The world lost Mary Seymour on January 15, 2015; her obituary can be read here. Those of us who knew and loved Mary, whether as a family member, colleague, friend, or as a reader of her eloquent and inspiring writing, will miss her forever but we are so very grateful for the life and beauty she brought into the world. A public celebration of her life will be held on March 14, 2015.
Thanks to Jane Hester, our resident obstacle course builder and groundplay maestro, we now have a bridge teeter-totter at Flintrock Farm. She ordered the plans from Horses Just Wanna Have Fun, then bought the materials at Lowe’s. Eleazar, who works at Flintrock, built the teeter-totter.
We humans love the contraption; our horses have differing opinions of it. Some walk across it without a flinch, weathering the downward trajectory without a hint of alarm. Others won’t go near it, eyeing the teeter-totter as if it were a fire-breathing dragon. Most are willing to put a hoof or two on it, then scuttle away when things get tippy.
I assumed Mystic would be fine with the teeter-totter since he’s relatively phlegmatic about obstacles and crosses bridges easily. “Should I just ride Mystic across it?” I asked Kate. She looked at me with a startled expression; the subtext was Are you crazy? Diplomatically, she said, “I think it would be best to practice on the ground.”
Indeed. Turns out Mystic is not entirely stoic about teeter-totters. After a great deal of flicking the stick and string at his hindquarters, I got him to walk across it. When the bridge teetered, he sped up and flew off. After that experience, he was unwilling to cross it again. I had no patience for his sissy reaction: He did it once, he could do it again. I hounded him nonstop; again and again, he balked. I flicked the string with increasing force and speed. He balked all the more.
Annoyed and frustrated, I asked James for help.
“The important thing is to give him time,” James said. “You need to slow everything down. And make sure he gets a release whenever he makes progress.”
He gently urged Mystic to put one foot on the bridge. “There,” James said as soon as the hoof touched the wood. “Now I give him comfort.” He gave a quick, soft stroke to Mystic’s neck.
“And now it’s time for some pressure.” James flicked the stick and string at Mystic’s hindquarters, asking him to step his other front foot onto the bridge.
And so the process went, slowly, painstakingly, with gentle, steady pressure punctuated by moments of rest and reward. Mystic teetered and tottered and stepped off the other side with grace and dignity. This time he wasn’t flustered or hurried; that’s the difference when due process is given.
I felt ashamed at how I’d tried to hustle Mystic across, obsessing about my goal and forgetting the core natural horsemanship principle of pressure and release. I had applied pressure without release. No wonder Mystic had balked. I had done to him what I too often do to myself.
I took away a few big lessons that day, ones that I have to remind myself of again and again. Focus on the process, not the goal. Reward the slightest try. And, most of all, be kind to yourself and your horse because you are both learning. Together.
My parents, Polly and Thaddeus Seymour, are not what you would call horse people. They tend to think of horses as large and dangerous (ask about our family trail ride in Colorado in 1965 and they’ll say my sister nearly died)—but they are consummate parents. They always take an interest in what their children care about. Since I’m crazy about James and Kate Cooler and natural horsemanship, my parents are big fans too.
To show their support of Cooler Horsemanship, my parents decided to help sponsor James’ Wild Card colt, Gus. James and Gus will compete in the Wild Card competition of Road to the Horse 2015. If they win, James will take part in a world-class colt-starting competition with three-time Road to the Horse winner Chris Cox and last year’s winner, Jim Anderson. Let’s rephrase that: When James and Gus win.
A couple of weeks ago my parents came to Greensboro for a family visit. The agenda included time with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—and meeting their equine protege, Gus. On a sunny Friday afternoon my parents and I headed out to Flintrock Farm to watch James and Gus strut their stuff. They showed perfect partnership, trotting, loping, and jumping as easily as if they’d been doing it together for a dozen years. James rode Gus without a bridle or halter, moving around the arena with elegant grace. My parents clapped and commented on how confident and easy the two looked together.
