Driving clinic at The Natural Gait

From DeeAnna Weed, Postville, IA:
Doc had a clinic at The Natural Gait in June, 2008. I wrote this “clinic review” afterwards and shared it with a friend. I thought maybe folks reading

Doc’s new blog would enjoy it too.

Friday (the first day of the clinic) was mostly lecture and discussion, although we did get our horses out later in the afternoon to harness and ground drive. Doc, my husband Chuck, and I worked with my Norwegian Fjord mare Sissel for a couple of hours in the late afternoon to see how well she had retained her knowledge of being a driving horse. She looked pretty good for a green horse — we hitched and drove her in the covered arena that day.

On Saturday, we harnessed our horses, ground drove them, and eventually hitched them when they were ready. Doc worked with Chuck and me to drive in the covered arena. Then Chuck and I took Sis down to the larger outdoor arena and drove her there. Sis kept offering to trot without my asking for the faster gait. I think this “go fast” mindset was a combination of insecurity, inexperience, and lack of strength. We humans wanted her to Juuuust Waaaaalk!

The horse-human disagreement about speed was never a real fight, but I didn’t like it, because it required me to hang on Sissel’s mouth far more than I wanted. Steve Wood was in the arena at the time, and I asked him for help.

Steve told Chuck, who was riding with me in our cart, to hold the lead rope of Sissel’s rope halter in his hand. Whenever she got too strong, he was to bump Sissel on the nose by tugging on the halter rope. Steve explained that this “bump, bump” is a familiar signal with a clear meaning – Slow Down! Boy, that was a winner of an idea — she got a lot softer and mindful, so I didn’t have to hold her back constantly with pressure on the bit. We were all happier with that improvement.

Doc did trot her later in the day in the covered arena, and I got brave enough to try it myself, on my own without Doc. That sure was fun! Sissel likes to get moving, without being crazy about it. When we get more experience under our belts, I can see us both enjoying a good trot. But that will need to wait for a bit until she is stronger and more comfortable, and I am more experienced.

On Sunday, we harnessed and hitched our horses and braved an increasingly difficult obstacle course in the large arena. Doc, Steve, Theresa, Cathy and Ross progressively added more and more things to the arena to challenge us as drivers and the horses. Flapping signs, flags, and banners. Tight “L” turns to negotiate. Inner tubes to drive over. Creaky wading pools to go round. A diesel truck motor and air brakes to listen to. Barrels to serpentine around.

Even with all the distractions and challenges, everyone was doing really fine until Mother Nature decided to add a windy cold front and a brief but intense rainstorm to the party. That got the horses way more “up” than anything the humans did! There were several spooks right as the wind came up and the rain started. Thank goodness there was no thunder to wind things up even tighter.

Even Sissel got in a jump and a few strides of gallop when Onna, a young Friesian driven by SaYon, spooked and leaped toward her. Chuck bumped Sis with the halter, and I asked her to slow down with the bit. She came down immediately to a walk and calmed down really well. Everyone else did a good job of controlling their horses too.

After all the excitement, we all decided to go to the covered arena. Of course, the rain stopped right after that! After we dried off and warmed up, Theresa Burns fitted Sissel with a spare pair of her Easy Boots, so Sis could go on our Monday picnic drive without “ouching” on the gravel. The boots worked great — I’ll have to get Sis at least a pair for her front feet.

On Monday, we did a picnic drive and ride. It lasted, oh, about 2 hours I think. I rode Sissel on the trip, rather than drive her, because there was no one to go with me in the cart. I didn’t feel comfortable driving alone –that green horse, green driver thing had me a little nervous! Chuck had to work that day, and Doc and Steve were riding with students Lydia and SaYon. There were a few tense moments with Onna, SaYon’s Friesian, and Dakota, Lydia’s mustang, but the horses and their drivers handled the excitement well with reassurance and coaching by Steve and Doc.

After we got back, I thought I would get Sissel loaded up and head for home about 3 p.m., but Doc said, “I have time to work with you and Sissel, if you want!”

Hah! Does the sun rise in the east?

*** to be continued ***