Sitting pretty

Many barn cats enjoy hanging around with horses. Mittens took it one step further.
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Mittens was a gray tiger-striped cat with white paws. Like most barn cats, she spent her days hunting mice, rubbing against visitors and napping on hay bales. But she also harbored a secret ambition, one that became evident when I moved my Icelandic Horse, Blessi, to her boarding stable: She wanted to learn how to ride.

Blessi has a special affinity for cats. His first favorite was Sam, a large black cat whom I often found napping on his broad, furry back. Sometimes while out on the trails, Blessi and I would encounter Sam perched on a fence, surveying the fields. As soon as Blessi saw his special cat, he grabbed the bit in his teeth and marched us over to the fence. We proceeded to follow Sam as he tiptoed down the fence line, leaving me to ponder if a horse can be “cat bound.”

When we first arrived at our new barn, Mittens met Blessi coming off the trailer and followed us to his new pasture. Over the next few weeks, I often found the gray tabby sprawled across Blessi’s haunches as he grazed. She had discovered the advantages of hunting from this position. She became quite adept at catapulting herself into midair at the poor, unsuspecting birds.

I decided to teach Mittens to ride properly, which turned out to be an interesting experiment in validating basic dressage principles. At first, she maintained her over-the-hip sprawl position as I led Blessi from pasture. But once those great muscles kicked into action, the up-down motion of the hips was too uncomfortable for Mittens. She progressed to lying across the center of Blessi’s back, becoming a three-dimensional illustration of the movement of the human hips in Sally Swift’s Centered Riding concept of “pedaling the bike backward.” Her front half moved forward and up, then down and back alternately with her back half. This wasn’t very comfortable for her, either. Eventually, she discovered “the sweet spot”---sitting in a forward-facing position exactly where the saddle is placed.

Mittens seemed to enjoy her lead line rides on Blessi around the stable grounds. From her lofty perch, she was out of reach of the barn dogs, who were polite but tended to crowd cats on the ground. No self-respecting cat enjoys the constant butt sniffing involved in canine socialization. Our next challenge became, “Would Mittens like to ride Blessi along with me in the saddle?” And, even more important, “Would Blessi enjoy this novelty?”

The first time we tried, I asked a friend to spot us in case the experiment went terribly wrong. But it didn’t. I saddled Blessi and mounted up. My friend carefully handed Mittens to me. Blessi was curious but unconcerned. Once in motion, Mittens could not quite decide if she wanted to ride on my shoulder or chest. Either way, a significant amount of cat hair got into my mouth, which impeded verbal cues. Mittens, however, purred and purred and purred.

From then on, riding with me became as enticing as catnip for Mittens. She would follow me and Blessi to the mounting block to scramble up the steps and get into the saddle first. Once we were both settled in, she would stick with me, happily purring away, for the entire trip.

I had hoped to introduce Mittens to the tölt, the smooth, signature gait of the Icelandic Horse. Unfortunately, life has a way of disrupting the plans of felines and females. Our boarding barn closed, and Mittens became a house cat. Blessi and I moved to an- other barn. Over the years, Blessi has encountered other cats who liked to nap on his wide, fluffy back. But we’ve never met another cat like Mittens who loved to ride. 

This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #380)