My horse Juno and I don’t really share a typical horse/human history. For a start, she’s in her late teens, and she’s spent more years in the wild than she has in the paddock. She’s the first horse I’ve ever owned. Oh, and by the way, I have no idea what I’m doing half the time. It’s not really what you’d call a recipe for success, but somehow Juno and I have muddled along, with a harmony that comes of being kindred introverted spirits. I’ve mentioned before the particular challenges of moving beyond where we’ve been and into the exciting world of saddle training, which for a horse of Juno’s age isn’t necessarily an easy proposition. But I’ve always known that it was possible, and in recent years we’d reached a point where the only thing standing between Juno and a truly spectacular future was me.
Years ago when I first began to admit to myself that I wasn’t qualified to start my horse myself — which admittedly wasn’t until I’d taken my third ride on her, which ended with a spectacular unscheduled dismount — I didn’t really know what to expect. What I discovered was that there are some trainers who, when you say the word “mustang,” will immediately say no without hearing anything else. There are quite a few who won’t even bother to think about starting a horse as old as Juno is. (Horses can live into their thirties or even forties so she’s really kind of middle-aged, but younger horses are without a doubt easier to train, and a lot of equestrians would consider her practically over the hill.) And there are some trainers who, when you tell them the horse you want started is both teenaged and a mustang, will laugh until they’re red in the face and then offer to loan you a gun so you can just kill yourself since you’re apparently intent on dying anyway. (Cowboys are secret drama queens, apparently.) And it usually didn’t matter anyway what many of those rough and tumble trainers of the American west thought, because watching most of them work with horses was enough to convince me that I never wanted them to touch mine.
Luckily for both Juno and I, we wound up in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where I’d taken a job with Parelli Natural Horsemanship and suddenly found myself surrounded by both experienced horsemen and fellow students who were on the same horsemanship track and speaking the same language that I was. And when I asked around about who might be able to start Juno under saddle for me, pretty much everyone I met recommended 3-Star Parelli Professional Terry Wilson. When I ran into Terry and asked him about training my horse, he was a little surprised at her age, but he was game to give it a go. He warned me that Juno might never work out as a saddle horse, but he was willing to try.
In deference to her age and introversion, he started off slow — compared to what he’d do with a young colt, anyway — with plenty of groundwork, filling in the holes I’d inadvertently left in her ground training and helping to get her accustomed to saddles and cinches, which was something I’d always had trouble with.
Wearing a western riding saddle
Ponying out onto the road with a pack saddle on
He was mounting bareback in the middle of their first session; by the end of the first week, they were out on the trails.
Riding out on Terry’s acreage on day 3
I knew that all of Juno’s groundwork, and her inherent good nature, would make things easier than Terry likely expected, but I had no idea how quickly they’d progress. I’ve had the very good fortune, with Terry’s kind cooperation, to be able to watch nearly every session he’s had with my horse. I’ve accompanied them out on trails and learned a remarkable amount just from watching everything that Terry does. It’s been amazing to see how much my horse is really capable of, and how much more I should be doing with her. And of course, the more I watched her progress under Terry’s tutelage, the clearer it became to me that one day, very soon, it was going to be up to me to ride her, to keep her moving forward both literally and metaphorically, to be the leader in our herd of two.
To put it succinctly, I was petrified.
The day of reckoning arrived today — Terry had suggested that after his session with her, I should get on and ride for a bit — and it would be fair to say that I spent most of the day at work vacillating wildly between excited and scared as hell. Not scared of Juno, or of getting hurt — even green as she is, I know her, and feel quite confident in her and in Terry’s work with her — but rather scared that I wouldn’t be able to be the leader she needed. Scared that I wouldn’t know what to do or how to do it. Scared that I’d set Terry back in his progress with her, and that I’d never be the rider she needs me to be.
So I sat and watched Terry work with her, as he ran her through the basics again and made sure she’d be okay with a rider that bounced on her back and flailed at random, which she was… though it was more than a little humbling to realize exactly how necessary that would be before I could get on. Then Terry asked if I was ready to ride, and I said yes, because no wasn’t even an option, no didn’t occur to me, no was not in my lexicon. So I went into the round pen, and I got on.
