Picture a Texas gentleman's ranch with lazy oaks surrounded by yellow and purple wildflowers. See in the far pasture an exquisite Arab, with tail flowing in the wind like the Black Stallion, and a woman astride. The mare spins and backs 20 paces, and in seconds the pair is lost under a grove of trees.
I emerged, still in the saddle, with a head full of twigs and leaves. This moment made it clear that my normally confident horsemanship was on dangerous ground and I needed help.
After completing Horsemanship I by Chris Cox this spring, I learned that timing is everything and safety is the soul when it comes to working with horses. Just as a person needs a license and insurance to drive a car, riders need to have a program - a foundation, to work effectively with any horse they encounter. Learning a foundation program, such as Cox's Horsemanship I clinic, should be a required license for anyone who is thinking about buying a horse, getting into horses, or who considers oneself a competent equestrian. "Confidence through knowledge", Cox's motto, is delivered in his course. The amazing results all the participants experienced were delivered through humane and safe treatment of the horses, and Cox lives up to his title of a "natural horseman".
My journey for help started out simple. My friend Angie, always in search of a better, gentler way to work with her horses, had come back from Equus America 2003, an equestrian exposition in Houston , and couldn't stop talking about Cox and his training techniques. His training videos showed he had solutions for problem horses. With the subliminal suggestion that "it will be just like a vacation with a purpose," Angie talked me into going to the training clinic. Two children and three moves had kept me out of the "horse loop" for seven years and I was looking forward to getting back in the saddle. Having been classically trained in English equitation and eventing for ten years and dabbling in western style trail rides and games, I believed I was a competent horsewoman.
There was, however, a constant reminder that I was lacking vital horsemanship skills. It was Bonnie; an athletic registered half Arab / half Quarter Horse mare that had been out to pasture for six years at my father's ranch. She had impeccable ground manners and had been rideable at one time. However, with all my riding experiences I couldn't move her forward - we would just back and spin down the pastures. In fact, she was rather like riding an unreleased lightning bolt. She was dangerous, but I didn't have the knowledge or tools to fix her sour behavior. No one had ridden her for six years.
It was the week away from the kids with no laundry and no cooking that finally sold me on the Cox clinic. I didn't know that we were signed up for Horsemanship I - out of II and III; and the term 'Natural Horseman' wasn't familiar.
As we coasted into the Outback Ranch, we noticed the thoughtfully planned and immaculately kept arenas, round pens, and barns. Grassy green pastures flowed about the facility, and a gentle wind blew through the scattered trees. We put our horses into the stalls of the Barn Master barn, so safe that a horse could not crib or chew anywhere in the barn. Equally impressive was the foam-blown flooring and dustless shavings.
Large Spanish and live oak trees wrapped around the property and guided us to the bunkhouse. Most of the students attending the clinic had already arrived and welcomed us with wide smiles. Cox came out after dark and introduced himself and his help: Brandon Clark (Skeeter as we were later to know him) and Kellie. Little did we know that first night what good friends we all would become and how much a person could learn about a horse in seven days.
The bunkhouse was perfect - not overdone, but comfortable with every amenity - soft pillows and beds, and plenty of hot water for showers. In the morning we gathered at the main house for breakfast. None of us knew exactly what to expect from the agenda we had received. Looking back, it was Cox's strategy. If we had known the courage we would need with our horses every day, we would have cowered under our cozy quilts.
After breakfast we introduced ourselves and found we were a varied group: a lawyer, nurse, sales people, stable owner, horse trainers, stay-at-home mom, swim instructor (65 years old), and retirees. Our group's riding disciplines were as varied as their careers with western trail, English, hunt, jump, and gaited riders from all over the country. We were a study in contrast for the psychiatrist in our group. One of the students, Rose Marie, had a particular reason for coming. Her confidence had been completely shattered after being thrown from one of her horses months ago; she hadn't ridden since her accident.
Day 1: Oh Knots! We learned knot and tying safety for the horse. I didn't realize how unsafe some of my habits had become. For some, the first morning might have been a bore and some may have wondered why they had come. For myself, having seen and been at the receiving end of dangerous situations, I paid close attention. According to Cox, "people need to be consistent and assertive when working with their horses." He made it clear that he was hired to teach each one of us to learn by working from our horse's knowledge, so that riding would always be safe and enjoyable.
The second half of the day we learned to halter correctly. With Cox's quick eye and ample help from the fellow students, we did just fine. We also made visual assessments of each other's horses; we learned to estimate age, breed and personality. Anyone who has ever shopped for a horse could well appreciate this exercise.
The foundation step, 'disengaging' the hind end, is the basis to Cox's training technique. Disengaging involves moving the hindquarters first to get the horse's attention. This form of training keeps the horse's head focused on the handler. As Cox said, "If you have control of the hind end, you have control of the mind." It was fascinating to watch the different responses of the horses. Even though I had watched videos of his technique and tried them on my own, having a one-on-one lesson with Cox made all the difference. We learned, with regards to disengaging the hind end, that the timing of the release for the horse was everything. The horse was learning through the 'relief' in the training techniques.
