Thursday, September 5, 2013

Back to Going in Circles

So many of the horse blogs I read have been suffering this summer, and the same has been true of my own

Thankfully I have been out riding and learning a lot.  Unfortunately, not everything I learned has been good.  A couple weeks ago I found out that Richard Caldwell, one of my all time favorite horsemen, passed away.  I had only read his articles and seen his DVDs, but I was looking forward to seeing him in person some year.  It is sad that myself and others wont get the chance to see him.  But he has left a fantastic legacy, and from what I can gather he led a truly wonderful life.

In searching for additional information on Caldwell, I came across an interesting thread in a forum.  It was not about Caldwell, but he did come up from time to time in the conversation.  If you are interested in Vaquero horsemanship, it is definitely worth the read.  I took a number of things away from it, but the biggest one was something I already knew. 

It's always the hind end.

Always. If you are like me, you've read that all over the place.  It is the main point in Buck's wonderful introduction to True Horsemanship Through Feel.  Martin Black and others will say it is the reason your horse backs up slow and crooked.  Betty Staley argues (via Tom Dorrance) the hindquarters are the key to a happy and balanced horse.  Missing your leads?  It's the hind end.  And on and on. 

But the actual practice of this has been a hard thing for me to grasp, but I finally got a little bit closer thanks to that forum.  The realization came through a discussion about a horse walking a circle and bulging out through the shoulder.  My inclination in these instances is always to block the shoulder.  But that doesn't work for a number of reasons. The big one is that if you're riding well, you've already got your leg there.  So you can't block any more.  You could kick the horse to get them to move over, but that isn't really going to help them through the issue.

Instead, a very knowledgeable contributor to the thread suggested you manipulate the hind end a little more.  If they're pushing through that outside shoulder, they are too stiff in the hind and driving through the edge of that circle.  If you shape that hind into more of a bend with your inside leg, the horse loosens through the loin and gets right back on track.

I tried it, and it worked amazingly well.  It also helped me make considerable progress on a long term problem Bear and I have: weaving down the strip.  When this problem would come up I would try to keep his momentum up and block his shoulders and neck with my legs and reins.  On Tuesday we were riding alone and he started weaving.  I gently reached back and tipped his hind end over to line him back up.  The same thing happened again while going down a hill.  Usually I would struggle to keep him in a line because I always like to give him his head on the downhills, but this time I tipped his hind over and solved the problem instantly.  The other great thing is Bear was more than happy to oblige.

While riding Laredo over the weekend I was able to keep our circles at the lope nice and even despite his desire to lean towards Steen at a particular spot in the circle.  A little push on the hind and things cleared right up.

When I first started riding horses I was basically riding their head and neck.  Coming from cycling, I thought you could just line up the horse's head as if they were a pair of handlebars and voila, off you went.

Obviously that is not the way it works, and as I get deeper into this horsemanship business I am realizing you ride the whole horse, but you start with the very back of that horse.

I remember watching Richard Caldwell's Jaquima a Freno (Part II) a few months ago and seeing him ride a young hackamore horse in a circle.  He would drift that horse through turns, affecting the hind end and briefly two tracking him, then get him going in a nice circle again.  I tried working on that earlier this summer and had things just fall apart.  It was just another example of knowing, from an intellectual standpoint, that I needed to manipulate that hind end but not being able to physically make it happen.  Now I've got circles working better than I ever have.

http://www.westernhorsereview.com/blogs/screen-doors-saddles/the-vaquero-tradition/
Soft hands and perfect circles.  You will be greatly missed, Richard.