Brandi Lyons', daughter of horse trainer John Lyons, mission is to help 10 eager ladies develop horse training career and problem-solving skills on their own terms, and she's got just the horse training talent and intuition to do it.
I decide to take Sasha, a 9-year-old gelding I raised to the horse training career clinic. Has he ever been in a two-horse straight load trailer? No. Do I have experience behind the wheel pulling a horse solo over Colorado's notorious mountain passes? No. Is it possible to get lost in Parachute (population 1,300)? Yes.
Yet we've made it, and while Sasha investigates the first stall he has been in since he was weaned, I go to meet the other participants at a cookout at John and Jody Lyons' home.
Success at any horse training career clinic depends on many things-the preparation, attitude, and skill of the teacher, of course. Yet equally important, but often overlooked, is the support of the other students out there in the dust with you.
From the very beginning, I find this group empowering. Conversation is easy. We talk about ourselves and our horses. Each woman has her own reason for being there, but interestingly, nearly everyone admits to some sort of fear issue. This admission is likely not as common at a "mixed-gender" clinic, but it immediately opens doors for mutual support.
"Sasha," I inform everyone, "is a Thoroughbred-cross gelding who was born with a crooked leg. He had 45 days under saddle with a professional four years ago. I've been on him a couple of times for a few minutes of walk-trot in a small round pen." Pause. "He has a fairly impressive buck. This is not a horse I've been willing to get on when no one else is around.
"He may end up spending a lot of time in the stall," I add apologetically.
But Brandi is having none of that.
"Sometimes fear is telling you you're not ready to do something," she observes kindly. "You can't be totally safe on a horse, but you have to have fun, and you can do it in as safe a manner as possible.
"We'll push you a little bit," she forewarns with a smile, "but if you need to take a break at any time, that's okay, too," she reassures.
We have been given a substantial "goody bucket" with such niceties as skin lotion, sore muscle cream, bubble bath, chap stick, a water pistol, a personal journal, a copy of the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You'll Go!, and a bookmark with Winston Churchill's quote "Never, never, never quit."
And so it begins.
I arrive at the stalls at 6:30 a.m. There is Sasha, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, ears pricked, and with a huge gash on his forehead that subsequently requires more than 20 stitches. We cannot find anything in the stall that he could cut himself on, but suspicion lingers on a water bucket.
John loans me Preacher for the morning's ground-work sessions. This is a humbling experience. Preacher is expert at these exercises. I am not. Although John assures me that a few hours with a hips- over novice will not ruin his horse, the trainer watches my clumsy attempts for a while and then comes over. I am overpowering the cue. It should be exactly like dancing. A delicate touch of the hand, almost just a thought of the intent, can tell your partner which way to go.
This is a definite "Aha!" moment. Preacher is visibly relieved when I finally "get it."
Each of us shows off her progress and is critiqued by the group. These ladies can pick up on effective or ineffective postures and techniques, but are tactful.
While the others go to lunch, Nickie Gwisdalla and I take Sasha for his stitches. I ask the vet how long I should wait to work him. "Lady, it took three shots to settle him down. If he were mine, I'd work him tonight!"
While the others opt for a night at the movies, I take the vet's
advice and work Sasha for 45 minutes on ground-work exercises. I am pleased with how well he responds. We really are starting to dance.
On Tuesday, we warm up with ground work, then Brandi talks about saddle and bridle fit. She notes that many saddles aren't built for a woman's pelvis so trying them before buying is essential. She also demonstrates the importance of being relaxed in the saddle. Then it's time to ride.
I watch everyone else mount up and get going. I gulp, mutter, "What the heck," and take Sasha to a mounting block.
Inhale. Exhale. Climb on. As I settle into the saddle, my horse is obviously unsure of what he is to do in a huge arena with a dozen other horses. Keeping in mind Brandi's advice of "Ride where you can, not where you can't," we stay away from the others.
