The Mugwump/Big K Clinic: Purpose Makes Sense to Horses

He was going to rear.

OMG, he was going to rear.

I hate rearing horses.  I hate them.  It scares me worse than anything.  I hate them.  I hate them, I hate them, I hate them, I hate them. And now I own one.

Caspian danced at the edge of the mud, head high and unbalanced on an unnaturally tense neck, weight rocked back on his heels, jaw locked against the bit.    We were “trapped”.  We’d come down a hill, there were small banks on either side, and the only way across was through a marshy mud puddle that might have been a creek a few weeks back.

It was supposed to be a Montana cattle roundup, but at this point it had turned into a Montana Mud Mexican Standoff.  Caspian flat out told me there was zero chance of him setting foot into that horse-eating muck… and to make matters worse, he was beginning to freak out about everyone riding away from us.  I saw the last horse disappear around the corner, and the cold nerves in my stomach went from a slithering worm of fear to a thrashing mass of hissing rattle snakes.

I tried to think calm thoughts.  I was in Montana.  I was on my horse.  It was a beautiful day.  I was at the clinic, and I was on a cattle ranch in Montana, and I was on my horse, and all I had to do was not force him, not let my body stiffen up with my nerves, and just keep him calmly pointed towards where the other horses disappeared, and…

Caspian’s sideways dancing jig slowed as he shook his head and lifted his front hooves off the ground – controlled and frustrated, not very high, but still a rear.

I tried to think happy thoughts, but my brain wasn’t having any part of it.

Do you remember?  Do you remember what it looked like when you went down to the Santa Anita racetrack to watch the Thoroughbreds exercise, and that one jockey you’d spent all morning chatting with rode that one colt- what was his name?  ImAPlayboy?  And even though the jockey did nothing and was perfectly balanced, the horse flipped over on top of him with no warning, and broke his back and pelvis right in front of you?  

I was in Montana.  I was on a horse.  I was supposed to be having fun, dangit. It was a stupid, 10 foot mud crossing.  I did not drive 1,000 miles just to get nervous about a stupid, 10 foot mud crossing, on a mellow 8 year old horse.  Pull yourself together, Becky.  Just relax – you’re making it worse.  It was easy.  Simple.  How hard could it be? Tighten the knees, loose calves, sit down in your seat, loose reins – keep him pointed towards it but don’t transmit any tension… Think happy thoughts…. Montana… sky…. happy thoughts….

Caspian jigged again and then leaned back, front hooves coming even further off the ground.

 At what point does it become a rear?  Sh*t.  You own a rearing horse.  SH*T.   You can’t just get off and not ride him again. You have to fix this.   Do you remember Dom?  Remember how that one horse flipped over on her and broke her leg?  She’s ten times stickier of a rider than you’ll ever be. If a jockey and Dom can get hurt with a rearing horse, what chance do you have?  You’re going to die.  Or be paralyzed.  He’s going to lift up, and you’re going to panic, and you’re going to pull the reins sideways, and his hind legs are going to slip out from under him and he’s going to crash back on top of you.  And you’re too slow, and too fat, and too unbalanced to ever get out of the saddle in time.

Think happy thoughts.  Calm.  Don’t let him spin around – just keep him forward – CRAP, he’s trying to rear again.  Why didn’t I stick with the main group on the way out to get the cows?  I would have had to cross this then, and we would have had company, and he would have followed the other horses, and it would have been easy. 

But noooooo.  I had to try to tag along with Tim and Janet, and now I’ve discovered my horse doesn’t like water or mud at the same time everyone’s gone and left us, and I can’t exactly call out for someone to come back, because that’s just stupid.  First I can’t lope, and now I can’t cross a patch of mud, and can I really be this inept?  I can’t act like a stupid, California city girl and yell for someone to come back just because it’s a mud puddle, and I can’t get down because then Caspian will think all he has to do is jig for me to get off, and SH*T THERE HE GOES AGAIN – I think that’s totally a rear, even if it does feel balanced, SH*T I OWN A REARING HORSE. WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO…

“Hey there.”  Tim appeared suddenly from around the bend, relaxed and loose in the saddle as he headed straight back to us.

I was so relieved I could have cried.  I wasn’t the only one.  At the sight of the other horse returning, Caspian’s weight redistributed itself more firmly on all four hooves, and his head lowered a tiny degree.  He still jigged, but not nearly with the same level of frenzy, and I could feel the relief pouring off of him, too.

“Everyone’s just heading off, and it can be scary,” Tim said, blue eyes staring into mine, willing me to be calm.

Wait, is he talking about it being scary for the horse, or for me? Can he tell how scared I am? I must look so stupid, obviously terrified on top of a totally easy-going gelding, while he’s guiding this little 2 or 3 year old colt through the hills and mud with only his knees.  

I don’t care.  I was scared.  Am scared.  Sh*t, what am I going to do about owning a rearing horse?  I don’t care if he feels balanced, it’s still a rear.  I’m so glad Tim noticed I was missing and came back.  Seriously, I could kiss this man.  I would bear his children.   Wait, he’s married.  Wait, so am I.  Well, I didn’t mean it that way anyways.  Besides, I hate being pregnant, but that’s the point.  Maybe I’d just do the surrogacy thing.  Him coming back means that much to me.  You know, if he needed a surrogate, like if he and his wife have some kind of fertility issues.  Do they?  Wait, don’t they have kids?  I can’t remember.  And what the heck, that’s none of my business. I’m just so, so relieved Caspian’s not rearing, and that someone came back for me.  I’ve never loved anyone more than I love this man, right here, right now, for not stranding me here with my new rearing horse.  I would do his laundry for a year, that’s how much I love him.  Also, that sounds better.  I should tell him that, instead of the “carrying his baby” thing.  That just sounds weird. It sounds kind of sexual ,and I don’t mean it that way at all.  I like his wife.  She seems awesome, and she’s totally sexy, and she cooks way better than I ever could.  No wonder he married her.  Holy crap, I’m not even talking out loud and I’m rambling.  I should just shut my mouth and wave at him.  Wait, I need both hands on the reins. Nod. I’ll just nod at him instead.

I nodded at Tim.

Tim eased the little mare next to mine, and both Caspian and I relaxed further.

“It’s the scariest thing in the world to be left behind,” he said.

I ducked my gaze away and tried to force my stiff body to mimic his relaxed slouch.  This time I was pretty sure he was directing the sentence at both Caspian and me, but I didn’t care.  I had felt a little bit like a panicking horse when I saw the rest of the riders trotting easily away, as I was stuck behind with my problem child – who probably wasn’t even that bad of a problem.  Man, I hated being out of shape and awkward in the saddle again.  Man, I was so glad he came back.  Man, I really, really, really would do that man’s laundry for an entire year.

“Got any tips on how to get him across?”  I tried to sound nonchalant, offhand, but I’m pretty sure I sounded as desperate as I felt.  Please help me figure out a way to get him across without him wanting to rear.

And that’s when it got cool.

Do you guys remember reading that one blog post from Mugwump, about how she gets horses to go over something they don’t want to?  I’m still trying to find it (if you can find it before me, can you shoot me the link?)  She talked about how you work them in front of the object, and only let them rest when they’re facing the object, so it becomes a happy place, instead of a scary place?

I remember reading it and thinking, “Boy, I bet that works!” and mentally filing it away under “Things I will try once I have a horse“.  Of course, as soon as I needed it I totally forgot about it.   Apparently my brain’s filing cabinet is actually just a big paper shredder.  Thanks, brain.

Anyways, long story short, I did it.  I totally lived out a blog post, in real life, learning a training tip that I’d read about on a blog I liked, long before I ever knew Mugwump was a woman named Janet, and the whole time I did it, I did it under the watchful eye of the Big K, beneath the blue Montana sky.

If that was the only thing I’d done the entire weekend, that alone would have been worth the price of admission.  (Note:  I had four or five other huge AHA! moments that weekend, some with Mugwump, some with the Big K, some just by watching other people on their horses, so I would definitely say I more than got my money’s worth.)

So, for non-horsey people, I’m going to “dumb” this down a bit and use less technical terms.

Here was my old way of dealing with a horse that didn’t want to cross something:

  1. Horse balks, throwing on the brakes and screeching to a halt. It could be anything – a scary dog behind a fence, a plastic bag flapping in the wind, a bit of menacing shrubbery.  For the sake of argument, let’s pretend the horse is balking at a scary, scary stream crossing.
  2. I make sure I have no pressure on the reins, and use my legs to urge the horse forward.
  3. The horse continues to balk, and at this point usually tries to turn around and leave the scary situation.
  4. I don’t let the horse turn around.  I use my legs to block the horse from turning away from scary object, and use the reins to keep the horse’s head pointed towards the scary object.  I continue to urge the horse forward.  It’s still early in the argument, so I’m probably just squeezing and using my heels a bit.
  5. The horse takes a slight step forward.  I stop squeezing with my legs and say “Gooood” in a calm voice while patting the neck.
  6. Horse thinks about it a second, then realizes: NOPE.  Not worth it.  Being “Gooood” is not worth dying a terrible, painful, bloody death by “scary, scary stream” and tries to spin around and flee.
  7. I do not let the horse spin around – or if they start the spin and I’m too late to catch it, I just spin them back until they’re facing it.  Begin upping the “pressure” – louder clucks, firming heels, etc – keeping pressure off the reins unless it’s to keep the horse facing forward.  Any forward movement is rewarded by a release of pressure, and any attempt to leave means the pressure increases.
  8. The horse, feeling trapped and claustrophobic by the scary, scary stream in front of it, and the mean, mean pressure from my increasingly forceful cues to go forward begins to dance and jig from side to side. Or, in Caspian’s case, they go up (rear).  Jubilee used to escape backwards – he’d face the scary, scary object and just bolt backwards at 100 million miles an hour, not caring what was behind him.  That was always fun.  Horses can be such a blast to ride, sometimes.
  9. Eventually I win – I’m more stubborn, the horse gives in to both my cues and the relief that comes from the “release” and we cross.
It was not exactly a bad system.  I was usually sympathetic to their fear and for the most part my cues were gentle and firm.  The thing is, even if I stayed calm and patient throughout the entire thing, there really wasn’t any way for the horse to avoid feeling either fear/anxiety or mounting frustration throughout the whole process, until they decided to give in, trust, and move forward.

Here is why I love my new and improved Montana system so well:  When my horse is facing a fearful situation… why create more fear/anxiety/frustration?  That’s just going to get in the way of learning.

