The position of his ears tells it all: pricked forward, he is signaling alertness, curiosity, or interest. Slightly flopped to the sides, he is relaxed, sleepy, or bored. If rotated backward, he is listening to something behind him. However, if they are rotated backward and flattened down against his neck, he is signaling fear or anger.
Remember, when you are working with him, he should always have at least one ear cocked in your direction, listening for your next cue.
This is how my first horseback riding lesson began. My mother had given me a choice, girl scouts or horseback riding lessons. I was ten years old. It was the best summer of my young life.
Ten years flew by during which I traded horseback riding skills for parenting skills. My children were now the ones listening for my next cue.
I was 20 years old when my girlfriend asked me to go riding with her at a local Long Island stable. So on a brisk fall morning, I left the pile of beautifully colored leaves for my husband to rake, and I set out on a long overdue day of horseback riding.
I did expect to be given less rein to ride, but I did not expect to be given no rein at all. A trail leader leads the horses as they walk mindlessly behind the horse in front of them. This was a big disappointment and I concluded that riding a trail horse was not riding at all and I decided I would never ride a trail horse again. I realized that short of becoming best friends with someone who owned a ranch, this meant I may never ride any horse ever again. Or so I thought until six years later — but with dire consequences.
My family and I were now living in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. I was 23 years old and being teased with the rich smell of horses, manure, and stables in every breeze. For three years I struggled with my earlier decision never to ride again, but living in the beautiful Arizona desert, with its indigenous mountain trails, I could not resist the temptation. So on a cool winter morning with a forecast calling for daytime temperatures in the low 70’s, I decided to get back in the saddle.
I arrived at the local stable hours before my reservation and asked a stableman if it was okay to walk around. I wanted to see if the horses were alert, interested, or just sulking in the backs of their stalls. Were they relaxed, or did they act jumpy. My prior knowledge came flooding back like it was yesterday. My heart was racing in anticipation of mounting one of these beautiful creatures.
Later on in the afternoon, I walked over to the trail horses where a group of people were waiting for our trail leader. I surveyed the group. The first couple was in their twenties, the woman was dressed for anything but horseback riding, and the guy looked like he was nursing a hangover. The second couple was maybe in their 50’s. The wife looked stiff and nervous watching her husband pet the horses. Goofing around, punching one another playfully, were four rambunctious teenage boys, one of whom yelled to his Uncle Russell, “When do we leave?”
I had my eye on a beautiful stallion and was talking to him when a loud voice announced, “Howdy, y’all, my name is Russell, and y’all are gonna be followin’ me and Banter here for the next hour.” As I continued to stroke the stallion’s chestnut colored mane Russell moseyed on over to me and said, “Can you ride Big Red young lady?” I nodded and proceeded to mount the stallion, sinking comfortably into the saddle and sliding my boots into the stirrups securing a perfect fit. I asked Big Red to stand still for a minute while I adjusted my reins. Then I stroked his neck and praised him before cueing him to walk forward.
“Well hell, I got me one rider I don’t have to worry about, now don’t I miss?” Russell snorted. Big Red’s ears pricked forward as I balanced my weight in his saddle for a comfortable fit.
It was well into the afternoon when the ride began. Russell rattled off a few of his own rules as our horses obediently followed him. I decided to bring up the rear so Big Red could trot up to the group. It was my lame attempt at pretending to ride. What I had not realized at the time was that my pretending was about to turn very real.
We were on the trail for about 20 minutes when our horses abruptly stopped. Russell guided our group towards the fork on the left, pointing out how the right fork led to a steep path down the mountains to the river. My heart skipped a beat as my mind raced with deviant thoughts. I sat there for a minute contemplating this amazing opportunity. I whispered into Big Red’s left ear. Then I gently nudged him toward the right fork, knowing all too well he was programmed to go left. But he pricked his ears forward then cocked his left ear towards me and there was no turning back!
Big Red knew he was venturing on new territory as his steps were cautious, slow, and sure. It took about ten minutes before we reached the bottom of the mountain. I dismounted Big Red and let the cool, slow moving river quench his deep thirst. I paid close attention as his ears slightly flopped to the sides. He was enjoying this reprieve as much as I was, maybe more. I wanted to capture this moment and freeze it for all eternity, but I knew a posse was waiting.
I gazed along the river and to the right I could see a picturesque field the size of two football fields. I asked Big Red if he was up for it. I stroked his mane and once again he pricked his ears forward. I mounted him and we walked towards the field. I held the reins tightly as he cocked his left ear towards me and waited for my cue. I kicked signaling a full gallop. Big Red pushed so hard off the ground when he galloped that we covered the field in breakneck speed. I yelled at the top of my lungs, enjoying selfish gratification, disregarding any later consequences.
We returned back to the stables in a cool – down walk. We were met with the expected posse, an indignant group of three men. I was escorted into the office and Big Red was led to the stables. I was scolded and told I put myself and Big Red in danger. One of the men asked me if I even considered for a moment the fact that trail horses were only meant for walking. I was informed that charges may be filed, and I could be arrested. I was told to sit down and wait while the stallion was being examined by the stable’s vet.
While we waited, I had to speak up; I told the men I would not have considered taking such a ride if I thought Big Red was incapable. I told them I was trained to observe signs of stress. I firmly believed Big Red was in no danger. I remarked how we rested and how much Big Red enjoyed the river and the gallop. My convictions fell on deaf ears, so I paced the room hoping to wear down the anxiety that plagued me.
The office door opened too fast and slammed against the wall. I was startled and dropped my riding gloves on the sawdust floor. I reached down to pick them up and prepared myself for the verdict. The vet glanced my way, and then asked to speak to the men alone. They all retreated to the back room.
Ten minutes had passed when the door finally opened. All three men took a confrontational stance as one of them took control of the situation. He advised me that due to the astonishing fact that Big Red was not harmed I would not face criminal charges. However, he continued, there would be dire consequences for my actions. I was banned from all operating stables in Lake Havasu City. I was blacklisted.
Years later, when I was 44 years old, my son Bobby and I moved to Las Vegas. I took Bobby horseback riding at a local stable. As my horse was mindlessly following Bobby’s horse, I started daydreaming about my memorable ride in Lake Havasu City. I was reminiscing that captured moment I had kept frozen in my mind; Big Red drinking from the cool river at the bottom of the mountain, then galloping through the field in breakneck speed. I started thinking of the horse I was riding now as it dragged behind Bobby’s horse, and I wondered if he would listen for my cues like Big Red had done years ago.
With a sudden jolt I was brought back to reality with Bobby turned around on his horse yelling, “Ma, the guy said there’s a fork in the trail. My horse won’t move! What does it mean when his left ear is bent and he keeps looking at me? What’s he waiting for? What should I do?”
Do I dare?
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