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16 minutes reading time (3270 words)

The Adventures of Sihr Brigadier Mac V ("Sonny")

June 2022

One Step At A Time

These times have created an expectation of immediate gratification for most people. It takes just a few clicks on your phone to order some food, and a few minutes later someone knocks on your door with your meal. Unable to get to the store? Click an order, and the item can be on your doorstep in one day. So few things these days take time and patience to create or attain. Sad, but true. Bringing along a young horse is definitely NOT one of those things that can be expected to provide immediate gratification… even one as good-minded as Sihr Brigadier Mac V ("Sonny").I will say though that your eyes are pleased pretty immediately… the handsome fella that he is, and yes, I'm partial. But, as we progress through his training and have new experiences, I have truly come to appreciate the necessity of not rushing a good training program for a young horse.

In April this year, Sonny (now five years old) and I were able to again attend a Bruce Sandifer & Jeff Derby workshop, this one in beautiful Clovis, California. It was quite a drive from Las Vegas, but Sonny as usual traveled well, happy to drink water inside the trailer at stopping points, and generally snoozing the majority of the time just like the kid that falls asleep every time they get in the family car for a drive. This trip we took my big living quarters horse trailer, since that would be my accommodations during the workshop. Having my friend and her horse along for the trip was nice as it provided both Sonny and I company for the trip. The big trailer has this wonderful thing called "air ride suspension", so I'm positive Sonny had a much more comfortable ride.

Anxious to get there, we stopped minimally and kept on our way. We arrived at the lovely Carden Ranch in Clovis on Thursday afternoon, and then waited for all the other arrivals to get their horses unloaded, put away, and the rigs parked and settled for the weekend. Because of the layout this required us to all wait while each trailer did the routine one at a time. When we pulled in Bruce and Jeff were working with a client's horse in the arena right next to the drive where we had stopped. The pause gave us an opportunity to open the windows of the truck and listen to what they were saying, and watch the interesting interactions between horse, clinicians, and rider. Soon it was our turn to pull up to the open space and unload the horses. I lowered the air pressure in the suspension, which lowered the trailer so that the ramp is not so steep for the horses to unload. I was so proud of Sonny when he calmly and slowly backed down the side ramp of the trailer, one step at a time, head lowered on his own to check his footing on the ramp. Easy Sonny, look around, yep… take it all in. One more step my buddy… you got it. Sonny's beautiful white V brand on his left hip shined along with his nice bay coat in the afternoon sun. And, I smiled when a couple of folks who had gathered around noticed it and knew exactly what it was. The power of the V! After getting the horses settled in to their pens with water, it was quickly time to get the big rig parked in its spot for the weekend. We lucked out and were given a spot right next to the horse pens on the hilled-curve with a fabulous view of the surrounding pastures, trees, and other distant ranch sites. I walked the site location and realized that getting my rig in that tight spot was way above my capabilities. I looked in horror at the tight fit, the top of the barn next to the spot, and decided to ask the rancher if he would mind parking it for me. Whew, thank goodness, he was happy to. It took quite a lot of back up and go forward adjustments. But, one step at a time, he got the rig positioned in a perfect spot and almost level. We spent the evening getting the horses and ourselves settled in, visiting with participants we knew, meeting new ones, and having dinner. Then, a glass or two of wine, and off to bed to rest up for the workshop weekend.

The first day in the arena, Sonny was a little excited. New place, new smells, several horses of varying breeds, several people in the arena, and needless to say I was probably a bit nervous wanting to be sure I was doing my best. Workshops and clinics are funny that way, even though you're not competing, there's always a bit of competitiveness amongst the participants. Before we even mounted, I'm sure Sonny could "feel" my anxiousness, he feels everything. Jeff Derby (gosh this guy notices everything!) saw that Sonny was being uneasy, and he offered to work with him for a minute. Let the clinic begin! All stood around and watched as Jeff worked with Sonny on the ground, verbally explaining everything he was doing. Not a single lunge or move around him on the long line, nope. Jeff calmly spent the time to slowly walk around "with" Sonny close to him, moving his front feet, and then his back feet, one step at a time, stopping in between each step or two to give Sonny time to think and regain his confidence. "Stay with me, you're ok", Jeff said, explaining that sending them away (lunging) seemed to him to send the wrong message. "Stay with me, it's safe and comfortable here", adding a scratch or two for reassurance as Sonny eased in to a calm and yet attentive posture. Now there… isn't that better? It took a few minutes, but step by step the worry and anxiety visibly melted off of Sonny. What a good demo horse you are Sonny. After this little interaction between Jeff and Sonny, I walked Sonny over to the mounting block, and stepped right on. Sonny stood calmly and patiently, waiting for me to get my feet settled in the stirrups and my mecate get-down rope securely tucked in to my belt. I was pleased he did so patiently, because we have been working on that a lot lately. When he's excited to 'go do something', he sometimes takes a step or two forward without me asking. Not this time, whew! Day 1 of the workshop was great, working on softening our ask using our seat bones, inner thighs, and calves instead of pulling the horses head around. Bruce emphasized riding the horse, and not riding the head…staying centered in the saddle. We worked on the rhythm of our body movement to be in sync with the horses cadence as he moves. I immediately noticed how everything we were learning was being done slow and steady at a walk, most times just a few steps at a time. We didn't have to walk all the way around the arena rail, or all the way up and down the arena to achieve the goal of getting the horse to "be with us" and be in sync with us. We achieved the refinement one step at a time, so that we could actually feel the change. What a concept!

