The Reach Out To Horses (ROTH) Colt Starting Clinic in Cody, WY was beyond amazing on so many levels. We worked with several young mustangs, a Paso Fino, an Andalusian and a QH/Tenn. walker cross, all with only basic gentling, halter and farrier training. Over the course of 7 days, we brought them along through spookbusting, saddle and rider prep, long lining, ponying, and multiple rides. Moving at the speed of each horse, always allowing them to have a voice, and using whatever holistic and safe methods played best to their strengths and needs, we created success for them all. With multiple professional trainers on the course, there was a high level of skill and great rendezvous of talent and support!
The Colt Starting Clinic is part of the ROTH Train the Trainer program into which I was invited and have chosen to pursue. Designed to elevate the skill level of professional trainers, this two-year program encompasses three specialized areas of horse training: foal gentling, mustang gentling, and colt starting. There are also opportunities for working with advanced problem-solving cases and remedial behaviors. The beautiful thing about ROTH clinics is that every horse on every clinic (with the exception of the occasional student-owned horse) is rescued from some type of dysfunctional situation. For each person enrolled on each clinic, a horse is selected and saved from a situation such as a feedlot, PMU farm, BLM holding facility, nurse-mare farm, and the like. These are last-chance horses, "dead horses walking," often ultimately slaughter-bound individuals were it not for being plucked out and given a chance at a functional life with humans... all because one more student enrolled. After coming through a clinic, usually most, if not all, of the horses are up for adoption - and with success under their girths the future looks pretty bright for these horses who go out with the tools to functionally coexist and partner with humans. Needless to say, if you have a rescuer's heart like me, you want to be on as many of these clinics as you can just because each person, each clinic means another one saved, given a voice, and given a future.
So, flash forward to the 2015 colt-starting clinic. Each of 9 students was allocated a horse for the week. Always using the buddy-system for safety, we also had the opportunity to partner with as many other students as possible during the course of the week, to experience as many as 9 different horses and a piece their individual journey through preparation and starting under saddle. I was assigned Taiee, a Mc Cullough Peaks mustang gelding. A flashy bay with more mane that either of us knew what to do with, I had to braid Taiee's forelock each day just to be able to see his eyes and utilize that eye contact in our communication. This simple act of grooming became a grounding and intimate ritual for us each day.
Taiee had been gentled on a previous ROTH mustang gentling clinic, and resides at the Dimock Ranch. Like most of our charges, he was not easy to catch, especially on Day 1. I remember feeling on the first day that he didn't want anything to do with me or the process at hand. But through the daily routine of catching, grooming, and gentle methods, we built a relationship and shared a sense of security and trust in working together. He became easier to catch every day instead of withdrawing or sulking about the process, which was encouraging and beautiful to experience. In fact, I believe this was the experience of all of the students and their horses. Six of us were allocated previously-gentled mustangs.
The ROTH colt-starting process includes a lot of well-thought-out building blocks and preparation including desensitization ("spook-busting" - non-flooding introductions of tack, instruments, and random objects), Reach Out, girth prep, obstacle courses in hand and at liberty, mounting block and rider prep, first saddle and bitted or bitless bridle, long-lining (ground driving), putting up a "dummy rider", ponying from a seasoned horse, and ultimately putting that first rider up. With several ways to go about almost every piece, depending on each horse's strengths and needs, we were able to watch and participate in dozens of combinations of different techniques to bring out the best in each horse.
I was one of two students on the course who were a good fit - size and background-skills-wise - to be the first rider up on 7 of the horses. The QH/Tennessee Walker cross was larger and fit better with one of our male trainers, and one of the mustangs needed additional support before saddling and so did not quite advance to the rider piece during the 7 days. So, between Liv Bjerre (Denmark) and I, we put the first several rides on the other 7. Clea Hall took over with her charge "Hopi" after the first ride and she brought miss Hopi along the rest of the way. Each horse had a slightly different process and combination of methods applied, so we all got to experience first-hand many different paths to the ultimate "first ride".
Though we all expressed our deepest gratitude to each other in person, I'd like to again thank Anna Twinney and Vin Mancarella for everything that is Reach Out To Horses; ROTH Trainer/Instructor Braxton Dolce for his enthusiasm, knowledge, and keeping us safe; ROTH Trainer-Student Laurent Nicault for his creativity, support (and bravery), ROTH Trainer/Instructor Michaele Dimock and Chris Dimock for unbeatable hospitality and accomodations, and ROTH Trainer-Student Patricia Hatle for the gift of Nigel, Snickers, Nash, and her trust in ROTH to keep them safe during ponying. I'm also so grateful for each and every participant in the course for their uplifting, supportive, collaborative attitudes and readiness to laugh.
I'll probably drill down and reflect on subtle details and lessons of the week in future blog posts. For now, suffice it to say... it was difficult to leave Cody and return to everyday life! I'll be looking forward to the Complete Foal Gentling Experience of 2016.