For all of you out there without your own ponies – I know how you feel! For most of my life I have taken riding lessons, and for every birthday and Christmas I would plead with my parents for a pony. I now know that I was lucky to have so many riding lessons, but I always longed for a horse who would be my best friend.
For the last couple of years I’ve been at university in London and haven’t been able to ride. So when I was thinking about what to do during my summer break last year, there was one thing on my mind – horses!
I couldn’t believe my luck when I found Wildhorse Mountain Ranch in Canada. They were looking for young women to come and help out with their summer camps for teenage girls. I was worried about missing my family and friends as I’d never been so far from home on my own before. After much thought though, I realised that if I didn’t take this opportunity I would always regret it.
When I stepped off the plane in Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, I couldn’t wait to meet the horses. I was so excited, and a bit nervous, too. This was going to be my home for the next six weeks and it was a long way back if I didn’t enjoy it! Luckily, everyone there was just lovely and I soon settled into life on the ranch.
Wildhorse Mountain Ranch is owned and run by Bear and Diane Baker. They have 36 horses – all geldings – who live out together all year round. The scenery there is spectacular. From the top of one of the fields you can see the hazy Rocky Mountains in the distance! As well as pastures, the ranch includes hay fields and two forests. It was wonderful to ride under the shade of the trees on hot days, and the pine trees smelt amazing. We played lots of games during forest trails like scavenger hunts and I-spy.
Each camp spanned six days and catered for around 15 girls. They slept in rustic cabins in Fort Phantom, which was built by Bear. I had to make sure everyone was in bed at 10 o’clock but I’m sure they stayed up telling stories a long time beyond that! The area is so sparsely populated that there is hardly any light pollution and at night we could see thousands of stars. Often we heard coyotes howling in the woods. A few nights there were spectacular thunderstorms and I saw some amazing lightning, it lit up the landscape like daylight.
All the girls were able to pick the horse they would ride for the week. There was everything from the patient horses who looked after the beginners, to ex-rodeo horses who got very excited when we did barrel racing! For two solid weeks I rode Comanche, a 14.3hh Paint horse (although his only paint marking is his white face). He had a lot of ‘go’ and was very quick and nimble. We built up a great bond and soon he and I had a good level of communication going. I think that all the time I spent making friends with him on the ground really made a difference when I was in the saddle. We had a few problems when I first started riding him, like not standing to be mounted, but these soon disappeared as we got to know each other. In Canada there is less of a connection between the height of the rider and the size of the horse. I enjoyed riding a smaller horse (almost a pony!) and realised how much I had associated riding a big horse with being a good rider. This isn’t the case at all.
I rode a couple of other horses after that, including the faithful Stoney and gorgeous Gus. I must confess, most of my reason for wanting to ride Gus was because he was so good looking! He’s a kind of Appaloosa but with a chestnut base and white flecks all over his body. He had a lovely trot, and his long comfortable strides made quite a change from Comanche’s short ones – I still think this is the only real benefit of riding a bigger horse! However, I didn’t feel the same understanding with him as I had with Comanche.
One day we were playing a game called Manhunt in the Enchanted Forest. In this game, groups of three or four riders hide in a spot in the forest and one group rides around looking for everyone else. I was hiding nose-to-tail with two other girls in a great spot behind some thick trees. As we chatted, Tyler (who was parked in front of me, sitting on her beloved steed Spartan) stretched out and laid along her horse’s back, shutting her eyes to the bright sunshine. Very carefully, Stoney (who I was riding) stretched his nose over Spartan’s tail and delicately nibbled at her riding hat. Tyler shrieked and leapt up, looking around for what had attacked her. Stoney responded by blowing his nostrils and shaking his head. I think Tyler was a little cheesed off, but Stoney wasn’t the only one who found it hilarious!
After this incident I realised that horses can have more depth of character than I had previously given them credit for. I tried to be a bit more open minded and not to limit my mounts by my expectations of them. I opened my eyes and started to notice more subtle messages from the horses around me. I no longer saw a slow horse as a grumpy one, but one who needed to feel a bit more get-up-and-go from his rider. A horse who didn’t want to take the lead became one who didn’t feel confidence in his rider’s leadership. When Comanche was going too fast I realised I was making it worse by worrying that I wasn’t in control, so instead I concentrated more on slowing down my own energy to give
him a clearer message.
As the weeks passed I noticed myself talking to the horses a lot more as I went about my work. As I checked girths and knots before I went into lunch I would have a little chat with each individual horse as I went around. While wandering the trails I would sing to my mount and try to guess his favourite genre of music by how much his ears flicked back and forward. Sometimes the girls would hear me singing and be inspired to start their own chorus – I was glad to hear that my Brownie favourite, “I Found a Peanut”, is just as popular on that side of the Atlantic as it is here!
Seeing the girls develop a bond with their horses for the week was very touching. I think it must be hard for the horses to spend so much time with one girl one week and then get used to someone else the next. But the horses are so generous and open hearted. It’s easy to think of our steeds as vehicles, but horses are such emotional animals – they work for us because they want to make us happy. I saw that although the horses love their work, they do work very hard and we cannot underestimate that. I think by the end of her stay each girl had a real appreciation for her horse that I don’t think I ever felt when I was taking weekly lessons.
I’m so glad I had this experience. I want all pony-lovers to know that just because you can’t have your very own pony, that doesn’t have to stop you loving one. Or two, or three, or 10… you can still develop an amazing bond with a horse that isn’t actually yours, you just have to tune in and listen. And if you feel like having your very own adventure, then my advice would be to do it! Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone, because horses do it for us all the time!