Groundwork Update: Day 14

This week was a bit busier for me so I have only gotten in three days of working with Zeus. I am on day 14 of my 30 days of Clinton Anderson Fundamentals groundwork. Today was the shortest lesson so far, but he was also the most relaxed that I have probably ever seen him. It is warm comfortable sort of day; the kind of day where most of the horses in the dry lot are laying down taking a sun bath. Zeus was no exception, until I walked over and he jumped up. That wasn’t unusual as he has never let me get close to him while he is laying down. He walked over to me which is a new development that I am still getting used to. I used to have to play a little “I am not here to get you but I am not going to let you leave so maybe you might decide that it was actually your idea to come over to me and get caught” game.  As I finished saddling him I realized he was doing two things that I have never seen him do before. He was dropped and he had his hind foot cocked in a relaxed, layed back sort of way.  He has never, ever showed those signs of relaxation at anytime that I have worked with him or at anytime when he is tied in the barn. I declare a breakthrough! Now, I hope I am not speaking too soon, and I am sure tomorrow will tell, but this is a big deal for this horse folks.
I am hoping that tomorrow will give me enough time to add some saddle time to the groundwork. I am looking forward to being horseback again.
Lunging for Respect stage 2

30 Days Grounded with Clinton Anderson

Ground work is not a completely unknown to me.  I have spent time working my horses from the ground (especially the babies). Usually this ground time is broken up by time on my horse’s back riding down the trail, working in the arena, working cows or teaching lessons (yes,I teach horseback). So why am I on the ground? I have been sentenced to 30+ days of groundwork.

Last week, we hosted 2, three day clinics here at Western Pleasure Guest Ranch with Dale Cunningham a Clinton Anderson certified clinician.  The participants in the first three day clinic were the WPGR wranglers plus the bosses (mom and dad). The second three day clinic were other folks interested in the Clinton Anderson Method.  We start most all of our own horses here and we have a system that we think works pretty well. So why get into this Clinton Anderson thing? Well, the main reason is because we felt that the ground work portion of our training program was lacking. So, with the help of a friend,  went in search of a Clinton Anderson certified clinician and we found Dale Cunningham.

I used my three year old gelding, Zeus who I put 40 rides on last year, as my clinic horse.  Zeus might be 14 hands tall if he stands on his tippy toes, is very athletic and very reactive. Lets just say he thinks something is hiding behind every corner ready to eat him.  What, you may ask, is he afraid of? Horse eating buckets, horse eating water bottles, horse eating horses, horse eating ropes, horse eating bags, horse eating people, horse eating barns, horse eating saddle bags, horse eating dogs, anything that makes a crinkly noise is also obviously looking to eat a horse. I figured that this clinic would be the perfect opportunity to put some concentrated time into Zeus.

It really was a great three days.  I learned a lot about the groundwork portion of the Clinton Anderson Fundamentals.  I think that the groundwork portion of this method uses good solid principals based on a correct assessment of horse psychology. I don’t have the same opinion of the riding portion of Clinton’s method, but the groundwork I think is solid.

So why am I grounded? Dale officially labelled Zeus a fruitcake (although I already knew that) and gave me homework of 30 days of groundwork only. Ugh! So here I stand 1 to 2 hours a day swinging a stick around and looking for ways to give my horse a heart attack. My goal in all of this is that I spend so much time desensitizing Zeus that by the end of these 30 days he will have run out of things to be scared of.  Also, I am going to have some buff arms…

Stay tuned for the results of my 30 days of homework and my updates here along the way.

The following photos are of days 8 and 9 of my 30 day challenge.


