- She just stood still.
Not because she’s an old plug with no more get up and go. Far from it.
Not because her interactions with humans have rendered her indifferent, bombproof
or because I forced her to accommodate the best option for me.
I think she just stood still because she understood it was the best option for her.
2. Esperanza has had a tricky relationship with saddles.
When she was young, one slipped underneath her belly after she jumped a fence in a frenzy
because the metal stirrups were banging her ribs. Why were metal stirrups banging her ribs?
Because I was pushing her too hard and too fast to accept an ill-fitting saddle.
Not the first time my ego has blinded me, but hopefully one of the last.
We found her in the field with the older horses, sweaty and seeking their support,
wary of our approach but willing to stand still so we could remove the upside-down saddle.
3. We learned to enjoy each other riding bareback or with a simple bareback pad
I liked being able to feel her directly through my legs, to sync with her movement,
to feel her thoughts and intentions and emotions before they manifested.
She learned to stand still while I attempted to mount her, positioning her lower than me
then jumping so I could get my belly over her back before swinging my leg over her rump.
Not an elegant mount, but tolerable. Maybe she was amused at biped ineptitude.
Maybe the flood of hormones from her secret pregnancy put her in a state of bliss.
4. The ranch where we moved promoted natural horsemanship, which sounds good,
but I began to wonder about some of the methods and teachers.
I could sense the competition, expectations, timetables, and ravenous human egos,
(mine included) that constituted the subtext, largely unexamined.
All these created pressure, and even one as naïve as I could see that
the combination of pressure, young horses, and naïve trainers seemed unwise.
As if to prove my point, Esperanza, scared and wild eyed, bucked off another saddle
during a training session in the round pen. The leathers were rotten.
I had been duped by a wily old saddle maker who knew a greenhorn when he saw one.
I learned what constitutes a decent, well-fitting saddle, the hard way.
But in hindsight, I think we were pushing her too hard, too fast
and in her own way, Esperanza was telling us “no.”
5. After we moved off the ranch, Esperanza developed an open sore near her udder.
Riding was not an option; we were effectively grounded for several months
while I healed her with salves she approved of. How? I would let her sniff first.
If the salve was acceptable, she stood still; if not she walked away.
I learned to see this time on the ground as a gift,
a chance for us to reestablish communication and trust.
With the help of a quiet horse trainer, I learned to slow down enough
to appreciate the tiny increments and requests needed
to build back my confidence and more importantly, Esperanza’s.
I learned to take the pressure off of both of us.
Not surprisingly, she grew more confident with our saddling games.
6. Fast forward several years. We are back in the San Luis Valley,
the valley of her birth, except she is now a mature 14-year-old.
Trouble is now I am in my 70s and have gone through brain cancer.
I am still riding but not without my friend Jayne on her old mare Stormy,
and neither far, fast, nor long. Chemo had decimated my strength and confidence.
One day last summer, we took our usual ride along the dirt roads and neighboring fields,
Although I had used a mounting block to get on — easier on me and Esperanza’s back —
I elected not to use it for the dismount. I can’t remember why. Chemo brain.
Halfway through the dismount, the saddle horn rode up inside my shirt
and got hooked onto my sports bra. I was stuck.
7. My foot was still in the left stirrup and the saddle had slipped off to the side
but I didn’t have the muscle strength to push down and swing my right leg over.
I hollered for Jayne who quickly dismounted and came to my aid, but in these moments
before Jayne man-handled me and got my bra unstuck from the saddle horn,
I could see the wreck that Esperanza and I had barely avoided.
The PTSD from her former run-ins with saddles could have easily kicked in.
She could have skittered off to the right. I could see my foot stuck in the stirrup.
I could see her really freaking out. I could see myself trampled and dragged.
8. As I was catching my balance and breath, I looked at Esperanza with new appreciation.
The saddle tilted almost 45° to the left, but my little bay mare was just standing still.
I could see the thought bubble emerging from her mind. This is weird,
we haven’t done this before. Not sure what I should do.
I think I’ll just stand here until my weird human figures it out.
Laughing with gratitude, I got the saddle off her and brushed her silky coat.
I did not get back on. I think those days have come and gone.
We are grounded again and that’s fine with me.