Our cues for hips-over and backing are rough, but do-able. Shoulders-over draws a blank, but that wasn't fully confirmed on the ground. I try to work on getting Sasha going forward in roughly a straight line, approximate circles, serpentines, and whoa.
It isn't pretty. Actually, it's like sitting on a piece of totally distracted, overcooked horse pasta. Sasha has no idea what my legs are telling him and keeps trying to spit out his bit while flinging his head around. But at least I'm in the saddle and we're working.
I get off during a demonstration of turning your horse by moving the rein toward your pocket and concentrating on moving the concho on your saddle rather than worrying about specific leg cues or complications. I file this technique away for the future.
When I get back on Sasha, he is suddenly seriously good. He's relaxed, traveling on a loose rein in a nice forward walk, and he's starting to be quite good at the hips-over cue. Maybe this will work after all.
I naively volunteer as a guinea pig in a lunchtime demonstration on how difficult learning is-especially for the horse. It soon becomes obvious that there is a huge difference between responding to a cue and understanding it. It takes me about 15 minutes to do what Brandi wants me to do as she silently holds onto my ear. It takes another hour and 45 minutes to figure out what it is I have learned so that she will let go.
What makes this worse is that, unlike a horse, I know she is trying to teach me something. The horse, by trial-and-error, may find a response that makes the cue go away, but that does not mean he connects this to consistently performing the action we expect him to magically understand. I silently resolve to multiply my patience level by at least a factor of 10 when introducing any new cue to a horse.
As the temperature tops 103 degrees, we opt to spend the next few hours floating down the Colorado River, a relatively mild stretch which flows through Parachute. Facing fear has become one of the themes of this clinic for both horses and riders. This concept carries over to the river trip-especially for those without whitewater experience. They are helped by those of us who play in rivers more regularly and tubing becomes the most hilarious part of the week.
As one cannot float upstream in an inner tube, we return via horse trailer, with instructions to evaluate how the horse feels when traveling. Would he rather face forward or backward, be loose, maybe have a divider to lean on? The truck then purposely starts with a lurch, giving us direct experience of what jerky starts and stops can do to the horse's balance.
After breakfast at the campfire, there is an illuminating discussion of how people get too hung up on the idea that they have to finish whatever task they start or somehow the horse "wins." The moral: horses don't know how much of a task we intended to accomplish, so you can quit any time something-anything-has been done well.
Arena time starts with ground work again, then repeating the same exercises on horseback. Brandi emphasizes that taking time to teach something thoroughly on the ground can be the fastest method in the end.
Sasha is starting to get the idea of moving his shoulders over under saddle.
We are assigned 45 minutes of trotting serpentines without a break. Sasha and I mostly walk, but eventually do work up to a trot. I have to swat at him with my legs to get him into a trot as his usually reliable voice command response seems to have disappeared once I am on his back.
His body goes everywhere as he can't hold his balance for more than a few strides. Intermittently, he returns to being a head-flipping noodle. His walk work after that is vastly improved, however, so it is time to quit, cool him out and put him up.
We break for a picnic by the river until the heat eases up.
That evening, Brandi gets on Sasha. She gets his head flinging under control by holding steadily until he drops his head on request. (Note: he has not flipped his head since.)
She then uses him for a spook-in-place demonstration in the round pen, starting quietly, but leading up to vigorously rattling white plastic bags to teach him how to respond properly when something frightens him. Rather than literally turn tail and run, he must learn to stop immediately and look at the scary thing.
Horses vary in the intensity of their spook responses and control is very important in this exercise. Given Sasha's limited training, Brandi attaches a lariat to the bit so she can better manage his hindquarters. It doesn't take much plastic rattling to prove that those hindquarters can put on an impressive turn of speed.
"Do not let him run. Keep turning him, moving his hips over," she emphasizes.
When the horse stops and looks, even momentarily, she stops rattling the sack. Sasha learns this vastly faster than I did the holding-the-ear exercise. Brandi actually becomes his safe spot. Soon she has to intensify the rattling with extraordinarily energetic actions to get a spook response.
