My husband began riding at age 51. Unlike me, a lifelong English rider, Steve had no interest in perching atop a flimsy bit of leather and tracing circles in a dusty ring. He embraced Western riding, popular here in Montana, where endless miles of mountain trails beckon.
His first horse, Gus, was a dude-string veteran. The little roan gelding packed Steve through rushing streams and over steep, narrow trails. Then, exactly one year after we’d hauled him home, Gus died of colic. Steve was devastated. Three months passed before he’d even consider buying another horse.
After looking at a few unlikely prospects, he zeroed in on a Craigslist ad for a 7-year-old strawberry roan supposedly good on trails. “Needs arena work,” the ad also mentioned. The ad writer, it would turn out, was a master of understatement.
One bright August day, Steve and I drove three hours to check him out. We brought our trailer, practically guaranteeing we’d bring the horse home. The gelding, a 15.2-hand registered Paint, appeared distrustful of people; his eyes were wary. But he was well built, if a bit short in the neck and thick through the throatlatch.
The trainer had worked with him just two weeks and claimed to know little about his past. He stood quietly as she tacked him up with a Western saddle and then I climbed aboard. I was riding him first, doing the main tryout, because Steve had recently hurt his back; a borrowed horse had reared and fallen over backward on him. He’d try this new horse, too, but pain would prevent him from doing much. Clearly, our timing was less than ideal for horse shopping. But we were on a mission.
I rode the horse in a small grass arena, where he demonstrated a ground-covering walk, an animated trot and a rollicking canter. But my standard aids were a foreign language to him, and tension ran from his poll to his tail, raising red flags. As advertised, he was far more comfortable rambling around the adjacent pasture, where he readily ferried me across a stream. Then Steve took a turn in the saddle and made a few loops at the walk around the same field. We agreed the gelding showed promise as a trail horse.
Was this the horse for Steve? No. Green horses and green riders aren’t a good match. Did Steve buy him? Yes. Once he’d decided he wanted another horse, he wanted one right away—both to fill the crater in his life left by Gus’ death and resume the horse-centric lifestyle we had built together. I had reservations about the Paint but didn’t want to be a wet blanket. When we hauled the horse home, I contemplated the routine training challenges that lay ahead. That my husband had just bought hell on hooves didn’t cross my mind.
I dubbed the horse The Roan Ranger, and the name stuck. I could handle him easily. Mainly, I needed to give him lots of leg when he balked at strange sights: a big rock, a brick gateway or an oddly twisted tree. Steve didn’t fare as well. On their first solo trail ride, Ranger bucked him off right away. Ranger also proved adept at pivoting 180 degrees, then bolting. Steve was scared to death.
In desperation, we sent Ranger to a trainer I’d known for years. We’d planned for her to work with him at least a month. But, two-and-a-half weeks later, she washed her hands of him. “This horse is dangerous,” she proclaimed. “He’s going to kill you someday. I wouldn’t put my husband on him, and he’s ridden all his life.” Our green-horse, green-rider cautionary tale was turning into something darker.
We were crushed, our options limited. We’d never send Ranger to auction or palm him off on an unsuspecting buyer. And there weren’t other trainers in our area that we felt comfortable hiring. Just one option remained: training Ranger ourselves. Another merciless Montana winter loomed, and success seemed a long shot at best.
Where to begin? A friend gifted at starting young horses and fixing older ones recommended Steve work with Ranger in a round pen to gain his respect. She gave Steve a few lessons and, with her on hand to coach and trouble shoot, things went smoothly enough with Ranger.
Things went considerably less smoothly when Steve tried round-penning him on his own. One day, Ranger pinned his ears, bucked wildly, ran flat out and repeatedly charged him. Steve waved his arms emphatically, raised his voice and flicked his rope, snake-like, in Ranger’s direction. Leaning forward, as if into a stiff wind, he advanced toward Ranger’s haunches to drive him forward. Finally, Steve beat a hasty retreat out the gate.
I concluded that Ranger was a rogue. But Steve showed considerably more empathy, more horse smarts. “I put him on the defensive,” he later said. “I came on too strong, like a predator. He wanted to show me he’s a big, strong horse who can protect himself.”
There’s a fine line between assertiveness and aggression, Steve discovered. In time, he learned to find the sweet spot between them.
Cold and snow soon drove us into the indoor arena. Steve turned to me for riding instruction---as dicey a proposition as having one spouse teach the other to drive a stick shift. We developed a routine. I’d ride Ranger first, working on suppling him and consistently applying the correct aids for each gait. Then Steve would take his turn in the saddle, and I’d work on him. Tension filled his face. Not only was he learning how to ask for and sit the three gaits; he also was doing so aboard a spooky, half-trained horse. Snow and ice often cascaded off the roof with thunderous crashes, doing nothing to relax either of them.
“Are you posting?” I remember calling out, trying not to sound frustrated. “If you are, you’re sitting in the saddle too long. Rise as the outside shoulder reaches forward. Then sit just one stride, not two.”
“Don’t you think I’m trying to do that, Carol?” Steve barked. “You’ve done this all your life. I’m just learning.”
Steve knew he wasn’t cowboy enough to tame Ranger the old-fashioned way: manhandling him, bucking him out, forcing him into submission. For doable—and certainly more humane—solutions, he turned to books and videos by experts in natural-horsemanship. He soaked up knowledge like a sponge, bringing it both to our informal lessons and his work with Ranger on the ground.
Over the winter, not only did the trust and respect between the two of them grow. Steve also developed a sufficiently independent seat that he could reliably ride out Ranger’s spooks.
That newfound security would be vital come springtime, when trail riding called to Steve again. The trails also called to plenty of non-horseback riders. Barking dogs charged him and Ranger. Bicyclists, without warning, zipped past them from behind. Firefighters sporting neon-orange helmets popped up over a ridge. They all caused Ranger to shy or bolt. But Steve persevered. I marveled at his courage, sure I’d never done anything as brave.
Little by little, Steve and Ranger figured each other out. An occasional good ride became two in a row, then five in a row. Now, 13 years into their partnership, they’re up to many hundreds of good rides in a row. They’ve explored the wilds of Montana in every sort of weather, most often on their own.
“Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about horses and far, far more about myself,” Steve tells friends. “I didn’t give up on Ranger, and he’s never quit me. I have complete trust in and respect for Ranger, and nothing makes me prouder than to say I’ve earned his as well. I can’t wait to see where we go next.”