I was optimistic at the start of the third day of the clinic. After all, Santo and I had made much progress together on the first two days. And usually by the third day of a clinic, the horse and rider teams have settled into the rhythm of the clinic — so all signs pointed to an easier day.
But a big weather front had moved in that morning — temperatures were much cooler, with sharp wind gusts. As I headed into Santo’s pen to begin tacking him up, I noticed he was pacing frantically again. The horses in the pen next to him were being loaded up into a trailer — they were heading home a day early. Between his pen mates leaving and the dramatic weather change, Santo was beside himself. I tacked him up and placed my rope halter over his bridle — my plan was to ground work him in the small arena, then mount there and warm him up under saddle before heading into the big arena.
It was a good plan — but didn’t quite work out as expected. The wind gusts were very pronounced in the small arena, with sporadic rustling and banging noises everywhere as the wind rearranged many items and tossed them about. Santo was nearly out of his skin with agitation. I would ground work him for awhile and get a brief change — but any distraction (wind, horse walking by, etc.) would set him back quickly.
My instinct was to mount him and get started with short serpentines. But Santo seemed to be having more of a flashback to his mounting accident long ago. He was extremely restless near the fence when I tried to mount him there — he’d sidle up to me rapidly, present the stirrup like it was on fire, and then vibrate in place for a few seconds before dancing out of mounting range. And mounting from the ground was equally bumpy — my back was still weak on the left side from my injury and I had trouble getting into position fast enough to mount smoothly.
And I was having my own flashback — to my fall the previous summer. Then, I had mounted a young horse without realizing he was troubled — and paid quite a price for my rush to be in the saddle. The logical conclusion was that I needed to go slower and prepare horses better before mounting as a general principle — rather than leaping on the back of one that was obviously agitated (like Santo). Buck had often said during this clinic that people need to spend more time getting their horses gentle on the ground before riding — and it seemed like advice that was tailor-made for me.
Still — as I perched on the fence awkwardly (with my back complaining) and watched Santo twitch about spastically in front of me — I felt pretty sure more ground work wouldn’t help Santo in this moment. By now, all of the other riders were in the big arena. Country music was blaring — a sign that Buck hadn’t entered the arena yet — and the clinic was probably going to start at any moment. Santo and I were alone in the small arena.
Just then, a rider entered from far side of the arena. Dismayed, I saw that it was Buck — I hadn’t realized that he used this side arena to get to the big arena for the clinic. Embarrassed, I ducked my head and hoped he wouldn’t notice us floundering at the fence.
Of course, he immediately reined his horse next to Santo (who managed to vibrate even more) and asked what was going on. I told him that I had tried doing some ground work but that it didn’t seem to help for long — and that basically I was trying to figure out what Santo needed me to do for him.
Buck nodded and said it was just one of those days — with the wind and cold coming in suddenly — and suggested that I just get on Santo and do him some good from the saddle with short serpentines.
I stared back at him in surprise — and Santo even paused his piaffe on cocaine movements for a moment. I said something brilliant like “huh?” — and Buck patiently repeated his advice. Seeing the doubt on my face, he added that I could also bring Santo into the big arena to do ground work instead (but I could tell he thought that might be the less effective way to go).
And he rode off, heading into the big arena.
I looked at Santo and knew Buck was right — I needed to get on Santo to help him. Although my back thought that was a really bad idea, I decided to put Santo first — and I clumsily mounted him (and promised to give my back multiple margaritas later). He exhaled with obvious relief and off we whirled into short serpentine land. Sure enough, after about 10-15 minutes, Santo settled enough for me to ride him to the large arena without taking out any innocent spectators.
Buck was already talking to the class, as they stood around him on their horses. Santo and I began our now familiar routine of twirling up and down the arena. Many spectators waved cheerfully at us and I smiled back, happy to see that Santo’s fan club was growing. As the class began riding as a group, Santo and I blended in with the other riders. Santo soon was walking out nicely on a loose rein, doing long serpentines from my leg cues. As the trotting work began, I felt him relax even more — the extended trotting mixed in with “soft feel” and slower work really helped Santo unwind.
As we trotted by, Buck leaned down from his saddle (he seemed about two stories high on his big bay horse) and said, “You weren’t even sure you should get on him. And look at all the good you are doing him now.” He smiled with approval — and I was glad that I had taken his advice.
So was Santo, who was having a fun day at the clinic — especially during the cow work. We helped Rita and Kate cut a cow (by following them like a backup police car) and Santo seemed eager to do more with the herd. But I decided to guarantee that day ended on great note for Santo. I dismounted him after his tandem cow cutting moment — and exited the arena before everyone else.
After the clinic was officially over and all the riders had left the arena, I checked on Santo in his pen. Once again, he was pacing and neighing nervously — clearly the movement and noise still triggered a response in him.
Before the final day’s class, I pondered Santo’s newly returned worry about being mounted. Given my less agile mounting style at the moment, what was going to be the best way to get into the saddle? At home, I often used a mounting block — but I was embarrassed at the thought of lugging one of those into a Buck Brannaman clinic arena.
