In-Hand Harmony

Cowgirl Dreams

“What if I fall?”

“But oh, my darling, what if you fly!”

— Erin Hanson

I can’t tell you how many times in the past ten years I’ve thought about giving up. Earlier this year, as I was chatting with a friend over coffee and feeling hopeless, she said to me, “Well, you could just find a nice large pasture with a herd, retire Tobias and get yourself a new horse.” By that evening, I was sobbing on my husband’s shoulder. Maybe it was time to let go of my dreams, but I just couldn’t imagine what else I would do.

Maybe I was just asking too much from Tobias, my 16-year-old bay Appendix gelding. He had been through a lot since his colic surgery and fractured withers — not to mention his kissing spine. Over the past two years, I’d exercised him in hand, he received regular body work, and then we gradually got back to riding. The vets and trainers proclaimed him completely rehabilitated and sound. Tobias’ topline looked better than it had in years. His diet, allergies, nutrition, feet and saddle fit had been attended to. Even so, other than playing at liberty, I just couldn’t seem to rekindle his enthusiasm and athleticism.

Perhaps I was just stoking the wrong fire.

Tobias, Meet A Cow — Cow, Meet Tobias

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“The Opposition” — 13 Corrientes brought in for the clinic. (Photo by Katie Drake)

A couple years ago, we signed up for a cow sorting clinic with a friend and her steady, reliable older horse, “Lips”. Tobias seemed to really dig it. The cattle at Spruce Mountain Open Space certainly got Tobias’ attention. Before I could find anyone to teach us more about it, Tobias colicked and any thoughts of cow working were put on hold. Then last year, when we were riding again, I tried to sign up for lessons with Ty Webber, a local trainer and farrier who has cattle and an easy manner about him, but beyond telephone tag we never managed to get together.

This year, I was determined to regain lost ground. I drove my trail riding friends nuts in early January making plans for clinics and trail rides. But nothing seemed to be taking hold.

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A couple of days into the Trevor Carter clinic. (Photo by Katie Drake)

Browsing FaceBook (blush!) later in the spring, I saw that Tia Jones had signed up for a Trevor Carter “Ranch Cow Working Clinic” in Ault, Colorado. Then a trail riding friend of mine, Deb, said that she had seen Trevor at a Parelli Summit and was really impressed with him… Hmmm. I admit I was a little intimidated. Other than auditing, we hadn’t attended a full-on clinic in several years. Tobias doesn’t always do well in groups with his large “bubble”. I didn’t know anyone else that was going except for Tia, whom I’d just recently met, and — while it might be a well-kept secret — I’m actually a bit of an introvert and require a lot of personal space myself… in addition to control of that space. I didn’t know a thing about Trevor Carter. I wasn’t sure if I was physically up for a clinic let alone if Tobias was. The clinic was pretty expensive and I’d have to save up for it plus the lodging expense. To say the least, it was all out of our comfort zones. Afraid I might lose my nerve or think up more excuses, I signed up and paid my deposit almost immediately.

“When the student is ready, the master appears.” — author unknown

A confirmation email included links to the member side of the Carter Ranch Horse website where videos of Trevor provided exercises to help prepare for the clinic. I spent the next couple months practicing, making lists, trail riding and getting more and more excited for the clinic. Our practice involved attaching a lariat to a fence line and yielding the fore- and hindquarters while at the same time navigating 45-feet of rope, plus circling a mounting block with the lariat attached to it.

Our mare kicked Tobias in the foreleg a week before we were to leave. Our vet checked him out and did radiographs to be sure he would be sound. Then two days before the clinic, Tia had to cancel. I’d be staying for five days in a place where I didn’t know a soul and wouldn’t have my husband as a buffer. Maybe these were signs we shouldn’t go…

Let The Games Begin

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Clinic attendees and Trevor Carter. Cath third from left, Trevor fourth. Cattle behind. (Photo by Katie Drake.)

