My Horse Is My Toughest Teacher

I’ve always contended that I plan to keep learning new things until I die. I often think of my friend, Marian, who, well into her 90s gets all excited about the new topics she’s reading about, new technology she’s mastered, and new ideas she’s heard. I hope that’s me in 30 years!

And you certainly never know where you’ll find teachers and mentors, or where you’ll find your education. For sure, my neighbor, Sara, who you hear about a lot in my musings, is a great teacher and mentor in many ways. We’re very different, but have similar interests, which makes us a good team.

We are so proud of how Ace is progressing!

I’m sure glad I have her with me when I’m out with my Paint/Arabian mix horse, Apache. Sara has a lot more training and experience, which helps her figure out my problems. I’m also learning a lot watching her work with Ace, the Black Beauty she’s working with. I read this in Western Horseman (SUCH a great magazine) last night:

…when you ride by yourself you perfect your mistakes.

Chuck Reid, quoted in “All-Around Horseman,” by Jennifer Dennison, Western Horseman May 2021, p. 21.

But, are you really alone when you’re riding? No. You always have your equine partner with you! And Apache is one intense task-master. I mentioned last week that his back was hurting. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that the last few times I’d ridden him, he has been pretty scary. Whatever I asked him to do, he reacted by trotting nervously wherever HE wanted to go. He had absolutely no interest in turning right (making me think he was hurting). His head would either be tossing around or down frantically gulping grass. It was not a fun experience, and I even got a bit scared when he started backing and turning sideways.

Big Red says she wasn’t scared. I took this when she and I went on a walk. Yes. We did.

And on the ground, he was patently uninterested in doing his warm ups. He’d walk a couple of steps, then eat grass. It would take a lot of effort to get him to move, back, or pay attention to me. And when he WAS paying attention, he’d stop in the middle of doing something, face me, move his head up and down, and paw the ground, as if to say he was DONE with whatever we were doing. He was trying to tell me something, but what?

Sara and I talked about the options for what he might be saying:

  • Suna, my back hurts, and so does my neck! Get off.
  • Suna, your signals are confusing me and I don’t know what the heck to do. Stop using those long reins.
  • Suna, our solo rides have me all rattled. You reinforced your mistakes, like that guy said.
  • I don’t like having Ace around. He’s big.
  • Hey, I’m in a bad mood, besides, Spice is in heat, hubba hubba.
  • I’ve decided you’re no longer the leader, Suna, I’m in charge now (not good, because horses prefer to follow, not lead). I ONLY want to eat grass.
  • I’m bipolar.
  • I’m not telling.
Copper, the neighbor dog, says he empathizes. He gets all nervous a lot, too.

On Sunday, after a pretty unpleasant ride, I got off and asked Sara to ride him. I have to admit that it made me feel better to see him acting exactly like he was for me with her on him. She is a better rider, though, and gave better cues than I do. After a while, she said she could FEEL him relax. After that, he acted normally, and was going up and down between the telephone poles like a pro. He did show signs of not liking to turn right, so the theory that he hurts somewhere is not out of contention.

This is where I confess that I felt so bad after Sunday’s ride that I thought maybe Apache had become un-ridable. I told Lee I felt really incompetent (I really was having trouble getting my hands in the right position, like a newby). I was worried Apache was really hurt, no longer interested in me being his partner, or just a pretty (and expensive) lawn ornament from now on.

As I trudged, I managed to capture the harrier carrying a mouse!

So, when I trudged down to the barn yesterday (literally, I trudged, stopping frequently to take pictures of butterflies, raptors, and anything else I saw), I didn’t have a lot of hope. Like I told my coworker just now, if hope is a thing with feathers, mine were all plucked. Nonetheless, I was going to do my best to ride Apache, just in case what Sara did on Sunday helped.

This fiery skipper was a good distraction.

We enjoyed grooming, had no trouble with saddling, and headed off to the round pen. I didn’t let him nosh on grass. He knows the command “head,” so I could keep his head up. When we got in, I gave him no chance to zone out, but instead asked him to walk beside me in various formations at liberty (that means no lead rope). It got his attention! Next, I asked him to walk and trot in circles. He made motions like he was going to eat, and I didn’t let him by getting more aggressive waving the stick at him. By gosh, he ended up trotting four circles each way, turning smoothly, then coming right to me, with a happy look on his face. I treated him how he wanted to be treated, and he responded. Good lesson, Teacher Horse.

What’s going on in here? Who knows!

Next came trying to ride. I felt more confident after the good warmup. I got on him, then had him just stand there, head up, waiting for Ace to be ready. That seemed to help, because after one false start, he headed off where I asked him to go, and proceeded to act exactly like his normal self. We went up and down between the poles, and though he hesitated to turn right the first couple of times, we just stopped, breathed, and kept going. All was well!

We then walked in all the directions he’d been resisting for the past few rides, like it was no big deal. We walked down the tree-lined path (about a quarter mile), snaking and turning right and left the whole way. Ace got to try it, too! This is how Apache was acting when Spice was having HER trouble, all calm and like a good role model. Apache had shown me where I was falling down on my end of our partnership, and he rewarded me with fun.

We came back, and he didn’t rush to the barn to get me off of him like he did last time. Nope, we went back and did some other things with Ace, and it was just great. When we did stop, I got off and hugged him so much, and I swear he looked at me like he was very proud of himself. That’s why I asked Sara to take our picture!

Getting a hug from my equine teacher.

What happened? I listened to what Apache was trying to tell me and made changes. Part of it was that I went back to basics and was very careful in signaling turns and other instructions. Maybe I hadn’t been using my body enough. I know my hands were too far back when I was using the longer reins, which may have confused him, which is what he was trying to teach me. Once we are paying attention to each other, I hardly have to use the reins, anyway.

I assure you that I walked back to the Hermits’ Rest Ranch with more of a spring in my step. Knowing that, with the help of my human and equine teachers, I can figure things out and improve spills over into other challenging areas of life. Thanks, Apache.

Another lovely afternoon cloud show. Note the ears. Apache is listening to helicopters flying over.

Thanks to all you readers and listeners, especially Donita, who says she likes the horse stories.

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

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