In the Night Farm…Your Ride is Here.

Horse Training

Stand By Me

You see it at every endurance ride:  Riders hopping along with one foot in the stirrup and one hand clutching a bundle of mane, yelling “whoa, dammit!” as their horses prick their ears and start walking.  By the time the riders lurch into the saddle, cockeyed and groping for the offside stirrup, the horses are trotting.  In most cases, the riders are so relieved to simply be aboard that they stifle their cursing and go along for the ride.

I’ve done it.  Haven’t you?  It’s so easy to “let it go this time,” because his buddies are going ahead, or we need to make up time, or it’s a race day and he’s distracted.  And after all, it’s great to see an eager horse!  Unfortunately, it’s almost as tempting to ignore the behavior during conditioning rides, time after regretful time, reinforcing a habit you don’t like but can’t be bothered to break.

The problem is that refusal to stand for mounting is a nuisance at best and a danger at worst.  What happens when you need to mount on a narrow trail with a drop-off to one side?  When you have a sprained ankle?  When you’re at a busy water tank early in a ride?  When another horse is out of control?  All these situations — and plenty more — also apply to the related behavior of refusal to stand quietly, either in hand or mounted, out on the trail.

I’ve been riding Maji and Jammer for between 4 and 8 weeks now.  They’re both young, enthusiastic, and eager to move out — and the same goes for me!  But when I noticed their behavior trending toward moving off when mounted, fidgeting during pauses on the trail, and rushing toward home, I knew it was time for a lesson.

Maji, who needed the most work, went first.  Here’s what I did:

1.  I got my head straight.  This involved thinking through my strategy and setting aside several hours specifically for the lesson.  Conditioning was temporarily off the table.  This was all about training.

2.  I checked my toolbox.  This meant making sure Maji understood and responded well to the cues I wanted to use for correction.  I chose the single-rein stop (SRS: her head to my foot, disengage the hindquarters) because it’s efficient, safe, rewardable (easy to release), scalable (keep pivoting or stop as needed), and easy from the ground or from the saddle.

3.  I stacked the deck.  It’s always best to set the horse up for success.  In Maji’s case, we were coming to the lesson on a crisp, sunny, breezy afternoon after several rest days.  I lunged her for 25 minutes before saddling up to take the edge off.

4.  I introduced the concept.  Though Maji typically stands for mounting when we’re someplace boring, like in the round corral, I started there so she could get the right answer without added stress or distraction.  As luck would have it, she did try moving off that day, so I was able to SRS her both from the ground and from the saddle, depending on my position when she moved.  We also practiced just standing still with me in the saddle.  This gave us plenty of opportunity to establish the rules of the game:  Stand still when asked, or SRS and keep disengaging those hindquarters long enough that we pivot a time or two or more, depending on responsiveness and attitude.

5.  I upped the ante.  Once Maji was standing on a loose rein in the round corral, we moved out to the driveway, then just beyond the horse trailer where I usually mount up and where the other horses are out of sight.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  We probably spent 20 minutes discussing whether she would stand for mounting, then remain standing as long as I asked, there beyond the trailer.

6.  I took the show on the road.  Down the hill and along the neighboring farmer’s field, we stopped just to look around or for me to dismount and remount.  Much of the time we were pointed toward home.  We must have spun in a hundred or more circles, but I never fudged on the rules:  I ask once.  You obey, on a loose rein.  If you move so much as one hoof, one inch, we SRS.  There’s no emotion involved.  No frustration or kicking of ribs or yanking of reins.  Just calm requests and consistent consequences.  By the time we quit, about 2 hours from the beginning of the lesson, Maji was standing on a loose rein in a spooky area with her face toward home, for minutes at a time.

7.  I reinforced the lesson.  Maji is a quick study.  She often puts up a real fight during Round 1, but when I stick it out and win, she capitulates pretty thoroughly.  Due to a minor hock injury, she spent the week after our lesson resting.  When I finally took her out yesterday, it was clear she remembered.  We had almost no trouble riding the same route, stopping here and there, dismounting and remounting.  We cut our SRS repeats down from 100+ to maybe 5.

