Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Man with a Plan (or what I could remember of what I wrote..)

I've been promising an extended version of how exactly the Cowboy Man thinks, rides, and acts.  Unfortunately, I've had multiple clever conversations with friends/horsey friends/coworkers and family and possibly exhausted all of my intelligent explanations of what exactly the "plan" is for Miss P while she's on vaca.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that once I actually DID write all of this down in a cohesive manner, Blogger ate it.  All of it.  And it's not even pretending to say it's sorry.  (grumble grumble).


Actual cowboy may differ from picture
Okay, so, here comes my not nearly as eloquent or organized summary of Cowboy Man.  Basically it comes down to four basic principles:

1) Let the horse be a horse.

2) Establish unwavering trust as the foundation of your training.

3) Let the horse learn on the horse's terms

4) Grow Balls.

He didn't tell me these four principles, but as far as I could tell, everything came back to them and I think they make it easier to understand his process.

Let the horse be a horse.

So this is the first (and most basic) step.  Horses have a natural state of being and the closer we can get to letting the horse live a totally natural life, the happier and more relaxed of an animal we'll get.  Once acclimated, all of the horses on Cowboy Man's property live with the herd 24/7.  They sleep in one big corral together and get moved out to different pastures during the day together.  The only time someone gets pulled away from the group is if they are sick, injured, or getting worked.

Similar to how the Dog Whisperer works, Cowboy Man believes that the horses learn more from the herd than they can from us.  Aggression? Anxiety? Let the herd sort it out.  No one teaches them how to socialize better than the Lead Mare.  And tightly wound, spooky horses quickly learn to take cues from the group as to what really matters (grass) and what doesn't (the llama). 

As I mentioned, the entire property is fenced in, which means that the horses even move naturally.  No halters for getting turned out - rather Cowboy Man just asks the Lead Mare to follow him to wherever they are going and the rest of the group falls in line, moving as a unit.

Right now the group is ruled by a very dominant Lead Mare.  It's hard to pick her out unless a skirmish arises, because otherwise she keeps quiet and calm.  The horses in the group who tend to be nipping and kicking and pinning their ears are more often the lowest on the totem pole, which is why they are constantly trying to claw their way up.  As a general rule, the higher up a horse ranks, the more calm and less aggressive they are.

#2 in the group is actually the Lead Mare's filly.  She's 5, but if for some reason mom is snoozing or ignoring an issue (or being ridden) Miss Filly steps in.  #3 is a late cut gelding who really fills the "stallion" role.  He never leads the group, but instead he will bring up the rear when they move.  Additionally, he's often physically distanced from the group, relegated to lookout duty, especially if Miss Bossypants is taking a nap.

Cowboy Man acknowledges the group dynamics and tries to keep from interfering as much as possible.  Once example of how he refrains from interfering is his choice to grain/supplement the horses on an individual basis away from the group.

His rationale is because the herd has a established "rank" for who gets to eat first and who gets first crack at the tastiest grass (or grain).   The regulated manner of feeding in a barn ignores this principle and often incites or encourages food aggression or resource guarding without us even knowing it.

Just think about it - even though most boarding barns don't allow the horses enough social time to really establish a firm pecking order, the fact that we wheel a cart full of hay down the aisle and distribute it at "random" can cause stress, anxiety and aggression in even the most even keeled horses.  It makes sense to us, we often feed down the line of stalls (closest stall first, farthest stall last..)  But, imagine if you will, what would happen to the Lead Mare if her stall just "happened" to be at the end of the aisle.  Even though she's the queen, by the nature of her stall location, she gets fed last and therefore her authority and rank is challenged.

It might not seem like a big deal to us, but in horse reality, we're screwing everything up.  (the image of distraught/embarrassed teenagers reacting to well intended parents is what comes to mind "but moooooommmmmm blue sneakers aren't cool! they have to be teeeaaaaal")

I also think of Pia, who had taken to pinning her ears and charging the fence line whenever another horse walked by.  Is she mean? Maybe.  But it's more likely that given her solitary turnout, she's just trying to posture/play/establish a role anytime another horse was close enough to interact with.

Learning to acknowledge what's "natural" for them, allows us to identify where we are (unintentionally) imposing stress and strain... which allows us to control the controllables and move forward...

Establish unwavering trust as the foundation of your training.

Once Cowboy man has been able to establish a more natural lifestyle (and therefore head space) with a new horse, he begins his work with them.  I believe that I mentioned the noticeable lack of halters around the barn, but essentially there are none... anywhere. 