The first time I ever audited a Buck clinic, he told an entertaining story about a lady who brought a mounting block to one of his clinics. She would set the block down and lead her horse to it. Just as she was ready to step into the stirrup, her horse would move away a few steps. And she’d sigh, pick up the mounting block, and move it back to within mounting range of her horse.
This happened several times, as Buck looked on. Finally, she mounted successfully and began riding away from the mounting block. Buck told her that he didn’t have a problem with her using the mounting block — as long as she put it away right after she had used it. The lady looked at him in exasperation and pointed out that she couldn’t do that without dismounting from her horse, putting the block away, and then mounting without the block (since it would be put away at that point). And he smiled and said something like, “Now you are catching on….”
In Buck’s approach to horsemanship, horses should always be quiet and stand still for mounting — that is part of their foundation work and shouldn’t be skipped over for convenience’s sake. At the same time, Santo seemed like a temporary exception to that rule — for this clinic, he was getting calmer after I was in the saddle (but not before).
Pondering the dilemma, I decided it was time to adapt to fit the situation. Before I tacked up Santo, I took the mounting block out of my trailer and put it in the small arena. Once Santo was saddled, I led him there and headed for the mounting block.
As I stood on the block and directed Santo’s feet toward me, he became nervous again. Clearly, he was happier once I was on his back — so why all of the dancing around before mounting? Was it just the return of his old bad experience with a rider falling during mounting — and if so, why was it occurring now?
Then for the first time during the clinic, I had an insight into his behavior during mounting. As he rushed up to the block, gyrating slightly, I had a mental image of a getaway car. Santo was telling me, “Hey, get on FAST. Trouble is coming and we need to get out of here. But we need to leave together, so HURRY up.” He was the getaway car and I was the slow co-conspirator, dawdling my way out of the bank I just robbed.
I laughed and lined him up beside the block. My back was much happier about this method of mounting — and as soon as Santo brought the stirrup to me, I stepped into it and sprang lightly into the saddle. Santo sighed with relief and off we went to short serpentine in the big arena.
On this day, for the first time, we were able to stand with the group and listen to Buck talk at the beginning of the class. Santo yawned frequently, tried to make friends with the horses on either side of us, and generally behaved like a well-mannered child on a school field trip. He was curious, happy, occasionally sleepy, and slightly distracted at times. Best of all, his feet stayed still without any tension or worry. I was ready to redirect him if he needed to move around — but never had to do that.
Throughout class that day, Santo and I practiced bringing his energy up and then easing it back down. During an exercise where two riders pair off and do cow working maneuvers (with one horse being the cow and the other horse being the horse), I got a little over-eager and ramped myself up quite a bit (sadly, this only resulted in inelegant movements and the cardinal sin of outpacing the “cow”). But Santo took it all in stride — becoming full of animation to match my spastic example, but then dialing that energy down immediately when the exercise ended.
Santo had a field day with the cow phase of the class. He watched alertly as Buck roped one of the cows near him — and then relaxed into mellow daydreaming when Buck left our part of the circle. Again, we walked out with Rita and Kate (the wonder cow horse) — and Santo walked into the middle of the cows alone for the first time. He wanted to sniff and even bump the cows with his nose — and he was very pleased when they moved away from him deferentially. The crescendo moment of the clinic came for Santo when he cut a cow from the herd all by himself (with Kate and Rita on the sidelines).
I could feel how happy and proud he was at that moment. Quickly, I steered him to the side — and dismounted him on the spot. As I led him back to his pen, Santo walked as if he felt like a champion.
After I untacked him, I headed back to the arena — after all, I didn’t want to miss the last round of Q&A and Buck’s parting words of wisdom to us. I also wanted to say good-bye to my clinic friends and maybe even get a chance to thank Buck for his help.
As I walked into the spectator area, one of the horses in the arena spooked suddenly. It looked like maybe he was worried about the cows — it was quick, minor episode but it caught my attention. It was near the end of the clinic — and the horses were gathered around Buck while their riders listened to him. I thought about Santo’s behavior in the pen after each day of the clinic. For him, the end of the clinic would be that same experience of anxiety — unless I did something different.
I remembered Buck’s advice on the first day of the clinic — that horses like Santo are a gift to their riders, if the rider will give the horse what he needs (instead of doing what the human would rather do). My personal preference was to sit down and listen to Buck’s final talk — followed by socializing with my fellow clinic riders.
But that’s not what Santo needed.
I looked over my shoulder at the clinic group, sighed, and headed back to Santo’s pen. He was chewing quietly on his alfalfa with soft eyes. My trailer was already hitched — I loaded him right then (alfalfa still in his mouth) and drove home.
When I unloaded Santo at our ranch about an hour later, he was calm and peaceful — and he walked off the trailer feeling like the biggest winner ever.
And that was how his clinic ended….