Now, all I need to do is remain consistent in enforcing my request during conditioning rides, especially as we find ourselves in ever more stimulating situations, such as riding with other horses, on windy days, and in new locations.

It’s that easy.  You just gotta *do* it.  Two hours of work for a lifetime of cooperation is a great bargain.

[A brief caution:  This post is intended to address situations in which the horse moves off because he is impatient and eager to go.  This is not the same thing as a horse that doesn’t want to be mounted!  If you’re dealing with a horse that moves sideways or backwards, or even rears(!) to avoid mounting, you probably have a pain issue to address.  Consider saddle fit, rider balance, LS/SI/stifle/hock soreness, ulcers, etc.]

Pain situations


Be True to Your Schooling

The bit I used on Jammer over the weekend was a shade to narrow.   I bought him a new one — a sweet iron and copper egg-butt snaffle broken with a chain in the middle where the third link might be.  It was a gentle bit, designed to free the tongue from pressure while maintaining communication with the bars.

Jammer hated it.

He mouthed it when first bitted — exploring, I thought.  Experimenting. — then carried it quietly as we set off down the road.  We hadn’t gone a quarter mile before he began to ask the standard horse question:  Could we go home instead?  Seat, legs, rein.  No, no, and no.

It took all of two minutes for us both to get the point.  To me, the bit felt like a gummy worm, squiggly and inconsistent.

To him, it felt insecure.  Unclear.  Where was he supposed to go, again?  Hello?  Leader?  He expressed his agitation in a raised back, tossed head, and attempts to pivot toward home.

Hmm…not the reaction I’d come to expect from him.  But should I head for home, thereby rewarding his behavior but enabling me to switch bits, or persevere at peril of an unpleasant or possibly dangerous ride?

I decided to head home.  I lunged him for a few minutes so arriving home wouldn’t be all fun and games, then switched over to a basic, full-cheek snaffle that I had lying around.  Time for another decision:  arena work or hit the trail?  There’s only so much time in a day and I really wanted those miles…

I mounted up in the round corral.  Collected a little.  Did some lateral work.  Practiced single-rein stops.

Then we headed back out.  He felt steadier, more confident, in the stronger bit.  Unlike with the gummy worm, I scarcely had to touch his mouth.  We passed the “trouble spot” with hardly a batted eyelash, and proceeded to have a fabulous conditioning ride.  (Really, it was super fun.)

But you know, I’d have given up that ride for just the arena work.  In this particular instance, I think equipment rather than training was to blame, but the point stands:  It doesn’t matter how fit your horse is if you can’t control him.

On the trail.  Headed home.  At the start of a race.  When he spooks.

Schooling will pay off.

We endurance riders are infamous for our dislike of the ring.  I’m no exception.  But I’m coming around.  It surely is nice to know, in a dicey situation on the trail, that I have a tool bag full of hindquarters and necks and ribs that respond, without thinking, to well-practiced cues.

In the spirit of this post, I followed Jammer’s ride with 30 minutes in the round corral on Maji.  We explored headset, a new concept for her, and carried on with softening, softening, bending, bending, giving up her signature head-toss in favor of responding to direction.

Practice, practice, practice.

You never know when you’ll need it.

Go ahead:  Teach to the test.



There’s a new kid on the farm! 

Meet Majesty:

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Kinda cute, eh?  She’s a 6 year old, mostly-Arab mare whose owner doesn’t have time to ride her.  I, meanwhile, have a big gap in my riding calendar since I’ve decided to lay Consolation off for an extended period.

Maji hasn’t been ridden in over a year; before that, she had 30 days of pro training in the hills, plus a few trail rides with her owner.  Getting her back to work will take a few “refresher” sessions, but she has a good mind and I expect to have her out on the conditioning trail shortly. 

