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Equestrian Dreams

The Connection Begins
On a cold winter night I walked to the wooden bridge that let me cross the stream and see the horse barn. There were so many stars. The air was sharp with frost and I listened to the sound of the water leaving the pond spillway and flowing over the rocks under the bridge. As I neared the barn I could hear the horses rustling around in their stalls. They knew I was coming. No matter how many times I had made this trip it was always a thrill to open the door and see these four great animals standing quietly, anticipating some connection, chewing what feed they had left, or draping their long faces over their stall doors.

SASCHA: The first foal born in our stable. She was a Quarterhorse and loved following the other horses out on the power line trails in Sooke.
What I remember most was the smell: alfalfa, hay, straw, grain, leather, saddle soap, liniment, wool, cotton, cedar, manure, and horses. We mucked the stalls everyday, and the horses were always put away curried and combed so the smells were always fresh, aromatic, and natural. Some days after a vigorous ride, especially during the winter months, the horses would be lathered and steamy and the moisture would rise into the air to evaporate and meld with the surrounding aromas. Using their waste as part of our compost improved the smell of rotting vegetables.

I love the sounds that horses make. The sound of their breath while nuzzling your hand or neck with their nostrils; the rhythm of their breathing while sleeping; hearing their voices call out to each other or acknowledge your presence. When they are in their stalls I liked the sound of them moving about, tossing their hay, scrapping the sawdust floor, chewing their feed, bumping up against the walls, or swishing their tails. I was often distracted from whatever chore brought me to the barn—my time just listening brought me great peace.

When I was growing up I think I was mostly afraid of horses. Growing up in a big city, there wasn't much chance of being with horses. I'm not so sure where my fear came from. My only association with horses was through the movies of Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and other cowboys that appeared with their famous horses during the Saturday matinees. I remember that there was a police squad in my town that always appeared on horses, but it wasn't till I was involved in protest movements that the horses and I seemed to be on different sides.

When I first started to take riding lessons in 1974, I had some vague recollection of something terrible or ominous that must have befallen me because it made me overly cautious about riding. Several years after I started my lessons, my brother sent me a home movie that our dad had made when we were little kids. Much to my surprise the movie showed me riding a horse, actually a pony, when I was about three years old. I was tied on going around in a ring with a bunch of other three years olds, and I was the only one crying. While no one seemed to know the reason for my tears, it made me laugh and also relieved me somewhat to know that there was some incident in my early life that probably contributed to my sense of caution.

Of course anybody who has any sense stays cautious around horses. No matter how much you love them and work with them, they can spook or do something accidentally that could cause pain to us lightweight humans. At the same time I think I developed a respect for their power, intelligence, and grace that helped me to relate to them in a way that problems never actually occurred.

I purposely used the term "accidentally." I have never experienced a horse doing anything mean to a human. They have an innate sense about not stepping on a live critter. For a couple of years we had barn cats, Hekyll and Jekyll, and they had kittens (I think it was Mrs. Jekyll), which eventually would climb into the stalls with the horses. The horses would sniff at the little kittens, but they never stepped on them and seemed constantly aware of how to keep them safe.

I've also had occasion to be lying down in the field (taking a nap during fence repair) and if the horses would run by during a frisky period, they always managed to jump over me. I have had my foot stepped on, but this again was usually by accident during a grooming activity.

Working Together in Horse Shows

BUCKTHORN: A gentle, tolerant
Percheron whether hauling logs in the
bush or moving smoothly in a Hunter
I have had my share of falls and I did learn the meaning of that expression that says you need to get back up right away and ride that horse as soon as possible. The worst (and most embarrassing) fall I had came when I was riding my favorite horse, Buckthorn, a Percheron/Quarterhorse mix, in a local horse show. He was a big horse, standing 17.2 hands and he was very solidly built, having worked in the bush as a draft horse. I had been taking dressage, cross-country, and jumping lessons with him and he had a great attitude for tolerating this whole new life.

