Thursday, March 11, 2021

Ground Driving Lady Nugget Muffin (in 3 parts) or "God Hates a Coward"


My Uncle is a cattle rancher in Montana. He wears button down collared shirts, cowboy boots and a handle- bar mustache. Always. For us, growing up in suburbia, he became a kind of mythic figure.  Any time Dad thought we city-bred softies needed a little inspiration he would regale us with stories about working on his brother’s ranch, being treated for the first time to the delicacy that is “Rocky Mountain Oysters” and the rip-roaring calf wrangling fun of branding time.

Looking back, I now realize that there were a lot of lessons that my brothers and sister and I distilled from those dinner table tales. For instance: If you clock a guy in a bar room brawl, buy him a drink afterwards. And: A gentleman always takes his hat off in the presence of a lady, and holds the door for her.

To some these proverbs may seem archaic, but we had a real sense that they were necessary for survival in the “wild west”. Now I’m more sensitive to the fact that they might be necessary to knit together the fabric of any community anywhere.

New Bit
Old Bit
As is everyone’s cache of family lore, these stories were swaggering, salty, and heavily embellished. Growing up we had a fenced in backyard with a maple tree in it. Our experience with livestock was our corpulent waddling guinea pig. We named our bikes, and pretended they were horses on the open range. We would listen, spellbound, to stories of the hills of a little town just south of the Canadian border in central Montana, of saddling up and moving Black Angus across the rolling landscape to new ground, wrestling with drought, getting the hay in, and building fence.  Because the hero of these stories was our Uncle, and because his ranch had been the very same place where our Grandma had learned to ride on a retired racehorse, and had rolled up her sleeves to drive the hay wagon in the hot sun when the men left for the war, it felt like it was our story too.

As we swallowed down our last few lumps of tuna fish hotdish, we would find ourselves resolving not to be such pantywaists anymore. Every family ought to have an Uncle from out west. Puts hair on yer chest. Balances the current universe awash in skinny jeans and pastel merino sweaters.

I told my Uncle about our fourteen year old Tennessee Walker- about how she was a gift horse, where she came from, how she was trained, how she wasn’t, her old bit, her new bit, lounging, ground manners, questions, comments, concerns. 

“Do you think it’ll be too crazy, trying to introduce her to ground driving and a new bit at the same time?”

His response was simply:

“Try it. See what she does.”

I felt like Almanzo Wilder in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “These Happy Golden Years”, when Cap Garland turned and tossed the words “God hates a coward!”over his shoulder at him as he stood in fog of indecision.

Horse people will read this with eyes rolling. Still, I venture to put this out there because it is an illustration of what can be done with limited resources, beginner’s knowledge, and rusty hands.

 Like most things in farming, working with horses is mostly a matter of putting in the time. Time spent gives the familiarity that greases the wheels, so to speak. Of the 3 Jersey Cows that we have purchased over the years, two of them came from herds well over 500 and were not used to much one on one attention. Asking # 279 to go from a conventional dairy setup with loafing sheds in winter and twice a day machine milking to “Honey” or “Buttercup”, Queen of the farm, with hand milking, being halter trained and led in and out of a stall each evening and morn is a big ask. The adjustment period averages 2 months. Right when you think “this isn’t working. I’m selling her,” she settles in as if she’s always been there.

With them, the change came on gradually, largely due to us showing up at the barn and pasture at the same time each day. Our habits were deliberate and regular. It was easy for her to grasp what we expected of her. Simply put: we just put the daily time in. That’s what we were finding with our horse too. That’s how it became not just training sessions for her, but for us as well.

Day 1

The first two months were spent working on ground manners: leading well, voice commands, and working on the lunge line. At first she seemed to think lunging was supposed to be an exercise in running. My goal was to make her content with boring. I was after a predictable and well stretched out walk. A long whip to accentuate my movements helped in the beginning. It was an early aid to getting her to walk out from me in the wide circle, verses avoid work by coming in to my body. Increasingly I was only using the whip as an extension of my arm, and soon not at all. My goal was to get the maximum response from the most minute request.  Eventually it became a delicate dance. It seemed all I had to do was think about asking her to change direction and she would. She was always willing to join up. Many days I came away from the barn certain that she knew more than I did, and this process was going to be about training me. I had the feeling that the more I worked with her, the more consistent and clear my body language became, and so in a sense were lunging each-other.  Soon she seemed to grow bored quickly and lose focus and attention. It was obvious she was up for a new challenge.

“You have to keep a hot horse tuned in to you, and that means you have to be interesting. When I school hot horses, I do lots of changes of directions and transitions to keep them listening and not anticipating what is coming up next.”

Bob Hart Jr.

