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Be The Leader Your Horse Needs


By Autumn Watson

Horseback riding is a partnership; both human and horse must put forth their best efforts to help the other. Even though it sounds easy enough to do, that relationship between the horse and the rider can be very hard to attain and maintain, and I’ve had to learn that the hard way. I started riding just over a year ago and have ridden a handful of horses; but all of them have shown me how much I still have to learn, especially the horse I ride now. He’s an Appaloosa who has a tough mind and is sometimes explosive. He is by no means easy to ride. Through the last few months, he has shown and taught me so much. I have to ask him to do something, not tell him, and I have to ask him at the right time in the right way. In our journey together, I have taken him to three clinics and gotten better at understanding him. Recently, I felt that my riding had reached a plateau, and I felt like I was still missing something. He would still sometimes rear up, crow hop, or run away with me. I was applying everything I had learned in the clinics to improve our relationship, so what was going wrong?  I honesty had no idea what to do next. Thankfully, I had signed up for a clinic with Trina Campbell, November 7-8, 2018 at Kay Turley’s arena at Faded Rose Farm in El Paso, Arkansas.

I had only been to one other Trina Campbell clinic before, a one-day clinic in northern Tennessee. I knew she is one of the best to learn from, and my riding partner knew going to see Trina again was exactly what my horse and I needed. So, we started preparing our horses. I came out to work with Dancer, the Appaloosa, every day I could. The last clinic I went to wasn’t the best representation of my riding, so I wanted to make sure she could see that I had improved. As November was just around the corner, my riding partner and mentor, Lisa Sparks, and another girl I ride with, Mia Gaskins, packed our bags, loaded our horses, and set off to El Paso, Arkansas. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I hoped we would all come home with more knowledge about and experience with our steeds.

The first day of the clinic was rough. The wind was chilling, the clouds hid the sun, and the morning came too early for my liking. But for the sake of my horse, I tried my best to listen to Trina and watch her work with each person’s horse. It seemed all the horses had similar problems; they all lacked a soft feel. Lacking a soft feel in a horse leads to a “slough” of other problems, like no collection, a stiff body, and rough and choppy transitions. I had all those problems too, but I didn’t completely realize that until the afternoon session was in full swing. Dancer was irritable to the point where I could barely get in the saddle without him trying to bite me. Then he tried to buck me off. Something wasn’t right, and it only got worse when he saw the cows we were supposed to work.

Trina said working cows could show you where your horsemanship was lacking, and I felt like I was the embodiment of that statement. Nothing was going well. Dancer would literally try to take bites out of the poor cows. I tried to do everything I knew to keep him calm and moving his feet, but nothing worked. All the while, Trina kept saying not to let him push on me and to change his mind, but I had no clue what she meant. And when I watched the other riders in the clinic, they were all struggling, too. Since I wasn’t the only one struggling, it was easier to keep trying and have hope that I wasn’t a total failure. After we were finished working the cows, everyone helped herd them all back into their pasture, as the first day came to a close.

I could tell that Dancer was just as tired and mentally drained as I was, so we started to trot around the perimeter of the arena. As soon as we started moving, I could finally feel him relax and loosen up. He started trotting faster and faster, and in an instant, we were loping all around the clearing. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh as we ran around and jumped over puddles as we headed back to the barn. When I felt like we had enough fun, I leaned back slightly and slowed him to the trot, then the walk. Once we stopped, Trina rode past us next to our hostess, Kay Turley. For a moment, I thought she was going to scold me for running around the place, but instead she just told me not to tear up Kay’s grass. I smiled to myself in surprise. I quickly said yes ma’am and decided to call it a day.

The next morning wasn’t as cold as the day before, and I managed to get up an hour early. I saddled Dancer and worked with him on the ground a bit before clinic started. It was a good thing I did, because little did I know that I would be the focus of a demonstration when clinic started. Dancer was irritated again, so Ms. Lisa convinced me to ask Trina about it. I usually would just stay quiet and deal with it on my own, but I had the feeling that if I did that, everything would just get worse. When I asked what I should do, Trina told me to turn his head away slightly when mounting him, but she first wanted to see him work on the ground. I stepped in the middle of the area and sent him off around me. He walked in a circle for a moment before he decided to start blowing sideways. The second he tried to get away from me, Trina would twirl the end of her lead rope at him. She was making the right thing to do easy for him and the wrong thing difficult, and she pointed out that he should focus on me instead of the other horses. When he realized the best thing for him to do was to focus on me, Trina told me to bridle him and get mounted. I did, and soon, everyone was encircling me and twirling their lead ropes at me. This was the same exercise I had done on the ground, except now I was on his back. Through the exercise, I got a couple of bruises from accidental blows from ropes, but I also started to understand why Trina was doing this. Dancer had to look to me for leadership and direction. How was I going to accomplish that? Before I could figure out the answer, it was time for lunch.

When we came back, it was time to work the cows again. Since the previous day hadn’t gone well, I wasn’t thrilled, but I pressed on. I needed to be a leader for Dancer now more than ever. Once all the cows were in the arena, I paid close attention to how Trina rode the horse she was borrowing from Kay, especially how she held her hands. Ms. Lisa had told me that if I watched Trina’s hands, I might learn how to improve my own hands. I noticed whenever the horse, Lacy, tried to push through Trina’s hands, Trina would bump her with one rein followed quickly by the other. At first it looked like she was sawing on the horse’s mouth, but after watching more closely, I saw that she immediately released the pressure from the reins each time she touched them. Suddenly everything made sense. Dancer was frequently pushing through my hands and then would act up. I was letting him get away with the wrong behavior. I wasn’t being the leader. When I realized this, I copied Trina’s hands, and any time Dancer tried to push on me, I bumped him just like Trina would. She noticed how much I was trying to improve because while I worked with the cows, she gave me pointers to help me. And whenever Dancer started to act up, as long as I did what Trina said, I would be okay. By the end of the day, my riding had improved and so did my attitude. I could finally start being the leader Dancer needed.

Over the course of this clinic, the most important thing I learned was that if I wanted my riding to get better or to have a better relationship with Dancer, it was up to me to make it happen. It was my responsibility to be the leader. As the rider, I had to be the leader he needed, and that meant doing what I knew was right by him. A lot of people think that the horse can be the leader and will take care of them when, in reality, they can’t be anything but a horse. They will do whatever they can to keep themselves safe, and if that means throwing you off their backs, they’ll do it. If people really want to improve their riding and get closer to their horse, they must be the leader. By establishing yourself as the leader, you show your horse that you can be trusted.  And when you change, your horse will be better for it.

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