By Betsy Kelleher
(ADDED NOTE: Although the Illinois Horse Fair was unexpectedly canceled this year, this column was written and published before the cancellation announcement!)
March starts with the Illinois Horse Fair! Every year, my husband and I start counting the weeks until this annual event! It’s probably the highlight of the year for us (and incidentally, our anniversary). For me, it means blueberry pancakes at Cracker Barrel on the way to Springfield!
I’ve learned to print the schedule off the internet and decide which seminars I want to see before I get there. I go to learn, to buy, to meet old friends, and sell a few books as well. This year, I have my new book, “MARES! (ya gotta love em), Fifty Stories to Aid and Inspire Mare Owners.” Look for me in the lower level of the Livestock Center building.
While the Illinois Horse Fair is going on, it’s also the weekend for the 2008 Road to the Horse in Murphysboro, Tennessee. There will be four clinicians competing: Tommy Garland, Chris Cox, Ken McNabb and a “mystery” clinician not yet announced. Each one will receive a signed copy of the mare book! I’m excited about that, and very grateful for the splendid idea by one of the writers in the book, Michelle Corvallis, who will make the presentations. She and her Mom have tickets to the Road to the Horse! Michelle attends Collinsville High School, and shows Arabians.
There’s a story behind most happenings. This story actually began at a horse show sponsored by Lincoln Trail Riders near O’Fallon. I was walking around with my camera, looking for a mare to photograph and hoping to take the perfect picture for the cover of the book. The only mare I found was a gorgeous white Arab, watched over at the moment by Michelle’s mom, Janet. While taking pictures, I told her about the book, and when Michelle came back to the trailer with her young filly she had just shown in a halter class, we were talking about adding another story!
“A Mare, A Girl and God’s Plan” is story number eight in the book. Michelle gave me a photo of herself with the mare to use with her story plus her biographical information. Michelle participates in the St. Clair County 4-H program, belongs to the Arabian Youth Association and ARAB, Inc., and has learned about horses from Mary Skittino of Royale Ranch (O’Fallon). Michelle is one of 19 Illinois writers in the book. Incidentally, I didn’t take that perfect shot for the book cover, but it came from our stable owner, Tammy Dowdy who showed me a photo of her daughter Jordan, taken by Linda Snyder of Bunker Hill.
I would be in trouble mentioning one writer without the others, so here’s a list of the writers from Illinois: Connie Owens (of the Illinois Horse Network), Debbie Antognoli, Jim Hayes, Cynthia Medina, Jennifer Appleton, Dawn Hadfield, Dianne Doll, Sarah Bower, Jackie King, H. Lynette Partridge-Schneider, Donna Vogt, Lisa Waltrip, Linda Zavada, AnnMarie Cross, Janet Hill, Katherine Witas, Jean Reinhardt, and myself. All the writers are listed on my website in the purple sidebar. You’ll just have to read the book to learn their stories!
After all the excitement of the Illinois Horse Fair, watching trainers do their stuff, searching through countless vendors for bargains and meeting old friends, all too soon it will be time to return home and get back to work.
I’m a better planner than a doer. But it’s the doing that gets it done. I don’t seem to do as much as I used to and planning just takes more time! I see horse owners in our barn riding their horses almost every day, even in cold weather, and I feel old because I’m not doing that anymore. I don’t feel old mentally, just physically -- especially the day after stacking 25 bales of hay or unloading ten wheelbarrows of sawdust from my trusty Dodge.
OK, let’s get to the point. Time goes by much too fast to waste it! Each horse is a responsibility, an opportunity and a challenge. I’d love to have only one good horse to enjoy and care for, but we have four. I have toyed with the idea of selling one, but I get too attached to sell to just anyone. I’d look for someone to “help,” but there are liabilities and problems to every solution.
While talking to an old friend recently, she says she has five horses now. One of the first comments she made was, “I haven’t bonded with any of them the way I did when I had one.” When you have four or five, how do you bond with them all? Just caring for our four keeps me from enjoying any of them as much as I would like. I remember another couple who bought their own place and later told me they didn’t have time to ride anymore. Maybe it’s best to have less and enjoy it more.
