Mugwump/Big K Clinic: Day 1, First Ride

“So, what are you guys wanting to accomplish this weekend?”
I was surprised that Tim (the Big K) hadn’t ridden his horse out into the front to face us – instead, he sat in the lineup, resting easy on the trim little black mare.  He leaned forward, resting his forearm on the saddle horn, hands idly flipping the loose, looping reins.
The mare was gorgeous – coal black, trim, babydoll head….and short.  Tim should have looked too big on her. She might have been 14.2 on her tiptoes, and Tim – well, I don’t’ know how tall he is, but I’m pretty sure it was over 6 feet, and most of that was all spidery long legs.  He should have dwarfed the mare, but it worked somehow.  Seeing how comfortable the mare looked, I realized I’ll never worry about looking too big on a horse again.
Speaking of horse height….Caspian’s tallness worked for me.  I’d parked myself at the end of the line, but I didn’t have any trouble seeing down the row of participants. 
Even though he still felt like an overly-sensitive firecracker underneath me, he stood politely, although his head was high and his neck was stiff.  I think we both shared  the same, tight “what’s gonna happen next?”  look on our face.
Tim had an easy, personable way of speaking – friendly, calm, and just really easy going.  I knew that Mugwump had mentioned that as first-timers and newbies we wouldn’t be seeing the cold silences and disapproval we’d read about in the Sonita stories… but it was still a relief to see it in person.
“So, I’ve never really done a clinic like this before – usually I have an idea where people are at with  their riding, or what they’re hoping to accomplish. Why don’t we go down the line and we can talk about where you’re at, and what you hope to get out of this clinic?”
… and so we did.  Flying lead changes, more efficient stops, tracking the cow better without anticipating, spinny circle thingies (do you like my technical jargon?) – everyone seemed to have a pretty good idea what it was they wanted to work on.
Except for me.
“I… uh…. I just want to ride?  I just got this gelding, so, uh… I just want to learn how to ride him better?”  I shrugged my shoulders at Tim, and threaded my fingers through the salt and pepper strands of Caspian’s mane.

“Well, we can probably handle that.”

Honestly?  Not having an agenda really left me open to learning some truly awesome things…. But in the future, maybe I should sit down and think about my goals ahead of time. 

I should probably try to analyze my riding method a little better, too, because here’s where I’m just going to come right out and say it: 
The thing I loved most about the clinic was also the thing I initially hated the most.  And what did I initially hate the most?

Tim flat out refused to tell us “his way” of doing things.

Me:  “How should I cue him for flying lead change?”
Tim:  “Well, how do you usually try it?”

Me:  “What’s the best way to cue for a stop?”
Tim: “Well, how do you like to ask for it?”

Etc, etc,
Even though I understood why he did it, it was a bit frustrating for me at the beginning, because I’ve always been a bit lazy about learning the basics of horseback riding.  Well, let me rephrase that.  I’ve been lazy about learning the technical side of horseback riding.  I took a few lessons when I was 12, and then a few more when I was 16, and the rest I’ve picked up by watching other people and sticking with what worked,  or by listening to people tell me how they want me to ride their horse. 
In some ways it has worked for me, because everybody has a different way that they like their horse ridden, and I’ve been able to pick and choose what seems to work best. 

The downside is that it’s also left me a little bit lazy.   How do I cue for a stop?  Uhhh… I dunno?  However you want me to?

I didn’t HAVE a system or a method that I followed – that’s what I was hoping to get at the clinic (spoiler:  I did walk away with “a method”, and it actually was based upon Tim’s way of “not teaching.”

But right then, on the first day of the clinic….   I was in the mood to be spoon fed, darnit, and apparently everyone expected me to chew for myself.

Tim didn’t expound upon much when he explained things, but there was theme he kept coming back and repeating over and over throughout the weekend – there is no magic “method”.  If you had a way of getting things done, there was no reason to throw that just to adopt “Tim’s method” simply because he was the clinician you’d paid for.  At the end of the day, that was just going to confuse you more.

Instead, he wanted to help us be more effective with the tools we already had.

Anyways, back to the clinic:  after a little discussion, it was decided that we’d just work on circles so Tim could get a feel for where each of us was. 

The goal was to lope your horse in a couple of big, fast circles, and then slow your horse down and lope several smaller, slower circles that fit inside your bigger circle.

The trick for the circles was that you had to touch the same beginning point on the circle each time, whether it was big or small – in other words, if you were going to do a figure eight (which we eventually did), you started at the very center, and you needed to touch the center point of the 8 every time, whether it was a big circle or small circle.

For those of you who do reined cowhorse, you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to explain this.  It’s pretty elementary stuff.  But I know that somewhere out there there’s someone just as ignorant as me who might go to a future clinic, and now that person doesn’t have to lean over and whisper “What the heck does ‘Go do some circles’ mean?” 

Yes, yes, I know. I probably should have read up on reined cowhorse before showing up.
I should also probably eat more vegetables, and put away all my laundry, and drive under the speed limit.

Anyways, after a little glancing around to see who was going to go first, Summersmom  volunteered and headed out to the middle of the arena…..

