Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I don't want to ride my horse anymore

“Once you ride one of my horses you won’t want to ride yours any more”. This was Penny’s warning to me when she offered to start giving me lessons on her Quarter Horses. Bailey had been sound for several months now and I had just starting taking lessons on him with Penny. She could see where our issues were and why I was spending so much time in the dirt. I had developed a survival style of riding over the years. I grew up riding rank horses, it started with a Mustang pony when I was 7 that bucked me off every time I got on it, and kicked every member of my family. The Trakehner mare I had right before Bailey would rear straight up, then as soon as her front hooves touched the ground would launch into a series of bucks. I prided myself with my ability to ride it out, but my equitation suffered greatly. Anytime I felt Bailey was slightly out of control I would lean forward into an instinctive fetal position. Bailey took that as a signal that there must be a cougar out there ready to eat him and he would get the heck out of there, leaving me behind as a sacrifice to the imaginary predator.

Windy was the horse Penny has chosen to teach me on. This was her grandson’s horse; she was barley 14.3hh, the smallest horse I had been on in sometime. At only 5’0” I was much better suited for this sized horse. When I stepped on from the mounting block, and lowered my butt into the Western saddle, Windy stood stock still. I leaned slightly forward and kicked the mare on. She didn’t move. Penny smiled and said “that won’t work on my horses.” I clucked to Windy and kicked harder; the mare looked back at my leg, clearly annoyed, but still would not move. “My horses know not to move when you are off balance. They don’t want you to fall off. Sit up, take a breath, look where you are going and just butterfly your lower leg on her side.” I tried again and Windy walked off, 3 steps later I had tipped forward and she came to a stop. For the next 30 minutes, my goal was to walk a lap of the arena without stopping. As much as I was humiliated, I was equally determined to do something that Penny’s 9 year old Grandson could do with his eyes closed. In the weeks that followed I moved up to a jog, a major accomplishment for me. I couldn’t get over how smooth the gait was and I started to realize that just because I could jump big fences didn’t mean I could ride.

My next lesson on Bailey was a major turning point. Sarah had started him back over fences. She was impressed by the way he jumped, he clearly loved it. I hadn’t jumped in sometime, and was really starting to enjoy riding Western. Sarah had set a small cross rail. I trotted Bailey up to it. His ears pricked up as soon as we turned the corner. As he drew closer to the fence, I could feel my body start to freeze, the fetal position was fast approaching. Bailey didn’t wait for me to get it together; he took a long spot to the 18” fence and leaped over it. On the other side he launched into a series of “victory bucks” the reins started to slip out of my hands as his head got lower. On the third buck I landed in the dirt. Somehow I jammed my elbow into my ribs when I hit the ground. I couldn’t catch my breath. Lying on my back, I saw Penny’s worried face looming over me. I gasped a painful breath of air and said “I don’t want to ride my horse anymore”.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lessons with Penny

Penny is the owner of the barn that I was boarding my Warmblood "Bailey" at when I met Grace. I remembered Penny from when I was a kid. I lived down the road from local saddle club and I would ride my horse up to the Playdays they put on. A Playday might as well have been the World Show for me, it was a big deal! I would bathe my horse the day before and stay up late cleaning all my tack. I still have a trunk full of blue ribbons from those days. I also have many purple and brown ones from the weekends that Penny would haul her students to the same Playdays! They showed on the AQHA circuit and would use the Playdays to get ready for the big shows. When her big goose neck trailer pulled into the showgrounds, my friends and I would groan. We knew we wouldn't be taking home any primary colors that day.