Here is what Tim walked me through with Caspian:

Since Caspian was already so light on his front end… why not work on rollbacks?
(A rollback: Where a horse swaps directions by pivoting on its hind legs – this is the only photo I could find on the internet with a decent photo sequence – ignore the gaping mouth on the horse.)
So, we did.  We used the mud pit like a wall to block his forward movement, and I worked him on his rollbacks, with zero intentions of crossing the swampy mud.  It worked like a charm, too – I had no idea my horse could double up and turn so neatly.

The only caveat was that I was not allowed to him take a breather in any direction except facing the mud, and  if Caspian showed any hesitation on his own while facing the mud, I was to immediately let him take a break.

We must have done 10-15 rollbacks in a row without a single stop.  That may not be a lot for a well-muscled horse, but it was certainly taxing on Caspian.  They were good rollbacks, too – Big K was giving me pointers on how to get him to follow through, and how to cue him better.  It literally felt like an arena lesson, only it was taking place on a churned-up, narrow cow trail.

And the thing was, with something else to concentrate on, and with the feeling of success on each rollback, both Caspian and I relaxed and unclenched our buttholes (Dude – it’s crass, but you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

“Let him rest now,” Tim said, one or two turns before Caspian was going to become sluggish.

I pointed Caspian at the mud hole, and let him breathe.  He took a few breaths, and then noticed where he was standing, and began to tense up.

“Work him some more,” came Tim’s voice from behind me, a moment before I was going to cue him on my own…. but I guess that’s why one of us is paying to attend clinics, and the other one giving them. On a side note – another interesting thing I learned at the clinic came from listening to Tim and Janet and realizing just how “off” my timing was for corrections and release was.

I worked him again, and almost immediately I could feel Caspian roll his eyes.  Rollbacks? he seemed to say.  Aren’t you tired of those yet? Because I sure am.

We did a few more of them before Tim called for me to stop him.  This time, Caspian stood easily, a bit out of breath, his front hooves actually sinking a bit in the mud without him even noticing.

“See if he’ll go forward – if he starts to turn away, go back to more rollbacks.”

I asked Caspian to move forward with my legs, and I felt him consider it for a moment, right up until he realized he was actually touching the mud with his front hooves.  Omg, it’s gonna eat me!

I used his horror and turned him into a neat little rollback, and went back to work.  I could feel him rolling his eyes as he forgot about the yawning mudpit of doom and became bored and slightly irritated with the constant maneuvering.  Dude.  The rollbacks are getting old.  Why are you so obsessed with this maneuver?

This time, three sets of rollbacks in, he asked to stop.  I felt it beneath me – a slight hesitation as he faced the stream, a questioning slowing of his movement, so I turned him towards the mud and let him breathe.

“Good,” Tim said in a quiet voice, and I found myself feeling absurdly pleased at the small bit of praise.  Caspian lowered his head, sniffing and snorting at the mud, trembling slightly underneath me.  I felt him rock backwards slightly, preparing to flee, and I settled my seat, reaching to gather the reins so I could ask him to do more rollbacks.

Woman, you have GOT to be kidding me.  No.  NO.  No more rollbacks – I am so, SO sick of that stupid thing you’re so obsessed with.  You will not make me do another one of those stupid maneuvers.
Caspian’s a quiet horse, but when he’s disdainful, you can feel it surging up from underneath you in a deafening roar.  Sensing my intentions, he stepped forward into the mud before I could ask him to work some more.  He quivered beneath me the entire way, snorting and blowing and trembling with nerves, but once he took that first step he crossed  it without a single complaint.

When we reached the other side, I think my smile could have lit up an entire room.  I was Becky Bean, Teacher of Rollbacks, and Understander of Horse Body Language.  I was Horse Trainer and Mud Crosser Extraordinaire.   
All joking aside… it’s hard to explain how eye-opening the whole scenario was for me.  I don’t have to fight with my horse.  I really don’t.

I know that may sound overly elementary to some of you, but when I was learning to ride horses, somehow I ended up with the mindset that I had to “win”.  If a horse balks, be more stubborn, and force them over, force them past.  Don’t give in.  Don’t lose.  It’s for their own good.

And the thing is… it doesn’t have to be like that at all. You always hear “Make the wrong choice hard, and the right choice easy,” but to have it work so easily, with so little fight…. for the first time ever, it just really sunk in.

And so far, I’m having the most amazing experiences because of the way that lesson sank in, and I really credit the clinic.    I’m not saying I achieved this guru-like ability to speak with horses – Caspian’s a very easy horse at heart, and he makes things easy, and I’m so very lucky, because it’s more like he’s training me while I train him.  I’ve ridden horses where I probably would have had to work on rollbacks for 20 minutes, and we both would have been sweaty and exhausted before they even gave it a single try… and then I would have to repeat the lesson five or six times in a row for it to really sink in.  For me to only have to do three tries at the mud, and for him to just understand it with just one crossing…. the credit goes to my horse and his calm, intelligent brain.

That said, I think a lot of the open communication I’m starting to feel with him comes from the Jedi mind tricks I learned at the clinic.  I’ve owned Caspian for almost a year now, and I’ve never once fought with him.  That is just so weird to me.  And I don’t mean “fight” in the physical sense.  I mean it in the “I will win, and you will NOT win” kind of a way that usually accompanied my approach to butting heads with horses in the past whenever I encountered a problem.

I don’t have to fight Caspian… and in the 11 months I’ve owned him, I haven’t had a single fight with him.  Not once.   Do you have any idea how crazy that is to me?

I think the mud crossing would have been enough to chew on on its own, but there was this other point in the clinic, where the big arena was muddy so we had gone into the indoor to work the mechanical cow.

We’d been inside for almost two hours before I realized that Caspian was nervous about the entrance to the arena – something about the mix of bright and shadows was making him uncomfortable, and even though he was doing a great job “cutting” the plastic cow on a string, when we would approach that side of the arena his canter would transform from practical into a beautiful, lofty, very high thing.  I’m sure it was gorgeous to look at, it felt really cool to ride, and I’m sure it would have made a dressage instructor drool…. but it made me uneasy.

Instead of turning to follow the cow, I whoa’d Caspian, and turned to face Tim and Mugwump.

“I have a question.”

“What’s up?”

“Well, I know he isn’t really spooking right now, but it kind of ties into that semi-rearing thing he did with me at the mud.  He doesn’t like this side of the arena.  And he still canters toward it, but I can feel him getting really light in the front end because he doesn’t want to be over here, and it just makes me really uncomfortable.  I feel like it’s a baby step in the rearing direction, and I’d like to just make him quit before I even start.  It’s not like I’ve got any real pressure on the reins blocking him.  I’m not sure what the best way to handle it is.”

“Well, do you need to be over on that side of the arena?”

Huh?  I blinked at Tim a few times before answering.  “Uh… I guess not?”

“Well, then, there you go.  Don’t go over there.”  Tim nodded once, as if everything had been answered.

“Uhh…. But….”  But Tim, that’s kind of the most confusing, obviously wrong answer I’ve ever heard in my entire life… “But Tim, doesn’t that, you know, let him ‘win’?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve just…. Well, you know how you’re always asking us ‘how would we do it’?  Well, if I were home, and this was happening, I would take Caspian over to that corner, and just force him to do his work in it until he got over whatever was bothering him.  Just… just kind of make him stay there until he wasn’t nervous anymore.”

“Well, if you don’t really need to go over there, then I say don’t make him.”

“But…. but why?  I just don’t understand how that’s the right answer.  It seems like I would be letting him win – that he would learn that trying to avoid an area results in me avoiding it.”

“If it were important for you to work over there, then yeah, I would say you need to make him go over there.  But you said it yourself – you don’t need to be in that part of the arena.  The thing is, if you come in here, day after day, and just work on the things you need to work on, and ignore whatever’s making him nervous about that area… well, eventually you’ll come in one day, and realize it’s not a problem anymore.  He’ll have worked through it on his own, and it won’t be an issue.  There’s no sense fighting him over something that’s not important – he’ll pick it up on his own along the way.  You’d be surprised.”

Guys, I really hope that makes as much sense to you as it does to me – and if it doesn’t, and if you want to “get it” better, ask me a question in the comments and I’ll try to explain again…. because this has been the most absolutely life-changing thing about the way I’m interacting with horses.

I mean, in the spirit of complete honesty, at the time I heard it, I disagreed with what Tim was saying.  Sure, that method would work, if I was ever going to come back to this barn.  And sure, that might work if we were all on horseback 8 hours a day with a velcro seat, and we didn’t get nervous when horses started to act up…. but it seemed like a useless approach for someone like me.

Still – I paid good money for the clinic, so I wasn’t about to just ignore the advice I’d paid to receive.  I did what he asked – stopped concentrating on that half of the arena, stopped mentally willing Caspian to move into it, and stopped caring when his canter got all airy and lofty and dude-if-my-hind-legs-were-still-this-would-be-a-Lipizzaner-rear.

And you know what?  Somewhere in the  middle of that rainy morning…. Caspian quit caring about the doorway.

It was the weirdest darn thing I’d ever had happen – and again, I really, REALLY credit my horse and his big, calm brain for allowing me to make all of these mental breakthroughs.  A flightier, stupider horse wouldn’t have taken five giant mental steps for every single tiny shuffle that I made that weekend…. but Caspian did, and because of that, I’ve been able to have epiphany after epiphany with him.

I’ve had a couple of months to chew on what I think Tim was trying to say, and I’ve bounced the idea off of Mugwump and she agrees with my interpretation.

Ignoring the door and Caspian’s lack of forward movement wasn’t “letting him win” – it was just… just not arguing with him over stupid, small stuff.  Did I need to go over to the doorway to accomplish my goals?  No?  Then it didn’t matter – why argue with him unless it really mattered?  Sure I could have made him do it in the end, but I should only “force” him if it really matters, and not fight over useless stuff, just to prove I can “win”.

And the beautiful thing is, CASPIAN UNDERSTANDS THIS PREMISE.  I don’t know when I became aware of it, but somewhere along the way, as we built our relationship – and as I explored this “don’t butt heads” way of approaching a horse… Caspian told me he understood the rules.

It was kind of funny, in a way, because I didn’t even realize I was giving him rules until he told me  he understood them.

A couple of weeks ago we were out on the trails at our new barn.  There’s never anybody there to ride with me, so both Caspian and I are learning how to ride out on the trails, away from any signs of houses or fences or anything, with only each other for company.

Both of us were pretty unnerved by this idea at first, not that we’re 100% comfortable yet, or anything.   I actually tried approaching it in a different way that I got from a book, and it seems to have worked… but that will have to be another post, because this one’s already stupidly long.

