The Mountain Mouth

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Zen and the Art of Mustang Magnificence December 8, 2012


Dear Neighbors,

In the Catholic faith, there is Confession, a sacrament where you tell the truth about your sins and if you do the penance you are forgiven. The slate’s wiped clean. I remember thinking as a kid, Wow, that is so easy! You can DO bad stuff as long as you make that confession! But lately I realized that really telling the truth is the hard part.

I always like to put a good spin on the bad stuff, because I don’t want to be a big buzz killer. So when writing about my life, there have been times where the truth just was not appropriate for sharing. To write about what I was experiencing at times would have just been… too bleak. Who needs to hear it?

Instead of sharing my own soap operas, I have written at times about my mustangs. But – here comes the True Confession. Even in that arena, I have sometimes spun the truth, a little. My journey with adopting and “rescuing” horses has not always been a bed of alfalfa.

I have had horses die suddenly, an old horse die slowly, and had to give away another beautiful guy who just needed to be free.

Now I have Reno the Keiger mustang, and Captain Call, the Salt Wells mustang. I took Reno because he was “rideable”. I thought if I had a pony to ride it would give me the confidence I needed to take Call, who I taught ground manners and saddle started, out on the trails, out in the open, the deep wide forest all around. By the time Call was four, he was huge! I was terrified to get on that huge horse and head out by myself.

So I got Reno, and rode him up and down the mountain roads. It was not easy, and we were always alone; he would get scared, and refuse to go further, and often I got off to avoid toppling down a 2ooo foot cliff. I always made sure to eventually get on and ride home; but we never got it right, we were never in perfect harmony.

Riding Reno was a job. He didn’t spook, but he wanted to go where he wanted to go. Still, I was never afraid until I moved and brought him to town. One day we were riding, and he spooked, hopped a little, and as I was looking around for the snake or what it was, he bucked from a standstill, I mean we commenced to rodeo. I stuck on somehow, and we got home, but after that, even though no one was hurt, I got scared. From there on he picked up on my fear and got worse and worse to ride. He’d buck, he’d refuse to go straight, right, left, or sideways. He’d trot too fast, or walk too slow; dance around while I saddled him and fight the bit.

I got more and more afraid of riding him, imagining all the terrible accidents I could have. And every time I would almost talk myself into trying it again, I hear a new story of some hideous horse-related injury. A lifetime cowboy has his horse die under him at a full gallop, the best rider I know gets kicked, breaking ribs, a woman’s in a wheelchair, no, make that two. A rancher with a broken hand… and always in the back of my mind is the neighbor who was dragged to death by a horse.

My fear grows and so does my list of excuses of why I don’t have “time” to ride. I can hardly think about riding without a panic attack: my heart goes crazy, I can’t breathe, I feel like I am going to puke!

Meanwhile my horses are costing a bundle. I just pitch hay and write big checks. I investigate trading both horses. No takers or traders.

I kept looking for answers, and then found some ideas that made sense. How to relax your horse through touch and doing things he likes. I looked at pictures of myself and others riding Reno and saw his mouth was always open, fighting the bit. I thought about the pain a bit causes, and watched videos of people riding bareback, with nothing but a rope around the horse’s neck, no saddle, no bridle….

I thought about what it must be like for a horse to be ridden in the traditional way. His mouth yanked with a hard metal bar that pokes, a saddle squeezing heart and lungs, a dolt on your back that moves against, not with your efforts; always being forced here and there, for no logical reason a horse could recognize.

I started taking Reno for walks down by the lake. We got relaxed together. Then one day he wouldn’t longe, go around me in a simple circle on a long rope. I knew he knew what to do, but just did not want to do it. I decisively smacked him four times, right on his butt with my whip, and his eyes got wide in amazement that I would be so insistent; and he spurted forward, and all of a sudden: followed voice commands, trot, walk, whoa.

Now he’s longing nice, and changing directions, and he’s happy and cooperative instead of angry and resistant. After a week of the same routine I can tie him, saddle him, longe him, walk him all around without either of us getting nervous.

I decide to try riding him in a halter – no bit in his mouth. I’m scared; it seems like driving a car with no steering wheel or brakes. This horse needs to be controlled! He might run off, buck, rear, stomp me! But I do it anyway, and it’s actually ok. After about three rides, I even feel like he’s turning, stopping and definitely going forward better than ever.

I take him out the gate to what used to be Lake Isabella. We go through a field then down a sand track on what used to be lake bottom. He’s calm and responsive. In the deep sand he wants to trot, so I let him. When we got home, I realized, I had not been scared – it had been a great ride!

To get control, I had to give up my idea of control. To get cooperation, I had to quit hurting him. To move through my fear, I had to take that first ride without a bridle and bit. To be worthy of his trust, I had to keep trying and not give up. Reno taught me that if I was not going to lead, he would.

So I learned to be consistent: no means no and go means go! And it’s amazing how much a horse gives for so little time and attention. I got firmer, but softer. I stopped trying to micro-manage every step, I quit trying to hold him back: let’s just go! And so we did. And now, it begins.

Dedicated to my beautiful, smart, sweet, awesome mustang, Reno,

The Mountain Mouth


2 Responses to “Zen and the Art of Mustang Magnificence”

  1. rcatheron Says:

    I also removed the metal from my horses’ mouths, along with their shoes, winter blankets, and sugar from their diets. I know my horses appreciate living more naturally, thanks to the likes of Joe Camp, Pete Ramey, and Jaime Jackson. It’s good to hear you and Reno finally connected, isn’t it wonderful?!

    • Hi- yes! I love the bitless/bridless/shoeless concept. Unfortunately I fell or got dumped by Reno five weeks ago and am still healing some broken ribs. But he has forgiven me! (giggle!) Seriously, a bit would have made no difference in that particular wreck anyway. “A horses brain isn’t in his mouth!”

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