"Yes," I mumbled, watching him spin and jig and float. "I'd like to try him."
Although I was a little intimidated by his athleticism, I longed for a partner with just such grace and agility.
"His name is Flyer," she said. "He hasn't had a saddle on him yet. Have you got an hour?"
"Let's start him. Hand me that halter."
I had only read about "starting" horses without force, in round pens. Often it was described as a dance between horse and human. I admit it always seemed a little hard to believe, given the breaking of young colts I had witnessed up 'til now. In my heart though, I wished that it were possible, and if someday I found someone who was able, I harbored a secret desire to learn to do it myself.
Kate led a prancing Flyer to the door of a graying, wood-slatted round pen about eight feet in height. "You can have a seat up there," she said, nodding towards a viewing deck that overlooked the pen. I climbed the stairs and stood, my thighs against the rail as Flyer followed Kate in. She slipped off his halter and Flyer flew out to the perimeter of the pen. He trotted rhythmically around, stopping intermittently to snuffle the dirt beneath the fencing or to rear up to stick his nose over the top. He appeared to be searching for an escape route. Once in a while he would throw a worried glance up in my direction. I smiled and stood quietly, hoping he'd understand I wasn't a threat.
Kate stood easily in the middle of the pen, with her legs crossed casually, her eyes never leaving the horse as he rapidly explored the circumference. Anytime Flyer made an attempt to swing in, she gently sent him away again by raising an arm perpendicular to her body.
This semaphore-induced trotting went on for a few minutes, when Flyer began to lower his head and make chewing motions. He smoothly transitioned down to a walk. Kate turned her body slightly away from the horse, lowered her gaze and offered her right arm toward him. Flyer came in tentatively and sniffed her hand. Bow to your partner. Kate walked away and Flyer followed. As she walked, stopped, changed direction, walked some more, Flyer respectfully shadowed her every move. Do-si-do.
Kate lifted the halter from the fence and put it back on the gelding. She ducked out the door a minute and returned carrying a saddle, blanket and bridle, which she dropped with a thud in the center of the pen. She picked up the saddle blanket. Flyer's head went up and his ears pricked forward. Kate held the blanket under his nose; he sniffed then shied when she touched him with it. "Whoa," Kate murmured. Flyer's head relaxed down. Kate stroked his flank with the blanket. A nerve flickered down Flyer's back and he tensed again. "Easy." Kate sang and she took a step back. Flyer went calm and Kate waited a moment before stepping into him again. This time she laid the blanket on his back and stepped away. Flyer swung his head and sniffed at it, then looked at Kate. She hoisted the saddle up onto her arm and presented it for sniffing, then she tugged gently on the lead rope, backed him up a couple of steps then told him to stand; she placed the saddle over the blanket. Flyer simply swung his head and nosed it a bit as he had the blanket. Kate walked him around the pen a few times, pushing the saddle every once in awhile. Then she stopped and cinched up the girth. Flyer accepted this without protest although his eyes widened.
Kate slipped off the halter and slipped on the bridle smooth as you please. Flyer chomped and licked and lipped every which way. I grinned; watching him worry it like a dog does a bone. Kate educated him a little. She pulled gently on the left rein until he softened in his neck, then she released the pressure instantly. She repeated this to the other side. Flyer jigged a little trying to get away from the pressure. Allemande left. Kate stuck with him then released the moment he responded with just a slight turn of his nose.
Then she led him to the center of the pen where she lifted the saddle flap and tightened the girth. Flyer jumped to the side. "Whooooo," Kate crooned. Flyer relaxed and stood quietly. He turned his head and snuffled her sleeve. She stroked his forehead and scratched his ears. Then she grasped the saddle horn, lifted her left foot and placed it gently into the stirrup. I held my breath. Time to tango. Flyer shifted his weight. Kate applied pressure into the stirrup by raising herself slightly into the air, then lowering smoothly back to the ground. Flyer spun about a quarter turn. Ba-dumpbumpbump. Kate waited 'til he calmed down then pushed up into the stirrup again. She stood a minute like that, then swung her right leg fluidly over his croup, placed her boot in the stirrup and lowered herself gently, onto his back. I don't know what I expected, a buck, I suppose, or at least a scoot, but Flyer stood rooted to the spot. Kate applied a bit of pressure with her legs and he pranced a bit, shook his head, and spun another of his balletic quarter turns. Kate sat back and chided "Whoa" in a firm tone. The horse went back to calm. He turned his head and puzzled at her sitting up there on his back. She gently stroked his long beautiful neck.
During the next fifteen minutes or so I watched with admiration as Kate introduced Flyer to life under saddle. She walked and trotted him repeatedly in both directions, cantered him once on either rein, and then leg yielded in both directions.
Kate slid down from the saddle and looked up at me. "Come on in," she said. "Your turn." Cha-cha-cha.
About the author:
Crystal Verge is a writer/ singer/ actor living in Burnaby, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver. She started riding horses only five years ago. A year and a half ago she did that thing you're not supposed to do when you're a novice rider - she purchased Flyer, a sensitive four-year-old Morgan who wasn't even halter-broke. With the help of a trainer who has a solid foundation in Natural Horsemanship through feel, Crystal and Flyer have worked their way through "Bill's Book" and have a great bond. Flyer, though a youngster, is a born teacher, patient with a good sense of humor. He's brave on the trails and keen in the ring. Crystal keeps him as naturally as possible. He lives forty-five minutes from her in Langley on eight acres in a small herd of five. He's barefoot and lives out 24/7. Crystal does the drive three to four times a week, but someday, she will live where she can look out her window in the morning and see Flyer always.