My riding instructor suggested that I might want to put what I learned into practice in a local show. I entered several novice events and we did okay in the flat classes, but I think the judges preferred to award ribbons to Thoroughbreds and Arabians. In my first jumping event, we smoothly crossed the water jump, a second jump that looked like a bridge, another jump that resembled a stone wall and approached the jump in front of the viewing stands: a log fence.

TRIUMPH IN THE SHOW RING: Horses love to jump and they can be urged to go over great heights with a great rider. Buck endured a not-so-great rider.
I had a full beard at the time and I didn't resemble the other male riders who were pretty much clean shaven (of course I don't think any of them were yet old enough to shave either). I adjusted my weight and seat to take the log jump with Buck, and as I started to rise up, Buck decided he wanted to have a better look at this obstacle from a standing still position. The momentum of my body, however, kept me moving towards the jump. Not only towards the jump, but the speed of my approach, helped me do a somersault in the air and land standing up, still holding the reins, on the other side of the log fence. I felt like a trick rider in the circus. I heard someone in the stands say, "His beard must be top heavy" and I heard others laugh. Buck was just standing there quietly and I'd swear his lips had formed a smile.

RING WORK: The ring used hog fuel as a base; it made a soft landing whenever I was thrown.
Falling off a horse isn't the only humiliating thing that can happen while riding. I once agreed to ride a friend's horse in a show class because she felt she wasn't strong enough to control her horse in the manner needed for this event. Now most people don't realize that controlling a horse is primarily done with the legs and seat and only partly with the hands. The controlling movements that a skilled rider makes are hardly noticeable to the average observer. This is probably why most people think the horse is doing all the work when they watch Olympic-level equestrian events. But I can tell you from experience, good riders have to be in excellent physical condition to make a horse look good. I took my friend's horse, whose name I can't recall (and probably with good reason), into the hunter class. This was a big show and there were about 25 other horses in this event.

Most of these events start out the same. All the horses walk around the edge of the ring to get warmed up. Riders typically space themselves so they are not interfering with other horses or blocking the view of the judge. The horse I was riding didn't seem to have 'walk' as one of her gaits. I was zooming past other riders and I was trying to muscle the horse with short reins and a very tight grip. This only resulted in sore arms for me, a feeling that my shoulders were going to come out their sockets, and more spirited walking for the mare.

WILD HORSES: Spanish explorers reintroduced horses to North America in the 1500's.
Each time I passed another rider, I squeaked out a pitiful, "Sorry, very sorry." I wasn't sure what kind of a bit this mare had in her mouth, but whatever it was it had no effect on controlling her movements. The more tense I got, the stronger she seemed to move out. I was beginning to think that I should have taken her out for a long run before this event. But then I started to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. Here I was being Mr. Macho, trying to impress my riding friend of my ability to control any horse and instead I was humiliating myself in front of an audience.

Chuckling to myself, however, resulted in a dramatic change. As I laughed I became more relaxed. My legs became less tense and my seat was lighter in the saddle. I couldn't feel any muscles in my arms, so I'm not sure what happened to them, but the changes in my body communicated a whole new idea to the horse. She slowed her gait and pretty much matched what the other horses were doing. I realized that the pressure of my legs and seat and the stiffness of my hands were confusing the horse. Because she had a reputation of being strong headed, when a rider mounted her, the rider would tense up, the horse would move out with spirit, the rider would tense further, and the horse interpreted this as urging her forward.

Now don't take what I'm saying as a formula or recipe. Horses do share some common traits and learning how to speak (and listen) to horse language is essential for both training, befriending and riding horses. The recent interest in "horse whispering" and particularly the wonderful work of Monty Roberts is a good example of tuning in to what a horse is saying. Yet while horse language has some general principles, individual horses have their own personalities. It would be a mistake to apply principles without first getting to know the horse by observing and communicating with it.

Horse Whispering Simplified
For a while I owned a great spirited American Standardbred we named Red Bird. He loved to play and he had the unfortunate habit of biting. If he was in his stall in the barn and an unsuspecting visitor walked down the aisle, Redbird would reach over his stall door and nip whoever came within range. It was kinda funny when people would observe his beautiful color and physique, and walk up to him and just as they were about to say the horse equivalent of "pretty kitty," he would reach over and go for skin with his teeth. Although we thought of him as a guard horse, when he was in his stall he was dangerous to strangers.