How to Row a Boat

While the Northeast part of the U.S. is being covered by a massive snow fall, we here in the Northwest are beginning to wonder if its time to brush up on our nautical skills. If you feel the need to  review your boat rowing, here is an excellent link to show you how: How to Row a Boat

Yesterday was beautiful. As we were driving to Post Falls, Landon kinda reminded me of a happy lab that has been stuck in a dark house for a week straight and then gets taken out into the sunshine for a ride in the pickup with the windows down. He was that excited about the sunshine. Which brings me to this:

My Professor the Horse

By Guest Writer: Roley Schoonover

My Professor the Horse

In the summer of 1991, three years after graduating from college, my wife and I started out on an adventure that would change our lives forever.  Janice took one lady out for a horseback ride on the family ranch and a new way of life began.  It was the beginning of the Western Pleasure Guest Ranch. It wasn’t long after this new adventure began when I met my new professor the horse.  Janice and I decided that to sustain a string of willing horses we wanted to raise and train our own.  Even though I would start out trying to teach these new young horses what they needed to know about their job, many times they ended up teaching me about what I needed to know about me.  It was life-changing because to be successful I had to take principles I learned and apply them.  I think they call this wisdom and here’s where it began.

Groundwork Professor

Groundwork Professor

Communication.  Ever travel to a foreign land?  It’s kind of handy to know the lingo.  When I opened the gate to go in the pen with my horse, I crossed a boarder metaphorically as much as physically.  Horses speak using their own dialect of sign language. So, as soon as I enter the pen, I’ve communicated something to the horse.  More than likely the Professor of the pen has said something back if I am not visibly deaf.  My horses have taught me volumes about how my body language communicates and what they are saying in response.  As I have learned to pay attention to their language the training process has gotten better.  While I won’t profess to have graduated “Summa com laud”, I have seen positive results as we continued our “class time”.



When our family traveled, I was accused of taking everything but the kitchen sink.  I also have a tendency to do that when I start training.  Again, my professor, the horse, would tell me, if I’m listening, that I need to slow down and work in the moment.  I had to remember what I went in to do and leave the tax preparations for the ranch, the family that is checking in with the dietary needs, and the kindling that needs to be cut, at the gate.  I could pick them back up when I left the pen and likely I didn’t have to worry about anybody stealing them; they would be there when I returned.  I had to focus on one thing, my prof would remind me.  Like my old football coach would tell me, “Do one thing well, instead of a bunch of things poorly.”

Finally, the professor is seldom ever wrong.  He is who he is.  I have learned they really are pretty simple creatures who operate on their need to survive.  My professors would learn from the release of pressure.  Once I understood this point, next was to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.  With consistency, creativity, and these two principles, we began to achieve some neat results.  Horses will do anything to squirm away from pressure.  So I applied a reasonable amount of pressure, watched for the desired reaction, and rewarded them for a reasonable response.  I did this consistently over and over and I was training horses.

These have been some valuable lessons from Equine Communications 101.  With the help of some great advisors along the way, we have had some really satisfying results.  Mostly it has helped make something we love to do into a living with people we treasure.  Happy Trails and never take your professor for granted.




Roley and Chrome

Roley and Chrome

Hind End

Hind End

Groundwork hip yield

Groundwork hip yield

Winter Arena Exercises: Part 2

Little Horse the fluffy, fuzzy oh so comfy POA mare.
Let’s focus on legs!
I have never been a very athletic person. I was at the back of the line when they handed out the athletic DNA. Things like running faster, jumping higher, getting on my horse bareback (see previous post here) and posting without stirrups have never come easy for me.
I remember one particular horse show in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho that I was competing in and Barbara Tibbs was judging.  I had been doing quite well that day. JR, my Quarter Horse gelding, was performing beautifully and I was proud of our partnership. Then came the Hunt Seat Equitation class.  JR tolerated my riding him in English tack but getting a ground covering trot out of him took a valiant effort.  He was predominantly a western horse. Some days the best he could muster was an extended jog. JR was not made for English.  However, despite JR’s decidedly western way of going, we usually placed well in Huntseat classes.
The class began. I knew what Barbara would be looking for in a Hunt Seat Equitation rider. I had taken lessons from her and I knew what was expected. I also knew that she knew I knew how I should be riding and my placing in the class would reflect her expectations.  The class was going well. Walk, trot, lope both directions and the line up.  Apparently it was a close class because she pulled several of us back out onto the rail to perform more rail work. I love competition, so knowing I was one of the top in the class drove me to really do my best.

