As Mystic’s manager, publicity agent, and personal assistant, I’ve got my hands full. He’s not a demanding star, but he does like a good roll in the dirt—which means I spend an hour washing him before each video appearance. He looks ravishing afterward, but I look like a sopping mess. Then again, I’m merely his assistant.
Mystic has starred in four videos in the past week: “Objects and Obstacles,” “Asking the Question,” “Creative Conversations,” and “Starting Under Saddle.” These videos are in production (I’ll post links when footage is available), but I can provide an eyewitness description of the latest, in which James used colt-starting techniques to put a saddle on Mystic. (Yes, he’s been ridden before, but his history of bucking and rearing requires a slow, let’s-start-over-the-right-way approach.)
I watched from the viewing stand, glowing with motherly pride, while Kate worked the video camera. James began with warm-up exercises to make sure Mystic was attentive and relaxed. Then he offered a stick with a puffy plastic bag tied to the end, checking Mystic’s tolerance for this strange new object. After some initial hesitation, he grew increasingly comfortable with the plastic bag, which James carefully and patiently rubbed over every inch of Mystic’s body and waved over his head. When he deflated the bag and put it on the horse pedestal, Mystic lifted a foot onto the pedestal and pawed at the bag.
“Horses sniff first, to get an idea of what something is. If they feel safe enough, they’ll do some approaching and retreating. If the object doesn’t move, they’ll paw it to show their dominance over it,” James explained.
Now that Mystic was emperor of the Kingdom of Plastic Bags, James began preparing him for saddling. James leaned on him, played “drunken sailor” (falling against his body, flailing his limbs, staggering into him), gradually increasing his weight on Mystic while offering plenty of breaks and head rubs. He eventually slung himself over Mystic’s back, lay horizontally, and slid off. Mystic did some heavy-duty mouth movements, displaying emotional baggage from previous riding experiences. James, noting his distress, massaged a knot in Mystic’s shoulder and waited for his lick and chew. After several long minutes, Mystic licked, chewed, and visibly relaxed, beginning to let go of old, negative memories.
James decided to put a saddle on Mystic’s back, a decision based on his acceptance and comfort level. If Mystic had seemed locked up, anxious, or unwilling, the saddle would have stayed on the fence.
As James approached with his giant western saddle (he always starts western so horses can get used to the biggest version of a saddle, complete with two cinches, heavy clanking stirrups, and various dangling leather strips), Mystic looked unruffled. James let him sniff and nibble the saddle, then lightly dragged it over his body. Mystic remained calm, occasionally bending back his Gumby neck to see what the heck was going on.
“Okay, he’s looking comfortable with all this,” James said. “I’m going to put the saddle on his back.”
I’m okay with this, Mystic communicated, his ears alert but not pinned back, his body at attention but not braced or rigid.
James took off the saddle and repeated the movement several times. Mystic remained unfazed.
“He seems to be doing fine,” James offered. “Now, Mary, I’m going to let you decide: do you want to take it a step further and have me add a cinch?”
I looked at Kate, hoping she’d steer me to the right answer. I felt like Mystic when he turns his gaze to me, looking for direction—Do you want me to go over this jump? Are you telling me to stop? What’s this pedestal about?
She looked back at me, and her eyes said, I have confidence in your choice. This is what’s it’s all about: finding what’s right for you and your horse.
She was right: I knew the answer. “Let’s stop now, in this really good place. He’s done so well today, and I don’t want to push him.”
James nodded in approval. “That would have been my choice.”
He slid the saddle off Mystic, who looked astonished. You mean you’re not going to ride me? You’re done?
I swore I saw happiness and relief. This was a new paradigm for him: people taking the time to check his comfort level, to bring him along gently, to proceed according to his readiness and not their own heedless timetable.
James handed me the lead line and I felt the thrill of being reunited with this remarkable, sensitive, fiercely intelligent horse who came so unexpectedly into my life. I took him back to the barn, brushed him, gave him an apple, then returned him to his dry lot where he could roll in the dirt to his heart’s content.