This spring I’ve been riding every day — weather permitting — which has been great for my mental health and even better for my youngest horse, Remington. He’s a long four year-old and coming out of our mild winter he’s showing signs of maturity and “getting it” that are beyond his age and super encouraging for the future. I’ve been bringing him along slowly, applying everything I have learned along the way from the great teachers who have populated my life — including my grandfather who was a horseman of extremely high caliber. I’m doing all that in the effort to build a great bridle horse of the old Californio school which, when it is done well, creates a horse you can ride almost by intuition. That sounds funny but if you’ve ever swung a leg over a truly finished Californio-style bridle horse you realize quickly what separates a Ferrari from a Yugo.
Most days we start in the round pen with a warmup. Repetition, thousands upon thousands of reps, help build both great horses and also good shooters. There is always room for refinement and refinement of that sort requires a commitment to rigorous self-examination. One thing that holds back both horsemen and shooters is their ego and the belief they’ve already got it. That shows up in the way a horse responds to an ask and the way a shooter does just about everything involving firearms. I’ve learned to close off my ears to horsey people and I have zero time at all for gun culture bullshit.
When we are done with our warmup, or whatever thing we are working on that day, I open the gate and we ride outside, into a decent chunk of forest service land behind our place that has some good off-trail country that will challenge a young horse and build confidence in his feet and his place on earth. It’s brushy in places and treed and has some great ravines and plenty of places for boogers and bogeymen to hide, particularly in the wind. Which is exactly what I look for.
We used to be able to ride along the edge of Squaw Creek canyon, where the water runs in a broad and winding path and golden eagles nest in the rimrock, but the greenies recently purchased a chunk of that property and now don’t want any horses in there — which is typical of those outfits. They buy them under the ruse of preservation when what they really mean is to impose a certain level of exclusivity. Everyone saves the world in their own way, I guess.
No matter — there is plenty of country and it’s true that I ignore the signs and ride in there anyway. I invite them — whoever they may be in their fanny packs and pastel shorts and Greta Thurnburg certainties — to follow my track right back to my war lodge where they may be certain of a fine welcome.
Remington loves getting out there which is where I want his mind.
When I rode the deserts of Nevada one of my partners was a man named Larry Kucera. Larry was a lifelong buckaroo who had been shot four times in the back by marijuana farmers while fixing fence on a ranch over on the California coast. They drove up behind him and shot him while he was mending wire and he said he didn’t really know it until he looked down and saw the blood on the front of his shirt. Getting shot like that was hard on his mind and after he always rode with a pistol. We would ride big circles on the desert and we shared a strong desire to push those circles farther out. We’d sometimes talk about it when we got back in at the end of the day and agreed there was a certain kind of ethereal danger in the offing that defied any certainty or articulation. There was a hard lure in the offside of a distant desert hill and it was almost irresistible — particularly when the only way to get there was on a horse.
Larry told me once that he was concerned he might become the next Claude Dallas, who had been a friend of his.
Incidentally, I found a great film the other night which I’m recommending. It was shot on the Fishtail Basin Ranch near Fishtail, Montana, which is a place my wife and I have spent some considerable time and nearly moved to before settling here in Sisters. We looked at some great properties along the Stillwater and the West Rosebud but the timing was just slightly off. This movie has everything I love: the country and the cowboys and Harry Dean Stanton singing and reading passages from Rick Bass and Walt Whitman. Honestly, you are a straight bat-eating communist if the combination of those American geniuses, and a ranch at the foot of the Rockies doesn’t give you wood enough to go pole vaulting around the house for a while. Take a look:
Anyway, Remi and I are covering a lot of country and seeing good things this spring. Ground nesting birds have a tactic to keep predators off their nest which is to flush suddenly and go flapping about as if they are wounded. I first noticed this with killdeer who perform what’s called a “broken wing display” when I was a kid going about my ramblings in the sage and the buckbrush. Yesterday we rode up on some kind of ground-bird that flushed hard like that. We just sat for a while watching that bird do anything it could, squawking and turning hard circles in the dust, to preserve a future for its chicks and for its species. Remi and me both understood what was going on and it was one of those moments where nature is entirely legible.
Tom Dorrance, who was a master horseman and along with Ray Hunt and a sprinkling of others an early genius in revolutionizing the way horses are trained, spoke frequently about a horse’s need for self-preservation. It occurs to me that many of the human behaviors we have been seeing during the pandemic are, at their foundation — and most likely subconsciously — likewise rooted in notions of self-preservation.
I don’t have any more for today. There is a ton of work to do down in the barn and out in the garden. The sun is out and we might even hit 70° today. Remi is still eating breakfast but I’ll saddle him after lunch and we’ll get back to the work we do together.
In the meantime below is another video offering from the Figure 8 Ranch. On a great bridle horse the idea is to stay out of their mouth as much as possible, and to keep them soft that way, from their head to their heels. That means riding by feel and transmitting your ask to the horse with your legs and your seat. That’s what you’ll see us working on in the video. I’ve still got him up in a bosal but I have been patterning his mouth for a bridle-bit and I think soon we will move into the two-rein, which is the next step in his training. That’s probably too much inside baseball, which is another thing we don’t have this year.
I am sometimes filled with an incredible, almost overwhelming love for life, and mostly when I’m around my horses.
I hope you enjoy the video.
author’s note: thumbnail watercolor by Len Babb…https://lenbabbwesternart.com