Matt and I recently completed a Horsemanship Level 1 course through the University of Wyoming’s Outdoor Program. When I first suggested signing up back in January, Matt replied that the correct, gender-neutral terminology for the course title really should be “horse-person-ship,” which I do not dispute. The course included six Sunday afternoons, March-May, for three hours each session at the local Sodergreen Ranch, which is about a 35-minute drive from Laramie, toward Cheyenne (east-bound, for you non-Wyomingites).
I am lucky in that, before taking this course, I already had a few experiences riding horses, but I didn’t know anything about how to catch, bridle, saddle, or groom one. Armed with curiosity and my grandfather’s cowboy boots, which seemed too nice to muddy up (but oh well), I drove up the dirt road driveway of Sodergreen Ranch with Matt in the passenger seat. There were about 20 students in our class, all college-aged, and some international students too.
For the first two class meetings we only rode the horses bareback, without any saddle. I think this was supposed to get us used to the movement of the horse and to strengthen our legs, but Matt and I later realized it had primarily resulted in some uncomfortable sores on our behinds. Obviously we were excited to graduate to the saddle.
We both chose to learn on an English saddle over the Western one. The English saddle is pretty bare-bones, consisting of a blanket, a little flap of felt and leather which forms the saddle itself, and the stirrups for your feet. A Western saddle is designed for long treks and work like roping cattle, so it’s made almost entirely of leather and is formed to be more comfortable for the rider. It also has a horn in front of the rider for hanging equipment like ropes and bags, and for holding onto when your horse bucks (just kidding, Mom!). The stirrups on a Western saddle are bigger and include more leather, which lines the body of the horse and protects it and the rider from thorns and cacti and such. The reins are also different; for Western, the reins are held with one hand (traditionally so the other hand could be free to do things like rope cattle), but in the English style, each side of the reins is held with the corresponding hand. You’ll encounter Western saddles at rodeos, on ranches, in Clint Eastwood movies, and on horseback trail rides since they are easy and comfortable for the rider. You’ll see English saddles in Europe, obviously, and at certain competitive horse shows and events like dressage.
Each class began with discussion and sometimes demonstration in the indoor arena. Thank goodness for that shelter- we often heard wind and snow pelting against the sides of the building. We were then paired up and assigned a horse, whom we had to fetch from a nearby fenced-in field where they (and the occasional donkey or mule) were snacking on hay. To get a halter on a naked horse, which is necessary in order to walk the horse back to where you can put on their saddle, you approach from the horse’s left side and hug their neck with the unbuckled halter in your hand. From there you can slip the halter around the horse’s neck and over their nose. Attached to the halter is a short rope, which we used to walk the horse back to the indoor arena.
Once there, we tied the ropes using a quick-release knot through metal rings which were mounted on the arena walls. We then brushed the horses and cleaned any mud and rocks out from their hooves. Believe me- picking up an uncooperative horse’s dinner plate-sized hoof can be challenging. After grooming, we put on the horse’s bridle, which is like the halter but made of leather and has reins attached. We then slid on the saddle blanket, the saddle, and stirrups, walked the horse around a little, and then tightened the cinch on the saddle (basically the belt that runs underneath the horse which keeps the saddle attached).
If I remember correctly, there was only one Sunday with nice enough weather that we got to ride in the outdoor ring; every other time we rode around the indoor arena in a big circle, one after another, trying not to cut corners.
Each horse was distinctive in both appearance and personality. There was Janey, a chestnut, who was known to kick at anything within three feet of her backside. And Alder, whose coat was silvery, was half draft horse (think of the Clydesdales in the Budweiser commercials), so he was a head taller than all the other horses, at least. Fred was an old show horse whose bridle sparkled from rhinestones and had one blue eye encircled by white hair and one brown eye encircled by brown hair. Tiffany, the horse I rode on the last day of class, was eager to go at every portion of the class. When we practiced trotting, she got so excited watching the horses in front of her trot that, before it was our turn, I had to walk her around in little circles so she didn’t run into the horse in front of me (especially if that horse happened to be Janey).
Matt and I are planning on signing up for a Level 2 class for the summer- maybe we’ll learn to gallop! In the meantime I am working on mentally preparing Matt for buying me a horse in the future. Until then I’ll just have to keep riding other people’s horses.
Keep adventuring and trying new things! Love to all.