Gaited, Not Gated


“I don’t do gates, I gait.”

I imagine this is just one of the things Smoke would like to tell me while we’re out on the trail. Ideally, he would tell me this in the context of a conversation, not an argument.

Lately, we’ve had the chance to go out riding, just with Sally, who is in the midst of training Echo, her luminous filly. When we ride together, things are newer and the rhythm is different. Echo doesn’t know, yet, what trail horses do, but she knows what horses like to do, and it involves grass.

Sally is working on finding a way to tell Echo that she will always have enough food without having to stop every few feet. This is just a glimpse of the many layers of effort that she is putting forth with Echo. Listening to Sally talk about all the things she is applying to their relationship is enlightening, motivating and inspiring.  It also makes me wish that I could spend time every day with Smoke, but I can’t—not if I want to put food in my dogs’ dishes and build my career.

This is where I remind myself that every minute I spend with this horse is an opportunity to learn. This abundant spring, defined by the force of water and every hue of green—this spacious country festooned in balsam root, lupine, prairie star, arnica, sticky tofieldia, Oregon grape and trillium, with purples, whites, yellows, and pink of every shade—is the backdrop of our progress. This is where we gauge what we’re learning.

With Sally and Echo, we take more time and try things we might not normally have the opportunity to try. We lead, sort of. I urge Smoke down the trail. His ears point forward, held firmly in place by his vigilance. He scans the woods for any danger because he’s heard Sally point out the horse-eating logs and puddles before and he doesn’t get sarcasm. At times, he’s had enough of this responsibility and stops abruptly, to turn us around. That’s when I have to be assertive. This quiet, intelligent horse still isn’t so sure about my leadership skills. I need to find more ways, on the ground, to make myself look like a trusted leader. Maybe I should wear a bigger hat, or carry a sword.

Smoke and I have gotten pretty good at side passes, in the arena. We walk up to the fence, so that we are perfectly perpendicular, then I “release” the rein on the side I want to go, apply pressure with my opposite foot against his barrel, and we side step fluidly down the rail. This skill is useful in a variety of circumstances, especially when you want to open a gate without getting off of your horse.

The other day, at Larry’s Loop, we got to test it out. We rode up on a closed gate. Smoke and I headed straight up to it. We turned and I pushed it open a little then tried to urge us through. Smoke stepped back once, then twice. I squeezed him with my legs and pointed us through it, pushing the gate wider as we went past. Sally and Echo came through behind us. Then Sally took Echo up the hill to graze a bit, knowing that I had a project on my hands.

I was clumsy—doing too much of everything while I tried to will him around the gate and along it, so that we could close it. I had the gate closed in my mind before I ever told my body and Smoke’s how to get there. While we were dancing around, Sally remarked on me holding the reins too tight and I realized how much tension I was holding in my legs and arms. I took a breath, remembered how we side pass in the arena and asked Smoke to do it.

In one semi-fluid motion, I had the gate back in hand and swung it around so that it was almost latched. Then we danced around in limbo again, as I tried to put us where I could push it closed. While I was messing around up there, on his back, Smoke smacked the gate with his nose and latched it for me. I laughed and at Sally’s encouragement, kept Smoke near the gate, before walking off.

The whole process took time. It was far from perfect, but as we stood there, and I smelled all the aromas of cottonwood and pine that carry the season into your lungs, I felt the bliss of possibility.

Smoke and I passed through our first gate, and somehow, we have a few more words in common. I don’t care when we get to the next gate, but I can’t wait to see how we get there.

Top Left:  Sally and Echo
Bottom:  From the back of Smoke

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Danielle Lattuga is a novice horsewoman, frequently found guilty of confusing hoof beats with heartbeats. She believes that riding and writing are not so different: both part poetry, part sweat.  Follow her into Montana’s horse country, and find out if she’s right.