The biggest barrier to learning to ride
The biggest barrier for me learning to ride a horse has been not knowing how to have a conversation with my horse. I didn’t grow up around horses. I didn’t hang out with horse people or horses most of my adult life. As a result, I didn’t understand a lot of what my horse was telling me.
Basically, if my horse flinched, it made me very nervous. Plus, I didn’t know what was making my horse flinch. It was frustrating and made learning to ride or care for the horse stressful for both me and my horse.
Who is Penelope?
Let me take a moment to introduce my first-ever horse, Penelope. She is a sweet-natured, 13-year-old, purebred quarter horse. She’s not a trouble maker, but she’s not lazy either. She feels everything! She was barely ridden for a few years before I bought her, even though she had a solid start at age four.
My first riding instructor gave Penelope a 3-month refresher. Although there was significant benefit from that, it meant that Penelope didn’t live at my house. I was happy to discover that just having her at home, caring for her every day, our communication improved.
Intimidation at the riding arena
As Penelope’s level of comfort with me increased, she began venturing more into my space. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but I knew something needed to be adjusted. Unfortunately, a diatribe had been directed at me by someone at the lesson arena. The person had heatedly told me that if I tried anything on my own, I would ruin my horse. Forever. Upon reflection, I see this was a bully case of “you will never know as much as me,” but at the time it left me afraid to do much of anything.
I was intimidated, but not ready to give up. For one thing, constant professional training for a horse is expensive! For another, I remembered some very friendly ladies I had met at my lesson arena a few months back, who referred to their group as H.A.L.O. Also, my husband was assuring me I could do this.
Though it had seemed awkward at the time, I had asked for a phone number to possibly contact those ladies in the future. The future was here! I texted the instructor of the group, Barb Dunn, and was invited to join them the next week.
H.A.L.O. stands for Horses And Ladies Only. When they explained this to me, they made sure I knew they like men, they love their husbands, and have nothing against them. It’s just that having only women gives the sessions a different dynamic. It is less competitive and discussion flows more freely.
When I arrived at the first H.A.L.O. session, I was a basket case, fresh off of that verbal beating about my inadequacies. When I left the session, I was full of joy and hope about getting to know Penelope and learning to ride. I have never met a group of friendlier or more encouraging women. Since then, I have rarely missed a session.
The ages of the women are roughly 40 something to 70 something. This is probably because the sessions are during the day. (Barb hopes to expand to an evening session in the summer).
The level of experience ranges from life-long rancher to learned to ride a few years ago at the age of 47. Then there is me at the extreme edge of inexperience. As I write this, I have had lessons or H.A.L.O. sessions for 20 months. I bought Penelope 8 months ago. I will be 59 in 4 months.
Seeing all the different ladies interact with their horses has been HUGELY helpful. This environment is not like a show, where everyone is needing to be at their best and knowing others is hit and miss. And it’s not like the previous lesson arena where I was either the lone student, with another timid student or working around professional trainers.
There are about 24 ladies in the group, though there have never been more than nine at a given session. Most of them are able and willing to answer some questions. All are good at offering encouragement. They even manage to make me feel like I add positively to the group by reviewing foundational concepts.
The magic of Barb Dunn
Barb Dunn is not only one of the nicest people you will ever meet, but she is a certified John Lyons trainer. She first got to meet John Lyons at an event that D&B Supply was a major sponsor of. She is very grateful to D&B for being part of making that connection happen. (Here is a link to Barb Dunn’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/fivepineshorseranch)
It seems like Barb knows what the horses are thinking before the horses do. Even though H.A.L.O. is a group session, she gives lots of one-on-one help. She has patiently guided me in beginning to understand horse language. She is never pushy, but always encouraging toward progress. If one of us doesn’t understand what is going on or what to do, she doesn’t act like we are slow, but figures it is her job to explain differently.
As is often the case, learning a little made me realize how many other things there are to learn. However, Barb is only one person and I can’t take her home with me. I began looking for podcasts about horses.
A perfect podcast about horses
When I found Stacy Westfall’s podcast, I was pretty sure I had found a gem. My H.A.L.O friends corroborated this, so I binge listened to 4 seasons of episodes. It was perfect for me.
Not only is Stacy very good at explaining things, she knows how to have conversations with horses. At least that is the metaphor she uses. The perspective combines gaining the horse’s respect by helping the horse to understand what you want.
Important to me was the idea that mistakes or misunderstandings are not irreversible. When Penelope isn’t doing what I think she should, it might be that I need to back track to basics with her. Or I might need to review how to “say it” better. Either way, there is still potential for better communication and fun riding.
An important surprise
There is something that surprised me about this whole process of having a conversation with my horse. It is what is called ground work.
Before I started riding, I had never heard of it. After lessons for a few months, I had gotten the impression that ground work was somewhere between boring and a necessary evil. Now I know that ground work is incredibly useful for helping me to learn to talk to my horse!
These days I don’t do ground work as a way to subdue Penelope or as a last resort. I do ground work regularly because it is fun and encouraging to have that conversation with Penelope.
What to say to a horse
Conversation with a horse is still very new to me. I know that the more time I spend with Penelope, the faster I will learn. Over time, I will be able to respond to her more intuitively.
Meanwhile, I asked for Stacy Westfall’s full set of DVD materials and book, Smart Start, for Christmas. This way, Stacy is available 24/7! (Link to Stacy Westfall’s Products: https://stacywestfall.com/)
I’ve read the book through completely once and finished watching one DVD on ground work. I regularly review specifics right before I go out to spend time with Penelope. What Stacy says matches what Barb teaches, so I have the best of both worlds.
I had a nice little conversation with Penelope today. It started off with me stepping toward her, then when I was within about 15 feet, holding out my hand to indicate, “You are welcome to approach me.” In response, she sauntered up and gently nuzzled my hand. Then, I scratched her forehead before moving to her side. She did not always let me approach her so in the open pasture.
Next, I gave her neck a scratching as I said, “You are such a gift to me and we are going to do lots of fun things together.” She may not have perfectly understood the last sentence, but judging by her standing there licking and chewing, she got the gist of it.