Saturday, April 11, 2015

My Bitless Journey

I am going to be honest. Bitless is not for everyone. I am not one of those horse people that says "my way or the highway" or "this is the way everyone should do something." I am of the belief that a good horse person is constantly growing, changing, and modifying the way they are riding and working with horses in ways that both benefit and create success for both horse and rider. I like to talk about the things that I try or do, because I am excited about it. I am in no way saying "that is what you should do."

{My Boy in his fancy western style bit less bridle. I don't ususally bring the lead rope with me on rides, but as I was riding with my 8 year old stepdaughter this particular day, I wanted to have it just in case. I got my bridles from nurturalhorse.com, the western one is a Nurtural but is from horseloverz.com because it was on sale.}

That being said, I do like people to keep an open mind. It is people who shut down instantly, "Oh, my trainer would never let me ride bit less" or "my horse would surely never stop without a bit, I'd have no control!" All I ask is to just ponder about the whole concept of riding without a bit. Expand your thinking about it, research it, and read up on it. You never even have to try it. But don't be one of those horse people that won't keep growing or learning. Someday, in your life, you might encounter a wonderful horse that for some reason or another, can not wear or work in a bit. Or maybe you are watching a horse event and see a rider performing freestyle dressage without a bit. Maybe your mind and heart will open a bit. It still doesn't mean you have to ride bit less. But recognizing that many horses do BETTER without a piece of metal in their mouth has been an interesting journey for me. I did not come to ride My Boy bitless out of a vaccum. I've heard about it and have been curious, but what is funny now is that after riding bitless, I now seeing gaping mouths and all kinds of crazy bits and mis-handling and I just cringe at even how I have pulled and ridden with bits in the past!

{My bitless black leather "english style" bridle.}

Enough lecturing. I have found something that works for My Boy and I, and my next horse might very well need to be ridden in a bit, but that's okay. Let me tell you how it came about.

When I got Luna, my intent was to try her bitless. I had read up about Justin Dunn and his Mustang Horsemanship, and how he rides all of his horses in side pulls (which he designed.)  The trainers I were considering said they started horses in rope halters (similar to Clinton Anderson style) but that eventually the horse would be ridden in a snaffle. I resigned to this approach because of lack of trainers in my area and my limited funds for training. I wouldn't ask a trainer to attempt bitless training on a horse unless it was their belief, in lines with their philosophy and interest to do so. (After getting to know her better, I do think I could push the trainer I ended up using to try bit less with my next Mustang, as she would honestly tell me at some point in the training that horse was suited for it.)

{Photo of Justin Dunn from his Facebook page, Justin Dunn Mustang Horsemanship.}

I gave up on my bitless journey. Then, this past winter, I decided My Boy had been sitting long enough while I learned to be a mama and Luna got all the work and riding as she learned to become a saddle horse. I moved him to a local boarding stable to have use of an indoor arena. I moved him on a Tuesday in time for a teeth float appointment on Wednesday. But the vet had so many horses to do, he didn't get to several horses, including My Boy. We rescheduled for a week out, but then that got moved a month out because they were offering a special. I kept that appointment because it also meant I could share the farm call fee with others and being on a budget, a discount is definitely a necessity!

I could have just ridden My Boy in his snaffle, he had been ridden in it a few times during the summer. However, I felt guilty about it knowing he was overdue for a float and remembering that one of the trainers that borrowed him for a trail ride had told me she could tell he needed his teeth done by the way he was in the bridle. So I decided to just ride him in a double knot rope halter with reins. I had the use of a round pen and indoor arena so it was a great, controlled space to experiment with.

He did well, as I knew he would. I knew this because this horse is 21 years old and broke. That does not mean he gets naughty or silly sometimes- but he is not a bucker or a bolter. As a reining trained horse he pretty much prefers to whoa in most instances and he does not spook. He also moves very well off of leg, seat, neck rein, and verbal cues. So where the rope halter failed is that it was that the fit was a little sloppy on his head and the reins would slide down underneath his chin, making it a little difficult to be as clear in any direct rein cues. After several rides inside, the weather turned spring-like and I was itching to get outside and ride. There is no outdoor arena, but the stable it on a long, winding dirt road in the woods. We did a few hand-walks out and about first, then one day I saddled him up and off we went in the rope halter.