Anyways, our new trails are several hundred acres of rolling cattle pasture – and once you “cross the creek and go through the gate”, you are on public land – or at least land that belongs to some giant logging company (or something) who doesn’t mind if we ride on it.

I swear this creek is mythical, because I still haven’t found it yet.  On the day in question I had about three hours before work so I decided to find the creek to see if Caspian remembered his rollbacks lesson.  Despite surviving an entire Oregon winter, he’s still a little iffy about certain types of mud, and I haven’t had any chance at all to work on water crossings yet.

We threaded our way through the hills, him a little uncertain but walking calmly on a loose lead.  We made our way up a hill, then up a road, before we arrived at a flat muddy road-type area about a football field or more in length that was churned up by countless, fresh cow hoof prints.

Well… the road was wide, and obviously well-traveled by cows… and it sloped downwards…. there was probably a creek at the bottom? (Spoiler:  it totally wasn’t.)

Still – I eyed the mud dubiously.  I could feel Caspian underneath me doing the same.  I had no idea how deep it was, but it looked bad, so I decided to get off and lead him through it (it’s part of my “training a solo trail horse” thing I’m doing – lots of leading in uncertain situations until we’re both comfortable alone.)

I got off and began to slip, and slide through a couple hundred yards of the slimiest, suckiest clay ever. At one point I sank down so deep that the pooled water on the top of the mud began pouring down into my boot.  Man, that’s a nasty feeling.  I even lost my boot twice in the sticky, slimy mess and had to take a step backwards for it.

I thought about turning back, but by that time I was more than halfway through, and I figured there had to be another way around this mud pit so I never had to go through it again.

Caspian followed me respectfully as I edged my way through there – the two of us sliding like Bambi as we made our way through, the lead rope loose and his nose about a foot or two behind my shoulder.  He’s good as gold when I’m on the ground leading him, and has been for some time.  We got to the bottom and I began to look around for another way out.

An hour later I’d bumped into every single fence the farmer must have had, some of it serving no other visible purpose than to keep me from getting back to the barn.  I was annoyed, and frustrated, and worried about getting to work on time….

And lost.

I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I could point which way the barn was, but I had no idea how to actually get back there.  I’d criss-crossed so many times I couldn’t remember the way I came in.  Every hill I climbed seemed to dead end in barbed wire.  I was hot, and sweaty, and really out of breath, because somewhere along the way I’d gotten so involved in searching that I’d literally forgotten to mount back up on my horse.  Caspian follows on a completely loose lead, so several times I actually forgot I was even leading him and would spin around and almost bump into him as I marched back down the hill, frustrated and muttering.

Eventually, I gave up.  I knew where home was.  I knew where we were.  I just didn’t know how to actually get back there.

“Alright,” I said, as I led Caspian over to a stump and heaved myself back up into the saddle.  “Your turn.”

It took only a few steps before he realized I was letting him decide the path, and he turned around and made a beeline straight for the barn.

“It’s not going to work,” I said in a sulky tone.  “There’s a stupid fence up there.”

Either Caspian didn’t speak English or he decided to ignore me, because he continued marching on, with pricked ears and a happy expression.  Hooray!  We’re finally going home, where there are other horses and no mud or wolves lurking in the shadows.

He reached the top of the hill and stopped short, staring intently at the fence in front of him for a few moments as he flicked his ears.

“See?  I tooooold you there was a fence.”

Proving once again that he’s more mature than I am, Caspian ignored me and turned around to head back down the hill in another direction.

A few turns later I recognized where he was taking us- we were heading straight back to the ugly mud pit.  I hadn’t wanted to cross it again… but I’d told Caspian he could choose the route home, and he probably remembered what lay there, so I decided to let him. Besides, I needed to be in my car in 40 minutes if I was going to make it to work on time, and we were rapidly running out of time.

He walked calmly to the edge of the stretch and stood for a moment, catching his breath from the long trek up the hill.

I sat quietly on top of him, to see what he would do.  After a few moments he lowered his head and blew on the mud, nostrils flaring as he snorted quietly.  And then he just stepped into it.

I mean, to understand what this really means, you have to know that I never once worked on Caspian’s phobia of mud.  There were a couple of times I had to lead him over a small patch at his old barn, and each time I did it was a barely-controlled, frantic skitter.  But I never worked with him.  Old-style Becky would dragged him over to every single patch of mud she ever found and forced him to cross it, time and time and time again until he got over it.  And in the end I would have had exactly what I trained for:  A horse that didn’t like mud, and tensed up when he saw it, but crossed it because he knew he had to.

But New-Style Becky… well, I just worked on other stuff.  And if mud happened to be in the way when we had to go somewhere, then so be it.  The only time I’d ever deliberately walked him over mud had been about an hour before, when he’d followed me willingly and without complaint over it the first time.

And now I had a horse that could feel me wanting him to go forward, and knew it was important to me…. so he did – because he trusted me, trusted that I wouldn’t ask him to do it unless it mattered.

I sat as still as I could on top of Caspian, doing my best to keep out of his way as he skated and slid and dragged his legs out of mud that made a deep, sucking SCHLOOOOOP noise with each step.  At one point he stopped, catching his breath and eyeing the chaos in front of us, trying to figure out which way to go.

Since I had a better vantage point I decided to chime in.   You should maybe go that way—over to the left, right around that big mud puddle…. oh, never mind.  Because even as I began to softly touch my request with my calf I thought – he’s doing great.  Why are you micromanaging, Becky?  Let him figure it out.

Except….as soon as I said something, he listened, even though I was just mumbling with my legs.  Oh, left?  Through the big mud puddle?  That way?  But there’s a huge puddle.  Well, I think that’s a stupid way to go, but if you think it’s the best way, then I believe you.

And without a single hesitation Caspian continued forward, splashing calmly through a deep puddle that sprayed up dirty water over my boots and his belly, willing to trust and completely in tune because to him, I made sense.


Love your horse. Just don’t LOVE your horse.

The barn at night is my favorite place in the world.  The horses are quiet, the wind is soft, and the world seems to slow to a peaceful crawl.

I’ve taken on a part time job doing in-home care for an elderly gentleman. It’s rewarding work and I love it…. but it doesn’t leave me a lot of extra time between that, taking care of the boys, taking care of the pets, and trying to cram in writing time so maybe one day I can actually publish a book.

One of the best parts about Pacific Northwest summers are how long the days are.  As I finished my evening shift, I looked outside and decided to take an impromptu trip to the barn. Why not?  Even though it was nine at night the sun had barely set and there was probably almost an hour left of that endless summer twilight that I appreciate but will probably never get used to.

Caspian moved barns a couple of weeks ago, and it’s been great.  The new barn has acres upon hundreds of acres of trails that start about 10 feet outside of the arena, and the horses get regular turnout on individual paddocks of green grass.

Needless to say, we’re both happy.

Since the new barn is full-care I no longer have to drive out to the barn daily, and I have to admit it’s been kind of nice.

Still – I feel guilty having someone else do all the work for my horse, which is why it was so gratifying to pull up and see Caspian hang his head out of his window and watch me pull up with pricked ears and a pleasant expression.  He seemed genuinely happy to see me, but that’s probably because I’m stacking the odds in my favor – I try to end every visit with at least 5 minutes of hand grazing.  My theory is that no matter how hard we work on a new concept, or how much we butt heads (it’s rare, but it happens), five minutes of peaceful hand grazing can erase it and leave him with a good taste in his mouth, both literally and figuratively.

I slipped the halter onto his waiting nose and we walked in darkness to the arena, waiting as the large overhead lights slowly turned on.  I let him run around for awhile, mentally cursing my lack of camera.  He’s looking great lately, and I really want to document his weight gain.  Besides – he’s just gorgeous when he’s flinging his head around and striking out mid-gallop, and I really  need to get a good picture of it.

I only had about 30 minutes before I needed to head for home, as I’d promised the barn owner I’d be out of there by 10 so she could lock up.  I took him outside and let him graze in the knee-deep grass beneath a violet sky and a waxing moon.  I tried to take a picture, but all you see is an amorphous shadow beneath a tiny white dot…

Technology?  Are you hearing me?  One of these days you’re going to have to figure out how to let normal people take better pictures of night time.  Let’s have a few less Facebook cell phone updates and pay a little more attention to that, mmkay?

Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and I have plans to bathe Caspian, so after I led him back to his stall I decided to take out his mane braids.  I’ve been doing my best to follow the “grow your horse’s mane like a Friesian” method of mane care, and so far it’s really working.  The only time the hair is down from its braids is when I am washing it with lots of conditioner and finger-combing, working out any knots carefully.  After it dries, I french braid it into about 8 sections that hang down his neck, and then I don’t touch it until the next time I’m ready to wash it.  Occasionally I have to rebraid sections, but it seems to hold up just fine.

I’ve owned Caspian less than a year, but in that time period his mane has probably tripled in thickness and it has grown about four inches.  That may not be impressive compared to some horses,  but considering how wispy his mane was when I got him, it’s an unbelievable improvement.

I decided to give him the evening with his braids down – he hated being braided in the beginning but has grown used to it, and now there is no grooming he likes better than the feel of me taking out his braids.  I slipped off his halter and he stood without moving as I worked my way up his neck slowly, carefully picking around potential knots and doing my best not to pull out any more hair than was necessary as threaded my fingers through his salt and pepper strands.

His eyelids sank slowly, his neck dropped with each passing moment, and at one point he actually fell asleep with his muzzle resting on my shoe.

Eventually we were done, so I grabbed a brush and decided to give him a once over before saying goodbye for the night.  I intended it to be a quick, but as I brushed him I realized he was in an unusually affectionate mood, so I slowed down and began to really groom him.

He leaned into each brush stroke ever-so-slightly, eyes glazed and upper lip twitching with pleasure.  I started at his head and worked my way back, even going so far as to stand up on tiptoe so I could see the top of his hindquarters as I brushed them, making sure I didn’t miss a spot.  I’m used to his size now, but it still gets me that I can’t see the top of his hindquarter without going on tiptoes – I’m 5’8, so it’s not like I’m exactly petite.

I turned my back to his head, leaning my shoulder against him as I worked on a particularly stubborn green stain on the inside of his hock… but as I did the hair on the back of my neck began to prickle in warning.

Was… was someone looking at me?

I stood up slowly, resting a hand on Caspian’s hip as I turned around…. and that’s when I saw him.

Gone was the sleepy, glazed look he’d been wearing for the past ten minutes.  Instead, Caspian had his head craned completely around, his neck nearly doubled on itself, and he was staring at me with a bright eyes.  His ears were pricked and his nostrils flared slightly as he stretched his nose toward me.