So now I was at her barn, and Sarah who was helping me rehab Bailey recommended that I take some lessons with Penny. Sarah and I had ridden jumpers together and she was riding with Penny, Sarah felt it would help with Bailey. For out first lesson Penny told me to bring Bailey into the arena with a halter and lead rope. I remember being nervous when we walked in, not knowing what she was going to teach us. I didn't have to wonder for long because the first thing she said to me was "Today I am going to teach you how to lead your horse." WHAT? I had been jumping 4 foot fences and I had been riding since I was 7 and this lady is going to teach me to lead my horse? Just who does she think she is? Sarah was nowhere in site, she has since confessed to hiding behind the barn for that first lesson. Penny quickly pointed out that she had seen Bailey walking all over me since the day I got to her barn. "Do my horses do that to you?" No, they didn't. Her horses were some of the best behaved I had ever handled. Even the babies respected my personal space, they were nothing like the horses I had handled while working at a Hunter/Jumper Barn. "I don't allow my horses to walk on top of me, ever!" she told me.

Penny took Bailey and lead him off. He stepped right into her with his left shoulder. She stepped right back into his space and backed him off. He looked at her as to say "I jump 4 foot fences, who do you think you are teaching me to lead?" They walked off a few steps and she corrected him again. The next time they walked off all she had to do was look at him and her gave her the space she demanded. "Your turn", for the next hour I learned how to lead my horse. How to stand with my toes facing his when I stopped. How to demand respect from him just in the way I carried my body. How leading him correctly would transfer on how to ride him correctly. I had been riding for 20 years and I was just starting to learn.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Beginning

I've waited until now to start this blog because I haven't known where to begin. Grace has owned me for over 8 years now. There are so many stories to tell. I am in the process of writing a book about her, it's being told from her point of view. I guess I can use this blog to tell my side of the story. So lets start at the beginning......

I was boarding my Warmblood gelding "Bailey" at a Quarterhorse farm a few miles from my house. A very good friend of mine was helping me rehab him from a reoccurring lameness.
She and the owner of the place took a trip down to Oakdale, California to pick up 4 AQHA fillies. The plan was to train them and resell them to show on the AQHA circuit. It was fall of 1999 and the horse market was booming.

When the fillies arrived, they were surprisingly small. All 4 of them were different shades of bay and they were half wild. They were well bred, but the owner had fallen on hard times. The mares had been turned out in large field on a roping ranch. They were barely halter broke and they seem convinced that everyone that came near them had plans to throw a rope over them.

On the way up from California, they were named after the Spice Girls. As the story goes, it was 2am and the ladies that were hauling them kept referring to them as this bay one or that bay one. Grace's name for her first few years in Washington was "Baby Spice". I don't recommend that you bring it up in her presence!

I was cleaning stalls at the barn to pay for board on my gelding. I was working the night shift at a factory. I had been there for over 4 years and I hated it! My gelding who I thought was my forever horse kept bucking me off. Riding I thought, was the one thing in life I was good at and now I spent most of my time in the dirt. My favorite part of the day was going to the barn in the morning to clean stalls. I had to drag myself out of there to get to work on time. I had a really bad attitude from my job, that I had carried over into my marriage. I was in a very negative place most of the time. I felt like there was a black cloud that followed me everywhere (years later I now know I had created the black cloud).

One rainy morning I had my head down cleaning stalls, with a storm of negative thoughts going through my head. I entered Grace's over sized stall with the manure cart and pick fork, closing the door behind me. Her stall was trashed, she was a grinder who would step in her manure and grind it into the shavings. I would have to strip all the bedding out of her stall and replace it. Great, one more crappy thing to add to my day. I put my head down and got to work, ignoring the cute little mare in the corner. With each fork full of urine soaked shavings, I dove deeper into my angry thoughts. Why did I have such a crappy job? Why couldn't I just ride horses for a living? Why didn't I have all those things? Why did it have to rain here all the time? Why was I so mad all the time? Why me? Why dammit!

Suddenly I felt someone staring at me. I looked up from the brim of my hat and saw too big brown eyes staring back at me. Grace had walked right up to me. She was standing toe to toe with me and was looking right through me. She lowered her head and put her soft nose right on my chest. She exhaled and looked me right in the eye. As her warm breath washed over me all thoughts fled from my head. I felt the pressure in my chest release. I pressed my forehead against hers and just let go. For the first time in a very long time I was "in the moment". She didn't move, that half wild little mare just stood there and let me hold on for as long as I needed to. That was it, I was hers.