Silly me, I was expecting street numbers, balloons and a “Clinic Here!” sign. After what turned into a three-hour drive, Tobias and I arrived around noon in Ault, Colorado, the day before the clinic was to begin. Having driven past several unmarked driveways, or driveways with “NO TRESPASSING!” signs and my GPS being of no help, I resorted to calling Nate Bowers for directions. Nate told me to look for the large, covered arena up the hill and the driveway with two trees. That made it easy, those two scraggly trees were the only ones I could see for miles in any direction.

Dinner was scheduled for 7 o’clock that evening, so we had plenty of time to settle in. The rest of the attendees arrived around 6:30 p.m. So around 8 o’clock, we assembled for a delicious dinner prepared by Trevor, Tara Carter (Trevor’s wife) and Lyndsey Fitch. Both of these women were down-to-earth and easy to be with. Just meeting the two of them made me feel more at ease.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast casserole and fresh fruit prepared by Peggy Bowers (the clinic was hosted by Nate and Amy Bowers in partnership with Burd Ranch) seven riders and horses assembled in the arena at 9:00 a.m. with Trevor Carter.

Trevor Carter showing us how it's done.

Trevor Carter showing us how it’s done. (Photo by Katie Drake.)

Trevor asked us how our stops and backups were. I thought ours were pretty good and sat quietly on Tobias’ back wondering how much we’d get out of this clinic. Let me explain something right here: when you’re working with cattle, you are constantly in motion. There are no “stops”, only re-balancing. Then we practiced turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches. After that, we seldom did another turn on the fore. Working cattle, you are always re-balancing on the hind to prepare for the next move. And if you pause to even think about it, you are too late. Tobias and I had never moved like this together and had a bit of practice to do.

Tobias' back up felt pretty good to me.

Tobias’ back up felt pretty good to me. (Photo by Katie Drake.)

Eating Humble Pie

Going into the clinic, I had expressed my goals to Trevor along with the request that he give me feedback whether I solicited it or not (Tara didn’t think that would be a problem). So while we were all in the arena one morning, he pointed out to me that if I wanted my horse to be more of a participant I needed to stop micro-managing him (I’m sure Trevor’s choice of words was more diplomatic, but that’s how I remember it).

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Cath getting advice from Trevor Carter. (Photo by Katie Drake.)

Here are a few examples:

  1. If Tobias wanted to go back to the gate, let him. Let him know that I understand and acknowledge his request. But don’t just walk, gallop back to the gate and while there, allow my string to become an annoying fly. Upon turning to rejoin the group, leave him alone and let him find comfort. Tobias lost his interest in the gate pretty quickly — without my ignoring or arguing with his request.
  2. While trotting and cantering in the arena during our turn tracking a cow, Trevor had me give Tobias the full reins — using just one hand on the buckle and pommel, while pretending to swing a rope with the other hand — thus getting my hands out of Tobias’ mouth, asking him to take more responsibility and listen to just my legs.
  3. My legs are dropping too far back and tipping me forward. Keep my legs closer to the girth.
  4. Allow Tobias to spend progressively more time being tied either with the Blocker tie ring or looping his lead line around a rail. This will help him overcome some of his claustrophobic/pulling back issues.

I awoke at 5:30 each morning to feed Tobias and shovel manure. Breakfast was around 7:30 a.m. Being July in Colorado, the mornings were dry and cool, but by 10:00 a.m. each day it was close to 90 degrees. We were in the saddle eight to nine hours each day. As one of the minority wearing a helmet, a added a bandana to my forehead to keep the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Tobias was dry at the end of each day, but his saddle pad and the ends of his hairs were crusted with white salt from his sweat.

Even with drinking the Gatorade and water I kept handy in my saddle bag, on the afternoon of the second day I quit early because my legs were cramping too badly to ride. I was so exhausted in the evenings, I had trouble even staying up late enough to join the group for dinner, or finding the ability to form words on the phone with my husband. I didn’t journal, I didn’t take notes, I didn’t do yoga. All my life, I’ve been a night person but I suppose the heat, intense activity, adrenalin and learning saturation — along with being nearly 55 years old — had me asleep as soon as I lay my head on my pillow. I found myself envying the stamina of another participant (an endurance rider) who had driven eight hours from Pagosa Springs, rode all day every day alternating between the two horses she brought… and she was 64 years old!

