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Finding the release

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Release
OK, last month I set off for America to see how the “Cowboy Magic” works, (see my Blog from April).  While I was there I had all the help and support I could wish for, and I have now also had a week back home to think about what I have experienced.

I rode the real life cowboy horses belonging to two trainers, both horses were ridden in big bits and spurs, and were relaxed and soft, collected and able. I also had the privilege of being able to <BLOG_BREAK>train people in both English and Western, people at different stages of their horsemanship, so I could see the raw journey of both methods, and all this was in an enquiring and open learning environment. The Cutting competition was also great as I could put the Western style of riding to a real practical use, the horse and I had a joint and common purpose. Until my second lesson I did not realise that once “on the cow” you are not even permitted to pick up the reins, you must have both hands down holding the saddle and cloth. This is while performing slides and stops, spins and turns. The horse must be focused, still and confident in its mind to work as one with the rider.

There has been a big message in this for me, one which I think will help me and Sherlock together.

Firstly the basics, common to English and Western. The rider must be still both in body and mind, less “chatter” for the horse to have to work through. Being balanced in the saddle, sitting in the centre of the horse. In the sport of “cutting” this is tested to the full, see the photos on www.andycooper.fotopic.net and you will see that if the rider is not central and poised then the rider would be shaken loose.

During my trip I saw some horses with less experienced and less poised riders, and they were not free to move under the riders, they were slow and ponderous, or tense and worried. In the clinics we worked on simple exercises, that I do in England too, such as altering the stirrups to help the rider have a solid base. Have the rider able to stand up and sit down at will at any gait, without falling forwards or backwards (or holding on!). Once the base was secure but relaxed we could work on the contact, having soft and following hands so the rider could feel the horse and stay with it.

This is a “feeling energy” thing as well as a pure mechanical thing. As the horse moves forwards there is a wave of energy, if the rider falls off the wave then the horse’s balance is disturbed, even if the rider did not apparently move in the saddle much. With some horses the brakes come on, with others the horse shoots forwards. Often the rider tries to counteract the change of pace with a hand or leg aid, but they are then mechanically fighting the loss of balance bringing in tension and discord.

Once the rider is in balance with the horse, poised and still, then the attention is on the horse. The rider has the responsibility to be with the horse, and the horse then has the responsibility to stay with the rider too. This is where I have found there was a different emphasis English to Western, and also Experienced rider to Inexperienced. It is as much the second as the first.

The inexperienced riders tended to try to “be kind” and if the horse was not responding as they would wish they were ask, ask, ask, then asking again. The constant asking caused tension in the rider, and resentment in the horse. The horse eventually becomes dulled to the request. It seemed that the horse was not getting a direct enough request for it to give the correct response, therefore it never got the release, it was not comforted by the knowledge that it had made the correct decision.

I realised this with my cutting horse, Smartie. On my first lesson I did not have spurs. Smartie is a very good ranch horse, and can be a good cutting horse. She is superbly trained, and does dressage moves in the long shank bit, in a relaxed and soft way. However, when faced with a cow she would really rather control it by biting it than by chasing round using body language! This works for her in a practical situation, but in a Cutting Competition it loses marks. The first lesson with me Smartie did some biting of cows (see the photos for “Jaws 4”), and I also noticed that the horse was kind of grumpy, even though I was being “kind”.

Having looked at the photos of the first lesson I realised that this horse was not listening to me, that most of the lesson I was kick, kick, kicking to have her overtake the cow, the pressure was never off as she never did quite the right thing. There was no “release”. I thought about it, and for the second lesson I borrowed some “Cowboy Spurs”. This was a worry to me, big circles with rowels,  I have seen other riders with them on, but I have not had them myself.