The morning of the second day was a refresher of the prior day. Sonny made me proud by proving that he was a quick study and worked well with me as we attempted laterals, roll-backs, backups, and just some soft turns. The afternoon and the rest of the weekend we introduced the horses to cows, and learned how to apply what we'd learned to working the cows. Everything was done methodically, slowly, and with intention to move a cow (or three at a time) where we intended to. There was no rush about it. I quickly realized how different this was from what I've observed of team penning or sorting. Everything we did was one or two steps at a time. Take a step, wait… see what that cow does, don't anticipate. Take another step, move, change directions, but all done at one step at a time. I was reminded of stories of cattlemen that would be annoyed at their hands for pushing the cows on the prairies too fast across miles and miles of terrain. Afterall, who would want to buy a worn-out skinny cow! Click… it all made perfect sense to me. This was true working cow stock horsemanship. And what a dance it was. I found Sonny to be a very 'cowy' Arabian horse. He LOVED doing this. Each time we took our turn to move a couple of the cows, Sonny became more adept at it, and began to really understand that HE was moving them.

By the third day, we all headed out to the pasture to bring the small herd in to the arena. At first Sonny was doing pretty good, considering there were at least 10 horses and riders with us and he had never been on a "trail" ride with that large of a group. As the stiff sticky grass got taller and taller, the ground underneath us got softer and softer, and the grasshoppers got larger and larger and much more aggressive. Deep breath, stay calm…. I could feel Sonny building under me as we walked along in the tall grass. All of a sudden, he decided he had had enough of this new feeling of being poked in the belly by stiff grass, little miniature grass monsters attacking his face and legs, and the unforgiving and unknown footing under his feet. Suddenly I was riding a 3-year-old bronc stud colt instead of my steady 5-year-old solid-minded gelding. With some circles and talking, the shenanigans stopped but then after walking about 50 yards they started right back up again, seemingly building on the prior fears instead of becoming calmer. I knew that Sonny's anxiety was beginning to impact other horses in the group, one feeding off of another. So, I directed Sonny to a dirt opening in the field about 10 feet wide and had him walk in a small circle in the open area until he stood somewhat quietly. I could tell he wasn't a happy camper and continuing with this undertaking might result in an accident, either my own or someone else's. I made an "executive decision" to dismount while he was standing still, and we walked slowly on lead line through the tall grass the final 75 yards or so to the gate, taking time to stop occasionally so he could get his footing and find his brain as we followed the rest of the group who were slowly pushing the cows. Once we reached the ranch gate where there was no more tall grass, I quickly found a small gully in the dirt, placed Sonny in it, and re-mounted. He was immediately a completely different horse. The ground-walk back to the gate (and little talking and some rubbing that we had along the way) was exactly what he needed to get his mind back on me where it was safe. I rode him to the front of the group and let him push the herd of cows the short rest of the way. He was visibly a happy boy again. I ceremoniously and imaginatively pat myself on the back for doing what for he and I was the best decision. And, I very visibly and openly rubbed his neck and mane in praise telling him how proud I was of him. The boy was really building some serious confidence now!

When I returned home I had a completely different perspective on how the next year or two of Sonny's training would go. I no longer expected him to get better and better and better at a consistently expeditious pace. I knew that we would have to take the next phases of his training a bit slower and more meticulously, ensuring that whatever we work on is building on something he had already mastered, or at least done really well at. My session with my trainer at home a couple of weeks later included something new for Sonny. He was going to learn how to pony another horse. Sonny had been ponied by another horse, but he had never ponied another horse. I was not sure how this was going to go. But, my trainer insisted that he was ready for it and that it was an important thing for him to learn because with all the trail riding we do you never know when you could be in a situation where you have to pony someone else's horse or a pack horse. The session went very slow, moving just a couple of steps straight forward at first, and then moving into a full trip around the round pen, to finally making some turns and circles in both directions keeping the ponied horse at my knee and just behind Sonny's shoulder. Lo and behold, Sonny not only did well, he did great. As we wrapped up the session, and I was grooming Sonny I noticed he had not even broken a sweat. I knew that was because we took the lesson slow, building the second 10 minutes on the first, and the next 10 minutes on the second. No rush, no pressure, just one step at a time.

