The last time I wrote about riding horses, I stopped after I rode Rocky the stallion. Surprisingly enough, riding the Ninja Horse (as I‘ve decided to call him) was not the high point of the weekend. Bunnygal has quite a collection of horses (mostly foundation-bred cutters) and one of her personal favorites is a short, stout, bay roan mare named Cotton. While Rocky is also a bay roan, Cotton takes the fancy coloring to a whole new level. She’s more silver than bay, and she has a thick, lush, waterfall of mane and forelock that she peeks out under with large, liquid eyes. She looks like she should be a child’s pony or a Breyer horse rather than a cutter.
Don’t be fooled by her short stature and pretty markings—that mare has moves, and she means business. She’s short— technically she should be too short for me to feel comfortable on, considering she’d probably have to stretch on her toes to be 14.3 and I’m 5’9” and not exactly slender at the moment. Her saving grace is bulk— that mare has one of the largest hindquarters and widest, deepest chests I’ve ever seen. If you made her a little taller, she’d probably top out at 1500 pounds. As it is, although I’m not that great at guessing weights, I’d imagine she’s got to be around 1100 pounds. It’s like riding a Mack truck on daschund-sized legs. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not disproportionate. She’s just… BIG. Short, but BIG. It’s a lot of bulk to move around as fast as she does, but that mare is kitty-cat quick. She’s quick enough that until recently, Bunnygal hasn’t allowed me to ride her— and frankly, I haven’t even been interested in asking. Not only was she one of the quickest of the bunch, she had a hard time not over-anticipating the needs of her rider, which made her a little edgy to ride. On the last day of the magic weekend I had a couple of days ago, Bunnygal offered her to me. “Wanna try Cotton?” she said with a sly smile. I perked up immediately. I was magic. I was golden. I was having the best riding weekend of my life. “You bet!”
I grabbed the mare out of her pen and tied her to the trailer while I groomed and tacked her up. She dozed sleepily in the sun, leg cocked. Bunnygal sat nearby, offering me helpful, ominous suggestions. “She’s sensitive. You really need to stay off her mouth. And don’t use your legs, or you’ll end up on your back in the arena. She’s quick. Stay deep in the saddle and don’t tense up, or she’ll take off with you, and you’ll probably end up sitting in the sand. Ride with your body, not with your hands. Don’t ask her to stop until you’re ready, or you’ll end up in your butt in the arena.”
Wow. Every other suggestion was about how I was going to end up in my butt in the arena. What was I about to do?
One of the great things about saddling a short horse is that they are, well, SHORT. Tossing the saddle up on Cotton’s back was simple, and bridling her was a breeze, especially with her low-slung, sleepy head. I led her out into the middle of the round pen, checking the girth. Cotton heaved a deep sigh, and switched her weight to her other foot, settling in for what appeared to be a deep snooze.
I grabbed her reins and heaved myself up into the saddle, biting back a hiss of pain (thank you, Rheumatoid Arthritis, for giving me the swollen, damaged knees of a 90 year old woman. ‘Preciate it.) The second my butt hit the saddle, the effect was instantaneous. Gone was the sleepy, placid mare who had been dozing in the sun less than 2 seconds ago. In her place was a coiled spring of a horse that fairly vibrated with the need to anticipate my requests. I could feel her, edgy and tense, beneath me. It was like sitting on a large border collie. Technically, she wasn’t moving. But I could feel her quivering, tense, trying to anticipate were I would send her. Left? Right? Rollback? Gallop? Back? What? Was that a movement? Go? Stay? Left? Right? Where? I could actively feel her trying to anticipate where I what I was going to ask her. Weird.
I gently, slowly eased my weight around until I found the sweet spot in the saddle, and then I sat for a few moments, trying to get a feel for her. I’d never been on a horse that was this charged up and fired to go that wasn’t already jigging in place or engaging in a full-blast spook session. It was almost unnerving, feeling that much getupandgo while still sitting completely still.