Off we went at a posting trot.  We hadn’t gone far when the dreaded words came from the announcer, “drop your irons” (that’s the stirrups on an English saddle). Ugh! Posting trot with no irons.  Yes, I had done it before and practiced it but I was not good at it.  My competitive spirit drove me on. I gripped the saddle with my legs with all I had in me and attempted to rise as high as my pathetic legs would take me,  This particular exercise usually didn’t last long in a class like this so when I finished one lap around the large rodeo style arena I was sure we were nearly done.

The announcer came over the loud speaker, “Extend the trot”. Oh please no! Keeping JR at an acceptable English trot was proving difficult already and now I had to extend?  I glanced across the arena and noticed a girl on a little white Arabian.  She and her horse were usually one of my close competitors. She was gracefully rising and falling in the saddle as if she had never left her stirrups and her little mare stretched out and extended beautifully at her rider’s cue.  Oh help me! My effort to extend my devoted western horse’s trot felt, to me, pathetic. After a second time around the arena the announcer called for us to return to a regular trot, but still we continued iron-less.  My legs were burning; screaming at me.

Shall I remind you that I am not athletic? I counted our third lap around the arena.  Its funny how just when your pride has swelled in you so that your hat is getting a little tight on your expanding head, something comes along to remind your pride that your hat size doesn’t need to grow.  Four times around the arena. I didn’t recall having signed up for a stirrup-less endurance class.  At four and a half times around that huge arena the announcer finally said the words I was desperate to hear; “walk your horses”.  Sweet walk. Wonderful walk. Glorious walk! We lined up again in the middle of the arena.

I think I got third in the class that day so my performance must not have been as awful as it felt. Looking back on this story, two things come to mind.  First, thank you Barbara Tibbs for putting my teenage pride in its place. Second, practicing riding without stirrups is something I should do more often.
This leads me to the topic for today: riding without stirrups. I rarely ever ride without stirrups anymore unless it’s on a long trail ride and I am stretching out my sore knees.  This is partly due to the fact that I spend most of my time riding young, green horses or with my two year old son in the saddle with me. I also rarely ride without stirrups because no one makes me.  When I was young I had instructors who regularly made me drop my stirrups. My winter riding exercise this week for you and me is to ride without stirrups.
Here are a few tips before you lose the stirrups:
1. 10-15 minutes a day is just fine. I have heard of some people going all in and actually removing their fenders (Western) or leathers (English), but I am definitely not going there.
2.  Start slow. Your horse and your body will thank you.
3.  This should go without saying but I will say it anyway.  Don’t balance with the reins when you drop your stirrups.  Do not attempt this unless you have good, quiet hands.
4.  Don’t let your legs dangle lifelessly (see image 1). your seat and legs will not be doing the work that they must to keep you from bouncing all over your horse’s back.
Image 1- Too relaxed. No leg and seat contact.
5.  Keep them in the same position they were in when your feet were in the stirrups (see image 2).
Image 2- Correct leg position
with foot in the stirrup.

6. Don’t scrunch your legs up as this will cause you to pinch your horse’s sides causing you to miscommunication to your horse that you want more forward motion.  Scrunching your legs up may also cause your heals to come up and your upper body to be thrown forward out of balance (images 3 and 4).

Image -3 Too much bend in the knee.
Heal is coming up and pinching horse’s side.
Image 4- Way too much bend in the knee.
Heals are up and pinching. This is survival mode.

7.  The purpose of this exercise is to develop balance. Stretch your legs down and around your horse’s barrel and balance with your seat not your hands or knees (image 5).  Engage those core muscles.

Image 5- Stretch your legs down and
around your horse’s barrel.

8.  Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.  Ride correctly. Don’t ride in survival mode and expect your seat and balance to improve.

If this winter arena exercise sounds just a little too scary and you would like to keep those stirrups thank you very much, start slow at a walk or jog. If this sounds super easy and somewhat pointless, I am guessing you were somewhere closer to the front of that athleticism line than I was.  For those of you like me, just think of the great leg muscles we will be building!

This blog is written and maintained by Danielle Otis, one of the wranglers (one job title among many) at Western Pleasure Guest Ranch.  It is a collection of tales and stories related to the ranch that come straight “from the horse’s mouth”.

The oh so fluffy horse that is featured in the pictures above is Little Horse, my POA mare. I don’t really have long legs, just a small horse.

