Newbie Horse Rider

Blog for new adult horse riders

Month: September 2016

Utopian’s Walker

Utopian's Walker

Utopian’s Walker

One day, while sick at home with a nasty cold, I decided to peruse the Equine Now site where we had found Flynn.  I started to scroll down the list of local horses for sale when my eye was drawn to this remarkable paint horse.  The ad said that he was a registered Paint Horse and showed a video of him being tacked up and ridden in a fierce wind storm.  Despite the gusty winds rattling fences and blowing plastic bags down the street, he didn’t flinch.  I was most impressed.  I immediately called the owner to arrange a meet and greet.  Now, I had learned a few things by this point in the game.  Before going out to meet Walker I asked why the owner was selling him, and whether he had papers.  The owner had all of his papers;  he was being sold due to financial problems faced by the owner and her husband.

Having explained to Walker’s owner that I was looking for a trail horse extraordinaire, she suggested that she meet me at the ranch where we kept Flynn for a trail ride.  When she arrived I was completely smitten by Walker’s beautiful markings.  However, I was determined not to be shallow and get too swept up by his looks.  First, his owner rode him in the arena so I could make sure that he wasn’t some wild, crazy horse.  Then, I tried out my saddle on him to make sure it fit (that may have been a deal breaker for me given how much I had paid for it) and climbed on board.  Other than some issues getting him down a steep ravine with flowing water, we had a wonderful ride.  He was solid, steady, and had the most lovely relaxed lope I had ever experienced.  Best of all, he was insanely brave, not spooking at any of the deer, bobcat, and various birds that frequently jumped out of trees along the way.  After a two hour trail ride I was sufficiently convinced that he was the one.  I should mention that I had looked at and even tested a couple of other horses before finding Walker, so I did heed my own advice and shopped around.

Now, Walker was definitely more expensive than either Hope or Flynn, but he was priced fairly based on his exceptional trail riding abilities.  Of course, no horse is perfect and I quickly discovered that his ground manners were severely lacking.  Also, he completely abhorred riding in the arena, clearly grumpy at the prospect of having to go around in circles.  I felt fairly confident that I would be able to improve his ground manners (which I did, eventually), and I wasn’t too concerned about the arena riding since I only wanted to ride him on the trails.  Walker saw trail riding as his job and he took it mighty seriously.

Walker was brave, but he was also pushy and very dominant.  My newbie mistake with Walker was that I didn’t stop to consider why he was this way, or whether I had the skills to handle a horse with such a dominant personality.  My newbie brain saw only two things: pretty horse that was good on trails.  Horses, as with people, have complex personalities (or horsealities). The same character trait that made him courageous also made him stubborn and pushy.  At the age of ten Walker had been permitted to get away with all kinds of bad behavior that no newbie was going to break him of.  It’s like expecting to change an adult who has been spoiled senseless their entire life.  It would take a little while before I had to deal with the full consequences of his bull headed ways.

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Flynn

Flynn

Flynn

Emma and Flynn

Emma and Flynn

Hope did not have registration papers, thus it was only an educated guess as to how old she actually was.  Here is another cautionary tale for my fellow newbies: be wary of horses being sold without proper documentation.  Without registration papers it is difficult to know how old the horse is that you are buying, or where they came from.  The vet who did the pre-purchase check for us estimated that she was about 15.  However, another vet who looked her over thought she might be well into her twenties.  That’s quite a difference!  Her distaste for people did not improve once we brought her home.  She tested us from the get go and, newbies that we were, let her get away with the majority of her naughty behavior.  When she refused to do something, we’d kick and kick and kick, usually to no avail.  Unfortunately, as much as I adored my daughter’s instructor, she was not a horse trainer and was not able to provide the kind of guidance we desperately needed.  We tried lunging her, but Hope would only pin her ears and intimidate us.  She had our number from the start and clearly knew that we could be bullied into submission.  Nevertheless, we did ride her.  My daughter, being younger and braver, was riding Hope bareback in no time.  Those two did have a lot of fun together, and I think that Hope responded to my daughter simply because she was a child.  While I did ride Hope on occasion,  twice I was thrown to the ground when she decided to spin around.  Since her first attempt to unseat me was a success, she soon discovered how to get me off of her when she didn’t feel like working.

We were forced to find another boarding situation when the owner of our barn lost her lease on the land that she rented for the stable.  We found a new boarding facility at a ranch that specialized in trail riding.  It was somewhat disorganized, but we loved having access to miles and miles of trails.  Plus, we could borrow one of their horses any time we wanted to go for a ride together.  The downside was that Hope was terrified of the trails and refused to go out on her own.  My daughter tried to exercise her in the arena, but she was uncooperative and started bucking.  Hope was unhappy and we were miserable.  It was time to start looking for a new horse.