It looked for all the world like the look a mother horse gives her foal when she sees it for the first time.

(Just like that – except we were both standing, and there was less placenta.)
“Hey, buddy.”  I smiled at him, trying to figure out where this unusual surge of emotion was coming from.

He stared at me harder, willing me to understand.

“Hey… hey handsome.  I love you, too.”

His nostrils quivered – the barest hint of the beginnings of a silent nicker.

“Does it feel good, Caspers?”  I ran the brush down his hip again, and he stared at me harder.  “Does it feel good?  I bet you were itchy, weren’t you, Caspian?  I bet you were totally itchy, and it just feels so good.  You like it?  Do you like…..”

I trailed off as I stepped forward to brush his side, and that’s when I saw it.


All of IT– nearly a foot and a half of erect glory, proudly announcing that oh, yes.  Caspian liked it.  He definitely liked it, thank you very much.

“GROSS.”  I took a step back and grimaced.  “Gross.  Put it away, Caspian.”
Content that I had seen him in all his turgid magnificence, Caspian’s intent expression relaxed and he quit staring at me, swinging his head back around to face the front of his stall with a satisfied expression.  Do you like it, Becky?  It’s for you. You make me feel good.
“No, I do NOT like it.  Put it away.”  I knew I needed to correct him, and hard – but I was loathe to break the peacefulness of the evening.  This was supposed to be my quiet time, dangit.  If I’d wanted to train I would have ridden him.  Also, if I’d wanted to deal with a foot and a half of reproductive equipment, I would have bought a stallion, not a stupid gelding.  Still – I couldn’t just ignore it.  I slapped his flank with a flat palm, hoping the sound would startle him out of his exhibition.

He ignored me.  That was very surprising, considering he’s usually a little overly sensitive to correction.  He stared resolutely forward, refusing to acknowledge me.  Go ahead and look, Becky.  I don’t mind.  It’s not awkward, so long as we don’t make eye contact.

IT twitched.

“GROSS,” I said.  “Put it AWAY.” Even if it wasn’t weird and gross, Caspian was gelded late and there are certain lines you just don’t let an ex stallion cross… this was definitely one of them.  I deliberately created a little bit of a growl in my voice – which normally made him throw his head up in the air dramatically – and accompanied it with a hard THWAP on his side with the brush. The brush I was using had a solid wooden handle, and there was no doubt that it hurt.

He jumped slightly, but refused to turn around.  Becky, shhh. There’s no need to raise your voice and get all violent.  Just keep brushing me.  We’ll keep this between us.  I’ll just avoid your eyes to give you a moment to take it all in….. but really.  Look at it.  He shifted his weight infinitesimally,   somehow managing to give off the impression that he was pointing at it, without any hands.

Enough was enough.  “Put it AWAY!” I said, and this time I reached out and thwacked IT hard with the prickly, bristly side of the brush, although I may have squeezed my eyes shut in sympathy at the moment of impact.
That got his attention.

He jumped vertically about three feet, and swung his hindquarters away from me.  What the hell was that?!  You don’t do that to a stallion.  OW.  Why did you do that?  We were having a moment, and you just lash out at me like that? What is wrong with you?

“No.  No, no, no, no, NO.  You are not a stallion – that thing is for peeing, and peeing only.  PERIOD.  You keep that away, you hear me?  I mean it,” I said, pointing at IT with the brush.  “You finish putting that away, right now, or so help me I’ll hit it again.”

He avoided my eyes again, but this time with a chastised expression.  IT went back to where it belonged, and I went back to brushing him – me businesslike and curt, him staring straight ahead with a hurt expression and no hint of affection.  Apparently our intimate moment was over.

But that’s okay – I mean, I want my horse to like me, but I don’t want him to like me, you know?

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.


I love singing.

I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’m not great at it.  I’m just kind of okay.  I can mostly stay on key, I don’t normally sound like nails on a chalkboard, and if you hold a single note for 5 or 6 seconds straight, I can even find harmony. Sort of.

For the record, in my next life I’m going to have a voice like Julie London, or maybe Ella Fitzgerald, or Etta James – all smoky and sultry, and come-hithery.

In fact, since the majority of you will never actually hear me sing.. can you just imagine I sound like them? Please?  And in this imaginary daydream, can I be wearing some kind of evening gown, and I’m all draping myself over the back of my couch, crooning some jazzy thing, and I’m holding a drink in my hand, and it’s not sloshing over the side, because that’s just how cool I am?


Anyways, back to singing.  I love to sing, and one of the things I was most looking forward to was singing to my boys as they got older.

I could just see it – I’d sing them soft little lullabies, and eventually they’d get old enough to sing along with me, and we’d just totally bond….

I just remembered right now I’ve already written a blog post about what happens when I try to sing with my kids.

That video?  It’s still like that.  I’ll start bursting out into song – REAL song, not loud, goofy Rickrolling –  and my beloved offspring will do everything they can to make me stop.  “Mama?  No singing.  Please.  STOP.  STOP.  NO SINGING.  NO, I NOT WANT TO SING WITH YOU.  NO, I DON’T WANT YOU TO SING.  NO SINGING, PLEASE.”

I’d be insulted, but they think Carly Rae Jepsen is better than Etta James, so I don’t really trust their musical taste.

Anyways, this brings me back to this afternoon.  The boys went down for a nap, and The Bean was studying for the last section of his CPA exam (woot!  You’re gonna do great, babe!), so I snuck down to the barn for a little quiet time with Caspian.

The truth is, I don’t get much quiet time with Caspian.  I know this is going to come as a shock, but it’s actually not very relaxing, trying to clean and care for a horse while chasing after two hyperactive little boys.  It’s better than the alternative of not owning a horse, but still.  Trips to the barn aren’t quite as soothing to my soul as they used to be.

To throw another log on the fire, up until a couple of weeks ago, I was really having problems bonding with Caspian.  Oh, that doesn’t mean I don’t really enjoy my time with him, and he’s an awesome horse – but he’s no goofy, puppy-dog gelding.

(Spoiler:  Last month we had an unbelievably awesome breakthrough that I’m planning on blogging about later.)

He’s an awesome horse, gorgeous to look at, wonderful to ride, sound, steady, sane… but for the most part, while he’ll stand for you to hold him, or love on him, or even hug his head, his heart really isn’t in it.


After our ride today I had him in the cross ties in the barn aisle way so I could untack him and brush him down.  He’s starting to shed, and it’s actually been kind of amusing watching him try to remain stoic and “manly” when I scratch his itchy spots (another spoiler:  He totally can’t.  I win every time.)

I’d finished everything and was getting ready to put his lead rope back on to lead him to the stall, when I felt him lean in towards me.

The thing is, with Caspian, his friendship offerings are very quiet.  If you aren’t desperate for them, like I have been, you’d probably miss it – but the barn was quiet, and I was moving slow and quiet, and I felt it.

He’s so good – so very good, with the boys, with their craziness, with my fumblings, with everything – that I’ve been trying to respect his desire to not be pawed on.  I mean, I want to hang all over my horse, and scratch under his chin, and play with his lips, and kiss him on the soft part of his nose….. but he would prefer that I don’t.  He’ll let me – but that’s just it.  He’ll let me, because he’s nice, not because he likes it.  And since he gives me everything I ask for, and more… it seems like the least I can do is not force my neediness on him.

The thing is, ever since I made that decision and quit trying to force him to be something he’s not, he’s been relaxing more and more.  And this afternoon, as he leaned towards me that infinitesimal amount, it felt like such a gift.

I stood there beside him, leaning my forehead on his strong neck, right behind his head.  With Jubilee, I used to lean in the hollow of his withers, but with Caspian, it’s the dip where his neck meets his head.  And I leaned there, ignoring the way his shedding hairs were starting to stick to my chapstick, and I felt him enjoy me being there.

We both just stood there, motionless for awhile, while I reached under his jaw with my free hand so I could cup the other side of his face and scratch his cheek.  And then, I’m not really sure why, I started to sing.

I was singing very, very softly, mostly because for all that I felt alone, I knew that someone could come into the barn aisle at any moment, and it felt like such a personal moment that I didn’t want to share it – I wanted to be able to hide it if they did see, and just pretend I was grooming him, or something.

But the thing is – when I started to sing… Caspian leaned into me heavier.  His head dropped, and his neck curled slightly around me… and as I stood there, with the rain pouring hard on the tin roof of the barn, and my finger curling through the bristly hair of his cheek, I felt my horse listening to my song.

His head dropped even further, and his breathing became very soft, and I watched, amazed, as his eyelid fluttered lower and lower, until finally, it closed.

And that, my dear blog friends, is why I’m selling my children so I can spend more time with my horse.  Because he lets me sing him to sleep.

And, also, because he’s better looking than they are. Hopefully by the time they get old enough to search the internet, this post where I admit that will be so far buried that they’ll never find it.

Conversations with Caspian

“Hey, handsome.  How are you, you sexy beast, you?”

I’m hungry.  Do you have food?

“Dude.  You’re not hungry.  You eat around seven flakes of hay a day.”

I am.  I’m starving to death.  Do you have food?

“No.  I don’t have any food.  I missed you.”

No food?  You’re boring.  

“Well, that’s not very nice.  Can I give you a hug?”

I have zero interest in boring people.  I’d much rather stare alertly into the distance and pretend you don’t exist.

“Hey, wanna go for a ride?”

Food?  Can I eat on this ride?

“No.  No food.  Just a ride.”

….. fine.  It sounds somewhat interesting.  I’ll give it a try.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.  Hey, you’re all dirty.  Let me brush you.  Does that feel good?”


“How about over here.  Does this feel good?”


“I can see your lip trying to twitch – it’s okay.  You can tell me if it feels good.”

Okay.  It feels a little good.

“How about this? Do you like it when I scratch right here?

Really?  Do you really want feedback?  I think I should just stand here, and not move.  The First Person who trained me said to never move.

“You know darn well I’m serious. We’ve been through this a million times.  Please let me know if you like this.”


“Because it’s time to tack up.”

Oh, is it that time?  Here.  Let me suck in more air than any horse you’ve ever known in the past. First Person always cinched too hard…. let’s see you try cinching that up, lady.

“Dude, really Caspian?  I need to get this past the fifth hole – it won’t even reach the first.  How is that even possible?”

That’s as tight as it goes.  Any tighter and I’ll die.  Do you have food?

“It’s not time to eat right now.  Let out your air – I promise I won’t overtighten it.”

Who is that?  That horse has food.  Maybe he’ll share.

“What that horse is doing is none of your business.  Stay where you are.” 

