Ranching Blog: More and Less

"Do Less to Get More" - a motto to live by.

Out with my horse DX Jurassic Classic ("Dino") and ranch dog, Dally.

This year’s rodeo season has been a great learning experience. Some runs were better than others from the perspective of the clock, some runs better than others from the perspective of me and my horse. I’m struck by how these two don’t seem to coincide more often. During those times, it is challenging to remind myself that my horse doesn’t care about winning or losing, and has no concept of time as it relates to performance. Regardless of the clock, he remains a favorite mount when it comes to working on the ranch here at home.

After a rodeo trip out West, I found myself in one of those contemplative moments as I was riding my horse around in the barn. “Avie” was a little stiff at the outset of that ride, so I thought I’d do some slow work to see if he loosened up a bit. Thankfully, he did. Zach, my other half,  saw me working on that feel, and after seeing him soften to the snaffle bit I was using said, “That looks a little better. Come here.” He handed me my bridle bit and said, “Try this for a while.”

I imagine he was probably sending me some sort of cryptic message about life that will seem clear when I think about it later. However, the lesson of the day was this: Sometimes you use more to get by with less.

We’ve all seen horses in a bridle (what we describe as a fixed mouthpiece with a long shank). They are often referred to as a leverage bit. Sometimes when things get to going fast, we’ve seen those mouths open trying to find the release. I’ve ridden more than a few horses in a bridle of one form or another, however I find myself drawn toward a model that’s described as the old Californio, Vaquero or Buckaroo tradition. I think it has its origins in Spain, or maybe even with the Moors in the Middle East.

What draws me to this particular bridle-horse methodology (my bit has a San Joaquin mouthpiece) is the level of refinement that it brings. That leverage bit is also at the very same time a tool of refinement, an implement for getting so much more, with so much less; almost to the point of invisible communication.

I’d never even thought of putting my bridle on Avie; as I’m a firm believer that you should be able to do everything you need to do horseback with your snaffle bit before seeking refinement in other equipment. Regardless, I relented to Zach’s suggestion, and off we went. A legendary horseman I admire once said something to the effect of, “You could ride him in the bridle from the beginning if you’re willing to wait for him to figure it out.”

That’s what horsemanship is about – setting it up so the horse learns to think his way through whatever it is we’re asking. If we give them time to think, they’ll learn it. We won’t need to micromanage them.

As we visited during the ride, Zach said, “If you think you’re doing just the right amount, do less. If he opens his mouth you’re doing too much. Find the line and use it.” And “When you think you’ve found it, do less, so that he can think his way through what you’re asking. Don’t give him the answer by doing more.”

There is really more than one lesson in that ride, and they’ve really got me to thinking about how I can better ride this horse and all the others in my string. What I’ve gathered from that day’s ride is this:

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to try. If you don’t try and fail, you’re never going to progress.
Lesson 2: If you can feel it, you’re not the only one, so you can probably get by with less.
Lesson 3: Be in the moment, be thoughtful and feel your way through it.

As Tom, Ray, Buck and others have tried to share with us, these principles are universal and not just about horses. This day was no exception. I’ll quite likely use that bridle on Avie when he gets the call to gather cattle or work on the ranch this fall – so long as I’m certain I can find the line between too much and just enough. That line combined with all the ranch work, should lead to a better rodeo season in 2019.

Jenn Zeller is an aspiring horseman, photographer,freelance writer, barrel racer and collector of horses and chickens.  She resides in South Dakota on The DX Ranch, a third generation cattle ranch where the family raises Angus and Brangus cows as well as Quarter Horses. Contact her at jennifer@thesouthdakotacowgirl.com

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