I brought her home Tuesday night, and we started getting to know each other yesterday.  After a bit of grooming, we met our first challenge in the form of the Skin-Melting Fly Spray of Doom.  Miraculously, she survived (whew!) and we moved on to a little photo session.  I like to keep track of how my horses change over time, so photos are important to me. 

Next, I put a rope on her and lunged her for a bit.  I’m not keen on running her around in a bunch of circles, but working through some gait and direction changes seemed like the best way to get her mind working and establish some communication pathways.  Indeed, she took a while to shift her focus from her new herd buddies to me.  It was hot out and she’d worked up a decent sweat by the time she settled down to a few smooth reversals in a row, so we called that good for the day.


Her strong pull to the herd told me there was one more lesson I should instill early:  You must leave other horses.  It will be okay.  We will come back.

I led her away from the paddock area, just past the edge of her comfort zone, and let her graze for a couple minutes.  Once she relaxed and stopped looking over her shoulder, I took her home again.  Next time, we’ll go out a little farther.  Before long, she won’t think twice about it.  Easy.

Don’t Think (Just Do)

Twelve years ago, when I lived in an apartment in St. Louis and the only horses within 40 miles were the drafts that pulled the tourist carriages across the cobblestones of Laclede’s Landing, I wrote fiction.  If you’ve ever tried it, you know that novels are like romantic relationships:  Once you get past the beginning, when everything is new and exciting, things get complicated.  Characters rarely blossom as you intended.  Storylines fizzle.  Plots sag.  Doubts overwhelm.  You develop a new understanding of the term “writers’ block.”  This is why many people start novels, and few finish them.

I used to write for two hours per day, five days per week.  My two hours began at 3:30 a.m., when I’d creep out of bed in the blackness and shut myself inside a coat closet I’d outfitted with a desk and computer and warming plate for my coffee.   It was easy to be motivated when I was starting a book.  I’d tap away in the silence, neurons bursting like fireworks in my brain, never wishing I could be sleeping instead.

Then came the middle of the book.  “The muddle in the middle,” it’s often called.  That messy quagmire in which so many writers drown.  Getting up a 0’dark:30 was harder, then.  It was easy to look for excuses.  If I gave my sleep-clouded mind half a chance, it would come up with some good reason to hit snooze that day.  My throat is a bit sore, I’d better sleep.  I have a big meeting at work later, I’d better sleep.  Yesterday’s fight with my spouse was stressful, I’d better sleep.

There’s always a reason not to chip away at a big project, isn’t there?  It’s only one day.  One missed step.  I’ll get back on track tomorrow.

The problem isn’t just that one day tends to become many.  It’s also that we can never get that day back.  And like it or not, we only have so many days.  Our horses have even fewer.  If we have goals, we need to move toward them.  Actively.  Intentionally.  Today.

If you want to ride endurance, you must spend hours in the saddle.  If you want to train that colt, you must go outside in the cold.  If you want to improve in your discipline, you must practice.  Not later.  Now.

That is why I developed a habit:  The moment my alarm went off at 3:25 a.m., I started a tape recorder in my brain.  Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think… Get up.  Don’t think.  Pull on warm clothes.  Don’t think.  Start coffee maker.  Don’t think.  Open computer file.  NOW think…about the task at hand, because the battle is won.

I did that for years.  I finished books.  Later, I used the same technique to get myself out the door to train for a half-marathon.  I finished the race.

Now, I need to get Ripple going under saddle.  She is ready — open minded, energetic, and curious as a monkey.  I should have had her out on trails last year.  But I had a lot going on.  There was wind.  The round corral was slick.  I needed to ride Consolation.  I needed to ride Acey.  I needed to work out.  I needed an evening off.

Not good enough.  It’s time to get out my mantra again.

Don’t think.  Just do.

Thawing the Fish

It’s a good thing the good trails aren’t closer.  If they were, I’d be tempted to haul Acey out there every day, and that would be a very bad idea.  She has too much to learn at home.

