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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Questions and Answers

I am getting a few questions about Scratch on Facebook and thought I would post my answers here.  This is the first one:

This is my response to someone asking about if he would be good for urban trail riding. I go over a couple of other points too and this will save me from typing everything again. If you have any questions after looking this info over, I will do my best to answer them.
Just so you know this is my first try at training a horse from the beginning....starting from scratch....
Scratch has a quick smooth walk and a nice sitting trot. He canters beautifully on his right lead, I am having a few problems with his left. When I get it, it's a bit more choppy but not too bad.
As for suburbia, that's a tough one at this point. While understandably nervous at first, walking him through the stables at Rancho Rio was a scary experience. Now, most times, he does it with much more relaxation.
Despite my efforts to desensitize to things on the ground under his feet, he can still spook there although the times he has as I recall have all occurred when I've been on the ground similar to the event at the Parade (let me know if you DON'T know that story).
I took him to a ranch for three days (just returned yesterday) and we moved around the property with another rider through the countryside experiencing cows and dead trees and such. The ranch was also hosting a wedding and there were water trucks, and tents, etc. Early yesterday I wanted to ride, but as it's a remote location and no one was available to go with me, I chose to ride in the covered arena. Scratch is at a point that I don't always do groundwork, a two hour hilly ride the day before I thought was enough. After a short warmup, when I asked for a whoa and he didn't stop (this usually is how I know where his attention is) I went to one rein stop him and he bucked across the small arena. Thankfully he has a small buck or kick up and I don't know whether it was because the arena was covered or small or what. That was the only such show of discontent that ride and we went through the remainder of our training session as usual.
I tell you this in the spirit of full disclosure. My suggestion would be to come watch the event. With all the cars and horses and people I am interested to see how he does. How he will handle the freestyle program I have planned will answer many of your questions.
Scratch has had his dental and two rounds of vaccines. He is a fairly easy keeper and loves to eat. He will be hard to let go.
Oh, and one last thing. I've done all our training in the hackamore. I knew nothing about it when I started and have learned quite a bit. I have not transitioned him to the snaffle because I wanted to be consistent with him as possible.
Thanks for you interest in Scratch. Please come up and introduce yourself to me at the event. I would love you to meet Scratch in person.

Having Some Fun with the Mounting Block

I just can show you how we do the mounting block, I have to pretend we are installing options like on a car.  You get to see my wonderful acting.  Scratch is not an actor.  The stuff he does is genuine!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Parade

The Parade

People love parades.  Well, most people.  I’m not what you would call a “parade person”.  Crowds of people make me nervous.  With so many people around I just never know where to direct my attention.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t dislike parades.  If I stumble onto the Rose Parade New Year’s morning, I’ll enjoy a cup of joe and admire the roses, but probably only because I’m too hungover to pick up the remote.

There are only three reasons for me to go to any parade.  One, somebody I love is in it or wants to go.  Two, I am assigned to photograph the parade.  Or, three, this instance, where I am in the parade promoting a wild horse training event by walking my wild horse, Scratch, through the middle of town with other horse owners from the same herd.

The parade is in a little mountain town about an hour away from my home and Scratch’s stable.  It’s not too far from where I picked up Scratch after entering the Vaquero Heritage Trainers’ Challenge.  While not technically a trainer, I had covered last year’s event with a podcast and photos and became fixated on training a horse that had no foundation.  My Quarter Horse mare, Jessie, had been started by someone else.  While I had taken over the training and developed her into a solid trail horse, I had built on what someone else had begun.  Jessie regularly places in trail trials and obstacle course challenges.  But still, I have a desire to start with a clean slate, an “un-started horse”, and see what level of trust and training I can reach.  This is how I now find myself with a wild horse to train.  

Eight of us are scheduled to walk or ride behind the banner promoting our wild horse training event happening in just a few months.  Five of the horses have been with their owners for quite some time and are well behaved.  My horse, Scratch, has me as a trainer.  Eight short weeks ago he was running wild with his herd in the nearby mountains.  While we are making a lot of progress, most of our work has taken place in my backyard.  The day before the big event I wonder if we are  “parade ready”.

