By Ardi C. Whalen
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Winston Churchill said it, and I’d be willing to bet that most horse owners share this sentiment. Just looking at Mike’s beautiful, gentle horse, Frosty, awakened in me my childhood dream of owning a horse.
Frosty is a Missouri Fox Trotter. This means that he possesses a unique gait known as the fox trot, a four-beat diagonal gait in which the horse appears to walk with his front legs and trot with his hind legs. It’s a smooth gait that is easy to sit and can be sustained for long periods of time.
Although Frosty belongs to Mike, their relationship is more on the order of a partnership. They are good together. Mike said that when his mother died (Civano’s dearly loved Ruth Eng), Frosty did much to help him deal with his grief.
Frosty obviously loves and trusts Mike. While I was there, another horse tried to get Mike’s attention. Frosty reared up, as did the other horse. They were ready to fight. Fortunately, strong bars separated the two horses. Mike grabbed Frosty’s halter and led him into the sheltered part of his stall to let him cool off. “He gets jealous,” Mike said.
It was time to groom Frosty before the morning’s ride, and Mike invited me to join them so I could continue with the interview. Before I did that, however, I stopped to talk with Monica Eng, who had just finished grooming her horse, Gus, a brown Appaloosa.
Gus sported the typical spotted rump of the Appaloosa. (Appaloosas were first developed by the Nez Perce people of ourPacific Northwest. Settlers referred to Appaloosas as “Palouse horse,” probably because thePalouse Riverran through the Nez Perce country. The name gradually morphed into “Appaloosa.”)
Monica cinched up the saddle and put on her riding helmet, as she warned me that Gus was more on the defensive with strangers than was Frosty. Gus could be “nippy.” I did not try to pat him, merely admired him, and walked over to where Mike was grooming Frosty. Seated on a white plastic chair, I continued with the interview.
“Why horses?” I asked, thinking of the expense of caring for a horse in our grass and hay-starved region.
“My mother,” said Mike, “was raised on a farm inMissourithat had several horses, and we’d spend holidays and vacations there. My tomboy cousin and I enjoyed riding the horses, and when I was eight or nine years old, that’s all I wanted—my own horse. My parents said I had to wait until I was twelve, but by that age, I had girls on my mind.”
Horses, however, were never entirely forgotten. At one time he was part of the horse patrol inNew Mexico. Armed and dangerous, he’d go out at night and patrol the area aroundBandelierNational Monument, on the lookout for deer poachers.
Recently Mike and Monica came back to Civano after spending two years inCalifornia. While there they did volunteer work at a riding school for the disabled. Back in Civano, Monica, who had always feared horses, decided that she would confront her horse fears.
She started working with Jenny Kendall, who teaches Yoga with Horses at River Valley Ranch (www.deserthorseinc.com). The humans do the yoga, using the horses as support—a prop to hold onto. Sometimes seated yoga postures were done sitting on the horse. In six to eight months, Monica was able to be in the horse pens, interacting with the horses as they’d come up to her and give her a friendly nudge.
In the meantime, Mike was learning about all things involved in caring for a horse, and he became interested in dressage riding. Dressage, a French term translated as “training,” is a competitive, equestrian sport, defined by the International Equestrian Federation as “the highest expression of horse training.”
The progressive training methods are designed to develop a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thus making for a better riding horse. The goal is a smooth response on the part of the horse to a relaxed, skilled rider, using minimal aids. Dressage is sometimes referred to as “Horse Ballet” (Wikipedia). The discipline appealed to Mike, and he started learning the intricacies of dressage riding.
Though not interested in competitive dressage, Mike is interested in the “minimal aids” part of dressage. With Frosty, Mike converted to using a bit less bridle; guidance comes from the feel of the reins surrounding his head and the movements of Mike’s legs against his sides. He uses a lightweight English saddle through which he is able to actually feel his horse’s movements and anticipate actions. Riding like this Mike described as “centered riding.” Horse and rider are in balance, in harmony.
Mike finished the grooming and put on his helmet; he and Frosty were good to go. And I went too, to watch Monica’s lesson in progress and to take some pictures.
Monica grew up inGreen Bay,Wisconsin. Unlike many girls, she did not grow up with a love for horses; on the contrary, she feared them. They were so big!
After her successful work with Jenny and the horse yoga, it was time for riding lessons. Under the tutelage of Stacey Kollman , also a teacher at River Valley Ranch, Monica was introduced to Centered and Connected riding, which is all about the rider and horse being in balance. Stacey started Monica out with six weeks of ground work, learning how to care for her horse—being with him, grooming him—before starting to actually ride.
For three years she took riding lessons from Stacey and cared for Ichabod, a 28-year-old school horse. “It was an incredible life-changing process,” said Monica. Last May (2011) Ichabod was injured.
Luckily, Gus then came on the scene. He had not been getting regular exercise, so Monica offered to ride him. Gus’s owner told Monica that she could ride him every day. Riding five days a week greatly improved her skills. Then in November of 2011, Gus was given to her—a huge, wonderful gift.
Monica says that Gus is the perfect match for her. They are learning together and have a horse/human relationship of trust. The journey to conquer her horse fears ended with love and appreciation for these huge, beautiful, sentient beings. Just to be sure, I asked her if she had any regrets about taking over the responsibility for Gus. Without the slightest hesitation, she said, “No.”
Monica and Mike want to pursue trail riding and perhaps, later on, backcountry horse camping. Monica thinks thatSaguaroNational Parkwould be a good place to start, since she already knows the trails so well from hiking them regularly. They are now on the lookout for a horse trailer.
Happy trails to you, Monica and Mike; oh, yes, to Gus and Frosty too.