Green horse, green rider: An end of a storybook
My husband started riding when he was 51. Unlike me, a longtime English rider, Steve had no interest in perching on a fragile piece of leather and circling in a dusty ring. He embraced western riding, popular here in Montana, where endless miles of mountain trails invite him.
His first horse, Gus, was a dude-string veteran. The little roan gelding carried Steve through rushing streams and steep, narrow trails. Then, exactly one year after he brought him home, Gus died of colic. Steve was devastated. Three months passed before he even considered buying another horse.
After looking at a few unlikely prospects, he focused on a Craigslist ad for a 7-year-old strawberry roan that was supposed to be good on the trails. “Needs arena work,” the ad also said. The author of the ad, it would turn out, was a master of understatement.
One beautiful day in August Steve and I drove three hours to check it out. We brought our trailer, virtually guaranteeing we would bring the horse home. The gelding, a Paint registered with 15.2 hands, seemed suspicious of people; his eyes were suspicious. But he was well built, although a little short in the neck and thick at the throat.
The coach had only worked with him for two weeks and claimed to know little about his past. He stood quietly as she nailed him with a western saddle, then I climbed aboard. I rode it first, doing the main test, because Steve had recently injured his back; a borrowed horse had reared up and fell backwards on him. He would give this new horse a try too, but the pain would keep him from doing much. Obviously our timing was far from ideal for shopping on horseback. But we were on a mission.
I rode the horse in a small grass arena, where he demonstrated a ground step, a lively trot and a frenzied gallop. But my standard helpers were a foreign language to him, and the tension ran from his sounding to his cock, raising red flags. As advertised, he was much more comfortable walking around the adjacent pasture, where he easily took me across a stream. Then Steve did a round in the saddle and did a few loops walking around the same field. We agreed that the gelding showed promise as a trail horse.
Was this the horse for Steve? No. Green horses and green riders don’t mix. Did Steve buy it? Yes. Once he had decided he wanted another horse, he wanted one right away, both to fill the crater of his life left by Gus’ death and to resume the horse-centric lifestyle. that we had built together. I had reservations about the paint but didn’t want to be a wet blanket. When we brought the horse home, I envisioned the routine training challenges that lay ahead. That my husband had just bought hell on the hooves didn’t cross my mind.
I nicknamed the horse The Roan Ranger, and the name stuck. I could handle it easily. Mainly, I needed to give him plenty of legs when he balked at odd sights: a large boulder, a brick walkway, or an oddly crooked tree. Steve wasn’t doing so well. On their first solo hike, Ranger immediately pushed him away. Ranger was also found to be able to rotate 180 degrees and then bolt. Steve was scared to death.
In desperation, we sent Ranger to a trainer I had known for years. We had planned for her to work with him for at least a month. But, two and a half weeks later, she washed her hands of it. “This horse is dangerous,” she proclaimed. “He’s going to kill you someday.” I wouldn’t put my husband on him, and he’s been riding his whole life. Our warning of green horse and green rider was turning into something darker.
We were overwhelmed, our options limited. We would never auction Ranger or entrust it to an unsuspecting buyer. And there weren’t any other trainers in our area that we felt comfortable hiring. There was only one option left: to train Ranger ourselves. Another ruthless Montana winter was looming, and success seemed long drawn out at best.
Where to start A friend who was good at starting young horses and fixing older horses recommended that Steve work with Ranger in a round pen to earn his respect. She gave Steve a few lessons and, along with her coaching and problem-solving, things went well with Ranger.
Things turned out a lot worse when Steve tried to round it up on his own. One day, Ranger got his ears stuck, rushed wildly, ran full out, and repeatedly charged him. Steve waved his arms emphatically, raised his voice, and threw his rope, like a snake, in the direction of Ranger. Leaning forward, as in a strong wind, he leaned over to Ranger’s hips to push him forward. Finally, Steve beat a hasty retreat through the door.
I concluded that Ranger was a thug. But Steve showed a lot more empathy, more horse intelligence. “I put him on the defensive,” he said later. “I came too strong, like a predator. He wanted to show me that he is a big, strong horse who knows how to protect himself.
There is a fine line between assertiveness and aggression, Steve found. Over time, he learned to find the right balance between them.
The cold and the snow quickly led us into the indoor arena. Steve turned to me for teaching horseback riding — a proposition as risky as having one spouse teach the other to operate a shifter. We have developed a routine. I would get on Ranger first, working to feed it and systematically applying the appropriate aids for each step. Then Steve would take his turn in the saddle, and I would work on him. Tension filled his face. Not only did he learn to ask for and sit the three gaits; he also did it aboard a scary, half-trained horse. Snow and ice often cascaded from the roof with thunderous falls, doing nothing to relax either.
“Are you publishing? I remember yelling, trying not to sound frustrated. “If you are, you’ve been sitting in the saddle too long. Rise as the outer shoulder leans forward. Then sit down on one stride, not two.
“Don’t you think I’m trying to do this, Carol?” Steve barked. “You’ve been doing this your whole life. I’m just learning.
Steve knew he wasn’t cowboy enough to tame Ranger the old-fashioned way: manhandle him, push him away, force him to submit. For workable – and certainly more humane – solutions, he turned to books and videos from experts in natural riding. He soaked up knowledge like a sponge, bringing it to both our informal classes and his work with Ranger in the field.
During the winter, not only the trust and respect between them grew. Steve also developed a seat independent enough that he could reliably ride Ranger’s ghosts.
This new security would be vital in the spring when hiking calls Steve again. The trails have also attracted many non-equestrian riders. Barking dogs charged him and Ranger. The cyclists, without warning, passed them from behind. Firefighters wearing neon orange helmets appeared above a ridge. They all caused Ranger’s shyness or flight. But Steve persevered. I marveled at his courage, sure I had never done anything so brave.
Little by little, Steve and Ranger understood each other. A good occasional ride turned into two in a row, then five in a row. Now, 13 years after starting their partnership, they have counted up to several hundred good laps in a row. They have explored the Montana wilderness in all weather conditions, most often on their own.
“Along the way, I learned a lot about horses and a lot more about myself,” Steve tells his friends. “I didn’t give up on Ranger and he never left me. I have complete trust and respect for Ranger, and nothing makes me prouder than to say that I deserved hers too. I can’t wait to see where we go next.