Thursday, March 31, 2016

Cowboy Humor - Horse Buying

One morning Big John was planning on heading to the horse auction hoping to find a decent broodmare for his small horse breeding operation. At breakfast he asked his 5 year old son, Little Johnny, if he's like to go along. Little Johnny replied with a resounding "Sure Pa!"

So one hour later Big John and his son were at the sale barn and Little Johnny followed his Pa around the pens, and every once in while Big John would go into a pen and look over a prospective mare, running his hands over the horse's butt, stiple, then down the mare's legs, feeling the tendon, then patting the horse on the rump before he took out his flyer and made notes.

This went on for several more horse's until Little Johnny said "Pa, can I ask you a question?" Big John, beaming with pride as his son seemed to be showing interest with the whole process, replied "Sure son."

Little Johnny then asked "Pa, why do rub your hands all over the horse's butt and legs?" Big John, seeing an opportunity to teach his son alittle something about horse buying said "Well son, I'm checking for good conformation as well as any deformities or sore spots in the horse,....after all I might want to buy this horse."

Little Johnny appeared to think for a bit, then he pursed his lips and said "Pa, I think the milkman wants to buy Mom."

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Disrespectful Horses? or Just Curious?

I received two e-mails with alike questions about horses who are kinda nippy to their owners. Horses are curious and with most of them, when they are comfortable, they start exploring around and usually this is with their mouths. My horses, as do most horses, do things like play with a gate latch, nuzzle your pockets in search of treats things like of my horses can open a gate latch if I don't set it properly, so sometimes I just set it up for him to unlatch then watch him flip the gate open with his nose. Sometimes I'll spend 5 minutes playing this game with him where he gets the gate open, then I back him a step then re-shut it, and so on. I think it's good for his mind.

I generally try to let horses be horses when I can. One of my horses likes to put ropes in his mouth, like the picture at the below left, with him pulling on a rope I had hanging up next to him being tied to a trailer. Every once in a while, when I'm throwing a loop from horseback he will bend to the right and put the rope in his mouth.

He will also pull some slack out of the lead line attached to one of my functional tie rings, just enough so he can get to the alfalfa cubes bucket in the trailer door, in the photo above at right. He can open a bucket, push the lid off and get to the cubes.  Sometimes he lifts the bucket with his teeth and drops it on the ground closer to himself.  Basically in my way of thinking, he is displaying some intelligence and the ability to think, so I just let him do that sometimes.  

Richard wrote: "I have a 8 year old Gelding. He's just used for trail riding. I'm his second owner. He's generally a good natured horse, but sometimes he can be a knothead. Sometimes he will bend around and nip or nuzzle at my boots, always on the left side. He never actually bites and takes ahold of my boot, he just nips. It usually catches me off guard and I flinch.  He also picks up grooming brushes if they are too close to him and chews on the handles.  Is this something normal and is there something I can do to negate this?"

I think it is normal for a horse to get curious and investigate things with his mouth.  It sounds like your gelding is just bored and feels comfortable enough with you to bend around and play bite your boot or to grab brushes. This is sort of a good thing in that he is comfortable with you, but it is annoying and a distraction to him paying attention to you. The trick is to discourage this behavior without making it a federal offense.  Don't set the brushes close to his head or mouth for instance.   

Maybe the best strategy is to pre-empt the behavior of nipping at your boots. That means to be ready for it and with your response. As soon as you see his head bending towards your boot, try using your voice and be prepared for an immediate follow on re-direction of his head with a bump of the rein. You can also bump the toe of your boot on his nose. I don't mean kicking him in the face - I mean moving your boot in the stirrup forward a little as his head is bending so he makes contact a little sooner than expected.   Timing is everything here as the idea is for him to connect bending around to bumping his nose. Again, I wouldn't make a federal offense out of it. I think sometimes it's mentally good for a horse to explore around as long as it isn't dangerous to him or you. So, I try not to limit everything my horses do that is not productive. You can also spend a lot of time trying to limit harmless behavior.....I keep telling my wife that same thing about my behavior.

