My friend Pattie Boden hunts with the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club and the Farmington Hunt Club near Charlottesville, Va. She owns and operates The Animal Connection, a stylish holistic pet store in Charlottesville. Her knowledge of alternative pet foods always astounds me. I asked her a few months back to tell me about her new-found passion for alternative styles of horsemanship, because she, as I did for so long, lives amongst some of the finest traditional horse people in the world. But often, our ideas have clashed with those around us. For me, it was easier to keep my mouth shut, accept what I needed to learn from those infinitely more experienced than I, and move on. Pattie has found a way to thrive in place, revealing the beauty of personal reinvention found in devoting a different kind of time and attention to her horses.
What A Lifelong Foxhunter Learned From The Cowboys
Sometimes you start on a journey before your bags are packed. That’s how it’s been with horses. I’d like to say I attended a mind-blowing clinic that changed my life, but it sure didn’t happen that way.
My first exposure to “natural horsemanship” was with a visitor to Virginia from Colorado. I was invited to watch Garth Eichler try to solve some issues with problem horses. I’d ridden in the hunter/jumper field all my life and I really had no idea what he was doing, but what impressed me the most from that first visit is that the horse needed help and he wasn’t about to finish this session until he was able to help this animal. This horse was pretty sure he was in charge of any human in his path and didn’t care who knew it. The Virginia hosts fussed at Garth for not staying on a pretty ambitious schedule, but he felt he needed to stick with this horse for whatever time it took. Even in the pouring rain. As I look back on that now, it was clear that Garth was in it for the horse.
I’ve followed foxhounds since my teens and I can tell you it is a pretty dicey deal for horse and rider. (I say followed, because hunters follow the scent of where the fox has been a good while ago – most times the fox is laughing at you.) It’s big energy at these meets and a whole lot to ask of a horse to come off a trailer into a flurry of nervous activity and be expected to stand still and behave nice. You’ve got riders from all walks of life and all levels of expertise (or not) coming together to follow ages old protocol and decidedly fixed trail manners. Some people get good help with good trainers but you do have a lot of people who wing it on a song and a prayer. I think I kinda fell somewhere in the middle.
That year, I bought my buckskin pony, Lightning. She is a saint, albeit an opinionated one. When I first met her, I’d had a pretty shaky couple of years with a “typical chestnut mare” who wasn’t good for my confidence level. So I was more than relieved to find a great caretaker. In turn, I believe she was also relieved to not have to be a school pony for kids anymore and she fell right into life with an adult who was all about fun.
Garth came back to Virginia that spring and I decided to see what this horsemanship thing was all about. It wasn’t easy – in fact, it took me all afternoon to learn how to get Lightning to give me “two eyes” or lead with a soft feel. I was amazed to find I wasn’t the leader after all and she was shocked to even consider that she wasn’t and even tried to kick me a few times for good measure. If you had told me years ago that it would take that kind of time to do these seemingly simple exercises, I would have laughed. Lightning got the one rein stop with no problem, it was her favorite exercise. But to move off when I asked her to (“I mean move off”) was met with resistance. It got better, but I still was just opening the door.
The best thing about that week was getting to know Garth. He’s as honest with his thoughts and his comments really made me think. He was aware of everything…. EVERYTHING. He taught me how to feel what a horse is thinking and doing from the end of a lead rope, to watch a horse’s ears, eyes and body position. If you think that is easy, just try to do this standing a distance in front of your horse without turning around to see. (I’m still working on this one.)
What got my attention was when Garth said the way we approach horses can teach us a lot about how we interact with people. As I was dealing with an alcoholic family member and managing employees in a retail business, that concept was huge. Garth suggested that I offer the right answers and the wrong answers would become difficult for them to select, I can tell you what a difference that has made in my life.
Now that this young horseman had this old foxhunter’s attention, I invited myself to visit Garth and his wife Jill at Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Colorado to see what this was truly all about. The first day, I learned I didn’t know how to lead a horse or tie a knot. At that point, I decided to throw away everything I knew and to start fresh like the rank beginner I was. Garth took me into the corral of trail horses, draft horses and donkeys and this is where I started to learn real herd dynamics. Watching them play, move each other off from food, who hung out with whom was a start. Then we’d halter one and I’d learn to disengage a hindquarter or move a front end to the left or the right. Every horse was so different and I was trying to hard I was exhausted mentally.
But the lightbulb went off when we finally got to trail ride up the mountain. I finally understood how what we did on the ground worked in the saddle. I understood that when you disengage the hindquarters, you have reliable brakes. When you move the front end, you can open gates without kicking your horse. And you could ask your horse to stop and go by changing the energy in your body, you didn’t need crops or spurs! This was pretty neat and the week didn’t last long enough.
Fall came and so did another hunting season. Everyone likes to have their picture taken at Opening Meet, when you are dressed in your finest and your horse is spit polished and braided. All this aside, the photo from that year is my favorite. Last year’s photo I was stiffly posed, reins tight, ready for anything… or so I thought. This year, my body was relaxed, my reins were loose on my horse’s neck, Lightning looked calm and happy… now I was truly ready for anything. I keep my before and after picture side by side, just to remind me to strive for more knowledge.