And that’s where I’m going to break in and say that it kind of sucks for you guys.

 One of the best parts of the clinic was how much I learned when I wasn’t actually riding… and I’m not really going to share a lot of that with you.

The problem is, I learned most of the cool stuff by watching other riders – seeing what they did right, and what they did wrong, and how they used (or misunderstood) the directions they were given.  In other words, I learned a lot by watching other people learn…. And with a few exceptions, I’m not going to write about most of those lessons.

The problem I’ve run into is that I don’t feel comfortable critiquing other people’s riding, and some of the strongest lessons came from seeing someone do something, and thinking, “Well, if they just did ‘X’ like he told them to, it would work so much better,” etc, etc.

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of lesson that is awesome to learn but really hard to write about without making it seem like I think I’m a better rider than them.
And, after all, there was only one person who fell off at the clinic (Cough. ME. Cough), so I’m not exactly in a position to be snobby about riding.
Anyways,  like I said, it kind of sucks for you guys, because I did learn SO MUCH from watching other people, and except for a couple of instances, I can’t really put it down into words.

That said, here is one lesson that I saw that did kind of stick – I’ll call it the “Ten/One Rule”:

Gtyyup was far and away a much better rider than me.  She knew what she was doing, and you could just see the partnership between her and big bay gelding,Colt – long hours spent with each other, and a solid understanding of where they were, and where she wanted to be with him. 

Anyways, at some point while loping circles, she was asking Tim for advice on how to fix something that I couldn’t even see. Seriously – that’s how far advanced she was vs where I was – she was there, trying to fix something technical… and I didn’t even have any idea what she was really trying to do. 

“Tim, when I ask him to blow bubbles (or whatever it was), he braces, I correct him, he does it for a bit, and then he quits as soon as I release.”

“That’s because you’re not really correcting him. You’re nitpicking, and then never really releasing.  Here’s what I want you to do – think of correction in terms of 1 to 10.  When you correct him, I want you to correct him at an 8.  Really get after him –  and then as soon as he responds, release him down to a 1.  Right now you’re just doing more of a 4/3, 4/3 – you’re never really getting after him, but you’re also not really releasing him.”

And so off the two of them went again, Colt loping smoothly under a morning sun that was gradually getting uncomfortably hot.  As Gtyyup rode, she corrected him – harder than she was before, but, honestly, it wasn’t anywhere near an 8.

Twisting in the saddle, Tim looked over at us.  “So, what do you guys think?  Where do you think she is on the scale, correcting vs releasing?”

None of us really wanted to venture a direct opinion, but after a few moments and a little murmuring, we finally came to a conclusion – instead of the 4/3 she had before, now she was more like a 5/2.

Tim nodded, and we all went back to watching the pair lope their smooth circles in the arena.

When she came back, Gtyyup was all smiles.  “Boy, that made a huge difference – thank you!”

Tim nodded, and then looked over at Summersmom.  “So, what did you see with her out there?”

“Well, you weren’t really getting after him.  You didn’t really step it up like he said.”

“Really?”  Gtyyup looked shocked.  “I felt like I was really getting after him, and then throwing him away.”  She looked at all of us, but all of us were kind of shaking our head.  

So out she went again – and this time, when she corrected Colt, she corrected him at an 8.  His head flew up and his eyes bugged slightly, but the second he did what she asked, she laid the reins completely down on his neck, and gave him miles of slack in the reins.  Before she’d even finished her second circle, even I could see the difference.

And that was the beauty of the clinic – learning from other people’s mistakes, and then making your own.

Speaking of my mistakes…. In my nervousness at Caspian’s nervousness, I had decided to leave the spurs behind at the trailer.  During his skittery warm up it had seemed like a good idea, but after more than an hour of dozing in the hot summer sun, both of us were feeling really lazy. 

Of course, even though I’d relaxed as I watched every other person ride, the second it was my turn I felt my stomach go all cold and nauseous again.  I’m sure there are some people out there who enjoy people watching them ride, but not me. There’s something about riding with eyes on me that makes me freeze up.

Still – I hadn’t come all this way just to sit on him in an arena, right?  I stepped him out of the line up, walked out to the center point, gathered my reins just in case, and cued him to a lope.

Caspian stepped out in a big, smooth gait (at some point I’m going to have to figure out what he does – is it a running walk?  A foxtrot?  A pace?  Eh.) Whatever it was, it wasn’t a lope.

I cued him harder – pressing my heel into his side, and gave a long, loud kiss.

He gaited faster.

I kicked a little harder.

He ignored me.

I twisted my toe out so I could really dig my heel into his side, and kicked him. Hard.

He ratcheted his head up into the air, and broke into a hard, jouncing trot. 

For the record, it’s taken me quite a while to be comfortable with Caspian’s trot.  It’s big.  It’s jouncing.  It pounds the ground pretty hard – or it used to, back when he thought he was being bad every time he broke into the trot.  Part of the problem is that it’s pretty obvious nobody ever wanted him to trot under saddle.  I mean, not that I blame them – his gait is incredibly smooth, and covers a lot of ground… but still.  When he breaks into a trot he has a tendency to throw his head up in the air and hollow out his back, anticipating correction… and that just makes his big trot that much more uncomfortable.

