Campnesia Excerpt: Join-Up & Cross Country


Today I thought I'd post an excerpt from the book I am working on about all my camp experiences. Each short story starts with a confession. Today's two confessions are from a horse camp I started going to at eleven-years-old called Dreamcatcher Ranch. Enjoy! 

Confession #8: I’m a horse whisperer now because of camp. 

If you’re a Robert Redford fan you’ve probably seen The Horse Whisperer. If not, no worries, I’ll sum it up for you: it’s a film about a teen girl and her horse who get into a traumatic accident, in desperate need of healing her mother drives the two out hundreds of miles away from their home in order to receive help from a unique horse trainer name Tom Booker played by the one and only Robert Redford. Now Tom is based off of an actual horse whisperer named Monty Roberts. Monty came up with this technique called join-up. Join-up is a great bonding exercise to do with a horse you are either familiar or not familiar with. All it involves is a round pen and a lunge line.

Join-up was something we learned on the second day of camp. On that first morning after the horses were fed and after we ate breakfast, we’d all gather into the garage—which was set up more like a room with rugs, two couches, a television, a table for arts and crafts, etc—and look to the whiteboard Carol scribbled on each morning, listing which horse we’d be paired up with that day. Before gearing up to catch our horses we watched a film on join-up, learning its purpose as well as how to do it. 
After spending years as a young boy in Nevada studying herds of wild mustangs Monty Roberts noted how horses communicated with one another non-verbally and incorporated what he learned into a non-violent training method rather than sticking to the traditional “breaking” of new horses. This method involved entering the center of a round pen with a horse that usually stood at the edge. There gripping the lunge line in both hands you would then push the horse out to the edge of the pen, asking the horse to either trot or canter around the arena by lifting your arms up much like a predator would. With a swinging motion of the arm parallel to the horse’s rump you are to urge the horse forward around the circular arena. You also change the horse’s direction a couple of times, by stepping in front of the horse and raising the arm that is parallel to the horse’s head. This non-verbal cue will send the horse in the opposite direction. Through this body-language you are asking the horse, “Will you flee or will you join-up with me?” 

Here I am at eleven-years-old doing join-up for the first time. (I guess I didn't need to the lunge line.)
Now as you are doing this, you are looking for three specific verbal cues that essentially mean that this horse wants to join-up with you. 
An ear will flick toward you.
They will begin licking and chewing. 
And lastly, their head will lower.
Once this happens, you are to stop, turn away from the horse, and drop your lunge line to the dirt. This is the moment when the horse hopefully walks up to you and smells your shoulder.

Once you feel the horse’s soft muzzle against your shoulder and their hot breath breathing into your shirt, you slowly turn around and without looking the horse in the eye you begin rubbing his face, feel his ears, slowly move down his neck, glide your hands over his back and belly and rump to prove that you are safe since these are usually the vulnerable areas where predators will attack, and then lastly, you lift each foot up as if you were going to pick the dirt out of them.

After this is done, step in front of the horse and slowly begin walking around the arena, if the horse has truly chosen to join-up with you he or she will follow you around the arena. It’s truly a magical experience. 
Kinetic decided to follow me outside the round-pen too. As you can see I am taking this very seriously. 
I learned how to do this at eleven-years-old. What a gift I got, learning how to truly listen to horses by watching their non-verbal cues in order to partner up with them. This wasn’t just a lesson on how to be a better equestrian, but also on how to be a better human being. The world could use more listeners. 
Confession #9: I’m an adrenaline junkie.  

If you aren’t familiar with the equestrian world you probably associate the term cross country with running, which actually makes it easier for me to explain cross country jumping. Running on a track is to jumping in an arena as cross country running is to cross country jumping. It’s the only sport I competed in as a child that my mom refused to watch and I honestly don’t blame her; riding is dangerous. Take Superman actor Christopher Reeve for example: on May 27, 1995 his horse refused a cross country jump which sent Reeve flying headfirst into the fence, shattering his first and second vertebra, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down and wearing a breathing tube for the rest of his life. See that’s the scary thing about riding cross country because the jumps, unlike the ones in the arena, don’t budge.

