Who says you can't teach an old dog (or guy) new tricks? After sixty-two years of riding horses off and on throughout my life, somehow I'd never learned how to saddle up a horse.
Today, thanks to expert teacher Mike Myers (no, not the comedian), I demolished my false belief that putting on a saddle and bridle required some sort of mysterious skills. All it took was Mike showing me some tricks of the saddling trade in a simple, supportive fashion.
Mike is a wrangler/instructor for the FlySpur Ranch Equishare program that's run out of three locations in the Bend, Oregon area. My wife and I were attracted to this program three years ago after we'd become disenchanted with boring "nose to tail" trail rides, yet weren't inclined to become horse owners ourselves.
With Equishare, you pay a monthly fee that gets you a certain number of riding hours. The cost is quite a bit less per hour than a typical trail ride. Plus, a monthly lesson is included and the type of riding available is limited only by your horsemanship skills. No more trail rides where you plod along at the pace of the least experienced rider.
We'd taken a couple of years off from Equishare, but decided to get back into the FlySpur program this riding season.
Even though it isn't always necessary with Equishare to saddle up your own horse, I was eager to learn how. I'd been shown how to do this before, but the lesson hadn't sunk in. That bothered me -- riding felt kind of like only being able to drink coffee from a coffee house, not being able to brew my own.
This morning Mike got me off to a good start when he said, "I'm going to keep this simple. There's only four things you really need to keep in mind when saddling up a horse." Hey, I thought, I can remember four things. Good teaching technique.
I appreciated Mike offering up some tips about how to move a horse around. I feel pretty comfortable getting a horse to do what I want while I'm riding it. But on the ground, I've been kind of intimidated by how large they are.
Mike demonstrated his "knuckle in the ribs" technique, saying this works better than pushing on a horse with the flat of your hand. He was right. I didn't have any trouble getting Rebel (at least the horse wasn't called Widowmaker) to move into desired saddling stances.
Putting on the bridle was a major breakthrough for me. Again, somehow I'd gone my whole life without ever doing this. Either my horse had been saddled up by a trail guide or instructor, or I'd stood around looking helpless while a friend or relative got the saddle and bridle on.
Horses' mouths appear imposing to me. Putting my hand near a horse jaw in order to insert a nasty looking piece of metal hasn't been on my "Must Do" list. Mike, though, reassured me that my horse was well-trained and would cooperatively open its mouth to take the bit.
Well, sort of. I was met with a clenched teeth reaction that reminded me of how my infant daughter acted when I tried to spoon feed her something she didn't like very much.
Only difference is, I wasn't afraid to put my fingers near her mouth, whereas Mike's advice that "sometimes you have to stick a finger along the gumline" (or words to that effect) wasn't what I wanted to hear as I tried to coax Rebel to open up.
Finally he did, thankfully, leaving me after the horse lesson with all of the fingers that I started with.
After some arena riding and a trail ride, I was kind of disappointed to hear Mike tell us that other riders would be using our horses soon, so we didn't have to take the gear off. Next time hopefully we'll get the whole put-on and take-off experience.
I can see that if you had to saddle and unsaddle horses all day long, it'd get to seem like a chore. But once a month or so, it'll be an equestrian experience for me. I'm looking on this as being akin to a Japanese tea ceremony: the preparation is an integral part of the whole tea-drinking thing.
It felt different on the trail ride, knowing that my saddle had been put on by me -- and wonder of wonders, it wasn't slipping or falling off.
Returning to Rock Springs Ranch, one of the Equishare riding locations, Mike gave us a final tip about how to dismount. Both my wife and I always had embraced the "leap off" approach where we'd slip our right boot out of the stirrup, lift our right leg over the saddle, and then jump off of the horse while sliding the left boot out of the stirrup.
Which, Mike explained, runs the risk of having the left boot getting caught against the horse's belly, or otherwise stuck in the stirrup. Instead, he said, we should try leaving the tip of our left boot in the stirrup, then simply step down with our right leg onto the ground.
Whoa! That worked.
It'd never dawned on me before that if I'm flexible enough to stand on the ground and get my left boot in the stirrup when I'm getting on my horse, obviously I could reverse the process and leave my left boot in the stirrup while I put my right boot on the ground when I'm getting off the horse.
Yup, we're learning new tricks. Mike will show us a lot more, I'm sure, during our next FlySpur Ranch Equishare riding times.