Mo the Huge-Hearted

Mystic has a new pasture mate, a soft-eyed black Tennessee Walking Horse named Mo, who arrived at Fiore Farms two months ago. The two of them have become as close as Frick and Frack despite their opposite coloring.

Mo mugs for the camera while Mystic grazes.

Like Mystic, Mo has an uncertain past that speaks of some hard handling. Mo’s caretaker, Alicia, found him five years ago among 20 horses crowded onto two acres at a horse trader’s spread near Fayetteville.

“As a show horse in the Walking Horse world, things were done to him that have changed who he naturally was. He was trained to push through the bit, to go, go, go. But Mo has a huge heart,” says Alicia. “Even after being abused, he wants to be with people, and he tries so hard, even when he is scared. “

Alicia and Mo

James began working with Mo in February, tackling some key basics: desensitizing him to the stick and string, rubbing him with a noisy plastic bag, putting obstacles in his path to interrupt his thought pattern, introducing him to the big green rubber ball. Mo’s response tended to be push-button panic, which typically translated into running in frenzied, sweaty circles. “Just asking him not to panic was a big thing,” James explains. “He’d had a life of hanging on to anxiety. He had to learn a new way of thinking and feeling.”

Mo, James, and a fearsome blue plastic bag on a stick

As the weeks progressed and James patiently built trust with Mo, the tenor of their sessions shifted. Mo began to learn that he could look to a person as a leader and that his fear didn’t solve problems. James spent a number of sessions in the saddle, teaching Mo to moderate his gaits rather than accelerate when keyed up and anxious.

A close moment before the ride

Mo under saddle

Alicia did her own quiet work with Mo, building on her five-year relationship with him. “The biggest challenges for me have been his fears—understanding they aren’t personal—and learning how to help him overcome them,” she says. “Getting him to properly join up was a big breakthrough, and now we are working on impulsion without fear.”

Alicia asking Mo to yield his front quarters

A mid-April training session showed how far Mo has come since February. As James twirled the stick and string with helicopter speed over Mo’s head, he didn’t flinch or budge. James worked him on a 22’ line, bringing him from walk to trot to near-canter, then down again, all without signs of panic. Kate, who was watching from the grandstand, commented, “He’s changed so much—I can see him thinking a lot more. His head carriage has softened and his movement is more relaxed.” Alicia, who also sat in the grandstand, watched silently and proudly, her love for Mo as palpable as the clear blue sky overhead.

Mo looking animated during a mid-April session with James

James decided to close the session with a bareback ride. He slid onto Mo’s back with the easy, long-legged vault of a cowboy and talked his way through the experience. “He’s not afraid of a rider. He’s afraid of thinking and moving at the same time. “

Horse and rider circled, with James softly flexing Mo’s neck to remind him to yield. “It’ll probably take a year for him to get over his fear. But he gets over stuff a lot quicker now. If he gets worked up, he comes right down.”

Bareback and feeling good

James dismounted after a few relaxed turns around the arena, then offered one of his trademark analogies: “The bread’s in the oven. It just needs to keep cooking.”


Velvet and Margaret

Margaret Bednar, who has two horses at Fiore Farms, takes extraordinary photographs, and writes the blog Just Horses, pointed me to the following photos of her pony Velvet in response to my most recent blog post, Little Napoleons:

Here is what Margaret had to say:

The top is a photo of my sister and me with our pony, Velvet. I am standing and my sister has our dog, Sugar, in her lap. Looking at this picture it both seems so long ago AND like it was yesterday… how can that be? Well, as I fight the lump in my throat, I can look back and say how lucky we were to grow up in an “innocent” time when we kids didn’t worry about being out ALL day, wandering around the countryside, only coming home when we were either hungry or it was starting to get dark.  And our pony was usually with us! My horse was beloved too. But when we moved out of the house and got our own apartments, he was sold. My mom refused to part with Velvet—she said a better caretaker of her children she could never have found!

And here is my favorite photo of Margaret. You just can’t explain clothing in the ’70s; you had to be there.

Margaret writes:

This is me in my “beloved” (not really) polyester green 4-H outfit. Velvet was a great little pony, always well liked by the judges. She brought home the blue ribbon for both of us this day. She knew her leads and trotted along so slowly. Tucked her head in nicely when asked to back up. Horse shows were not my “thing,” though. My sister, to this day does raise horses and shows them professionally (give me trail riding any day!). Maybe I would have felt differently if I had been given a better outfit…  🙂

Thanks for sharing, Margaret!

Little Napoleons

These sunny spring days make me think of ponies frolicking in the grass—and of the tough-spirited little girls who manage to ride them. I have a theory that every pony is the reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte. I know that’s a sweeping generalization, but, really, have you ever met a pony who was a sweet-natured pushover? I figure the stubborn pony disposition is a compensatory size thing. Like I said, Napoleon.

From 1971 to 1973, I had Dolly, a bay Welsh pony with ice blue eyes and a penchant for putting her head down suddenly, causing me to lose my balance and slide down her neck. She didn’t like me much, with good reason. I rode her endlessly and thoughtlessly. When I outgrew her, she was sold to a riding stable, where she probably encountered more hard-headed little girls.

Here’s a photo of Dolly and me, circa 1971. It’s hard to tell who is scruffier. As I look at the photo now, I understand why she was always in a bad mood: her saddle didn’t fit in the least. What was I thinking? Oh, that’s right—I wasn’t thinking.

I love this picture of me giving my sister Abigail a ride on Dolly. Abigail looks so worried, poor thing. And her pants! Maybe she was worried about being photographed in those pants, guessing that someday I’d put the photo on the Internet for public consumption.

And here are Dolly and I in our brief moment of glory at the Montgomery County (Indiana) 4-H Horse Show.  (Apparently I was riding saddle seat without knowing it.) Note the big shiny trophy I’m holding; I won it because I was the only person riding in the English equitation class. If that sounds easy, think again: you try being the only contestant in the arena while people watch. That was my last horse show.

If I could meet Dolly today, I would offer her my most profound apologies. I think of her often and send my wishes for a peaceful afterlife, where she can roll in clover in perpetuity and buck off every little girl who tries to climb on her back. Thank you, Dolly, for teaching me to be strong. I hope I gave you something in return.

Do you have pony photos and stories to share? Send them to me at so I can post them on my blog.