That’s why in the Olympics you’ll often see a horse slathered in what looks like sweat, but it’s actually grease, that way in case the horse happens to not lift their legs up high enough they have a better shot at sliding over the fence rather than crashing into it.
See how this horse's legs are greased up.

When it goes terribly wrong.
As a kid, though, you don’t think, I could potentially fall, hurt myself, and never be able to use my arms and/or my legs again. I mean, maybe some kids did, but I certainly didn’t think that way. Instead, I thought, Wow, that’s a huge jump! Bring it on! According to my mother, I started walking at nine months and shortly afterwards climbed all sorts of dangerous things. Before hitting one-year-old I was already a little adrenaline junkie.  

At Dreamcatcher Ranch, we learned the entire cross country course over a couple of days with Carol watching and critiquing our every move. She led us around the course via golf-cart, which was pretty cool actually.  First we start in the shade, down by the round pen where join-up takes place; it’s here where we jump over a rising oxer composed of fallen trees and from there up to the arena. You jump into the arena and out of the arena. Then you jump all sorts of things: wine barrels, car tires strung on a poll, antic fences, a gully, miniature red barns, etc.
Here I am at eleven-years-old riding the cross country course for the first time. 
Favorite picture. First jump on the course. I think I was 13-years-old here. Horse's name: Kinetic.
Second favorite picture. Aren't these jumps cute? Horse's name: Jubilee. 
Then comes that magical day when you get to ride the entire course by yourself. So here’s how it goes. Everyone gathers into the arena to warm up their horse with a couple of small exercises and then exit the arena one by one to start the course. 
When riding cross country you must wear a safety vest to protect your chest, spine, and tail-bone in case you fall off. In addition to this, a walkie-talkie is fastened to your saddle? Why? Excellent question. Carol had us wear a walkie-talkie on our saddle during riding lessons so that she didn’t have to yell, otherwise she’d probably lose her voice halfway through the summer. On cross country course day, the walkie-talkie was used as a count-down so that you’d know when to start your course. 
Oh man, there is nothing quite like that first ride. You’re riding this eleven-hundred pound animal who is just as excited about the course as you are. Vibrating up your calves you feel his heart-beat. One of his ears flicks briefly in your direction, wondering why you haven’t given him the cue to start yet, so you pat him gently on the shoulder and whisper, Hang on. We have to wait buddy. Then Carol’s voice comes over the walk-talkie as she begins the countdown. Ten…nine…eight…seven…six… He hears the numbers and he knows, gripping the reins and sitting back in your seat a little bit, you remind him that he has to wait until they say, “Have a nice ride!” Five…four…three…two…one…Have a nice ride! You extend your hands forward meaning Ok let’s do this! and he’s off flying.
Jubilee and I jumping out of the arena. 
Look at that determination on both of our faces!
Sorry for the obnoxious high contrast on this photo. 
Suddenly Eye of the Tiger plays in your mind as you gallop up to the first jump, the pacing is on point, everything flows perfectly as you sail over each jump. With no one critiquing your every move you are both more cautious than you’ve ever been before and yet freer at the same time. There’s a rhythm and a balance to your horse’s hooves pounding the earth and the little snorts coming from his nostrils. The sun is warm over your body, the wind refreshing against your face, and when your horse’s feet launch from the ground for a second you forget about reality—you forget about all the hard stuff in life: your parent’s divorce, moving to a new school, the death of a beloved pet, etc—and for a moment you feel as though you are flying and that anything is possible. You feel invincible like life has never been this good before.

I guess that’s why they call it “Getting high off of life.” I’m so blessed to have had that experience at least once because the thing is I’m not invincible, whether I like it or not I have to play by the rules of reality, but it was nice to pretend. 


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