Monday, October 25, 2010

Mort and I

Bareback Anyone?

By Janet Huntington

My insides were shaking and my thoughts flying as I walked across the field to the little run down sheds and corrals built piecemeal with silvery gray boards. Mort snorted and began to trot around his corral. He bucked and spun as if spurred by my approaching energy. I grabbed his hackamore out of my shed and crawled between the poles of the corral.

He came to me and I leaned into him. His heady smell filled my nostrils and he curled his neck around me in his best Mort hug. The silky feel under my hand and the metallic shine of his coat couldn’t soothe me. Not today.

I slipped the hackamore over his nose and ears and flipped the reins over his neck. The ache was building and I swung up on his back with a single, fluid jump.

We were through the gates and out on the road at a high trot within minutes. We ignored the staccato beeps from the cars and held our trot across Academy in a careless game of chicken.

The long slow hill leading into the trees opened in front of us and Mort bolted. He was confident there would be no pull on the reins today.

I slid back and a little to the side, I wasn’t ready for his huge jump forward and the lightening fast speed of his surge, but Mort was right, there would be no pull from me today, I needed to fly.

I grabbed his mane and hoisted myself to the middle of his back.

The trail flattened out parallel to Maizeland and we raced the cars up the hill. As we approached the trees Mort slowed to an extended trot. We zigged- zagged through the familiar twists and turns of the trail. A gentle touch of the reins sent us down the trail to the outer loop around the park.

He picked up speed as we came out in the open and we were soon in a full gallop.
I sat up straight as his pace evened out, finding my rhythm with each powerful stride. I let my legs swing free, balanced and easy in my seat.

The knot in my stomach began to loosen and waves of sadness began to flow over me. Anger soon followed and the weight of my out of control emotion sent my thoughts spiraling.

I asked Mort for more speed and he stretched out into the rough 1-2-3-4 of the full gallop. I clung to his mane until I found balance again. The trees whipped by in a blur and I felt everything slowly easing. My anger seeped away, I felt fearless and strong. But it still wasn’t enough.

I leaned forward and slid the hackamore off of Mort’s head. I slung the bridle over my shoulder and stroked his neck. I leaned back and lost myself in the freight train chug of Mort’s breathing.

I clung so tight to his mane I felt my nails cut into my palms. I forced myself to take first one hand and then the other from his mane. I flung my arms out and my head back and we ran.

One entity together, my stigmata marked palms faced up to the sun and I closed my eyes. As we pounded around the far end of the park I finally felt peace come through me. Mort slowed to a canter as I relaxed deeper into him. We were one, we were I, we were him.

This is what your kids do on their horses when you’re not looking folks.

As a teenager I had complete confidence in my horse and my balance. I trusted absolutely nothing else. I wasn’t the only nut job high school age girl out there either. There was a whole gang of us. I would say my friend Melinda and I were the most daring, but the rest of our group was pretty courageous.

Our parents had no clue. Not even an inkling.

Now I’m a grown up. I’m sane and sober and my mare has never been ridden bareback. She is well mannered and steady because I broke her and trained her to be that way.

But a funny thing happened to me last week. I felt sad and angry and scared all rolled into one. I needed to ride with a desperation that surprised me.

I met my friend Kathy at the barn. She had already gotten the horses out and had groomed them both. I got out of my car and realized I had forgotten the key to my tack room. My saddle and hackamore were locked up tight. I ran my hand over my mare’s back. She has a strong, sturdy back, well-rounded and cushy. My thoughts were racing.

“What are you doing?” Kathy asked me.

“Nothing, just thinking,” I told her.

I untied my mare and lined her up by my trailer fender. I put my leg on her back and she danced away, uneasy and confused.

“Have you ever ridden her bareback?” Kathy asked.

“No.” I replied.

“How long has it been since you’ve ridden bareback?” she pursued.

“Oh, probably 12 years or so,” I said.

My mare kept moving away and tossing her head. Clearly she agreed with Kathy, this was a bad idea.

Finally, sanity returned and I gave up. My muscles have tightened over the years and my bareback riding instinct has been buried deep by proper riding, correct horse training and age.

