Saturday, July 19, 2008

Big Al and Mike at Uldrikson Clinic, Part Two

Once Mike had Big Al settled and paying attention, we walked down to the arena where the Uldrikson Horsemanship Clinic was being held. Mike brought him up close to a corral panel for mounting, but instead of getting on right away, just lets him hang there for awhile.

He's a different horse than he was an hour ago. He's relaxed and feels safe. So let's get that bridle on.

Mike starts doing all the ground work stuff again, but from the saddle. He's bringing Big Al's head around to encourage lateral flexion and suppleness and to help build in a fast one-rein stop. Big Al is probably just letting his big old tongue hang out while yawning with relaxation , but it sure looks like he's licking Mike's boot!

Mike reaches over to pet Big Al on the forehead. Good boy...

You can't see it in these pictures very well, but several other horses and riders are working on horsemanship exercises with Buddy. Mike keeps Big Al busy doing things so he doesn't have time to be bothered by the activity around them or to think about taking over.

Fancy stuff...

... like backing in a figure 8. (Thanks also to Buddy for teaching this horse a whole lot during the last three weeks!)

Lookin' good.

He's just scratching his leg here but his lines are so beautiful, I have to share the picture.

Standing over by the cow pen.

We had a couple of bad moments earlier but they turned out OK. When the cows were first brought up to the holding pen, Big Al had a huge emotional reaction, breaking into a full-body sweat and trembling in every muscle. Mike had me walk him back and forth along the fence, disengaging hindquarters at each turn, then stopping to pet, till he got over his worries.

Later on, a long train went past the length of the arena, fast, rumbling loudly and blowing its horn. Mike saw it early and got Big Al's head turned around so that, when the horse felt he had to go, he just spun around and around in a tight circle like a dust devil.

(Continued in Part Three... )

Big Al and Mike at Uldrikson Clinic, Part One

Mike Thomas picked me up at 5:15 am Saturday, July 12, at the Log Wagon Inn in Wickenburg, and we headed over to Buddy Uldrikson's Horsemanship Clinic near Congress. Buddy had trailered Big Al over to a pen near the arena where Becky, Mike and I planned to work him in the clinic, but when we got to the pen at quarter to 6, we found Big Al hyped up and spacey. He doesn't exactly get jumpy - he's more like a big black battle tank running on high octane, about to take over and do things his own way. Since "his own way" might mean rearing, running you over and hauling down the road sparks a-flyin', he needed to get straightened out before we mixed in with other horses and people. Buddy and Mike agreed that I probably wouldn't be riding him that day.

Buddy saddled him with Mike's beautiful comfy saddle and headed off to run the clinic. Mike knuckled down to help Big Al work through his zoned-out self-protective "you-humans-are-as-flies-to-me" attitude. The sun rose behind them, lending glamour to the scene.

The pictures above are beautiful, but don't really show Big Al's state of mind that morning. The next ones do.

He's looking for boogeymen and doesn't believe Mike can help him out.

Mike said he was "lost". Buddy and Mike both said he has a problem with being herd-bound.

"I'll do it but I don't want to."

"I'm upset and I don't have to listen."

There, that's a little better. Looks like they're dancing.

Starting to get some bend and softness. It'll soon be time to take Big Al down to the arena. (Continued in Part Two... )

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Big Al at camp, end of second week

It's the end of Big Al Dante's second week at summer camp and Derwin and I have come to visit and learn. Buddy starts groundwork with a halter and lead rope.

After some work on the lead, Big Al Dante gets a saddle and I move him in a circle. I'm not holding my hands correctly, and Big Al looks a bit stiff, but we're not doing too bad.

Buddy teaches Al how to get himself positioned by the mounting block. He is a BIG horse so he needs to know this.

Buddy sends him away from the mounting block so he can circle him around from a new position. Big Al needs to get used to humans working from different places, especially higher up.

Now I'll try the lead again. My right hand is dropped because I'm trying to drive Dante's rear, but this may not be necessary. Look how Buddy is holding his hands, more like he's holding reins.

Here Buddy pushes his fingers into the notch behind Big Al's jawline to bring his head around, making the bridling process easier on us height-challenged humans.

Ah, now this is a pretty picture... Buddy takes Al over a pole.

Buddy is teaching me how to manage the reins and my legs while helping us with his lead rope. This helps me know how the horse's movement should feel.

And it feels good!

See how Buddy holds the lead rope in the same way that he'd hold the reins? And look how straight and balanced he is, just like he'd sit in the saddle. Buddy and Mike say that what you do on the ground should be just like what you'll do on the horse's back.

Big Al Dante is looking real fine, don't you think?

Monday, June 30, 2008

"Big Al" Dante goes to summer camp

Many of you who know me remember that my big ol' horse, Dante, gave me a gruesome black eye last year, followed by a vehement bucking-off when I was dumb enough to crawl up on him bareback just before dinnertime. Being submerged, as I was, by work and chores, I kept putting off the issues of riding and training him and settled for getting him fat, shiny and spoiled. That was before my friend and horse-teacher Becky, who lives down the road, brought me into contact with Mike Thomas, a fellow who's ridden horses and ranched around the West pretty much his whole life. Mike is about the gentlest guy you can imagine actually being born in cowboy boots and a belt knife, which is how he looks, and he knows worlds about the history of natural horsemanship in the West, having been right in the middle of it.

