Note to Dear Reader: I do not have a financial arrangement with any of the outfits identified in this story. Their mention is a result of my personal research and recommendations from my contacts here in Eugene. Please do your own research based on your personal goals.
Eugene is home to a lot of horse owners and stables, which was one reason I moved here. Part of how I made that decision was to simply look up how many tack shops were in the area. That for me is usually a pretty good indicator of what's up around a place when it comes to horse folk.
If you're new to an area as I am here in Eugene, probably the fastest way to make friends is to hang out with folks who love what you love. Horses are a fine example, but as any aficinonado will tell you, there are a lotta layers in this community. People separate out rather passionately by breed, or how they ride, or if they compete, and if they compete what kinds of competitions, I could go on. The vast variety of the world of horses is part of its charm as well as its frustration. I had no clue where to begin.
Meanwhile, my real estate agent, Paula, had a horsey cousin, whose stable had Friesians. There's a very active and passionate Friesian community in America for good reason. While I can't afford the hefty price tag, I adore the breed, so Paula was kind enough to ferry me out along the great wide McKenzie to visit. I spent the afternoon happily scrubbing a couple of big geldings who were pleased to return the favor, leaving my shoulders lined with love nips. Heaven.
But I needed to ride.
Beginning was also tough for two reasons: the pandemic, which meant that a great many outfits I called weren't even bothering to pick up the phone. Then, within a few weeks after I moved here, we had horrific fires, meaning a goodly number of those folks were desperate to save and then secure their animals until they knew there was a safe place for them again.
As I watched online, I saw this terrific community swiftly pull together, coalesce, provide for each other, search for and identify lost horses, research ways to treat them for smoke inhalation and trauma. It was impressive, but that's horse folk.
But I wasn't part of this community yet, and even my offers to help were ignored. I was a stranger. That threw my search into disarray for a long time.
As an adventure traveler, I do a lot of sports, but horse riding is my primary. While you might keep your seat, and you will remember many of the basics, horse back riding is full of subtleties and complexities. There are as many ways to ride as there are horses, not to even begin to address the many formalized styles of riding, most of which I care nothing about because I don't compete. My purpose is to stay on and in touch with the horse, for no matter where I am in the world, the fundamental ability to respect and communicate with your animal trumps whatever particular training style the locals may be using.
You can't afford to get sloppy in the places where I ride, which includes hurtling across Kenya's open plains next to herds of giraffes and zebras. If you come off you can get trampled. It serves to know what you're doing and to keep your skills sharp, even if all you do is work in a protected arena. An arena does not deliver the kinds of skills you need in the mountains and meadows of the places I ride but it sure does focus you on your body skills, which are essential.
I kept looking. Paula's cousin told me that most folks up by me own their horses, which I don't, and will not. I can't afford to, and besides once things find a way back to any kind of reasonable predictability I will be traveling again. So she suggested that I join the Oregon Horse Forum, then find and reach out to Carrie Parker.
That's how I found my horse home, at least my first one.
Carrie is one of those wonderful fifty-ish women whose life revolves around horses. She recently moved her nine animals out to a barn, El Jay Arabians, in the small town of Veneta, just west of Eugene. The stable sits prettily on a dead end, sharing its rolling hills and tall firs with several properties. Carrie, who is highly skilled at creating obstacle courses for training her animals and her animals' riders, has set up a complex course that you can view as you drive the required five miles an hour down the single lane dirt road to the stable.
Carrie responded to my inquiry immediately, and within a short time I was training with her. I've worked with a lot of trainers, and each one has their quirks and idiosyncrasies. As most horse folks can tell you, professional arrogance runs rampant in this business. Carrie doesn't suffer than conceit, which is why I love working with her. For example, I told her that I have been working on and massaging horses and large animals for a long time. She didn't question my claim or demand paperwork, as many might.
She directed me to one of her lesson horses, Misty, who had a sore shoulder. She watched while I worked on Misty's shoulder for a few minutes. Satisifed that I did indeed know what I was doing, she left me to my own devices. Over the course of time, as it's always been the case with my previous stables, I've earned more access to more fractious animals, who delight in seeing me approach their stall doors. That trust is earned, not assumed, for far too many people who think they know horses can do terrible harm to these animals out of ignorance and arrogance.
El Jay has been my once a week destination now since last summer. Misty, who is exceedingly well-trained but also moody and demanding, is an excellent partner. One reason is because as my hands were crippled by arthritis and I had to wait for shots to make them functional again, I could only ride with my legs. For non-riders, this might seem terrifying. You and I ride primarily with our legs, using leg pressure and a great many subtle signals. When you remove all direction via the reins, the legs become the only source of guidance.
Non-riders assume that all you have to do is climb on and kick. I beg to differ, as would most experienced riders. Rookies have no clue about the hundreds of tiny, subtle cues and clues we're giving a horse from how and where we hold the reins to slight changes of knee or calf pressure, or where we touch a spur which makes the difference between asking for a side pass or asking for a canter or a flying lead change. That it's invisible to the rookies' eyes doesn't mean it's not happening. Such signals are part of the constant conversation between horse and rider. Misty will let me know immediately if I've insulted her with too much spur, which for her is rude on my part. That is how she's teaching me to be even softer on her mouth and body, which makes me a better rider for other horses.
