My Journey to horsemanship
I have always enjoyed watching horses. Anytime I am in the presence of horses I can’t help but focus my attention on them. I have even stopped on the side of the road to watch horses interact with each other in a pasture. I find it fascinating to just stop and observe. I found myself decades ago watching herds of horses and trying to figure out who was who in the herd, who was the alpha, what they were trying to communicate to each other, watching foals play and trying to discern what was acceptable behavior and what was not. I could just sit and watch them for hours.
I thought that their language was so simple and easy to understand at that time. After all, if they were excited they would be running and whinnying and their heads and tails would be high. If they were calm they would be grazing, relaxing or casually walking somewhere. I remember thinking that if their tail was swishing back and forth that it meant that they were happy, just like a dog. I thought it was simple and uncomplicated. Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, I got my first horse. He was this beautiful tall mustang gelding that was a palomino paint in color and he was full of energy, fear and distrust. He was rounded up as a yearling and had the misfortune of being started by an old cowboy who started horses the old cowboy way. He was saddled, cinched up with very little preparation and he was scared to death. I was told that the first time he was saddled that he started bucking and the saddle flew in the air and he kicked that saddle 2 times before it hit the ground. This story was told to me a couple of years after I purchased the horse. If I had known this, I might have changed my mind about purchasing him. I named him Flaxy and I was so intimidated by him that I had to have him delivered to me when I bought him because I did not know how to handle him. Needless to say, I had no business getting a horse that I did not know how to handle. All I saw was that he was so beautiful that I had to have him. It did not take me long to realize that I knew very little about horses or how they think or how to communicate effectively with them! This is when the real journey began.
For the next few years I found myself barely getting by with my lack of horse knowledge. I figured everybody who had a horse longer than I did must know more about horses than me. I was hungry for knowledge and I would find myself seeking advice from anyone at the boarding stables who would listen to me. I had tons of questions and I was determined to learn. I knew how to stay on a horse and we could ride on the trail pretty successfully and for the time being, I was OK with that. I did keep searching for answers such as, how do I keep my horse out of my personal space when I am leading him somewhere or how do I teach him to back up? I found myself shocked by the lack of knowledge that all these other people had. Nobody seemed to know how to fix the problems I was having. How could there be so many people with horses that did not know how to resolve problems? I remember having several dreams where Flaxy and I would be together and he would start communicating to me in English and I would be so shocked and happy that he could talk. I would tell him that I had so many questions that I wanted to ask him. I wanted to communicate with him so much and I wanted to understand him.
I had two things going for me at the time, determination and lack of fear. At least at that time I thought that those were in my favor. As it turned out having a lack of knowledge and a lack of fear did not serve me well. After several years of having my horse Flaxy, I still lacked knowledge but I was pretty confident about being able to ride on the local trails. Then the day came that a friend was having trouble with his horse during a trail ride and I thought I could fix it. I dismounted my horse and confidently walked over to his horse and began to immediately get on this horse. As I put my foot in the stirrup and began to swing my other leg over his back he became terrified and he reared up and flipped over backwards and landed on top of me, saddle and all, and we were on asphalt. I woke up in the hospital with a concussion and I permanently lost my sense of smell.
The accident turned my whole life around. Fear crept in and my riding took on a new level of unconfidence. What I was about to learn really shocked me. The more unconfident I became, the more unconfident Flaxy became. I tried to hide it and disguise it but I was not tricking Flaxy at all. The horse that had learned to trust me now was losing trust in me. I was not his confident fearless leader anymore.
I soon found myself at a crossroad. My fear was stronger than ever, I did not know how to fix it and my beloved Flaxy became ill and passed away suddenly. I did not know what to do. My love for horses was so strong but so was my fear. What do I do? Do I walk away from horses and leave my fear with it? How can I go get another horse when I have lost my confidence? I found that I could only stay away from the stables for a couple of days after losing Flaxy and then I had to go back. I missed my best friend Flaxy more than words can say! I also missed just being around horses. A couple of days seemed like a lifetime! I was like a magnet being drawn back to the stables. I knew then that I would have to get another horse. I went on a search and I kept finding the same thing over and over again. Horses that were dull and resistant and many looked like they just did not have a zest for life anymore. At that time my budget was small and I could not afford a well-trained, well bred horse. Then I met a new friend at the stables who had a very nice mare that she was willing to lease me to ride and to breed. If I could not find a horse for sale that I liked, then I could just breed a mare and start from scratch. Since I still lacked knowledge, this would bring on a whole other set of challenges.
I had a visions of this future foal that I could imprint and love and handle with such care that it would be almost like a big puppy dog and we would have this amazing relationship. I envisioned us galloping around everywhere together and she would be so tuned in with me that we could accomplish anything! What a beautiful dream! I had it all worked out in my mind. It was going to be amazing! No more fear, just blissful fun!
Then the day came that she is born. I had stayed in a camper right next to the stall so that I could be present for the birth. I called my friends so that they could be here to witness the birth and help with the imprinting. We were all so excited. The birth went well and she was beautiful. She had a perfect white blaze down her face, a nice sorrel coat and she was beautiful. My heart was filled with love and my dream was here! My friends and I had practiced some imprinting techniques on dogs so that we would be prepared and we even made a big poster with all the information for imprinting on it so that we would not forget anything. We were set, we were going to rock this first session with the new born foal which I named Cheyenne.
That moment was short lived. Cheyenne’s dam was rejecting her immediately after birth. Her mom was squealing and kicking at her and completely panicked. It would be several hours before Cheyenne’s dam would allow her close enough to nurse off of her. The two would have to be monitored for quite a while to make sure that Cheyenne did not get hurt. We proceeded with the imprinting but we did not have enough savvy at the time to realize that the imprinting we were doing was not being done correctly. None of us really understood the concept at that time, so instead of conditioning her to relax when we added stimulus, we taught her to tense up. If you stop a stimulus while the horse is nervous, worried or scared, then the horse will continue to have that same response. So our well thought out plans had all backfired.