Anyways, I’ve figured out how to sit his trot now, but on that particular morning, with  only three or four rides on him under my belt, and with me sitting all stiff and awkward in the saddle under the weight of all those stares ….

I tried to sit my way through that trot so I could push him past into a lope, but I felt like I was going to fall off at any second.

So I stopped him, collected myself, and tried again.

 I made it again to that hard, jackhammer extended trot, right to the point of feeling like I was about to fall off/be bounced out of the saddle, and I quit. I couldn’t even post to it, because every third or fourth stride he would break into a pace before going back into the trot, so I was forced to “sit” and bounce on his back while I tried to convince him to lope – flopping about all over the place like a five year old on her first lead line lesson.

It took almost three tries around my half of the arena before I was able to finally cue him into a smooth lope – and by that point, every single spare drop of blood my body didn’t need to keep things running was pounding in my face – it was the blush to end all blushes.

Hi, my name’s Becky, and I just trailered a thousand miles to learn how to make a horse lope.   You guys go ahead with your fancy rollbacks and sliding stops and cutting cattle – I’m going to learn how to ride a horsie.

Caspian’s best gait is by far his lope (canter?  Eh, whichever.)  I’m pretty sure he invented the term “rocking horse” canter.  I’d only ridden it once before, the first time I met him after my parents bought him, so when he finally transitioned from that teeth-rattling trot into that smooth, controlled motion, it felt like I was flying…. Unfortunately, it still felt like I was about to fall off.   His canter was so big, and so up and down that I felt like I was slipping and sliding all over the place. 

When I mentioned it to Mugwump later on in the day she said I looked fine, but I sure didn’t feel like it.  I really was just one small lean away from completely falling off, and it was completely disheartening.  Had I completely lost my ability to ride a horse?  Was I too fat?  What the heck was going on, that I couldn’t even sit on a horse without almost falling off?  

I later discovered that the cause of it was the saddle – I had my suspicions, but when Kathy (Mugwump’s friend) let me borrow her saddle, I instantly discovered I had my seat back. While the saddle fits Caspian and doesn’t hurt me, it’s so- I dunno, flat?  The way it sits on his back places me high up that it feels like it’s impossible to sink down and find my balance when he moves. 

In order to keep from tilting off I was unconsciously clamping down on him as he loped.  Like a good boy he would go a bit faster, at which point I would ask him to slow a bit- and he would immediately drop back down into a jouncing trot.

I’d kick him into the lope, he’d comply, I’d start squeezing to avoid falling off, he’d go faster, I’d check him….And that’s the way we went around the arena – a few strides of loping, then trotting, then loping.  

At some point Caspian realized that I was only somewhat in control, and he started to have fun.  Whereas when we entered the arena even the slightest touch of my calf muscle would send him flying forward, now he was completely ignoring me, even when I was pounding my heels into his side shockingly hard.  
I’m pretty sure I’ve invented the  next big exercise craze:  Kick the Stubborn Horse.  Let me assure you that it is a complete workout.  Long before we got to the “slow circles” my leg muscles were screaming for a rest and I was dripping salty sweat into my eyes.  Eventually I called it – halted him in the middle and said, while gasping for breath, “I’m sorry.  I really need to just take a break – I’m beat.”  It was completely embarrassing, but at least I had a new emotion to worry about instead of the constant nervousness that had plagued me for the last few hours.

Tim nodded.  “Sure thing.  Do you guys wanna break for lunch?” 

Lunch was amazing – it was deceptively simple, but still one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  Tim’s wife, Dawn, made sandwich wraps – basically, it’s just a sandwich, but instead of bread she used flour tortillas, and instead of mayonnaise, she used ranch dressing.

It actually sounds kind of gross when I describe it like that, but believe me, it was incredible.

The lunch atmosphere was a lot more relaxed than the breakfast atmosphere was – a lot more joking, and laughter, as we began to get a feel for one another.  Before long we were headed to grab our horses, and that’s when my body finally decided to relax.

I’d like to say I knew I was relaxing because I felt my shoulders muscles loosen, or something like that.


I knew I was relaxing because I began to burp. Apparently my stomach decided that since I wasn’t going to die, it should actually begin digesting all that food that was just sitting there, and the best way to do that was to make me burp.  A lot.

How sexy is that?  No wonder nobody’s based a spy novel on me.   How does James Bond relax?  With a martini – shaken, not stirred.

How does Becky Bean relax?  With great big belches that would do any 12 year old boy proud.

It was really hard trying to muffle them, too.  I mean, it was almost a shame.  These were epic belches, and I kept having to hide them behind a hand, or an elbow, lest I become known as “That Burpy Blogger” in everyone’s write ups.  I

Still, gross as it was, with every burp I felt better.  I’d gotten the worst out of the way.  I’d survived the drive up, my battle with nerves, the fear of failure, and the first ride.  It was Friday afternoon, and I was finally ready to get down to the business of learning.