For example, as recently as last week, riding her was like sitting astride a large slab of halibut, straight from the deep-freeze.  She was Stiff.  As.  A.  Board.  When asked to circle, she’d respond immediately, but would attempt to shuffle around the curve without flexing her spine — even her neck. 

This is obviously uncomfortable to ride (and no doubt, to be ridden).  Worse, it isn’t safe.  If I tried taking the Halibut Horse through some of the areas Consolation and I have been exploring, without the ability to twist around like a live fish, we’d be in trouble.  And a single-rein-stop?  Not gonna happen.  Put simply:   If she doesn’t bend, we could both  break.

Besides standard greenness (Is that a word?), I think part of Acey’s trouble is that she’s much smaller relative to her rider than are most horses.  I’m still learning to adjust my balance to her, and she’s justifiably nervous about letting her body move freely under a load.  We’d worked through this last fall, but her long winter off renewed the problem. 

There’s nothing worth doing about a problem except fixing it.  So, while Acey and I are often stuck with short rides in the round corral, we’ve been attempting to thaw the fish.

Step one is to get her in the habit of moving forward with energy.  She does this fine on the trail, but is less inclined to do so in an enclosed (boring?) space.  She responds well to a dressage whip, though, and seems to prefer it to leg cues.  (No, I don’t plan to carry a crop with her forever, but this is a fine place to start.)  Once we’re crusing along, it’s easier to move her through the requisite circles, reverses, figure-eights, and cloverleafs, always releasing pressure the moment I get a hint of bend.

We also make some sharp turns into the fence, a move that requires her to disengage her hindquarters and flip her body around.  This is SRS practice; it also gets her thinking and engages her back.

At a halt, we do some rein gives (neck only, Acey, neck only), backing, and pivots on the hind- and forehand.  She doesn’t really enjoy this stuff, so we accomplish the minimum and move on.   I don’t believe in aggrivating my horses unnecessarily.

Then, there’s the fun part:  pole patterns.  Acey is a smart little fish, and gets bored with ring work easily.  To keep her entertained — while still thawing her spine and building her confidence beneath a rider — I make little mazes out of ground poles.  Some patterns include chutes and tight corners; others, like yesterday’s, are more  geometric:

We weave among the poles from all different directions, sometimes stepping over them but usually snaking a path between.  Sometimes, we stop and perform a haunches-over to make it around a very tight turn.  The idea is to keep her listening, rather than anticipating, and bending, bending, bending.

It’s working.  She’s learning that it’s safe and easy to yield to rein and leg, and has even begun reponding to the turn of my head and shifting of my seat.  Today, though, I think we’ll take a break and do our bending on the trail.


Raise your hand if you remember the beginning of this blog.

I was disciplined!  I mapped out training sessions for every horse, all summer, on a spreadsheet.  In January.  I knew months in advance which horses would be trained on which days.  In Aaruba’s case, I knew how far and fast we’d ride, over what kind of terrain.  I scheduled 2-3 horses per evening, 6 on weekend days, with Friday’s off.

Some of you think I’m kidding.  I assure you, I am not.

If it had worked, I’d be riding all the Barbs by now, and competing with four of them.  It might have worked, had I been able to control the little things like weather and life.  But I couldn’t, and it didn’t.  Our springs turned windy and rainy, the round corral slick with mud.  Aaruba developed chronic colic.  I tore my hamstring.  Consolation tied up.  I got un-married.  A job-related nightmare dragged on for months.

The thing about setting goals and failing to reach them is that you get discouraged.  Impatient.  You forget to enjoy the journey.  You beat yourself up.  And none of that gets anything done faster, unless you count burning yourself out.  So, I finally got smart and quit planning so much.  I set far more general goals and relaxed about the scramble toward them.  I focused on other things.  I took days off.

