Learning to Ride
Melody had always been interested in horses. She had the entire series of Black Stallion stories and was keen on owning her own horse. I was open-minded about it. I had ridden a horse at Boy Scout summer camp and I rode once again when the family visited Grandpa Aaron’s corn farm in Iowa. I had an incident where I slid off the horse at summer camp because my saddle had not been cinched up tight enough. Otherwise, I had no fear of them. Mel and I had two big disadvantages regarding horses. Neither of us knew anything about their husbandry and we certainly could not keep a horse in the small back yard at her parent's home. But Mel’s mom and dad both had horses when they were growing up in Utah and Mel’s dad was happy to help us get started in this new equine experience.
Orange County still retained some rural areas in the 1970s. Our subdivision was adjacent to an old cattle-breeding ranch, and next to this ranch was a horse stable where people could pay to keep their horses. I inquired about renting a stall for a horse, and the stable had an opening. It was $30 a month to stable a horse and we supplied the feed which was available in bales of hay at the feed store a few miles north in Midway City. Mel’s dream was close to becoming a reality.
Once we had the husbandry aspect figured out, Mel and I looked for a horse. We made an appointment with someone living in Norco who was selling Susie, a six -year old chestnut mare. I drove Gale and Mel off the paved road down a long bumpy dirt lane. I was driving too fast and Gale to hit his head on the side window. He was having headaches recently and hearing bells inside his head. This surely only worsened his misery. Nonetheless, once we stopped and disembarked from the vehicle, he was able to present himself as the one person in our group who knew something about horses.
I could have been sold a pig in a poke; I knew so little about horses. However, Gale said Susie had good conformation, seemed to be in good shape, and was sound. The owner did tell us that Susie was only halter broke and had not been worked with a saddle. This didn’t mean much to Mel or to me, so we pressed for closure of the sale. With Gale’s blessing, we paid the owner $600, then drove back home to arrange for the delivery of our new project. I borrowed a horse trailer from someone at the stable and asked my brother Mike if I could borrow his van. We drove out to Norco, loaded Susie up, and brought her to her new home.
I had no idea bringing Susie into my life would forever change it.
The first weeks I spent with her were a blast, and I began to love my new horse. Melody would spend hours brushing and combing her. Sometimes, I walked Susie over to Mel’s parents’ house and let her eat the grass from our front yard. We became confident doing groundwork with the horse. However, the full measure of a horseman only becomes evident when you get on the animal’s back and actually move forward, actually ride the thing.
This step posed somewhat of a problem for me. We had little money, so we only could afford a halter and a bareback pad for Susie. I would have Mel hold the lead rope and I would try to foist myself on top of Susie’s back, grabbing the handhold at the top of the bareback pad.
However, because Susie had only been halter-broke, she was not used to someone being on her back, and somehow managed to jump sideways and forward and backward all at the same time. I couldn’t even get on top of her and slid off sideways when she moved away from me.
Many years later I realized when a person tells me a horse is only halter trained, it really means it has not been broke at all. While growing up this horse had allowed a halter to be put over her head and willingly walked along with the tug of the lead rope, but there was never any more training given to the animal. It never occurred to me to ask for help from our stable mates. Many horse people have an attitude about what is the right way to ride, stable, and care for a horse and I didn’t want to admit what a total fool I was. I never did ask for help.
One day, I went into the feed store for hay and saw a used saddle for sale for $60. Deciding we could afford this luxury, I immediately purchased the item. I brought the saddle to the stable and put it on Susie, but the wife of the stable owner came up to me and told me a blanket goes under the saddle. She gave me my first saddle blanket. I tried this new outfit on Susie, and although she finally allowed the saddle to be tightened up, she still wormed herself in all directions whenever I tried to mount her. I realized I needed more knowledge as well as more experience in this endeavor.
During the school year I studied in the main library at Orange Coast College. During break times, I looked over titles available on the bookshelves. When Orange Coast College opened in 1948 there were many agricultural classes available, and some of the books I found on horsemanship seemed to be dated from that period. One of these books suggested that the rider keep his center of gravity over the center of gravity of the horse, which was just above the withers in front of the saddle. The book also suggested using leg pressure to coerce the horse to move. I copied this information on a piece of paper and reviewed it constantly.
Soon I was ready to try my newly learned techniques. I mentally reviewed the information from the book. After asking Mel to accompany me to hold the lead rope, I took Susie into the main corral, laid her saddle blanket on her back, threw on the saddle, and cinched it up. As before, she protested the new pressure around her belly by hopping around some. Finally, she accepted the saddle and stood still. Approaching her on her left side, I placed my left foot into the left stirrup and grabbed the saddle horn to help me pull myself up onto the saddle. The saddle started to slip towards me and settled on Susie’s side. I readjusted the saddle, cinching it up somewhat tighter. Mel continued to hold Susie as still as possible with the lead rope. The second time, I grabbed Susie’s mane to help pull my body up, managed to swing my right leg over the horse’s back and inserted my right foot into the stirrup as quickly as possible.
Although she did dance around some, Susie accepted my presence on her back. I didn’t feel balanced or confident at first, so I leaned forward to be over her center of gravity. After a few minutes of finding some stability and confidence I asked Mel to slowly pull on the lead rope to make Susie walk forward. The horse acquiesced, and I went for my first ride on our new horse.
