Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ponying to Improve Riding

The horseman’s journey plays out in two dimensions, the mental and the physical. I normally help folks with the mental dimension, with understanding the nature of the horse and how they can use that nature to reach their goals in safe, effective, and moral ways. There’s lots of meat there and I can talk for days about that. On the other hand, the main suggestion I have for success in the physical dimension is incredibly simple: Ride more. That’s it. Just get on a horse and ride. Anytime, anywhere, for any purpose, and on any horse.  While you’re at it, forget the old saw, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”  This just begs the brain to get in the way. I find that most people who want to improve their riding are not seeking perfection; they’re seeking greater enjoyment of their riding.

One activity I’ve found that is practical, fun, and perfect for getting your brain out of the way is leading (ponying) one horse while riding another. I did a fair amount of this a few years back with our baby, Sarah. She had a lot of energy, which took a lot of my attention. Sometimes she got out in front of us on the trail. Candy and I would canter along behind her for minutes on end like a skier following a ski boat. What I remember most fondly about that experience is how free I felt, unencumbered by any worry about riding correctly. Yet my riding improved. Lately, I’ve been doing something similar when I walk our mares in the neighborhood.  We keep the speed down to a walk or trot and I vary which horse I ride. Oh yes, I’m doing it bareback, which has dramatically improved my confidence about riding without a saddle. Before ponying, my brain had me firmly convinced that I didn’t belong on a horse’s bare back. Sometimes thinking is overrated.

photo of Marty Marten by Jennifer Denniston for Western Horseman

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Facilitating Learning

Although I often call myself an educator, it’s a lie. Okay, I’m being overly dramatic. It’s just not the most accurate way to describe what I do. I don’t educate people; I facilitate their learning. If you train horses or raise kids, you probably get the distinction immediately. The best we can do for either is set up a situation wherein learning can occur.

When I talk about learning, I’m talking about more than just memorizing facts. That’s a superficial level of learning, much like gathering the ingredients needed for baking a cake. Doing something with those ingredients is where it gets interesting. Whether the process results in a yummy cake or insights produced through reflection and activity, we end up with something much more desirable when processing is involved.

Recently I gave several talks before packed crowds at Equine Affaire in Ohio. The lecture is a classic way of offering up the ingredients for a learning experience. If my lecture is relevant and thought-provoking for my audience, chances are pretty good that ideas will start rolling around in some noggins and a bit of processing will occur. For those folks who talked to me one-on-one about their horses, the likelihood of learning increased dramatically, and not because of anything I did. It was what they did. They became active learners, formulating questions, taking in my responses, breaking apart ideas and putting them back together in ways that made sense to them. In the language of constructivist learning theory, they were creating meaning, a much higher form of learning than simply memorizing facts.

Now just because creating meaning is a high-level form of learning doesn’t mean that all learning must be active. For example, if I ask you for directions to the airport, I want unadorned facts to flow from your brain into mine. I learn the directions by simply accepting what you have told me. When I drive that route, your directions may take on new meaning as I view the scenery, but that embellishment wasn’t critical to what I wanted to learn.

Final thought for today: Natural learning occurs every day as we interact with the world around us. It’s effortless and highly effective.  The challenge facing education today, in my humble opinion, is understanding exactly how natural learning occurs and how it might be used to produce the outcomes we want. If we can facilitate that kind of learning, everyone wins.

You can read more at my learning blog:

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Good pen. Bad pen.

A few years ago, I witnessed a neighbor’s horse die from an injury sustained in an unsafe pen. (See “Death in the Alley” in Human to Horseman.) Ironically, the pen was designed very well, with an open feeling, good air circulation, shade, water, and plenty of room for the half-dozen minis and full-sized horses that lived there together. It was the execution of the design that was the problem. Used materials and poor construction made the pen an eyesore, and a sharp edge somewhere in that tangle of tin, rusted pipe and weathered wood cost a horse her life.

Today there is a different problem at that address. The original pen and owner are long gone and the new occupant is an older woman with a safe but equally inappropriate home for her single horse. The living area is as sturdy as a prison cell, with a similar feeling to it. A five-foot solid block wall defines the perimeter, blocking both view and air circulation. A single brown mare lives inside, isolated from the world and other creatures in it. When I walk down the street with my horses, she hears us and runs over to the wall. She nickers at us and tries to peek over the top. It always saddens me.

I try to remember two things at times like this. First, horses are extremely adaptable and this horse will probably be just fine. Bored, yes, but in any real danger? No. Second, it also matters what the human is getting out of this deal. There is a reason my neighbor went to the trouble and expense of building this little horsey prison. Maybe the little mare is bringing something very special to this human’s life. I wouldn’t deny that to anyone.

So why even bring this up? Because it’s an opportunity to tell you what I would have done. I would have spent a fraction of the money and put up a v-mesh or non-climb wire horse fence such as those made by Red Brand. This is not a commercial for Red Brand, I promise. That just happens to be the product I would use. This would give the horse a view of her surroundings and allow air to circulate through the area, which is absolutely critical when you live in the desert as we do. I would also get the horse a companion. Another horse would be ideal, but a mule, donkey, mini or goat would be fine. Even a chicken or duck could provide companionship for this horse. Horses have a primal need to live in a herd. Any kind of herd.

I do not know the new neighbor. We said hello one time as I walked by and she seemed nice enough, as is usually the case. Most people don’t deliberately abuse or stress their horses; they just don't know any better, and there's no shame in that. Every good horseman I know grieves for the horses he or she failed along the way. Growth requires stretching, reaching for something better than we have and are. All I can do is hope that my neighbor continues growing.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Riding Boots

Woody asks on Facebook: What are your thoughts on laced boots vs pull on boots when riding in the arena or on the trail?

Rick’s answer: Hi Woody. Choice of boot is largely personal preference. However, in competition, there are sometimes rules about what you wear. For recreational riding, there are some pros and cons with each design. I like the ankle support of a lace up boot and I don’t mind the extra few seconds needed to deal with the laces. I wore black lace ups while trekking in Iceland last summer. They looked great with my stretchy black riding pants! However, some people consider lace ups – or any boot that doesn’t come off easily in an accident – a safety hazard. As a young ranchhand, Dr. Miller was dragged across an arena before his tight cowboy boot came off. Now he recommends buying riding boots a size too large. Of course, wearing boots that don’t fit can be uncomfortable and that's definitely a down side for me. When the cameras aren’t rolling, I usually wear these old Justins with the short Roper heel. They’re loose but not too loose. You can see they’ve given me many years of service. Bottom line for me is that riding should be enjoyable so I wear boots that make me feel good.