Week 1: Learning the Ropes
An hour and a half southeast of Denver, Colorado, tucked into rolling prairies, lies Mindy Bower’s Uh-Oh ranch where I arrived, prepared to learn what I could in the month that I was granted to stay there. After a warm welcome that evening by Mindy, Kevin, and their pack of pups, I was given a quick rundown of my expectations to meet and chores to be completed. Throughout my initial tour of the place, the first thing I noticed was the variety of horse pens full of mounts that I would come to know and love.
My first day there, Mindy seemed to be keen on seeing how I could ride and what needed work. So, she instructed me to saddle one of her bridle horses, Chalk. She saddled several others, handed me a flag and gave one instruction; flag them around! Having just stepped on a horse I didn't know, Chalk and I had our differences in opinion but eventually were able to flag her horses any way I pleased with some smoothness. The horses being flagged, with the flag as their guide, made figure 8 patterns and walk-trot-lope transitions all the while they being pretty keen to my horse and I. Once completed, Mindy mentioned several things she saw in my riding, both things that were good and things to work on (which I will delve into later). She also mentioned another scholarship winner would be joining us that day, Megan Schmidt. I had never met Megan before, but she and I would be joined at the hip and be Mindy’s own personal rabble-rousers throughout the Colorado stay, (which is why a lot of the time I write ‘we’ instead of ‘I’).
That same afternoon, Megan arrived and we continued the day with introductions to the horses and each other. Mindy would introduce her horses to us in pairs. Megan and I had this impromptu coin we would flip to decide who rode what, or Mindy would assign us to horses and this was the procedure for every new set of mounts we got to choose from. By the end of my month stay, we each had an arsenal of 7-10 horses at a time.
However one of the few horses we worked on together was Taz, a sweet yet worried quarter horse that needed plenty of ground work. Taz had a lot of nervousness working in vicinity to the human, and this nervousness was reflected in his interactions with other horses. Megan and I both worked on our roping skills from the ground to catch Taz and help show him how to face up to us while doing round pen work. This is where Mindy was able to demonstrate a variety of roping shots more specific to horses that we would use and perfect the rest of our stay there. Mindy also showed us how to incorporate a release to the horse through body language from across the round pen, which takes timing on the human’s part and attention on the horse’s part. Ultimately, the first day of working with Taz proved there is still much more ground work to learn, and there is always a way to improve what I already knew.
Morning and evening chores of that first week allowed Megan and I time to learn all of the dogs names (not an easy task), familiarize ourselves with the flock of sheep, and adjust to our new settings.
Week 2: Branding
With friends coming to town to brand, we really had to buckle down which horses we were going to ride and brand on. I’d ride the string of horses available to me, while Mindy would give feedback on which ones would be the best options.
To feel out the horses we were considering branding on, we would ride them out into Mindy’s dry creek bottom and large pastures. Mindy, Megan, and I would weave around the cows, away from each other, and long trot them outside to see how the horses acclimated to their unfamiliar riders.
Once Mindy’s friends the Dickinson’s came to town, we had a few days of pure fun riding with the family of eight. When the two days of branding rolled around, we had picked our steeds, trailered off the property and then rode out to gather our mooing victims. For this first day of branding, Megan and I wouldn't be roping, so I rode a hefty dun gelding called Charlie. Cowy as could be, and quick to the turn, Charlie was a good choice to help set up shots or hold rodear. Megan and I held the herd while the ropers took shots and completed the job by lunchtime.
The next day though was the exciting one. Megan and I each saddled one of Mindy’s bridle horses, mine was the trusty Chalk. Kevin was in charge of the ropers, so we paid close attention to his instructions and actions. We were instructed to pull our ropes down and have a loop ready, because we were to take the first shots at heels while the header pulled the calf away from the herd. Luckily, we had some handier ropers to instruct us and follow behind us if we missed, and thank the good Lord for that because we might have been there all day if not for Kevin and Aaron. To start, Kevin and his other hands demonstrated what it should look like: a smooth sidearm or hip shot and a graceful catch of two feet followed by a swift ground crew. I definitely didn't look like that, but Chalk and I had some decent loops, and even caught several times. It was great fun and practice to put a use to the hip shot I had been working on, even if it didn't come together every time. The couple times we did catch some heels, I was glad Mindy was there to show me how to comfort the horse, while being a functional heeler. Overall, the branding was the greatest learning experience to have great ropers and ground crew to watch and learn from.