The thing is, that didn’t get the horses trained, either.  So here I am, with Aaruba out of commission, Consolation as my reliable mount, Acey very green under saddle, and Ripple in the pre-riding groundwork phase.  When anything goes wrong with Consolation, I’m out of the running for endurance rides, which are one of the major rewards for all this work.  And I’ve had it.  It’s time to polish up more horses. 

Don’t worry; I won’t get out the spreadsheet.  But I will resume some of my old, laser-focus…without sacrificing my newfound flexibility.  At least, that’s the idea…

My major goals for this summer are to get Acey ready for competition and Ripple well started so she can compete next year.  In that order.  If I have time to train just one horse, it’ll typically be Acey.  Ripple will be next in line.  (All this remains within the context of Consolation’s conditioning, of course.)  I’m going to be more adaptable when it comes to adverse weather.  It’s amazing what you can accomplish despite wind and rain, if you put your mind to it.

Take yesterday, for example:

Rain until 10am.  Stay inside for coffee, breakfast, and blogging.  Round corral soaked.  Catch Acey anyway.  Note that she feels too “high” to safely ride out.  Trim hooves, walk 1 mile on pavement (for hooves), practice trailer loading.  Catch Consolation.  Handgraze, trim hooves, practice trailer loading.  Put her away and run inside just ahead of a storm.  Hunker down with tea and a Mary Twelveponies book until rain finally stops at 3pm.  Head back outside.  Catch Ripple, who is extremely nervy.  Take for brief walk along road.  Back off and work on bending in the farmyard instead.  Get Consolation back out, go for handwalk along the canal.  Give her a massage.  Finish just in time for thunderstorms and pouring rain.  Work out indoors.  Do chores in light rain.  Make dinner and enjoy evening with Ironman. 

See?  It can be done!  (Remind me I said that.)

Back in Black

Here we go:  more photos of Ripple Effect in training.  Now you can really see what I mean when I say she has more maturing to do.  (Am I the only one who thinks she looks like a mule?)  She’s about Consolation’s height already, but I’m guessing she’ll grow a bit more to match her ears.  Her sire, at 15.2, is the tallest Barb I know; on the other hand, her dam is the shortest!  Anyway, she’ll also get much broader in the chest over the next couple years, and will ultimately be quite lovely.

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Summer Black

Here’s one of my summer projects:

Ripple Effect — the first foal born here at In the Night Farm — will turn five this year!  She has a lot of maturing to do (Barbs really blossom around age 7-8), but she’s more than ready to start on some serious training.  

I worked with her quite a bit last year, mostly on the ground, and even backed her once or twice before the winter snows arrived.  This spring, we’re picking up almost where we left off, reviewing the basics like giving to pressure, tacking up, and ground driving.

Ripple is such a sweet, inquisitive thing that she’s a pleasure to handle.  She’s also quite athletic and forward, which I hope will lead to a mount that’s eager to explore miles of endurance trail at her smooth and groundcovering trot.

On the downside, she still gets anxious when led away from the farm.  She also tends to forget about the saddle early in a lesson, then buck when she realizes that something is clinging to her back.  Interestingly, she’s easy to pull out of that buck with a voice cue or shake of the lunge line.  I also find that walking her through some circles right after tacking up re-familiarizes her with the sight and sensation of the saddle moving on her back, and she relaxes quickly.

Here are a few photos I took last weekend while trotting her around and  letting her deal with the creak and swing and slap of tack.  (Never mind the saddle placement and fit; I was experimenting with my old, still-beloved Stonewall, with dubious results.)  I think this is a horse that will particularly benefit from having odd objects, like raincoats and empty milk jugs, tied to the saddle while we work on various things.  I want to desensitize her somewhat, as well as teaching her to listen even when she’s anxious. 

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Ripple Effect, 2006 Barb filly (Jack’s Legacy x Alternating Current)

Flashback Friday: Do You Hear What I See?

