Yesterday was an education.
In a good way!
Apparently, Eric (who I've been taking lessons from) periodically arranges some sort of field-trip or clinic for his students. His goal is an opportunity to spend the day learning about an aspect of the horse or show world most of us didn't have much experience with. Eric's students include a lot of young riders (and a few of their parents), and most of his younger students ride and show hunt seat or English pleasure, so this particular excursion really was a brand new experience for the majority, including me - and it was a huge treat.
Don Ulmer, long-time reining, cutting and working cow-horse trainer and sometime judge generously volunteered his time and expertise (and facility) for a demonstration and hands-on learning opportunity. Not so much a clinic, exactly, as an introduction to the world of reining, working cow and cutting horse competitions.
His audience was initially supposed to be about 40 strong, but inclement weather unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on how you look at it - cut the number by about half. About 10 youth riders of various ages and their parents, and assorted others of us beyond our teens made the trek up to the Ranch of Cherry Creek in spite of blowing snow, wind, and some of the coldest temps we've seen yet this winter. Thankfully, the barn was heated, and the huge - 150'x300' - indoor arena while not exactly warm, was comfortable as long as I was moving or wrapped around my coffee mug.
The facility itself is gorgeous and practical - a barn runs along the outside of the arena wall down one full side. 30+ (I didn't count) 12'x12' box stalls line both sides of the wide aisle, with offices, a kitchenette, bathrooms and a tack room facing a row of stalls on one end. It's all very light, airy and open feeling, helped out because the stalls are bars on all sides from about counter-height up. A couple of us wandered the barn aisle oohing and aahing over the lovely brass plates identifying each resident, the stalls themselves, how comfortable and content all the horses looked, and how clean and neat everything was. It's not a boarding/lesson barn, it's a one-owner training facility, and it was definitely an impressive operation.
The day started at 10 AM (although since I rode up with Eric and a couple of others and he hauled the horses, it actually started a lot earlier) with Don and his daughter and fellow trainer Elise demonstrating the basics of their warm-up, what the elements of a reining pattern consist of and how they can be combined, riding for training purposes and a couple of "show" patterns, followed by an explanation of how the pattern would be scored. After that they gave us a cutting demo (on a very fresh pen of cows) and a scoring explanation, and then showed us the after-the-box portion of a working cow horse run, again with an explanation of scoring.
Along the way, Don explained what makes each event different, how they prepare, what makes a good, better, best run, and how and why the horses need to carry themselves the way they're encouraged to. His explanations were very thorough - we didn't have too many questions, but it was a shade chilly sitting still, so perhaps we were all just slightly frozen....
After lunch (broasted chicken, potatoes, macaroni salad, cookies and lots of hot coffee) the hands on portion of the program started.
Along the way...
Don's philosophy of training and horsemanship encompasses several things. I'm going to paraphrase wildly here, since I wasn't taking notes, so these are a few of the statements that stuck with me at least as I interpreted them.
- It isn't possible to MAKE a horse do anything, at least not productively, for very long.
- You need to ride the horse, the horse shouldn't ride you. Elaborating on this point, he explained that every step the horse takes when you're on him should be intentional on your part.
- Correction isn't about making something painful - horses remember pain and it makes them stiffen up. A stiff horse isn't a fluid, flexible horse.
- Find the job that suits the horse, and your life - and theirs - will be much easier.
- What suits the horse isn't necessarily going to be what he/she was bred for.
- A horse has five parts - head, neck, shoulders, barrel/ribcage and hip. You have to be able to move them all where you want to when you want to, or you aren't riding the whole horse.
- You have to ride the whole horse - if you only depend on your reins to control your horse, and your hand is halfway up his neck, you're only riding 10% of him. (And if you can win while riding 10% of the horse, he'll buy him, because when the other 90% of the horse gets involved, he'll be a universe-beater - lol!)
- At some point you have to trust your horse. If you can't, you may need to find a horse you can trust.
After lunch they saddled six or seven horses along with another two that Eric brought along. These were their show horses, and not just any old show horses, either - check out the Winner's Circle page. Current national and reserve national champions Dakota Wolf, RCC Reinman, Quintessa, and Short and Smart, along with past multi-time champion and reserve champions Traddition and a couple of others whose "official" names I didn't catch. Since not as many of us as originally planned were there, everyone who wanted to got a chance to try cutting one or two cows while Don and Elise turned back and coached. For the most part, it appeared to be a matter of not overriding. Those horses knew their jobs, and the riders that sat tight and stayed out of their way did better than the ones that tried to do too much of the thinking.
For anyone who doesn't know - which until yesterday, included me, if you take your hand off your horse's neck when you're cutting a cow, you lose points. So the idea is to let your horse work the cow, and only provide an miniscule amount of guidance needed with by shifting weight, and using your seat and legs. Lifting your hand cues your horse that you're done. Meaning that if the horse doesn't really want to work a cow, you're in deep digested-by-cow-already product.
Then they set up the flag. On a pulley system strung from one end of the arena to the other across the short end of the arena, it's set up at cow height, and stands in for a cow for practice purposes. We all had a chance to try that - again, once locked on to the flag, no hand lifting involved, and you always cue the horse with the leg closest to the flag/cow. So if you want your horse to turn left, you kick with the left heel - which seems counter-intuitive, but that's how they're trained.
Eric had me riding Aslan, one of his horses, an ex-junior reining champion. Aslan hasn't been finished in the bridle, so he's still in two reins (which I'm fine with) and he's never seen cows. But he's extremely solid on all of the maneuvers Eric's had me working on with Sunny, so I had an excellent opportunity to practice those. The arena was so big that those of us waiting our turn still had a normal arena-sized area to ride in while the action was going on on the other end. We could either watch or ride - I really wanted to watch, but I also didn't want to freeze, since I'd shed my heavy jacket to ride. So I'd watch until I got chilly, then practice some more with Aslan until I was warm again.
Since Aslan hadn't seen cows before - although he was definitely interested, not spooked - I didn't try cutting. But I did get to try spinning, which was a lot of fun. And later on I switched horses and tried chasing the flag, which was absolutely cool on a stick. For the most part I managed to remember to keep my hand down, and I kept my seat on the catty gelding I was on pretty well. Remembering (and finding a chance) to breathe was definitely a challenge, though!
What I walked away with:
I can safely say that working cow horse is probably NOT in my future. I'm not the adrenaline junkie that sport's need-for-speed enthusiasts seem to be. Reining... there's a lot of speed there, too, but since ease and control are the primary focus, I'm thinking I could maybe work up to that. Cutting has always looked like fun, and yesterday was no exception. But I'd need a different horse, as Sunny doesn't seem to have a lot of interest in cows, so for the time being that's probably out.
A better appreciation for why western horses' head carriage is low. But this is getting long, so more on that later.
Overall it was a fantastic day, and the Ulmers get my whole-hearted thanks for hosting us and sharing their time, horses, and knowledge.
It didn't feel like I did a whole lot beside listen and absorb, but when I finally got home yesterday evening I heated up a bowl of left-over chilli, and managed a whole half-hour on the couch with the cats before I fell asleep. I woke up when the program I wasn't watching ended, brushed my teeth, and crawled into bed at 8:35 PM. Proving yet again that learning IS exhausting - lol!