Paula asked: " I enjoy your website because I can make sense out of what you write. I couldn't find an article on what to do about a horse (my 10 year Mustang) who turns his head seemingly trying to bite me when I am haltering him. It's almost like he thinks I am going to give him a treat. He is a good boy, but this drives me crazy. Once in awhile I reach up high to get a halter on him and sometimes when he turns his head to move his lips on my arm or hand and I'll lose my grip on the halter and have to start over. Can you give me some ideas on what to try? Thanks in advance"

Thanks Paula, for letting me know that I am making sense at least to you. I'm thinking about sending you my wife's phone number. Maybe you can convince her I make sense once in a while.

On one hand it's a good testament to your relationship that your Mustang feels at ease to play bite at your boots. It's likely a game for him. On the other hand this behavior can get out of hand and at first will likely manifest itself it what appears to be distraction when you are on his back. The trick is to discourage this behavior without making it a federal offense. If he is play biting then retreating he knows it is behavior that he is not supposed to do.

You cannot be his pasture mate. You have to be the strict lead gelding. In other words, be the leader both on the ground and on his back.

You can fix it up like I describes to Richard in the above response, but the horse should be running into your hand or forearm.  Again, timing is very important, it needs to seem to the horse, that he is running into something.  I would also use my voice as a warning also.   I've had horses who want to put their mouths on me when I  was haltering, so a quick bump with my palm followed by rubbing him on the nose was the way I handled it.  Really, the same way you would correct a horse who has been routinely fed by hand and leads with his mouth when addressing you.     

If he is mouthy when you halter or saddle, he may also be crowding you when you are leading from the ground.  Be cognizant of him getting into your space and always back him off if/when he does this.   I had a client with a horse who always wanted to be on top on the handler.  I told him to always think 'what if the horse spooked?,....would you be in danger of getting over run?'  Sometimes a tool like a riding crop or dressage whip can be used to remind the horse to stay out of your safety bubble....just use it with the lowest energy necessary.  I think it's important if you drive a horse away and you also call him back to you so he can think about the different cues.   Hope this helps. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Inmates Train Wild Horses for Border Patrol

Mustangs are such a uniquely American treasure. At least the Border Patrol thinks so. This article is from NBC News by Hannah Rappleye

ALAMO, Texas — Three mustangs stand at the edge of a cabbage field just after nightfall, poised to run. Their riders, all Border Patrol agents, have received word that a group of migrants are trekking across a levee that runs alongside the Rio Grande.

It is difficult to see much aside from the blinking red sensors in the far distance. Except for the cries of killdeer that carry over the farmland in this rural part of the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest sector of the U.S.-Mexico border is quiet. Suddenly, the radio chirps and the horses lurch forward. They streak across the field until they reach a dirt road, where two young men kneel, their hands up.

Twenty and 30 years old, the men unpack their meager belongings — a strawberry soda, an MP3 player wrapped tightly in a plastic bag — and peel off the life preservers they used to swim across the river. The 20-year-old stands beside the horse, and as an agent takes down his information, he explains why he left Rio Bravo, Mexico. "We have no future where we're from," he says.

Were it not for the MP3 player, a similar scene could have played out 92 years ago, when agents on horseback formed the ranks of the newly created U.S. Border Patrol. Despite the rise of high-tech tools like drones and infrared sensors, horses have once again become a key tool in border enforcement.

But the herd that the Border Patrol uses to police the borders isn't made up of just any breed. Many of the mounts are wild horses, also known as mustangs, culled from the hardscrabble rangelands of the American West. And in an ironic twist, the wild horses-turned-law-enforcement agents are trained by an unlikely group: prisoners.