So Mike decides that there's a lot to ol' Dante after all and dubs him "Big Al". (There's a pun about spaghetti in there somewhere.) It seems some training will brush the orneriness out of his character and reveal him as a true diamond. Mike says he knows a guy, Buddy Uldrikson, who can bring out the best in my truant. Becky is kind enough to jimmy The Big A into her trailer and haul him up to Buddy's place in Wickenburg, where we all watch Buddy put some moves on him.

In this picture, Buddy is getting Big Al Dante to trot circles around him. You can see how brace-y and stiff the horse is, "like a railroad tie on legs", I think I heard Mike say. Plus he'd rather look any place than straight at Buddy, who is clearly the Devil.

Some more work on the lead, and then Al gets a saddle. Buddy goes through all the ground work again: bringing head down and relaxing, leading, backing, circling at a walk and trot both ways, disengaging hindquarters, moving forehand away, and some other stuff I don't know how to see yet. Al is starting to see Buddy as a being possibly worth a fragment of his (Al's) conciousness.

Wow, what have we here? Lovely Big Al is actually looking lovely, less than an hour after Buddy started working with him. He's alert, focused, balanced - stunning. Now, this attitude won't necessarily last more than a few moments at a time, to start with, but he definitely has it in him.

"Maybe", Al thinks, "maybe I can walk quietly with this guy on me, and relax."

"Maybe", he thinks, "I can just stand here with Buddy on my back, and be OK."

Finally, not much more than an hour later, Al is relieved of his gear and gets to hang out, feeling soooo tired and relaxed. His first day at summer camp - SUCH a big day!

So he'll be at Buddy's for four weeks, learning his ABC's. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The man who talks to dogs

I don’t know whether David Hartwig started with a question or not - say, “Would this dog understand me if I asked him to do something in plain English?”, but that’s what happened. He discovered that the family dog, Skidboot, seemed to understand sentences just about as well as a small child, and loved demonstrating his comprehension.

Maybe the uncommon question would be “Why don’t we talk to animals just like we talk to people?”

We wouldn’t talk to them about things they didn’t care about, which would just be rude. For instance, you wouldn’t want to bore your cat by telling it all about human politics. (Yawn, stretch…) Animals mostly care about food, comfort, safety and fun. Skidboot loved to play David Hartwig’s games, to sneak up on a toy and then, on command, barely touch it with a paw, back up, sneak up, circle… any number of actions that David asked him for, and then, as a reward, he’d grab the toy and shake it for a few seconds. The whole deal for Skidboot was really about performance and teamwork.

“But a lot of dogs follow orders”, you say, “What’s different about this one?” Well, watch the video and then get back to me.

Skidboot is amazing, all right, but what may be more amazing is that David Hartwig was open-minded enough to talk to his dog like the dog was a person. The fact that we don’t do these things - don’t even think of them - is symptomatic of the kind of coral reefs of old and aquired beliefs we carry around in our brains, starting from our first learning experiences as babies. The forest is there but we don’t see it.

We need techniques for asking questions, the kind of questions that blast the mental coral reefs away so that all kinds of bright ideas swim in.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mysteries of human nature solved

It's one thing to understand, intellectually, that the human race evolved from the same ancestors as chimps and bonobos, and quite another to recognize their apish influence on our daily affairs. "Sure", we shrug, when the scientists tell us that we share 97.3% of our DNA with chimpanzees, "but that other 3% makes us extra-special. I don't see Bonzo driving a Beamer or J. Fred Muggs building towers in Manhatten, no matter how much DNA he shares with Donald Trump."

Something creepy but enlightening this way comes when you steel yourself to look at that other 97%, as did Franz de Waal, primatologist and author of "Our Inner Ape". Ugly events that failed to make sense become clearer under the ape lens. Why do juveniles gang up on a classmate, bullying and ostracizing him for no apparent gain? Why are our male-female relationships so fraught with pitfalls? Why are our attempts to build safe, pleasant communities perpetually assailed by violence and misbehavior - and on a global level, war?

We can look at our ape kindred for the answers. The hairy guy in the mirror will tell you how he, and we, are designed that way; that adaptations we've made on the road to successful reproduction have geared us for behaviors kind, and not so kind. There are good reasons for the things we do. They have less to do with Satan and more to do with genetic survival. They are blunt, unforgiving and imperative. They can be ugly and disharmonious. The best means of escape may be in, finally, ceasing to run away.

In facing our apeness, we may also look for things of beauty. We have reasons for pride. Even though our social systems aren't greatly evolved from jungle tribes and predatory packs, we are great tool users and builders and imaginers. Our technology is as remarkable as an elephant's tusks or an ant's strength or a horse's power of movement. Because of our technology's phenomenal capabilities, however, we've come to a point when the shortcomings of our social evolution must be dispassionately examined and resolved.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Discovered online scrapbooking

Just discovered an online Scrapbook site called "Scrapblog", written in Flex. Quite extraordinary. Fooled around and did something, shown at the top of this blog. It's not a multipage scrapbook yet, but this online program lets you create them.