Winter Arena Exercises, Part 1

Zeus my 2012 POA/Appaloosa

As we reach the midway point of December, our North Idaho countryside is usually covered in a blanket of snow, but this year it’s not.  November put out a great effort with nearly 6 inches of snow here at the ranch. However, since then it has warmed up and we have no more snow. Don’t get me wrong, it is still beautiful here and wagon rides and Christmas parties have continued at the ranch.

To get away from the weather coverage and get to my point, its been a while since I have ridden my horses.  I can tell this is going to be a long winter as I already have horse withdrawals. You may ask, “Why don’t you just ride in the indoor arena?”  A 70′ by 100′ arena gets pretty small when you start adding things like two of our smaller sleighs and one large motor home. (Insert sad face here) The weather, however, has warmed (48 degrees today) and the footing outside has un-frozen so I can get out on the trails again. Woohoo!

Smokey a four year old I put 17 days
on before winter arrived and
ended my fun.

While I have been sitting inside, listening to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, finding every scrap of info I can on Cowboy Dressage and Western Dressage, and reading dozens of articles on Horse Collaborative, I have been dreaming about riding my project horses Zeus and Smokey.  In the midst of my daydreams, I have compiled several horseback arena exercises.  Most of these are adapted from Pat Wyse’s Basic Handle.

Here are a couple exercises you can do in the often small spaces we have available for riding in the winter time. Whether that space is an indoor arena or an open patch of un-frozen ground, you can continue to make progress in your horse’s training through the cold winter months.

Exercise One: Corner Circles
This exercise can be done at any gait but be sure to introduce it at a walk first, especially if your horse doesn’t know that your leg means anything but go. For a green horse this is a great way to introduce guiding leg pressure in a low stress environment. For a horse farther along in training, this is a great warm up or cool down exercise to get them listening to your legs. You can also use this exercise for introducing the turn on the haunches as it keeps the forward motion needed to perform a haunch turn without falling backward in the spin causing a belly-button turn.

Start at A and ride deep into the corner.

B: Begin a right hand, 5-10 meter circle. Bring your horse’s nose around enough that you can see the corner of his eye. Use your inside leg just behind the girth to ask your horse to move out and away from your leg.  Pay close attention to the timing of your leg ques. When your horse steps away from your leg immediately release the leg pressure. Ask again with your inside leg. If this is your horse’s first introduction to moving off your leg, all your asking for is a little step then release, little step then release.  If your horse moves off your leg nicely you can ask for a more dramatic crossing over step away from your leg.  Remember to ask soft first and increase the pressure until the horse responds, then release. Always start soft and increase pressure as needed. Ride strait down the long side of the arena toward the next corner.

C: Ride deep into the corner again.  Begin a right hand circle. This time, use your outside leg forward, at about your cinch, to ask your horse to step their front end around.  Again, start soft and increase the leg pressure until your horse steps away then release. Ask again. Start soft and release when your horse steps over.  Remember, you can ask for a more drastic step over on the haunches from a more experienced horse. Only ask for a little step from a horse that you are just introducing the leg to. Ride down the short end of the arena toward the next corner.

D: Ride deep into the corner. Begin a right hand circle and complete as in at letter B.

E. As you ride out of the circle at D ride across the diagonal and reverse directions.  Complete this exercise tracking left following directions as above only apposite.

Exercise Two: Straight Lines
We use this exercise on colts that are in their first few days of riding and our most solid saddle horses. For that horse that constantly tries to cut the corners and dive to the middle this is great to get them listening to your aids as well.  Introduce this exercise at a walk but be sure to increase the speed as training progresses. Riding this exercise while rating your horse (speeding up and slowing down) is a great way to create focus in the arena.

B: Create an octagon as you ride around the arena or field.  Focus on a point in front of you and ride a straight line to the point, guiding with your leg and reins. Ride as close to that point as you can (without running into it) then release the guiding pressure turn and readjust to a new point and begin guiding again.  Use your hand and legs in coordination to guide your horse in straight lines.  Your legs are there for a reason. Use them!