Nickie gets up on him. The lariat is removed so she can use the reins for hips-over, if necessary. Now he has to balance a rider, as well as control his emotions. Brandi begins the procedure again. Sasha quickly responds to the commotion by turning to face the frightful bag.
After a few minutes, I get on. What a blast! I haven't had this much fun on a horse in years. Sasha is obviously enjoying it, ears pricked and waiting eagerly for Brandi's next move. It becomes like a cutting demonstration, with Brandi acting like a noisy calf as Sasha scrambles nimbly to keep her between his ears.
Training to turn and face the thing you fear has applications for the rider, as well as for the horse.
Sasha's big brother was a big, black gelding who spooked and launched me while I was mounting. You can't "get back on" when you are taken away by ambulance. It took months for me to recover physically. I'd been up on Sasha almost exactly as many times as I had ridden his brother before that wreck, and I had my own fear issues to overcome.
When Sasha proves he's really solid on his spook-in-place, we rub the plastic all over him to truly desensitize him, praise him extravagantly, then cool him out and put him up for his dinner while the approximate weight of a certain black horse lifts from my shoulders.
Today we work on basic trail course obstacles and balanced riding.
While Brandi works with everyone else on the obstacles, Sasha and I go down to the far end of the arena to work on a 1-2-3-stop assignment to teach him to go forward steadily and confidently.
"Keep it up for an hour. The results are like magic."
And they are. Sasha loves this. He can understand what I am asking. There's no time to get unbalanced. No pressure. No excitement. Just learning.
As we finish our hour, Brandi and the ladies are yelling for me to come up for my turn on the obstacles. Sasha feels wonderful. I say I will try a couple of things.
First there is a trot serpentine through cones. At a walk, we can do that. Next a pair of chairs marks a figure eight. If we could do the cones, we can do the chairs. So we do.
Then there is a ladder propped against the fence.
Sasha does not want to get anywhere near the ladder.
The response to this is to keep your horse working on something that needs work anyway, gradually approaching the thing that bothers him while teaching him that as long as he is focused on you there is nothing to worry about. We make little circles with the 1-2-3-stop exercise, just far enough away from the ladder that Sasha ignores it. We gradually circle closer. Eventually, we are close enough that I can lean over and touch it. On the next approach, we stand by the ladder as I lean over and thump it lightly. Next time around, we stop by the ladder, stand, and I rattle it. Circle again. Pick up ladder. Shake it. Thump it down. Clang it against the fence with a fine gesture.
Cheers from the multitude. (Well, maybe a dozen people.)
I'm so relieved that I forget to do the next task. Draped across the fence, a sweatshirt is to be picked up and waved over my horse's neck. Multiple yells to go back and get it. The ladies are not going to let me skip something they think I can do. The same procedure works again.
Next we are to walk over a tarp. This produces a spook-in-place reaction, which I patiently wait out with leg pressure and the occasional hips-over until he stands still and puts his head down. Instant release. He shuffles around. Re-present quietly, but steadily.
Brandi reminds me, "Encouraging is okay. Forcing is not."
Whenever he puts his head down to it or even shifts his weight as if he might put a forefoot on it, instant release. A little farther, a little farther. Foot on. Good boy! In just a couple of minutes he strides across the tarp. Hot dog, this is fun!
He is not ready for a trotted zig-zag. He could have done the back-up pretty easily by that point, but getting off and hugging him seemed more appropriate.
While I am on the ground, Brandi insists we drape a Wrangler banner over his head and neck. He's a bit leery, but we work gently. Finally Sasha the Wonder Horse emerges!
Brandi asks who wants to do balanced-riding exercises. This sounds great, but my horse has done enough for today.
Sasha is progressing very rapidly for such a green horse, but we are constantly gauging his reactions so he is not overwhelmed. While he has had very little time under saddle, at 9 years old he has the physical and mental maturity to deal with what we are asking as long as there are frequent releases and lots of praise.