I have never looked back. I got online and ordered a proper bitless bridle because I wasn't happy with the fit of the rope halter.  I really wanted to have better lateral flexion and direct rein when and if I needed it. No matter what kind of stretching we've done, even in a bit, My Boy does not have good lateral flexion. He is just stiff in the neck, I don't know if it's his build, age, or what but he can not whip his head all the way around to my ankle like I see some trainer's do with colts.

I had one bad ride on My Boy. I was invited to go on a trail ride with some other ladies at the barn including the head trainer and her assistant. The minute we started out the arena gate My Boy was completely out of whack. He was jigging and generally not listening to me. He had never been out that gate, had never been ridden with these horses, and had never been on those trails. Regardless, he should not have been acting that way. I wanted to chicken out and say, "Um, guys, I think I'm going to stay home!" but sucked it up and went forward. Sensing I was having trouble they had me move him from our place at the back of the line up to the front behind a calmer, older mare. That helped a little. But the whole ride was a bit crazy. Most of the horses were good, albeit "spring fresh." We had three large dogs with us that kept running and bounding through the brush and water and crossing in and out of the woods and the trail. The first part of the ride we were basically trail blazing through overgrown brush. Once we got to the real trail we encountered a lot of marshy areas and water to go through. We flushed about 15 turkeys and had a roaring river down an embankment through the trees on one side of us. All of this- I did on a horse that was edgy, and in a ROPE HALTER. Good lord. When we made it back and posed for a photo, I finally breathed a sign of relief. I wasn't happy about the ride until later that evening, when I began to reflect. I needed to give My Boy some credit. He didn't try to dump me, and at times he was not listening to me, but considering how he handled the dogs, other horses, general ground footing, he was pretty darn good for his first group ride in months. He would have been like that (and has in the past) even if he'd been in a bit. And I was not helping the situation at all, even the assistant trainer suggested to me one point to stop hanging onto the reins so tight, I was completely trapping him in his own anxiety.....well, it did help a bit to relax the reins, for sure.

  {This is where Ranch Boy and I got married! My Boy is standing right where the guests sat on benches.}

It wasn't so much about the bridle that day, it was about a variety of dynamics going on, my tension and fear about it, and so on. This horse is a great trail horse and I knew that, but I was not helping him to be his best that day.

I am continually impressed by how responsive and nice My Boy has been in his bitless bridle. We have yet to do any arena work in it, so that will be the next test, to see what kind of softness and collection I can get out of him going in circles in the arena. This is not my favorite thing to do anymore, so I won't be doing it often. I'd prefer to be out riding the lovely country I live in!

There are two great Facebook pages to follow if you are interested in reading about others' journey's with bitless, as well as alternative bridle options, etc: Bitless Believers and Bitless Horse Equitation.

Ranch Girl

Monday, March 23, 2015

Trust Your Journey

"Be Patient 
and 
Trust Your Journey."

I saw this quote somewhere the other day and it has not left my head since. It is so meaningful to me with some of the things I have been through the past few weeks.

You can read back a few posts about how I decided to sell my mustang mare, Luna. I am here to tell you how in after doing it, everything about it felt completely wrong.

 I can't even pinpoint why. I am battling my heart and my head and the emotional and analytical side of myself and it's driving me insane. All I can do is trust my journey. For some reason, the series of events that led me to the moment of her driving away in a trailer were meant to happen, just like every other series of events in my life to this point. Most people don't put themselves in the place to worry about it all so much. Unfortunately I am one of those sensitive types to think, and think, and think about it. You can tell me not to, but I'm still gonna. So this post is mostly about me convincing myself, justifying to myself, why I did it. I will share that with you now. Maybe you have been there before.

{Before she was loaded in the trailer to her new home.}

When I originally made the decision, I had battled it for a month or more. I talked to someone who I knew had been interested in her last summer, and told her we'd talk after the holidays. That gave me more time to think about it. I came to terms with it, I grieved, but I came to the conclusion it was the right thing to do. I thought I had found the perfect place for her, and I wasn't even overly sad when she left on trial with the new family. In fact, I was sad when it didn't work out and she came back, because I so wanted it to work for her.

A month later, I decided to try again. This time I advertised her publicly on a few Facebook pages I'm part of. I was fielding several inquiries. I could tell right off the bat if someone would be a good fit for her or not, depending on what they were looking for. I was very selective. At some point in the process I had two very interested parties who had not seen her yet, but were planning to. Then I got an email from a gal and I just felt like it was the right person and situation. Everything about our communication was great, everything they said made me happy. I never questioned the process.