A: The same principals apply as you make a pentagon shape with your horse.  This does add a degree of difficulty as your angles will be sharper.  The lines will also be longer so you will have more time to focus on the straight line and really perfect it.

I hope these winter arena exercises add a little variety to your riding and training this winter. Stay tuned for more winter training tips.

If you would like more information about visiting or riding at the Western Pleasure Guest Ranch visit or call toll free at (888)863-9066.

For more info about my horseback mentor, Pat Wyse, visit his web site at

I would love to hear what you do with your horse in the winter. If you would like to share some training exercises to be featured on this blog e-mail them to [email protected]

Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On Or Other Places

Danielle taking the horses back to the field after a long day on the trail.

Some of our guests ask, and many more wonder in anxious silence, “How do I answer the call of nature while on a trail ride?” Here are a few tips from a seasoned trail guide and trail rider.

#1 Go before you leave. Remember that time when you were a kid, headed out on a road trip with the family, only minutes after departing and you declare “I gotta go!” Likely Dad’s response was, “Why didn’t you go before we left?” This is a good scenario to learn from when preparing to head out on a long trail ride.
#2 When nature calls, don’t answer it. Put nature on hold until the ride is over.
#3 Sometimes you just can’t put nature on hold. Believe me I know. I spent one summer guiding trail rides while pregnant and the call of nature was just NOT going to wait.  In this situation, choose a nice secluded spot with lots of brushy coverage. You don’t want your fellow riders to see more of nature than they were expecting. For those of you riding in those un-natural places without trees, good luck to you!
#4 Choose a spot carefully. Don’t make the rookie mistake of leaving the trail you’re on only to find that you are relieving yourself in another trail…with other riders coming up the trail behind you.  Becoming the butt of wrangler jokes for years to come, and inadvertently christening said trail with its new name, Full Moon Trail, probably isn’t on your vacation bucket list. True story.
#5 Leave your horse with your guide or tied to a tree.  You don’t need your mighty steed getting …well…nosy.
#6 Bury it. This might be getting just a little too personal, but learn from the boy scouts and bury it.
#7 “How do I bury it? It’s not like I have a boy scout along with his little collapsible shovel and all.”  Well I don’t know, get creative!
#8 Don’t use the “toilet paper” you think nature has provided for you. It’s just not going to end well.  That leafy green may look as soft as Charmin but likely it will leave you wishin’ you weren’t a itchin’.
#9 And last but not least, don’t squat with yer spurs on.
Saddling up and heading out on horseback, whether it is for an hour or for a week, is something I look forward to rain or shine.  Sharing that experience with someone else makes it even better. Now you can join me on the trail just a little more prepared for your next horseback adventure into the woods.

Danielle enjoying a view of the fall colors on her horse JR.

This blog is written and maintained by Danielle Otis, one of the wranglers (one job title among many) at Western Pleasure Guest Ranch.  It is a collection of tales and stories related to the ranch that come straight “from the horse’s mouth”.


Goodbye Old Friend

Today is a day I have dreaded. I have known for many years that today would come, but I have always hoped we could put it off just a little bit longer. Today I said goodbye to my old friend.
JR Chicka Do was my big, palomino, Quarter Horse gelding and he was Just Right. He was mine for 18 years. When I think of my childhood, JR is in every part of it. In fact, he was there as I navigated all of my adolescent and young adult years. We spent a couple awkward years in Pony Club , all of my 11 years of 4-H and years of teaching other 4-H ers and other horse crazy kids. I spent hundreds of hours and countless horse shows on the back of that big blonde horse. JR saw other horses come and go, he was part of my wedding, he took my daughter for her first ride, her first horse show and taught her to lope just this summer.
Twelve years ago JR was diagnosed with Navicular Disease.  We have worked to put off this day since that time. Because of the great work of John Fuller, our farrier, JR spent most of those years pain free and sound. As Fall approached, it became obvious that we could no longer maintain him pain free.
JR goes on to wait for me in heaven today. I was blessed to have the many years with him that I have had and I will forever be thankful for him. JR was practically perfect in every way. He was my teacher, partner, student, friend and great source of joy. Daddy, thank you for letting me steal your horse from you all those years ago.
Goodbye Old Friend…