Stable Riding: Stability with Horses

Scenes from Hilliard, Ohio’s Smiley-R-Ranch play over and over in my mind
as I try, desperately, to imagine what happened that fateful day: “Grandpa”
W. E. Dick Richardson, in bib-overalls and baseball hat, hurries out to bring
the spotted ponies in before the storm. Two of his grandsons jog along carrying
lead ropes and holding the tops of their baseball hats. All three push through
the half-gated door, pass the trail course logs, barrels and mailbox and fight
the wind in the back field. The ponies perk their ears at Grandpa’s whistle.
Grandpa’s worn hands clip my horse, Rebel’s, halter with a lead. Grandpa
turns and leads the way back to the barn. The boys corral the other ponies
and take turns leading them inside. The blue sky darkens to indigo. Grandpa
reaches the barn, steps across the wooden threshold and reaches for Rebel’s
stall door. I can’t focus on one detail. The oldest grandson sees him fall.
Grandpa falls to his knees. His hands clasp at his heart. The shady barn
row flashes bright with nearing lightening. Rebel backs away. Tears. All
of us. Lots of tears. Later, at home, all I can write in my middle school
journal is “Grandpa Richardson had a heart attack and was in a coma for a
week. He died August 13, 1988.”

The scene played in my nightmares for years. This first equestrian teacher,
father figure, and steady friend left me spinning in thought at twelve years
old. Grandpa was everything I needed at a time my own father was not present.
In 1988, I realized two father-figures were gone. One to a heart attack, the
other to divorce. I saw, in my own father, reasons not to trust; in Grandpa
I saw dependability, order and trust. His loss would impact me for years.

Grandpa, unfailing, had greeted me for lessons every week after I started
riding at age five. I had depended–more than I knew–on seeing his laughing
eyes, white hair and strong, working hands. Even more than seeing him, I depended
on his expectations and work habits. He taught sequence, order and respect.
I knew, from age five, the precise steps necessary to prepare, saddle and
begin to ride a horse. By twelve, I improved each step–working to do what
I had been taught better and better. Grandpa’s teaching was about more than
horse care. I would eventually understand his permanent, broader, life lessons.
But at the time, about to start seventh grade, I only understood someone
who had been so respected, steady and loving in my life was gone. I was alone.

I was at the barn for
lessons just days before it happened. As usual, Grandpa pushed the top of
his broom, expertly navigating the barn’s cement floor. He swept between all
riding sessions. Students were taught to respect rituals of preparation. Riders
arrived, changed into boots, grabbed lead straps and headed around to the
back of the barn to greet their spotted ponies’Ponies of the Americas (POAs).
I was almost always late–my own ritual–and arrived just in time to see Grandpa
finish sweeping near the barn’s two swinging red doors. He called me by the
nickname only he could use. Heidi-Ho! Grandpa reminded me he saved my prep
spot. Then back at work, his steady voice buzzed my personal welcoming song–a
stable ritual just for me. Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi! Grandpa’s baritone voice
echoed through the barn. The melody repeated. Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho!

I hummed along to the Cab-Calloway-jazz-great song, but began my own work.
I hurried along the blacktop path to Rebel’s stall. Each student had an assigned
pony to take care of and ride consistently during the summer lesson season.
Rebel was as good as mine. On my way, I passed and greeted the ponies I had
ridden and depended on since age five. Jealous and eager to work, Rebel pawed
the ground waiting for me. His solid-quarter-pony head rested on the barred
stall window. My hip fell even with Rebel?s point-of-shoulder as we walked
back toward Grandpa. Prepared and on-schedule, Grandpa had already pulled
Rebel’s tack drawer and placed it on the nearest shelf. He glanced at the
clock and kindly gave a ten minute count down.

Janet Hedman, Grandpa’s daughter and our group’s riding teacher, was waiting
in the ring. Janet’s reddish-brown hair framed expressive, laughing eyes just
like her dad’s. The two shared kind, energetic mannerisms. This father-daughter
team worked well together and split training duties evenly. Janet counted
on her dad to cover grooming and ground safety. After the first half hour
in the barn, Grandpa helped us lead the ponies out the main doors to the riding
arena. Grandpa relied on Janet to guide us on horseback. Janet, always in
bright-colored tanks, shorts and sneakers, waited in middle the dusty riding
ring. The father-daughter schedule was perfected after nearly 10 years of
working together. Grandpa knew if he taught technique, schedule and order,
his students would know what to do–with or without his help. We were to be
safely independent.

I had Grandpa’s well-taught routine memorized. I efficiently sped through
each grooming chore: rubber and metal curry combs, dandy brushes, mane and
tail comb, hoof pick, blanket, western saddle, and snaffle bit bridle. My
part done, Grandpa checked and tightened Rebel’s girth and sent me out the
doors. Grandpa’s fatherly stability and consistency would not be seen so clearly
again. This man who seemed so permanent and steady was suddenly gone.

