And Haley’s just living in it.
Having spent a good deal of my riding career on green horses, I could probably write a book about all the things they’ve taught me: patience, flexibility, softness, and that I know a lot less than I thought I did. The idea when riding a green horse is that I’m teaching the horse, but in reality they’ve taught me more than I could ever hope to teach them. Here are some of the things that riding green horses has taught me.
1. The barn’s schedule. 5:00 is feeding time, which means the hay cart comes through the arena and horses start kicking their stalls, so I need to either ride after 5 or plan to end my ride then, when my horse will be tired enough not to have a meltdown at the hay cart rolling through. At 9:00 in the morning, the mailman speeds by in his car with no muffler and honks when he passes a horse, so I should not plan on cooling out with a walk up the road at that time.
2. The importance of keeping track of the weather. A baby’s first ride with snow falling off the arena roof will be one to remember, as will a ride with high winds or driving rain that makes scary noises even if you’re riding inside.
3. How much I move around in the saddle. Ever prop your leg up on the pommel of the saddle to fix your sock that’s fallen down into your boot or straighten your pant leg? Apparently this is something that I do a lot, and something that my three-year-old did not appreciate the first time I did it with no warning. Loud with your leg or lack complete spur control? Babies will always tell on you, if for no reason other than they don’t know what it means.
4. Everything I say matters. For a young horse learning “whoa,” every word that I say has the potential to elicit a stop. Asking my coach a question about the speed of my lope? Hope he was watching, because we’re stopped now—baby brakes haven’t yet learned to differentiate between “whoa” and any other human speech.
5. How much actually goes on in the barn. The barn is a place I go for some peace and quiet, but I never realized until I was working with a baby how little quiet time there actually is. Barn cat halfway up the wall yowling because she’s stuck? Check. Overhead doors slamming up and down for horses coming in or out? Check. Horses screaming back and forth for no apparent reason? Check. Of course, desensitization to all of these stimuli is important, but sometimes it would be nice to have just one quiet ride without any distractions.
6. A sense of humor. “He’s been really good about collecting and slowing down these past few rides,” I say to my coach, and immediately afterwards we pass him at a gallop, tail straight up in the air. There are ups and downs in any training process, and it won’t be a rewarding process if I get upset or offended every time my horse proves me wrong or we encounter a bump in the road. As a rider who’s typically focused on “what could I have done better” and not “it was my horse’s fault,” I sometimes struggle to accept the fact that sometimes babies just have baby moments and need a minute to regroup and let their brains catch up.
7. Constant vigilance. Cooling out after a ride with my feet out of the stirrups, not paying any attention? Probably not my best idea. Granted, it’s important to pay attention on any horse, but green horses seem to have a way of needing their riders’ unfaltering attention and reacting the moment they don’t have it.
8. Superstition is real. Everyone has their own set of superstitions when it comes to riding, and sometimes it’s worth following them if for no reason other than for the placebo effect—I believe that a ritual will make me have a good ride, so it probably will to some degree. For example, I always put boots and wraps on before tack for good luck. Does this actually work? Probably not. Does it make me feel secure anyway? Yes.
9. The importance of checking my attitude at the door. If I get on a green horse in a bad mood, I’ll find something to pick apart until neither of us are happy. If I’m nervous and trying to fake calm confidence, the horse can tell every time. Forcing myself to check in with my emotions every time I enter the barn and work them down to neutral from whatever high or low I might be at is essential in giving myself the best chance at having a good ride. Adding to whatever attitude or antics the green horse might have in mind for the day is never a good idea, so it’s best to start any ride on a clean slate.
10. It’s easier to work with a big personality than against one. I’ve come to the humbling realization in working with my three-year-old colt that it’s Slide’s world and I’m just living in it. When he dumps his grooming bucket or pulls his saddle pad off his back to scrape it along the floor, when he whinnies to my coach every time he comes into the arena, or when he puts every piece of his bridle in his mouth before I can get the bit in, I realize that it’s more productive for both of us if I appreciate his personality as it is (and the harmless “naughtiness” that comes with it) and channel his focus while I’m riding instead of trying to force him into complete resignation on the ground.
Go green horses. Go riding!
Haley will continue to share more adventures from the perspective of a collegiate equestrian! Keep an eye out for The Academic Equestrian weekly.
Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with a minor in Equine Business Management. She owns two Quarter Horse geldings, Cricket (“At Last an Invitation”) and Slide (“HH Slick N Slide”). Haley is a captain of the AU western equestrian team, competing in horsemanship, reining and hunt seat. She also loves trail riding.