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City Girl Meets a Horse

I’ve lived in Las Cruces for 22 years, and in regards to animals, I’m a city girl. Listening to country music and taking photos of tractors is about as country as I get.

My husband and I went to the Cowboys for Cancer Research dinner dance this year – as we do each year – and pored through the silent auction items. One item I made a casual reference to was horse-riding lessons. I haven’t been on a horse either ever or since I was 6 and rode a horse in one of those tethered corrals at a fair. If I can’t find photographic proof, it never happened.

I noted that it would be, “neat” to ride a horse and so he placed our bid. We won.

Driving out to Bosquecito Quarter Horses for my first lesson, I drove past chile fields mid-harvest. Twenty-or-so people were out in the field picking dark red chile and I was reminded that Las Cruces isn’t just a city. It’s farmland. It’s pecan orchards. It’s country.

I drove up a dirt road in my car, though a truck would fit in better. I was greeted by trainer/owner Betsy Stormberg. One shake of her hand and I saw that she is a hard-working woman. One shake of mine and you would see that I rarely go outdoors.

Blank slate

All I know about horses I learned on television. I know you shouldn’t walk behind a horse. I know they can’t see straight in front of themselves. That’s about all I know.

Today, I learned that they are left-eye left-brained, right-eye right-brained.

Betsy explained: if you walk a horse past something that spooks it 20 times on the right side – in an attempt to acclimate it to the object – then one time on the left, it’ll spook on the left side. It’s as if it’s the first time it has seen that object.

Another thing I learned – despite knowing this to be true – horses are huge. You think you know, but you don’t know.

I started off by telling Betsy that I would rather take photos of horses than ride them, but that I was happy to try something new. She understood my love of photography and introduced me to a client who shares the same passion.

After our chat, I got a tour of the facility. We walked and talked, Betsy showed me several different horses – breeds whose names I’ve already forgotten. Taking it all in and trying not to make a city slicker of myself proved to be within my capabilities. Remember horse breeds – not so much.

Most of the time I was concerned about getting kicked by a horse and expressed this concern to Betsy, she eased my fear by saying, “Show horses won’t kick you.” Still I keep my distance, but with less fear.

What exactly is a gallop?

Betsy and I head out to Dan’s corral to bring him inside. For a bit she ran him around – well it looked like a run to me. It started as a walk, then turned into a trot. She told me the difference between a trot, canter and gallop – describing a gallop as when the horse brings both of its back feet forward first, together. A canter is when the left hind and right fore leg land at the same time.

We talked about how training a horse is similar to training a dog. You have to be consistent and firm. Having helped train our two pups, this is one thing I can relate to.

Betsy walked Dan back to the corral and I offer to carry his blanket – something I am certain she handles on her own, on a daily basis.

She told me that I would probably ride Dan next week when I come back. Riders and horses have to be compatible and her description of Dan as “quirky” is probably a trait in me that she’s picked up in the hour she has known me. It’s not an offensive description.

Unrelated connections

There are many people to whom I owe thanks for where I am today, and meeting one that you didn’t know existed is a great way to start a relationship.

Midway into our visit, I discovered that Betsy was a retired English teacher from Mayfield High School and that she started the television news production class there in 1986 (+/-). Because MHS had a department, when my alma mater, Oñate High School, was built, they included one in the plans. I learned tape-to-tape editing in high school and learned that there were opportunities for a journalist behind the camera before I graduated.

Because of that class, I went on to New Mexico State University and earned my bachelors in Journalism and Mass Communications. I then went on to KDBC in El Paso and now have been the production manager at the Las Cruces Bulletin for eight years – all because of Betsy starting Mayfield Broadcasting Class – or MBC – at Mayfield.

She didn’t know it before today, but she set the course of my life.

The favorite

After Dan was secured in his corral, we headed back to the pens. I asked Betsy if she had a favorite horse, and she replied, “This one.” And that’s when I meet Ellie. Ellie was likely the horse that was described on the silent auction item as, “a seasoned, well trained western pleasure show horse.”

She was beautiful.

I successfully put her harness on. “Easy – I can do this,” I thought.

This time Betsy had me stand in the center of the pen with the whip and tell Ellie to trot, slow, easy and a few other tricks that, I swear, involve kissy noises. “You keep the whip just past the hip,” she says, “if you go further forward, she’ll either turn around or stop.”

Ellie listened to me – but mostly to Betsy giving the same commands from outside the pen. At one point I asked, “does this make Ellie dizzy?” and Betsy knew that it was really me who was starting to see the world spin. When I tired from holding the whip, and moved it to my left hand, Ellie promptly turned around and started running the other direction. Since most commands are body language, I should have guessed that changing my behavior would have changed the horse’s.

I was thankful to get out of the center of the pen – I was nervous to be in there with Ellie. I was assured that she was a great horse, but because it was my first time around a horse, I just didn’t trust animals. I mustered up some confidence, though, and did it.

Then, as we walked Ellie to the corral, Betsy took the blanket and I took the horse. Ellie stubbornly stopped to eat the grass a few times, but I confidently tugged the harness and got her to walk with me. We put Ellie in her pen, where she ate a few bits of hay. We were waiting for her to pee so that we could groom her. Horses don’t like to pee on the dirt, because it may bounce back up and spray them. They prefer bedding. It's a matter of health to them. Who knew?

Ellie came back out and we brought her to the middle of the corral where she was locked in place by two chains coming from opposite walls attached to her harness. She had a bit of wiggle room, but not much.

Betsy showed me how to brush Ellie, “a great arm workout,” and I finished the left side of the horse. I asked if I should walk around the front to get to the right side and was told that – with this horse – if you put your hand on her back to let her know that you are there, you won’t get kicked. So I safely made it to the right side where I continued to brush. There were a few spots that you get to that, much like my dog’s tickle spots, caused the horse to move or wag her tail. “A warning sign,” Betsy called them. I went over those spots quickly and moved on.

Next: vacuuming the horse. Seriously. Betsy has a small aqua-colored canister vacuum that looked like it was from 1978 which she used in her daily horse grooming routine.

Ellie doesn’t seem to mind the vacuuming and this horse has gone from beautiful to gorgeous very quickly. Her coat is glossy and it is clear that she is a showhorse.

Lastly, I brushed the tail and mane and Betsy finished by cleaning Ellie’s feet. I learned about horseshoes and how they have to be replaced every 6 weeks because horse’s feet grow like our nails.

My first visit turned out to be a free one, since I was starting from square one. I’ve been given some magazines about quarterhorses to read and am looking forward to next week when I get to spend some time on a horse. I was very happy to have this first day to ease myself in and acquaint myself with horses and some of the terminology.

I hope that the quirky Dan and I will be fast friends.

Until then I am happy to get home to my 80 pound, huggable, (mostly) well-trained pups.

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