There has always been a part of me that has been a cowgirl. As a kid, I wore cowboy boots, collected a menagerie of porcelain horses, had a favorite stuffed horse that I took on vacation with me, and in summer I visited my friend Marcia whose pony would buck and kick when he got tired of me riding him bareback. I literally had vivid dreams that I lived on a ranch with dozens of horses. When I woke in my Wisconsin small-town bedroom and not on a ranch in Montana, I was devastated.
Sometimes as adults we do get to live out our childhood dreams, especially if they haven’t been wrung out of us and discarded by the demands and necessities of life. Now, I’m in my 50’s. I still don’t live on a Montanan ranch, but I get to hang out with horses all the time. Ride them, groom them, lead them, talk to them, listen to them, and just “be” with them. Each week, sometimes more than once, I go to a place 20 minutes south of Milwaukee called Stepping Stone Farms School of Horsemanship. It’s a nonprofit horse rescue that takes in unwanted horses and gives them a great life. Stepping Stone Farms gives many of these horses a purpose as they help people through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) model of equine assisted therapy.
Stepping Stone Farms’ executive director, Lia Sader, is the horsewoman I will never be. Two long brown braids frame a stoic face. Sometimes she smiles and commends me when I’ve done something well. Other times her brow furrows a little when I’ve missed a keeper (part of a horse blanket or saddle) when I’m tacking up Casper, a white Arabian that is teaching me how to ride. Once on Casper, we start around the ring, and I hear Lia’s commands, a little bit riding instructor and a little bit drill sergeant. “Sit up straight, and look where you’re going,” or “Heels down and nose to toes. Don’t be a lawn dart.” I don’t want to be a lawn dart.
When I called Lia three years ago and told her I wanted to take “a few lessons” so I could learn how to ride properly, she laughed. She said, “Riding a horse is doing 23 things at one time. When do you want to get started?” Three years later, I totally get why she laughed, especially with the dressage-style of riding I’m doing. Nose to toes. Heels down. Sit up straight. Look where you’re going. Loosen the reins. Tighten the reins. Straighten your arms. Look at his ears. Post. Two-point. Ride the rail. And…whoa!
During lessons, a horse sometimes won’t do what I want it to do. Like an idiot, I will complain and say, “Lia. What’s bugging this horse today?” Lia, in her horsie-wisdom will say to me, “That’s not the question. The question is, what’s bugging you?” If I’m not centered and calm, then I pass that energy on to the horse, and it passes it back to me. Horses are the ultimate “garbage in-garbage out” conduits, mirrors of our energy and emotions.
But riding is just one aspect of why horse-human relationships are so amazing. Horses are unlike any other non-human being I’ve ever encountered. Horses are intelligent prey animals, much different from the dogs and cats that most of us are accustomed to sharing our lives with. As intelligent prey animals, every aspect of a horse’s life is based on helping it outsmart predators, avoid danger and survive. Whether it’s another horse or a human, horses are consummate readers of body language. They react to movements and emotions, and they sense energy. This keeps them safe and alive. And this highly developed skill can be used to help people, like me, learn a lot about myself.
Stepping Stone Farms has about 28 horses that come in a variety of colors and sizes. The largest is a draft horse named John Coffee, a gentle giant whose head towers above me and is taller than I am at the shoulder. The smallest is Punky, a mini that barely comes up to my waist, but has biggest personality on the farm. Don’t fuck with Punky. There are a variety of breeds including Arabians, Tennessee Walkers, American Quarter horses, and even a thoroughbred.
Horses are many things: powerful, sweet, calm, nervous, playful, serious, curious, gentle, determined, happy, cranky, impatient, forgiving, trusting, demanding, goofy, stubborn, compliant, devilish, and awe-inspiring. But mostly, horses are magical beings that once they’ve gotten under your skin, you just don’t want to live without them.
When it comes to EAGALA practices, everything takes place on the ground. No riding. The human interacts with the horse as a pedestrian. One summer afternoon I went to the farm to ride. I was facing some sort of existential, First World problem. Lia wisely decided I wouldn’t be riding that day. Remember: garbage energy in-garbage energy out is not a good recipe for getting on the back of a 1,000-pound horse. I would be doing light manual labor in one of the horse paddocks, picking up foreign objects or items that shouldn’t be in the area. At first the horses kept their distance. But as I began to focus not on my anxiety, but on the task at hand–finding and picking up a piece of twine here or a piece of plastic there–I calmed down and the horses began to follow me and interact. As my energy changed, they seemed to sense that being around me was cool. It was like they sensed a shift in my mood or energy and said, “Now we’ll hang out with you.”
Lia and the horses at Stepping Stone Farms do healing work with people who struggle with domestic violence or PTSD. They're also helping kids learn respect and responsibility. If you just want to hang out with horses, there’s a program that for a $20 donation you can just hang out with a horse, groom it and discover how cool they are. Women Taking the Reins is a popular program for women who want to learn more about or re-connect with horses. It combines groundwork with a little riding, and of course a celebration at the end. Or, you can sign up for dressage lessons, a more formal and complex form of riding than Western.
April 28 will be Stepping Stone Farms’ spring open house. Maybe that’s where you’ll discover whether, like me, you have a little cowgirl or boy in you.
For more information on events, programs or how to support their mission, visit their website.