I gave Cotton a few moments to see if she would relax, but she remained tense. I leaned forward slowly, petting her rock-hard neck, then slid the reins slightly up her neck to “knock her off-balance.” It’s an interesting concept that Bunnygal uses on her horses, and one that I like. Instead of cuing a horse from a dead stop, which can lead to bracing or uneven starts, you knock them off balance by asking them to step to the side. It’s like the method of knocking the ice of the sled that they used in Call of the Wild. Most of the time, sliding the reins up the neck to the side (obviously, neck reigning) would cause some of the lazy starters to take a shifting half-step to the side, at which point it was easy to work with the momentum to create a fluid movement.
Obviously, Cotton was anything but a lazy starter. I slid the reins about two inches up her neck, and we were off, in a quick, smooth walk that covered ground at an impressive rate for such a short little horse. I let her make 2 revolutions of the pen, finding a rhythm. I tried to sit quietly, and kept my calves at an almost comical angle in an attempt to avoid touching her sides. I sank deep in my saddle. “Ho—“ I started to say ho, but Cotton had already beat me to the punch, and had stopped solidly, solid hindquarters tucked neatly beneath her.
We started again, and this time I tried a few turns. The turns seemed to jazz her up a little, as she anticipated being asked to really work. I ignored her lifted head and the way she tightened beneath me, put her back on the rail, and imagined myself moving faster.
Cotton broke into a jog.
Double cool. I was riding an Avatar horse. I obviously had my invisible braid plugged into her somewhere.
I wondered if I could take use her sensitivity to imagine myself cutting across the middle of the round pen, and if she would actually respond.
As I was pondering the concept, Cotton made a 90 degree turn to dart across at the exact location I had considered asking her. It took a moment to find my balance, and for a moment, I worried that I would accidentally cue her to spin out from underneath me. We held it together, and made a few more laps.
COOOOL. Avatar horse! Avatar horse!
She was trotting a little faster than she needed to be, so I worked for a few minutes trying to bring her down to a jog. That was when I realized how much I really, really, REALLY liked riding this horse.
Have you ever had a horse that just moves like you want a horse to move? I rode my idiot Thoroughbred for years and I never once felt in synch with him when I was on his back. His big trot felt alien to my body. It was easy to post, but it never felt right. His canter was beautiful, with photographically smooth action— I always felt like I was just one step away from falling off.
Cotton moved like I wanted a horse to move. It occurred to me that she was making me look good simply because of the way she was put together— at one point while I tried to work on her headset and set her speed, I accidentally used too much leg and sent her flying forward in a high-headed extended trot. Usually when this happens I look like a kindergartner on a runaway ponyride. I bounce, I flop, I slap against the saddle, and I either start posting to soothe my pride or I haul the horse to a halt and start all over.
Riding Cotton’s trot felt like riding a gated horse’s gait (and I’ve been on several different gated breeds). I asked Bunnygal afterwards, and she said she didn’t really care for Cotton’s trot. It was okay, but it wasn’t like Rocky’s, or her other mare Josie’s. Frankly, I don’t know what’s wrong with Bunnygal. I used to trust her judgment, but now I don’t know. Cotton’s movements were just THAT incredible that it’s hard for me to realize that it may not seem like that to everyone.
It was fantastic. It was like someone had superglued my butt to the saddle. I didn’t have a mirror, but I instinctively knew that I looked like every single rodeo rider I’ve ever admired. I’ve only had this experience with one other horse, and finding it again felt magical. Suddenly, I wasn’t worried about messing up anymore. I was Alec Ramsey on the Black Stallion. I was Henry on Misty of Chincoteague. I was every Indian that ever clung to the side of his galloping horse while shooting arrows.
Grinning, I decided to take a chance and use Cotton’s speed and turned her into the fence for a rollback. Cotton slid to a stop, set back on her haunches and was off trotting in the other direction before I even realized we were done.