The morning of the parade starts very early.  A little after 4 am Scratch gets breakfast consisting of a flake of hay.  He’s not used to seeing me so early and cocks his head as if to say, “What are you up to now?” before tearing the flake apart.  After my breakfast, it’s  a bath for Scratch with the works, shampoo AND conditioner.  “If nothing else,” I think to myself, “at least we’ll look good.”

By 6:15 we are on the road.  Many horses hate the trailer because it’s a closed, confined place.  Horses generally feel trapped and claustrophobic in trailers.  Scratch and I worked diligently on the art of trailer loading using one of the tenets of Tom Dorrance, the famed horse trainer.  Tom said, “Make the right thing easy, the wrong thing difficult.”  I worked Scratch outside the trailer and let him rest inside the trailer.  In no time he figured out that inside the trailer meant “not work”, which ranks just below sleeping and eating on the top ten list of most horses.

As my trailer turns into the K-mart parking lot, our designated staging area, the sun is climbing above the mountains.  Scratch is shifting his weight in the trailer signalling he is not too happy with how fast I took that last turn.  We are early as usual.  I sip the last remnants of my coffee and wonder what I am really doing here.  My insecurities surface.  Sure, Scratch needs to get out in the world.  He needs to see and hear things.  The competition is in a few short weeks and the pressure will be much more intense in front of a crowd of people , but is he ready for a parade today?

We check in with our group of horses at 7:30 for a parade that starts at 10 am.  Scratch and I find an area to do some of our training exercises.  Moving his feet keeps him calm.   Horses are flight animals and making them stand still when they are nervous is like locking them in the closet.  Allowing him to move his feet makes him feel safe.  It also keeps my mind off the fact we will soon be walking down a street lined with people, balloons, and waving flags.  My confidence is a metronome swinging from, “Relax, it’s no problem” to “Dead man walking”.  We haven’t known each other for a long time, but I can tell Scratch is unsure of what exactly is happening around him.  We find a place to stand near the rest of our parade-marching friends, both horse and people.  There is security in numbers.  

Horses can adapt quickly and Scratch seems to be settling into this environment.  Horses have “tells” when they begin to relax and I note Scratch takes a deep breath and cocks a hind leg.  He is telling me he sees no immediate threat and he’ll tolerate the high school band and group of motorcycles gearing up for the march.

At nine-thirty the rodeo queens come rolling in with their trailers and suddenly our once spacious staging area is full of trucks, trailers, and pretty girls riding glittered horses.  Time to move Scratch around again.  What must he be thinking?  Two months ago his world consisted of 120 brothers and sisters, trees and grass.   

Ten am.  The moment of truth.  Turning to check on Scratch, I see a leg cocked, an ear forward, and a soft eye, more signs of relaxation.  Yeah, we’ll be alright.   For many horses moving toward the thing that has them fearful as it moves away helps them become braver.  I move Scratch in on the marching band as it passes by and heads down the assigned route.  He’s alert, but not bothered.  Then, the Civil War re-enactors on their horses followed by the Harley-Davidson Veterans group.  We remain calm as one of the organizers stops by to say our group will march near the end of the parade.

As a flatbed trailer pulls into line with group of 8-14 year old girls from a dance academy, I fumble my lead rope and it slips to the ground.  As I bend to pick it up, Scratch puts his leg through, and in the flash of that moment I come up with him all tangled up.  His head goes straight up and I feel the slack in the lead disappear.  Calmly I speak to him, but it’s too late.  He’s pulls back.  No Scratch, not now.  I move with him.  “Whoa”. “Whoaaa”.  Shit!  His momentum builds and I’m out of position.  I have two choices:  hang on to the rope and end up on the ground or  let go and he’s gone.