Trainers often ride several horses a day. Do they “bond” with each horse or does the horse learn to obey without a real bond? I just got an email from someone who quoted Carol Coppinger, a Parelli trainer in Tennessee, who said, “It is amazing how personal it can become if we press too hard without the rapport being there.” So whether we call it bonding, or rapport or something else, it should be there when we work with each horse.
It seems I’m always in a hurry. I want to keep that bonded relationship that is the foundation of working with any horse, but I don’t have time to do what I should. Maybe when the weather gets warmer. I could work with one horse each day, but there’s always the decision of which one. If I spend 30 minutes a day with each one, that’s really not much but it adds up! Then there’s another hour or so to lay out grain and hay for four horses, empty and refill water buckets and I’m not even cleaning stalls these days (Whew!).
I’m working on a plan, however. I’m going to try working with one horse each week. One day to groom, maybe ride a short while in the indoor arena, then four or five days to ride and work on whatever I want to work on. There’s the outdoor arena, the little trail behind the pasture that goes into the woods and there’s the road by the barn with all sorts of training opportunities! By the end of the week, I should be getting somewhere. Someone once told me that a horse in training (at any age) needs to be ridden every day. I can’t say my horses are “in training,” at this stage, but anytime I work with a horse, I know I’m training something because that’s just the way it is. Good or bad, we are always training something into that horse by the way we respond to it or allow it to act.
For the last few years, I’ve been a hit and miss rider. I ride when the weather is nice and riding is enjoyable. That’s NOT the pattern of a professional rider with a goal, but at the moment I don’t have a real goal. I’ve gotten to the stage of just enjoying the horses and taking care of them. On the other hand, I’m aware that taking care of them is consuming much more time than enjoying them!
I have decided the important thing is my attitude toward the horse while I am with it. If I am in a hurry, a horse senses it. If I can take even ten minutes and spend it “in tune” with one horse at a time, giving individual full attention on those moments of togetherness, I believe it becomes more meaningful and more effective.
For those who have specific goals, like showing or competitive riding, you really need to ride consistently with that goal in mind, and learn to ask more of your horse as you go along. You could ride every day, however, and if you are doing things the wrong way, your horse is simply getting more set in those wrong ways of doing things! It’s not a case of how much you ride, or how long, it’s the quality of the time spent. Does each ride accomplish something, even a small something?
That’s why we have events like the Illinois Horse Fair, the Midwest Horse Fair, the Equine Affaire and all kinds of Horse Expo events. We can learn from them. The secret is to take home what we learn and practice it, experiment with it, see what works for us and consistently use it to develop ourselves and our horses.
Each horse is a different personality with different needs regarding handling and training. You deal with each horse differently. It’s usually a matter of taking charge in a way that horse accepts, being the horse’s leader, earning trust and respect. Some horses take more patience and smaller steps than other horses. You can’t handle them all like an assembly line! And when things get too much to handle, you have to draw a line somewhere.
To make another point, God certainly deals with each of us in a very personal, individual way. He knows each of us and He knows what we need in life to become the best we can be. I learned a long time ago that God could do much more in my life than I could ever do on my own, if I allowed Him to take charge as my Leader.
Every morning, I ask God to take over again, and to help me be aware of the guidance of His Holy Spirit and to be obedient to it. I can’t face a lot of life’s stuff without His help, and I often find myself trying and failing when I try to do things on my own.
I used to turn over a “new leaf” quite often and plan to do better. But I was still the same person inside, still hesitant and fearful, still easily distracted and still weak. It wasn’t until I literally “gave up” one day that things finally changed for real. I was so discouraged that I simply told God, I can’t do it. I can’t be the Christian that I’m supposed to be. And I still remember hearing that quiet whisper in my soul, “Let ME do it!”
The more I learn about the horse and rider relationship, with all its intricate and subtle aspects of learning and responding, the more I see it as a “lesson” in faith. Many horses have fears that need to be overcome by patient, careful handling, one small step at a time. They need to learn to yield and to trust, just as we do.
A fearful rider has the same problems as a fearful Christian. Fear is good when it is a natural warning within one’s being that something isn’t right. We learn to sense things in life. But when fear becomes a part of one’s attitude, there is possibly an underlying problem that needs to be identified and healed. Fear of complete submission is understandable. Just as a horse learns to “give” itself to a human master, each human being must find his or her own moment of true submission to a Sovereign Master who has already given His life for each one of us!
(Originally published in the March 2008 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)