We found Flynn, a registered American Quarter Horse, at a ranch not far from the Oklahoma border.  This ranch, run by a wonderful couple from the Netherlands, specialized in training and selling horses.  We had seen Flynn on their website and drove up to take a look at him.  His given name was Cupid, due to his birthday falling on Valentine’s Day, but we renamed him Flynn, a good Irish name to mirror the beautiful red highlights in his coat.  He was sweet, gentle, and brave; everything you could ask for in a trail horse.  Learning from a few of our past mistakes with Hope, we made sure that Flynn came with registration papers so we knew his age (10) as well as his history of ownership.  Once we got Flynn back to our ranch, he did not disappoint.  Ride after ride after ride, Flynn remained brave and steadfast.  He went past hikers with enormous backpacks, bobcat, deer, and bicycles, just like a well-seasoned trail horse should.  Flynn did, however, have a few back issues which we soon cleared up with the help of an equine chiropractor.  (We knew that he had issues when he crow hopped every time we asked for the canter.)  I even took him out on long trail rides by myself, which in retrospect was probably not the smartest thing for a newbie to do.  My seat was unbalanced, my legs too far forward, and my hands all over the place – I really had no business being on that horse let alone on a trail all by myself.  It is true what they say, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Wanting to try her hand at riding English, my daughter starting taking lessons from a wonderful trainer who rode both hunt seat and dressage.  Once a week she would come to the ranch and teach my daughter in an arena that was dusty and had footing as hard as cement (yes, I’m positive this contributed to his back issues).  My daughter took to riding English like a fish in water.  I started to wonder how much longer we could get away with sharing a horse.  Maybe it was time to start looking for one of my own.

 

 

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Hope

Hope

Hope

Emma and Hope

Emma and Hope

My daughter had been taking lessons for a year when she began asking for a horse.  So many of the girls she rode with had their own horses, so we were not entirely surprised when the question came up.  By this point I had regained a small amount of confidence in the saddle, and by this I mean that I could walk and trot without debilitating fear taking over.  My daughter’s instructor suggested that we first try leasing a horse before launching into buying.  To this day, I believe that leasing before buying is a wonderful way to go.  By leasing one of the barn’s horses we were able to get a feel for horse ownership.  The lease turned out to be a huge success.  Three to four days a week my daughter and I tacked up this sweet mare and took turns riding – I would simply walk and trot while my daughter cantered across an open field.  Yes, we decided we were definitely reading for horse ownership.

What’s the expression?  If I had only known then what I know now.  What follows are some lessons learned from a newbie horse rider.  First, when looking into buying a horse, check out numerous horses.  Second, if an owner tries to use high pressure sales tactics to get you to buy a horse, walk away.   Third, don’t be in a rush; finding a good horse takes time and lots of patience.  Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time, so you’ll have to excuse my blatant stupidity.

I found Hope on a website that serves as a marketplace for people selling horses and horse equipment.  My budget was small, so our options were definitely limited.  According to the ad Hope was sweet, gentle, and perfect for any beginning rider.  The ad even showed a picture of a woman sitting on the ground underneath the horse.  Well, I was certainly convinced, plus the price was right.  Without a moments hesitation, we were on our way to inspect this marvelous newbie horse.  We did, I should mention, bring my daughter’s riding instructor with us.  Unfortunately, she feel prey to the same high pressure tactic that we did.

There were a few discrepancies between the Hope pictured in the ad and the Hope that now stood before us.The advertisement said that Hope was 15 hh, when in reality she was closer to 14.2 hh.  As soon as I approached her she shied away, and tried at all cost to avoid our hands which were desperate to stroke her neck.  I took this behavior to mean that she was simply shy, like a child.  It wouldn’t be long before we realized that she didn’t trust people, likely a result of some abuse in her past.  I feel a pang in the bottom of my stomach when I think of the abuse Hope had likely endured, and while I am very supportive of horse rescue, a newbie rider is not the ideal person to teach an abused horse to trust again.  In addition to her psychological scars, her completely white face – what is called bald faced – had traces of sunburn on the skin around her nose and crystal blue eyes.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, bald faced horses with blue eyes have an especially high rate of squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.  Judging from the sunburn on her face, Hope had probably been pasture kept in the blazing Texas sun.

Still, we were intoxicated by the thought of owning our own horse, and silently ignored those telltale warning signs.   After watching the seller and my daughter’s instructor ride Hope, my daughter and I jumped on and took her for a short spin around a very tiny arena. Some nagging voice inside my head said that we should go home and think this over before making a final decision.  The seller immediately employed her hard sale tactic, warning us that there were other people  scheduled to come and ride Hope.   Fearful that I would loose her, I handed over a check as a deposit.  Pending a full vet check, Hope was ours.