Can I say hi?

“No.  Focus.”

I think I’ll go say hi.


I’M GONNA DIE!  I’M GONNA DIE!  I’M GONNA… Wow.  You just shouted at me with your body.  I think I love you.  You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met.  Hold me.  Shout at me some more.  Can you do that for me?  You’re so incredibly interesting, did you know that? 

“Well, I’m sorry I had to yell.  I’d rather not have to do that again.  Here, let me scratch you for a bit while I wait for you to get distracted so I can cinch you up.”

Nope.  Not interested in being scratched.  Shout at me again.

“I’m not shouting at you, Caspian.  You can focus your attention on me when we’re just hanging out – you know that, right?  We don’t have to go through this whole “let me work you hard and remind you I’m in charge before you love me” EVERY time, do we?

Hit me.  Just a little bit.  Please?

“I’m not hitting you.”

You’re boring.

“Quit being rude, and just relax and have a good time.  Can you do that?”  

I’m not particularly interested in you if you’re not going to use me.

“FINE.  I’ll ride you.  Are you happy now?”


“You’re weird, but I love you anyways. Hang on, I’m getting up…. HA!  Fooled you. At least the girth’s on the third hole now.”

Can you yell at me again?  It makes me feel safe.  You’re amazing.

“Caspian, can’t you like me when I’m being sweet to you? Also, I don’t want to have to yell at you – let’s work on listening to me when I ask quietly.  Sound like a plan, Stan?”

My name’s not Stan.

I’m just teasing you, handsome.  Where’s your smile?

You’re not funny.

Lighten up, Caspian.  You’re so serious all the time.  It’s okay to relax and have a little fun, you know.

I’m saddled.  Are you going to make crappy jokes all evening, or are you actually planning on getting some work done?

“Dude, you have issues.  Alright, I’m up.  Walk forward.”

To the left, is that correct?

“No.  Straight forward, please.”

Ahh, to the left.  I’ll walk to the left.


Mmm, yeah.  I like it when you yell at me.  Alright.  Straight it is.  Wait… who is that?

“None of your business.”

This arena is fascinating.  Mind if I check everything out?

“Caspian- you’ve been in it a million times.  Pay attention to me.  I’ll let you know if there’s anything worth looking at.”

Who is that?


Yeaaaah, yell it, baby.  Now you’ve got my attention.

“Let’s step it up – how about your fancy running walk gait thing?” 

I don’t know how.

“Yes, you do.  See?  Go faster… yes, perfect.”

Oh.  Like that?


Okay.  I’ll trot then.

“What?  No, do your gait thing.”

Huh?  I can’t hear you.

“Fine.  Trot.  We can work on that if you want to.  Please work a little harder – step out a bit more and collect your body a little bit.  If you want to trot, let’s do it right.”

Huh?  What’s that?  What is this ‘trot’ you speak of?  I’m a gaited horse.  I only gait.

“Caspian, I swear…..  Fine.  Gait.  I like it better anyways, you big dork.”

Who is that horse over there?  They seem nice.  Can I go say hi?


You’re so pretty when you yell at me. I think I love you.  Ask whatever you want – I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.


Getting to know a horse who spent 7 out of his 8 years of life as a stallion is really interesting – I’ve never dealt with a personality like his before. 

Also, someone needs to teach this horse that it’s okay to have a sense of humor.  I don’t think he appreciates me laughing at him as much as I do.

Person, why are you just standing there, pointing your phone at me?  I’m starving.  Literally.  Quit messing around and get me food— and none of that grass hay crap, either.  I want REAL food – alfalfa, or maybe beet pulp, before I die of starvation….  Are you laughing at me?  IT’S NOT FUNNY.

Mugwump/Big K Clinic: Day 1, Breakfast

 Before I continue on with the next day, after I published the last blog post I remembered why we didn’t set up Summersmom’s air mattress – it’s because the batteries were dead on the little air pump we’d brought along to blow it up.  It wasn’t that big of a surprise – Summersmom father-in-law mentioned we would probably need new ones, and we just forgot to pick some up.

“I’m going to go check on Summer and see if she’s settling in nicely.”

“Sounds good.”  I didn’t turn around to look at Summersmom as she exited the tent, busying myself instead with rearranging my duffel bag on MY side of the tent juuuust so.

Because, obviously, if I didn’t see her, then she wasn’t actually there, and I was alone.

It works for ostriches, why not for Beckies?

As soon as she zipped the tent door shut I dropped my bag and headed over to her side of the tent.  I figured I could set up her air mattress for her while she was gone – not only would it be a nice thing to do, but it would help us get to bed faster – and I knew I needed sleep to hit the reset button on my mood.

I unrolled the air mattress, dug out the little air compressor, connected it in the darkness via the light on my cell phone I was holding under my chin, clicked the “on” switch….

And nothing happened.

I double-checked everything, and then flicked the on/off switch a couple of times.


I knew deep in my heart that it was the batteries that were dead, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe it.

I unplugged and plugged it back on, and clicked the “on” switch forcefully.

When that didn’t work, I unplugged it, blew on it (it worked for Nintendo cartridges, why not battery-operated air pumps?), shook it a couple of times, blew on it again, and then clicked it.


I sat there for a moment, fuming.  All I wanted was to go to bed.  That’s it.  I just wanted to go to bed.  Was I asking too much?  REALLY?

After a few moments, I realized that I didn’t care if the air pump was working or not.  I had decided to set up Summersmom’s air mattress before she came back, and by golly, I was going to do it.

I dropped down, sitting cross-legged beside it, and put my mouth on the hole and exhaled.

And then inhaled through my nose.

And then exhaled through mouth.

And then proceeded to repeat this process for 10 minutes straight, fighting the dawning realization that there was no way I was going to be able to blow the air mattress up by myself, unless I stayed up until dawn.

A sane person would have laughed, and quit.

At that point, I wasn’t exactly a sane person.

I was completely prepared to sit there on the floor of the tent and blow the damn thing up, even if it killed me.  Tonight, Summersmom was going to dream comfortably, resting peacefully on a mattress of Becky breath.  If that wasn’t friendship, I didn’t know what was.
I obviously wasn’t trying hard enough.  I just needed to breathe harder. 

And so I did.

For about five minutes.

I sat there and hyperventilated and wheezed into that stupid air mattress until the cheeks on my face went numb and I could see pretty little sparkly lights dancing at the edge of my vision.   But I didn’t stop.  I had to breathe anyways, right?  Breathing in is a necessary part of life.  If I had to inhale anyways, why not just breathe it out into the air mattress? It’s not like I wasn’t breathing anyways.  I mean, EVENTUALLY it would have to fill up, right? 

 I didn’t want to admit to myself that with 15 minutes of solid effort I may have succeeded in removing two wrinkles in the plastic as I filled it with a tenth of a centimeter of air. 

And that’s how Summersmom found me – red-faced and pissy and wheezing noisily into the air mattress.

“What are you…” she started her question when she was still outside the tent, stepping through the opening cautiously.   “What are you doing?”

I ignored her.  I mean, it was pretty obvious what I was doing, wasn’t it?  I was filling her bed with my used breath. 

As her eyes adjusted to the light of the tent, she burst out laughing.  “Are you trying to blow that up?  I thought you were trying to scare me – or creep me out. I could hear you huffing and puffing from halfway down the road.”

I took my mouth from the hole, fighting the dizziness.  It was one thing to be a stubborn idiot in the privacy of the tent.  It was another to do it in front of someone watching me.    “The air pump has dead batteries.”

She laughed.  “I figured as much, seeing you trying to blow it up.  I’m serious – I could hear you from far away.  I couldn’t figure out what you were trying to do… pretend to be an angry animal?  Or maybe you were trying to pretend that you were doing something inappropriate with someone…?”

Nope.  I was just having a nervous breakdown because I WANTED TO SET THE AIR MATTRESS UP, AND NOTHING WAS GOING TO GET IN MY WAY.

Nothing except reality.  I plugged the hole on the mattress, screwing the lid on tight.  After all, I didn’t want to lose any progress – if we didn’t find any batteries, I might find myself huffing on it in desperation the next day.


As you all know, I finally gave up and we spent a comfortable night (not touching!  YAY!) on my futon.

The next morning I woke up to this view outside of the tent window

and immediately felt a million times better.

I snuck out of the tent at a little after six in the morning, crunching down the dirt drive to go feed Caspian.

He was doing great – a little more tucked up from the long drive and not drinking enough than I would have preferred, but obviously doing great – there was plenty of pee and manure in his stall.  He’d completely drained his water, so I threw him some flakes of hay and refilled his water before searching out the coffee.

On my way to the barn I passed by Gtyup’s husband – who looked like he’d walked straight out of a Louis L’Amour novel.  “He was a tall drink of water…”  immediately flashed through my head when I saw him. I didn’t recognize him, so I just figured he must be one of the Big K’s ranch hands.   It was obvious his name was Slim, or something like that.

I gave him a half-hearted wave, averting my eyes so I didn’t have to make any polite conversation.  My mood was definitely improved, but I just wasn’t feeling it quite yet.  The funny thing is, I’ve scored “extrovert” on every test I’ve ever taken…. But, honestly, it turns out that I’m only an extrovert if I get my introvert time. 

Besides, I had an excuse – I still hadn’t had  any coffee.  I finally located it in the barn office.  There was a fresh pot just starting to brew, and as I waited for it to finish, The Big K’s wife came in with the beginnings of breakfast. 

I smiled at her and said hi as she began to set up… and then slipped out the side door her back was turned. 

I figured that instead of hovering around her while she set up, I could take a tour of the barn, which was pretty much one of the coolest barns I’ve ever been to.

First off, it was ridiculously tall.

I honestly don’t know why any barn needs a 90 foot roof (realistically I think it was only 40 feet tall?  I don’t know.  I have terrible depth perception and am an even worse judge of distances.), but it certainly looked cool.

The horse’s pens were constructed out of RAILROAD TIES.  Giant, dense, solid railroad ties.

(If you really want to know why there’s a freerange toilet in the barn, the answer is:  Because it’s a barn.  It’s been my experience that weird stuff always ends up in a barn.)

I’m pretty sure they could have safely housed an elephant in the stalls if they were a little larger.

The horses were all gorgeous –  well fed, shiny, with pricked ears.  A couple of the younger ones were a little snorty if you moved too fast, but they always came back and poked their heads out curiously.

As most people do when they’re in someone else’s barn, I immediately went “shopping” and “bought” a little black gelding in the stall at the far end of the barn.  He was a trim thing, with a big hip, a babydoll face, a pretty neck, and was just put together really nicely.   I wish I’d taken a picture of him.