We took the horses back to their pen. Kathy assured me we would try to ride tomorrow.

My mare bucked and snorted around her pen as if spurred.

My restlessness is still here. I may have to bow to my years but I don’t have to give in. I’ve decided I’m going to ride bareback again, but I’ll do it right.

I’ll get on my mare bareback for the first time after we’ve ridden and she’s tired. I’ll ride with her hackamore, not her halter and I’ll begin by walking around the round pen. I have balance exercises I taught my students for years. I’ll use them myself and see if I can find my the muscle memory of days spent bareback on my horse. At least enough to keep me in the middle of my horse. My restlessness will just have to wait.

I had no idea retiring as a horse trainer was going to bring this back. I have to admit it’s going to be fun.


  1. Nice post Mugs. Funny, I was just thinking how I used to ride my old gelding bareback all the time and I've never ridden my mare bareback. Was gonna give it a whirl with the cold of winter coming on... her back will be a lot warmer than a saddle.

    She is high withered tho'. That is making me cringe big time.

  2. Ouch....I understand wither aversion....

  3. Nice post Mugs. I too am getting back to my bareback roots. For my 2010 resolution (resolutions I hardly work towards btw) I told myself I would get my seat back.

    Its a process for sure. But I am actually freely loping my gelding bareback, slide stopping and spinning. Its a great feeling to have that unity again. I swear its brought my horse and I closer together. Its also allowed him to tell (show) me things that I was doing wrong in the saddle.

    Good luck in resting your restlessness.

  4. I took Kate and Maddie to a little "trail challenge" practice day on Saturday, and while I rode Maddie, Kate threw a royal fit tied outside. So we threw her in the roundpen while I finished with Maddie. When I retreived her an hour or so later, she had fussed herself into a lather, rolled in the dirt, then cooled down. But I didn't feel like cleaning her up, so after a little bit of groundwork, to make sure her attitude had been sufficiently adjusted, I crawled up from an obstacle. We didn't do much--I practically slid down her neck stepping down from the bridge--but it was nice to be so close with her, both physically and trust wise.

  5. Just do it, Mugs.
    I had a couple of years off from bareback riding when Fame was a youngster, after I retired my old gelding. I wanted the basics established with her before riding her bareback, you do get a bit more sensible over the years!
    The first time it felt a bit awkward, but not for long.

    Now I am not an irresponsible teenager, but an irresponsible Mum instead, and it feels just great!
    To get that togetherness with your horse, nothing beats a bareback hack, just the two of you.
    I don't know why.
    Perhaps it's the memory of the joy you had in your youth, the sense of freedom, or just feeling closer to your horse without a saddle.

    But sometimes it's just plain laziness on my part. It's so much easier just to put the bridle on and get going.
    I am not only hacking out, I like to work my horse bareback in the dressage work too sometimes.
    (Again, read when I am lazy or short of time, lol!)
    Anyway, I feel it's a good way to improve my balance and position, and I can feel my horse's movements much better too.
    And it's a simple way to keep warm(er) in the winter...

  6. Mugs... Ride Bareback - you can do it. I took 20+ years off riding all together and it was still there. It all comes back, the muscle memory, the feel, the rythum and it makes you a better rider. I make a point to ride bareback at least once every couple of weeks. I do simple things, walk, trot, lope circles, move his hips and shoulders around, side pace, back. No spins or stops. His regular little "get in the ground stop" is enough. It is funny because my horse had never been ridden bareback. At first all the wiggling around I was doing trying to get the feel again annoyed him. Now he seems to know what I can handle up there and what I can't. He gives me just enough each time to make me feel more confident. I have to admit, he is like riding a couch - his back is so wide and cushy. As an added bonus in the winter months, his back is way warmer than my saddle seat. It is like have seat warmers in your car. The summer months - not so great. I am sure all of you remember when you used to get off your horse and your jeans could stand up on their own from all the dried horse sweat. It didn't bother me much then, but now I find it pretty gross. This spring I rode my white horse bareback when he was shedding. I went home and washed my jeans and put them in the drawer. Put them on a few days later and went off to work. As I was sitting at my desk I looked down and noticed that the inseams in my jeans were chucked full of white horse hair. Not just laying long ways but actually stuck in the seam sticking out like they had been sewn in. It was really disgusting.