Afterward Gus visited with my parents, nuzzling them as if to say, “Hey, thanks for making all this happen.” I saw my father bond with Gus—two rangy, gray-haired males standing Roman nose to Roman nose—and caught true delight in his expression. The man who never thought twice about horses was clearly smitten with this one.
Now when my parents call, one of their first questions is, “How’s Gus?” It’s as if he’s a member of the family—a cool cousin we’re all in awe of, with a shot at becoming a superstar. We talk about his power and promise, and how exciting it will be when he steps into the arena at the Kentucky Horse Park on March 26, 2015.
Whatever else unfolds that day, one thing is for certain: an 80-something couple from Florida will be cheering for Gus and James with all their hearts.
A Note from Thaddeus Seymour
What fun it has been to learn about natural horsemanship, especially by watching James and Kate work their magic at Flintrock Farm.
We have not been horse people, I confess. It’s a long way down from the back of a horse, and the prospect of falling always seemed as risky as sky-diving or mountain-climbing. I even felt apprehension patting a horse’s forehead, sure that my hand could disappear with one good snap. Horses are BIG!
But then — getting to know Mystic, watching James and Kate at work, following “The Road to the Horse” — all these experiences have been pure revelation. Polly and I watched every minute of the 2013 competition and felt deprived when it was not live streamed in 2014.
We all know the phrase “poetry in motion.” Now I have seen it, felt it, and I have been inspired by its sheer wonder and beauty.
Polly and I have been so happy to be able to help James work with Gus. We have watched Gus with admiration, indeed amazement. He and James are such talented, smart, responsive partners, with a perfect and mutual understanding of both motion and poetry.
To watch James and Gus together is an affirmation of the natural bond between all living creatures, which is what “natural horsemanship” is all about.
There’s only one Buck Brannaman, for sure. This legendary horseman, featured in the documentary Buck, held a clinic in North Carolina in mid-October. I headed to Sullivan Farm in Walkertown on a rainy Sunday afternoon to audit Horsemanship I. The riders—all 21 of them—had each paid $700 for 12 hours of instruction. I got off lightly with a $30 auditor’s fee.
It was worth every penny just to hear Buck’s unexpurgated take on horses and people–with expletives reserved for people and the stupid things they do to horses. “As you know, I don’t really hold back much,” he offered. You don’t say.
The students, like their horses, represented a wide variety of breeds, sizes, and ages. All used snaffle bits and most rode with western saddles, although a few English riders were in the mix. Some riders had a soft and gentle touch, while others kicked their horses and pulled hard on the reins. The horses’ affect ranged from nervous and high-headed to relaxed and willing. More than a few chewed anxiously at their bits throughout the clinic.
Buck began the session by fielding questions while sitting on a red roan in training. His answers turned into ruminations and anecdotes, like the time his sister-in-law called about a horse that refused jumps. Buck advised her to leg yield the horse in circles around the jump and then take him over it; that way the jump would be a release from the pressure of all those circles. She called him back two weeks later to say he was a genius, which he aw-shucked but did not entirely deny.
“When it’s the horse’s idea, it’s not a big thing,” Buck pointed out. “When it’s your idea—well, good luck with that.”
He spoke about the need to synchronize flexion with movement: “If you have one without the other, it ain’t worth three rotten eggs.” He emphasized the importance of fully engaging your horse, which in turn brings elevation. Raised withers, he said, are a sign of elevation and engagement.
Buck also talked about lightness. “Right behind the bridle and right ahead of my leg—that’s where the lightness is found. To have the horse centered between the snaffle bit and the withers—that’s true balance. I look for that perfect place in the middle, and then I get out of the way.”
When Buck demonstrated drifting his horse laterally with leg pressure behind the girth, a student mentioned that, according to the dressage protocol she’d learned, the inside leg should be forward. Buck paused a moment, then spoke with cutting clarity. “Well, let’s just clear this up. I don’t give a shit what they say.”