I’ve been teaching, lately.  Not just the horses, but a human who wants to know them.  As Ironman spends more time among the Barbs, I find myself articulating scraps of horsemanship I’ve picked up over the years.  One of the most important was featured in this Flashback Friday post from spring 2008:


DO YOU HEAR WHAT I SEE?  (Originally published March 14, 2008)

I can’t walk past a window on the north side of my house without glancing out at the horses. This frequent, subconscious check on their well-being has led to the early interception of several minor colics over the years.

Yesterday evening, I glanced out the master bedroom window just in time to see Ripple lowering her hind hoof as if from a kick at her own belly. I paused, felt the familiar singing of my nerves as I watched her pivot and lie down to roll. Lying sternal, she turned muzzle to flank.

I reached for my boots, already ticking off a plan to gather stethoscope, thermometer, and cell phone, as she lurched back to her feet and shook dust from her mane. Looking annoyed, she twisted her neck and nipped at the point of her shoulder. My own shoulders relaxed a bit. Just an itch?

Ripple marched over to Sandstorm, who shared her paddock. The older mare reached right for Ripple’s chest and raked the skin with her teeth. As Ripple’s ears flopped sideways, my frown gave way to a bemused smile.

How do they do that? Sandstorm obviously understood Ripple’s problem as clearly as a human friend does when you say, “Just left of my spine, a little lower…ahhhh, there!”

Indeed, horses are masters of communication through body language, and therein lies one of the great secrets of training. We humans, intent as we are upon our many words, too easily forget that vocalization means relatively little to an equine.

Early last year, I self-imposed a ban on nearly all verbal communication while working with horses. I made one exception for “whoa,” which I like to make a part of every horse as surely as his lungs or heart or hooves are part of him, but everything else I wanted to say, I communicated strictly via the angle of my body, the slump of my shoulders or thrust of my chest, the speed of my breathing and focus of my eyes, the giving and taking of physical space.

And the world opened up. The horses responded with greater willingness and accuracy. They grew more attentive, quicker in their responses. As our relationships deepened, they seemed to read my very thoughts.

I like to do a lot of liberty work in the round corral, asking for gait changes, inside and outside turns, consecutive circles off the rail, figure eights, small and large circles around me, and even spins. It is a dance in which one movement flows into the next, pulses rise, hooves pound, and our two consciousnesses merge. Often, I do no more than picture the next step and, before I give the command, the horse performs.

This is the subtlety of which horses are capable — to see my body prepare to move while the impulse is still en route from my brain. Imagine what we could achieve if we humans were so observant!

Fortunately for us, horses are generous creatures, tolerant of our inept social skills and appreciative our smallest successes. A few days ago, I was working with Acey when she, like Ripple, became frustrated by an unreachable itch. I obliged her with a scratch, and the resultant lick of her lips said “thank you” — loud and clear.

Five Hundred Pounds of Fire

Photo by Michael Ensch

“Five hundred pounds of fire.”

I once described Acey thus to a firefighter friend of mine.  He agreed that five hundred pounds ain’t much for a horse, but it adds up to a helluva lot of fire.

The thing about fire is that, unchecked, it’s a terribly destructive force.  But learn to contain it, and you have an unmatched source of beauty, heat, and light. 

I saw both sides of Acey’s powerful personality at Canyonlands.  She wasn’t there to race, of course, having been out on the trail for only a few weeks.  I simply wanted to see how she would handle ridecamp and a taste of desert terrain.

We arrived on Tuesday.  By Thursday afternoon, having spent the intervening time munching hay in her panel corral, Acey was fit to explode.  Though I’d planned to wait until Saturday, I decided to burn some of that energy on a short ride.

Leaving Consolation was a little difficult.  Acey didn’t balk, but her attention was certainly not focused on me as I led her, saddled but unmounted, away from camp.  We’d hardly crossed the campside creek (with me driving her, not leading, for safety’s sake), however, when the adventure of the trail sucked her in like a vortex.

She wanted to go!  So much that I led her for another quarter mile before mounting up.  Some might view this as a coward’s route, but I believe it is typically unwise to ask a horse to do something marginal when the horse is emotional.  That’s no way to set the horse up to succeed, but it is a good way to get hurt.