Being led around a corral like a pony in a circus ride did not satisfy me for long. I had a picture in my mind of charging around the corral in full control of the horse, just like Teddy Roosevelt looked in his Rough Rider photographs. I wanted to be able to take command of my horse and sally forth, fast and furious; I needed to master a steering mechanism for Susie so that we could explore the world together.
Now I turned my attention to finding her a bridle. It is a headstall that fits over the head and behind the ears, holds a bit that goes in the mouth, and reins which are attached to the bit. You insert the metal bit into the mouth first, then the leather bridle is slipped around the head and cinched under the chin. Reins are attached to circles of metal on each side of the bridle, and the tug of the reins lets the horse know which way it should go. I asked the stable owner’s wife if I could borrow a bridle with reins on it, and she lent me one.
When I walked up to Susie to grab her face to put the bridle on, she immediately turned her head and tried to walk away. I was not in control of the situation and no matter how hard I tried I could not put anything into Susie’s mouth. I took the reins from the bridle and attached them to the metal rings on Susie’s halter, but the horse paid no attention to my tugs on the reins. The halter was merely a walking device, not a command device and didn't apply pressure on the mouth or face as a bit would. The horse walked through my commands and went wherever she wanted, no matter how hard I pulled the right or left rein.
Then, one kind soul introduced me to a hackamore. A hackamore is a steering device that relies on external pressure points on the horse’s head to coerce the horse to listen to the tugs on the reins. It is not as refined as a bit inside the mouth, but it is another way to gain a horse’s attention while riding in order to steer the beast. Because there wasn't a mouthpiece, Susie accepted it, and I became a more independent rider.
At last I was seated atop my horse and I could steer her. Now I needed to find the gas pedal to make her go forward. I recalled reading about using leg pressure. I could just squeeze my legs and Susie would move forward. However, for some reason, Susie did not respond to my leg pressure and just stood there.
Again, another magical device for horse obedience somehow found its way to me. Someone suggested I use a crop, which is a short whip about eighteen inches long with a leather flap at the end. If I squeezed my legs, and Susie didn't respond, I could swat her on the ass to get her attention. The crop worked great. As soon as the crop made its’ smacking sound we suddenly lurched forward. I was temporarily off my center but still maintained my seat. Soon enough, Susie knew she would receive a smack if she didn’t listen to leg cues. Years later I replaced a crop with spurs, but I never used them on her.
I continued daily workouts with Susie in the main corral, working on her leg cues, the rein movements, and finding my center. We both became comfortable running in circles inside the horse corral. She would listen and respond to me as we trotted round and round. However, I soon got bored and was ready to go outside the corral. I wanted Susie and I to explore the world together.
One morning a young rider at the stable asked if Susie and I would like to follow her on a ride outside the corral. I accepted the offer, quickly placed the hackamore on Susie’s head, and threw on her saddle blanket and saddle. We opened the gate and found ourselves in the outside world. The young woman trotted her horse across Magnolia Avenue. A car was coming so Susie and I had to wait. I pulled back on the reins to stop my horse while the other horse continued to make its way across the street. This brief separation made Susie uncomfortable and she started to hop and fidget. I had a hard time controlling her. She felt no comfort from me as her rider; she just wanted to be close to the other horse. I loosened the reins and she bolted across the road to reach her friend. But, as the asphalt was wet and slippery, Susie slid sideways, her feet slid out from under her, and I fell off the saddle onto the road. We successfully collected ourselves, but I knew I had not mastered the horse-riding thing yet. When we headed back to the stable, I was determined to get it right.
One spring day, I came home early from school to take a ride with Susie. I geared her up and we left the stable by ourselves, following an old abandoned railroad right-of-way. I’m an impatient rider and I love to trot, which means I need to constantly use my legs to lift my butt off the saddle each time the horse takes a step. This riding maneuver is known as posting and it effectively maintains a ride that does not pummel the rider’s body with the constant up and down trotting motion of the horse. Posting requires constant use of leg muscles over a long time, but it is a quicker ride. Susie and I set out at a trot on our new journey.
At first the route paralleled Westminster Avenue and then turned to follow Goldenwest Road, passing oil derricks and other horse stables. We continued trotting for a long time. Every time she decided walking was better I would squeeze my legs to push Susie back into a trot. After eight miles, we ended at Pacific Coast Highway. Urging her forward, we crossed the highway and descended a steep slope that separated Huntington Beach from Bolsa Chica Beach. The sound of the traffic subsided as the noise of the waves grew.
Susie had never seen water that moved up and down and crashed noisily on the shore. I urged her forward by squeezing her with my legs. She hesitated, backed up, and squirmed sideways. I continued to use the reins and leg pressure to push her into the water. She didn’t want any of this new experience, but I continued to ask her to go forward. Finally, she calmed down. Accepted my signals and walked to the edge of the beach. We stood still as the small waves curled around her feet and that was enough for me. We needed to get back home as daylight was leaving us, so I pulled her away from the beach. Susie sensed we were returning home and broke into a gallop a few times. I pulled her back to keep her under what control I felt I did have and we trotted the entire way home.
It was a good day, and I was tired but ecstatic. Susie and I finally came to an understanding and shared our first adventure together. I felt my horse respected me and we became a team because we learned to trust each other.
Learning to Ride: Fear of Failure, Chapter 5