse. Though I only spent just over a year with this older ex-ranch horse, the red roan gelding taught me so much during my time with him.

This is that story

In my previous post I talked about meeting Shawna and talking with Audrey about this explosive horse named “Cowboy”. He was spooky and not aware of his handler, his surroundings or his placement of his feet. I spent five months of starting over with him as if he was going to be ridden for the first time as a young horse.

Getting to Know Each Other

When I first met Cowboy he wasn’t flighty per-say, but he wasn’t focused on the present. He was high headed and looking off into the distance as if something was going to happen at any moment. However, when something would startle him he would flinch and settle quickly. He didn’t try to bolt or jerk me around. In fact, he tended to plant his feet solid. His behavior was showing me that he wasn’t high energy, but just needed some work on focusing on the present, moving his feet and paying attention to me.

Talking to Others About Cowboy

I spent a lot of time talking with the other ladies at the barn that knew Cowboy for various reasons. The young woman, Lauren, who cleaned stalls on Rumor’s two days off a week (and taught a lesson or two to beginners) would ride Cowboy on the trails once in a while for Shawna. Lauren said that she never once had any problems with him while riding. We talked at length about how much of a sweetheart he was, and how much he enjoyed getting out.

I also asked Shawna many questions to get a feel for what he was like when she test rode him. I wanted to get to know more about that time in New York before she bought him, what the previous owner said about his past, what he was like while riding him on the trails and when she started Dressage training. Shawna said he only bucked with her the one time. It was of no fault of his own since there were obvious bee stings on him. Audrey was with her that day as well and told me the same story. They said that after Shawna was bucked off they turned around, rode back to the barn and put the horses away. That’s when she saw the welts on his belly.

Audrey was the first to get bucked off in the arena. We had many conversations as I tried to piece together his behavior surrounding the incident. She said that he he was doing really well, as usual, and when she cantered she could feel him rounding out under her more and more until he exploded. She said his buck is so difficult to stay on. He put his head down between his front legs and kicked high like a bronc. Then he continued hopping until she flew off of him.

I never did get a chance to talk with the woman who was bucked off before I purchased him, but did talk to a few of the ladies that were there that day. From what I gathered she had gotten on him and rode for a bit and he just exploded. Some said that she got on, took a few steps, then exploded. All of them seemed to say the same thing though, and that was that he “just exploded”. They all said that after she was bucked off, the woman rushed to the hospital and had surgery for a broken pelvis. Cowboy was taken into his stall immediately and put away.

I started to see a pattern with all of the incidents. That Cowboy randomly exploded bucking until the person fell off. He then was put away afterwards, with the last one lasting several months of him hanging in his paddock and getting loves and treats from Shawna before I bought him and started working him again. Not that any of this was bad, but it helped me to get a feel for what I was dealing with, and what I would need to do when he would try to buck me off (because I knew that day would come).

For a human to win, it is not necessary for a horse to lose. You should not have to take things away from a horse or break him into fragments in order to train him; rather you should add to the horse. The goal should be making, not breaking.

Cherry Hill

Going For Walks

In order for Cowboy and I to get to know each other we just needed to spend some time together. Time that wasn’t associated with any sort of work. Well, at least in his eyes. Our first steps were to walk around the property, eating grass and getting a feel for how we will be communicating going forward. I didn’t want him thinking I was expecting anything of him, that I wasn’t going to fight him, and that he could trust me.

While walking, Cowboy was dragging me towards the grass, walking ahead of me, walking behind me, knocking me in the head when he looked at something in the distance in my direction and not following me on a loose line. I used a technique that is normally used for dogs to get them to stop pulling on a leash. I call it “Switching up” where I walk a few steps and then suddenly change directions. I walk a few more steps, change directions again (either the same way or a different way). I will walk into him and when he tries to knock me in the head (or bring his head over mine) I put my arm up and brace it so that he hits the side of my arm (that doesn’t give) instead of hitting my head (and I get out of the way). When he was focused on me, I would walk him over to the grass and allow him to lower his head. As he progressed to respecting my space and paying attention to me, I advanced to backing up. I slowed down and stopped and wiggled the lead to signal him to stop. When he stopped I rewarded him with a treat. We worked our way from the clean stop (without having to wiggle the lead) and asked to back up while I took a step back. When he did this cleanly (I didn’t have to wiggle the lead), he got a treat.

Every walk went similar to this while advancing the asks each time. More backing up, longer straight ways and sudden switch direction just as he was comfortable and not paying attention, etc. This was the foundation for everything we would do together.

Half Circles and Flag Work

I had purchased the big DVD pack of Buck Branamman groundwork videos decades ago, and still use some of the techniques from them. One of those techniques is the half circle. The idea is to get the horse to free up their forequarters. As Buck says, this is more of a mental exercise than a physical one, most often things will come to the surface that they aren’t showing normally. It’s also a technique I taught the Nepali when working with Zuma.