He talked with equal vehemence about the unimportance of categories. “I don’t give a fat rat’s ass what you call yourselves—jumper, dressage, hunter, western pleasure—it’s all about you how you interact with the horse. Don’t get so damn cranial that you forget about riding and feeling the horse. Most of the stuff you need to learn, you can’t get in a book, because it’s feel and it’s timing. F-E-E-L. You can read it a million times and still not have any.”
After an hour of talking, Buck assigned a sequence of riding exercises.
1) Ride your horse as slowly as possibly without stopping. Slow your body down and act like you have less energy while riding—if your horse doesn’t slow with you, follow through with the reins. Your horse should feel as if he’s walking on eggs without breaking them. Keep your horse walking slowly until you feel lightness.
2) Stop your horse by using your seat. Back him up until he’s light.
3) Flex your horse so that he moves just one foot, remembering that every turn starts with a reach.
4) Back up your horse until his left front leg and right hind leg are back. Ask him to spring into a lope to the left; keep him going until you get a soft feel, then bring the energy down. For a lope to the right, back him until his right front leg and left hind leg are back, then ask for a springy lope. Through this process, you are bringing his energy up and asking him to “lope toward peace.”
As students followed the drills, Buck mostly observed. He made a positive comment here (“Looks like you have a light touch with your mule”) , an observation there (“Your toes are pointing straight down”), and an occasional sharp remonstrance (“Whoa, you just did a damn barrel rider’s turn—now why on earth would you do that?”). He ruled the arena with his flinty-yet-warm presence, watchful for human transgressions against their mounts.
Even though I stood in light rain for three hours, craning my neck to see inside the arena, time flew past. I found the experience simultaneously humbling and enlightening; Buck’s extraordinary skills and knowledge made me despair at my own inadequacies while also sending me daydreaming about horsemanship possibilities. If only I had the know-how. If only I had the F-E-E-L. Instead of getting discouraged, however, I’ve decided to apply Buck’s words about a horse’s progress to my own slow learning curve: “I don’t care where the horse starts off. I don’t care if he’s’s bucking. That’s no big deal. It’ll go away eventually. I just care where the horse finishes at the end of the day.”
Every couple of months I stop at the Summerfield Feed Mill to pick up flax seed, which goes in Mystic’s grain along with MSM to keep his joints supple. Pulling into the feed store parking lot takes me back to an earlier era—one that I don’t even remember, except through postcards and old Sears Roebuck catalogs. If you cup your hands around your eyes, blocking out modern vehicles and power lines, you could be time traveling back to 1952.
Clearly this is not a corporate-owned business or a big box store. It’s been in the family for decades, without a lot of updating along the way. The interior is dark and dusty, with feed bags scattered in uncategorized piles. One lengthy wall is devoted entirely to rakes. When I ask for ten pounds of flax seed, a rumpled gray-haired man says, “I remember you: you’re the flax lady with the horse. He must not eat a lot because you don’t come by here much.”
He scoops flax from an unmarked grain sack onto a rusty hanging scale, then tips the contents into a paper grocery bag. Ten dollars. At the health food store, a pound of flax seed costs five dollars. I pay by credit card—surprisingly, the store accepts plastic—and pause on the porch to admire a trampoline-size squash in the back of a pickup truck.
A couple of grizzled men in baseball caps lounge by the truck, looking like they have all day to talk about the squash’s ample qualities.
I stroll toward them, my bag of flax tucked under my arm. “How big?”
“Nine hundred and six pounds,” says a woman in a peach-colored top. She sounds justifiably proud.
There are further mysteries to contemplate: How did they get the squash in the truck? What will they do with it? How did it get so big?
But I need to move along to Flintrock Farm, Mystic, and his well-oiled senior joints. The mystery of the giant squash will become part of the considerable mystique of the Summerfield Feed Mill, which could be a figment of the Coen brothers’ imagination. But it’s for real. Go see for yourself, and pick up a rake while you’re there. (Summerfield Feed Mill, 7210 Summerfield Road, Summerfield, NC, 336-643-4776).
I try not to have too many regrets in life, but one has been haunting me since August. I regret that I missed Gus and Deuce’s visit to Elsewhere, a museum set inside a thrift store in downtown Greensboro, on August 23.