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Texas

Cattle Drive Fort Worth, TX

Cattle Drive Fort Worth, TX

Stock Yards, Fort Worth, TX

Stock Yards, Fort Worth, TX

In December of 2010, ten days before Christmas to be exact, my family moved from Indiana to Texas.  Although I had lived in Texas for a while as a kid, it still took some time to settle into the local culture.  One of the first things we did was to check out the cattle drive at the stock yards in Fort Worth.  The second thing we did was to find our seven year old daughter, Emma, a barn where she could take riding lessons.

Emma had horses in her blood from the second she was born.  For her third birthday she asked for a “horsey”.  Well, naturally my husband and I assumed that she was asking for a rocking horse since she loved riding the mechanical horse at the local grocery store.  My husband (what a saint!) drove around to about ten different stores until he found the perfect rocking horse.  It had two settings: one which played music and the other which repeated a string of cheesy cowboy sayings (“Ride ’em Cowboy!).  We were so proud of ourselves for finding such a nifty horse for our three year old.  Our excitement soon turned to bewilderment when my daughter looked at the rocking horse with a dazed look on her face.  It didn’t take us long to figure out that when she had asked for a horsey, she had meant a real horsey!  Nevertheless, she enjoyed countless hours galloping away on that plastic horse, while we endured countless headaches from listening to the prerecorded cowboy voice.

But, I digress.  My husband and I had promised Emma that she could begin taking riding lessons once she turned 7, and so I began to search for that perfect beginning riding instructor.  Although there were a number of horse ranches (yes, in Texas they are ranches, not barns) near us, I wanted to make sure that Emma’s instructor came with solid reviews.  I searched for local horse barns that taught beginning riders, and met with a few instructors.  While the stables were well kept and the instructors friendly, they did not feel like a good match for my daughter.  She was quiet and a little timid.  It was important that I find a place with a relaxed atmosphere, and one where she could learn alongside other kids her age.  This is where I discovered that barns/ranches and instructors are not one-size-fits-all.  What works well for one newbie may not work well for another.

One night, while searching on the computer for yet more barns, I came across the number for a local saddle club.  This particular club was the epicenter of youth western riding in the town where we lived, bringing together kids and adults of all ages for fun rodeo style competition.  I called the club president and told her my situation.  Without hesitating, she gave me the name and number of the “best dang riding instructor”  for children in the area.  I was assured that there was no one better to teach the fundamentals of riding to my little girl.

After touring numerous fancy barns, this one took me by surprise.  It was dusty, very rustic, and all of the horses were kept in outdoor paddocks.  The riding arena, also outside, was on a slight incline, and tack was kept in a door less shed.  Well, you know the old adage – don’t judge a book by its cover.  The same can be said for horse barns.  There were no fancy stables, no indoor riding arena, no horse washing area, not even a bathroom.  What we did find, however, was priceless: patient instruction, friendship, and a whole lot of fun!   Emma learned to ride in the most supportive environment I could ever imagine.  She received hugs when she fell off, and encouragement to get back on.  In the blink of an eye, my shy daughter, was cantering bareback through fields with her friends.  It was this same marvelous instructor who encouraged me to get back on a horse after a fifteen year hiatus.  I learned a valuable lesson from this experience: when searching for barns, what’s on the inside matters far more than what’s on the outside.

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A cautionary tale

Riding: The art of keeping a horse between you and the ground. – Author Unknown

My future in equestrian sports was derailed for quite some time after my initial experience due to high school, college, and the fact that I was living in the middle of New York City.  Fast forward some thirteen years by which point I was married, living in upstate NY, and the mother of a six-month old boy.  Despite having a schedule that kept me going from morning until night, I began to long for that feeling of being in the saddle.  It all came back to me, while cleaning out the basement one Saturday, when I came across my old riding helmet and crop.  The helmet still held remnants of horse hair in the worn velvet cover, and I pressed my nose up to it hoping to catch even a glimmer of that intoxicating horse smell.  I’m sure my husband thought I was nuts, sitting there in the middle of a mountain of junk, smelling an old hat.  Closing my eyes, I pictured myself in the saddle, wind in my hair, hearing the rhythmic beat of my mount’s hoofs.  There were plenty of barns in the area we were living in; maybe I’d make some inquiries.