I wish I could give this story some sort of Disney finale where as I rode, I realized that I could be a leader, that I did know what to do, that I wouldn’t be setting my horse back at all. Rather, the experience was quite the opposite. On the one hand, it was incredibly thrilling after all these years to be sitting on my horse, feeling all in all calm and confident about being there (but slightly panicked about being able to follow Terry’s directions, because my mind was stuck on a bit of an endless loop that went, “Holy s***, I’m riding my horse!”). On the other hand, I discovered that I hadn’t been worried enough. I thought I’d be bad, and I was worse.
Everything I’d ever known about riding — which I can’t say was much — I suddenly forgot. Fine motor control was a thing of the past, as was language comprehension. When I asked her to walk forward, Juno kept diving nose-first toward the fence and sidepassing, which was awfully fancy, but would’ve been even more impressive if I’d been aware of asking for it. When I posted the trot she thought it meant I was about to go flying out of the saddle, and obligingly slowed down to save me from myself. Whenever I asked her for something, it was more of a timid suggestion than a confidently worded direction. When Terry asked me for simple maneuvers it felt like he was demanding rocket science.
After I’d managed to somewhat laboriously grasp a few basic concepts, I asked her for a bit of trot so we could end on something I could actually accomplish, and then I unsaddled her (and started training her to stand with her nose at the tie rail, even when she’s not tied, because by God if there’s one thing I can accomplish it’s training my horse to stand still and not move). I got her a dish of grain and held it for her while she calmly chowed down, undoubtedly secure in the knowledge that of the two of us, she’s by far the cleverer one. Terry left me to put her away, and headed up to the house (probably to pour a stiff drink, poor guy).
I watched Juno eat and relished the way that she’d occasionally turn her head into my hand for a rub, with a confidence and self-assurance that even a few months ago she didn’t possess. I reminded myself that nobody starts this journey knowing everything — or even necessarily anything — that they need to know. I gave myself credit for being proactive, trying to get more time in the saddle before bringing Juno home and even working on enrolling in some formal lessons in addition to all the DVD studying I could do at home.
And then I buried my face in my horse’s neck and had a complete emotional meltdown.
Horses are good for things like that, though. Juno just stood and curled her neck around me a little (I suspect she was giving me a “wtf?” look behind my back, or maybe just subtly inspecting my pockets for cookies) and waited for me to stop weeping like a little girl, which I’m only slightly ashamed to say took quite a long while. I apologized to her profusely and repeatedly for not having worked harder to be the partner and leader she needs me to be, and I promised to do better if she’d just try really hard to keep me out of the hospital while I tried to catch up. I pretended for awhile that she understands English, which clearly she doesn’t (otherwise, you’d think she’d respond a bit faster when I say things like, “Hey Juno, it’s dinner time!”).
I know it’s not necessarily anything to be ashamed about, having a moment of complete mental break and just absolutely losing it. I know it was about more than one lousy ride, and that I’d piled work stress onto personal stress with a shaky foundation of overall uncertainty about life, but as I drove back to town, still sniffling, it was hard to even begin to gather the scattered shreds of my dignity, much less think about putting myself through the same wringer again tomorrow. It isn’t the riding that’s a hardship, it’s more that when you’re in the saddle, you have to face yourself.
The moment I walked in the door, my friend and temporary house-guest Gina wanted to know how the ride went.
I told her, in all honesty, that it had been simultaneously awesome and horrific.
“Good,” she said. “That means you’re learning.”
I’ve been keeping an album of photos from Terry’s sessions with Juno on Facebook; if you have any interest in seeing a great many pictures of the process, along with occasionally-helpful commentary from me, check out the first album and the second album on Facebook. You don’t need a Facebook account to access these public albums! And if you’re on Facebook and would like to friend me, please feel free!
Edit: Wow, this blog sure has gotten a lot of attention! My thanks to the WordPress gods for Freshly Pressing this entry, and to my colleagues at Parelli for finding it interesting enough to post the link on our official Facebook page. If you’d like to continue following the saga of Juno and I, please check out my follow-up entry, Trusting the Process, wherein we go on a trail ride and nobody dies.