"Here is an opportunity to give something back to somebody who has either fallen on hard times or certainly found themselves in the crosshairs of the law," said Raul Ortiz, deputy chief patrol agent of the Rio Grande Valley Sector, where a herd of about 40 horses, with 30 riders, made approximately 8,000 apprehensions last year. "It's not just a tool for us to use out there in the field. It's got bigger implications for the organization and for the country."

The unique program is part of a multi-million-dollar industry, where the captive labor of prisoners produces products from farmed tilapia to body armor. It is the result of a partnership between the nation's largest federal law enforcement agency, Customs and Border Protection, the Bureau of Land Management, and state correctional agencies from Colorado to Arizona. But rather than profit, the program was conceived as a way to humanely manage wild horse herds.

In addition to selling trained horses to the Border Patrol, prisoners also train horses for private adoption. The BLM estimates over 58,000 wild horses and burros roam public land from Nevada to Oregon, their lineage a mix of Spanish stock and domestic breeds. The federally protected herds remain a national treasure, a symbol of our wild past, but their numbers have to be carefully managed, as population growth has outpaced the ability of public rangeland to support herds.

The program wasn't necessarily conceived as a way to rehabilitate prisoners, said Randy Helm, the wild horse and burro inmate program supervisor for the Arizona Department of Corrections. But the nature of horsemanship, and of the wild horses themselves inevitably changes the lives of many prisoners who come through the program.

"Some of them come in with situations in life where I think they can connect a little more to where that horse is," Helm said. "That horse has to learn to adapt to an environment to be successful. That horse has to learn to deal with its past. The horse has to learn to deal with its fear….I'll try to emphasize to the guys out here, if you fail to learn from these horses, you're missing a great opportunity, because they can teach us a lot about ourselves."

As the dust settles in the shadow of concertina wire, Brian Tierce, 48, slowly brushes his palm down the neck of Justice, a colt born in the stables at Florence State Prison, in Florence, Arizona, about an hour and a half north of Tucson. Lanky and skittish, Justice doesn't quite yet trust Tierce, who is serving a seven-year sentence for aggravated assault. From drug possession to theft, Tierce has spent a cumulative 23 years behind bars. But just as Justice will eventually learn to trust him, Tierce has learned, finally, that he's good at something. "This is my silver lining," Tierce said. "I'm really good at this."

Like many of the prisoners in the program, Tierce's addiction to drugs -- methamphetamine in particular - led to a seemingly unbreakable cycle of incarceration. In 2011, he was convicted of assault after choking his girlfriend during a fight. Before he entered the program at Florence, he thought, "I'm going to be 50 years and four months when I get out this time. You know, it's like, 'Where do I go? What do I do?' I'm not skilled at anything except getting high."

But working with the horses gave him some faith, he said, and he became one of Helm's best trainers. "When I got locked up I had no belief in myself," he said. "I didn't think I could even go fill out an application to get a job…Now I actually have belief that when I get out of here, I can accomplish whatever I want to as long as I put the effort into it."

As Tierce ties Justice to a fence post to be groomed, men in orange jumpsuits work with the horses in pens and on obstacle courses, kicking up dust and, sometimes, tumbling into it. Prisoners working with more advanced horses toss water bottles and other objects their way, intentionally trying to spook them in order to replicate what the animals will experience in the field with the Border Patrol.

At least four other correctional agencies, including the Colorado and Nevada state corrections departments, have wild horse training programs. The first program began in Colorado about 30 years ago, while Arizona launched its program in 2012. Prisoners train and gentle hundreds of mustangs a year.

Supervising some 40 prisoners and more than 500 trained and still-wild horses is Helm, 61, a soft-spoken cowboy who took a few diversions in life. He served as an undercover narcotics officer in Texas, then became a chaplain, then went back to his ranching roots when he adopted a wild horse and became fascinated with the process of training. He began to devote his time to mastering the art of training wild horses, eventually running clinics at so-called "cowboy churches" and other events, and working with both horse and human victims of abuse.

