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What the crooked, old woman taught me

Published: 5/29/2014
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She teaches at Bay Harbor Equestrian Center in Michigan, riding English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and several others.

In this new contribution, Skinner explains how horsemanship is a work of heart.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

This weekend at a clinic, I did my favorite thing to do: people watch. I love seeing who comes in with what kind of horse and how. Many times, how their horse comes off the trailer, leads, ties, and waits before the clinic tells you how their ride is going to go. Sometimes, just watching the person's way of walking and talking tells you how they will ride.
I did my usual watching and came across a short, older woman. Her manner of speech was quite abrupt, and while she offended some people, I enjoyed her frankness.
She was fairly crooked, she told me, from a horrible car accident years back. She told me a bit about her horse too, and said that he had been found emaciated and with a broken jaw, so he wasn't able to eat properly. She said she’d done all his training herself, and I admit for a moment I thought to myself, “oh boy...”
But the horse I saw in front of me was obviously in good health, well cared for, and seemed very calm.

What I watched then amazed me. She rode her horse very crookedly. Every time she posted, her legs flopped and her arms pumped back toward her body, nabbing her horse in the mouth every stride. Between her spurs bopping him on the sides and his mouth being pulled, you’d think the horse would melt down, break down, blow up, or any combination of the three.
But that old son of a gun was on a mission: to take his loving human around. I watched that horse do correct half passes, flying changes across the diagonal, and two tempis. With her arms in near-flight and her horse happily moving along with ears perked forward, I was stunned into silence.

I am always telling my students:

  • the horse rises to the level of the horseman
  • the horse only does what you tell him to do
  • being balanced and in alignment is so important
Whenever I find a crookedness in any of my training horses or in my students’ horses, I know it is almost always human-induced.

So I sat there pondering the situation when my coworker and friend said, “It's almost like that horse was put on earth for her.”
The only thing I could say back was, “uh...YEAH!”

-- What did this woman have that we all lacked?

-- Was it a pure heart?

-- Was it determination?

-- Was it that she had saved this horse's life and he was bound and determined to do right by her?

-- Do horses even think this way, or can this pair just share a mental connection?

I wondered what I was missing with my horses, and how I can get hung up in the technical aspects of riding and horsemanship. My groundwork is bad because the shoulder is braced, or my timing is late, etc.

Maybe I was so focused on the details that I forgot to see the horse as a big picture, not just a shoulder, a soft poll, or hindquarters. Maybe I just didn't have the connection this woman had with her horse, where our lives depended on each other.

I don't mean to humanize the horse or romanticize the situation. But it did raise some important points for me. As a kid everything about horses was romanticized:

  • He was bad because he doesn't love me.
  • My horse would never hurt me because we are best friends.
As I grew up, I spent time trying to work more logically and from the horse's perspective. But in doing so, I lost some of the mystery, the magic, the pure love and joy of the partnership.

Yes, horse work everything to me. Yes, it is an art form. And, yes, I hope that someday it will be a little more important to our society.

But the joy of it is often more important than the technical details. And on this day, this old woman out-rode everyone in our barn.

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5/29/2014 Cheryl
Oh, wow! That sounds a lot like my horse! I am not so very talented, but that fellow trusted me so much that it often brought me to tears. He was ill a lot the last couple of years of his life due to an undiagnosed e-coli infection which impacted his kidneys, and he gave me his all right to the last. When I got the autopsy results, I was flabbergasted at how very ill he was and how much he still tried. I am so humbled and amazed by what he gave me.

"No horseman or horsewoman has ever finished learning" - Mary Gordon-Watson