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Tobias finding his muse. (Photo by Katie Drake.)

At the end of the day, tireless Trevor came into the lodge, got down on all fours and became a bucking bronc for his two young sons, William and Philip. Trevor’s playfulness added a lot to our experience. He had a great sense of humor, remembered every detail of everything that happened or was said, and played it back for you to make everything relevant to your personal experience. I can’t remember the last time I was so challenged, expanded our comfort zones so much, and had such Crazy Fun! Tobias was AWESOME (and I hardly ever use that word). I learned that he can get into a gallop — in an arena or out on the open plains — at a moment’s notice (which we had NEVER done!), stop, back up, do a 180 turn and be ready to go again.

Tobias wasn’t even close to being ready to retire!

Carrying A Heavy Load

“Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” — Bill Keane

I think all the participants arrived with some type of baggage — from the unknown history of a rescue horse, to a rider who suffered a concussion recently after coming off hers. My current, personal baggage was the fear Tobias would colic again. Knowing that, I soaked his hay the week prior to leaving to be sure he arrived hydrated and supplemented the electrolytes in his grain rations once the clinic began. Even so, I worried over his intake of feed and output of urine and manure for the first couple days. One of the other riders asked me, “With the heat and adjusting to the demands of the clinic, isn’t your input and output low?” Well, duh, it sure was. When Tobias got more regular, I was so relieved I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Avoiding Cow Pies

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Photo by Katie Drake.

With all of Trevor’s safety precautions, and checking in with each of us repeatedly throughout each day to be sure we were comfortable with the next progression of activities, we still had a few upsets. A rider came off her horse when he spooked at a jack rabbit, and at nearly the same time another came off across the pasture. Fortunately, no one was injured beyond their pride.

I almost came off twice. Once — when we galloped across the arena and Tobias noticed a fake bull just outside the enclosure’s panels with a lariat thrown over it — he ducked out, making a 90-degree turn to the left. Although I felt as if my legs were a wishbone at Thanksgiving, fortunately we continued to travel together in the same direction.

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Cath and Dave (not the participant who cut me off) doing their best to keep a cow from entering their rodear. (Photo by Katie Drake.)

The second time, we were after a cow. Trevor had us taking turns cutting cattle out of the rodear (a group of cattle held by riders instead of being held by a corral) and, although I’d witnessed a teammate ride unsuccessfully through the middle of the rodear, I chose to do the same thing and had the door shut in front of us by another rider. Tobias stopped dead in his tracks and my body went forward and out of the saddle. I remember thinking to myself how much I hate hitting the ground and quickly threw my arms around Tobias’ muscled neck, jerked my foot loose from the stirrups and landed on my feet. Pissed off at myself for what happened, I gesticulated at the closest rider in frustration. This was later appreciated as a show of aplomb and panache. Little did they know.

Lesson Two: Avoid Repetition of Lesson One

“The only way out is always through.” — Robert Frost

Later, I asked Lyndsey Fitch (who, I believe, was present both as a participant and as an assistant to Trevor) to replay the scenario above. Tobias had been intimidated by another horse when he stopped in his tracks. I needed to help him be more confident and assertive.

So Tobias and I trotted off in the opposite direction from Lyndsey, backed up, did a 180-degree turn and trotted back to her, where she would turn and face us. When I struggled to get any impulsion facing another horse, Lyndsey noticed that I was leaning forward in my attempts to encourage him, thus jeopardizing my balance and getting in his way. By simply planting my butt in the saddle, and even leaning slightly back, Tobias moved out much better. Along with being the ideal teammate, Lyndsey was also a perfect compliment to Trevor with her suggestions and help throughout the clinic.

Positive People = Positive Experiences

While I’m talking about people, Tara Carter is evidently also an accomplished horsewoman, managed the advance communications and logistics of the clinic, managed their two adorable little boys, and helped me with my night’s preparation of dinner in Tia’s absence. (Since the nearest town was some distance away, we all took turns preparing one evening meal.) I just loved the whole Carter family!

