B.L.E.S.S.(ed) in 2008

Clinician Bucky Sparks

By Jennifer Klitzke

Gale force winds, heavy rain, lightning, thunder, dense fog, cold temperatures and tornado watches threatened our first day of the 2008 B.L.E.S.S. Your Horse Clinic with Bucky Sparks, owner of Walk The Dog Ranch in Cortez, Colorado.

Thankfully the clinic was held indoors. When the rain pounded on the aluminum roof and the wind rattled the aluminum siding, Bucky said, “It’s a good thing we don’t have any spooky horses here!”

Fortunately the weather improved dramatically by the second day. Just in time for the thunder of revving motors from the race track across the street. Wow, if you can ride through this, you can ride through anything!

I had audited the 2007 B.L.E.S.S. Your Horse Clinic and learned that B.L.E.S.S. stands for balance, looseness, engagement, softness, and soundness. I drank in as much knowledge as I could hold. You see, I’m pretty new at this gaited thing. While I’ve owned and ridden trotting horses for many years, I wonder why it took me so long to discover the super-smooth gait of a Tennessee walking horse.

Rider, Sonya Spease and I were like many MWHA members who registered for the clinic and put on a waiting list. It’s easy to understand, because this clinic is like no other, and Bucky is one of the most enthusiastic and encouraging clinicians I’ve ever experienced. Lucky for us, openings became available. I was one of several first-time clinic participants and new riders to the gaited thing. In all, there were 15 riders over four days. Each morning began with a group session followed by individual lessons.

Bucky gave humane and effective methods for a wide-range of training levels, from young and green horses to seasoned show horses with consistent rhythm and head nods. He worked with impulsive horses and lazy horses, experienced riders and newcomers to the gaited world. Bucky had excellent methods to develop trust with horses that had been rescued from soring, heavy pads, and harsh bits. He shared life-saving safety techniques for riders, and he demonstrated practical tips on how to work with a horse that doesn’t want to stand while being mounting.

Bucky’s contagious smile and encouraging words blessed every rider and horse. Each horse and rider combination left the clinic affirmed, renewed, and challenged for the riding season. Those who audited the clinic had gleaned just as much as those who had participated.

We witnessed many transformations in the four days; horses that paced became gaiting fools, bracing and stiff horses melted into round and relaxed things of beauty, and anxious riders became equipped with life-saving tools!

Much of Bucky’s training comes from years of successful showing, training, and breeding Tennessee walking horses, and mixing in the German-form of dressage and cowboy methods from the likes of Clinton Anderson. Bucky blends the best of these humane training methods to achieve balance, looseness, engagement, softness and soundness, and when orchestrated together, they produce a pure walking gait that is simply a joy to watch and ride.

Exercises included rein back, leg yield, stretching the bit, one-rein stop, flexing, curling and half halts.

Some of my favorite themes Bucky taught were:

“Head up: bad. Head down: good.”
When a horse’s head is up, the horse isn’t listening to the rider, and it is using the reacting side of its brain. In addition to not looking very attactive, a reactive horse can unexpectedly spook, bolt, or rear and place its rider in potential danger.

Softness and suppleness will help a horse lower its head and neck and help it relax and use the thinking side of its brain. In addition to looking more attactive, a relaxed, thinking, and listening horse is much safer for the rider to be on.

Leg yields, curling exercises (raising the inside rein and applying the inside leg), one-rein stops are all effective tools to soften and lower the horse’s head and neck. Not only is this practical, but it’s beautiful to watch a horse in a round and soft frame and a pleasure to ride.

“One-rein stops will save your life.”
Horses are safer when they are flexed to the side because it significantly reduces their ability to bolt, spook or rear. One-rein stops work best when practiced often.

Here’s how: At a halt, simply take contact with one rein to your side and bring the horse’s nose to your foot. When the horse relaxes, release. Do this several times on each side with every ride before walking off. Then practice one-rein stops at a walk and release when the horse comes to a complete stop.

One-rein stop helps the horse relax and get into the thinking side of their brain. It also helps make them soft and supple. If a horse begins to act unsafe, apply a one-rein stop.

“Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.”
My horse had developed a bad habit of walking off before I was in the saddle.  Bucky said, “You can’t make a horse stand. Instead, help the horse realize that standing still while mounting is easier than moving.”

Here’s how: While on the ground, we simply bent Makana’s nose to the saddle until she stood still. Then we rewarded her by removing the pressure and slightly relaxed the rein contact. That’s when I attempted to get on. Makana began to walk off before I was in the saddle, so we bent her nose to the saddle while she walked and we didn’t release the contact until she stopped moving. When she stopped, then we relaxed the rein slightly. After a few minutes my horse realized it was easier to stand than to move while I got on.

I haven’t had a mounting issue with my horse since the clinic.

Rider Sonya Spease said, “I have attended three of the B.L.E.S.S. clinics. These are the best clinics I have ever attended, and prove wrong those who say a horse will never gait if worked in a snaffle or if not worked consistently. Bucky reinforces that I am working on the correct training methods and encourages me to work my horses when I can even if I don’t have much time.”

Rider Meredith Hinnekamp said, “Bucky has such a personal and positive way of communicating with each rider. His humble and honest stories make interesting teaching tools.” She added that Bucky showed her active and productive methods to use with her sensitive horse, Libby. Meredith said, “Instead of a power struggle, we can move forward in her training. His tools help focus her energy and help her feel security when she questions learning new things. Bucky gave me tools to be safe, comfortable, and happy.”

For more about Bucky Sparks, visit www.blessyourhorse.com.