In the next millisecond I know hanging on is not an option.  He is leaving whether I hold on or not as I feel the rope heat up in my hands.   In a flash the question in my head is, “Where is he going to go?  We are boxed in by all these trailers.”  I let go and hope he realizes he is not in danger.  Scratch spins and digs in and I can’t help but admire his speed and agility.  He heads for the street and panic displaces admiration and I freeze for a moment.  Someone tries to stop him and his feet slip on the asphalt.  I lose sight of him as he darts behind all the trailers, then, realizing my horse is galloping for the hills, I take off at a run.  Up ahead, Jeremy, one of the organizers of the event and a darn good horseman, is jogging along after Scratch.

As they turn a corner first Scratch disappears, then Jeremy.   My heart is pounding as I round the corner and see Scratch run himself into a fenced parking area and stop.  I breathe again.  Jeremy grabs the lead rope and walks toward me as I reach my runaway horse.  The absolutely worst thing a horseman can do is lose his horse.  Scratch is my responsibility and I put him in a situation he wasn’t ready to handle.  As I take him from Jeremy Scratch looks at me as if to say, “Hey, I run first and ask questions later.”

As we get back to the staging area, the organizers announce we are up next.  I can be as headstrong as Scratch and unless someone pulls us out, we are marching in this damn parade!  We immediately fall in behind our banner billowing in the morning breeze.  Both of us are trying to catch our breath and I feel the nervous sweat soaking through my shirt.   My face is red in embarrassment.  I had lost my horse.  My worst fear of the day is realized and the parade hasn’t even started.

Horses teach you not to dwell in the past.  They live in the moment.  If I don’t myself get back to the present, whatever is out there to scare Scratch next, would get us both again.  Everything I had been taught told me to keep Scratch’s attention on me.  Horses can only think about one thing at a time.  He will be less bothered by the balloons if I can keep him focused on watching me.  One of the lessons he learned is to move his hindquarters away when I shake my finger at his rump.  It’s called disengaging hindquarters and his attention has to be on me, not our surroundings.  I move him back and forth in front of me yielding his back end as we walk down the narrow parade route.  

It is about a mile to the end of the route and I have tunnel vision.   My eyes are on my horse and every time Scratch even thinks about about being scared I disengage his hindquarters.  As we near the announcer's’ stand we are introduced.  Scratch is behaving.  He is moving off my finger just as I had taught him.  Then I notice the people lining the streets.  Holy cats! they are close, no more than ten feet away.  Kids with smiles at the sight of a shiny black horse.  People are waving and calling out “Beautiful horse!”.  As we near the end of our route I yield Scratch one more time with my finger.  As he comes around I look up and make eye contact with a woman standing next to her son.  Both smile and she says, “You have that wild horse trained pretty well, mister.”  I tip my hat in thank you and think, “This is why I love a good parade.”  

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Working Through the Obstacle Course

One of our Supporters for the Vaquero Heritage Trainers' Challenge is Joanne Galbraith owner of Galbraith Trailer Sales and Tack.  Joanne also does training and right now her arena is set up for gymkhana and trail trials.  Joanne has been very generous about letting us use her place to train and Scratch and I have taken full advantage of it.  I drug the video camera out on our last visit and took some shots of Scratch and I going through the various challenges.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fear Is A Termite

Let me first just say, Scratch has never thrown me. He has kicked up a few times, but nothing with any enthusiasm.  We've ridden a lot. He has gotten away from me a couple of times. Once at the parade (You'll read about that in another post.) A couple of times in the yard and once in a round pen. 

Our arena riding has been going along great, but if Scratch is to be a good trail horse I need to get him out on the trail. While I know it's not likely, my biggest fear is Scratch will toss me or scrape me off under a branch and head back to his home in Oak Creek. 

