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Bend the Horse to Ride Straight, Part I

Published: 11/6/2014
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

It was years ago that I heard the quote from Ray Hunt: “I bend my horses so I can ride them straight.” I remember thinking, what on earth does that mean, and how can you bend a horse into straightness? It seemed pretty backward thinking to me, but then I met a horse named Cruz.

He was a 14 year old Morgan/Friesian cross that had been started as a 2-year old and left as a pasture pet for 12 years. His owner had suddenly regained interest in riding him, and he came to Sherry Jarvis in Burwell, Nebraska. I was interning with her at the time and had a lot to learn. Fortunately, both Sherry and Cruz had a lot to teach me.

Cruz was resistant, tense, pushy, and extremely herd-bound. It didn't help that he was huge, and with a head like a big suitcase. He could whip himself right into you in a moment's notice. I was careful around him. I followed Sherry's instructions, hoping to make myself into some kind of a “trainer.”
I kept him busy.
Everything we did with him was a challenge. Leading from the pen to the barn meant oodles of groundwork, because he couldn't bear to leave his buddies. We’d get past going away from his buddies and encounter goblins, shadows, and horse-devouring monsters in every corner, which meant more groundwork.
Saddling got him upset and he couldn't stand still. So, there was more groundwork there too. And, of course, when you went to get on he couldn't stay, so you guessed it – I did more groundwork. By the time Sherry or I actually got on the poor horse, we were usually exhausted – but the work wasn't over.

I remember asking Sherry about that Ray Hunt quote, and we discussed it a bit, but I can't say I completely understood its meaning. Then one day we took Sherry's training horses on a trail ride. Cruz was no peach to load in the trailer, but Sherry managed after I had worn myself out trying. On the trail, he was a disaster. He whinnied incessantly, wanted to hump up and buck, and absolutely melted down when we didn't ride in the order he wanted, at the speed he wanted, and in the direction he wanted. The world according to Cruz was not working out the way he was used to. He was a wreck.

I think I did tiny serpentines for miles and miles through the sandhills. After about four million of them, he suddenly let down and walked straight on a loose rein, right where I was directing him. I remember almost being tempted to keep bothering him, to use that opportunity to “make him” do some things I'd been wanting to do, to impose my ideas on him, or practice some things Sherry had taught me.
Sherry told me he had finally found the sweet spot, and his reward was for me to leave him absolutely alone.

A light bulb went off in my head, and I said to Sherry, “now I understand what Ray meant by bending a horse to ride it straight.” She smiled, and we completed a beautiful trail ride on a lovely spring day in Nebraska.

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11/6/2014 Dr. Steve Peters
I get something from every piece you write.
11/7/2014 Elizabeth David
Another inspiring piece! Amy, I am so proud to call you my colleague and frwend!

"It is the hardest pill for all of us would-be horsemen to swallow, but it is absolutely true - if the horse is not responding properly, we are doing something wrong" - Mary Twelveponies