Stanley is my best friend. My little palomino gelding has traveled back and forth with me to college, and he’s been my partner on many adventures. He often seems to know what I’m thinking, and he is a first-rate trail horse. We’re developing real teamwork.
It wasn’t always this way.
In spring of 2010, I had been riding Stanley for only about six months, mostly in an indoor arena. He was still very green, but he impressed me with his patience, willing attitude and quick mind. That summer I brought him home to Michigan and we began exploring the local trails.
One day, we were following an old spur of the railroad track in the woods. It was a piece of trail that I had not explored before, and it slowly dwindled, leaving us bashing through the underbrush.
At one point, I asked Stanley to head through a thicket of bushes into a leaf-filled depression but he hesitated and looking uncertain. It was the first time he had ever been unwilling to go where I asked him, and I urged him forward.
He argued, but I softly urged him on, keeping his nose pointed in the direction I had chosen, until he finally complied. As we stepped into the depression, Stanley promptly sank into thick muck. He lunged his way out and stood nervously, with black mud all the way up his legs. I apologized sincerely, patted him and we found a new route to continue our ride.
A couple of years later, Stanley and I found ourselves leading guests on trail rides through the rocky foothills of Roosevelt National Park in Colorado. Stanley grew up a lot during our sojourn in the West. My slightly clumsy young trail horse was becoming a tough, confident mountain pony, expertly guiding his string of horses over the rocky trails.
On days off, we would head into the pine forest, spending hours alone in the wilderness. On one such trip, we came across a wide, flat area covered in a carpet of leaves. I asked Stanley to cross it and he refused. I urged, he obeyed—and once again we sank into deep mud.
Back home in the summer of 2015, I was riding Stanley along a dirt road when I decided to take a trail through some trees. Stanley went readily down the shoulder into a fairly deep ditch but stopped dead a few feet from the bottom. As in the past, Stanley rarely refused my direction so this time I drew on the experiences from our past rides and gave him the benefit of the doubt. We climbed back up and continued down the road. Several yards later I noticed a deer trail heading down into the ditch I had just tried to cross. The deer tracks had sunk deep into black, wet mud.
We riders talk a lot about gaining the trust of our horses and earning their respect, yet we must also learn to trust them enough to sometimes give them a say in the decision- making process.
This is difficult. It’s natural to fear that if you give a horse too much freedom, he will try to take advantage of you. Yet what I am slowly learning from Stanley is that if I try to understand his reason, he usually has a very good one.
The more I learn, the more I realize that when a horse offers you unexpected or unwanted behavior, he may be trying to tell you something. Whether you allow his message to influence your decisions is your choice—but give it a go sometime. You might just be pleased that you did.
This article was originally published in EQUUS 486, March 2018