I tried many techniques to rid him of the habit. I won't go into the details here, but nothing seemed to work. Finally someone told me about a book written by a horse whisperer who had cured one of Queen Elizabeth's Royal equines of some nasty habits. (no, it wasn't Princess Margaret). The book was an encyclopedia of sure-fire techniques for problem horses. I went to the library, but the book was out. I waited 12 weeks for it to be returned. When the notice came that it was in, I made a special trip into the city to pick it up. Rather than waiting till I got back, I looked up "biting horses" right away, eager to consider how I would be able to put aside any income earning activity and devote full-time to the cure.

When I turned to the chapter on horses that bite, it was short, simple, and painfully obvious. Here is virtually a word-for-word recollection of that chapter (in case you have a horse that bites): "If you have a horse that bites, sell it."

Scaring the Herd
One day coming back to the farm in Saseenos from my job in Victoria I found that the traffic on the two-lane highway was backed up for a quite a way. As I was cursing whatever was causing this delay, all four of my horses plus a friend's horse we gave a temporary home to came sprinting across the road, galloping through the lawns and driveways of the adjacent houses.

Somebody must have opened our gate to the field where the horses spent the day grazing. I pulled my car over to the side and started chasing after them on foot. Fortunately for me they were staying together in a herd and were pretty much following what the lead horse was doing. But they were scared and I could see from the shine on their coats, they were lathered up with sweat and foam.

The lead horse, I wasn't surprised to observe, was Buck. Several other people had abandoned their cars and wanted to help, but when they saw how big Buck was and how wild-eyed Red Bird looked they backed off. Two mares and a two-year old rounded out the group.

BUCK IN THE LEAD: Tromping towards the cemetery.
I started running towards them trying to keep up and because they were so tired and scared, they couldn't keep up the pace much longer. I knew I wasn't going to be able to. Eventually they wound-up in a cemetery near the ocean. They were just standing around breathing hard with great puffs of breath going up as mist in the air. I think they just said to themselves,"Okay, we've had fun, now how do we get back to the grain, water, and peace of our territory?"

Buck let me walk up to him. I grabbed his mane and swung up on his back. He was soaked and I think, grateful. While some gracious observers directed the traffic and kept the cars from scaring all of us, I rode Buck about two kilometers to our field, and the other horses just followed closely with their heads down.

Back at the barn I washed them down, cleaned them up and then collapsed of exhaustion myself. A few hours later I remembered my car was five kilometers down the road.

Riding in Mexico
I spent two different winters in the city of San Miguel de Allende at Escuela Ecuestre, a riding school 175 miles northwest of Mexico City. Most of the school instructors were primarily former Mexican Army cavalry officers. They liked discipline, routine, and hard work. The instructors used to call me "Reymondo" which basically means king of the world in Spanish. However, the tone they used when saying it meant: you are a novice and in need of considerable instruction that only I can provide to someone of your lowly stature.

We'd start each day with drills. First we would warm up the horses and do some stretching exercises to help limber our own bodies. There were about ten people in the class and skill level ranged from novice to Olympic riders. Our exercises started with easy limbering activities, such as stretching our arms, twisting our torsos, reaching forward to touch the horses' nose. However, then we would move on to what I called the circus phase. In these exercises the purpose was to develop more of a sense of balance and rhythm. We would start by letting go of the reins and leaning all the way back on the horse so that our heads were touching the horses rump (while at the same time keeping the horses moving forward by using our legs). The instructors would shout out commands and corrections to each of us.

Then we would try kneeling on the horse's rump while the horse was moving forward. We were then instructed to kneel on just one knee and place the sole of our boot of the other leg on the horse's rump. Eventually we were supposed to be able to stand up, boots firmly planted on the horse's rump (and I suppose blowing kisses to the audience with one hand). I never made it. "Reymondo, your are chicken? Do not worry the ground is soft, the earth is near."