That year was the best year of hunting I can remember. My horse was easier, responsive, relaxed, no worries at all. It was also one of the hardest, because my eyes were opened and I really started noticing potential train wrecks before people even got on their horses. It annoyed me that people were content to ride up behind my horse hoping for a rump to stop them and they wouldn’t take the time to teach their horse how to stop. I wondered why people didn’t realize that the horse understood stroking as a reward and patting was not. (Try this on yourself and see what feels better.) And geez, you should have seen Lightning laugh when my friend got off of her horse to retrieve a lost glove, her horse took off to the barn, and she was waving her crop trying to chase him and get him stopped. Talk about predator and prey!
Since then, I’ve made it my priority to spend as much time with Garth and his wife Jill as time, travel and budget will allow and one day I hope they’ll be proud to call me a horseman. I was honored to be at his ranch and have the opportunity to have a day with their teacher and friend, Tom Mowry. Garth and Tom are like father and son learning from each other. Talk about respect for people and animals. Everyone should be so lucky. I’ve also had time watching other trainers like Bryan Neubert, Buck Brannaman, Martin Black work with people and horses – everyone presents information differently, it’s neat to see what they have to offer.
My “horse family” and I traveled this year to to the Ray Hunt Memorial Weekend in Fort Worth, Texas. Although “horsemanship” taught this way is not new and not restricted to “cowboy riding,” Ray was one of the first who started teaching in weekend clinics and preaching the gospel according to Bill and Tom Dorrance. Over twenty horsemen from all over the country were given an unstarted colt, two hours on two days to work with them, and on the second day, everyone was riding like they’d been on the trail all their lives (some better than some of the seasoned hunt horses I’d seen in Virginia!). It was neat seeing how all these trainers were able to adjust to fit where the horse was in his mind. All had a lot of the same “mental tools” but how they used them were pretty amazing. Most had the horse as a priority in their mind, one or two showboated a little to prove their skills, but they were not judged the winner of the competition either.
Meanwhile, back in Virginia, I was quickly becoming disillusioned with closed minded trainers and riding instructors. Breaking a horse instead of partnering seemed to be the norm. Riding by repetition instead of true feel just didn’t feel right. I just didn’t feel I belonged with the same old groups anymore. That’s where Kevin Freed and Lora Presgrave come in. I’d met them when he hosted Bryan Neubert at his Rockfish Farm, about twenty miles from my house. For some reason, I knew I was supposed to be at their barn. I am really blessed, because now I can ride with like-minded horsemen every day I can get out there. I feel safe with my horse and although riding time is distance limited, the time in the saddle is well spent.
The difference this has made in my now twenty four year old Lightning is unreal. Before she was always okay for a trail ride or competition but she could take it or leave it. She now meets me with a totally different attitude. She gets it that I’ve changed and she really likes it. Her eyes are bright with anticipation and she can’t wait to see what we are going to do from day to day. She is more balanced in her body and the change is amazing.
Although what I am learning helps me daily in my relationship with my horses, I really saw where all this came into play when I started looking for a younger horse. Although I didn’t buy a horse, a trip to an auction with my Colorado friends was one of the best lessons of my life. Arriving the day before the sale, Garth, Jill and Tom taught me how to evaluate a horse. What looked good in a photo, turned out to be a train wreck waiting to happen to an uneducated buyer. Watching how the sellers “prepared” a horse was crazy. We only saw a few horses advertised as “bomb proof” that might have actually been safe to ride. Most probably had big motors, but you wouldn’t have known it because they had their socks ridden off the day before. Talk about buyer-beware.
Next day at the ranch, Garth patiently took the time to help me learn how to evaluate a horse just from approaching his herd. I was overly tentative and didn’t feel I did very well putting what I’d learned into practice, but I learned a whole lot from watching him. Sometimes you can see and understand what the right thing to do, but you just don’t have the feel. I kinda felt like a stick in the mud and it was frustrating because he is so good at what he does and a “good job” from him is one of the best complements ever. You know you have deserved it when you get it. In his mind, though, one of the best complements is when your horse respects you, licks and chews, relaxes and likes being around you instead of their own kind.
I didn’t come home from Colorado with a horse. I’d been looking for one in Virginia a long time. I was pleased to find the right one was in the barn all along where I was boarding Lightning. I never really noticed the chestnut horse called Hank. But thanks to Garth’s teaching, I now knew what to look for. And boy did I start noticing. Hank is a kind sort who likes people and isn’t particularly pushy in the herd. He was used as a guest horse for all levels of riders so he’s adaptable and forgiving. When I asked if I could try him, he was responsive without being too reactive, which made me feel like I could learn a lot and not mess him up in the process. And, I knew his “history” – how he was started (by one of Ray Hunt’s students!), who rides him now and how he has been treated with kindness and respect throughout his twelve years of horse-human relationship. Thanks be to the horse gods who suggested to Kevin that he consider letting me share some time with this great animal.
My friend hosting this blog asked me to write about what foxhunters can learn from cowboys. Horsemanship knows no discipline, it’s not Western or English, it’s not cattleworking or foxhunting. Learning to be in partnership with animals is a language all it’s own and knows no boundaries or limitations. People are only limited by what they are willing to learn. And it’s okay, even if you’ve been riding for 40 years, to start fresh and learn something new. I’m looking at my relationships with horses and people in a whole new way these days, thanks to some really great teachers and friends. I’ve got a lot of wet saddle blankets to go before I get there, but the road sure is easier now that I’m headed in the right direction.
All the Best and Happy Trails
Owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va
“The all natural store for dogs, cats and horses”