We were riding through the stables a few weeks ago. When we got near the end of a row of stables something spooked Scratch and he took off. I reached for a one-rein stop, but he was already braced, so I grabbed my night latch and hung on. Scratch lunged forward, stopped quickly to eye a hitching post, then dodged right. I guided him past a tree as he galloped off. We were in the open now, the stable's event parking lot and we had good footing and space to navigate. Scratch was loping pretty good and I managed to reach down and rub him on the neck. I asked for a whoa, but he wasn't ready to listen yet.  

After letting him go a little farther, I reached down and rubbed him again, asked for a whoa, and when I did not get it, pulled him around for a one-rein stop.  Then, I dismounted and I think this is where I made a mistake.  He wasn't standing still, I had a lot of adrenaline going through me, but most of all, I wanted off. I wasn't thinking that I would be rewarding Scratch for bolting. 

It took me quite a few days to even want to ride outside the arena again. It really bothered me too. Scratch was doing better work in the arena, but without the trail work, my goals can't be reached.  I had to find a way to get him outside the arena. 

Finally, after a week and a half of worrying about it, it was just time to do it. We left the arena and started working the areas just outside. Was Scratch on high alert or was it me?  Perhaps a little of both. He started trotting and I hadn't asked for it. Immediately we started doing circles around everything I could find, a cone on the ground, a pile of dirt, a trailer and a telephone pole. The more I worked him the more relaxed I became and he stayed paying attention to the instructions I was giving. 

It wasn't much, but it was a start. We headed for the front arena. We had to negotiate other horses, vehicles, and pedestrians.  We had to ride by where he had bolted before.  While still just a bit on edge, he handled it well. We made it to the arena where there is a water trough, got a drink, and considered the ride a success. 

It was a couple of days before we could get out there again. When we did I took him down into the riverbed. The walking was much more labored but I felt comfortable that he was not going to take off. We followed the riverbed for about half a mile then jumped up on the main trail. It's not very wide in most spots perhaps 15-20 feet. Scratch was going out amazingly well. Had I worried over nothing?

We got to where I had planned to turn around. The river is mostly dry from our drought. There is one spot up river where there is a good spot to get a drink. I dismounted and led Scratch to the shore. He didn't want anything to do with it. I led him back to the trail, it's fairly narrow here, to mount. He seemed really agitated and fidgety. 

We did some groundwork and when that didn't improve I led him back up the trail to find a wider spot to mount. Once mounted all he wanted to do was gallop back the way we came. I didn't let him, of course, I bent him around, serpentined, and even tried backing him up. Nothing worked. After about 40 minutes I dismounted again and walked along the trail dejected. How could he be so different?  Leading was a breeze. Scratch certainly has no problems walking along side. It is hard to fathom how leading and riding can be so very different. 

When we get to within a few hundred yards of the stable, I remounted and Scratch walked along calmly. When we got back I loped in the round pen just to remind him there is work to be done at or near the stables. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Six Weeks to Go

Scratch has been working really hard to get ready.  We've been lucky enough to use the arenas at Rancho Rio Equestrian Stables.  They are great!  There are several different sizes and things go on around each one.

I still have not ridden Scratch out of the arena much.  Last week while we were riding around the stable he spooked at something and bolted.  It wasn't bad - bad, but it was scary.  I got him under control, but I had to fight my emothions some and let Scratch go a bit before I regained control.  I feel I really need to get him comfortable out on the trail to consider this project a success.

Slowly I'm getting the hang of the hackamore. Scratch is responding to it better and better.  It really is a fascinating tool.

Ranae went out with me on Sunday and shot some video.  She really helps me with my riding a lot. Anyway we put some of the stuff to some of my favorite music and you can see what we are working on.

Yesterday Scratch got his second series of vaccinations from Bakersfield Vet Hospital.  Today he looked fine in his pen.  I felt the injection sites and there was not a reaction.  I loaded him up and when I unloaded him at the stable he was drooling profusely.  I checked his mouth - nothing.  He had eaten breakfast and pooped.  We did a little groundwork then I thought I would just take his temp.  It was 102.6.  I loaded him back in the trailer and brought him home to give him the rest of the day off.  He is quietly munching lunch as I write this....