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Natural Horsemanship -- Not Just Hop On and Kick "Em
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Natural Horsemanship -- Not Just Hop On and Kick "Em

I have been on a quest lately to find a new hobby. Not sure what that’s all about, it probably has something to do with the middle-age crazies but it is what it is. I tried taking a class to learn to ride motorcycles, but I fell off my bike twice in front of about 20 biker-types and was so mortified that I decided maybe motorcycle riding wasn't for me.

Moving on, I decided to try horseback riding instead. The thing is, I am not very familiar with horses. When I was in high school, I was a member of a riding club and we rode every week. But that was many moons ago and I am no longer a member of the horsey set and haven't been for a very long time. And, I'm a little afraid of them. After all, they are very large animals and I know nothing about them. I can't read them like I can a dog or a cat. Hence, my apprehension around horses.

Then there's the whole animal rights thing. I wonder, do horses even want to be ridden? Do they have a say in this? I tried a few places that offer horseback riding lessons and was less than impressed. For the most part, they had me climb aboard a horse I didn't know, and sit there for an hour while the horse walked around in circles or on a trail. Attempts to get the trainer to tell me what the horse was thinking or feeling failed miserably, they either didn't know or didn't care what the horse was thinking. "Just kick him in his sides to get him to move on" they kept saying.

Kick him? I don't want to kick him. I want to pet him, take him home and be his mother, maybe make him a nice sandwich of rolled oats and apples. After a few lessons at a variety of stables, I was just about to give up when I was offered a Groupon (if you don’t know about Groupon, you gotta Google it, it’s a great idea) for four one-hour lessons at a stable near me.

So yesterday I went to try yet again to learn about horses. Instead of throwing me up on the horse, Robin, the 22-year old stable owner and trainer, introduced me to a lovely Thoroughbred gelding by the name of Cordial. “Cordy” had scars all over his body. They appeared to be bite marks and Robin told me she had just rescued him from the race track where a herd of bullies – comprised of fillies and a few stallions – beat the hell out of him.

This broke my heart and I wanted nothing more than to take him in my arms and give him a lot of snuggles. But you don’t really do that with a horse.

So instead, I brushed him. Robin gave me a lesson in cleaning a horse: the curry, the hard brush, the soft brush, the hoof oil and the pick, a tool that cleans the frogs. I knew about the frogs because I am reading Horses for Dummies and am familiar with the terminology. The frog is the little “V” on the plantar side of their feet and it gets caked with all manner of disgusting stuff. It’s kind of like cleaning out toe jam but on a horse.

After a 30 minute session of bonding in this manner with “Cordy,” Robin showed me how to saddle up a horse and we led him out to a pasture. I donned a helmet and my heart began to race. “I’m not ready” I said. “It’s ok,” Robin said, “Just get on, he’s not going anywhere.” After a few minutes of this, I told her I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to ride him, I decided, I want to understand him.

Robin nodded and said, “You need to take our natural horsemanship classes, I teach it to all the kids before I let them ride.” Robin explained that this was a program whereby you spend time with the horse, observing him, learning to interpret his body language, learning about his moods and emotions.

YES! That’s it! That’s what I wanted all along. I never wanted to ride, I just want to get to know horses like I do dogs and cats and I want to just be in their presence and not be afraid or apprehensive.

As a lobbyist for animal-friendly legislation, I have been to Washington D.C. many times to discuss the horse slaughter act and the horse transport legislation and I work very hard on behalf of these animals I don’t understand. I just want to understand them a little better so I can fight a little harder.

We walked Cordial back towards the stable and I asked if I could give him a bath. Robin agreed that would be a great bonding experience and she showed me how to give a horse a bath. It was one of the most exhilarating and emotional moments I have had in a long time. If you haven’t done it, I highly recommend it.

I love it that Robin is teaching children to respect horses first; the riding lessons come later. In my book Canines in the Classroom I discussed how raising children through interactions with animals makes for better adults.

Robin is teaching her students to be more compassionate and empathetic and that’s so very important.

I will be back to see Cordial, I found my new passion. I don’t know if I will ever ride Cordial or any other horse, but that no longer matters. Cordial is my friend now, and the advocate in me sees in him all horses that suffer at the hands of humans and even other horses. Now, when I go to Washington D.C. to fight for horse-friendly legislation, I know I have a friend back home who is hoping I win battles for his kind.

Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)

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Michelle A. Rivera is the author of several books including HOSPICE HOUNDS, Animals and Healing at the Borders of Death (Lantern Books); CANINES IN THE CLASSROOM, Raising Humane Children through Interactions with Animals;(Lantern Books) DO DOGS HAVE BELLY BUTTONS? 100 Questions and Answers about Dogs(Adams Media); THE SIMPLE LITTLE VEGAN SLOW COOKER and THE SIMPLE LITTLE VEGAN DOG BOOK(Book Publishers, Inc.) and ON DOGS AND DYING (Purdue University Press). She is also an essayist and has been published in the vegetarian essay book “Voices from the Garden.” She is a freelance writer/editor and along with her Certified Therapy Dogs, a Humane Educator and R.E.A.D tutor. Michelle is a past blogger for and a writer for several online publications including eHow, Livestrong, Rachel Ray, The Daily Puppy, USA Today, Cracked and others. She has two Certified Delta Society Therapy Dogs: Murphy, a Golden Retriever, and Tabitha, a Standard Poodle; and two cats. All are rescued animals. Michelle lives in South Florida with her husband, John, an attorney, and is the proud grandmother of three lovely children, Austin, Alexander and Adrienne.

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  1. LoveAll Animals
    Michelle. Thank You for your compassionate heart. You have been the voice for all animals. You are relenteless in their causes to make life better for these creatures. Thank you! Thank You! Linda
  2. shannon
    Great article!
  3. tuckapaws
    Oh what a beautiful piece. For all the the ignorant people out there who have not a clue. That's What I Am Talking About!!! Loved it.. Good job
  4. Cynthia Bombach Helzel
    Michelle, I can totally relate to your experience with horses. I was once an equestrian but now the idea of riding makes me nervous. I recently lived on a horse farm for almost two years and never got up the courage to ride -- but I loved grooming the horses!


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