The spring of 2022 has been filled with unbelievably fabulous trail rides and training sessions. Each one getting better and better. Sonny and I recently did a trail ride in the Southern Nevada desert near our ranchita in Las Vegas. As we set out on the trail I began to realize how many cholla cactus, Spanish daggers, and yuccas were on the trail. I had to take a few deep breaths as we serpentined through them, occasionally swiping one with my leg or Sonny's side. No tragedies occurred though. He took it all in stride and moved forward with confidence as the leader of the group the majority of the day. Rocky downhill sections on the trail that used to cause Sonny to stop and hesitate, became no big deal and no break in stride. I was so happy and proud of him that I wanted to hug him (and I did), and I shared my peanut butter sandwich with him from the saddle, which he seems to just love. Our partnership is growing steadily.

The other day, realizing that the heat in Las Vegas is way too much for a desert ride, my friends and I headed up to Mount Charleston, about an hour or so outside of Las Vegas. We selected a trail that is quite long and pretty steep in parts, with just a few tricky spots to get through. As usual, when we arrived at the trailhead Sonny stood calmly at the trailer for tacking up, looking around at other cars, trailers, and activity in the parking area. We saddled up, making sure to have our knives, cameras, tracking devices, snacks and plenty of water for the long ride. Off we went, with Sonny in the lead of the four horses. The first few miles of the ride were a fire access dirt road, with pretty steep drop offs. Sonny did excellent. But, darn it, I couldn't understand why he seemed to want to walk right along the edge instead of in the middle of the dirt road. I kept my leg on him, and repeatedly had him move inward away from the edge. The views were phenomenal. We actually were riding across the canyon area from the ski slopes where I'd snow ski'd as a teenager many times. No snow on the trail right now though, just beautiful green pine trees, aspens, and mountain berry bushes of some kind, along with lots of new spring wildflowers in purples, yellows, and oranges. At the end of the fire access road we took a detour up on to a single file trail, and headed up the mountain where we were met with large pine trees and branches overhanging the trail. Warning the rider behind us, we'd shout out "head!", and when a low branch stuck out, we'd yell out "leg!". The smell of the pungent spring blooms and the fresh new growth on the pine trees was wonderful, the only sound we heard was the crunching of the ground underneath our horse's hooves. It was about 80 degrees and temperatures lowered slightly as we climbed higher and higher on the switchbacks to our planned destination of about 10,000 foot elevation. All of a sudden, one of the gals yelled to watch out, there was a bicyclist coming down the switchbacks toward us. I looked up, and sure enough he was flying down the trail, heading right for us. All four of us yelled out "whoooaahhh, whoooahhh, hey!". Thank goodness he heard us, and slowed down just before reaching the switchback turn to our position. Many of these bicyclists wear headphones and would not have heard us at all. Hearts were racing, tension building amongst us all. He stopped at the turn, dismounted from his bike, and got off the trail to yield to the horses. Whew, that could have been bad. As concerned as I was during that 3 minute encounter, I suddenly realized how calm Sonny was. He just watched the biker as we climbed the corner to pass him, almost as if to say "don't worry mom, I got this". Once again, I was just so proud of this young gelding. Later, at the top of the trail we encountered a small band of wild horses that live in the area. That was where we decided to turn around and head back down the mountain. The two mustangs that we came fairly close to (about 20 yards or less), began taking steps towards us as if they were trying to claim their territory. Sonny became a bit agitated and unsure of these wild cousins. So, we did not hesitate to heed their warning, not knowing if they were stallions or mares. Back down the trail we went at a good working walk clip, occasionally looking behind us to check if they were still there. Yep, they were following us! Let's move ladies! And with that the trotting began. Around curves, over logs (one of which I had to quickly dismount to lead Sonny over, and then quickly remount as fast as I could, all the while my heart racing).After a mile or so, they stopped following us (we think), and we came to a clearing where we could stop and take a break. Good time for some water and a peanut butter sandwich (and of course, Sonny got all the crust).I hugged Sonny again, buried my head in his thick black mane, and thanked him for being such a good boy.

The last couple of months have been an enormous change in my Sonny. We have put in a lot of training and a lot of miles, and he is slowly but surely becoming that wonderful trail horse we all hope for when we start a young gelding. With each ride his confidence builds, and his calmness increases. A little bit each time. One step at a time. 

The Adventures of Sihr Brigadier Mac V (Sonny) - ...
Adventures of Sihr Brigadier Mac V ("Sonny") - Bra...

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