Riding Sovereign, an off-track-Thoroughbred whose
 racing name was Suave Lord, through the fall leaves, bareback and in just a halter
 on a warm autumn day, October 2012 

"I'm only faking when I get it right." I love that lyric from Soundgarden. I think it is profound. My husband, Brian, thinks it is like admitting that you aren't good at anything. But life is like that lyric, isn't it? Sometimes you get things right and it is a complete surprise, even to you. 

I accidentally got this horse thing right. Now, I am living a dream. The horse poster I bought at Spencer's Gifts in the early 1970's and taped to my bedroom wall when I was in elementary school comes to life each day on our farm. I ride through the fields, with a saddle or bareback, always bitless, often in just a halter, on young Thoroughbreds. The only difference between reality and that poster is that the girl in the poster was a teenager and I am in my forties. Riding a horse makes me feel like a teenager again anyway! 

Never a cowgirl, I've moved away from my stodgy, show hunter equestrian upbringing, and developed a hybrid style of riding that is feminine and as light and airy for me and my horses as a stroll down a country lane or a bicycle ride with basket and flowers. 

My husband, Brian, on Sovereign, ex-racehorse Suave Lord, and me on Pie,
 ex-racehorse Sly Pioneer, in the "Secret Garden" of our woods, June 2009.

Recently, I've noticed that not everyone is having the same effortless, rewarding experience with horses. I write a horse blog about retraining ex-racehorses (also known as off-track-Thoroughbreds - OTTBs) and occasionally receive emails from new OTTB owners asking for advice. For a long time I have wanted to come up with an easy way to answer basic questions about what is working for me. In addition, I thought that other horse crazy women (and men) my age might be inspired by my "return to horses late in life" story and want to do the same with their own horses, whatever the breed. 

Mostly, though, I am writing this for the horses - my horses, your horses, the horses competing at the highest levels and those in small 4H local shows, the horses in training or in stalls at the boarding barn, the horses out to pasture, the horses. All breeds, all colors, all ages, all disciplines. I rescued my three horses from slaughter, but that is only commendable if the work I ask them to do offers them a quality life. 

This type of ground work and riding ensures their mental happiness and physical health. No Hokey Pokey - that is really what it is all about for me - the horses. A nice added side benefit is that this system works for the rider too - it instills confidence in the horse which happens to allow us, as humans, feel secure and be able to have easy rides. But, my loyalty is with the horse first. Every rider can have safe, easy rides, with no holes in the training, when the horse is happy, engaged, and sound. 

My sunshine boy, Pie, OTTB Sly Pioneer, and I head out through our field, 
October 2010.

When I returned to riding after a seven year hiatus I was 40 years old and had definite ideas about how I wanted to ride and work on the ground with horses. It was important to me to...
  •  ride everyday. 
  •  never use a bit - only ride in a halter or bitless bridle.
  •  be able to ride bareback anytime of the year.
  •  keep the horses barefoot if my farrier said it was ok.
  •  never lunge or use a round pen.  Ever.  Not even in the beginning.
  •  ride at the walk, and when I wanted to trot, canter, or jump, I could add that in later. 
  •  not have to "work a horse down" in anyway before heading out on the trail.
  •  ride outside of the ring primarily.
  •  not die attempting the above!

My riding goals were unusual, so they were never uttered to anyone. They were my "perfect" riding experience; a grand synthesis of my favorite parts of riding and my philosophy about what I believe horses enjoy.  I spent many years, under the well-intentioned guidance of various trainers, asking horses to do things they didn't seem too keen on doing.

My most important goal was to have daily rides that a horse might enjoy as much as me. In the past, my time in the ring was spent waiting patiently for the best part - the cool down outside of the ring. Whatever horse I was on invariably seemed happier and more relaxed outside of the ring. I would walk on a loose rein and my horse would snort relaxed sighs. 

If I was with another rider we would talk and laugh and our horses seemed to enjoy themselves. I was taught that this was because the horses were tired from all their work in the ring. I had an inkling that the relaxed calm, cool down ride was possible without the ring and without the work.

At show grounds and equestrian centers I saw miles of bridle paths through hedgerows and fields but no one was riding on them. The whole time I was showing, I wanted to be out on a horse walking on those bridle paths! Occasionally gorgeous woods and fields and trails were used by hunts or eventers, but it is doubtful that pursuits like those allowed time for horse and rider to notice the scenery and sounds and fragrances. 

I ached to ride a horse at the walk into that secret corner thicket or over that tiny stream in the meadow without an agenda, without an event. It seemed to me that I couldn't be the only person who was drawn to horses with a romantic notion of riding through the fields with birds and shade trees and rambling farm tracks. Surely, not everyone's first horse crush involved dusty rings and loud announcers at a show. Yet, I was never enamored with the thought of subjecting horses to a weekend warrior day-long trail ride. I loved the idea of traditional hunts riding over an outside course, but I needed to go at my own pace and see the natural beauty. 

There had to be a better way to enjoy horses without racing around or committing to marathon hours. I wished for the innocent first vision of riding a horse gently, slowly enjoying the meadows and fields together for a balanced amount of time and effort on the horse's part.

I am 54 years old now and, unbelievably, found a way to achieve these dreams with horses. I am able to ride everyday in all weather, without a bit, without lunging, outside of the ring on our paths and through the fields. We see bluebirds and deer and smell honeysuckle together. My horses are barefoot and have healthy feet and are sound. I ride bareback anytime, including in winter and in wind although with so many clothes it doesn't seem like I am bareback or in wind! 

I rattle off this list of achievements with serious gratitude. My pride is in the horses and their amazing acceptance of my desires. In fact, it is my belief that the reason we can do all this together is because they actually like our rides too.

Giant snow bunny Pie, OTTB Sly Pioneer, kindly sharing a snowy ride with me in the woods, 
February 2012. My mom took her gloves off to snap the picture for us and there they are - in the foreground! (Hilarious)

I am so grateful that I am able to ride horses this way.  Hacking out, cross-country, easy walking for an hour through the woods and fields, is the way I love to ride, I live to ride.  I do not like bits and I don't believe in round pens or lunging.  I really don't even like rings at all. I try to ride every day of the year. These are MY loves, and I am incredibly lucky to have convinced, not only my three young off-track-Thoroughbreds to allow me to ride this way everyday, but I have also used this system with horses that I have leased and horses that I ride for friends.

Skeptical? I would be too given what I had been taught and experienced in my early riding days. But, read on. If you are skipping rides because of your own fear or because your horse is chronically lame or maybe because your horse is acting cranky, then my story just might help. Far away from the combined fog of all my previous training and that of the current popular milieu of clinicians, I found a simple method that works for me.  Now there is only one word to describe my daily rides. Magical.

 Pie, OTTB Sly Pioneer, with his mane blowing in the wind, October 2010