I’m doing something with my Fell Pony mare Willowtrail Wild Rose that I’ve never done with any of my other ponies. She’s an easy keeper so I haven’t taken her to pasture where she might put on too much weight. Instead I’ve been hand-grazing her for a few minutes every day. One day I decided that I’d rather sit than stand while holding the lead rope, so I jumped on her back. It’s not uncommon for me to sit on one of my ponies bareback with just a halter and lead rope while they graze. What’s been unusual about doing it with Rose is that I haven’t trained her to ride.
Of course, I set myself up for success. I’ve been on her back a few times, and last spring I began teaching her some of the basics of ridden work. I also know that for a Fell Pony she tends to be on the whoa side of the whoa-go spectrum so I knew she wasn’t likely to spook in a big way. I also know that she’s relatively tolerant of the many unusual things in our environment: wind in the trees, my dog pouncing on things in the grass, squirrels, deer, moose, and other critters passing by. I also always take her out when she is hungry so her focus will be on eating and not investigating. The fact that she’s barely thirteen hands doesn’t hurt either, as it’s an easy jump to the ground when I need to.
My husband cut a broad fireline through the woods around our place last winter, and this summer grass has come in along with the other forest flora. There is one particularly thick patch of grass that I lead Rose to before mounting. She doesn’t stay there long, though; apparently other types of grass in other locations are better tasting so we move about quite a bit. It’s been fascinating to see what else she eats besides grass. Dandelions, the occasional bit of fireweed, and another plant with yellow flowers that I don’t know the name of are targets of her active lips and teeth. We’ve explored the remains of a burn pile and ventured out of the cleared area to the compost piles. On every ride there are all kinds of opportunities to test Rose’s surefootedness since there are sticks and branches and stumps left from the logging activities.
In the curriculum of the horsemanship program I study, there is something called a passenger lesson. My experiences with passenger lessons so far have always been in an enclosed area and only at the walk and occasionally trot. I have always had reins. My understanding of the purpose of a passenger lesson is to teach the rider to move with the horse as the horse moves in whatever direction it wishes, within the confines of a round pen or corral of some sort. “[You] learn to relinquish control to the horse and to flow with the go – going when he goes, turning when he turns, and slowing when he slows.” (1) The ultimate goal of the lesson is harmony: “[The] real deal is to be so in rapport, so part of the horse that he thinks you are part of him, and not any way in opposition…this is when you have harmony. Having harmony means the horse will not think of you as a predator (a wolf in sheep’s clothing), he’ll think of you as someone just like him.” (2) Of course riding in harmony, for anyone who has ever done it, is a true gift and is incredible to experience.
What I have been doing with Rose recently is a variation on a passenger lesson. Because she doesn’t yet know all the cues for ridden work, I have little control and really must ‘flow with the go.’ One of my goals of this work with Rose (besides her not seeing it as work!) is that she learns what it’s like to carry weight when she’s moving so that she can move in a comfortable fashion. I noticed with one of the other ponies that I’ve trained that carrying weight when he was moving confused his movement and made him balky until he got used to it. We take for granted that horses can carry us when we’re riding, and I realized with this other pony that it is different for them to move with weight on their backs than when they’re just moving themselves. The first stages of ridden work, in addition to learning cues, must be to learn to move with weight on their backs.
Rose and I have had a close relationship since she was born (see for instance Claiming Each Other.) Our passenger lessons have been a great low key way to expand our relationship outside of the formal training sessions that I’ve put on hold during our busy summer. She looks forward to passenger lessons now, waiting for me at the gate when it’s time to venture out. I am very lucky to have this life with my ponies!
(c) Jenifer Morrissey, 2012