Keeping It Fun

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Photo by Katie Drake.

The final day of the clinic, after our routine of checking fencelines, looking for holes, counting and sorting cattle, and looking for any lame cattle, Trevor introduced us to a game of soccer… with cattle. Over the course of the clinic, we’d learned how to drive and direct a herd, how to walk through a herd, and how to cut one cow out of a rodear as a group and individually. After cutting out the beef cattle from our herd and taking them over to the water trough, Trevor separated the eight of us (including Trevor) into two teams. Lyndsey was on our team and Trevor was on the other. Then we separated a small herd of 13 Corriente roping steers (with horns!) into two groups and took them a distance apart. Each team needed to keep their herd together — no cows were to leave our herd and no other cows were to enter our herd.

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Photo by Katie Drake.

Then, we each took turns with the goal of cutting one cow from our herd, driving it across the field and encouraging it to join the other herd. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, once we reached a randomly-determined amount of progress toward those goals, Trevor would send out a goalie to defend their herd from reintroduction, and to attempt to drive the cow back into the originating herd. When it was my turn and I thought I was doing a pretty good job, Trevor assigned himself as my opposition…

“You little snot!” was the phrase my grandmother used with me on occasion, and I found myself flinging it at Trevor as we each maneuvered the cow to our own advantage. While Trevor was being pretty aggressive and pushing the boundaries of our abilities, there’s no question that he was holding back quite a bit, and at the same time he was coaching me on what to do next. And then … he let me win. I felt like a rock star!


My biggest concern on the last day as we all shared our thoughts at the lunch break was, “Where do I go from here?” I was grinning from ear to ear for four days. My jaws, along with the rest of my body, ached for a week after I got home. Stepping out of our usual comfort zone, taking progressive risks, laughing with joy and just the straight up adrenalin rush of going fast made me feel incredibly alive in every fiber of my being.

Yet, throughout the clinic, I stumbled upon obstacles of what I saw as conflicting information I had learned from other clinicians. There were some pretty significant differences between what I’d been taught in classical riding versus riding with Trevor and cattle. There were also some differences with natural horsemanship clinicians. My brain was setting up roadblocks I needed to clear away before returning home.

When I asked, Trevor always acknowledged the value of other trainers’ theories and techniques. I had spent the last few years retraining my hips, legs and feet for “heels away” in classical riding. Working cattle, I needed my heels and spurs ready at the girth to quickly reinforce leg cues. Similar to having different languages to speak in different countries, I would simply need to use different strategies for different occasions. I had also been unwilling to find a “firm as necessary” phase when riding my left-brained, introverted horse. Yet, Tobias perfectly understood the urgency of my phases when working cattle.

I had also been told, repeatedly, by my classical riding instructor that I was not properly using my left rein and leg. This was magnified with working cattle, which Trevor — and Lyndsey — also noticed. Tobias would find that door open and go through it with his left shoulder. My left rein and leg need to communicate more effectively.

Keeping The Magic Alive

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Photo by Katie Drake.

“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk;

He trots the air; The Earth sings when he touches it;

He is pure air and fire.”

— William Shakespeare

I had fallen in love with hawks while watching the film, Lady Hawk with Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer. And a couple years ago, I believe before I had read this particular Shakespeare quote, I had a vision of myself as a red-tailed hawk flying above Tobias as he galloped across a mountain ridge — Man From Snowy River-esque. Along with humility and gratitude, it took working cattle with Trevor Carter to make my dream of flying with my horse a reality.

At the end of the clinic, when I took Tobias’ saddle, halter and lead off to allow him a chance to roll in the indoor arena before getting a shower, he wouldn’t leave my side. This clinic had rekindled our relationship and our partnership. Tobias was exuberant, athletic, cooperative, even affectionate. This was what I’d been searching for. Tobias loved working cattle, and Trevor Carter was a fantastic teacher. I returned home joyous, inspired and empowered.