Cheyenne turned out to be a complex individual from the first day. I could not understand how to be the leader that she needed me to be. All I wanted to do was to love her and play with her and eventually ride off into the sunset with her. Cheyenne was not about to have any of that. She was fearful, lacked trust, defiant, introverted and often hard to figure out. She would not let me love on her and she was mentally and emotionally braced against me.
Cheyenne would turn out to be one of my greatest teachers. It is because of her that I went on a quest to learn so much about horses and horsemanship. I did not know it at the time but it would also lead me on a quest of self-development. I found out that you can’t have one without the other. Horsemanship and self-development go hand in hand. There is a saying that your horse is your mirror. Cheyenne reflected back to me that I had a lot of self-work to do. In her first few years she had kicked me, bucked me off, and even came up behind me and bit me aggressively on the calf muscle. Luckily I had jeans on! Someday I may have to write a book just about our journey together.
Cheyenne is still with me and she is 18 years old now. We have come a long way together and I have been able to accomplish a lot with her over the years. She is light and responsive and has beautiful gaits. She is retired now and lives in a pasture with my other horses. She is not sound enough to do much with anymore. She has had some slips and falls out in the pasture which has left her with injuries. Our relationship is good now and she comes to me regularly with a soft gently expression on her face. She has always been the alpha horse with every horse that I have had her with. No other horses have ever been allowed to groom with her but she will allow me to groom her without any negative expressions, which is HUGE for her.
During the trials and tribulations of raising Cheyenne, I began a quest to learn more about horses, gaining confidence and how to problem solve. A friend loaned me a DVD of a man named Pat Parelli riding a horse around an open field bareback and bridle-less. He was galloping up and down hills, cutting a cow, spinning and turning. My eyes were huge and my mouth was wide open. I had never seen such a demonstration. I needed to find out more. I wanted to be able to do what he was doing! It gave me hope that I could get my dream back! I began studying the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program and I never looked back.
That does not mean that the journey was easy. I was challenged in so many ways. I was unconfident, Cheyenne was unconfident, I could not understand her and she wanted nothing to do with me. I would go out to the pasture to try and get her and she would run to the other end of the pasture. It is hard to learn on a horse that is learning too! Pat said to start with your easiest horse but I was stubborn. I wanted to learn with Cheyenne. I made more mistakes than I could possibly count but in time I learned that this journey was more about my self-development than it was about horse development. I needed to become humble, a good student, I needed to learn the horse’s language, I needed to learn how to become a horsewomen. I soon came to realize that I was on a journey of self-development that would affect every aspect of my life. I would become not just a better horsewoman, but I would also become a better wife, mother, friend and teacher.
I ended up having to work my way through the Parelli program with three different horses. I worked my way into Level 3 with Cheyenne and then when she started having soundness problems. I then switched to a wonderful quarter horse named Noche. Noche was kind and easy going and she would help me gain a lot of confidence while I was learning. Noche and I worked through Level 3 and part of Level 4 and then arthritis got the best of her and I knew it was time for her to retire. I was fortunate enough to acquire a wonderful Atwood Ranch appendix horse which I named Troubadour. Troubadour and I passed our Level 4 together. With a solid foundation under our belt I decided I needed to do something with it. I looked into many sports and decided that I wanted to try Cowboy Dressage. I like the principles behind the sport because I felt like it matched up with my principles. So I gave it a try. Our first time competing was nerve wracking for me. I was nervous which made my horse nervous and when he saw the judging booth at the end of the arena, he spooked and became very tense. Needless to say we did not score well. After our first initiation into the competition world, thing got much better. I decided to compete in the two hardest tests offered at the time in Cowboy Dressage Open Division in Southern California. During the year we entered into several competitions and we scored 1st and 2nd on every test. We also came home with two ribbons for High Point Reserve Champion and two Champion halters. What mattered to me was not so much the ribbons and halters but it was the compliments that I would get from other riders telling me how beautiful it was to watch Troubadour and I ride together. Our harmony and connection is well noticed. I want people to see that you can achieve your dreams with a horse without force or tie downs and that it can be harmonious!
I have and will always continue to learn and grow as a person and a horsewoman. I love studying and playing with the art of finesse riding, bridle less riding, liberty work and cowboy dressage and will continue to expand my interests. I also love to teach horsemanship and I love to help people to understand their horses so that they can achieve their dreams. The journey will never be over. It is a love and a passion of mine!
I had some wonderful instructors that I was blessed to work with and I am deeply grateful for all that they taught me. They enriched my journey in so many ways! I also have some wonderful horses of my own, as well as horses that belong to friends and students that have taught me how to be the leader that they need and deserve. I owe a heartfelt thanks to all of them! They will all live in my heart forever! I am also extremely grateful to my wonderful husband Mike who has stood by me and encouraged me through every step of my journey. I don’t know where I would be without his love and support!! I love you with all of my heart Mike!!
As for the present and future, it gives me great pleasure to help people learn how to understand horse behaviors and how to communicate effectively with horses. I want people to know when a horse is in a good frame of mind, how to help a horse gain confidence, and how to help people gain their own confidence. It is important to know when a horse is in the right frame of mind to learn and to be ridden, and when the horse is not in the right frame of mind and what to do to help the horse to be in the right frame of mind. I want the horse to be confident in our world and I want my students to have the knowledge to help their horse gain the confidence that they need so that goals can be achieved. I can help students with various problems that they may be encountering such as ground manners, impulsion issues, spooking, trailer loading, saddling and developing better riding skills.