The Ranch Horse Clinic

IMG_6651So on Friday Howdy and I received literally hours of private instruction, through the grace of God and the generosity of Dave and Carlos.  My head was reeling, and I was up and at ’em early on Saturday – clinic day – hand walking the probably muscle-sore Howdy around the campground and through the woods to stretch his legs.  He showed no sign of stiffness and was as bright and cheerful as any self-respecting young thoroughbred has a right to be.  It was a lovely way to start the day.

I tacked up and headed down to the arena where we all met.


That’s about a third of the group, and friends, that’s a lot of western saddles, Wranglers and hats.  At this point in my western ranch life, I am still wearing english-style paddock boots under the chaps I wore when I was 18 and riding western horsemanship patterns at the Sheboygan county (WI) Fair.  (Side note, yes, they fit decades later!  [or at least I got them zippered when I went to Veach’s Leather to ask about putting the RRP patch on them. Both Laura and Carey Veach took one look and said, “why don’t you let us add another inch to make them easier to zip…”  Rats, but hey, still not bad.])  For headwear, I was one of only three people, including the president of the sponsoring club, sporting a helmet.  To the great credit of everyone, nothing was said about helmet vs. hat, and everyone just got on with it.  Nice.

After morning announcements by our hostess Kelly Messera, we were split into three groups to go to work with each of the clinicians.  Our group was assigned to work with Jeff Barnes to do cattle work first.


That is Jeff Barnes, our cattle work clinician. He is holding my friend Christine Fortin, DVM’s reins explaining that if you put your finger between the reins while wearing a curb bit, a big no-no, judges will see it. You think you’ll get away with it, but you won’t because judges used to be or still are competitors, and they know all the tricks. Fair enough. 🙂

When our group was walking out to the cattle I, having promised myself to keep my lips still, unless breaking into a smile, was available to notice that people were really fired up about working with the steers.  Having yesterday come face-to-face with my blinding, but cheerfully borne, ignorance about the skills required to do this sport, I wasn’t that eager to do cow work, which not only would require my newborn skills to be somewhat polished, but also introduce a bovine variable into the equation.  Nothing could go wrong here.

Jeff talked for a bit and everyone then warmed the horses up in about a 30m x 30m pen.  Picture eight horses all cantering in that small space, at different speeds, with occasional, seemingly random, stops and backs.  I didn’t even put Howdy into the melee.  We are lucky to get a canter in a space that size, let alone maintain it.  It seemed to me that all of  the ranch horses beautifully pick up walk to canter and then lope along nicely.  Howdy and I, right now, go walk, trot, trot, trot, TROT, canterprettyfast, canter and there’s no “we’ve reach cruising altitude, you may put your trays down” lope in there.  After they all were done with their warm up, I went to the middle of the space to move H’s feet a little and once they saw the state of our skillz, they all found a corner of the pen and watched with bemused and indulgent smiles while their beautiful horses dozed in the afterglow that competence brings.  After our demonstration, the information about the racehorse-wanna-be-ranchhorse was whispered under hat brims and I was instantly their pet project, to be celebrated for the smallest victories and forgiven for cheerful but immense ignorance.

Jeff asked for a volunteer, and no one looked at me for which I was grateful.  I watched two or three riders “box” a calf, which if this were an english sport, would be called “influencing” a calf, because english wordsmiths have an obsession to be PC and never use one syllable when several will do – extra points if it is from another language.  I give you the western “lope” and english “canter,” “hat” and “helmet,” “spin” and “pirouette.”  At any rate, to box a calf has nothing to do with the Golden Gloves and everything to do with influencing the calf’s speed and direction through your horse’s position.

Howdy and I have had some experience with this together and I’ll also admit that as a child I harassed the angus calves we bought every spring enough to understand how to influence them against a fence line – what works to change their direction and what will get you trampled.  Howdy’s a pretty confident guy, so he isn’t afraid of one calf.  (It seems that four is about his “maybe they can be where they want to be” limit.)  By the end of our session with Jeff, we were surprising everybody including us, by influencing the calf pretty well.  I learned to not think of turning the calf, but ride to a point ahead of him and close off the line to the fence.  That actually is a pretty big paradigm shift, so I was glad to have it.  (Side note, Jeff was sitting on a young horse while coaching.  During my time in the ring with him, the young horse took to bucking pretty good for a couple of seconds and even Jeff would say there was one moment of decidedly more air between the saddle and his butt than is ideal.  Things sorted out pretty quickly and I just smiled at him and said, “Good ride, cowboy” and we both laughed.

