Until two weeks ago, Clyde was just a young punk colt, minding his own business at the Turkey Run Ranch in Brussels. He started to get a bit suspicious that life might be going to change when his owners, Brian and Jo-Anne Workman, brought out the horse trailer.
It was off to camp for Clyde, all the way to the Can-Am All Breeds Equine Expo in Markham, to get a three-day education in front of a crowd. As it turns out, it was kind of fun. His teacher – cowgirl Kateri Cowley of Alberta – would become his new best friend. Wearing a cowboy hat, leather chinks and a fancy knife sheath on her belt, Cowley introduced the young Quarter Horse to his new career as a riding horse.
Cowley was raised on the Rafter Six Guest Ranch in Alberta, where her parents, Stan and Gloria, would host riders from all over the world, taking them on horseback adventures in the Rocky Mountains. From an early age, she learned to work with both the horses and the people.
She was the Calgary Stampede Princess in 2009 and won of the Calgary Stampede Cowboy Up Challenge in 2014. Cowley works in the motion picture industry as a wrangler and stunt rider, working with the cast and stock on the hit CBC television series "Heartland". But today, as a guest clinician, she’s the equivalent of an equine Kindergarten teacher, showing great patience and skill in guiding young Clyde through his early education.
The round pen was their classroom. Cowley would send Clyde around the perimeter of the pen if he kicked at her or showed any bad attitude. “The better he is, the easier it is for both of us,” said the teacher. It was her job to decide what was acceptable behaviour and it was his job to ask lots of questions. The crowd could easily see a bit of attitude from Clyde as he kicked out at her on the first day. What wasn’t so easy to see though was the way he started to soften by licking and chewing, but then he’d turn his hip toward her in a show of disrespect. It was those signals, or their changes, that indicated when he was ready to learn and accept his lessons.
“If he kicks or bucks I don’t take it personally,” said Cowley, who has learned how to control her emotions to perform her high-risk task. “I’m not an old cowgirl but I’d like to be one, one day.”
When he does something right she allows him to stand still as a reward. Still, she questions, am I strong enough to be his leader? “He’s like a teenager; he’s been his own leader until now, as far as he’s concerned.” His body posture tells her that he’s starting to appreciate what she is to him. When she sees him start to move his hip out, his head in, she sees progress. She takes a step back to take off the pressure as his reward.
Clyde is curious. Cowley encourages that natural desire to check things out, allowing him to sniff the saddle and paw at a blue tarp. If he gets afraid of anything he’ll turn his hind end towards it, indicating that he’s changed his mind about it, or her.
On the second day – his second hour of class - he stayed low-headed as she draped a rope over his back and asked for a few simple maneuvers such as moving his hips, shoulders, and ribcage away from the pressure she applied. She calls it training from the ground, simulating the pressure her leg would apply while in the saddle to ask him to move different parts of his body. As he looks for the answer, his first instinct is to move into that pressure that she applies with the butt end of a whip but he quickly learns to move away. He has to make that choice as she blocks forward movement with her body. He moves sideways; she removes the pressure – “it’s the answer for everything.”
She needs to be able to control his speed and direction. Her goal is for the moves to become softer, to use half the pressure, in half the time, with half the effort. Fast, but slow at the same time. “You know we’re on the right track,” she says, “when he’s saying yes, I’m saying yes,” flashing that smile that always seems to be close to the surface.
By the end of the third day – only his third hour of training – Clyde has accepted being quietly guided under saddle and walking over the tarp, his topline level with no indication of a buck, his ears and eyes telling her that he’s calm, much calmer than he was when they started. Cowley rubs his neck as the audience shares a round of applause.
©2017 K. Dallimore. All Rights Reserved.