Learning to Ride Week 4: Lacing Up Sneaker

I pulled into the gravel around 5:58 and parked in front of a horse trailer. I normally liked to be about ten minutes early to my commitments, but with Chrystal having a full day of lessons, it seemed more rude to interrupt her prior students than to be late. I exchanged my Chacos for my dusty Justin boots and retrieved my helmet from my trunk.

The window of the crossover next to me rolled down to reveal a middle-aged woman, presumably a parent of one of the younger riders. "Chrystal told me to tell you she's on a trail ride and she'll be back soon." I thanked the woman for the information and dodged the mud as I walked through the metal barn doors.

With the horse owners around me brushing coats, cleaning hooves and stocking manure wheelbarrows, I learned quickly that it's awkward to be idle in a horse barn. Since Chrystal was still out on the trail and I was still new among the community of horse owners, I reminded myself to keep my hands at my side and gave myself the choice to either sit on an unused tack trunk or visit Rime, one of my favorites of the few horses I had met. A whinny at the end of the stalls made my decision for me.

Rime put his head over the rails and sniffed my hands for treats. When he found them empty, he scraped his hooves against the ground but still allowed me to scratch his ears and even take a selfie with him. Rime is by far the largest of the horses but he is one of the least intimidating.

On my second week, I learned how to groom horses after they've been ridden and Rime was my test. My partner and I each took a side of Rime and hesitantly picked up a curry comb. For upwards of fifteen minutes we brushed Rime with the same comb, thinking we needed to remove every ounce of dust from his rust colored coat. Eventually, Rime's owner informed us we had spent plenty of time with the curry comb and to spend that much time removing dust is unnecessary. Despite this, Rime never moved an inch the entire time we were brushing him even as we repeated the process with four other brushes.
The famous Rime
Shortly after I took camp with Rime, Chrystal rode through the doors with her two eleven-year-old students in tow. I had talked to the girls the last time I arrived early and learned they had been riding for a couple of years now but were just now moving past the basics. Nonetheless, they rode confidently and acted much older than their age. Chrystal was mounted on Phantom, a white-coated, slim horse with attentive ears. The girls rode ponies not much smaller than Phantom. One pony I recognized instantly, sassy Sneaker.

The girls switched the bridles for halters and attached each side to a rope in order to keep the horses and ponies stationary while they were unsaddled and brushed. Once secure, they went to retrieve their equipment and the horses relaxed after the ride. With no warning, Phantom startled and reeled back onto his hocks. Instinctively, we all backed away while Phantom continued to attempt to break free of the latches. Chrystal, like the expert she is, managed to calm him down in seconds. In the commotion of Phantom's meltdown, it was easy to overlook the pony hidden behind the larger horse. Once remembered, we all turned to watch as Sneaker casually strolled out of the doors sporting a broken halter.

 As concerning as an escaped pony is, Chrystal was confident in knowing Sneaker's final destination. We decided to retrieve another pony during our trip, Koosa. Sure enough, Sneaker was waiting at the gate of his favorite paddock, socializing with the others on the inside. Chrystal put on Koosa's halter and lead and turned her attention to convincing Sneaker to leave his beloved pasture.

She handed my partner Koosa's lead and informed her she would be riding Koosa during today's lesson. On the surface, Koosa seemed easygoing enough and willingly began walking down the road with us. However, once we were out of sight of the other horses, Koosa let out a shrill whinny and attempted to turn her head back from where we came. My partner became increasingly nervous with each jerk of Koosa's head. As we walked I kept a hand on Koosa's side, partially to keep her calm and partially to keep her from intentionally pushing me out of the road. With a final stubborn twist of the head, my partner handed the lead to me and said, "Maybe she just doesn't like me." With a deep breath, I inhaled bravery and exhaled my nerves. Having an animal triple your size on the other end of a short rope is something I have yet to grow used to.

As we exchanged ropes Koosa let out one of her signature whinnies that always manage to make my hair stand on edge. I looked at the slack on the rope between my hand and her nose. Koosa took one last look at the paddock behind her. I moved my hand all the way up the rope to the latch, nearly touching her slender face. "If you're going back, I'm going with you."

She turned her head from mine but found no slack in the rope. I lowered my voice and let out a soft "Koosa". In an instant, her body released its tension and her ears turned forward, ready for further direction. We took a leisurely stroll back to the barn and I relished in my small victory.

