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Bend it Like Patrick

I bought my first colt—Txoko (Choco)—an Appaloosa, in October 2015. He was 1.5 years old at the time—cute, gangly, nervous, adorable, and…clueless! (That's him on the right)

Years of study, observation, and experience had led me here and I was ready for the challenge of teaching him to lead, do groundwork, give to pressure, trust me, and be ridden. I knew enough about owning horses, riding them, and making them calm and safe, but had never trained a baby before. So, even before buying Txoko, I had read up on everything colt; I took a clinic with Julie Goodnight in Colorado, studied up on her DVDs and online academy, and found a master horseman and teacher of horsemanship, Warwick Schiller, on YouTube and spent several hours a day over the next year studying his principles and methodologies. I traveled to expos and colt starting events that also enriched my knowledge and added yet more wise teachers to my digital rolodex (that’s “contacts” for you youngsters with iPhones).

One of those teachers, Patrick King, appeared right when I needed him.

By April 2017, Txoko and I had made great progress on the ground and with saddling and mounting up, but I was getting scared at the prospect of really getting him to move out under saddle. Txoko was much taller now, stronger, and more confident in his abilities. He was bursting with health and vitality, but got peevish if asked to move faster during our work together. I was a 51-year old, heavier-set, and stiff, lifelong athlete who did not want another back surgery or broken bone. Mostly, I didn’t want to fight with him, or have him make any negative associations with me in the saddle above him, so I took it slow.

When I would saddle him up and get on, I could feel his whole body brace as his mind froze in negative anticipation. I would flex him, yield his hindquarters, and try to get him to move out. But, we would barely walk a few steps before he started pawing the ground or fighting with his head. Unsure how to get him out of that mode without teeing him off or getting ejected, I would choose to get off and just work him from the ground for the rest of our session.

Our relationship continued to blossom, but I couldn’t delay much longer. He needed to be ridden at all three gaits, and soon.

I had always wanted to learn from Patrick King, and the perfect opportunity arose to do so when I discovered he was holding a week-long colt-starting clinic in May 2017. I drove 5 hours north to spend five days watching Patrick work colts, including mine, and learned some new tools that became invaluable to me. (I wrote about that experience in my May 2017 blog piece: “What is Stickiness? Should You Fear It?)

Like all good teachers, Patrick expanded my knowledge, understanding, and capabilities with exercises and explanations tailored to me (my age, my experience, my abilities).

The very first day, and the very first thing Patrick King did with my horse, is to this day, one of the biggest gifts he could have given me. Patrick gave me a new tool for my horsemanship toolbox! Just like Patrick, himself, this tool was ingeniously clever. It was based on a basic lunging circle, something most everyone teaches, but it went just that little bit further to become extremely useful and powerful. And the fact that I was getting this taught to me in person also was a game changer. I could ask all kinds of questions and be observed by Patrick when I tried to put it in practice; he could give me constructive feedback plus the reasoning behind it all. As a result, this has become one of the most effective groundwork tools to date that I use on my horses.

Let’s call it: “Bend it Like Patrick.”

Txoko was in the arena with Patrick for his first session, and I watched with eagerness to see what would take place. It looked like Patrick was going to ask him to walk in a circle to the left, like I might at the beginning of any workout, but, I noticed Patrick held an extra-long bamboo stick which he was using in almost a windshield wiper movement to go from tapping Txoko’s inside hind leg to being waved in front of Txoko’s face!

Almost magically, Txoko was bending, looking at Patrick with two eyes, and looking like a different horse! Patrick used his nifty, long bamboo stick to cue Txoko, tapping his inside hind leg to ask for a step forward [the idea was for his movement to originate from the inside hind (this is the proper way to move always!)], and then he would wave the bamboo stick in front of Txoko’s face if Txoko went too fast, or did not bend his poll to look into the circle at Patrick with two eyes. If necessary, the stick could touch Txoko’s shoulder to encourage it to move out of the circle, or touch Txoko’s underbelly to encourage it to lift.

That bamboo stick was alternating between hind leg, face, and belly/ribcage until Txoko stayed in the bend while at the walk. Txoko, to my surprise, found release and relaxation in this exercise very quickly, licking and chewing while in motion, not needing a break from the exercise to feel that release. Patrick then asked him to keep the bend at the trot, too. Before my eyes, Txoko was morphing into a confident, relaxed horse. Gone was the unsure-ness, the wild eyes, and the pinched mouth. The best part came next.

Patrick got on for his first ride on Txoko and, unlike the times I had tried to get my young Appy to move out, this time Txoko’s movements were fluid and smooth at the trot, as if he had done this forever. If Txoko got a bit sticky, slowing down and getting ruffled, Patrick asked for a bend and then a yielding of the hindquarters, and, what-do-you-know? The relaxation returned. When it came my time to ride, I felt no resistance, no nervousness in my young colt. Where did that bracing, anxious colt go? Bending had sent him away! In his place was this connected, enthusiastic Appy, rarin’ to see the world with me.

When I applied this bending groundwork to my other horses, the changes were huge! My then 5-year old mare became softer, more attached to me, more willing to listen. My 16-year old Paint began to unlock his shoulders and neck and prance around like a dressage expert! Within a few weeks, I found that I no longer needed to use any lunging whips, driving whips, sticks, or flags to work them at liberty. By focusing both eyes on me and bending, they were so in tune with my intentions—sometimes even before I knew that I was forming them!

Since that day, I can’t tell you how much bending has come up as a tool, as a frame, as a goal, and as a concept in my day to day activities, in lessons with other masters, and at horse expos and clinics I’ve attended. I almost wonder, how did I not know this before? I recall bending being brought up to me as an important image to keep when you put your horse on a circle (i.e., looked at from a bird’s eye view, your horse should be on the line of the circle from its head to its hindquarters, like a banana!), but it never occurred to me that it was something you could teach from the ground to help a horse be balanced emotionally and physically and to teach the horse to (literally) look to you for comfort and relaxation! I certainly never expected it to unlock the best a horse has to offer!

I received the tool of “Bend it like Patrick” just in time to change my and my herd’s life forever. Thank you, Patrick! Bend on!

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