One of Elsewhere’s visiting artists envisioned bringing horses to the museum to see how they would interact with the environment. She put out a request for horses, which made its way to James Cooler. He figured spending time in a close-quartered museum would be a good desensitization exercise for the horses, not to mention an adventure. So he and Kate loaded their Quarter horses Gus and Deuce on the trailer and brought them from Flintrock Farm to 606 South Elm Street. The sight of two horses downtown caused a minor ruckus—a reminder that what’s common in the country is a phenomenon in the city.
According to James and Kate, Deuce was a bit skittish upon entering Elsewhere, but he settled down once he got used to the space. Gus was his usual bombproof self. They both took a shine to the stuffed animals, especially Elmo and Alf. Click here to read an account of the day on Elsewhere’s blog.
The outing included a delicious “horse-pitality” platter with sweet potato roots, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables.
The Elsewhere visit was not only whimsical but practical: Gus and James will be competing in the Wild Card competition at Road the Horse 2015, which means they’ll be facing a cheering crowd of thousands, bright lights, booming music, a tough obstacle course, and competitive jitters. There’s no way to fully prepare for this immersion experience, but a couple of hours inside a thrift-store-turned-museum surely counts for something.
My horse, Mystic, is a mystery in many ways. I have no idea when or where he was born, exactly how old he is, and what his life was like before I first set eyes on him in 2008.
One piece of the mystery is now solved thanks to Dr. Gus Cothran, director of the Animal Genetics Laboratory at Texas A&M University.
A couple of months ago I did some internet searching on horse DNA testing. I learned about Dr. Cothran’s lab, which offers DNA genotyping for identification, parentage verification, and determination of gene mutations in animals. I e-mailed Dr. Cochran, who sent me instructions for submitting a DNA sample.
Per the instructions, I plucked about 50 hairs—including root follicles—from Mystic’s tail, taped them to a form I filled out, and sent it to the laboratory along with a check for $25.
While I waited for the results, I speculated on what they might be. A number of people thought Mystic might have some Andalusian in him. I thought there might be Quarter horse and possibly Arabian in his lineage.
But it was all guess work, since he was a paperless horse.
About two weeks after I sent Mystic’s hair samples to Texas, a white envelope arrived in the mail, with Dr. Cothran’s return address on it.
I opened it with curiosity and a little hesitation. By knowing Mystic’s heritage, I could no longer let my imagination run wild. Some of the mystery would be gone.
The results took me by surprise.
My research on British warmbloods yielded the following information:
The British warmblood is a mix between hot-blooded breeds (like the Arabian and thoroughbred) and cold-blooded breeds (most draft breeds). They may carry bloodlines of any approved breed, as long as they meet the requirements of the type.
Uses The British warmblood can be used in all traditional English disciplines (dressage, show jumping and eventing).
Height Average is above 16 hands high.
Conformation There are no distinct characteristics, though most horses have the typical warmblooded build.
Colors All colors are accepted, with the exception of perlino and cremello.
As for Brazilian breeds, I learned there were a number of them:
- Brazilian sport horse
- Mangalarga Marchador
- Pampas horse
I checked out each breed and decided Mangalarga Marchador looked the most like Mystic. The Marchador is the national breed of Brazil and has a royal history:
In 1807 Napoleon invaded Portugal, forcing Portugal’s Royal Family to flee to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. They took their best horses with them–Andalusians from the Royal Alter Stud Farm. One young stallion named “Sublime” went to the Baron of Aldenas, owner of the Brazilian breeding farm, Campo Alegre. The stallion was bred to local gaited mares of Spanish Jennet and Barb blood and produced offspring with a smooth rhythmic gait.
Of course, I have no way of knowing if Mystic has Marchador in him.
It’s nice to know that science still leaves a little room for imagination.
For more information on genotyping or to submit a DNA sample of your horse, contact:
Dr. E. Gus Cothran, Ph.D.
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843 USA
Phone: (979) 845-0229
Fax: (979) 847-8981