Now back in the old days…we didn’t have internet.  If you are older than 35, I’m sure you remember those days.  In order to find a barn where I could take lessons I had to thumb through the yellow pages.  You know, those grossly heavy books they still leave by your mailbox, only to be thrown into the recycling bin?  I picked a random barn out of the directory.  It appeared to meet all of my requirements: it was affordable, it was close to my house, and their ad was really big and fancy.  Must be good, right?  Excited but nervous, I headed to my lesson with old riding helmet and crop in tow.  The barn was nice; it stabled some thirty horses and had a large indoor arena.  Even though it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the barn was completely absent of riders.  My very young instructor met me as soon as I walked in, and led me to the horse that I would be riding.  I confessed to her my nerves, and explained that it had been a number of years since I had last been on a horse.  She assured me that the mare I would be riding was a lesson horse used solely for beginning riders.  As she tacked up my mount, I watched as the horse jumped from side to side, acting very skittish.  Something about this scenario didn’t feel right, but I suppressed those nagging feelings of doubt telling myself that it was just nerves.  After climbing into the saddle we walked around the arena for a few times until we both started to relax, then we did a little trotting.  It actually was coming back to me, and I rounded the arena for a third time, settling into a comfortable posting trot.  As I turned a corner and continued my trot down the long side, a barn cat jumped through a hole in the arena wall.  I’m pretty sure that I saw the cat before my horse did, and my immediate reaction was not a wise one.  I kicked my horse to go, somehow thinking that if she didn’t see the cat all would be well.  Immediately after nudging her to go, the cat jumped in front of my horse and I pulled back hard on the reins.  If only I knew then what I know now… My reaction of telling the horse to go and then pulling back hard on the reins caused her to rear up and flip over.  Luckily, she didn’t land on me.  However, I did land on my back causing a few small fractures and a bruised kidney.  My mental pain was far worse than the physical pain.  It would be fifteen years before I would find the courage to get on a horse again.

Had internet been available back then, I probably wouldn’t have picked that barn for lessons.  I do not blame the horse at all, and I’m grateful every day that neither of us were more seriously hurt.  However, in retrospect, I do feel that the instructor put me on a horse that did not match my riding ability.  Who knows, it’s been so many years now that many of the smaller details have escaped my memory.  I share this experience with you, certainly not to scare, but as a cautionary tale in finding a barn with a lesson program that meets your needs and riding ability.  It’s a good idea to check out multiple barns and meet with the lesson instructors before taking a lesson.  I wish I had.

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England

My first real foray into riding occurred in 1981 when I was 14 years old.  My family was living in England at the time, and I finally had the opportunity to take lessons at a stable near the school I attended.  It was a beautiful barn situated on the edge of national park land.  Twice a week I would pull on my breeches, slip on my wellies, and head out to the stable with a group of other horse-loving girls.  The other people in my lesson group had been riding since first grade, so I was a little intimidated.  I was scared to ask questions, and so, despite taking lessons every week for two years, I never gained a significant level of confidence in the saddle.  After two years, I was going over small jumps and even galloping across open fields with my friends.   However, I never learned the small details that create a truly confident and well balanced rider.  My leg position was all over the place, my hands were usually gripping the reins for dear life, and my seat was anything but balanced.  Group lessons can work wonders for some people, but for others, such as myself, not so much.   As a result of this experience, I can now give you my first piece of advice:  before signing up for riding lessons, ask yourself what kind of learner you are.  If you like to ask lots of questions and prefer interacting with your instructor, then private or small group instruction is probably best for you.  However, if you enjoy being in a class with multiple people where you can learn from each other as well as from your instructor, then you may be happier in a large group setting.  We’ll talk more about choosing a riding instructor, but in the meantime think about what kind of learner you are and whether you would feel comfortable in a large group setting.

 

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Why Horses?

There is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse. –  John Lubbock (1894)

Truthfully, I’m not entirely certain where my love of horses came from.  My mother grew up in rural Nova Scotia and always regaled us with stories of the horses she had growing up.  However, unlike my mother, the majority of my childhood was spent in northern New Jersey where homes were built on tiny lots and fields with horses could only be found on long drives out to ‘the country’.  As a child I was a voracious reader, spending hours engrossed in books about girls and their horses, running free and wild through endless meadows.  One summer, around the age of nine, I finally had the opportunity to ride a horse while visiting a YMCA camp near the Pennsylvania border.  Even though my first excursion into riding lasted less than an hour, I was hooked.  That physical and spiritual connection with another living thing was life-changing.  From that day forth, I prayed for a horse every night before I went to bed.

But I still haven’t fully answered the question: why horses?  I have always found it miraculous that these beautiful, majestic creatures would ever let a human anywhere near them, let alone on their backs.  Horses are herbivores who have survived for millions of years by fleeing from danger, and yet most horses are trusting enough to allow a human to throw a leather (cow hide) saddle on their back and climb on board.  In addition, horses have always amazed me with their complex emotional intelligence and innate curiosity.  I once read a story about a horse that was so connected to its owner that it knew before she did of her new pregnancy.  This is not surprising when you consider that a horse’s acute emotional radar can tell immediately what their rider is feeling – happy, relaxed, angry, sad, scared.  No matter how hard we try, our horse will always know what is in our mind and heart that day.

Horses have a lot to teach people about trust, forgiveness, compassion, leadership, and simply living in the moment.  So, are you ready to explore the possibility of having your own equine adventure?  I hope so!

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