I let out a whoop of laughter, did it again. Cotton slid to a stop, and spun the other direction, nearly unseating me with her speed before she took off in her smooth trot the other direction. I let go of my pride and grabbed the saddle horn, planted my butt and said, “HO”.
We left little twin dirt tracks in the sand behind us as Cotton sat down to stop.
“This. Mare. Is. AWESOME!” I think I actually hurt my face a little, I was smiling so big.
Bunnygal grinned back at me. “Slide your reins up her neck and apply a little leg pressure… a little more forward than you’ve been doing. Hold on.”
I grabbed the slender cutting horn, and obeyed. Cotton began to spin on her haunches, moving in a dizzying little turn that caused her back legs to dig a little pivot trench in the ground beneath us.
How. Completely. AWESOME!
I have to admit that I may have ruined the solemn learning experience I might have had riding Cotton by whooping, and hollering, and laughing like a schoolgirl during the entire ride. It was hard to stay focused and learn from my mistakes when I was too busy trying to catch my breath while giggling. Maybe that says something about my lack of professionalism and the reason why I’m not further along in my riding, but who cares? I had an absolute blast that afternoon, spinning and sliding all over the round pen.
I did have one interesting experience with Cotton that served me well this weekend: The more I tried to bring Cotton down to a pleasure horse jog, the antsier that mare became. Bunnygal is constantly telling me that I need to ride with my body, and that I rely entirely too much on my hands. It’s a concept I’m barely beginning to understand. Still, I could tell that my attempts to slow Cotton’s nervous trot, the worse the situation became. She would raise her head and speed up. I would gently touch the reins, asking her to lower her head. She would lower it briefly, then speed up even more. I would increase the pressure on the reins, and she would brace slightly (I later learned that every time I asked her to slow down I would start leaning forward in my eagerness to communicate, thereby telling her “slow down” with my hands and “Speed up!” with my body. No wonder I wasn’t getting through.) After a few tries of this, I could feel her getting impatient, almost frantic in her attempt to figure out what I mean. Her head would raise up, her breathing rate would quicken, and I could feel her start sliding out of my control.
That’s when I employed an interesting technique that I learned from an old cowboy: I dropped the reins on her neck, sat deep in my seat without moving, and threw all the control back to her. The time I did it with the cowboy, he actually made me tie the reins to my saddle horn and hold on to the horn like a child. I was 19 years old and totally terrified (5 year old off-the-track-thoroughbred, out on trail, and no way to stop him from bolting?) I was also totally humiliated. According to him (and he was right about most things), I was the one that was getting in my horse’s way and making him nervous. That’s an entirely different story though.
It’s an eerie, eerie sensation, and aside from that time with the cowboy, Cotton is the only horse I’ve ever been able to bring myself to do it on. To be honest, the only reason I felt comfortable doing it on Cotton was because I found her to be so incredibly smooth that I didn’t think she could throw me unless she was actively trying. Plus, I was in a round pen.
Like I suspected, every time I quit sending her mixed messages with the reins, she calmed down on her own and settled into an easy jog. Every time I lifted the reins and began sending muddied messages about slow-down-speed-up, she began revving herself up into a lather, trying to figure out what it was I actually wanted her to do. It was a neat sensation watching my theory actually hold true. I repeated it three or four times just to be sure. I’d wait for her to calm herself with a few trips around the round pen, then lift the reins and work on her headset/speed for about five minutes, or until she was so frantic that I felt like I was losing my connection with her. When it would hit the point that I felt like I wasn’t getting through or was in danger of losing all lines of communications by causing her to lather up and shut her brain down, I would drop the reins onto her neck and just sit quietly, waiting for her to calm herself down. I’m not sure if I would have the guts to try it on another, bouncier horse, but it was a really interesting experience and a pretty valuable lesson.
And you know what else? It absolutely SAVED my butt this weekend when the two of us got stuck in a snow drift.