When I first unloaded Pia, I explained to him that he'd probably want to keep the chain over her nose until he had firmly established his role with her.  He smiled politely and said "ok, but I think we'll be able to do away with the chain all together"

I rolled my eyes and thought, sure buddy.  good luck with THAT one. (as I recalled Pia dragging The Boy down the driveway at the vet's, or her mad dive for grass when I was leading her back to her paddock..)

But the more we talked about his methods, the more I realized that a chain-free future might not be all that far fetched after all.

Cowboy Man starts with the premise that we have to earn the right to work with our horses - and that right starts with asking them to politely walk with us, follow us and do what we ask.  This starts by establishing a tight, reliable "join up" whenever we ask for it.  He feels that whenever we resort to using a constraint (halter/whip/tie down) we're bypassing the request and throwing away whatever trust or relationship we were trying to establish.  I would tend to agree with him, but I also know that as good as P is with her groundwork sans halter, that there is NO WAY she would stick by me should anything more exciting be going on.

My personal instinct has always been to start groundwork with a halter and lead, then remove the lead (but keep the halter in case I need to snatch her back), then eventually work at liberty in a round pen, move up to an arena, and if we ever had 100% obedience halterless in the ring, we could go to a pasture or something even more open...

Cowboy Man says "wrong."

We have to establish the connection under all circumstances and earn the right to ask a horse to work within a confined space with us (jigga whaaa?).

What this means is that his first "join up" happens by way of asking a horse to follow him away from the herd (and pasture) in order to walk back to the barn.  I can flat out guarantee that there is no way, P would ever follow me away from food, or friends (let alone food and friends) without a halter, lead and probably a chain.

When I asked him what he did when any self respecting horse ran away from him, he smiled and said "follow them."

right. follow them... 

Apparently, he just follows them.  So this means, that sometimes it takes him four hours (FOUR HOURS) to convince a horse that they might as well walk with him, because he isn't going to give up and go away. If the horse follows you for a few steps than trots off, you trot off after them...

Eventually the horse figures that there's no easy way away from you and they willingly oblige.  Of course, he said that for every time you give in and resort to a halter, you simply reinforce that the horse need not "join up" or oblige your requests without one. 

Apparently, these four hour marathons happen often enough that his local Domino's Pizza knows to deliver straight to the middle of whatever field he is jogging around in as he attempts to convince a questioning horse..

(this, I find hysterical)

Essentially, the philosophy behind the infallible "join up" is that in the herd, they don't get to question the Lead Mare.  She moves everyone when and where she wants and they oblige.  (she also does this without the use of any halters whatsoever.. clever girl that she is).  So the goal is to establish yourself to be as diligent and consistent as any Lead Mare worth her salt.

Cowboy Man acknowledges that the problem is our human schedules don't often allow for four hours of jogging around after our horse asking them to think of us as Lead Mares.  In fact, I can guarantee that if Pia spent more than 10 minutes trying to ignore/get away from me, I would quickly resort to a handful of grain and a halter hidden behind my back...

However, I do understand how that "shortcut" totally negates the "horsey" way of thinking in terms of unquestioning obedience.  It stems from restraint, as opposed to social hierarchy.  The fact that P is a great listener on the ground (sans halter) 80% of the time is a good start.  But that remaining 20% means that my authority isn't based on her unquestioning submission to me in a social sense...

Once Cowboy Man has a solid "join up,"  he adds in lateral movements, nose positioning (up, down, side to side and flexion) along with a "stay" command.  The "stay" basically allows him to ground tie any horse anywhere while he jogs around the barn preparing grain/grabbing equipment or whatever else he wants.   He also begins more liberty work whereby he encourages the horse to "mirror" him.  That means more than just following his body language for walk/halt/turn.  It means that they jog quietly when he jogs quietly, they move out when he moves out, they collect when he sits back and they even kick and play when he runs like a lunatic.

One interesting point he made was about not discouraging the "pride" a horse shows when they puff up, arch their neck and kick about.  He claims that too many riders discipline the "pride" out of a horse then spend years trying to get that natural sparkle and suspension back into a horse's gaits under saddle.  Instead, he says as riders we should learn to better identify the difference between playful pride and aggression.  Aggression means we lost the "join up" somewhere, where as the "pride" means they are comfortable, happy, and engaged....

Let the horse learn on the horse's terms

Staying consistent with the theme of keeping a horse in a natural brain state, everything about Cowboy Man's ongoing training tries to parlay off instinct and natural tendencies.  Since a horse in the wild would spend most of it's time galloping/scampering around to greener pastures/new ponds or scampering away from scary things (cougars/ponchos/llamas..) out in the open, that's where he starts.