{My trainer riding Luna.}

I had my trainer come put a few rides on her to work out the "spring fresh" before the prospective new owners came, as she hadn't been ridden since January when the other family tried her. The first day didn't go so well, but the second day she was more relaxed and acted like the awesome horse I remembered from last summer. I even climbed on and rode- we even loped! I think a little part of me began to wonder why I was selling her. But I had no last minute changes of heart. The couple made a long trip to see her, the showing went well. They fell in love and took her far away. And my heart broke into a million pieces.

I really like the family that has her. They love their horses, dogs, and goat like they are their kids. They are so, so happy with her and beyond thrilled they found her. They aren't trainers, but good riders who are willing to keep learning by taking weekly lessons and have signed up for a clinic this spring. They want a horse they can grow with and learn. They ride, ride, ride. A lot. Exploring the countryside they live in, camping almost every weekend with their horses. I could think of no better life for a Mustang, and for Luna. I really think it is what she is meant to do. So why did it hurt so much when she left?


I can only think it has to do with my sense of being a mother. I felt like I gave away my own child. You always have that feeling that nobody will care for your horse or love it the way you do. And I battled the thoughts that maybe I failed her somehow (oh, that guilt is an evil thing.......) that maybe the fact she was green and I couldn't put enough miles on her right now would be okay, and that she could sit and wait it out until I could, and that we would figure the future out together. The what-ifs. They can really mess with your head, can't they?

So yes, I sadly cried off and on for days. I am still an emotional mess if I let my thoughts settle on her. So far, she is doing well in her new home and they love her. That does make me happy to hear, but it does not really comfort my sadness. I can only reason that her journey into my life brought something else. She came into my life as an awkward yearling and taught me so much, she began to open up my confidence with a younger horse. Then I became a real mama to a human child that took up a lot of my physical time, so she got to grow up into a lovely horse with the help of a great trainer she started her career as a saddle horse. She was to the point she was ready to rock and roll. Or that is what my head told me- "she needs a home where she could be ridden"..... "what if I got pregnant this winter, IF, ......then I wouldn't ride her. She is a good horse, but still too green and unpredictable to take the risk...." Those thoughts swirled in my head. This would have meant she basically would have sat for another year. Would that have been fair to her? But why is about what it is fair to her? Maybe it should have been what was fair to us both. Maybe a break from riding and some ground work, more grow time, and just being a horse time would have been fine for a year. Yes, she would have needed a little tune-up down the line, but with her disposition I'm sure it would have been an easy transition to make.

It is not that I didn't have good intention, but I just didn't handle the transition from singleton to motherhood very well. Yes, I started my family late in life and yes, I was a pretty consumed mama for a while, as I should have been, and should still be. But I didn't have to let the guilt about that prevent me from stealing time away from the hubby, child, work, or family commitments for time with my horses. There is no reason that can happen. It must happen. I have realized now that I need "horse time" for my sanity even more now that I have a toddler running around.

I can only come to terms with this over time. And I can only look forward. I have grown more in the last few months as a horse owner than I have in years. I have found new confidence, new emotions, new ideas and thoughts, about what I want to commit to, what I want to do differently. It reminds me of dating in my 20's and 30's. You slowly begin to grow and figure out what you want and need. Like any relationship.

{ I miss my LuLu! She was just a 3 year old here.}

{Luna as a 3 year old. I wish she would have stayed small like this. She really got huge, bigger than this 5'3" incher needs. But she did finally grow into that head!}

I can only wish Luna good luck and love in her new home. Luckily we agreed that I could be offered first to buy her back someday or she could retire here, if they wanted or needed her to go. And I plan to go visit and ride her sometime next fall. Maybe Luna's journey is to make Mustang lovers and converts out of these people, who might never have considered owning one of these wonderful horses.

That is what she did for me.


Ranch Girl

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reflections- Riding Solo

Luna has been out on a trial with a new family for exactly one week now. So far, they love her. When I know for sure they are keeping her I will share more of the story. It has been an interesting experience, and one I was not quite prepared for emotionally.

My Boy got his teeth floated and I was VERY happy that the vet said he looked amazing for his age! He definitely had some sharp points but in general his gums and teeth are very healthy. No skin lesions or melanomas in his nether regions and he didn't even need a sheath clean! And his eyes looked good. So happy to get this report.

