Mystic Connection

Equus coverThe story of Mystic and me is featured in the February 2014 issue of Equus Magazine, on pages 62-63. Those of you who are longtime followers of Galloping Mind know the tale pretty well by now, but here it is all in one place. In a national magazine, albeit one that’s almost impossible to find on newsstands (thanks, Nancy, for giving me your subscriber’s copy!).

You may need a magnifying glass to read the reproduction below. No worries. Just scroll down to read my original article. It’s got more details and—I like to think—more flair than the downsized, glossy-print version.

So far no one has asked Mystic for his autograph, but he’ll be glad to supply a hoof print on request.

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Sometimes we walk right past our future, blind-eyed to the mystery of convergence. That was the case with Mystic, a handsome middle-aged gray at the North Carolina stable where I leased a quiet Saddlebred.

No one could ride Mystic. He was unmanageable, dangerous. He’d arrived at the stable several years before on a truck full of rescue horses. The stable’s equestrian director planned to train the horses and sell them for a profit. She worked briefly with Mystic, then gave up. “This horse is not safe,” she declared.

Another director took her place; her daughter, a high-level dressage rider and jumper, saw Mystic’s potential. She drilled him hard, bringing out his athleticism, collecting him into a perfect, finely rounded frame. Although his lineage was uncertain, people guessed that he had Arabian and Andalusian blood.

Mystic performed beautifully—until one day he decided he’d had enough. Using his Andalusian talent for collection, he reared like a sparring stallion. He kept rearing, and threw in some bucking, just to make his point clear.

That was that. Mystic was dispatched back to the pasture. Unsafe. Unmanageable. There was talk of putting him down.

Trudging through the fields to catch my leased horse, I admired Mystic from afar. His undiminished spirit fascinated me: I wished I could somehow unlock his secret and gain his trust. But I knew absolutely nothing about horse training; I’d never even longed a horse. I simply rode the trails on my easygoing Saddlebred, relying on riding basics learned from childhood lessons.

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In May 2009 a new equestrian director and his wife, James and Kate Cooler, arrived at the stable. They practiced something called natural horsemanship, a concept I’d never heard of. When I watched them play with their horses, I was captivated. Horse and human seemed to speak the same language, connected by deep bonds of trust, respect, and understanding.

I audited their lessons and clinics, learning about horse psychology and the fundamental concept of pressure and release. I could no longer afford to lease a horse because, after decades as a professional writer, I’d decided to go back to school for a master’s degree in counseling—but James and Kate always welcomed me at the stable. One balmy spring day—April 24, 2010, to be exact—Kate invited me to join a Cooler Horsemanship clinic.

“I’d like to pair you with Mystic,” Kate said. “We want to start him in our program, and I think you’d be a good match.”

My heart lurched in a complicated mixture of fear and longing. “Really? Mystic?”

She nodded, and I accepted her instincts. I walked to the pasture and put a halter on Mystic, who stood quietly for me. When I met and and returned his dark, solemn gaze, my heart shifted and widened ever so slightly.

I had met my future.

That first day, and the days and weeks that followed, were far from easy. I’d never worked with a progress stick and string before, and I lived in a constant state of entanglement and confusion.

Mary and Mystic hat

Meanwhile, Mystic freaked out whenever I accidentally flicked him with the string. He showed stress at any sign of pressure and easily became braced, high-headed, and anxious.  Once he slipped into catatonia out of sheer right-brain fright.

James and Kate knew exactly what to do with both of us. They taught Mystic and me to relax, to take small steps, to always end a session on a good note. Bit by bit, we tackled Mystic’s emotional issues. By some kind of miracle, I’d met my horse doppelganger: extremely sensitive, anxious to please, high performing, and easily unraveled when overwhelmed. In helping him work on these issues, I helped myself.

James and Kate knew I had no disposable income for lessons; they also knew I’d fallen in love with Mystic and natural horsemanship. They generously and freely offered me their time and expertise; within three months, I was able to ride Mystic, who never offered a single buck or rear. As he improved, the stable owner talked about selling him. She’d been letting James and Kate use him in their program, but ultimately Mystic was her horse.

Saddle fit pose

I’d hoped to buy a horse of my own in five or ten years. When I was ready.

This was not the time. I was in school. I was taking out student loans. I was in a midlife career change.

And yet.

Am I crazy to consider it? I asked James and Kate.

No, they said. We’ll do everything we can to help you. Maybe we can negotiate reduced board in return for your help with publicity.

But it wasn’t time. And Mystic wasn’t the horse I’d planned for. I’d expected to get a young horse someday, preferably a Morgan.

Life had other plans for me.

I bought Mystic for a tiny sum and never looked back.

Five years after I first glimpsed him and two and a half years after we became a team, Mystic and I are still learning in small, thrilling steps. He’s the most confident, easygoing trail horse I’ve ever ridden. He’s relaxed, flexible, and attentive.  He side passes, backs up with a wiggle of the reins, and disengages his hindquarters with the grace of a young gymnast. He’s famous for his easygoing nature; those who knew him in his early days love to tell newcomers, “You won’t believe how much this horse has changed.”

My proudest achievement with him is progressing to “freedom play”—playing together on the ground without lead line or halter. The other day, during a freedom play session, I motioned for Mystic to change direction. He arched his neck, tossed his head, and rose up slightly on his hind legs before performing the requested pivot. I laughed at his playfulness, thrilled that he was delivering this whisper of a rear out of sheer high spirits.

He had become the horse he was always meant to be.Mysticglow2

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