Trainers advise rookies how to get a horse on its best behavior

Sunday, June 19, 2005
Maddie Rupke, 15 in front, and Kendra Green 14, have been ridding horses since they were toddlers.

Those who believe they have found the secret to relieving stress are the same folks who believe the world is divided into two categories of people: horse people and non-horse people.

Only a horse person could find relaxation in grooming a huge animal, hauling feed and hay and shoveling out its stall. But then again, these are the people who say that the key to relaxation is focusing your attention on the needs of a horse and forgetting the rest of the world for a while.

"When I was in practice that was my version of golf, handball, tennis, fishing, and hunting, because when you throw a leg over a horse that horse does not give a darn what kind of day you had or week you got coming up," said Tom Herbert, a retired dentist who owns two horses. "Your mind has to be on that horse."

Horse people say there's more to enjoying a horse than non-horse people realize. And even among horse people, there are some differences in their approach to the animals.

Young girls seem to have an obsession about horses, said horse trainer Julia Rupke of Jackson, who owns seven horses. Rupke's daughter, Maddie, 15, is no exception. Maddie has been riding since she was 2. Rupke herself has been riding since she was 5. Young girls, she said, make a social occasion out of caring for a horse, and would spend hours brushing a horse's tail if she would let them. Maddie would ride 10 hours a day, her mother said, if she had 10 horses. Maddie says she feels connected to horses.

"You can build that trust after riding so long," Maddie said. "You can just tell the emotion through their eyes. You can tell if they're happy or not in the way they move."

Maddie will get in the stall and lie on her horse, Red, to spend time with him, her mother noted. "She has no fear, which can be a bad thing," she said.

A hobby for the middle-aged, too

Rupke said she has noticed that middle-aged women, who might have longed for a horse when they were little girls, are now taking riding lessons and looking into horse ownership. The passion they had for horses when they were little girls has not diminished.

"I had kind of a fantasy idea about horses," said Colleen Kimmell, a zoologist who took up horsemanship in her mid-40s. "The reality of learning about the animal became a challenge. It's a challenge to understand how they respond to us."

Rupke said some women will spend 95 percent of their time on the ground with the horse, grooming and caring for it, and ride the horse very little, which is what Kimmell says she does.

Herbert refers to that as having "pasture pets." To him, a horse is an animal that needs a job, and a horse that has not been trained and is ridden infrequently is "a waste of horse."

"There are a lot of pasture pets where the owner comes up, feeds it, brushes it a little bit and leads it around," he said. "A horse is not a pet. You can build a bond with a horse, but anyone who tells you it's like a bond with a cat or a dog is blowing smoke and doesn't understand horses."

Herbert said that horses are "intelligent animals that are simultaneously dumb as a post. They have to be dumb as a post to allow us to do with them what we do."

Rupke said she cautions potential horse owners to be sure they choose an animal that suits their riding habits and personality. Some may dream of a young thoroughbred when they're better suited for an older horse who is well-trained and not easily rattled.

"People who have never ridden before have romantic ideas that they'll buy a baby horse and it's going to grow up and they will fall in love," Rupke said. "Then they get frustrated by a crazy horse who got that way because it's been allowed to run all over that person, and now they have to spend thousands of dollars to retrain it."

Stay in control

Horses need discipline and structure. To understand them, Herbert said, it's important to learn how to think like a horse, because horses look out for themselves above all else. He said that once horses pick up a bad habit, they'll never lose it. To overcome that, he said, the owner has to imprint over the bad habit.

The horse's owner has to be as focused on the horse as the horse is. If a rider's mind wanders, the horse will pick upon that.

"They feel every tense muscle," Kimmell said. "For survival you have to be alert to every subtle detail in your environment. They're independent personalities, but they have a basic mindset and that is the flight response."

It doesn't take much to spook a horse. If something they're accustomed to is suddenly changed, something a human would notice and dismiss, that will cause a horse to respond.

"They are a pea-brained animal," Rupke said. "They will react to the stupidest thing and you will get hurt. I tell riders loving on their horses that you have to have total respect for the animal or they will hurt you. They don't want to hurt you but if you are in their way, they will go back to behavior they learned a thousand years ago and flee."

But when the trained rider connects with the right horse, the end result can be euphoric, the horse people say. Kendra Green, 14 of Jackson said she feels free when she's riding. Rupke, her teacher, notes that Kendra is a shy girl who is gaining confidence through learning to communicate with her horse.

"It's a huge confidence builder," she said.

The horse people say that concentrating on riding a horse frees them from anything else that might be on their mind. And feeding, grooming and caring for the horse only adds to the relaxation.

"I'm like a little kid," Rupke said. "I get up in the morning and I think of all things horse. I make a list of things to do: house and horse. House will have three things under it and horse will have 15."

Kimmell said that by learning how to help her horse relax around her, she has learned to be a calmer person, yet more decisive. She said that confidence is a characteristic she has noticed among women and girls who grew up around horses.

"I'm envious of their "can-do" personality," she said.

"It's a passion," Rupke said. "And I think everybody needs a passion."

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