After enough time had passed I went back to the office, and was relieved to see that the Big K’s wife had left.  She actually was really, really nice – but she was also very pretty, and had showered, and had nice hair… and I just wasn’t up to doing anything more than grunting at people with so little sleep under my belt, and she seemed too nice for me to just hover around and avoid eye contact.

My relief at being alone immediately drained away when I realized the coffee had shut off.… before it finished brewing.


It was immediately obvious a fuse had flipped with the extra breakfast things being plugged in to heat up.

I peeked around, both inside and outside, and found  Gtyyup – and I’m just going to come out and say it, that woman is ridiculously tiny.  It’s not just that she’s not-tall (see?  I can be politically correct.  I didn’t call her short!) – I’m pretty sure she wears a size -2 jeans.    I have no idea how she manages to saddle her gelding, Colt, who is a sturdy 15.3 hands, but I know that I deliberately gawked every time she mounted from the ground. 

That woman swings gracefully up from the ground…. And in order to do it she has to lift her foot to the height of her boobies to get it in the stirrup.

I’m sure she appreciates me writing that, because from now on, whenever you see her standing next to her horse, you’ll probably take a peek at the height of her stirrup, which means you’ll also be eyeballing her chesticles, and that’s kind of rude to me to point out…..

But it was like watching a Cirque de Soleil act –  technically, you know it’s impossible for the human body to do it… and yet right in front of you,  someone is doing it.  Easily.  And as you watch them, you can’t help but realize what an uncoordinated slob you are.


Anyways.  Ahem.  Moving on.

Gtyyup and I went on a hunt to find the fuse box, and then I proceeded to use all of my extensive electrical knowledge and training to fix the problem.

Which, basically, meant I just started flicking switches back and forth and hoping for the best.  If we hadn’t found the switch pretty early on, I might have had to resort to blowing on the fuse box.  Or crying.  Honestly, I really wanted a cup of coffee at that point.

Thankfully, we did fix things… and the coffee started brewing… and eventually the pot filled up enough for me to pour a nice, steaming, black cup of Joe….

And then I immediately dump a bunch of heavy cream and International Delight’s creamer, and all sorts of sissy city stuff into it, because that’s how the kind of hardcore person I am.

At that point people started showing up for breakfast, so I smiled widely, went out to greet them warmly, introducing myself with ease and engaging in flawless small talk for hours.

You guys realize I’m lying, right?  When people started showing up,  after I said hello, told a couple of people my name…. and then I snuck out the back door of the office, moved a metal panel enough to create an opening, and  snuck up to the barn and finished my cup of coffee while I hid behind my horse.

For the record, a 16.1 (16.2?) hand horse makes a wonderful barrier to hide behind.

I could only hide and drink my coffee for so long before I grew bored…. so I eventually braided his tail.  Sure, it was a reined cowhorse clinic, but that’s no reason for Caspian not to look pretty, right? 

I swear that this whole clinic write-up isn’t going to be about how I hid from people.  I started warming up about noon on that first day.  We’ll just chalk it up to tiredness and nerves, shall we?

Speaking of nerves….

Breakfast was delicious (Spicy Jimmy Dean sausage egg burritos – even tastier than they sound – and fresh fruit)… but breakfast was over all too soon, and before I was ready it was time to saddle up.

And doesn’t that sound just sad?  I had waited seven years to own a horse and had just travelled nearly a thousand miles to ride… and at that point I would have given anything to have a decent excuse not to swing up. 

Caspian led easily as I took him up to the trailer – trailing behind me on a loose lead, ears pricked, looking around with interest….. and I trudged in front of him like I was on a death march.

Look, I don’t show.  Never have, and I probably never will.  I’m not used to riding in front of anyone, let alone in front of a bunch of strangers as I get “picked on” by a trainer. 

To make matters worse, I barely knew my horse.  Oh, sure I’d ridden him a few times back in February when I visited my parents, but that was different.  That was in an arena right by his stall, where he was in his bored comfort zone, and I was not pushing him hard at all.

Now, with everything – the people, the new location, the new horse… just… with everything, I developed a serious case of stage fright.

And the more nervous I became, the more I realized that Caspian needed me to be calm, or he would start picking up on my nerves and acting up.. which, of course, made me even more nervous.

By the time I had him saddled  and had led him back up to the barn, breakfast had stopped digesting and was sitting in a cold, greasy lump  in my stomach.  I swear I could feel every corner of not-chewed-well-enough tortilla, and that spicy sausage felt like it was fermenting.

Awesome.  I was probably going to puke.  And everyone on this blog knows from all my pregnancy complaining that I am not a quiet puker. 

And Caspian would probably be so scared by the roars of my vomiting that he would spook.

And then I’d end up flying around The Big K’s arena, vomit flag fluttering behind me in the wind, until we crashed into a mountain and died.

And what a ridiculous obituary that would be:  “Becky Bean, 32, waited 7 years to own a horse again and then only a week after she got it she died from puking on a it because she’s kind of stupid that way. In lieu of flowers send sympathy cards to her embarrassed family.”

I finally quit procrastinating and dragged Caspian over to a rock to mount up – as tall as he is, while I can physically ground mount, I sure ain’t no Gtyyup. I  hate the way I haul on his back when I crawl up from the ground, so it’s mounting blocks for me.  Maybe that will change as I get my riding muscles back, but for right now it is what it is. 

(Cow trough to the left, rock in the center, Mugwump’s trailer to the right.  ENORMOUS arena waaaay in the back – it’s the sandy area in front of the trees.  It’s further (and bigger) than it looks.

While Caspian normally stands rock solid, patiently, as soon as my butt hit the saddle he walked off, head high and more than a little tense.

It’s really not surprising, considering how calm (ha, ha) I was.  I could hardly blame him, although I did make him stop until I could find my other stirrup.

We were definitely the last people in the arena – and by arena, I mean dragged-dirt-area-so-ginormous-it-could-be-paved-over-and-used-as-an-airplane-landing-strip. 

(View from the center of the arena – note you can’t really see the cow trough or rock from over here… or the sides of it.  This is only the middle third or fourth of the actual arena.)

The Big K says he likes a HUGE arena, because then when he shows, all the other arenas feel small, and it gives him an edge of confidence.

Well, his arena was almost ridiculously big.

It was also really busy. 

The Big K, Mugwump, Gtyyup, Gtyyup’s husband, Summer, and Michelle were all milling about on their horses, warming up.  I know that may not be a lot of horses for some of you, but for the uninitiated it was a lot of movement to walk into.

Caspian stopped at the entrance – which was fine by me, because the two of us needed to take a moment and just stare at it, bug-eyed.

I realized, at that moment, that I’ve never actually ridden in a really busy arena before… and from the way my horse felt underneath me, neither had he.

It was controlled chaos – it reminded me of the 405 freeway in downtown LA  – the trick was to keep moving, and not slam on the breaks when you changed lanes, and you could hopefully avoid running into anyone.


When I urged Caspian forward, I could almost feel him rolling his eyes at me.  “ARE YOU NUTS, woman?” he seemed to say.  “It’s chaos out there!”

I’ve honestly never been so glad to own a gaited horse, because I was so worked up inside that I couldn’t get my body to relax – and Caspian’s trot is kind of huge and heavy and I still haven’t figured out how to post the darn thing, probably because he only does it for a couple of steps before gaiting again.  If it weren’t for how smooth he was, I would have been popcorn popping as I slapped up and down in my saddle. 

As tight and tense as he felt, I kept my legs completely off of his sides, trying to let him just move out without asking him for much.  He felt like a piece of well-behaved, short-fused piece dynamite underneath me.   As nervous as we were about everything (and, honestly, he probably would have been a million times better if I wasn’t all worked up, so don’t feel like I’m blaming him), I didn’t feel like I should ask him to collect.

I did briefly touch the reins and ask him to lower his head… which he did for a few seconds – and then he immediately started grinding his teeth in the most nerve-wracking, obnoxiously loud way possible.

As soon as I quit asking him to do anything but steer around the other horses he stopped grinding his teeth– and, seriously, with all the stress  I’d thrown at him in the past week, I figured I could do at least that for him.

While everyone else moved in a lazy dance pattern around the arena – performing slow lope circles and practicing stops, Caspian and I tootled about in our endurance saddle and braided tail with absolutely no pattern to our movements whatsoever.  We probably looked like a drunk audience member who jumps onstage during a performance of the Nutcracker.  Basically, instead of actually warming up,  I was riding around towards wherever I could see a nice, big hole between horses, trying to give the two of us a chance to calm down.

At one point I had to ask Caspian to slow to avoid crashing (okay, maybe I wouldn’t have crashed, but I’m serious when I say it was a completely new experience for me.  In the past, when I rode, if an arena had more than 1 or 2 other people working on the rail or on the other end of it, then I just waited or went on a trail ride).  He was still stiff necked and feeling explosive…. And when I asked him to stop, he ignored me.

Well.  That wasn’t good.

I direct reined him to the left, asking him to circle around the horse and rider instead….

And he politely gave to the bit, turning his head sweetly to the side… and charged straight on forward as if nothing had changed.

Well.  Now.  That wasn’t good AT ALL.

Thankfully he wasn’t really being that horrible  – his sides were still sensitive and I was able to correct him by booting him over in a very no-nonsense way…. But I have to admit, I now get what Mugwump was saying when she said she doesn’t like to flex her horses too much, because she wants them to follow where their nose goes.  I don’t see a lot of standing still and flexing/giving to the bit exercises in Caspian and my future.

As the minutes passed he never completely relaxed, but eventually I felt like he was listening to me again, and not stressed to the point of exploding.  I  tested out his sides – trying to see just how little pressure it would take to ask him to do a large figure eight…

and then looked around and noticed that almost everyone had finished warming up and they were now lined up on one side of the arena, watching me.  Since I was late to the game I had only had a few minutes of warm up – all of that done at a walk or his gait, and none of it at a canter (lope?  Canter?  Seriously, what do you call it if you don’t ride any particular discipline?).  I briefly considered doing just asking for it, because I figured we were going to be asked to do it at some point, and I’d only ever cantered on him once, way back in February. 

Obviously, I should try warming up and practicing it before we were in the teaching portion of our lesson.  I was here to learn about how to work with my horse better, not do beginner’s balance lessons about how to sit a canter.

The only thing was… everyone was done, and watching me ride since there was nothing else to look at… and with the weight of all those stares I chickened out, pulled him down to walk, and lined up beside everyone else.

Because, after all, that’s how I roll.  I drink weak coffee with so much creamer I might as well just chug the creamer straight out of the bottle, and I chicken out when people watch me.