So, with my spurs, we started by “working a flag” which is actually a “toy cow” on mechanised wired, which can dash backwards and forwards in the round pen. I warmed Smartie up, and each time she did not really move forwards I used the spur. I used it enough that she really went forward, and could get the release of me being able to just then ride with my energy, I made her responsible for keeping forwards, I was responsible for staying in balance, and for telling her if circumstances changed and we needed to alter what we were doing.

Smartie  was SO MUCH happier. No nagging, and after the first few strong directions she no longer needed spurs, she understood what was expected, and happily complied.

The same was true with the long shank bit. Smartie was able to do fantastic slide stops, in fact she hardly slides, she sits right down and digs in, gallop to dead stop in a flash. But, if the signals are mixed the stop is not clean. This is where the learning was for me, as in the competition you cannot use the reins at all. I had presumed that the “stops” were achieved by the severeness of the bit, or at least the FEAR of the severeness of the bit. Here was the rub, Smartie had no fear of the bit.

I was lucky as I was riding a horse not generally ridden by other riders, she had no confusion and was therefore able to show me how her training worked. The trainer teaches his horses to balance, to be soft and compliant firstly in a snaffle bit, and then when they understand they are changed to the long shank bit. Only once they understand all the basics does he teach them the stop, they are just ridden with direct consistency. The bit is a strong one, but the rider only has to pick up the reins. There is not the nag nag nagging commonly seen in English riding when the rider is seeking an “outline”. It is smooth, ask, and if that does not get the correct response they give enough of a request that the horse understands, and gives the correct response to have the release. Then, as I asked, just by a shift of weight, Smartie would do a dead stop, and have her “release” before I even picked up on the reins!

There is a note of caution here, and this is where I believe the image of the “cruel” western rider comes from. If the basic work is not done first, if the rider is not balanced with a relaxed poise, if the rider is not still and calm in the mind, if the horse does not understand to soften to the bit or respond to the leg, THEN the big spurs and long shank bits COULD be used as a weapon against the horse. Without the balance and poise the tack could cause injury, both physically and mentally.

I guess there are good and bad riders in all types of equestrianism, those able or less able, those patient or less so, those aware of their ego and internal chatter or not. And, if the rider is not balanced and poised, both in body and mind then I guess a mild bit and no spurs is a safer option. The eye opener to me has been how, often, in our quest of “kindness”, we have lost the realisation of the mental relief the horse has when the release is given.

I guess I was so lucky to be working with two real live Cowboy Horsemen. Not “city slickers”, but people who live and breathe their horses, from generations past. I can witness that assured confidence and stillness inside when riding the horse. I have called this “detaching from the outcome”, where the horse is free to make a choice, the horse can make a mistake, and the rider stays relaxed and poised mentally, and helps the horse work it out, no tension or judgement on the horse, just requesting until the horse finds the release.

So, back to England and I have been putting my ideas to Sherlock. You will have read from past blog entries that he is happy and willing, but does not always carry me forwards. The past three days, when this has happened I have suspended my “human” ideas of “kindness” where I ask small, and ending up nagging. Instead I have checked that I am in balance, both physically and mentally, then I have applied an aid strong enough that Sherlock has gone forwards. He has then found his release.

Finding the try and giving the release is something I have been working on for a long time, as is giving an aid big enough to elicit the response required; it was the level of importance in this that was different. I guess the difference in focus may be because these were not “pleasure horses”, they were horses with a job to do. And the result is one that would make “pleasure horses” more.....well, pleasurable. I also think that because they have a job to do there is focus from that and a sense of togetherness. I often use jumping as the cowboys use working a cow, it is not about the jumping it is about a common goal.

What an adventure in America this year, I am still thinking it through and making more connections day by day now I am back.

 

 

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  1. Gail Fazio

    Well, Ruth, I think you've hit the nail on the head! Any bit (and any spurs) can be cruel to a horse -- in the wrong hands. And sometimes we (riders) do make a mess of things when we try to be kind and don't really understand. Thanks for sharing your lessons! I look forward to your next "ah ha" moments .... Gail

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