In the midst of all this, other horses still had to be ridden. Mindy would help with the details of my seat and the horse I was overlooking. Almost immediately she noticed a visible reflection of an old injury in my right ankle that affected the way I balanced when moving on a horse. To help this, Mindy suggested dropping my right stirrup just one hole, because my right leg couldn't flex the way my left leg could. As I became more attentive to this, I noticed certain maneuvers weren’t as smooth one side to the other because of the way my leg worked. A gentle horse that emphasized my imbalance was Captain, because of an old injury to his right shoulder, he couldn't accommodate my right leg issue as easily as other horses. Riding Captain, was a great indicator to reflect if my leg was hurting me that day or if my leg was improving.
Mindy also added that not just my leg was being affected by my ankle, but my hip also. This began the long process of becoming aware of, and fixing a hip position to better my seat.
Week 3: Balimo Chair
This interesting lean I would do with my upper body is something that stuck out to Mindy since she first started helping me with my seat. She described it as having my hip tilted forward, instead of feeling both seat bones against the seat of my saddle.
She would keep saying I’ve got to sit on this balimo chair she has. When I finally found the thing, I want you to imagine a plain old padded stool but when you sit on it, you have to be dead center balanced on your seat bones with knees at 90 degrees or you will face plant off the side. The idea was to think of the chair as a clock and be able to sit the hipbone at every hour of the clock. If I could be aware of my hip position in a chair then I could have a chance when in the saddle.
Once Mindy made me aware of how my body liked to sit, I had an idea of how to correct it so I could sit in balance with the horse. One horse in particular was Eddie, a massive red roan gelding who Mindy described as “picky” with how his riders ride him. He and I got along pretty well, but as the balimo chair helped me it certainly changed the way Eddie moved under me.
At first Eddie was a very forward horse that craved collection and advanced movement. I didn’t at first think anything of this, but as Mindy began watching how I rode him, she saw that my position on him was encouraging this forwardness. The angle of my hip was directing him to speed up rather than stay constant, an additional symptom of my hip dysfunction made the left lead difficult with him. So, sitting on the balimo chair Mindy had me practice moving my hip as if to ask Eddie to move out, and then maintaining my hip position as if to ask Eddie to maintain his forward motion. This could be done at any gait, doing any maneuver, at any speed, because of how essential the hip position is to maintaining consistency in the horse.
The better I could feel the position of my seat, and particularly be able to keep it square in my saddle, Eddie would collect his body under me, while maintaining more consistency in his motion. The more I practiced on my seat bones, the more maneuvers I could perform with Mindy’s horses because they are so in tune to feeling the cues of the human’s seat.
Additionally as Mindy helped me advance my seat, it changed the way I would ask my horses for maneuvers. From her younger horses, to her mature saddle horses I could ride them all a little better, even by just being aware of my seat bones and working to improve my hip angle. I could sit through fast turns on cows better, or maintain more accurate control in moving the hind quarters. Lope transitions, and simple lead changes improved to the point where they only took stride or two to complete. My side passes improved immensely, and all the horses I rode would come together more easily underneath me.
Even though I could tell I wasn’t perfect, because habits like this don’t fix themselves in a month, the horses knew I was trying and so they would try for me in return. Seeing the difference in the pictures over the course of learning about my hip made me eager to push this newfound success to starting a colt. I was interested to see how introducing a horse to more balanced seat bones could change the results in the horse.