I avoided riding after
Grandpa’s death. My grief and anger at being left resurfaced every time I
thought of riding. This avoidance continued through to college, when surroundings
made it impossible not to think of horses. With two equestrian roommates at
Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU), I couldn’t escape piles of horse books and
rows of trophies. My roommates were going to be on the equestrian team and
hoped I would be, too. Remembering bits of my own horse experience was suddenly
comforting. I made a choice to recall scenes of Grandpa at Smiley-R-Ranch.
I counted all the horses, remembered their spot patterns, heard Grandpa singing
my theme song, and cried good, hard, timely tears. I opened my eyes a bit
later to see my roommate’s posters, ribbons, and show photos lining our cinder-block-bedroom
wall. Horses were back–eyes open or shut.

I met my new riding coach immediately once I made the choice to remember
Grandpa’s lessons. I joined the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA)
team and began riding lessons the second week of school. I waited at OWU’s
Branch Rickey gym where horse trainer and clinician Terry Myers picked me,
and three classmates, up for our first riding lesson. The ground shook as
Terry maneuvered his Ford 350, fully-loaded, extended-cab diesel dually (a
true cowboy truck) through the small parking lot. I climbed up into the truck
for the mini-road-trip eight miles out of Delaware to Ostrander and Terry
Myers’ Training Center–a Paint Horse haven. Little did I know the truck ride
to Terry’s would be the first of many.

Four doors slammed.
Seat belts clicked. Terry shifted the truck into reverse. Terry wore all the
required cowboy garb–cowboy hat covering his short-clipped hair, long sleeve
shirt, pressed Wranglers, crepe-soled boots, and clangy spurs. He tipped
his hat at each of us welcoming us with kind, expressive, laughing eyes.
I knew I’d be fine. My hands shook anyway. My confidence was gone. Chewing
on his toothpick, Terry asked each student about classes, roommates and what
we wanted to learn while taking riding lessons. He nodded his head and answered,
“We can do that,” to each request. I sat quietly in the front seat–content
to listen and process and answer questions last. I stared at my new shiny,
black lacer boots and tried to hold my hands from shaking. Terry asked, “How
about you, Heidi-ho?”

With such fatherly attention, I barely noticed Terry softly speak the nickname
no one but Grandpa had been allowed to say. Terry and I were fast friends.
Finally at the barn, we walked through rows of stalls as he asked about my
riding experience. Grandpa was on my mind as soon as I walked in the barn.
The barns were so different–Grandpa’s old-fashioned and red, this one bigger,
white and new–but the same in content. Spotted horses, Grandpa, you’d be proud.
Terry had Paints with the same mentalities and even looks as the shorter POAs
I knew so well. I asked Terry if he knew Janet and Smiley-R-Ranch–just a
county away. He did. I smiled to myself and realized the serendipity of all
these new experiences. I told Terry I’d like to ride again–this time permanently.
I knew it would take a little relearning for me to do what I had done before.
In this starting again, the basic lessons were already present to be expanded.
With his nods and “Here’s what we’ll do” mindset, Terry planned out what
we’d work on to get all my confidence and stability back. As Terry saw it,
I would ride as part of OWU’s equestrian team. His expectations were set–I
could depend on that.

Up on horseback, we
headed outside to the riding arena. I rode Bear–an almost-solid Paint much
taller than Rebel, but calm and kind like my old friend. Terry explained we
could name what we wanted to do. We went through the usual walk, trot, canter,
reverse and repeat exercises while Terry talked to each student and corrected
positions. All I could think of was Grandpa. I’m back on a horse. I’m back
on a horse. For the first time in what felt like forever, I knew Grandpa
was still with me. He hadn’t left. I wasn’t abandoned. I finally made the
choice to look at all that had happened with new perspective. Perspective
shifts to a higher view when you’re up on a horse. All Grandpa’s teachings
were firm and dependable in my thoughts. I could focus on the lessons, not
the pain. I had the tools I needed–even after so much time–to get back up
on a horse.

Terry seemed to sense
my confidence shift. As I remember it, he smiled from beneath his ever-present
cowboy hat and told me I’d lied. I’d lied? He said he knew I’d ridden before–almost
every new student reported trail or pony rides, but he didn’t realize I’d ridden
before. I had learned to ride, and continued to learn. Grandpa and Terry’s
lessons were so similar: trust a pattern, trust what you know, trust yourself.
“Confidence,” Terry told me over and over, “confidence is all you need. You
know what to do.” Together, we worked on new lessons–learning the confidence
to ride without stirrups, without reins, without a bit of fear. I was in
good, trustable hands. Terry helped me build on what I knew before–teaching
the confidence in my own skills so I could go on to teach others.

With tools for efficiency, respect and independence memorized so early,
I realized there was nothing I couldn’t approach. What my dependable first
father-figure had taught me was not the lesson of chaos and abandonment I
first thought. He did not leave me. He left me what I needed to go on. That’s
what all good mentors do. When you put your boot in the stirrup, ready to
ride, you ride with the memories and values mentors taught. I had the tools
to continue. With Grandpa in my thoughts, I would never be alone, especially
while riding a horse.

Heidi Nyland is assistant editor at Horse & Rider. She
has ridden, shown, and trained horses from an early start–age 5. At Ohio
Wesleyan University, Nyland was president (and later assistant coach) of the
IHSA equestrian team. In journalism graduate school at Ohio University, Nyland
helped professors train their Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, and Tenessee Walking
Horse trail mounts. Nyland interned at
OHIO Magazine and Scioto Downs
Harness Race Track and has published work for
The Paint Horse Journal
Horsepower: Magazine for Young Horselovers.

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