A horse who is totally content with his world.

A horse who is totally content with his world.

Recently I watched an informal workshop to the local ‘Geezers’ (an unofficial riding club that mentors, educates, and shares knowledge over nice lunches and nibbles, wine, coffee and cookies too). Ethelle Patrick was talking to this informal gathering about her life through horsemanship, absent mindedly running a slight careful hand down her mare’s neck.

Both are ‘elders’ and they’ve been together roundabout 19 years or so, when Libby was bought as a reining prospect. Libby turned out to be just a bit hot-to-trot, intimidating her owner, an elegant bank manager with careful financial charm, with decidedly feisty antics.
And so, both of their lives changed the other.

Ethelle began studying the Dorrance brothers, reading books, attending clinics with horse ‘whisperers’ that are now household names. She admits she’s still a bit cross, mad almost, how hard she had to really search for answers, how to understand horses and the way they think, their body language. But, as she searched and listened, the bond between her and Libby became unbreakable, a partnership so subtle now they virtually shapeshift around each other. It’s quiet, their communication, a hand stretched out, a breath out, a hip dropped or a stride taken, and the 22-year-old mare is cantering on a mere line in a true 10-metre circle, or half-passing (side-passing) with an energy push to her central ribcage. She’s supple, equal on both reins, her attention to her quietly explaining rider is full-on intense.

Ethelle’s speech has a cadence and precision to its careful delivery, deliberate thoughtful pauses, allowing the small seated crowd time to absorb, then ask questions. Teaching, like horsemanship, is an art, a craft, sometimes gifted, true, but also requiring attention to detail, how-to-get-that-thought-across-so-it-connects. She’s pleased, afterwards, when I comment on her timing and delivery, a flash of a lit-up smile.

Horsemanship. A big word. It’s not just about riding a horse, it’s understanding everything that goes with the package. And, with a world increasingly urban, divorced from noticing the land, wildlife, skies and stars and clouds, horsemanship right now has an audience that wants to ride, collect ribbons, to experience the ‘high’ of applause after a thrilling jump-off. But perhaps, have less and less understanding of how horses think, move, basic bio-mechanics even. A horse that begins stopping? Sell it, buy another more amenable. A bit stiff? Let’s try some injections to loosen things up.

The long trot just incorporates everything.

The long trot just incorporates everything.

A little while back I watched a dressage and cross-country practice instructional day of low-to-medium competitive levels. I didn’t see one horse that was as contented, balanced, tuned in as Ethelle’s. There were nosebands and horses chomping, tails swishing, eyes that didn’t tell me this horse was aching to stretch straight with power full on lengthening of stride down the long side of an arena.

I learned to ride in Europe, with cavalry officers who made you ride without stirrups down jumping chutes, or took away your reins to do walk, trot, canter and back down again to trot and walk and halt transitions. One ex-Olympian made us ride as fast down hills as we could ride up them, straight, every footfall balanced, on an inexorable rhythm into banks, through water, related distances. We had to understand bits and leverage, jump distances, stride lengths. To me it was to ride that horse the very best he could be, at whatever he was good at, and come through the finish knowing that horse felt like a king (or queen, I somehow rode a lot of very alpha mares who came in with a no-brakes mentality).

The Fox is my best backcountry horse. He’s a bit of thug, madly jealous when I pay attention to another horse, brave through rivers and scree, wildlife encounters. He’s still frightened of ropes, from a troubled childhood, but tries and tries to be as brave as he can be. He’s had thousands of hours put into schooling on our grassed road allowance fittening rides – where, as a studier of western techniques and range riders covering miles and miles, he’s a bit good now at what that elite group call their ground covering ‘long trot’. It’s a free striding, balanced trot pushed out with freedom of neck and topline that has you up and over the skyline and into Montana in next to no time. You can ride on a contact, or none at all, or on the buckle end, up and down hills of varying inclines.

The Fox loathes snaffles, chews them like a kid on a sugar hit chewing gum. He likes poll pressure and a straight bar bit so in the end he indicated this metal Pelham with a metal chin link was probably as good a deal as any. I personally ride with English style ‘joined’ reins, habit really, and I know he still gets anxious with split ‘Western’ reins, if one drops as with ground tying, up goes the heartbeat. He’ll go ‘English’ or ‘Western’ saddlery – here I learned from master saddler Alan Kidd that range riders and the real cowboys will ride with a relatively slack back cinch that, when the ranch roping work is due to come onto the menu, they’ll get off, tighten up both front and back cinches, get back on and horses know they’re in for some serious work.

I look at this photograph and just think, this is a truly elegant partnership between a two and four-legged. Photo by Shannon Daly Photography

I look at this photograph and just think, this is a truly elegant partnership between a two and four-legged. Photo by Shannon Daly Photography

I take all the knowledge I’ve been gifted with from many talented horsemen, and adapt it to the horse. This boy will do a dressage test, but equally I know he just doesn’t get the point of trotting around some indoor arena (unless it’s for a demo or workshop where people clap – I’m serious!). All our schooling is done out on trails, across open rangelands, circles, opening gates, that’s how his mind works.

And, piecing all that information together, he’s the horse that’s first at the gate, always, his idea of a perfect day is load up, go high, go all day. I’ve stopped to admire a viewpoint and been amused, when I said, go ahead, have a munch of these mountain grasses, that instead he’ll look across fifty miles, thoughtfully nodding that the humans seem to be doing a good job looking after his backcountry.

That a crazily spotted leopard appaloosa with acute fear issues could turn into the go-to-horse if you want to experience his full-on joy at being ridden is such a gift. With thanks to Shannon Daly for yet again capturing the moment with her photography for the ‘long trot’, to Alan Kidd for explaining so much about his own love and historical knowledge of all saddlery going, and the instructors who showed me those seven points of pressure possible with a bridle.

And, yes, for modern technology for helmet and brain safety – for years after a cross-country super-crunch a double skull fracture meant agony wearing helmets for longer than five minutes. My thanks to product knowledge by Michelle at Calgary’s The Horsestore and the featherlight-superfit of Ovation to keep my remaining brain cells intact!

Knowledge, sharing, mentorship…so many blessings. Horsemanship.