Week 4: Colt Starting
My final week with Mindy at Uh-Oh Ranch was a remarkable week of change, both in myself and the horses I was riding. Specifically, there were two colts that Mindy was able to get for Megan and I to start, Comfort and Jubilee. Our well-used coin was flipped and I ended up with the mare, Comfort. She was little, but a stunning orange sorrel Morgan with a white mane and tail, (Jubilee looked the same, just smaller). Comfort was all around a pretty easy horse to work with, and because of that Mindy made sure I was still very thorough and no corners were cut with the pretty filly. Mindy was there every moment we worked them through ground work, flags, and saddling, pointing out details of each item that were essential for a successful first ride.
Particularly, Mindy had me focus on several small details in Comfort that I was thankful for after I had my first ride with the filly. Although her hind end on both sides was pretty smooth, Comfort was hesitant to turn her head loose to me on her left side, because the human spends most of their time on the left side of the horse, so they aren’t always soft on the left. Mindy had me practice the groundwork, gently yet religiously asking Comfort to get softer on her left side, while maintaining a respectful distance with her front feet.
It then became clear to me, how the filly’s brace in her head connected to the inflexibility in her front end. Which I believe Mindy had told me, but of course I didn't hear it until I really began to see it in Comfort. As her head became softer, she was more willing to take her front to change directions instead of stumbling over her own legs. She became more fluid as the stiffness was slowly eased out of her, and it could be seen in the ease that her feet moved.
Mindy then presented me with another challenge, which was the successive step to the ground work maneuver. Once Comfort got her hind, and changed direction with her front, the trick was to keep moving her front around as if it was a turn on the hindquarters from the ground. At first, every ounce of brace in the filly’s neck came back, because I had always released after one step previously. But now, it really took some life in my body to achieve these reaching steps. Fast-forward to after I had gotten to her feet, it was clear how these additional steps with the front end had completely changed her softness on the lead rope. The twinge of stiffness that was once there on her left side, was far less that I had experienced thus far, and the better Comfort got with her front end, the more this dissipated. Mindy was again right about how much the front end affected the balance of a horse, and ultimately how the horse felt emotionally.
So, just as my injured stiff ankle created a poorly balanced hip position, Comfort’s stiffness in her neck created a poorly balanced reaching foot. Once a little time is taken to help the braces, the balance will follow.
The next step was the first rides. Comfort took to it with ease, and although her lateral flexions on her left side were not perfect to begin with, all the work on the ground soon paid off, as she became equally soft left and right. Walk, trot, canter transitions were a breeze with my new knowledge of hip position from riding Eddie, and soon we were ready to ride out of the round pen and down into the dry creek bottom.
Mindy loved the creek bottom for colts because of the deep sand and relatively straight path. The horses could run as hard as they wanted while adjusting to riders moving with them, and the sand would make it a difficult, yet safe workout. Riding our colts in halters outside was a first for me, let alone on the third or fourth rides, but I was excited for my little steed.
Down to the riverbed we went, with Mindy on a horse as well to keep a close eye on us. Starting slowly at the trot and working up to an athletic run, the colts were putting out a lot of energy to run in the deep sand and I could immediately see why Mindy loved this creek bottom. Although sand was embedded on every inch of my pony and I, Comfort really got the chance to read off of my seat for when to stop, go, turn, and slow down. I felt that the experience helped Comfort put a lot of confidence in herself and me while she was able to really get moving.
The next couple rides on Comfort were the days before I was to leave Uh-Oh Ranch. She was, for a colt with four rides, very light off my legs and hands. I put her into a snaffle bit and enjoyed the small successes of her transitions in the arena, knowing she had a strong foundation in the dry creek bottom.
Overall, my experience at Mindy’s has been incredible. I had never previously had the opportunity to ride that many different horses, and to be able to advance myself in the process. Mindy was an absolute joy to learn from, and anyone would be hard pressed to find a harder working horsewoman. I came away with a whole new knowledge of my personal strengths, habits, and a toolkit to help the process of fixing them. Thank you to Mindy Bower and the Legacy of Legends for the great experience in Colorado!