Written By Lindsey Wade
When I got the call I was in the middle of some ground work with my favorite horse, River, at the equine therapy farm where I volunteered. It was Les, the corral boss at the dude ranch in Montana where I had applied, inviting me to come work as a wrangler for the summer. I was over the moon ecstatic – this was a job I had dreamed about since I was a kid but didn’t really think it was something I ever would or could do. However, I knew working with the horses on the ranch would likely be different than the type of environment I was used to interacting with them in at CORRAL, which made me just a little apprehensive. In a therapy setting, it is crucial for the horses to have choice and to have the freedom to express themselves. Would the horses in Montana be given this same allowance, or would a “show him who’s boss” attitude prevail?
What I’ve come to understand is that the responsibilities put on a horse vary in different circumstances, and that doesn’t necessarily mean one is preferable to the other, simply that the end goals are different. In a therapy session, the horse’s job is to provide feedback based on the client’s emotional state and behavior. Though the horse is given free range to move away, engage with the client, shut down, etc. as they see fit, this often means the horse deals with mentally and emotionally uncomfortable situations. The job of a dude horse is quite different – safely carry the guest for the duration of the trail ride.
One of the greatest privileges I’ve had this summer is to assist with the training of the ranch horses, from the foals who have never been touched to the green broke four and five year olds. This was something I had no experience doing but I was fortunate to have a very patient boss who genuinely enjoys teaching people and helping them succeed. It was interesting to note that although the process and intentions were different, a lot of the principles remained the same. Instead of trying to communicate with a horse at liberty “let’s go for a walk because we enjoy spending time together” it was more “you need to move because I asked you to move” but I was pleasantly surprised to find that my boss emphasized being aware of your body language, energy, and attitude almost as much as my mentors on the farm back home. A phrase that came out of his mouth often was, “As little as possible, as much as necessary”. If we were yielding hindquarters, he instructed us to start by looking at them, something I had practiced and taught so many times at CORRAL! It was still all about communication, but the goal was creating a horse who could safely carry a different stranger every week.
It is true that a dude horse puts up with a lot, more often than not patiently packing people who have ridden only a little or not at all, day after day all through the summer. However, the horses on this ranch were allowed a privilege not many modern day horses are. In their time off they were turned out, as a herd, onto pastures that were several hundred acres in size and full of grass, trees, rocks, hills, and creeks. Essentially, every night during the summer and for about eight months out of the year (during the off season), these horses were allowed the freedom to simply be horses.
Though I was originally a little apprehensive about the attitude toward the horses on the ranch, I came to see that though they had a different job and different responsibilities than a therapy horse does, they were overall still treated with dignity and appreciation and all their needs were cared for. There is still so much more I want to learn about horses in all kinds of different capacities, but I count myself lucky to have had experiences with horses in therapeutic work as well as on a western dude ranch.
About guest author Lindsey Wade: Lindsey currently resides in North Carolina where she nannies two of her younger sisters while planning more adventures overseas and in the western US. When she isn’t working she loves to play games with her siblings and friends and spend time with her Tennessee Walking Horse, Jasmine.