Conversely, horses spend very little time trotting in circles or in regular patterns (be it dressage, hunter courses or barrel racing..), which means we have to ask nicely and build off an established relationship before they have to work for us in a confined space.  Consequently, Cowboy Man spends his first rides out in a big field.  A really big field.

He likened the first few rides to surfing - in that he lets the horse pick where they go and how fast they go there.  Instead of cramming them onto a 20 meter circle until they are calm enough to move down the longside without exploding, he lets them swoop and swirl and move as their heart pleases while he slowly increases the amount of "ask" with regard to controlling direction and speed...  After the horse happily accepts guidance in a field, he moves to the trail, where he relies on the "join up" relationship to get them through ponds, over bridges and past llamas (ooooh scary).  Finally, when the horse is confident and comfortable, he'll begin to ask for arena work and repetition in movement.

His other key is staying extremely conscientious of how much the horse can take.  What is an "ask" versus a "demand."  How much can he request based on his relationship before he has to rely on the help of a constraint to communicate?  He did clarify that there is a difference between unlocking a horse, and working with a horse that he is firmly established with.  This means that while a brain-dead-socially-withdrawn horse who shuts down when asked too much, will get a different "ask" than his trusty mount who decides to test the relationship and refuse to cross a stream.  The first horse requires that he sit back, think about whether or not the question is fair and encourage the horse to trust him.  The second horse may get a smack from the crop and a reminder that they don't have the privilege of questioning his decisions.

It all comes back to the Lead Mare.  We have to be the Lead Mare.

Grow Balls

This, is the step that (ultimately) is why we are with Cowboy Man in the first place.  I, am not emotionally equipped to spend 4 hours asking Pia to follow me in from the pasture.  Nor am I ready to hop on and let her rip around a huge pasture while I pray she won't destroy me in the process. :)

Quite frankly, I'm totally okay with both of those facts.

I'm not saying I can't, or I won't grow a pair, but I'm not quite sure I have the resolve, experience, or history to go all-in without some help.

Whew. Ok, that's my summary.  it's not as good as the first draft, but hopefully I didn't forget any of my clever descriptions.  More on Dr. Finn in our next installment...


  1. I totally feel your pain re: posts being eaten. But THANK YOU for typing it all out again! It was such an interesting read. Are you going to try similar work with her towards the end? (Can't remember if you've already mentioned that in previous posts sorry.) And I can't wait to hear how Pia comes along. (PS - I also find Domino Pizza's specialised delivery very funny.)

  2. He's the kind of cowboy I like :) Great post - sorry you had to re-write... damn blogger!

  3. I loved this post! I think Pia is going to come out on the other side so much more balanced. Also, have you heard about this movie yet?

    I'm a bit of a skeptic with much of the natural horsemanship stuff, but this guy is quite amazing and has such a neat story to tell.

  4. Damn Blogger!! I hatez it sometime. Cowboy man sounds JUST like the guy I was going to send Denali to. Sounds awesome.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this...thanks for sharing!!

  6. Very interesting read - thank you for sharing it, despite Blogger eating it the first time!

  7. OK this is AWESOME!!! I want to shadow this man 24/7. I mean seriously this sounds like the LIFE! Screw sitting in an office with no windows...I want his job!
    I cannot wait to hear more!

  8. I kinda love this guy! Can't wait to read all about Ms. P's adventures:)

  9. Dominoes in the field? That is just too much!
    I wish I had that much time to spend with my horse.

  10. That sounds fascinating and much less hooky than your first few descriptions of him... I admit, I was on the fence.

    What's the goal after he's finished with P? The boarding situation you describe him having is not exactly common in your neck of the woods and I doubt you have lots of four hour blocks to catch her.

    Or am I getting too far ahead?

  11. SB- You might notice the distinct LACK of goals currently going on with the blog :). So... I'm sorta avoiding it.

    I got all stressed out last week looking at boarding options and trying to figure out where we'll go. Then I had a margarita and made myself stop thinking. I'm going to wait and see where we are with P and how things progress before I even feign a guess about what we'll want or need at the end of the summer.

    How's that for avoiding the question... :)

  12. I'm with Ashley! I want to work for/with this guy lol. I want to learn how to do that. :)

    I think this is going to be fabulous for Pia. I can't wait to hear how she does. When her time there gets close to the end will you get to have a couple of days to spend there to learn more?


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