  7. Go ride bareback. This is a week for conquering fears. I just got over my fear of cantering again after my accident in a round pen but I did canter.

    I bet once you're confident about it all she'll settle down. I just don't understand how you managed swing up bareback as a teenager. I can just barely on my mares, but I look like a fish flopping around on land.

  8. Don't forget the bareback pad. Somehow horsey spines have gotten sharper as I've gotten older. A pad works wonders.

    Bareback is great for the seat. I ride Mocha with pad and sidepull, and don't ask for anything too demanding (per G, who insists it should be a relaxing time for the horse).

  9. Ah yes! I hadnt ridden bareback for years when I decided to jump on for S&G... tip, dont wear sweat pants and dont groom your horse till they are all slick and smooth before hand either! I thought I was doing really well when, after my horse spooked and jumped five feet sideways I actually managed to stay on. I was mentally patting myself on the back and smirking like, "Oh yah, I still got it!" when he took just one tiny step forward and I slid right of his side. I have to say it was fun:)

    Actually I was just as a horse expo yesterday and noticed that they make some pretty nifty bareback pads these days! With sticky suede seats and well secured girths... I was thinking I might give one of those bad boys a go before giving the real kind of bareback another try.

  10. Good timing on this post. My goal this winter is to regain my bareback seat.My mare has been ridden bareback but so long ago that I think we have both forgotten.

  11. Great post :)

    I suspect your bareback skills just need a dusting off Mugs.

    Bareback riding is on my list for this winter as well. I've only done it a handfull of times, and only once briefly on my gelding.

    Cantered bareback on the beach once - not intentionally - but it was more comfortable than trotting so I stayed in that gear. Jelly legs afterwords lol.

  12. Wonderful timing on this post! I ride once a week with a friend who's in her 70's. I generally take her crabby old OTTB mare who liked to jig, and she gets her QH gelding "Sure Enough". Her mare had an edema near her girth area the last two weeks (vet OK'd for riding, though), so I hopped on her bareback. So much fun! Last week, my friend decided she'd ride her gelding bareback, too!!! In her 70's, she rode bareback. For. The. First. Time. I told her she's for sure Horsaii now!

  13. "I’ll get on my mare bareback for the first time after we’ve ridden and she’s tired."

    And sweaty.

    Don't forget the sweaty. As far as I can tell, sweat is the most crucial ingredient to sticking.

    Thanks for this story. It made me feel like I was almost there, and I kind of needed that today. There's something healing about riding bareback, isn't there? I don't know what it is, but it's there.

  14. See Brianne, I'm not feeling too Horsaii lately.

  15. My thoughts are that it is mind over matter...just like riding a bike! The feel never goes away! I love it and I also love the bareback pads. I have saved a lot of jeans by using one! Good luck to you!

  16. I love Toklat's cool back extra thick fleece bareback pad. (My guy has super high withers.) If you go padless: jeans have more stick than breeches on smooth and shiny coats!

    You and your mare are going to do great! The nice thing about age is you know how to set up for success. have fun. :)

  17. In my earlier comment, I (as others) did not acknowledge that something seems to be going on in your life. I hope that you get some horse time, bareback or no, and that it helps diffuse the emotions that were there between the lines...

  18. Mugs, I can sympathize. I've found myself making excuses and getting "busy" prepping the property for winter. My husband caught me 'grooming' my daughter's My Little Ponies and asked me how long it'd been since I'd actually ridden MY horse. So, today I finally rode him (the horse, not the hubby!), issues and all. And y'know what? I kinda feel Horsaii tonight. Not fully, but more so than yesterday!

    I'm sorry something's bothering you- wish I could give ya a hug!

  19. I'm still trying to figure out getting on bareback from the ground. I don't do it often because I don't want to hurt his back but it does seem like being able to just hop up onto a horse's back from the floor like some of my teachers do would be super handy.