Almost as soon as we had Koosa brushed and in a stall, we began "tacking" her up. Essentially, we retrieved her saddle pad, saddle, bridle, girth, etc. All the while, Sneaker sat in the stall next to Koosa's, eyeing us suspiciously. Sneaker is undeniably handsome, even for someone who knows next to nothing about horses. He sat just bit under Koosa's height but he stood tall, making every inch count. At 5'6", I stood practically eye-level with the power hungry pony. Regardless, I was still intimidated by his stereotypical pony personality.

Which is why I was a little taken aback when Chrystal handed me a bridle labeled "Sneaker."

Sneaker was an old pro at being tacked up. He hardly flinched as I laid the heavy saddle across his back. As I was tightening his girth, the part that secures the saddle around the pony's belly, I noticed one of the horse owners observing. She walked over, took the latch out of my hand and tightened it a few more notches up. "The tighter it is, the less sass you'll get. And trust me, he's got plenty of sass."

By the time I walked Sneaker into the ring, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had just tacked up without much help and had managed to tame Koosa. As if Sneaker knew my self esteem was rising, he took off in a full sprint, away from the arena. With my hand tightened around the lead, I refused to let go was all but dragged in the direction Sneaker desired. Luckily, Sneaker realized he was not going to make it very far with me dangling on the other end of the lead and the horse owner that tightened his girth was standing in his path. She waved the red food scoop at him. "What'd I tell ya?"

Chrystal walked up behind us. "I was going to tell you to let go, but you're stronger than I realized. I don't know what's gotten into him today. I'll be surprised if you stay on." We laughed, mine far more nervous than hers. They both reassured me that Sneaker was excellent when ridden and I should have no problems.

Once mounted on Sneaker, I began to see what was hard to believe. Sneaker was obedient when you were on his back. We slowly began to walk around the ring, in suit of Koosa. However, some hay in the corner of the ring broke our leisurely rhythm. Sneaker trotted to the hay and began to munch while I pulled on his reins and scolded him as if he was a misbehaving puppy.

Chrystal sighed, "I guess just try to keep him away from that corner and I'll be right back." The process repeated a couple more times. We would make a successful lap around the ring and Sneaker would return to his snack bar. Chrystal returned and handed me a riding crop. "Just rest it on his shoulder and tap him with it when he acts up. Don't be scared." Instantly, Sneaker's attitude adjusted and we fell in behind Koosa, following her movements.

For about twenty minutes, we walked the ring, practiced direction changes and learned the quirks of our ponies. Our new lesson for the day was commanding our ponies to trot. She began with Koosa, giving my partner directions I could not make out. I was content with waiting for my own instructions just walking the ring with Sneaker. Sneaker wasn't.

There's always the joke about how people learn to swim. They're thrown into the water and it's drown or learn how to kick around and stay afloat. Being on the back of a pony and trotting for the first time is how I imagine that to feel.

I have always been good at faking my composure. As Sneaker followed Koosa, I sat tall and dug into my heels to keep my balance. I could feel every muscle in Sneaker's body and concentrated on having my own match his rhythm. For what seemed like forever, we trotted the ring. When we pulled back on the reins, my partner and I felt like racehorse jockeys. "Congratulations," Chrystal said, "you just went an entire six miles per hour." Okay, so maybe we weren't experts.

Perhaps Koosa took Chrystal's previous statement as a challenge, because on our next trotting practice my partner gave a little too much leverage to Koosa's reins and she straightened her neck and blew past me and Sneaker. Chrystal ran behind them, yelling at Koosa to stop. Koosa obeyed and slowed to a walk. My partner placed her hand over her heart and tried to relax while we all laughed over the commotion. Chrystal explained that Koosa can be very sensitive when reading the rider's instructions. "But good job! You just cantered!"

To unwind, we walked the ring a couple more times and then dismounted to unsaddle our horses and put away the tack. On the walk back, Sneaker again drug me to the feed wheelbarrow but this time I relented. He deserves a break every now and then.

After we placed our horses in their stalls, Chrystal asked us to help return some horses to the paddock for the night. Chrystal walked three large horses at once while I was given the simple task of walking a old pony. His tallest point barely came to my chest and Chrystal described him as "like forty years old" despite his name being Junior. I struggled to keep up with Chrystal and her three but she told me Junior would take his own pace and she would wait for me at the paddock.

Junior, the old pony with his own schedule.
Junior and I walked hand in lead down the one lane road. The night began to chill and stars shone bright above our heads, meaningless to the rest of space. The melody of his hooves on the pavement became the soundtrack to our walk in this short film of contentment.

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