Stick and String

I just finished a 10-day colt starting clinic with Clinton Anderson. For you nonhorse people, Anderson is a famous horse trainer. He’s got a cult following that has always creeped me out, so I really didn’t pay much attention to him until I decided I wanted to start my mom’s 2-year-old filly myself. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Anderson treats his students like he treats his horses. He has high expectations. He sets them up for success but jumps in to whack them when they fail. As he repeats so often on TV and in the arena, he makes the wrong thing uncomfortable and the right thing comfortable.

I was pretty uncomfortable the first two days.

Mom treats her animals like she treats her kids and grandkids. So I showed up with an equine version of myself at 16: spoiled-rotten, stubborn, smart, quick, self-sabotaging, ambitious and entitled. She’s even a redhead, too.

The filly formerly known as Rosita — smallest horse there — earned a new name during her first saddling. As soon as she moved forward, she hunkered down and skittered like gutter vermin around the trainer working her. Then she broke in half and shot skyward in a bucking fit to match the bigger, bolder horses in the group.

“Look at that Swamp Rat go!” Anderson called out over the PA system as he watched from the next pen. He made some cracks about how awesome it would be if the runt mowed down and killed the trainer in the pen with her.

Her attitude needed serious improvement.

I’ve read enough self-help books that I was trying to negotiate with the mare. Didn’t work. Every trainer  yelled at me to get after her with my “handy stick with string” — a euphemism for “big-ass whip.” I was frustrated, overwhelmed and wondering what the hell I was thinking when I signed up for this, even though I was loving every minute of it.

The turning point was my first ride on her in the big arena. Anderson screamed at me repeatedly and rudely over the loudspeaker to whack Swamp Rat out of her repeated bucking fits.

Basically, he took his stick to me.

It worked. I got past my fear of being a bully. I found the clarity and confidence to expect, demand, and get more out of my horse and myself.

By the end of the 10 days, I had a filly I could ride over a teeter-totter, gallop across a field in a group, cross water and charge up steep embankments. At the end of the last ride, Anderson told us to strip our saddles, kick off our boots and swim with our horses in a pond deep enough they couldn’t touch the bottom.

It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done.

Swmp Rat and I went off the deep end. We were wet up to her ears and my hat.

And now I find myself facing my kids with more clarity and confidence, especially as I re-establish myself as boss mare. I love my mother dearly, but time with Gran tends to turn the best of us into swamp rats.

Now where did I put that handy stick?