FOLLOW THE LEADER
This is a photo of two of my favorite redheads—Jolie Jeune Femme, my Spotted American Saddlebred, and Megan Rikkula, her trainer.
Except that’s not quite correct. The fact is, Jolie knows how to do just about everything Megan asks her to. Most of the time, Megan’s training me.
Jolie knows her ground manners like nobody’s business. She can back up, move her hindquarters, front quarters, sidestep, and do everything a good horse should do on the ground, just with a nod of the head or a hand direction. And when Megan asks her to do one of these things, Jolie’s just the prettiest, politest little horse you could ever hope to fall in love with.
When I ask for the same things, Jolie’s usually pretty good, but I often have to add a soupcon of pressure. That’s because Jolie doesn’t think I’m quite as smart as Megan and she’s not 100% sure (1) I’m serious; and (2) she has to. She’s right about the smart part.
And if Jolie’s in one of her particularly saucy moods and decides she’s doesn’t feel like doing what I ask, it can take a lot of courage to continue to ask her to perform. But if I don’t, I know she’s just confirmed in her mind that she’s the leader and I just plummeted to the bottom of the herd.
I don’t have this trouble following through on other horses, but I do with Jolie. I had a bad injury a few years ago with Jolie in an enclosed space, and had a lot of recovery time to think about why it happened. I still don’t fully trust Jolie or myself in every situation. So rekindling our trust in each other is our number one goal every time we’re together, whether it’s just to groom her, feed her evening mash, or saddle her up.
Horse trainers can give you a lot of good information on how to get your horse to do what you want, but it’s the ones who teach you how to be a kind and fair leader that really are worth your money. As a student, you just can’t step into this role; you have to earn it.
I wonder how many horse owners truly think about what their horse thinks about them. It’s easy to be on their backs and concentrate on how well they’re performing for us. But, if I’ve learned anything in the past twenty-four years as a horse owner, it’s how our horse feels about us that truly shapes the relationship. In my book, you’re only as good a horseperson as your horse thinks you are.
Megan continues to work on getting Jolie and me back on track. So far, it’s been a good ride. A few months ago, something startled Jolie in the pasture and she couldn’t find her buddies. She galloped straight toward me and came to a sliding stop inches in front my side. She wasn’t trying to run me down. She was catching up to her leader.
I hope it’s always this way.