Finally I am able to take some time to write about the clinic. I’m probably going to wish that I had written sooner for fear of forgetting something, but hopefully not.
I didn’t sleep very well the night before. I was running through in my mind everything that I needed to bring with me and worrying that Merlin wouldn’t load in the morning. Not much is worst than trying to get a reluctant horse on a trailer. Luckily, my worries were unfounded. We caught Merlin in the dark, put his blanket on him and he walked right in the trailer. Good boy. Dream wasn’t too happy being left alone in the dark, but there wasn’t anything we could do about that.
We got on the road right on time, stopped for a quick breakfast and arrived at the stable where the clinic was being held at around 8:00. It was damp and cold. I wished that I had brought a winter hat, gloves and my heavier barn coat, but the forecast was for temperatures in the low 50’s. The forecast was wrong. The sun didn’t come out all day and at times, it drizzled. I didn’t realize how cold I was until on the way home with the heat cranked up high in the truck. It seemed to take forever for me to warm up.
Once we pulled in and got the trailer parked, I went to the barn to complete the necessary paperwork. Wally unloaded Merlin and when I got back to the truck, I saw Wally walking Merlin around on a tight lead. Merlin was acting like a fool. I quickly stepped in and took hold of him on a looser line to allow him to move more. Horses seem to be calmer if they are allowed to move. Restraining them in any way adds to their agitation. I have noticed that many of the so-called natural horsemanship instructors brush and tack up their horses using a rope halter and long, loose lead rope. If the horse feels the need to move his feet during the process, he is allowed to. Tying them restricts their movement and if they get particularly panicky, they can pull back and injure themselves.
As I was walking Merlin around (and he was still acting like a fool, just on a looser lead), Robbie Potter pulled in. He jumped out of the truck and introduced himself to Wally and then to me. Wally said that Merlin was going to be in his clinic. Robbie asked if he could take hold of him and I released lead.
Katie bar the door! Merlin didn’t know what hit him. A few quick snaps on the lead rope were enough to change Merlin’s mind about acting like a fool. Then Robbie made him move both his hindquarters and forequarters and lunge around him. I told Robbie that Merlin was difficult (to say the least) tacking up and in general, handling on the ground. That he was spooky which made him hard to handle. Then the desensitization began. It was not as kind as what I’ve watched Clinton Anderson (and others) do; but keep in mind, what we see Clinton Anderson do on television may very well be quite different than what may go one without the camera. It didn’t take long for Merlin to settle down.
We hooked Merlin to the trailer and started to clean him up. If there was a contest for the dirtiest horse, we likely would have one. Since Merlin lives outside, without a blanket, he was quite muddy. It was too cold to bathe him so we had to make do. He was much easier to tack up after the Robbie-treatment. We were to meet in the arena with our horses in rope halters and saddled up.
In the arena, we did some groundwork. Robbie said that he didn’t believe in a lot of groundwork and that some people over-do it. He said that his “pre-flight” check includes the ability to move the horse’s hindquarters, forequarters, backing him up and moving him around him (lunging). If he’s able to do all of these things, then he feels that it is safe to get into the saddle. Merlin easily moves his hindquarters, the forequarters are more difficult, especially on the right side. Merlin’s right side, all in all, is worst, probably because no one has ever done anything to him on the right side.
Once the groundwork was done, I got Merlin’s bridle on and mounted up. He was still quite high and moved on out quickly, as he always does.
Much of the rest of the clinic was spent going around the arena at a walk and sometimes a trot. We did very little cantering. There was a lot of people in the class, more than I think was comfortable. The arena was large enough for the number of horses, but it was difficult for Robbie to focus on the entire group. Unfortunately, this was a one day clinic. Up until almost lunchtime, Robbie thought it was a two day clinic, so he was teaching it in that manner.
After the clinic was over, Wally mentioned that he thought it was a bit too basic and slow, and I imagine someone watching would think that, but you needed to be on the horse to feel how the very basic maneuvers that we were doing were helping both the horses and riders. I was the only one using an Australian saddle (which I expected). All of the other riders were riding English. Robbie was using a Western saddle. It doesn’t matter what kind of saddle you ride in, but I don’t think the English-orientated people were getting as much out of Robbie as I was. I’d be willing to bet that most, if not all, of the other people in the class competed in dressage or hunter/jumper events. There were several young horses in the class who were acting about as foolish as Merlin.