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Photo by Katie Drake.

Now that I’ve been home for a couple weeks, I invited a friend (Sid — whom I especially love for her baudy sense of humor and “Muttley” snicker) to audit an afternoon of one of the most talented horsemen of our time, Buck Brannaman, in Kiowa, CO. Sid commented, “My gosh, everyone’s so serious.” Everyone in attendance was so quiet with reverence and respect, the atmosphere felt like someone had just died — or would shortly. Another great horseman, Pat Parelli’s slogan has become, “Keep it natural.” I think Trevor’s should be, “Keep it fun!.”

One of the biggest lessons I learned from Trevor Carter is the difference having fun can make.

I recognize that I take life way too seriously. Now that I know how great it feels, I’ll be doing my best to continue expanding our boundaries and having fun with my horse!

Trevor is incredibly observant, stays on you to make changes and then makes you feel like a rock star when you do. He is kind, positive, honorable, worthy of my trust and doesn’t give an inch. It’s obvious Trevor enjoys what he does and his joy translates into lots of fun for clinic attendees — and their horses. I’m continually searching for ways to advance my horsemanship and have more fun with my horse, so I’ll be wanting more for sure and watching for opportunities. Mark my words, Trevor Carter is definitely a rising star!

Happy Trails!
All rights reserved. Copyright August, 2015. However, feel free to link to this page. All photos by Katie Drake and used with permission.

 “In the end, it is not the years in your life that count.

It is the life in your years”

— Abraham Lincoln

A Few Asides

“What do you mean, there is a rattlesnake in the grass?!” “You’re going to get rid of it how?” “With your rope? Dang!” — Me

“Why do I wear gloves? So my hands don’t look like yours, Trevor.” — Me

“Aw, geez. You’re not gonna get into those ‘horse metaphors for life’ stuff again!” — from a fellow student to another (and neither one was me!)

“There are four kinds of pressure: no pressure, rhythmic pressure, steady pressure and emotional pressure. Two of those don’t work very well.” — Trevor Carter

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Photo by Katie Drake.

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  • Angus: a breed of beef cattle that thrives well on grass, generally black, unless of course they’re Red Angus!
  • Corriente: a breed of cattle primarily used for roping and other rodeo sportBull: male un-castrated bovine (cow)*
  • Cow: A female bovine. This term is used also as a generic reference to cattle.*
  • Drive: Method of rounding up cattle by scattering cowboys over the range and pushing the cattle to one place.*
  • Heifer: young female cow, raised to replace the older cows in a herd or to provide meat.*
  • Hereford: a breed of beef cattle with brown and white markings
  • Got your back: when you are guarding the rodear and your teammate is being challenged, you are ready for when the cow moves from their territory into yours.
  • On the swivel: when you’ve got cattle challenging the boundaries of both the inside and outside of the rodear.
  • Rodear: To gather and work cattle out of a herd held by riders, such as in a fence corner where there is no corral.*

*From the Cowboy’s Glossary of Cattle Terms

A Sampling From My Clinic Playlist
(A few of us brought along music to share during the dinners we prepared.)

What's Trevor's favorite snack?

What’s Trevor’s favorite snack?


One thought on “Cowgirl Dreams

  1. Cath Post author

    [Just wanted to share this comment from a friend who also studies and teaches classical riding. Thank you, Michelle, for your clarification and for your kind words!]

    Hi Cath,

    Just a little insight that I hope will relieve your concerns about conflicts you expressed in your blog with past training that you have practiced so diligently.

    The “heels away” concept is supposed to be a temporary exaggeration to assist riders who have been riding with too much outward rotation of their legs (from the hips). This is extremely common, particularly with women as it is more natural for us. The “end goal” is to have legs that drape softly on the horse so your inner (soft part) of your calf lies against the horse, ever ready to communicate if/as needed. By now, I suspect you are quite capable of this without any need for “heels away.”

    You are quite the lovely writer and I so enjoyed reading your recent blog entry and find myself beaming with joy for your latest breakthrough in your partnership with Tobias.

    Hugs to you ~

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