On Target

A rescued horse and a troubled girl find their way together as they tackle the challenges of a new sport.
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From the beginning, I knew Montana was meant for something wondrous. The day I met her, a dear friend who is also a horse trainer asked if I was looking to buy a horse. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as I wandered out to the meadow to see her. As I reached the tall grass line where the wildflowers grew, I stopped and stared straight into a pair of beautiful brown eyes.

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I wasn’t in a good place at the time. Stress, schoolwork and arguments between my parents had piled up. The gelding I used to ride had succumbed to old age. Depression overwhelmed me, and I felt burned-out and broken.

Montana, however, touched something in me I thought was lost. I saw past her dirty dun coat, her matted mane and tail, her long, cracked hooves, her sunken flanks and emaciated frame. Most of her past was a mystery, probably for the best. Yet when I looked at Montana, I saw pieces of myself behind those eyes. She was broken, too.

I knew she was meant to end up with me. It was going to be my job to mend her and prove that although one person could do so much wrong, another could make it right again.

At first, I mainly just hung out with Montana on the ground. I was there every day, grooming her and staying late at the barn to exchange nuzzles and whinnies … reading a book while she dozed beside me … sitting out on the pasture gate watching her graze. Each small kindness, and each relaxed moment, was another step forward in our relationship.

Riding proved more of a challenge. First she protested having a saddle on her back; later I had to keep a grip on the saddle horn to prevent her from bucking me off. But in less than a year, I was riding Montana freely down trails and wide-open country roads with only a hackamore. We went from boarding at a big barn to a small, private farm to my own backyard. With each obstacle we conquered I learned many things, but the underlying theme was always this: This horse and I were in it together, until the end. We were a herd of two. We were pals.

One afternoon I was cantering Montana through the pasture when suddenly a thunderous war cry escaped my throat. I imagined myself riding alongside a war party of American Indians with bows and arrows at their sides. We came to a halt, and the idea took root: mounted archery. 

I had been introduced to archery as a child, learning the basics of target shooting with a compound bow from my parents and two older brothers. Now I researched the sport of mounted archery, but no one was practicing it in my area. Considering Montana’s sketchy background, I tried to let the thought pass. The sport just seemed too intense for a rescue horse and a young girl.

Then, one day, standing in the backyard in front of the old straw bale target, holding my 40-pound recurve bow and taking aim, I had a thought: What are you so afraid of? You know how to shoot on the ground; why not at least try to shoot from the saddle?

This would take some work. I started practicing with Montana a little each day, rain or shine. At first, I focused on letting her get to know the bow, its movements and the whirr of the arrow sailing through the air. Then we started doing groundwork with the bow, and pretty soon I was on her bareback, with my longbow and quiver of arrows. Tail swishing, ear pinning and head throwing were a given, so I taught her the command “átsé,” a Navajo word for “stop” or “wait.” But then, after many rounds of standing still, walking in a straight line and then shooting at a portable target, Montana began catching on. I couldn’t have been more proud.

As the weeks passed, we slowly but surely found our rhythm. At first, I held the reins in the same hand with which I pulled back the bow, trying to steer Montana and shoot at the same time. It was clumsy, until I realized that, really, all I had to do was believe in her. As soon as I dropped those reins and let her go, I realized that everything was possible with a little determination, confidence and trust. Soon we were trotting around the pasture while I shot my bow freely. And finally, the most exciting feat of all: cantering while shooting.

Mounted archery makes me indescribably happy, and I know deep in my heart that I was meant to do it, and I was meant to do it with Montana. It has helped me relieve pent-up stress, gain self-confidence and find the strength to face daily challenges. 

In just three years, Montana and I have both learned more than I ever thought we could. We’ve begun to master a sport that seemed impossible at the beginning, but in the end it made each of us whole again. Montana learned to trust again, and in return she’s offered me a bond of friendship that could withstand a hurricane.

The word Montana means moun-tainous, and the name suits this mare just fine. Climbing a mountain requires strength, bravery, courage and determination---all of which I needed to forge a bond with her, and then again to learn mounted archery together. When I look at her, I still see parts of myself, and that will never fade. When one day she departs this Earth, she’ll live on inside me and keep me grounded, always. She taught me what it means to adapt, conquer and endure. She loaned me her wings, and I’ll keep them forever.

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

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