Lately, all I could do was either barely drape the reins across my hands or better yet, curve them around the pommel of my saddle. Then walk, trot, and canter, using nothing but verbal and leg signals. You find out very swiftly how bad you are at this. It's embarrassing. It's supposed to be. This is how we get better. As red as my face gets when I make mistakes, I very much value this training for it has made me a much better rider when I do have the reins back.
Misty likes me as a rider for several reasons. First, I know precisely where she most likes to have my fingernails buried in her skin, and what parts of her ache. She knows that she gets an extra half hour of my time after a ride, and she can put her head into my chest while I work her ears and softly rub her eyes. When I am on long rides over seas I have never yet seen a single tourist spend this kind of time with their animals. It makes all the difference.
Carrie's patient direction and her sharp eye have helped, even as I wait out the world's battle with Covid to return to my beloved riding tours overseas. She corrects my posture, keeps my chin up, reminds me to relax, all of which I know but like all of us, forget. Constantly forget.
But wait, there's more.
Another of my agent's friends had told me about leasing a Norwegian Fjord horse (the breed pictured at the top of this article). The Field of Dreams farm is situated on the south side of highway 126, which is basically West 11th, straight out of Eugene. About two weeks ago I drove onto the property to take a quick look around, and then followed up with a call.
While the great Friesian, beloved for their great beauty, agility and nimble movement despite their considerable size, is a horse of the Netherlands, the Norwegian Fjord horse is to my eye and experience more like the sweet-natured Icelandics. They are larger, thick through the body, often with a distinct blond color and black stripe through the mane to the tail. I'm really interested in learning more about them and riding them, as they have a very sweet nature, which was my experience of Icelandic horses.
Gayle Ware is in her later years, a Montana girl who boards, leases and has trained horses for decades, and now specializes in the Fjord horses. These days this tiny woman is more likely to ride the farm's tractor, but she still strides around the property and manages her outfit with the kind of confidence I don't often see outside the horse world. She trains people, not horses, and when I stopped in to see her last week, we discussed my possibly taking some lessons from her as well.
Because this: the more people you train with, the better you get. Each person's wisdom and years adds terrific insight and value to you as a rider. Even if you don't plan to compete, which I will likely never do, the point is that where I use those advanced skills to read a horse's body and mood might well save my life. Already has, on multiple occasions. Since I plan to keep adventuring, it's in my best interests to keep on training.
In and around the Eugene area and all though the mountain West, options abound. For my part and for my purposes, networking through trusted friends has always provided me with the best access to people I am likely to like and trust for professional training and advice. The older I get, the more likely I am to want to work with people who have the advantage of many years in the business and a ton of mistakes, successes and experiences to draw from. Those tend to temper youthful enthusiasm, and if nothing else, make folks much better trainers. Not always, but often.
Last week Gayle and I were comparing arthritic hands, and having that rueful laugh that aging women who are rough on their bodies can have. Out at El Jay, another horse woman close to my age was showing me what years of horse work had done to her fingers and hands. Mine, too, although some of mine is from a misplaced hammer strike. Still, the smashed fingernails and twisted digits are proof positive of what happens when you commit to a life around sometimes unpredictable, fractious animals well over a thousand pounds.
We'll never be hand models. None of us would trade it for the world, either. Carrie limps around with knee braces, as I often do. Each of us aging women bears some mark of what it takes to ride, ride for years, care for, train and be around these magnificent creatures.
If you choose to ride around here, and you're new like I still am, I might suggest a couple of things. First, I would join the Oregon Horse Forum online. There you get a bird's-eye view of who's active, what they're doing and saying, local events and sales. I've learned a great deal about all kinds of weather-related issues that have health implications for boarded horses, and have seen a few too many pieces of tack I'd like to buy. I was able to track down a trainer, as the commenters often post requests for referrals from farriers to vets to horse training schools for their kids. It's been a watershed of information even if much of it didn't directly apply.
Then, get out and visit. Call ahead, let folks know you're coming. As Gayle said to me the other day (only partly kidding for good reason), "Call me and let me know so I don't shoot you."
This is the West; for some of us horses are worth more than people. Ask someone who owns and breeds high-end horses what happens when some damned fool damages a $10k horse because they're just foolish or irresponsible. Above all, first, get permission, get a tour, feel folks out.
As I have learned the hard way, not all trainers and stables are a good fit. Be clear about what you want to accomplish. Ask around. Take some test lessons, get a sense of where you will fit in. Get clear if you're a competitor, pleasure rider, how serious you are. All of that becomes much more important as you slowly but surely fall in love with horses. Fair warning. You probably will.
I've ridden since I was four, with a corporate hiatus for a couple decades. That's the case for many of us who return to this world. I've been back for a good long time now, and will be around horses for the rest of my life. Here in Eugene, I'm in good company, and am expanding that world slowly but surely. There's a lot to choose from, and a lot of joy ahead, even with a few guaranteed sore fingers.