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-year-old 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.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #464, May 2016.