He describes the methods he teaches not as horse whispering, but "natural horsemanship," or "low-resistance" training. A long way from the old ways of "breaking" a horse, Helm teaches prisoners to work with the nature of the horse, rather than against it. "What you're really doing is you're creating an atmosphere where the horse starts identifying you with peace," Helm said.

The wild horse is particularly suited for border enforcement, agents say. While horses were essential to the Border Patrol when it began in 1924 -- all recruits were required to own a horse and a gun -- over the decades advances in technology left the horse behind, and the number of horse patrol units declined.

But in the early 2000s, CBP began investing more money into its horse program. Today in the field, horse patrol units with wild and domestic horses work alongside helicopters, drones, sensors and other high-tech tools. Horse sense is an "old school" technology, said Bobbi Schad, operations director for the Tucson Sector. "Their sight's better, their hearing's better. They can travel further, a lot faster than we can."

The training doesn't stop once the Mustangs are received by a Sector, the individual agents sack their horses out based on their experience from enforcement operations on horseback. The short video below shows agents continuing training at a Station and just how fast a change can come in a Mustang.

Sure-footed and tough, wild horses are built to handle the harshest environments, from the rocky gulches and jumping cholla that cover the ranchland in Nogales, to the sweltering, thorny corridors of the Rio Grande Valley. "They'll give us 10 hours of good work in the south Texas heat," said Ruben Garcia Jr., horse patrol coordinator for the Rio Grande Valley. "And they won't skip a beat."

The horses work in an intense environment. On any given day or night, Border Patrol agents respond to a multitude of high-stress situations, from assisting sick migrants in the desert to apprehending frightened mothers and children, to facing armed and dangerous smugglers.

Agents can also find themselves galloping alongside screeching police cars in dense urban areas or careening through mesquite trees in the dark brush. "You have no idea the capability of these horses," said Joe Ghrist, an agent with the horse unit in Tucson, while sitting atop Geronimo, a product of the Florence program. "It's like the wild West out here."

On a recent Friday in the Rio Grande Valley, the horse unit was dispatched to the parking lot of Jack-in-The-Box in Hidalgo, Texas. A group of young men and teenage boys had been apprehended after scaling the levee with a ladder. They had traveled north for a month, from violent Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador, before crossing into the U.S.

The group sat against a CBP van, their faces dejected. Helicopters swirled overhead. Without warning, agents galloped from the restaurant, down black tarmac, then cut toward a fenced lot full of semi-trucks. Flanked by horses, agents found another young man, hiding between the trucks.

Nostrils heaving, sweat rising off their flanks, the horses flattened their ears as he was led to a waiting van. "You simply can't replicate their natural instinct," said Garcia, Jr., "Pitch quiet, completely dark, and their heartbeat just accelerates."

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Question on Flag Training

QM wrote to ask about flag training. "I have watched several trainers use flags on horses. Hitting the horse with the flag to get the horse to stand still and some times using a flag to get the horse to move away from them. Can you explain or do a video on using a flag on a horse?"

You are actually describing someone using a flag for two different reasons. I can see how it confuses people, but the flag in and of itself isn't a cue to stand or to move unless you are using the flag to move new horses around a pen. In this case, the horses are concerned about the flag and you use that concern to get forward momentum out of them.

You probably shouldn't use a flag to move other horses around while you are horseback unless you first get the horse you are riding accepting of you using the flag from his back.  In the picture at left, I am riding a horse and sacking him out to me using a flag while on his back.

When you describe a trainer using flags in ground training, what you are likely missing is how the lead rope is handled when the human uses the flag. Likely, when the handler is flapping the flag around a horse standing still, he/she is holding the lead line loose and using the flag to desensitize the horse to a scary object - the flag. When the horse accepts the flag flapping around them, the flag is taken away. The flag is just an object used to teach the horse to think before reacting.