Robbie had us going around the arena in a straight line (on the rail) and zig-zag lines. He’d tell us to get our horses walking as fast as they could without breaking into a trot going in a straight line, and then in a zig-zag line (fast walking is Merlin’s specialty). Then he’d tell us to get our horses walking as slow as they could without stopping (hard for Merlin). We did a lot of reversing direction at a walk (and sometimes at a trot) away from the rail, keeping our circles as round as possible.
While I’m sure this was extremely boring for some of the riders and most likely for the spectators, what he was doing was making us control our horses’ feet under saddle (just as we did on the ground during our ground work). This work, while probably even boring for the horses, softened them (at least it softened Merlin, many of the horses in the clinic were quite dull) tremendously. It isn’t very often that I am able to walk Merlin on a loose rein with his head down, but we did at times during the clinic.
After lunch we started back with the walking around the arena, but he broke the group in half and had half of us going around the outside of the arena in one direction and the other half going the other way. This blew Merlin’s mind. Then he had us weave with the rider going in the opposite direction and Merlin all but blew up. He’s likely never had to do anything like this before. What the exercise was teaching us to do was to take responsibility for where we were going. I think a lot of people who ride just let their horses go in whatever general direction they point them in, often at whatever pace the horse chooses. In the clinic we were taking responsibility for the speed and direction we wanted to go.
Then we had to back our horses up. I’ve taught horses how to back up, but I did it by pulling on their mouths until they eventually backed up. I tried to do this with Merlin, but I don’t think he’s ever been taught to back up. I pulled and pulled, but got no where. Robbie told me to ride my horse back. How the hell do you do that? He told me to imagine there was a giant ball behind me and I had to move it back using my body. I squeezed my legs, put pressure on the reins (bit) and pushed my body back as if I was pushing a giant ball back. It took a few seconds, but I got one step back. Robbie cheered and told me to pet the hide off that horse. By the end of the clinic, I was able to get many steps backwards.
The goal with all of the exercises we were doing was to make doing the right thing easy for the horse; and the bad thing hard. As soon as Merlin took a step backwards, I released the pressure.
Later in the day we worked on turns into the rail. Robbie wanted us to be able to move the horse’s rear quarters using our reins and leg pressure a quarter turn and then move the forequarters another quarter turn. That was hard and something I need to work on. I find it hard to feel the difference between movement of the rear- and forequarters. I discovered that I do a lot of looking down to the ground when I’m riding. Robbie corrected that quite a few times. Not sure what I’m looking at down there … probably praying that I don’t meet the ground again.
Besides learning to ride Merlin backwards and the softening I felt in him from the exercises, perhaps the most exciting thing happened towards the end of the clinic when I rode Merlin to a stop. I shifted my weight and applied just a little pressure to the bit and he came to the smoothest, most complete stop than he’s ever done under saddle.
Granted, all that we did throughout the day was extremely basic, it all felt really good. I was glad that I was able to stay in the saddle all day with very little discomfort. My left knee and ankle were problematic, but getting out of the saddle and walking around a few minutes helped relieve the pain. By the time 5:00 rolled around though, I was ready to go home, as was, I’m sure, Merlin. I was a bit worried about how Dream was taking being left alone all day. Merlin didn’t bat an eye while I took his tack off and put his blanket on. He loaded right into the trailer and we headed home. Robbie and most of the other riders were still going strong. I felt that we got what we needed to out of the clinic and that it was time to call it a day.
Thankfully, everything was okay back at the house. We got all of our chores done before it got too dark and we were both very happy to get into the warm house. I’m looking forward to when I’m able to ride again and put into practice what I learned at the clinic. While I don’t have an arena, I can do all the exercises in the back fields (once the river recedes). There is another clinic in March. It’s a two clinic. I’m first on the waiting list so hopefully I’ll get in.
Until later …