I need the boxing skills for the RRP so I was all psyched to have done ok at it and learned plenty, and about ready to hit the showers on cow work, but then they said we were going to go practice cutting.  Cutting is another deal entirely and way harder than boxing and it isn’t in the RRP.  In cutting, the whole herd is in the ring right with you, thus exceeding Howdy’s Rule of Four.  You have to separate your calf from the herd and then ideally keep it in the middle of the ring by cutting off its path back to the herd.  You have two herd-holder people to keep the herd where it should be and two turn-back people who stop the calf from going to the other side of the ring.  They tell me that at the biggest competitions, cutters take their own herd holders and turn backs and they travel in teams all weekend.  That’s kinda cool.  At any rate, in our situation, everybody helps everyone.  I hung back and watched for a while and eventually rotated into a turn back position, with Jeff coaching the cutting people and the turn backs and herd holders and every body learned a lot.  Turn back turned out to be pretty fun according to Howdy.  He waited and stood nicely and also moved forward and back quickly when needed.  It was a great experience and more cattle time for him, which was great.  Then it was our turn to cut.  Getting our calf away from the herd took a while of milling about even though Jeff assigned us an easy-going, white-faced red one that had been cheerfully playing the game like a stoned uncle allowing himself to be pulled into the third game of Chutes and Ladders.  But we did get him separated and we briefly held him where he was supposed to be, in the middle of the ring.  Then Stoney got past us and as he galloped merrily back to the herd with us uselessly nearby, a memory of Dad telling me not to chase the lone calf back into the herd because it can get hurt or hurt other calves, sprang up in my head in flashing neon.  I stopped Howdy, and Jeff used us as an example of what to do!  Yay Dad!  Yes, maybe I was an example of what to do right after you get beat, but I was pretty chuffed.

These pictures and the one at the top of the blog were created and shared with my by Sandy Ellis-Brye, to whom I am very grateful.

Then it was on to Ranch Riding.  Dave Currin, who is the current President and one of the founders of the National Versatility Ranch Horse Association (NVRHA) was teaching ranch riding.


That is Dave in the blue shirt on the right. Nice guy. Jeff Barnes, on the left, has won a lot of championships in the sport and he was the clinician for the cow work.

Ranch Riding is as close to a dressage test as this sport gets.  Howdy sort of lost his mind during the standing-still-and-watching-others part of the session, and I ended up asking Dave if I could go work with H in the other half of the arena.  He knows I don’t need Ranch Riding for the RRP, so he was like, “Have at it, cowgirl.”  I spent the whole time doing walk and trot and just chilling.  Howdy was acting like a fool, so I sneaked off and gave him a drink and a 10 minute shot at the hay in his stall and he was back to his old self.  There was a great sound system and I got to listen to Dave coaching people, so I learned a lot anyway.  Interesting that the primary problems people have in Ranch Riding are the same that dressage riders have: the connection, allowing the horse to lengthen his frame in lengthenings, relaxation.

The second part of our time with Dave was working on trail obstacles.  Everybody played on whatever they wanted to work on and Dave walked around and helped people.  It was way fun.  One of the more experienced exhibitors helped me teach Howdy to drag a log on a rope!  That was pretty cool.  No I don’t need any of the trail skills for RRP, but I was there and it was too, so we did it.  We did the pool noodle de-spooking obstacle that is really not a trail obstacle, just for fun.  Easy when the wind is blowing away from you – not-so-much the other way.IMG_0800

Then it was on to reining.


That’s our reining clinician Ryan Rose. He was really good – a fun, clear communicator.

Our pattern for the show next day was posted.  It had rollbacks.  Howdy and Camie do not have the rollback app installed.  A couple of people rode the pattern while Ryan helped them with the parts they struggled with.  He said you didn’t have to ride the entire pattern if you didn’t want to, you could just work on a skill when it was your turn.  So, when it was my turn, I shared with him my rollback shame.  He’s like, “Oh, no problem, show me turn on the hindquarters.”  I pulled out my quarter turn back, quarter turn back routine learned from Dave yesterday and pulled off a C+ of a turn on the hindquarters.  “Ok, now do that again, but faster, use your inside hand to point to where you want to go, and look there, and add a canter depart at the end.”  Oddly enough, that sounded easier when I was sitting in the tack than it does writing it down here.  With the fearlessness that only the blissfully ignorance possess, I simply did exactly what he said.  I cantered to a place, stopped as hard as we could, sat down, looked over my left shoulder hard, pointed there and cued for canter depart.  And Howdy went, “Here’s your rollback.  Thank you for flying Howdy airlines.”  He smoked it.  Everybody cheered in astonished incredulity.

So I’m thinking, ok, that’s great, I’m happy.  Ryan says, “Ok, now do your pattern.”  I wasn’t ready for that, I was just going to accept our new app installation and fade back into the lineup along the rail – fat, dumb and happy.  But no, we did the pattern and I made a lot of rookie mistakes and Ryan gave me a bunch of pointers and the pattern got a lot better.  Then the group did roping, which I don’t need for RRP and Howdy had been game all day, so I thanked Ryan and my classmates, excused us and gave Howdy a rinse and some time at grass and then it was time for him to be a horse (in his huge stall with the auto waterer, hay up to his knees, bedding up to his fetlocks and a fan to blow his forelock like Fabio.


“Turn my fan on medium, please, and let me nap.” This picture was taken before I put in the provided two bags of shavings and a bunch more hay. Nice!

It was time for me to get a shower and some food.  When I came back to check Howdy in the evening and take him for a walk, the brightest rainbow I have ever seen greeted us:


Then it was time to go home and rest up for the big Ranch Horse Schooling Show at the facility on Sunday!

One thought on “The Ranch Horse Clinic

  1. […] it to, so I’m deferring on that.)  We went in and did our cutting and it was about as brilliant as it had been the day before with Stoney.  But I didn’t make a fool of either of us, had some fun and nobody got hurt. […]

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