Balanced riding is a method of developing the rider's center of balance. The rider sits in the saddle without holding onto the reins, sometimes with her eyes closed, while the horse is controlled by someone else. There are various levels of this exercise, depending on the skill and confidence level of the horse and rider.
Brandi says that this procedure is not for everyone. "If the person doing the driving of the horse from the ground does not have total control, the rider could get hurt. If it is done in the round pen, both the horse and the ground person must be very knowledgeable."
Some of us just watch. One lady had done this before, so Nickie quietly works with her on loping issues. Another has just finished up in the round pen with Brandi. She still looked pretty shaky. "It was super scary. I have to remember to sit back with my legs forward, but," she said, "I feel good about it."
Brandi is really hustling Karen in the round pen. Karen is having a great time. She has been in John's clinics before and is hoping to go for her trainer certification.
That evening we go shopping and to dinner at a fairly posh restaurant. They are gracious toward a huge table of women and girls who are laughing so hard that sometimes it is hard to eat.
Trail ride day. We load the horses in trailers for a short, but steep haul up the mesa.
Sasha gets off the trailer drenched in sweat. He has banged his head. Blood is seeping around his stitches and he is shaking like an aspen leaf. This is not a promising start for his first trail ride. He's done a lot and I really don't want either of us to have a bad experience now. Brandi is helping another rider. I ask John for advice. John watches him for a few minutes. He evidently sees something I do not.
"Take him. It'll do him good."
I really don't want to do this.
"Saddle him up, but do not do it while he's tied to the fence."
More truth: My other major hospitalization came during a trail ride-at the walk. Another big, black horse slipped, went down and my head played "crack the whip" with a road in Ireland. This was another incident where I couldn't "get back on" from a hospital bed. By the time I recovered, I was an ocean away from that particular horse.
Nickie helped me saddle Sasha, because I'm now as nervous as my horse, and he's picking up on that, big time. John rides over on Preacher and ponies Sasha a little bit at the walk. Sasha doesn't really have a lot of choice about tagging along with confident Preacher and calms down enormously. John has me get on Sasha and ponies us both for a few more minutes until I get so interested in how my horse is responding that I relax.
Hmm. This is beginning to feel a whole lot like what I was doing at the ladder yesterday-only it's directed at me as much as the horse.
John tosses me the reins and I get to work. Walk three steps. Stop. Walk three steps. Stop. Hips-over just to make sure it still works. It does.
Our group assembled, we hit the trail with Mike acting as trail boss, leading the way. The ladies who spend most of their riding time on trails support those who have never much been away from the arena. Brandi moves front to back along the line, encouraging and instructing riders.
Sasha is concentrating on balancing himself and me while going up and down the steep climbs. I'm falling in love with my horse.
All too soon, we are back down the mesa, putting up the horses and adjourning to the campfire to swap e-mail addresses, receive our certificates, exchange photos, and eat cake.
The plan is to go to a rodeo after barn chores, but rain pours down. We go to dinner together instead and fit in a last batch of laughing. ("It was either a bunch of cowgirls or a pack of really noisy coyotes.")
On Saturday morning, we clean stalls, load up, and say goodbye to wonderful women who have become supportive friends.
So what did we take away from our week in Parachute?
Working under supervision for five to seven hours a day, five days straight can make a remarkable difference for many horses and riders.
"I didn't just work on what my horse and I already know," says Lisa. "I actually taught him some new things. For me, that's huge, because I don't normally think of myself as someone capable of teaching a horse."
"I came home and immediately everyone noticed my lightness of spirit," shares Vicki. "My energy level had risen, and I put into practice the lessons I had learned from the retreat on every horse in the barn, including the rescue horses."
Peggy not only got her horse to stand still to be mounted, she summed it up for most of us when she said, "If laughter is really the best medicine, then all of us went home very healthy."
As for me, do I consider Sasha to be truly broke? Heck, no. That will take years. But I'm smiling because I've got a new
favorite riding horse. He's big, black, and 9 years old-and ready to build on the foundation we began together at a women's retreat in Parachute.