(from an  March 1998 EQUUS Magazine Article “From Hot to Brilliant”)

After two months of building trust and establishing good communication via daily grooming, foot care, and lunging her, we put her saddle on her, fastened the new bit to the bridle, and found to our surprise that she seemed to accept it eagerly. The bit has some copper in it, and she seemed to find this more comfortable than the twisted steel of her curb bit, because, just as advertised, it caused her to salivate more and lubricate the bit.

10 years ago I sent a letter to the Catskills of NY addressed to the (infamous?) high wire artist Phillipe Petit. I invited him to come and install a wire across our Quonset barn for a rural tightrope walk, and to stay for dinner. “I wish you would write a book on backyard wire-walking, so that every parent out there with the need to find something for their children to do, will have a manual from the man himself!” I wrote him.

 He was so kind as to write back and graciously decline my offer but mention that he had written and illustrated a book I might find of interest: “WHY KNOT? How to Tie MORE THAN SIXTY INGENIOUS, Useful, BEAUTIFUL, LIFESAVING, and SECURE KNOTS!” It is a book for winters in front of a woodstove fire. It is the book that inspired the bow-line knot we would use for when we attached the rope lines to the bit, and for making “Figure of Eight stopper knots” at the end of the lines, should things go a bit, shall we say….fast and dicey.

“Adopted as a healing charm in ancient Egypt, the Figure of Eight Knot was found in Middle Kingdom burial sites. Probably because of its symmetric, interwoven shape, the loosely shaped Figure of Eight Knot has been a symbol of love for a long time, especially during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”

                                                                                                 ---Philippe Petit---

This knot seemed appropriate for two reasons: first, because trying to teach “Lady” to ground drive would be coming full circle for us. We used to farm with a team of Fjord Horses, and began to really love our work from the moment they first came into our life and our farming, re-shuffling our garden plans from 50 and 100 foot rows, to 400 foot long rows. They became a game changer for ground preparation (manure spreading, plowing, discing), cultivating, and harvesting. Anyone who has ever experienced the difference a horse drawn potato plow makes in harvesting tubers previously lifted by hand will know the unmitigated wooping- with- joy- to- the- heavens elation we felt when horses entered the picture on our market gardening farm.

Secondly, because “Lady Nugget” is currently more of a GO horse than a WHOA horse.

The first day went far better than we dreamed it would. She had no problems with the bit. Her main concern seemed to be the fact that Shane was walking behind her. And she needed some getting used to the feeling of the ropes occasionally touching her legs and rump. This was good practice for the traces on a work harness, and was part of the “sacking out” that we were going for. She seemed willing. Though, at first, she was so nervous it took a lot to check her pace. Shane applied a seesawing motion to the lines. This is something Doc Hammill recommends. It certainly seemed to jog her out of panicking and keep her mind engaged. The figure of eight knots proved handy as Lady leaped forward over a log and seemed bent on trotting. Shane’s lines slid through his hands and he closed around the knots, as he worked for the muscle memory, recalling the art of talking to a beast through rope.

The day was so filled with so many new things for her that we had the impression she had no time to think how else to react other than to do what we were asking. The only trouble we had on Day 1 was getting her to walk up.

 Many books will tell you to have someone walk alongside her with the lead rope, but we were finding that these multiple layers of communication were confusing to her. I think a lot of people underestimate how sensitive a horse is to something as mundane as a lead rope. Any time you have a rope clipped to a horse they can feel a lot more than you are even aware you are telegraphing. I have noticed many times that when I give generous slack on a lead line, and simply move my body with intention and confidence, I get more cooperation and better ground manners, than when I closes my hand completely around a rope and try to manhandle a result.

Our main goals for day one were simply for her to move out when asked, and stick a stop. Both took some doing, and a bit of patience while she learned to accept communication from behind. Each time we saw her offering to acquiesce in the slightest we’d ease up on the pressure.  In his book about passive leadership, Mark Rashid calls this “finding the try.”

“Any time you’re willing to fight with horses,” he said in a low, unwavering tone, “they’ll always be willing to fight back. The thig is though, even during those fights the horse is still trying to figure out what you want. The sad part is, because you’re so busy fighting with them, you’ll never feel those tries.”

                                                         -Mark Rashid quoting his mentor “The Old Man” in Horses Never Lie

She’s a quick learner and this worked well. Suffice to say Day 1 was a success. It was evident to me that despite her nerves, Lady was genuinely interested in learning something new and pleasing us with her efforts. This remains the ebb and flow of our relationship- her nervousness seeming to be a “deal breaker” but her simultaneous aiming to please encouraging us to persevere. Sometimes I think what we’re tapping into here is the nature of the horse as a prey animal. This is why this process is so fascinating, and why it feels like we’re being trained as much as she is.

As I walked her back to the barn after our first day ground driving,  I said to her: “Well, Lady, looks like you just won a spot on this farm.”

(Names in this piece have been changed due to privacy considerations.)

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful, meaningful AND scholastic life you and yours are leading. Just lovely and enviable. Bless you all for this example. I am proud to be your aunt.