Day 2 & 3: The Nuts & Bolts. Cox made it clear that all the work we were to be doing with our horses would be under his supervision for safety and accuracy until we mastered the techniques. We were all apprehensive. He demanded complete attention. Not knowing what was coming next, we were unable to prepare, which was all part of Cox's plan. Everyone started from equal footing, and he slowly rebuilt each rider's horsemanship one safe step at a time. Safe, meaning not just for the rider and handler, but also for the horse. There was no star student or exceptional horse.
We added "direct and drive" to our training. As simple as this concept may seem (as it does now), we all had trouble combining the timing, rope twirling, and hind end focus it required. As Cox would say, "This is not rocket science," as he grasped his shaking head.
The 'direct and drive' concept directly related to the session involving loading and unloading of a horse in a trailer. The simple groundwork was translating into all aspects of working with a horse. My horse, Bonnie, was beginning to understand what was expected of her and to respect my space. Following through with the training techniques, which Cox made sure we did, was key to the success of the program.
The following day we took our groundwork out on the trail. We drove our horses around and over fallen trees, down ravines, up hills and through creeks. We were getting pretty darn good at twirling that lead rope. I imagined, out in the hot sun, that this training program had potential with disciplining children - direct and drive to the bath, direct and drive to bed. However, my daydream came to an end as the dinner bell rang.
Day 4: The Day of Infamy. After learning about saddles and proper saddling techniques, we headed to the round pen. We were to work on our seat, otherwise known as riding without reins. In my classically trained background this was common practice, but on Bonnie?
After eight long hours riveted to our bleacher seats around the pen, we watched Cox work relentlessly with each horse and rider. I rode Bonnie forward, albeit at about 30 miles an hour on a ten-meter circle. I would like to say my seat was good enough that I didn't fly off, but it was centrifugal force holding me on. After watching Cox work, we came to appreciate how dedicated he was to his students and that he truly cared that we mastered his safety and training techniques.
Day 5: Riding High in the Saddle. We bridled, learned about bits and headstalls, and headed for the arena. Those with very unruly horses (like myself) would have shaken in our boots if we knew what was to come. We learned a one-rein stop and release and proceeded to walk, trot and canter with a very long rein. Bonnie went forward really fast, but I had control. What a feeling! All the little training steps that Cox slowly built over the past three days were visibly coming together as the horses became softer and more supple.
We developed our skills and extended them to the field and trail. I still can't believe the confidence we needed to accomplish the tasks Cox set before us. We introduced the horses to cattle; one man even got to ride his first cutting horse and make a go of it.
Day 6: Say Your Prayers. The ' spook ' session, as the students called it, was an integral aspect to Cox's safety theme. He purposely scared the horses by running, skipping and hollering at the mounted horses. Each rider learned to keep the horse facing the 'spook' by using the disengagement technique while mounted. The 'spook' session will save a life or two.
We headed out to the trail, played in the water and cantered in the fields. Bonnie thought everything was a race and tried to win. We learned the vertical flexion technique for stopping and backing incorporating the timing of the release. As Rose Marie remarked, "There is so much more to horses than people think." It was amazing to see her brimming with smiles and high-fiving everyone around her. Rose Marie's confidence was back.
Day 7: Day Is Done. We perfected vertical flexion backing and stopping. Cox left us with some homework, like trying to ride in a straight line - quite a preposterous exercise for a former competitive dressage rider. I have to admit Bonnie and I need work and lots of it. I ended this course feeling empowered with the knowledge and techniques to work with any horse.
Over the week we worked hard, but no one worked harder than Jan and Julie. Their home cooking brought us out from under the sheets and warmed our hearts and stomachs. Even the evening entertainment was a belly-busting, laughing, roar of a good time. We enjoyed true Texas hospitality, including dinner at the Steak Shed steakhouse in Graford , Texas with all the trimmings and fantastic guitar picking sing-alongs. As Joe, a fellow student, said, "This was the best week of my life!"
After seven days of living with and cheering on our new friends in the clinic, I couldn't help noticing how Cox's instruction was like a puzzle. At the beginning of the clinic the horses and riders paralleled each other, but over the week each horse and rider slowly converged to a state of harmony.
Timing was everything in this course. My timing could have been better - like starting off a horse career with Horsemanship I with all the basic training and safety skills to work with any horse. The cost and time of this course is an investment (or life insurance policy) for you and your horse because as Cox said over and over again, "I am saving your life!"
About the author:
Cynthia Ritchie lives in Kyle , Texas with her husband and two children. She enjoys teaching riding lessons to family and friends, going trail riding, and working with Bonnie the 'night-mare' who is transforming into a pleasant ride.
For more information about Chris Cox and clinic schedules contact:
The Chris Cox Horsemanship Company
5309 W FM-1885
Mineral Wells , TX 76067
Photographs by Kate Gamble:
1175 Overly Raker Road
McConnellsburg , PA 17233