Spring Valley Ranch had large barns, stalls, an indoor arena, and residents bred and trained to be show horses. It was here where we met Michael’s friend, a warm and elegant lady 80 years young. It’s not every day you meet someone who feels comfortable allowing 7 strangers to ride her horse.
As Guapo was being prepared, Dee remarked that putting a saddle and bridle on a horse is a good lesson for kids. (I would say it’s a good lesson for adults as well.) It teaches patience and consistency because if anything is off, at worst, the rider’s life (and other lives) could be in danger.
I remember Dee explaining something, pausing while stroking Guapo’s forehead, then saying, “He’s my buddy.” I saw in her what I wished I had when I was a kid who loved horses. As I grew older, I put that wish aside and forgot most of the horse stories I read about and watched. Dee didn’t own her first horse until she was 55 and maybe there’s hope for me in the future. If not, I’m just happy to have met yet another kind hearted soul who rescued a horse and developed a bond with him.
That evening, Michael showed us videos of equestrian vaulting, a sport most of us had never heard of before. It’s essentially gymnastics and dance while on a cantering horse. The splits and rolls that Michael had us practice at the Center suddenly made sense!
The following day, we arrived at Wood Ranch in Orland. The teachers from Equestrians in Harmony gave us over 3 hours of instruction. We learned how to jump and mount the horse using only the handle bars. The pros do it while the horse is moving and sometimes they show similar moves in the movies. We mounted while the horse was standing and with assistance from the teachers.
There are no saddles or stirrups in vaulting. The instructors and Michael emphasized the need to maintain our center with proper alignment. Well trained horses can sense shifts in the riders’ position and move accordingly. A good rider and well trained horse and move in harmony.
For us, the horses moved at walking speed. We practiced “around the world” where you start off facing forward, move one leg over the horse’s head so your legs are together (sitting sideways), move the second leg around the horse’s rear to the other side (facing backwards), and around again until you face sideways and forward. A “banana click” is when you lean forward and click your heels together over the horse’s rear. We practiced dismounting (with a banana click and then jump off to one side), kneeling, and even standing up!
As with martial arts, beginners usually only see the obvious in vaulting. In vaulting, I would have only noticed the human performer doing acrobatic movements. After our horsemanship lessons, I learned that the horses have to be specially trained and have the right temperament, the person directing the horse has to read the horse at all times and is responsible for the safety of the performer, and the performer has to have serious strength, balance, and artistry to do what they do.
“The better the horseman, the harder it is to reach him.”
Michael introduced us to a proper cowboy at Wood Ranch. We watched him ride, rope cattle, and train a few young horses. He said there hasn’t been any invention that can navigate terrain and herd cattle better than horses can. Although I don’t usually eat beef, I have a new appreciation for cowboys and cowgirls and all they do. Training a horse to be ridden is one level, training a horse to help herd cattle is another level of horsemanship.
With hospitality rarely felt in the city (in my experience), the cowboy gave us hours of his time to teach us to ride and even invited us back the following day for a BBQ.
On the last morning, we visited Pine Creek Ranch. The owner came out with about 10 dogs trailing her (all of them rescue dogs), and I thought, “This is my childhood dream home.” Tina showed us how to “send off” a horse which is basically walking it around in circles and switching directions. It requires a lot more skill than it seems because you have to understand the horse’s footfalls and be aware of your own position in relation to the horse. It’s easy to screw up and this is one of the many drills in horsemanship groundwork.
We returned to Wood Ranch and the cowboy disappeared and left us in charge of a horse named Jenny. We knew nothing about her and tentatively took turns leading her with a soft feel – going forward, backward, and sending her off. She was calm and patient with us as the hours went by. We found out that she had about 90 days of training so she was relatively green. She had been ridden before, but we took our time allowing her to get used to us going on her back. We’d brush her back, put a little pressure on her, and then release. We’d add more pressure and more time with each rep until she got used to us sitting on her back. Our time with Jenny was only a few hours, but we all grew attached to her.
The cowboy returned with a giant mixing bowl in his arms as he prepared a peach cobbler while giving us tips. Later that evening, we rode Jenny, performed a demo in the sand, and had the most delicious garlic bread with steak tips and a peach cobbler baked in a proper Dutch oven. We were tired from 4 long days and it was cold, windy, and rainy outside, but we didn’t want to leave.