I mounted when Acey’s radar ears slowed, her head lowered, and her eyes lost that distinctive gleam that says, plain as day, “I’m not listening to you!”  Without asking her to stand more than a few moments, so as not to push her attention span beyond what it could bear, I pointed her down the singletrack bordered by gnarls of sage.

She took the trail on briskly, all pricked ears and courage, enchanted with new sights ranging from bird fly-ups to trail-marking ribbons in the brush.  At the base of the first hill, I asked for the trot she’d been begging to try.   She powered up the slope, pure joy! 

What a difference from Consolation’s conservative demeanor.  Acey reminded me of Aaruba in miniature, full of speed and interest to see what waited ’round the bend.  Better still, she lacked Aaruba’s tendency get worked up over minutiae, instead choosing to absorb the scene and accept its bugaboos wholesale.

On the flip side, these positive traits are’t free.  With them come Acey’s willful attitude, impatience, and tactical mind.  Those were the bits that showed up on Saturday, when I again saddled up and led her to the quiet vetting area to let ride management know we were headed out. 

As I stood there chatting, preparing to mount, I felt Acey’s emotions escalate.   We were well within earshot of Consolation, who insisted upon hollering, and Acey was newly in season thanks to a late-arriving trailer that had set up next to us with a rather verbal stallion. 

When I gathered my reins to mount, Acey spun away from me and kicked out — not at me, but with her opposite hind.  What the…?  That was a new one.  I tried again and earned a repeat performance.

I tried to step around her head to see if something was stinging her or there was a problem with her tack.  She sat down and backed.  I whapped her hindquarters with my dressage whip.  We were not going through the evasive backing thing again!  She came forward.  I asked her to circle — and she half-reared. 

Oh, really?  It was fast becoming clear that this was an attitude issue, not a physical one.  I decided that mounting Acey here, where she was clearly uncomfortable and distracted by Consolation, was too much to ask.  I’d settle instead for a moment of standing quietly.

A handful of ride volunteers looked on (with not-so-subtle expressions that asked, “You’re going to ride that thing?”) as I employed a stern voice, followed by the head-down cue, which I teach for precisely this kind of situation, to get some acceptable behavior. 

“I’m going to lead her out a way before I get on,” I told the ride manager.  “If we aren’t back in a few hours, send out the dogs.”  Then we marched out of camp, stopping frequently, pivoting, and backing — whatever it took to keep Acey’s mind on me instead of her own ambitions.

Once we hit the trail, however, my amazing little horse resurfaced.  She took on hills and sand with gusto, slithering down and up again to cross steep gulleys left by floods of rain.  She drank from the creek and faced the wide world as though she’d been doing this for years.

As the miles passed, I grew deeply impressed by Acey’s physical ability to handle the strange and difficult terrain.  Despite inexperience under saddle and her presently low fitness level, she displayed a remarkable talent for carrying a rider downhill.  I tested her ability at both walk and trot, and was quite astonished by her smoothness and balance — and I’d thought Consolation was good down hills!

Ten miles or so into the fifteen-mile loop, I evaluated Acey’s status and took a shortcut back to camp.  She was clearly hot and tired from the difficult climbs, and I’d no desire to curb her enthusiasm  for the trail by taking advantage of it.  It was a good decision.  She finished the last couple miles respectfully, but with spark enough to spare.

Back in camp, Acey rested and I pondered.  A ton of fun, this little horse, but feisty!  I’ll need to put some real effort into establishing a repertoire of push-button responses that enable me to move her body and engage her mind in every situation.  It’s likely that I’ll need to employ a stronger bridle for a while, too.  I’d prefer not to do so, but if the alternative is letting Acey learn that she is stronger than I, there’s no question on the issue.  Letting her take control would be disastrous for us both.

Acey won’t be an easy horse.  But to have that wildfire in hand, to roar across the hills together?  That’s a privilege worth making the effort to earn.