Cowboy didn't pay attention to me or where I was going. He walked into me, dragged me, and knocked me in the head with his head.
Cowboy didn’t pay attention to me or where I was going. He walked into me, dragged me, and knocked me in the head with his head.

Another technique I used to help Cowboy to focus on the present and me as well as sort of desensitizing, was flag work. The flag is a sort of long whip, or short lunge whip, with a nylon flag at the end of it. The flag is soft to the touch, but makes a bit of a noise when flipped around. They come in a myriad of colors, but I like to use a simple black one. The idea behind the flag is to use it as an extension of the arm. Never as a whip. I would gently approach the horse with the flag in and, getting them used to it’s presence and to gain trust. As they become comfortable with the flag, I then stroke them working my way around various sensitive areas. With Cowboy I focused on his neck, his right ear (since he was very sensitive to his right, and that ear). I also flicked it up high around me as I stood away from him to help him see that his focus in the distance should be just 10 feet max, and always on me. A couple of videos that I could find of this work are with Joseph Newcomb, Amelia Newcomb and Warwick Schiller’s CAT-H method.

Some of the stories I heard of him spooking, or thrashing around, were while he was tied up. I had a mare years ago that often pulled back when tied. I had tried all sorts of techniques with her that stopped her from pulling for a while, but then she would do it again. Often damaging whatever she was tied to (or just break the buckle on the lead line) and she would take off running around the property. The final fix was to put a long lunge line in a Blocker Tie Ring on the first level, and let her pull back. The line slid through, but was long enough it didn’t break and she didn’t get loose. Once she realized the rope was giving and that she couldn’t pull it out (no matter how far away she walked back), her pulling stopped and we could go to a regular length lead line.

I used the same blocker tie ring for Cowboy and used the lunge line. I introduced him to the flag while tied up and he didn’t even flinch. I asked him to move his feet a little, and he moved over with no problems. Just as calm as could be. As time progressed with Cowboy I became more comfortable with tying him, but was still cautious just in case something were to happen.

As time went on, I worked Cowboy in circles in the arena with just the long lead line. Starting with the basic groundwork, and eventually up to simple lunging at a walk and trot. As we worked up to cantering, I noticed that his left hind leg tended to cross under him. Sometimes it would cause him to fall down. When he fell, he would get right back up, but he would favor his hind even more. At times he seemed to cross-fire at the canter as if he was protecting his hind. During this time, he was still carrying his head high, not watching his feet. These were some things I felt we could definitely work on going forward.

I kept him using the long lead line to keep his circles tight. This helped him to bend and made him focus on his picking up the correct lead and feet placement while cantering. I gradually introduced a ground pole to get him to pay attention to his feet as well. Unfortunately, he was terrified of the ground pole at first, so there was a lot of work to be done. I worked on desensitizing him from me pulling out the pole while carrying it in the arena, setting it down, and placing it. Eventually working up to two and then three poles, he was able to relax enough that I could leave him ground tied in the middle of the arena. Eventually he became so calm about it that he just followed me around while I moved poles around without having to hold onto him.

When Nancy (the farrier) visited, I didn’t want to have to drug him as he had been in the past, so I developed a routine of getting to the barn 20 minutes before she was scheduled. I would pull Cowboy out and walk him around the arena, followed by half circles and into his small circles at a walk, trot and canter then back to a calming walk. When Nancy would arrive, often times we would be finishing up and she would watch us a bit. In time Nancy commented on how he was looking good. When we went into the barn to get his hoofs trimmed, I would always hold onto him (definitely wouldn’t cross tie him since he flipped out in the past with Shawna). He would get pets and treats after each part was complete. Nancy was sensitive to him getting antsy so she worked on one leg at a time, and cleaned each hoof, then went around for the trimming, and again for shaping each hoof. Just as she would a young horses that was learning to have patience, Cowboy needed the break between each leg.

Associating the Saddle with Positivity

After a month of working with Cowboy from the ground with just the halter, I felt it was time to try the saddle on him. I started him out with my old Western saddle with Full QH bars which usually fits every horse I try it on.

I tacked up his saddle, leaving him in the halter, and brought him into the arena for some casual walking. I closed the gate to the arena and he immediately ripped the rope from my hands and took off bucking. I was taught to always just let the horse go when they go crazy as it’s better to catch them later than to lose a hand, mess up a shoulder or get drug on the ground. So, I let him go as he rodeo bucked to the far end and stopped in the corner. Horses feed off of our energy (just as they would with their companions in a herd). I am always positive, I don’t panic, and I am as calm or happy as possible when situations with horses go a bit nuts. I immediately laughed out loud and scream “Woo, look at you go!” as I watched him make a fool of himself. Audrey was putting the horses away and I could hear her laugh out loud too. She pointed out to me how that’s what he did with her while cantering. We talked about his bucking for a bit, and then I caught him to get him working on his calming again in the smaller circle. He was definitely trying to tell me something about the saddle.