In the two pictures (above right) I am standing off 45 degrees from my horse's head which is a safe position if the horse bolts.  The lead rope is slack and my body posture is pretty neutral telling the horse I am asking him to stand.  I am bringing the flag up from the ground to over the horse's withers which is the easiest place for them to accept a moving, noisy flag at first.  I usually do this to a horse during initial ground training without a saddle and start with the flag much further away and wait until the horse accepts this before moving closer with the flag.  My next step would be the rub him with the flag on his shoulders, butt and then the neck. If the horse did not accept the flag and started moving, I would move with him still using the flag until he stopped and accepted the flag.  Then I would wait a few seconds then stop using the flag. If you do this, don't try to stop the horse from moving, just move with him and let him figure it out, but be sure to take the flag away once he stands for just a bit.......and give him some time to think about it.   

I have not used a flag on this horse (in the pictures) for many years and he had no problem at all with the flag.  it goes to show you how good horse's memories are, and how you can replace some of the instinct to act with thinking first.  The only thing with a better memory than a horse is a wife - now that's a fact.           

If a flag is used to drive or move a horse around, the handler is providing direction through the lead rope and his body position.  In the photos above at left, I am directing the lead rope telling my horse to move in the direction.  I have opened my shoulder, basically getting out of the horse's way.  If I working with a green horse I would be more careful about moving his shoulder away from me as I was directing him forward to give me more space.  Space can equate to safety, unless you are on the Space Station and the oxygen tanks have run out. 

I'll use the flag to move the horse as I need.  The flag is really just an extension of my arm.  I won't be chasing the horse around with the flag.  The flag is just to reinforce the cue of direction from the change in feel of the lead rope and to provide momentum. 

A flag can be a good training tool.  I think the major mistake some people will make with the flag is trying to get their horse to accept the flag too quickly then the horse get spooky and moves away,...maybe even bolts,....then they take the flag away. This is teaching the horse to fear the flag and to move away from it, as once the horse moved away, the flag is gone reinforcing that they did the right things.   

Hope this helps. Safe Journey.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Tack Tip - Detachable Saddle Strings

With the rise in competitive trail riding, not to mention just trail riding for pleasure, some riders are looking for solutions to carry gear while on the trail.  Sometimes a show or barrel saddle isn't set up very well to carry horn/pommel bags or even saddle bags, or may not have saddle strings behind the cantle to tie off a coat or slicker. The picture at right shows the concho behind the cantle. With a D ring emplaced underneath the concho, saddle strings can be added to give the rider a way to tie off bags, coats or slickers.

On one saddle brought to me, I removed the back conchos (behind the cantle) and emplaced a small D ring underneath (like in the picture above) which allows saddle string to be braided or fixed to the small D ring, but because this rider wanted the ability to remove the saddle strings for shows and doing so without going through the trouble of un-weaving the saddle strings, I used a combination O ring snap and split braided saddle strings into the O ring, to make a set of detachable saddle strings that can be snapped on and off the D ring under the concho.   Some rider just like fixed saddle strings (below- left) while others may prefer a set of detachable saddle strings (below - right).

Saddle string braiding - see pictures below.  We'll call this split braiding for lack of another term.  Basically the concept is cutting small slots length wise on the saddle string and feeding the other end of the saddle string through that slot. Then cutting a slot in the saddle string you just feed through so that the first string can be fed through. Braiding in this way, alternating slits and feeding the string through, allows for a pretty strong connection and it's useful as well. It's actually pretty hard for me to do slit braiding because I have to use a razor knife which if my wife catches me with it, I'll get in trouble because all she thinks of is a blood trail in the house which is usually the pattern of me using sharp instruments.   

This is the same spilt braiding technique that I do on wider pieces of leather for leather poppers on the end of one piece roping reins, mecate reins or lead lines that I make. It is also the same way that makers, such as Double Diamond Halters, make poppers on their excellent lead ropes and mecates.     

This split braiding is handy for other things as well.  I also cut narrow pieces of leather string to feed through make grommets on my belt knives to make a pull strap to help get the knife out of the sheath when I'm drawing it - see picture at left.