After the vet appointment, we moved My Boy home from the boarding stable and it was nearly two weeks until I rode him- pretty sad considering I was at the barn nearly every day to see him while he was there. I have decided that having to make the additional effort to get away and go to the barn for "horse time" was far easier than just pulling the horse out of his paddock in my backyard!

The Nurtural bitless bridle I ordered finally arrived! After a fitting session and some groundwork work in it, I determined was good in it to try a ride (I will share more about the bridle in another post.) We saddled up and headed up the hill towards the trails on our property. Solo.

{My Boy in his new gorgeous leather bitless bridle from Nurtural. Ranch Boy Jr. got to sit on and hold the reins for a photo opp. He was actually very excited to see me on a horse!}

Let me give you some background. I have always been afraid to ride on the trails alone. What if I got bucked off and a bear ate me? I always felt "safety in numbers." But when the weather started getting sunny while boarding, I just had to venture out on the lovely, long dirt road in the woods that the stable was located on. There wasn't always someone around to ride with. We hand walked the route a few times first. On our first ride away from the barn, My Boy eagerly walked out. We had awesome rides, just the two of us. In fact, the one group ride we did with 6 other horses was the worst ride we had the whole two months. He jigged, pranced, and was generally an anxious mess the whole time (as was I.)

We had such a great ride yesterday, back here at home. We explored the woodsy area, kind of blazing little trails through the carpet of damp pine needles, in search of antler sheds. Our neighbor had recently found a huge elk shed on their property and I was determined to do the same. My eyes were constantly scanning the ground and the serious number of broken branches (which resemble antlers) for the golden ticket. My Boy just moseyed his way through it all. At one point we flushed a dove, and it's partner 10 seconds later. I jumped about two inches out of my saddle at the flutter of wings. My Boy didn't flinch. Another time we ran into a small herd of 12 deer who watched us, and My Boy watched them then walked right towards them when I asked him to.

{Look closely, you'll see little deer bums!}

Don't get me wrong- I can ride My Boy with groups, we've done groups of 2 to 20. But there is something so wonderfully peaceful about just the two of us on the trail. We have to rely on each other for confidence- there are no other horse, human, or herd dynamics to deal with. It helps that I am lucky I have a calm horse that doesn't spook at things. The most he does is raise his head to look at something- maybe startle "in place" with a splaying of the feet- but nothing that I can't handle or work through. He doesn't have a pasture mate to leave and worry about right now. I can't really put my finger on it but we are just both so relaxed- the most relaxed I might have ever been on this horse. Riding alone, facing what we might out there on the trail together, has instilled a confidence in me that I have needed being in the saddle so sporadically much of the past two years while pregnant and raising a young infant.

I am so happy to have horses back in my life in this way. I know now that no matter what, other children coming along, the continued change in development of being a parent as kids age and get busier, these things will change my life, but they can not change the passion I have for connecting with horses. That time is my escape, my therapy, my peaceful relationship with nature, I NEED it in my life. When things get busy, I have to remember that just an extra few minutes at feeding time petting my horse or mucking his paddock or just watching him while he eats- those simple, minute moments can be the bridge that connect me. I wish I had figured out all of this earlier. But we can only move forward, and now I know the path I want to take. My lifestyle will be highly centered around horses due to the nature of the family business, so it's not like horses can ever leave my life again. Rather, it's how I chose to have them be in my life, the commitment and effort that I make, that will prove to be most rewarding and beneficial to the horses I own.

All philosophical, deep thoughts aside, back to reality. It is a dreary wet day, and chilly! I am so glad I made the effort to ride yesterday when the clouds parted, the wind picked up, and we got a bit of sunshine because it does not look like that will be happening today! I put My Boy's blanket on because he has no shelter right now.  I have him in a smaller paddock while I attempt to let the big pasture rejuvenate and grow some grass. It was pretty damaged over the wet winter from the two horses being in it. I'm going to make a cup of spiced chai and read a new book I got at the library- Horse As Teacher- The Path to Authenticity.

"The authors come from a variety of horse backgrounds, but there is a common thread- they all see the simple truth that these magnificent animals, throught their presence and grace, can raise our consciousness, peel back the layers to uncover our true selves, and show us how to shine with brilliance."

Hope your weekends are cozy and fabulous!

Ranch Girl