After the circus portion, we would spend a good part of the morning working on dressage movements and trying to learn the finer points of both dressage routine and subtle cues to the horses. One thing the instructors favored was the use of spurs. Maybe you've seen spur displays in museums that show the history of the Spanish in the New World. Many of the spurs look lethal. This was a new way for me to learn how to communicate to a horse, and my reluctance to spur a horse was always met by laughter from the instructors and the admonition,"Reymondo, it does not hurt your mount, it only gets their attention."

THE PLAZA (ZOCALO): In the centre is a statue of General Allende on horseback, of course.
When the ring work was over, we would leave the riding centre and take the horses out on the high desert. San Miguel is in the mountainous central region of Mexico and is primarily a flat, desert area covered with chaparral and cactus on a plateau at 7,000 feet above sea level with an occasional shack, shade tree and no paved roads.

We would ride as a group, and every now and then the instructor would point out some part of the environment that would serve as a jump for us to try. Most of the time it was a cactus or series of mesquite bushes. Anyone who fell had to buy cokes for the rest of the group (and had to pick out the spines from the cactus by themselves). Actually the toughest part of this was not the jumping, but controlling your horse when the others horses were making their movement to the jumps. Each person had to leave the group and ride off to the jump, leaving the other riders behind. Horses are very social animals, so being left behind while another horse is cantering off in the distance is not their idea of a good time. And having to leave the group while the other horses are behind is not their idea of a good time either. In either case the horses would get fidgety and excited, so keeping them calm and in a controlled gait was often a struggle. Being the last rider to go was the toughest and each of us had to experience this action as our horse would want to race (way beyond the appropriate speed to properly take the jump) to get to where the others had gone.

Sometimes we would take several jumps in a row, going over bushes of different heights with no idea as to what was on the other side. Of course, guessing 'desert' always proved to be true. There was never a cloud in the clear blue sky, and the sweat used to penetrate my sun screen. I looked forward to arriving at one of the shacks where a family (cousins to one of the instructors) kept a refrigerator full of cokes.

The Narrow Streets of San Miguel: Everyone rode tall and proud in the saddle as we wound through the town.
After we refreshed ourselves, we would start what proved to be the part I liked the best. Rather than riding directly back to the stables and following the route we had taken to bring us out into the desert, we would take a road that led us back into the town of San Miguel de Allende. The town, which has a fabulous art school and a world-famous language school, is named after General Ignacio Allende who played an important role in the Mexican War of independence from Spain.

The streets are all cobblestones and the buildings along most streets are still in the old Spanish style with high adobe walls and wrought-iron grillwork gates opening into flower-strewn courtyards. As a matter of fact, the walls were originally built so that people on horseback riding by could not see in. The fronts of many haciendas are decorated with tile, and clay pots filled with flowers line the streets. Food stalls and street cooking yielding the smell of peppers, tortillas, beans and meats were part of our tour. I imagined myself to be one of the Conquistadores triumphantly passing through and being welcomed by the inhabitants of the city.

The sound of the horses' hooves on the cobblestone, echoing off the adobe walls in the narrow passageways along with the gleam and jangling of the spurs, the groan of leather and the snorting of the horses was a tremendously thrilling experience. When we finally reached the stable after our saunter through the town, something else would happen that was amazing and somewhat disconcerting. The school had grooms. Back home after a long ride, I looked forward to the dismount and cleaning routine: picking the hooves, washing and drying the horse, using the combs and brushes, oiling the feet, tending to any cuts or abrasions (on the horse!). But here, it was considered below our status to engage in these tasks. At home I found these tasks pleasurable and satisfying.

When the day's riding was over, most of the students would retire to a lovely hotel, which I believe was called the Atascadero, and we would talk horses through the evening and the margaritas. The next morning we'd ignore any soreness from the previous day's ride and begin the lessons once again.

I haven't been riding now for several years, and the Escuela in San Miguel is no longer in operation. I sold all the horses I owned and buried some others that died of old age. When I'm out for a drive in the country, I still love to stop at the side of the road and visit. Fortunately for me, my nephew married a wonderful woman who is truly an equestrienne and works for the owners of the most beautiful horse stable I have ever seen. They even got married there, and as much as I love them both, I think I was more thrilled to be around the horses then to see them get hitched up.

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