From Dragons to Butterflies
I rode horses before I walked. My father was raised on a farm and that is where his early horse experience came from, but it was first in ROTC (they had a cavalry division) and then in the Army in VA where he became an educated horseman. He rode daily and hunted until an injury prevented him from riding, but I am eternally grateful for the lessons taught.
Lessons began the moment we walked into the morning barn, listening for any noise out of the ordinary. The careful way he looked the horses over — never wasting time but observing to see if there was anything amiss. He listened to the horse, regarded it -- it’s demeanor, how it greeted him, the rhythm of its breath and how it chewed its morning hay. If all was right, out they would go and the day would begin. If something was not right he would begin the diagnosis. It was this kind of intuitive, careful regard for the horse that made things rarely go wrong. He knew horses. He felt when things were right or wrong and he knew when to pay attention to something so little that it was fixed immediately and didn't turn into a big thing.
In the 60's and 70's we did not call vets. They were around, and they could come for an extreme emergency, but they weren't called for routine things. We administered all vaccinations, we tube wormed, we tended lacerations, cuts and strains; We wrapped, we fed various concoctions, we medicated if all else failed. We had a farrier that came for the horses that needed shoes, but my Dad often trimmed the barefoot ones. We soaked sore feet and tended wounds -- some deeper and more serious than you could imagine now, but somehow the horses not only survived, but thrived with this care. We meticulously changed bandages, made up old remedies for all sorts of things. My big regret is that i don't have or remember some of the recipes. Looking back I'm sure that I spent a lot more time caring for the horses than I do now. For every 2 hours I rode, I probably spent 8 in the barn and there were only 6 horses at a time!
It was a different world then -- I learned to ride behind my father with a piece of clothesline wrapped around my waist, attached to his belt loops. He would let me hold the reins and "feel" the horse. Later he attached another set of reins to a halter over the bridle that I got to hold. I learned to post by feeling the horses' rhythm -- going up and down hanging onto my Dad. I was probably not long out of diapers. When I was older I was "allowed" to learn about tack, handling horses and grooming every inch of them -- not to make them beautiful, but for their health and well being. No show sheen or detangler, just picking with our fingers, or carefully using a metal curry and soft brush, then rubbing and rubbing and rubbing and rubbing their coats with a towel until their muscles were warm and they were dust free and gleaming. That was drilled into me and I was charged with chores. No riding was done until the chores were. It made for a good, fastidious worker. Many of the horses were OTTB's from less-than-great circumstances or working draft horses. They were broken down mentally or physically and my Dad took them to "fix" them. Many came in and many left to good homes and I remember that there was only one that we couldn't "fix".
When (at long last) I was on the horse, I was told that we had a minimum of one lap of the field (7 acres) to walk before the reins were picked up. Dad mandated that they have a flat footed walk before we picked up the reins. Seriously? He said that the key was ‘to show the horses the butterflies and not let them see the dragons’. That was the rule and I remember jigging many a TB around that field again and again holding onto the front of the saddle or that piece if clothesline that was a neckstrap that I was NEVER allowed to ride without. The path was at least a mile. A good long walk on a loose rein began every ride and sometimes was the most exciting (or terrifying) part; But I'm certain that eventually, even the hottest TB, learned a flat footed walk. When they would relax their neck we would let them take a bite of grass, then on we would move. Everyday there were more butterflies flitting over the dewey grass. The lesson learned was that the worst thing you can do with a horse is to be in a hurry. I wish that I had always put that into practice in later years.
Once I learned chores and care (and the patience to try for a flat footed walk) I was turned loose on my pony. My friends and I galloped, jumped and fell often without care. The love of horses has no ageism. My friends were kids and adults. Horses taught me how to have fun with adults, how to find common ground, how to learn from people much older and wiser. At 9 or 10 I was foisted on a neighbor who took me hunting; Poor her! She loaned me a tiny OTTB horse called Nameless and off we went. I wasn't scared, but was definitely in over my head. I remember that my arms were sore for days. I was told to bury my hands in his neck and DO NOT overtake the Master! Not an easy task aboard my little racehorse. But the memory of that day, of leaving the ground and soaring over those logs and walls has never left me. The woods were our teachers and the horses our guides. Conveniently little Namey would stop and stand when asked -- to this day I like to think it was because I wasn't nervous or scared, but because I expected him to. In many ways we expected more of our horses then. We let them be horses and in return they liked their job. This may well be why many of us don't have the fear that many of today's riders have. Every day I throw my leg over I have butterflies, not dragons, in my belly and like Dad said, "the key to good horsemanship is to help your horses see the butterflies not the dragons."