Back in 2018 I had my first ever cowboy/horsemanship/ground work lesson, and it was pretty mindblowing. I wanted to do more, but then Murray retired, Cowboy Dave retired, and every time another awesome ground work clinician would come to our barn I would be out of town. It was le crap.
Luckily, MIL started working with a ground work trainer
this year last year. It was a bit of a surprise to me, since MIL has not embraced the ways of cowboy training before. But she picked it up this year and has been really happy with how both her 3 year old and her I-2 mare have responded. Obviously when MIL let me know that Sheryl (Lynde), the clinician, would be coming while Speedy was at her house, I made a point of coming down for the clinic.
[Now we all get into the waybackmachine to November 2021 for the clinic!]
Since Speedy was newest to this type of work among the clinic horses, Sheryl used him as a demo horse so she could start teaching him the basics. She started by asking him to match her energy, specifically bringing his energy up. Speedy is super easy to get along with because he’s a low energy, go-along-to-get-along kinda guy…. who can be kinda tuned out to you at times. So when Sheryl asked him to start yielding his haunches to her, he responded very confidently with absolutely nothing. Sheryl had to really get the end of the lead rope swinging before Speedy started moving away from the pressure. And Speedy was…. offended.
Sheryl worked with Speedy alone for quite a while. She did an amazing job of narrating while she went. She told us exactly what she was looking for and rewarding, and the body language she was using to get it. Sheryl wanted to get to the point where she could reward Speedy for “thinking the right thing” when she asked lightly enough. Speedy, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to start actually thinking yet. Sheryl would ask lightly, Speedy would ignore, Sheryl would slowly increase her ask and then Speedy would LEAP AWAY FROM HER BECAUSE THIS IS AN INDIGNITY.
Really, there were moments when I was watching my expensive, imported, sensible horse leap through the air with just a leeeetle too much resemblance to a certain other horse we know.
In the process of helping Speedy learn what she meant, Sheryl discovered that he’s actually quite a sensitive fellow (which MIL and I had been learning under saddle also). He just has a bit of a “crust” of zoned-out over the top of that sensitivity. A bit part of tapping in to the sensitivity is not letting him get crusty — keep his energy good (matching mine) and make the asks really clear. Sheryl emphasized several times that for any horse, but especially horses like Speedy, you have to have a really clear idea of what you’re asking for and clearly reward for that.
Then it was my turn to learn Sheryl’s dialect of Cowboy. This was hard for me because a) I’m super happy to let any horse take space from me, especially cute little honies and b) there was a lot of rope to handle. We focused on the basics for my part: ask him to yield his shoulder, ask him to yield his hind quarters, keep and establish your bubble of space. What really clicked for me was planning ahead and thinking of the small increment of behavior that I could reward when Speedy gave it to me.
After the other horse-owner pairs worked with Sheryl, she took Speedy into the round pen to begin his education in liberty work. I’ve watched a lot of Elisa Wallace’s videos on liberty and round pen work with her mustangs and I have always been fascinated. But I’ve never tried it, in part due to lack of access to a round pen, but also because I really have no idea what she is doing. I can see what she’s rewarding when she narrates over the videos, but I couldn’t see what she was doing to get it. And I had no intention of running any horses off their feet in an attempt to do the same. So once again, I was super excited to have Sheryl to get Speedy started so I could continue the work.
Getting the hang of the liberty work was another slog for Speedy. In this case not because he was crusty, but because he was not bringing his attention to Sheryl and instead turned to the outside or focused to the outside of the round pen. Obviously, part of this struggle was that Speedy didn’t understand that this was a game where he had to pay attention to Sheryl. I think that was a big part of the value of the exercise — Speedy should understand that when we’re in the round pen together (or the arena, or the cross ties, or the trailer, or, or, or) that he should be paying attention to me. Not because I’m going to ask him to work all the time, or because I need him to be 100% laser focused on what we’re doing. But because I might need his attention, and I shouldn’t have to beg him to get it.
Sheryl worked mostly on getting Speedy to bring his attention to the inside of the round pen and towards her, when she invited him. What I really liked about her approach is that it was clear it wasn’t about running him off his feet or chasing him until he tired. She just made the parameters clear and gave him a lot of opportunities to give her the right answer. Don’t want to turn in? That’s fine, but then you do have to move off a little. If you choose to canter, that’s on you friend. Half a circle later — how about an inside turn? Still choosing the outside turn? That’s not what I asked for so let’s go back that original direction and try again. That was a huge turning point in my understanding of the liberty work. The beginning of the work was definitely ugly with Speedy. But just like any other good training method, Sheryl gave him lots of opportunities to give her the right answer. And she successively rewarded righter and righter answers so there was a clear path for him to move toward the behavior she wanted.
It was a super jam packed day for both me and hony, as we then tacked up for an under-saddle session with Sheryl as well. But the big learning moments for him were on the ground. Sheryl applied those under saddle, chipping away at the crust of nyeh to get Speedy to find a better shape and match her energy underneath her. For me, it was super educational to watch Sheryl work through the beginning of the training process with Speedy, helping him find the way to respond to her requests, and then learning how I could make those answers clear to him also. And also to get a deeper, more thorough understanding of the whys and hows of round pen work.
I didn’t get much of a chance to practice after Sheryl’s visit, since I had to go home and Speedy hadn’t moved up to me yet yet. But MIL continued to practice with him, and we got a chance to see Sheryl again on January 5th.