    I quite like riding bareback, when pony isn't in a bucky mood, but I worry I'm a bit fat for it really- I prefer to have a saddle to spread my weight around. I feel like it's important to be able to do it, though, and it is ideal for cold winter days when you can share a bit of warmth with the back underneath you.

    Also I have had problems stopping. My horse has a nice sharp stop on him, which is great most of the time, but being a male rider it can be a little unfortunate bareback.

  20. I love riding bareback! I've rediscovered the joy of it after years of showing. I love the being close to my horse and feeling his every movement. I will say however, I am still young enough to think that running full out across an open field bareback is a good idea! : )

  21. Ah.. bareback. All riders should learn to ride bareback then move on to saddles.. we would have a bunch of much improved riders! But then I think folks should learn to drive a clutch before they are allowed to drive an automatic too..

    At forty I was riding my mare bareback cantering up a hill.. figured I was doing okay.. This year, at fifty, riding the daughter.. will be bareback on her young self before I turn 51. Everyone has to have goals!!

  22. I recently moved Grace to my neighbors house and the first thing I did once she was settled was take her for a bareback hack. At first it felt like she was so wide my legs were sticking straight out (I'm really short in the legs) and it felt like I was ready to slip off even just at a walk. I was really nervous at first that she would spook but she's just such a good level headed horse and we were fine. Now two months later I'm loping around the trails bareback again. Other riders look at me funny when they see me with no saddle...I don't care. I feel closer to her than I have to any horse in a long time. I feel better about my riding then I have in a long time. My trainer just told me Saturday she can see the difference. I'm riding Tax better too every day. I'm so proud of him right now I'm nearly bursting.

    I think you should do it Mugs. When I'm sad or scared its the best thing in the whole world and I don't feel the need to be half as crazy as I was when I was just a angry, frightened kid. :D

  23. Like you, I grew up riding bareback. I got into riding hunt-seat style because those were the lessons (when my parents or I could afford lessons) available in this area.

    I was the first one to ride my now old yellow horse - he'd been a WP/HUS show horse most of his life until I bought him at the age of 13. He was a bit appalled at first: I think my bony butt poking him(too bad we can't make our bodies put the fat where we'd like it :D) felt really weird. He eventually relaxed and I switched back and forth bareback and english on him until I retired him. He's 27 now and I still sometimes sit on him bareback, but the dip in his back makes it hard to stay in the right place.

    My younger horse (now 12) I'll ride bareback, english or western - I started riding western when I had my hips replaced, more to appease a worried husband than because I wanted to. He was convinced that the more substantial saddle made it safe(r) if I was determined to go back to riding (which of course, I was).

    I've grown to appreciate the western saddle (and my husband would argue I'd better: I spent a lot of money on that Bob's Lady Reiner, but hey, it's really comfy!)

    I do love to hop on the 12 year old bareback - he's a very cushy air fern, soft and warm, and has a nice smooth jog. Though after having him tangle up his front legs, go down on his knees and flip over on his back at the canter, I've only asked a couple of times since for a bit more speed. :) Being aware of your own mortality sometimes puts a crimp on good clean fun. :)

  24. And that should have been "I was the first to ride my old horse BAREBACK". Arrgh... must. proofread.

  25. This post brings back great memories of flying down the dirt roads bareback. Thanks!

    Ha! I always read your posts and think how well written they are and what a good wordsmith you are and then I make a comment and sound like a first grader.

    Mugs: He bucked and spun as if spurred by my approaching energy.

    Me: uhh.

  26. You guys are lovely. Bareback is the goal.
    I seem to be regressing.
    I have three years before I get my non-pro status back and I can promise, the next two will be spent finding my old self.

  27. Oh my gosh...what a rush! Yes...oh for those younger days...I did everything except the bridleless...that thought never even entered my mind!

    I'd love to hear some of your balance basics...I can't say I've ever been on Colt bareback...but have always thought it would be a good idea for those "just in case" situations.