I didn’t have very much time to think about it, because about that time, the Big K started to speak.

Mugwump/Big K Clinic: The Drive

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“Are you packed yet?”

Someone asked me that about four days before I was due to leave for the clinic.


Ha, ha, ha.

Wednesday the 24th was my birthday.   It was also the day I was due to start the roadtrip. 

I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to spend my 32nd birthday than heading out to Montana with my horse.


Y’all are going to get real sick of me repeating “my horse” and “I went to Montana” reaaaaal quick.  I’m like that barely pregnant chick who walks around with her hand on her still-flat belly, simpering about “the baby”… or the newly-dating couple who constantly drops “my BOYFRIEND/my GIRLFRIEND” hints  every other sentence.

Feel free to hate me a little – it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.  I’m just saying that you can hate me if you want to

Anyways,  instead of blowing out candles on a cake, I spent my birthday running around, sweating, and trying to shove various articles of clothing and tack into whatever bag I could find.

Actually, that’s not quite right.

I spent the morning running errands, doing laundry, and hanging out with my family…..

 and then about two to three hours before Summersmom (we carpooled to the clinic) was due to arrive I started frantically shoving stuff into suitcases and bags, dashing to the grocery store for food, speeding to the barn to get hay, etc, etc, etc. 

One day. 

One day I will pack things ahead of time, and spend the day of a trip lounging and relaxing  as I wait for my departure time to come around.

Of course, one day I’m also going to have tan, toned thighs… so if I’m imagining the “I packed ahead of time” scenario, I might as well imagine me in a cute little pair of short shorts, getting appreciative whistles from everyone who drives by.

Also, my hair isn’t dry and I don’t have any frizzy split ends.

I mean, if you’re going to imagine something, make it good, right?

Moving on.

By the time I was ready to head to the stables to meet Summersmom and load Caspian into the borrowed trailer I was a frazzled mess.  I had my stuff packed – at least, I thought I did.  I wasn’t  really sure what I had in my bags.  It might have been helpful if I could have referenced the cute little packing list I’d made a couple of days ago… but who the heck knew where that was?

I will say that it could have been a lot worse – my mom and stepdad drove up to help me take care of the boys, so I was actually able to get stuff done without having to keep the boys alive at the same time. 

Let me take a moment and say three big cheers for them – it made the clinic go SO MUCH SMOOTHER knowing my boys were in great hands.

And while we’re at it – three cheers for The Bean, who not only agreed to this crazy venture, but funded it through lots of overtime.

I mean, think about it.  How many husbands would agree to the following?

“Hey babe, I want to go blow almost a thousand bucks hauling a horse we can barely afford to a clinic up in Montana.  Huh?  How will we afford it?  I’m not quite sure.  I’m sure we’ll figure something out. 

What is the clinic?  It’s a reined  cowhorse clinic.  What’s that? It’s a horse sport.  No, I’ve never talked about it before because I don’t ride reined cowhorse, why do you ask?  What do you mean ‘Why go to this clinic’?  Are you high?  IT’S THE MUGWUMP CLINIC!

Huh?  Who is Mugwump?  Well, it’s some chick I know through the Internet – she wrote some blog stories about some dude, so I figure I should go travel almost two thousand miles round trip so they can tell me how to ride better.

How am I getting Caspian and I there?  Oh, I’ll be sharing a trailer with some other chick who has a blog –  her name’s Summersmom. She seems nice – I mean, from what I’ve read, at least.  We’re Facebook friends, so that means we’re, like, practically sisters… at least in the Internet world.

Who is hauling the horses?  Well, that chick I am hauling with once met some dude from the Internet, and he said he’d be interested in going if we paid for the diesel. so we’re going to go get in his truck and head off to Montana.  I’m sure he’s nice, too.  What’s that?  You want to know if it’s a safe vehicle?  Of course it is.  It takes diesel.  That means it’s big.  All big trucks are safe.  Really, after so many years in the car industry, I shouldn’t have to explain stuff like this to you. 

Where am I staying?  Well, the first night we’ll be staying at my carpool buddy’s  in-laws.  Who are they?  I dunno.  They’re her in-laws. What a silly question – how am I supposed to know who they are if I haven’t met them yet?  Where do they live?  Somewhere in Washington.  I’ll text you the address once I see it. 

Oh, you mean where’s the ultimate destination?  It’s in Montana, silly.  I told you that.  What’s that?  You want more details?  Umm… it’s on a ranch?  Does that help?  I’ll get you an address later.  I know it’s outside of Roundup…. Where’s Roundup?  I don’t know – I’m not responsible for driving.  I already told you it’s in Montana.   Geez, what’s with all the questions?”

Etc, etc.

Poor Bean.  I bet he daydreams about being married to a nice, sedate, organized little housewife who gets all hot and bothered when she gets to balance the checkbook and arrange the canned goods in alphabetical order.

Anyways, back to the story:  I pulled up to my barn about five minutes after Summersmom and Owen (the guy with the truck) arrived.  It would have felt weird, saying hello….  Except I was feeling too guilty about running behind.

I caught a glimpse of them as I scurried past – and was vaguely disappointed to notice that Summersmom was wearing a cute little outfit and was really quite pretty.  If I’d known we were allowed to be pretty I might have taken a little more time – but we were on a horse road trip.  I thought it was against the rules to wear makeup. 

Anyways, after saying hi to Summersmom, her cute little paint mare,  and her ridiculously intelligent little boy (the kid JUST turned four and reads better than most fourth graders), I met Owen… and Owen’s dog, Gracie.  Summersom had warned me that Owen would be bringing his dog on the trip.  Considering he had a giant diesel truck and a brother who lived in Montana, I expected to see a shaggy ranch dog – some kind of heeler or border collie mix.

Imagine my surprise when this came trotting up to me:

Gracie was the most disgusting, adorable little dog in the world, and she made the drive a lot of fun.

I’ve never met a dog who could so thoroughly disgust me… and yet still make me want to pet her.  She sneezed on EVERYTHING, farted, burped, snored, and had a strange habit of wanting to press her little bunghole against you. 

See?  GROSS.  And yet… I still wanted to hold her on my lap.

She was a seriously cute little dog – mellow, happy, and just a likeable soul.

While Gracie cavorted around our ankles, we finished introductions and I ran in to the barn grab Caspian from his pasture and lead him to the trailer.  We let him and Summer sniff noses, and I was pleasantly surprised to see only a polite, friendly interest from both horses.  Sweet – we were off to a good start.

“Is he good about loading?” Owen asked, as I led him up to the trailer.

“Well… we’ll see?  I’m assuming yes, since he came off the trailer just fine earlier this week.”

“You don’t know?”

“Nope. I don’t really know him.  I’ve only owned him a week – he seems nice, but I really don’t know what to expect from him on stuff.”

I’m sure that look on Owen’s face meant he was happy for me and my new horse… it looked suspiciously like the “Oh, crap” expression I’m so used to on The Bean’s face, but I’m sure I was just reading it wrong.

It turns out that Caspian loads trailers like a dream – he stepped right up ,with zero hesitation…. And then stepped right back out when I directed him, because even though it was a slant load it was physically impossible for him to fit in one slot – Summersmom and I had taken into account height when figuring out which trailer to use, but I honestly hadn’t considered how LONG he is. Whoops.

Thankfully it was a four horse trailer, so we had plenty of room to pull out a divider and give him two stalls while still having enough room for hay and tack.

Owning a BIG horse really is a new experience for me.

A couple of bits of tack and a little rearranging later, and we were on our way…..

Right into downtown Portland traffic.  Drat.

It took less than ten minutes in traffic before I turned to Owen and asked him what he did for a living…. And had my suspicions confirmed that he hauls (He used to be a truck driver and now started his own business.)  It was obvious from the way he handled the trailer that he had a LOT of experience hauling things – the trailer never jostled once, even when people cut us off.  If you’re ever looking for someone to move your horses for you, I heartily recommend him. 

I quickly sent out a text to The Bean: “The guy who is driving is a professional truck driver – like, semi trucks and all that – so yaay!  You don’t have to worry about us anymore.”

See?  The Bean’s a worrywart.  I obviously had everything under control.

The first night’s drive up to Summersmom’s in laws  (the Tri-Cities area of Washington) was uneventful… and tons of fun.  To be honest, half the fun of the clinic was the drive.  The three of us hit it off and had a LOT of laughs on the way up, and even when the conversation slowed or stopped, it was a companionable silence.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been on a fun road trip like that. 

We arrived in the Tri-Cities area a little later than we had hoped (closer to midnight), and after we unloaded the horses and got them set up, we didn’t get to bed until closer to one in the morning.

Despite the comfortable air mattress they had set up for me, I had a little trouble falling asleep. When Summersmom woke me up at a little before 5:30 in the morning, I was pretty groggy.  I stumbled off to the shower, hoping it would wake me up….. but it didn’t.  I finally gave up, and shut off the water.  I pulled back the shower curtain to grope sleepily for the towel.  I couldn’t seem to reach it, so I leaned over further….

And promptly fell out of the bathtub onto the floor.

I want all of you to know that when I fell, I floated gracefully to the ground, like a dainty fairy elf.

I did NOT sprawl out of the tub and slam onto the floor with a giant grunt and flop around like a beached seal trying to get to my feet.

Also, since we’re talking about stuff that didn’t happen, Summersmom definitely didn’t start making fun of me the second I got out of the bathroom.  She also didn’t share what happened with her in laws.  And Owen.  And Mugwump.  And The Big K.  And, basically, everyone who was at the clinic.

We left her son at her in laws  and got on the road at a decent hour – which was good, because it was a loooong day.  We stopped every three hours with the horses, giving them a break, and offering them food and water.  Neither pony was interested in drinking water until late in the evening, which was a little concerning….. but we soaked beet pulp and rice bran in a LOT of water (basically turning it into runny gruel) and got liquid into them that way. 

The drive was long – not gonna lie, but WOW, it was beautiful.

 The Gorge in Oregon:

A beautiful photo of Wednesday night’s giant full moon cresting the hill – isn’t it magnificent?

Yeah.  I don’t know what I was expecting, taking that photo.

The drive on Thursday did get a little boring at times.

Some of us slept through the boring parts.

Others of us amused ourselves:

Aarene (from HaikuFarm) loaned me her hat when I visited back in June… and I accidentally brought it with me when I left.  Since I kept forgetting to mail it back, it went with me on a roadtrip to Montana.

As we left big cities behind and headed deeper into more rural territory, it got a little…..different:

(This billboard contrasted so much with the “Botox now!” and “Free breast enlargement consultation!” signs I was used to in SoCal that I just had to take a picture.)

