Pay­ing it for­ward

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As I tied my mare Sugar to the hitch­ing rail, my mind was on a far­rier ap­point­ment, arena foot­ing and how much time I’d have to ride, so I was a lit­tle star­tled when a woman I’d never seen be­fore said, “Ex­cuse me? How do you do that?”

It took me a minute to re­al­ize that she was talk­ing about the quick-re­lease knot I’d just made in Sugar’s lead rope. I started to ex­plain--“You make a loop ... well, wait, it’s not ex­actly a loop”---and found that I couldn’t. In­stead, I un­tied the knot and showed her how to make a new one.

Horse care and han­dling tech­niques can be­come so in­grained that you for­get that you had to learn them from some­one in the first place. When I was young, var­i­ous rid­ing teach­ers taught me how to pick out a horse’s hooves, to muck a stall, to wash a tail (rinse, rinse, and rinse again). I’ve asked, “How do you do that?” many times along the way. As I tied and retied that knot, I re­al­ized how much I owe to the peo­ple who showed me.

When I was 22, I re­turned to rid­ing af­ter a long time away from horses and started tak­ing lessons with Stephanie, a fear­less trainer who was around my age but was miles ahead of me in terms of pres­ence, knowl­edge and horse sense. She had a busy life---full of com­pe­ti­tions and horses to ride---but she was all in when it came to bring­ing me back to rid­ing. She showed me how to longe a horse---tri­an­gle; whip used only to guide---how to soak hay and myr­iad other horse­keep­ing tasks, large and small. Stephanie was with me when I bought a 3-yearold geld­ing named Romeo, and she jumped him be­fore I did, talk­ing to me the whole time, show­ing me how to keep him straight and calm.

Bruce, the man­ager at Romeo’s board­ing farm, was the one who taught me that quick-re­lease knot as well as his own pro­tracted, fas­tid­i­ous sys­tem for clean­ing tack, which con­sumed wash­cloths and hours but re­sulted in gleam­ing leather. He had nursed his own horse back to health from lamini­tis and demon­strated how to check for heat in hooves. He showed me how to ride a gaited horse, too, which I’d mis­tak­enly as­sumed would be easy for me, since I could ride hunt seat just fine. It wasn’t a pretty pic­ture, but I stayed on.

I am still learn­ing all the time. Ge­orge, who runs the barn where Sugar lives, has taught me a lot over the past 14 years. A master ob­server of equine nu­ance, Ge­orge has an un­canny way of spot­ting a horse who is not feel­ing well. He is ex­tremely mod­est about his skills, but I’ve seen vet­eri­nar­i­ans and far­ri­ers ask his opin­ion be­fore they take ac­tion. He might not teach you any­thing di­rectly, but if you spend enough time at the barn, you can pick a few things up. Among them: Many sick horses ap­pre­ci­ate some com­pany; field-boarded horses love flaked hay; and no mat­ter how hardy she may seem, some­times an old horse like Sugar ap­pre­ci­ates a blan­ket on a chilly night.

All of this flashed through my mind as I held Sugar’s hal­ter while the new boarder tied and un­tied the quick-re­lease knot. Fi­nally, she took a step back. Then, all of a sud­den, a cat screeched, sur­pris­ing Sugar, who lurched back­ward, pulling the lead rope taut. The knot held. The new boarder and I smiled at each other.

Next time I’m out at the barn, I bet I’ll see her show­ing some­one else how it’s done.

Horse care and han­dling tech­niques can be­come so in­grained that you for­get that you had to learn them from some­one in the first place.

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