Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ranch Horses as Livery Horses

My parents were asked to run a nearby livery a few years ago. The offer was made at the last minute, literally days before the opening of the season, and there were no lease horses to be found. The local horse distributer, who runs over 1,800 head of horses nationwide, didn’t have any to spare. We had a livery, but no livestock, and the clock was ticking. In passing, my parents mentioned to the ranch owners where they buy hay the dilemma they were in. The ranchers had a solution – we could lease their ranch horses. The ranch owner told us we’d be doing him a favor of sorts by keeping his animals in shape over the summer. It was perfect! We only needed ten or so, as my parents had been able to secure a handful from friends of theirs in Arizona who ran a dude ranch. It was the perfect solution! Mountain ranch horses; they were healthy, they were in shape, and they were ready to rock and roll. They also had only been ridden by a few different people – members of the family – all of whom grew up on horseback, and they’d just come off of winter pasture and spring round-up.

Our shiny, new-to-us livery set up was about as perfect as any livery I’ve ever seen. We had a small outdoor area where we could have our safety briefing with some benches and a picnic table; the staging area where the horses were tied to the hitching posts, which were arranged in a U-shape; and a barn that connected the front staging area with the pen. The pen had a tall cross-buck fence and was more than large enough for our small herd. The livery was beautiful! Whoever designed the layout was a genius.

With the layout, we could hold our safety briefings and have every guest sign the waiver without them ever coming near a horse. The U-shaped hitch posts were perfect for matching up horse and rider; the riders safely ensconced within the “U” and the horses tied on the outside. The barn that connected the pen to staging area was the perfect place to saddle the horses; we pulled them from the pen, tied them in the walk-through, saddled them from the open tack room and lead them out directly to the hitching post.

Delivery day was unbelievable! There wasn’t much time for the anticipation to build, as it does at other liveries, since getting up and running at the last minute was such a whirlwind of activity. Opening the back of the trailer was unlike any Delivery day. I’m sure we all looked like kids on Christmas morning - we got shiny, new-to-us horses for our own shiny, new-to-us livery. Each horse prompted a round of “oohs” and “aahs” as they were unloaded from the trailer. They were all shapes, sizes, and colors, but they all were sturdy, well put-together and had intelligent, soft eyes. After all of the horses were delivered, we spent hours – well into the evening – just sitting on the fence watching the horses get used to their new home and us.

Then the work began, as it does at every livery. The Delivery Day honeymoon is very short-lived, about twenty-four hours. The newness wears off quickly as the work begins.

With our shiny new-to-us ranch horses, in our shiny, new-to-us livery, we just felt eager anticipation to get started. We had no clue what we were getting ourselves in to. In all fairness, my parents bore the brunt of the work, while I helped out after work and on weekends to get the horses acclimated and re-trained to be trail horses. The ranch horses were amazing horses, every last one of them. They were a joy to ride. They had impeccable ground manners, soft mouths, were responsive to leg cues, and could think for themselves.

They had also never seen a trail.

The concept of “stay on the trail” was absolutely foreign to them. Their faces reflected their initial confusion and you could almost hear them thinking, “Jeez, what if there is something interesting behind that bush? Or maybe that bush? What about that bush waaaaayyy over there?”

The concept of “single file” was also a bit disconcerting to them. On the ranch they worked as a team, each within sight of the other. They read each other’s body language so well it was like they communicated telepathically. Once they figured out the concept of single file, they adapted unbelievably well and continued to work as a team. The wrangler leading the ride really didn’t have to do much work as far as pacing the ride went; the horses would speed up or slow down to keep even spacing between them and would look back at the horses behind them frequently to make sure they were all still together. Of course, the wrangler still needed to check to make sure all of the saddles were still occupied – the horses didn’t care if the guests fell off as long as they were all accounted for.

As smart as the horses were it didn’t take us long to begin to feel comfortable with the thought of putting other, less experience people on them. We had the basics, after all. They knew to “stay on the trail” in a “single file” line and knew each of us well enough that they would respond to our vocal commands if they “forgot” the rules just long enough to check out the bush over there. So we invited our friends up to ride and began hiring and training new wranglers. The pre-season progressed without a hitch. The wranglers were ready. The horses were ready. Nothing could go wrong, we would be the best run livery in the area and people would come from all over the world just to ride our amazing new-to-us ranch horses at our amazing new-to-us livery!

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