For years I had wanted to buy myself a custom Allegany Trail Saddle, but Moe (being 27) was too old for me to justify the cost of custom fitting a saddle for him. Now that I had this younger horse, it was time to buy that fancy saddle I had been wanting.

I ordered the saddle after going through a rigorous fitting for a custom tree that was just for Cowboy. The saddle was scheduled to arrive in mid-January, so I planned to work with Cowboy in the old saddle and then the new one for a while with the goal of getting on him soon after the new saddle were to arrive.

I fitted him with a bitless bridle and the saddle a few days a week, with the other days focused on groundwork in just the halter. We switched things up from one ground pole, several ground poles, yielding to the leg (using the stirrup to mimic my leg when I get on eventually), side passing, bending and becoming supple with the bitless bridle.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not a fan of bits and try to use bitless where I can. I don’t think badly of people that use bits, as I know that most horses need the various degrees of contact they provide.

I spend the months it takes to train my horses to use a side pull bitless bridle. The trust and communication we develop is not because of the piece of metal jabbing them in their mouth, but because of the respect and relationship we have with each other. The trick is to spend the time transitioning the horse from a bit, and to prepare them for being ridden in a bitless bridle. The horse needs to be able to stop and to bend (in case anything goes awry). They need to be able to listen to the slightest touch. With Cowboy having been a ranch horse previously, he most likely was trained on a hackamore and later introduced to a bit, and It appeared that foundation was there, making the transition easy.

The first time I put the bitless bridle on Cowboy, he almost seemed to take one look at the bridle itself tensing up, but then melting into it when he realized there was no bit.

I walked Cowboy around the property with the new custom fitted Allegany Mountain Trail saddle to help him to associate the saddle with positivity rather than negativity.

Often times, when I tacked Cowboy up, he would move away from me when I would walk up with the saddle. Sometimes, even so much as not wanting me to catch him at all. Because of this behavior, I wanted to try to help him associate the saddle with a positive experience. I didn’t want him thinking that we were always going to “work” or that there were any expectations of him (other than to be calm and watch his feet). I would walk him around the property letting him graze on the winter grass and just enjoy being out of his paddock for a while. I would then just put him away and give him treats.

In time I worked with him getting used to me leading him up to the mounting block in the arena and walk away, then walk around him, stepping on the mounting block, standing as if I were going to get on, and then step back down. I wanted any anxiety he might have with being ridden to leave his mind.

From September 2020 through February 2021 I continued to work from the ground. Occasionally the other women at the barn would watch me. Some just rode their horses around us as we did our little circles in the middle of the arena. One woman said to me “Aren’t you going to get on him?”. To which I replied, “He’s not ready for that yet.” She watched me for a few more minutes, and then added “It seems like maybe you could pay someone to ride him for you or something.” I was quiet and sort of laughed to myself as I am pretty sure she wasn’t quite understanding how much work he needed, and what that work entailed. There were a few conversations that went similarly with the other boarders and lesson folks, some wanted to learn from the work I was doing, and some questioned it. I didn’t pay much attention to what was being said usually since this was between me and Cowboy, not anyone else.

On January 10, 2021 I was visiting my parents house on the water and hitting the tennis ball onto the cold PNW beach with a tennis racket when I put my entire body to get the ball as far as I could. Suddenly my shoulder popped out of the socket. I am hyperflexible (or “double jointed” as some call it) in my shoulder joints, so I knocked it back in and went into the house to rest. It was sore for a few days, then a week, a few weeks. I went to the Doctor eventually and was told that I had Frozen Shoulder due to a possible tear from the dislocation. That didn’t stop me from working with Cowboy though. I wore a brace when working with him, and focused on leading and lunging from my left arm.

Getting On Cowboy For The First Time

With Cowboy’s clean bill of health and all of the positive behavior during the groundwork we had done, it was time to get on him for the first time.

On February 21, 2021 I tacked Cowboy up and worked him in the arena a bit from the ground. After about 10 minutes, I walked into the main barn to see if there was anyone around. Beth was with her horse, so I asked her if she would mind just keeping an eye out in case anything goes wrong. She happily brought her horse into the arena as we closed the gate behind us. She asked me if I would like her to take any photos or video, so I handed her my phone and showed her how to use it.

I walked him up to the mounting block in the corner and went through the motions we had been through a dozen times before. Only this time, I put my leg in the stirrup and slowly swung my right leg over and settled into the saddle.

Cowboy gave me a little sniff as if to say “Oh, you’re on me now.” and looked forward. I leaned down and presented him with a treat to instill the positivity of the situation.

I walked him around the arena slowly. I asked for a turn here and there and he pushed back on me a little by pulling on the reigns. I looked up at Beth and laughingly said “He doesn’t really want to listen right now.” I ignored his head flip and showed him that he still needs to pay attention to what I am asking of him. I then tried a few lateral flexions, just as we did from the ground. I pushed with my leg where I had gotten him ready for yielding from the ground, and he moved with ease. He was so fluid in his movement, it was night and day from the horse I had started working all those months ago.

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