A truck hauling a trailer hauling a boat.  How the heck do they back it up?

And now for a confession:  I have to admit – I’ve been kidding myself ever since I moved to Oregon that it was as beautiful as Montana. 

I’m sorry Oregon.  You know I love you, baby, but… yeah.  You’re not Montana.  You’re Montana’s easy-going sister – you kind of look the same,  and you’re more chill to hang out with, but it’s obvious you’re not the beauty in the family.

In order to fully understand, these photos are all Montana – taken with a cell phone with a blurry camera (weird – cell phones and their cameras don’t seem to like being dropped in toilets.  Whodathunk?).  I took them from the backseat of the car, through a dirty windshield.  Also, those hills in the distance are actually mountains in most of the photos – the sky of “Big Sky Country” is just so clear that the distance is misleading.

I had to stop myself at some point, because I didn’t want to take 600 photos and fill up my memory card.

With all the stops for the horses, we didn’t get to Roundup until really late.  The Big K had us call once we hit town so we could ask him for directions….. which was a little silly, since our GPS worked just fine, and the directions Mugwump wrote on her blog were clear as day. 

I was all for just using the GPS and  blog directions…. But Owen drove the ENTIRE way, so I owed it to him to sit back and relax and allow him to do what made him feel comfortable… and what made him comfortable involved following K’s directions to the “T”.

This involved quite a bit of “I don’t see that street sign… it’s closed off for detours. We’re on Fourth Street now, but I don’t the turn you’re describing isn’t there….”

I sat in the backseat, fidgeting, and doing everything I could not to howl “JUST PAY ATTENTION TO ME – I KNOW HOW TO GET US THERE.  HANG UP THE STUPID PHONE AND GO WHERE I SAY!”

I don’t know about you, but I deserve +10 life points for refraining.   I’m normally more patient than that, but by that point I just really wanted out of the truck.

Finally, FINALLY (Did I mention FINALLY?) we pulled up to the ranch.  By that point I think we were all over the excitement of the road trip, and just wanted to be out of the car and in bed…. Or maybe it was just me. 

One of the hardest part about becoming a parent, for me at least, is the lack of alone time.  I really enjoy hanging around with people… provided I get some time to myself.  I prefer at least an hour or two each day, but I’ll settle for five minutes, even if it’s just five minutes of hiding in the bathroom from the children.

The road trip was TONS of fun… but a truck is not a big area, and there’s really no chance to be by yourself when you’re trapped inside it with two other people and an adorable, farting pug.

All this to say… by the time we parked the truck and unloaded Caspian, I was in a foul mood.

I know, I know.  I should have been giddy at being at the clinic, and ecstatic to be in Montana, and thankful for my horse and family who made it all possible, and overjoyed at the blessings in my life…..

But I wasn’t.

I was in a sour, nasty, no-good, very bad mood.

I wanted to be left the hell alone. 

I wanted to be by myself, in silence, to settle in my horse, and take a few breaths.  Basically, I needed to find my center again.  I felt like my skin was raw from too much contact with other people – even if they were people I genuinely liked.

Of course, that wasn’t possible.  We had to get the horses settled, and the tent set up, and a whole host of other stuff.

Basically, this means that the first time I actually met Mugwump, all I could think was LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE. Don’t look at me.  Don’t touch me.  Don’t even get near me.  I don’t want to say hi.  I don’t want you to have an actual face that I need to look at, or a voice I need to listen and respond to.  GO THE HELL AWAY BEFORE I HIT SOMEONE ON THE HEAD WITH A ROCK.

Nice, huh? 

I could tell I was being a complete jerk so I did my best to stuff it down and just avoid eye contact.  I’m not sure how successful I was – probably not very.

Both horses unloaded like a dream, with no drama.  Caspian did give one call when we arrived, but frankly, I love to hear him neigh.  Jubilee had a silly little whinny – he sounded like a weanling filly. Caspian has a deep, almost sexy neigh.

Yes, I said sexy.  And yes, I’m totally in love with my horse.  Nooo, not like that.  You know what I mean. 

Anyways, aside from being a teensy bit stocked up on the leg he had to brace with (his stall was doubly wide, so he couldn’t lean on the sides), he seemed fine.  The Big K had set up large pens inside an enormous indoor arena, so Summersmom and I tossed our ponies in pens next to each other and made sure they had feed and water.  Caspian walked into the pen like he’d lived there his whole life, rolled, and started eating and drinking.  He seemed to be doing great, so I left him alone to have some peace and quiet (at least one of us got some) and went with Summersmom to set up the tent.

The tent.

That idiotic, who-the-heck-designed-it tent.

I feel like I shouldn’t complain, because it was a lovely tent, and even better, it was borrowed (yaay for free things!)  As far as comfort goes, the tent was incredible.  It felt like a Harry Potter tent – it was large from the outside, and absolutely palatial inside.

But, oh lord… setting it up. 

We opened up the box it came in…. and out fell three large bits of canvas, 712 strange-looking poles, and a bunch of stakes.

Normally I can figure out tents easily – but this one was confusing.  Now, in addition to a blurry picture on the front of the box it did come with an instruction book… an instruction book that started on step 7, contained a picture of an already set-up tent, and showed how to stake the already set-up tent down. 

Gee.  Thanks.  That’s very helpful.

The problem with figuring out the tent was that while there were slots for the poles to thread through at the top of the tent… but there was nothing for them to attach to on the sides or on the bottom.  I wish I’d thought to take a picture of what it looked like. It was weird. Every tent I’ve ever set up had slots for the poles to go through that went all the way down to the bottom, and then the bottom of the poles connected to little tabs in the tent.

Not this tent.

This tent had poles that sort of attached at the top, and then just kind of balanced on the ground – completely independent of the bottom of the tent.  The way you stretched out the bottom of the tent was to physically pull it out and stake it down.

The way the poles kept it upright is that there were three upside bars (Imagine an upside, square “U”).

The center upside down “U” was vertical.

The left and right upside down “U”s balanced at a forty five degree angle, with the top leaning to the outside, and the legs leaning towards the center of the tent.  There was no set angle for them to be at – you just wiggled and adjusted them against each other until it felt like the tent was going to stay up by them “pulling” against each other.

Weird, huh?

It seemed like such an unstable design that I just couldn’t believe that was the way it was supposed to be set up.

To make it a little more stressful, the whole time we were setting up the tent I felt like The Bad Neighbors.  It was late.  Like, really late.  We had to use the lights from Owen’s truck to see things, so he couldn’t go to sleep until we did.    Also, as a diesel, his truck made enough noise to raise the dead, so I’m sure Gittyup and her husband had a fun time trying to sleep through the ruckus.

Basically, in Aarene’s book Endurance 101, she has a chapter where the Bad Idea Fairy pulls into ridecamp… we pretty much followed the entire script, only we substituted a diesel truck for a generator.

Sorry, Gittyup.

More than once, Owen hinted that we should consider just sleeping under the stars and figuring out the tent in the morning…. But Kacy was in a good mood (frickin’ night people) and said she didn’t mind trying to get it set up tonight, and I was in a pissy I’VE DECIDED I’M GOING TO SET UP A TENT AND SO THE TENT IS GETTING SET UP EVEN IF I HAVE TO DIE DOING IT mood (frickin’ morning people), so I ignored him.

Setting up that tent took over 45 minutes, and by the time we were done I’d thrown all civility out the window.  “PICK UP THAT POLE AND PUT IT OVER THERE.  MUGWUMP, GRAB THAT CORNER AND PULL.  I DON’T  CARE IF IT’S DIFFICULT WITH ONLY ONE HAND, JUST DO IT BEFORE I EAT SOMEONE. ”

Finally, FINALLY, we got the tent set up.   We dug out our sleeping stuff and tossed it in. 

I was really excited about my “bed”.  In addition to normal sleeping bag and pillows, I’d brought an old queen-sized futon I’d found in a “Free” pile at a garage sale.   Sure it was bulky, but this was my extravagant vacation – why not indulge a little, if we had the space to bring it?  I was really, really excited to stretch out by myself, all alone, on my beautiful queen sized “mattress”.  The thought had warmed me those last few hundred miles – I just had to hang on, and soon I’d be all by myself on my little futon.  Summersmom could sleep on her little air mattress waaaaaaaay on the other side of the tent, and I could be by myself in my little corner.  It was going to be wonderful.

Unfortunately…. none of us felt like trying to find, much less figure out how to inflate Summersmom’s air mattress at past midnight.

“I’ll just roll my sleeping bag out on the ground for tonight,” she said, cheerfully.  “I need the air mattress for my bad back, but I’m sure I’ll be fine for tonight.”

I glanced at the lumpy ground, with the rocks clearly visible through the bottom canvas of the tent…..  and then glanced at my spacious queen sized futon mattress.  And I seriously thought about it.  I seriously thought about ignoring her, and letting her sleep on the rocky ground, so I could be “by myself”.

Because deep down inside, when it’s late, and I’m sleepy, and grumpy…. I’m a jerk.

But at least I’m not a total jerk. 

“Fine.”  I stifled a sigh. “You can sleep on my futon with me.  Just DON’T TOUCH ME.”

“We’ll be snuggle buddies!” joked Summersmom, smiling broadly.

“No.  I’m serious.  DON’T TOUCH ME.  You stay on your side of the futon, and I’ll stay on mine, and DON’T TOUCH ME.”

And no, sadly that’s not an exaggeration.  That’s exactly what I said, and at that point in the evening (morning?) I meant it.  I’m not sure what I would have done if she had tried to touch me – probably snarled something incoherent and dragged my sleeping bags out of the tent, or something. 

For the record:  Sorry I’m such a pill sometimes, Summersmom.  I promise I’ll be nicer about sharing my futon at the next clinic.  I was just having a… a “moment”.

I realized I sounded like a pissypants, so I tried to soften it.  “It’s okay if you touch me.  I mean, that sounds weird.  That’s not what I meant.  I mean… oh, never mind.  We’ll make it work.  We’ll just have a nice nap, and worry about it in the morning.

About that point Mugwump decided to head back to her trailer to get some sleep.  “Morning comes early.  I’m glad you called it a ‘nap’, because that’s what it will be. See you tomorrow.”

With Brockle trailing at her heels she headed back down the road.  Summersmom and I zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags (with me wedging myself onto the absolute furthest corner of the futon to avoid any accidental contact)… and lulled by exhaustion and the sound of the wind in Montana grass, I passed out and slept like the dead until my alarm went off at 6 the next morning.