  28. Mugs, I am sure someone has said this already but I gotta ask.
    Please share your balancing exercises with us.
    I was never a teenage rider (i was a city kid who took the bus every saturday downtown to the Art Institute) I never had bareback balance. And have wanted it for years.

    Please share! Love your stories. Love Mort. Reminds me of the stoy when you and he road all over trying to get to a show, arrived way late and then took forever to ride home. What a stalwart he was.

  29. I love riding bareback although I've never quite got the hang of the canter, or maybe I'm just not brave enough! We keep it to a walk and slow trot.

    Earlier this year I was going through a rough patch. I went to the farm one afternoon and hopped on bareback, intending a just a quick ride. We set out on the route of our usual outride trail. When we got to the point where I was planning to turn around things were going well so I decided to go on. And on. About an hour or so into the ride my bum started getting sore. By then it was too late to turn around anyway so we pressed on. At 90 minutes I decided to take a shortcut through a gate I knew I couldn't shut without help, but it was burning back there...

    I didn't go to work the next day due to the open blisters on my bum, which I had to explain to my boss! Luckily his daughter is also horsey and he thought it was very funny. So did my husband.

    After that ride my head felt clean and open, my soul could breathe...

    I will do it again. But not in loose denim shorts!

  30. Bareback! Yeah!

    I am "allowed" to ride again after 6 weeks of healing my broken elbow/arm (I still have a metal plate holding it together)...hit the trails (alone) with Starlette this weekend and it was great! I do ride in an old dressage saddle,and it's as close to bareback as I can get with a saddle, but like I said before, have trail ridden bareback and loved it!

    I almost got on her yesterday bareback, but good sense kicked in...storms were rolling in and I really don't what to hear my husband say "I told you so!" if I came off! A few more weeks and I'll be riding bareback again.


  31. Oh, I am riding Starlette bareback in my pic :)

  32. I hope you're able to get the restless out.

    Seems like a lot of people I know are going through rough times, myself included. My horse is keeping me sane though.

    I agree with the bareback pad comments. Mine is suede and has an off billet so I use a regular neoprine cinch. I really love it.

    Good luck and hang in there.

  33. I've had one such reckless adventure since returning to horses after a long absence. It was in the yard, thankfully, and not on the trail. The lesson I learned was brief yet intense: That ground is a WHOLE lot harder than it used to be *grin*.

  34. Although Im normaly up for what you sujest on your blog. Im not going to be going along with this one for a while.

    Although I miss it.

    When i was 20 working my first 'real' horse job on a Fjord farm we used to round up the young stock on the brood mares, bareback with halters. Now Fjords are not known for there cutting skills but it was still fun. And the next summer I used to ride the jumpers bareback to there turnout. The pro's thought I was crazy kid.

    I am scared every time I get on a horse now.

    I dont have the reaction time I used to, Im stiffer, heaver, and not as flexable as I used to be. I gather up my currage every time I get on, and feel better when I get off.

    But sometimes I just wish it was fun again.

  35. to:Justaplainsam

    there is a book, 'Move Closer, Stay Longer' that deals effectively with fears. The author is Stephanie Burns.
    Among other things, got me over feeling bad aboout my fears which allowed me to move along and not stay being dissapointed with myself.

    Just a thought.

  36. justplainsam - I think you are doing exactly what it takes to have fun again. You're sucking it up and getting on, over and over again.

  37. I started riding bareback this past year because I bought my first horse then discovered I couldn't afford a saddle! It certainly shows up how much I lean to one side around corners...
    I now have a saddle but I'm a bit lazy and can't always be bothered to use it :)

  38. Go remy....just wait for the next Mort story...

  39. From the sounds of your stories, we grew up in very parallel worlds. I was fearless on a horse, rode bareback and bridleless more often than not. I didn't even own my own saddle until I was in my teens. I still ride bareback. I love it. I feel it helps keep my core muscles strong, which helps with my strength and balance. I ride my old mare bareback when I pony my young horses, and I ride my young horses bareback as soon as they are ready. Even now, at 45, there is no feeling as free as running across a field or down the beach on your horse, bareback. I guess I just never grew out of it.